XXIV.1 January - February 2017
Page: 64
Digital Citation

Furious futures and apocalyptic design fictions

Theresa Tanenbaum, Marcel Pufal, Karen Tanenbaum

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Immortan Joe surveys the wretched crowd from his vantage point above the desolate wasteland. Behind him, cool, clean water pools around the enormous pumps that operate at his command. He stands in the opening of a sandstone mouth, with skeletal teeth as parapets. On the two directly in front of him are chromed levers. He speaks into a microphone: "Once again we send off my war rig to bring back guzzolene [sic] from Gastown and bullets from the Bullet Farm. Once again I salute my Imperator Furiosa! And I salute my half-life War Boys who will ride with me, eternal, on the highways of Valhalla!" Hordes of bald, chalky white, cancer-ridden warriors cross their arms over their heads and shout for Immortan Joe. The crowd below surges forward.

back to top  Insights


This scene from the 2015 science fiction film Mad Max: Fury Road reflects real anxieties about the imagined consequences of climate change and about human nature in the face of extreme scarcity. Set in a postapocalyptic, post-peak-oil future, it paints a grim picture of people as fundamentally wasteful and cruel. When faced with the dystopian extremes of the movie's setting, mankind falls back into a feudal power structure where might makes right. The resources that form the backbone of warlord Immortan Joe's power—water, gasoline, and ammunition—are synecdoche for the power structures underlying today's so-called developed world. Mad Max embodies a set of prevalent popular narratives about the future that inform how the general public understands and responds to research into climate change, sustainability, and collapse. By understanding the underlying ideological commitments of films like Mad Max, we can better position research into sustainable HCI and interaction design within a public discourse.

Mad Max: Fury Road is the fourth film in the Mad Max franchise, a series of narratives set in a desert wasteland and centering upon the unlikely (and often unwilling) heroics of Max Rockatansky, the Road Warrior. The world of Mad Max: Fury Road is set an unknown amount of time in a future where a global oil crisis has culminated in nuclear warfare and subsequent social and ecological collapse. In Mad Max, the future is simultaneously wholly technologically mediated and technologically impoverished. It is a world of analog cybernetics, mechanical prostheses, and grotesque interpenetrations of flesh and steel. But it is also a world of waste: Wasted water, wasted fuel, and wasted lives are all prominent features of the narrative, even though scarcity is a central theme. Mad Max is a dystopian vision of an apocalyptic world. In this sense, it may be considered as a design fiction, articulating a rhetoric of situated technology within an imagined future that addresses an issue of significant social importance.

back to top  What is Design Fiction?

Bruce Sterling has defined design fiction as "the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change" [1]. Positioning an imagined technology within a narrative world requires a designer to think beyond the immediate implications of that technology and consider it within a broader social and cultural ecosystem. Successful narratives have coherent internal logics that designers must account for and engage with when envisioning a particular technology. Mad Max, for instance, posits a world of scarcity and sickness from which all of its mechanical prostheses and automotive fetishizing arise. The designs of Mad Max make sense within the narrative logics of that world, even if they are impractical, unlikely, and overwrought within the context of our own daily lives. This provides a set of constraints that affect how the fictional world is envisioned but still allow for many possible futures.

Design fiction is a useful frame for considering how narratives of technological futures like Mad Max reflect public anxieties and understandings about sustainability. There are three features of design fiction that are of interest to the study of sustainable futures. First, design fiction foregrounds questions of values and ethics. Second, design fiction serves a rhetorical purpose within public discourses around the future. Finally, design fiction creates a safe space for engaging with frightening or depressing futures.

back to top  Design Fiction and Values

Immortan Joe shouts, "I am your redeemer! It is by my hand that you will rise from the ashes of this world!" The crowd collectively catches their breath, and then shuffles forward, plates, pans, and other vessels held high.

The designs of Mad Max make sense within the narrative logics of that world.

One important function of design fiction is in highlighting the values and intellectual commitments associated with a new technology. Mark Blythe provides a fascinating example of this when he takes the infamous "Sal" story from Mark Wieser's seminal ubiquitous computing paper "The Computer for the 21st Century" and rewrites it in the voice of several different science fiction writers, including Douglas Adams and Philip K. Dick [2]. In rewriting a canonical scenario from ubiquitous computing, Blythe is able to reveal a number of rhetorics and values that were hidden within the ostensibly neutral voice that Weiser used to portray the story of Sal living inside her computationally saturated world. Through this act of literary ventriloquism, the presence of pervasive marketing systems and oppressive surveillance apparatuses is brought into view. Blythe uses techniques from literary theory and science fiction to force readers to grapple with the ethical issues hiding inside a future vision that has dominated HCI discourse around ubiquitous computing.


back to top  Design Fiction as Rhetoric

With a dramatic flourish, Joe throws the two chrome levers forward. Three torrents of water gush from rusted pipes beneath his feet, cascading into the exposed desert below, and crashing down upon the wretched masses.

Sterling's definition of design fiction invokes a term from film scholar David Kirby: diegetic prototypes [3]. Kirby uses this term to focus on how cinematic depictions of future technologies are used to persuade the general public to accept specific scientific agendas. An excellent recent example of this is the short film Ambition, which was produced by the European Space Agency (ESA) in the months leading up to the successful culmination of their Rosetta mission to "capture" a distant comet with a probe that had been launched years earlier. Ambition uses a counterfactual future framing, imagining two highly advanced humans discussing the historical moments that led to their (presumably) superior civilization. They reflect on how the Rosetta mission was a key moment in showing humanity the power of its own technological ambitions. The film itself was released and heavily publicized in the weeks before the final rendezvous with the comet, allowing the ESA to carefully influence the public narrative of the mission.


Kirby discusses the importance of a dialogue between scientific research and mass-market entertainment in producing new possible futures. The best-known example of this is probably the integration of John Underkoffler's work on gestural interface into Steven Spielberg's 2001 film Minority Report. Underkoffler, working with production designer Alex McDowell and prop master Jerry Moss, treated the cinematic depiction of this technology as an opportunity to do research and development on a possible prototype for this technology [3]. Kirby coins the term technological sincerity to describe the depiction of a piece of technology in film as everyday rather than extraordinary: This is to say that the prototypes fit into the natural landscape of the diegetic world. The resulting fictional world is persuasive because it has taken the time to consider user experience and technology seriously and is also showing a future where the new technological elements are more than just flashy set-dressing. While many of the components of gestural interface had existed since the 1960s, it wasn't until it appeared in a major motion picture that a public desire for the technology emerged. Thus we see how technology situated inside fiction can play a role in how the general public comes to understand new technologies, in both positive and negative ways.

back to top  Design Fiction as Play

We see the spectacle from the distance, and thousands of people scramble over each other to catch the precious drops. The torrential flow is mostly wasted into mud, soaking into the desert floor—only a relatively small amount is caught and conserved by the crowd. Joe waits a moment, and then closes the valves with a decisive suddenness. He picks up the microphone and admonishes his subjects: "Do not, my friends, become addicted to water. It will take hold of you and you will resent its absence."

Technology situated inside fiction can play a role in how the general public understands new technologies.

Finally, design fiction is well suited to being a tool for grappling with possible futures that are emotionally fraught. Design fictions allow us to play with possible dystopias, locating them within a fictional diegesis and providing us with a critical distance. The "diegetic buffer" we perceive surrounding a dystopian design fiction allows for questions of values, ethics, and actions to cross back and forth between our present world and the simulated future. Kirman et al. use narrative techniques to critique implicit assumptions of benevolence around emerging technologies in HCI [4]. In a paper entitled "CHI and the Future Robot Enslavement of Humankind: A Retrospective," they assume the perspective of robots from the future, writing about how 21st-century research within the CHI community "facilitated and hastened the enslavement of mankind by robots." As with Blythe's literary techniques, Kirman et al.'s use of a diegetic frame allows them to explore and critique issues in HCI in a playful manner. The issues raised by the paper—that many ongoing projects in HCI place human cognition in service to automated systems—are very real concerns for scholars of sociotechnical systems, but it can be extremely difficult to confront the dystopian possibilities of this work while remaining an engaged researcher. Positioning this critique of current research trends within a tongue-and-cheek work of design fiction allows Kirman et al. to engage with a difficult topic in a productive way. Their approach is similar to that used by the ESA in Ambition.

Each of these three functions of design fiction—ethical, rhetorical, and playful—provides us with some insight into how these techniques may be used in communicating possible sustainable futures or producing compelling warnings about future consequences of unsustainable actions.

back to top  Conclusion

What can sustainable interaction design learn from the postapocalyptic visions of the future embodied in movies like Mad Max? How can we use design fictions to highlight our own values about technological futures, to articulate arguments about our scientific agendas to a broader audience, and to create opportunities to playfully engage with impoverished futures? In previous work [5], we've argued that although these popular culture narratives have tremendous power, it's unreasonable to expect researchers to become filmmakers, or to ask filmmakers and other cultural producers to engage with our scientific agendas in as nuanced a way as we would like. However, as issues of resource scarcity, climate change, and environmental collapse become more concrete within the lived reality of the general public, there is a critical role for researchers to play in creating alternative narratives for sustainable techno-social futures.

It is essential that we acknowledge how influential popular culture is on public perceptions of issues like climate change. For every person who reads NASA's most recent reports on carbon levels in the atmosphere, there are thousands of people who watch films like Mad Max. These stories matter. Popular narratives about the future play a huge role in how we collectively make decisions about sustainability. They influence our daily conversations about the future, our purchasing patterns, and even our voting patterns. This means that one of the biggest challenges facing sustainable interaction design research is addressing our work to the concerns and understandings of a general public that, when they think about climate change, pictures Immortan Joe raining water down upon the desperate masses. In order to rise to this challenge, we need to more directly confront the imagined futures that inform decisions about how things like environmental policy, civic participation, and democratic consensus play out. A better understanding of how design fiction embedded in popular media influences and engages mass audiences is critical to understanding how our own work will be received.

back to top  References

1. Bosch, T. and Sterling, B. Sci-Fi writer Bruce Sterling explains the intriguing new concept of design riction. The Slate Group, 2012.

2. Blythe, M. The hitchhiker's guide to ubicomp: Using techniques from literary and critical theory to reframe scientific agendas. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing 18, 4 (2013), 795–808;

3. Kirby, K. The future is now: Diegetic prototypes and the role of popular films in generating real-world technological development. Social Studies of Science 40 (2009), 41–70.

4. Kirman, B., Linehan, C., Lawson, S., and O'Hara, D. CHI and the future robot enslavement of humankind: A retrospective. Proc. of CHI '13 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2013, 2199–2208;

5. Tanenbaum, T.J., Pufal, M., and Tanenbaum, K. The limits of our imagination: Design fiction as a strategy for engaging with dystopian futures. Proc. of the Second Workshop on Computing Within Limits. ACM, New York, 2016, 10:1–10:9;

back to top  Authors

Theresa Jean Tanenbaum is an assistant professor in the Department of Informatics at UC Irvine and a co-founder of the Transformative Play Lab. Her research includes studies of agency and identity transformation in games and digital narratives, maker/DIY subcultures, design fictions and future-oriented HCI, and tangible, wearable, and ubiquitous computing.

Marcel Pufal is an informatics Ph.D. student in the Transformative Play Lab at UC Irvine. His research employs design fictional methods to explore the sustainability and complexity of sociotechnical infrastructures. He also writes on what the notion of collapse means for technology design.

Karen Tanenbaum is a project scientist at UC Irvine in the Department of Informatics and a co-founder of the Transformative Play Lab. Her research explores tangible and ubiquitous computing and the application of AI to interactive storytelling and game design. She also studies maker/DIY and steampunk cultures.

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2017 ACM, Inc.

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