Objects in mirror are less real than they appear

Some early, inchoate notes on design fiction.

Creative Commons License photo credit: David Boyle

Disclaimer: I’m not a designer, I just work with them.

Bruce Sterling (2009):

When science fiction was born from its radio-parts catalogs, design was also born as the streamlined handmaiden of industry. (…) But these two sister disciplines, born within the same decade and surely for similar reasons, soon parted ways. The sisters were distantly cordial; but they saw no common purpose.
Design, which is industrial, has clients and consumers, while science fiction, an art form, has patrons and an audience.

An ethics of design fiction?

I asked the question, and Adam answered with something that triggered a deep, visceral unease, for reasons I found hard to qualify.

~ not so much that he missed the point, as that he missed my point, hitting back with a diatribe on the complicity of design fiction in consumerism, as an annexation of fiction by corporate R&D and, more sweepingly, the market …

Not untrue, whatever my issues with his argument. At its least objectionable, we can see this tendency in Intel’s Morrow Project, and the strange feedback loops between Minority Report and the Kinect.

Whatever else it may be, design fiction is propositional.

So, is there room for a propositional ethics of design fiction?

Turning our eye to the role of design under conditions of post-Fordism, collapsonomics. The role of design outside the market. The role of design in foresight, and of foresight in design.

Scott Smith (2011):

A common characteristic of these creators is a facility to take a nascent technological capability and bend it around a moral, ethical or social issue, intentionally or as by-product, and thereby provide a useful thinking space to model implications and consequences. They continually ask questions about what it means to attempt to put emotion into technology, and by doing this, they create and explore hundreds of mini-scenarios of a human-technological future. Whether you agree or disagree with particular views of how these futures may unfold, the questions need asking, if only to provide a better sense of the direction(s) we wish to pursue.

‘Be the change you can, and simulate the rest’ (Stuart Candy, 2011)

Simulation is a big word.

As ever, the opposition isn’t virtual/real, but real = virtual+actual.

Without framing or labelling, seeded in the real world, such objects and material scenarios blend awkwardly into their surroundings. Fiction passing as truth. The closet of the (un)real.

So, when I talk of an ethics of design fiction, I’m really asking: to what extent is this thing we call design fiction built on deceit? What of consent? Is this even a problem?

Here, I turn to Jane McGonigal’s PhD thesis, This Might Be A Game – where she briefly touches on the Lumiere brothers’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895) as a case study for the performance of credulity.

This pioneering short film is an anchor the oft-repeated origin myth of film studies, in which, startled by the sudden appearance of an approaching train, a significant chunk of the original audience were reported to have screamed, fainted and fled the theatre.

A parable on the dangers of immersive media … and a myth soundly demolished by film historian Tom Gunning.

McGonigal (2006):

‘Gunning rejected the idea of an audience cowed by the cinema’s then unprecedented illusionist power, proposing instead that spectators were engaged in a sophisticated, self-aware suspension of disbelief. By feigning belief during their first filmic encounters, Gunning suggested, viewers framed their own experience, willfully playing along with the director. (…)

Today, as a result of Gunning’s work, the vast majority of film scholars reject the once-prevalent notion of panicked, passive, and hyper-receptive audiences. They recognize, instead, that the earliest filmgoers were playful and intentional participants in the creation and maintenance of cinematic illusion.’

Alternate reality games as the performance of credulity. Conspicuous consumption as the performance of affluence.

Could we unhitch conspicuousness and consumption? A world of Potemkin products; after the Potemkin village.


A bright green, propositional design fiction?

To paraphrase Bruce: When will you be more environmentally friendly than your dead great-grandfather?

When all you consume is Potemkin products, made mostly of stories? When your furniture is future fab-feed? When your possessions and keepsakes have been digitised and uploaded to the cloud, continuing to be felt in your life as the imprint of so many semiotic ghosts?


What can we say about thinking in public?

Design fictioneers as Sloanean media cyborgs par excellence, subsisting in those places where reality is at its thinnest.

The nascent role of the ‘in-house bard’ and the cult of the auteur.

Performativity, as ‘that reiterative power of discourse to produce the phenomena that it regulates and constrains.’ (Judith Butler, 1993)

The disproportionate agency of certain non-human actants, when those actants are films, gizmos, hoaxes, or exhibits.

That uncanny sense of not being able to work out whether or not something is real, of not being able to feel out the joins between fact and fiction. Whispers of ontological uncertainty.

What, after all, is produced by design fiction?

Affect, belief, desire, conversations, discourse, fear, unease.

The technological imaginary?

The future?


If they’re actually enacting the future, should design fictioneers have to work under a warning label? A kite mark, disavowing the reality of said artifact or film clip. A footnote, aknowledging the lack of a supporting material substrate.

And if not, why not?

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