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Humans and Technology

How big tech hijacked its sharpest, funniest critics

Without design fiction, critical hits like Black Mirror would look very different.

Feb 21, 2020
Courtesy photos

Bruce Sterling wasn’t originally meant to be part of the discussion. It was March 13, 2010, in Austin, Texas, and a small group of designers were on stage at the South by Southwest interactive festival, talking about an emerging discipline they called “design fiction.”

“They asked me to join the panel at the last minute,” Sterling tells me, laughing. “They knew that I’d been [involved with] South by Southwest for a long time and this would give them some cred.”

A science fiction novelist who’d helped launch the cyberpunk movement in the 1980s, Sterling had actually coined the term design fiction in a 2005 book, but he hadn’t exactly taken ownership of the still-nebulous concept. What happened that day made it much clearer, though, and set off an explosion of ideas for everyone in attendance.

“People went out of that room and they were kind of visibly shaken,” he says. “Some guy came up in the back and told us, with this pale kind of look, ‘I think I’m starting to get it.’”

The panel’s organizer was Julian Bleecker, an artist, technologist, and product designer from Los Angeles. He wanted to share his work—a new practice where designers and engineers used their skills to go beyond just thinking up and prototyping new consumer products. He wanted them to create objects that were not intended to be real products but could have been, and use them as
portals for talking about tomorrow.

“Design fiction is a mix of science fact, design and science fiction,” Bleecker wrote on his blog in 2009. It “recombines the  traditions of writing and storytelling with the material crafting of objects.” The objects made in design fiction are “diagetic prototypes,” he suggested. They are “props that help focus the imagination and speculate about possible near future worlds—whether profound change or simple, even mundane social practices.”

One of the earliest examples is the late artist Sascha Pohflepp’s Buttons: Blind Camera. Made in 2010, it is a sleek-looking digital camera that takes the minimal, post-Apple industrial design aesthetic to an extreme. It has only one button, a small color screen, and apparently no lens. Press the button and it, like any other camera, captures a moment of time in the form of a photograph. The difference is that it’s not a moment of your time. Instead, the camera connects to the internet to find another photo taken and shared by somebody else at the exact time you pressed that button, downloads it, and displays it on the screen.

It was a brilliantly simple idea, but crucially, it was not just a piece of concept art, or a prop in a speculative movie, or an art student’s mock-up. It was a real, functioning device. Pohflepp built it from the guts of a Sony Ericsson cell phone and code he’d written himself.

“It’s an object that’s somehow imbued with kind of a narrative function,” Bleecker says. “It helps tell a story; it pushes and pulls on characters in certain ways. I think the classic example is the Maltese Falcon. Hitchcock called them MacGuffins. It’s the thing around which the drama evolves and develops and moves.”

In design fiction, the process of making—rather than just imagining—is the process of learning. “I don’t want to dismiss the significance or importance of a good creative idea, but ideas are kind of like a dime a dozen,” Bleecker says.

Back in 2007 he’d built the Slow Messenger, a handheld device that received messages but delayed presenting them—by minutes, days, or sometimes even years. It poked at the idea of instant, always-on communication that the internet was thrusting onto us. Shortly after that, he cofounded the Near Future Laboratory, a studio that produced this kind of exploratory work.

The lab created things like the TBD Catalog, a SkyMall-style magazine full of hilarious advertisements for disposable, very plausibly makeable near-future consumer crap with a tone reminiscent of Paul Verhoeven’s satirical sci-fi movies Robocop and Starship Troopers. Then there is 6andMe, a service that analyzes your social-media accounts and diagnoses supposed “social media related pathologies.” (“Systrom’s Anxiety,” named for the Instagram cofounder, is the drive to record moments of one’s life for fear of not being able to repeat them in the future;  “Six Degrees Jealousy” is when we envy somebody for getting more likes.) These maladies are all fictional, as is the service’s analysis, but the fake reports are sinisterly familiar to anybody who has spent time nervously checking Twitter or Instagram feeds.

As design fiction emerged, it turned out that governments, multinational companies, and art galleries were all interested in exploring what the future looked like, and intrigued by the charismatic objects the movement produced. The Near Future Lab joined a number of other boutique agencies that offered speculative services to their clients.

“We use objects to ask ‘Why/Why Not?’ questions,” explains Scott Smith, one of the founders of Changeist, a consultancy now based in the Netherlands that works mainly with large institutions. “We try to use the familiar forms and language of these bureaucracies to speak back to them—manuals, maps, forms, kits, procedures, organizations, and so on.”

Design fiction rapidly expanded from a practice into an aesthetic: a style that used the languages of consumer product design and advertising to create fictional objects so instantly familiar to audiences that they feel real, close, or even inevitable. It’s that sense of something being unsettling yet just a few minutes into the future that you get from every dystopian app in Black Mirror or the ubiquitous voice assistant in Spike Jonze’s movie Her.

As the style went mainstream and commercial, however, it started to change. In 2011, glass manufacturer Corning released “A Day Made of Glass,” depicting a day in the life of a painfully perfect--looking family. Its five minutes of sleek concept video show every single glass surface—windows, mirrors, tabletops—becoming touch screens. Its 26 million YouTube views led Marketing Daily magazine to call it “the most watched corporate video of all time.” As dazzling and high-tech as it looked on release, it feels quite dull and naïve—even dystopian— nine years later. More important, it’s utterly lacking in the anarchic, critical attitude that marked early, genuine design fiction work. It was a sign of how corporate interests would appropriate design fiction—and declaw it.

A more recent example is a May 2019 Amazon ad for the Echo smart speaker, “Caring Is Sharing.” The 30-second spot shows a young man bringing his grandfather an Echo and installing it in his apartment, presumably to keep him company and to let family members stay in touch with him. He’s grumpy about it at first, reluctant to acknowledge it, but the next time his grandson comes to visit, he’s using it happily.

Though at first glance it seems like any other TV ad, “Caring Is Sharing” looks and feels eerily similar to “Uninvited Guests,” a five-minute satirical film made by Superflux, a London-based “speculative design agency,” in 2015. That video similarly portrays an old man living on his own who has been given a range of surveillance devices by well-meaning family members: a smart fork that measures the nutrients in his food and nags him about his salt and fat intake, a smart walking cane that scolds him if he doesn’t get his recommended daily steps, and a device that connects to his bed to make sure he’s getting enough sleep. But instead of succumbing to the intrusions of these devices—as in the Amazon ad—the protagonist of “Uninvited Guests” finds ways to fool them. He puts the smart fork in a plate of salad while eating fish and chips, pays a local teenager in beer to walk the smart cane for him, and piles books on his bed so it looks as if he’s sleeping when he watches TV.

Superflux’s cofounder Anab Jain hadn’t seen the Amazon film when I spoke to her, but she’s aware that corporations have used the speculative approach for marketing. “It’s deeply problematic,” she says. “It’s why we say no to work more than we say yes.” Jain, who prefers the term “speculative design” or “critical design”  (because “frankly, all design is fiction until it’s real”), says some prospective clients pay lip service “to the criticality and to the questioning,” but “in the end they just want a PR exercise.”

For Bleecker, this isn’t what design fiction should be. “There’s a number of those kinds of films that are essentially marketing exercises,” he says. “There was no sense that they were meant to be used internally to reflect upon and consider directions in which the company is going. They definitely come across as advertisements: ‘Look, we’re futuristic, we’ve got lots of concepts that relate to flat screens and graphics circulating and swirling around.’”

In many ways design fiction’s path from a smart, anarchic movement to a marketing language for the industries it set out to lampoon is painfully familiar.

Last year designer and artist Tobias Revell claimed that “speculative design has failed to achieve the meaningful tools for change that we once hoped for.” It had become, he said, “a whitewashing exercise” for tech companies.

Others, meanwhile, suggest it was never going to be able to achieve its original goals: it was too wrapped up in corporate hegemony from the beginning, too exclusive and elitist. Design fiction was focused on “projects that clearly reflect the fear of losing first-world privilege in bleak, dystopic futures,” wrote Brazilian design duo A Parede in 2014.

Perhaps more practically, those working in the field faced another, also familiar issue: they had to balance their desire to do critical work with their need to pay the bills. This inevitably watered down their ability to achieve distance from the organizations that were lifting their ideas and aesthetics.

For agencies like Superflux and Changeist, that means continuing to take corporate contracts and using the money to work on more personal projects. Others have taken jobs with governments or big tech themselves. But while the surface may have been captured by Hollywood and the advertising industry, some folks are still plugging away, trying to navigate a path between the critical and the corporate.

And then there’s Bleecker himself. Ten years on, he’s still running Near Future Lab, working with clients, building objects from the future, and throwing out his own brand of wild ideas. But he’s also working on Omata, a small two-person company that makes high-tech cycling accessories. Its flagship product is a $550 screenless cycling computer that looks like a giant Swiss watch. It is a product for privileged first-worlders, not a tool for change; it is a beautiful object, obviously lovingly designed and born out of Bleecker’s very personal obsessions. But it is also a deliberate challenge to the idea of what would be expected from such a device.

“It almost seemed to me like … it would have to be something unexpected,” he says.

By doing the opposite of everything that corporate technology companies might try—the antithesis of a suite of interchangeable, low-cost, shrunken-down touch-screen gizmos—Omata is rooted in design fiction, with its mission to challenge us to imagine other futures and see the world differently.

Tim Maughan is a journalist and author. His debut novel Infinite Detail was picked by The Guardian as their Best Science Fiction Book of 2019.