Thursday, March 8, 2012

Contemplating the Future Through "Design Fiction"

Futurists like Bruce Sterling are talking about the importance of "design fiction" as a way of thinking about the future and the possible impacts of emerging technologies and ideas.  So what is design fiction?
  The term basically refers to the idea of using storytelling to speculate about new ideas, and then apply those insights into the design of prototypes and applications of  new ideas and technologies.  The underlying idea of design fiction has been an integral part of science fiction for decades - in books like John Brunner's Shockwave Rider (1975), which looked at a world where some had wider access to information than others, and computer worms and viruses were significant plot devices, Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age (1995), in which a personalized interactive data device becomes a tutor and mentor to a young girl, William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984), where much of the action takes place within a globalized virtual world, Isaac Asimov's Robot novels (particularly The Naked Sun (1957)), which often explored societies where technology replaced human interactions, and Bruce Sterling's Islands in the Net (1988), which explored the implications of a global information system much like today's Internet amidst growing efforts by states to control the system.
  In a recent interview for Slate, Bruce Sterling said he felt that the most effective design fictions to date have been videos imagining how technologies that are becoming feasible today could be used.  In some cases it's peripheral to the main story, such as the tablet used in the 1969 film 2001: A Space Odyssey that audiences today would recognize as an iPad.  In others, like Corning's A Day Made of Glass, it might be a vignette exploring what a w world of ubiquitous computers and screens (using Corning glass products) might look like.  It might even be more illustrative than speculatve, like Timo's Robot Readable World, which shows what "robot" eyes (really, any computer analysis of video input) can look at, and how it can analyze actions from video feeds.  In that case, it's the viewer who creates the fiction as they watch, thinking about how such systems might be used.
  Design fiction is increasingly useful, Sterling concludes, because
It’s really a new set of tools that, I think they’re giving futurism a second wind in some ways. Instead of talking about grand, overarching things like futurism in the 1960s—we need a new consciousness—it suits the tenor of our own period. What kind of business model would that work in? That’s the question people of our time can engage in. I’m not saying design fiction’s going to resolve our economic problems. On the other hand, if you’re an unemployed designer, it’s one of the coolest things you can do now.
  I'll add that I also think that it can be important because it can get us to actually think about how technologies and services might be used, and what might be the implications and ramifications of such use.  To often, today, we don't think about the later consequences of actions and choices.

Source -  Sci-Fi Writer Bruce Sterling Explains the Intriguing New Concept of Design FictionSlate Future Tense blog

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