Is “Design Fiction” Useful?

Jon Turney writes in aeon.com about what he calls “Design Fiction”. He distinguishes this from “Science Fiction”, being more interested in possible technologies. Since any design begins as an imagined future, and prototyping is the royal road to creative design, I wasn’t sure what he was trying to get at. What is this “Design Fiction”, and how is it significant?

It turns out that he equates “Design Fiction” with “Critical Design”, which points us to Art School: the goal is to be provocative. “Design Fiction” is “technically informed but not constrained by immediate feasibility” (hence the “fiction” part). But the ideas are expressed in concrete form, as pseudo artifacts (the kinds of things that designers make). “The guiding impulse is to assist us in imagining a new normality..”

If there is something deep here, it must be this concreteness. Designers, engineers, and all kinds of dreamers create imaginary products all the time. That’s how creativity works. But Design Fiction skips all the hard stuff required to actually create something, going directly to the mass market retailing.

I grant you that there is something charming about a completely fake product, complete with instruction manual, warning labels, and so on. But generally speaking, any given product actually reveals very little about the technology it is made out of. So this isn’t really the best way to think about the future.

Worse, many of the projects he talks about make themselves “provocative” by making a very specific array of technical choices and assumptions, usually based on some ideological point they wish to make. There are many ways to realize a given technology, and small differences can have outsized implications. Showing us a particular object doesn’t really reveal these choices, nor help us understand how they combine.

For example, suppose I showed you an iPod in 2000,  sleek, beautiful, and fully (fake) functional.  What would it have told you about MP3, TCP/IP, or P2P services?  Nothing much, though those technologies underlie the iPod, and the iPod used them to, among other things, kill off all the local music stores in the world.  But how would you know any of that from the iPod device itself?

I think it is telling that Turney includes Hollywood movie technology in this discussion. Tricorders and transporters look cool, but generally are complete nonsense technically. Even when we ultimately build something that looks like the movie version, it usually works differently.

Now, much of this is just for fun. But Turney is talking about people who are trying to use this as a method to “design the future”. I don’t know if I agree that this is actually valuable.

Basically, I find much of this “Design Fiction” to be shallow, hard to interpret, and pointless. (One person’s “whimsy” is another person’s “waste of time”.)  What do people really learn from “impossible machines”? If the imagination truly is fired, what do people really imagine.  Has anybody actually investigated that question?  If not, why not???

Don’t misunderstand me. My head lives in the technological future. I’ve been reading and watching every variety of imaginative fiction there every was all my life. I take “designing the future” seriously, as well as fun.

I just don’t think that fake objects are an effective way to imagine the future.

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