The notion of design fiction is relatively new to the scene of HCI and interaction design research, but increasingly prevalent. First coined by science fiction author and futurist Bruce Sterling in his 2005 book Shaping Things, the term has found adherents within the HCI community, driven in part by the work of Julian Bleecker and in part by its appearance in a cover story in Interactions (written by Sterling). Its meaning has remained somewhat up for grabs within the research community, however. Is it fiction about design? Is it science fiction? Is it speculative design? The HCI community, broadly speaking, has a longstanding interest in design, both as a practical tool for materializing technical knowledge and as a way of knowing and exploring the world. We know plenty about how one designs, and about how that process creates knowledge, but we have much to learn about how one design fictions (if such a verb might be coined).
I favor Sterling’s recent definition of design fiction as “the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change” . If you aren’t a film scholar or a narratologist, you might get hung up on the word diegetic, a term that has its roots in Greek philosophy and narrative theory. Sterling is borrowing the notion of “diegetic prototypes” from Bleecker, who in turn was borrowing from David Kirby, a film scholar who coined the term to describe “cinematic depictions of future technologies ... that demonstrate to large public audiences a technology’s need, benevolence, and viability” . Design fiction, then, uses these fictional depictions of future technology to tell a story about the world in which that technology is situated: It uses narrative structures to explore and communicate the possible futures for technology. It is the notion of diegesis that I want to dig into here, because I think it is easy for us to lose sight of its importance when attempting to incorporate design-fiction-based methods into our own practice and research.
In contemporary narratology, diegesis has come to refer to anything that exists within the reality of a fictional world. I like to explain this in terms of the difference between the underscoring in a film and the music playing on a radio in a film. Underscoring exists as part of the film as a media artifact, but only the audience hears it: Having no presence within the fictional world, it is thus nondiegetic. Music playing on a radio, on the other hand, is there to be heard by the characters as much as by the audience: It is considered diegetic because it exists within the film’s reality.
Diegesis is important to our understanding of design fiction because it requires that we take the world of a story seriously: Objects and technologies that exist within the fictional world must abide by the rules of that world. Even if we don’t fully understand those rules, they still must be seen to exist and to operate with consistency. We don’t know how the teleporters in Star Trek work, but we know they have specific constraints and affordances that govern their operation within the story. The logics of the story are what give a design fiction its power, and I would argue that in the absence of those logics, a design fiction ceases to operate. It becomes something else—speculative design, or imaginative design. I believe that design fiction, if it is to remain design fiction, needs to have a story to contain it.
Situating a new technology within a narrative forces us to grapple with questions of ethics, values, social perspectives, causality, politics, psychology, and emotions.
Narratives and stories are among the oldest human information technologies. Narrative structures are uniquely suited to preserve and communicate experiential knowledge and to teach new information. We learn from an early age to use stories to make sense of the world, and we continue throughout our lives to frame our experiences in terms of narrative scripts that we acquire in childhood. Situating a new technology within a narrative forces us to grapple with questions of ethics, values, social perspectives, causality, politics, psychology, and emotions. This type of work can serve several important roles within HCI research and practice.
First, it can be a method for envisioning new futures and technologies. This includes envisioning not just the technical aspects of an invention, but also the possible social, political, and personal consequences and outcomes of a world with that technology.
Second, it can be a tool for communicating innovations to other researchers and to the general public. In particular, design fiction excels at arguing for or against a potential technological future by couching its insight within persuasive narrative structures. We frequently see this within science fiction, but there have also been some interesting uses of fictional frames to argue for (and against) possible futures for the HCI community, most notably in Connor Linehan and Ben Kirman’s paper “CHI and the Future Robot Enslavement of Humankind: A Retrospective.”
Finally, it can provide inspiration and motivation for design by exploring possible design requirements within a fictional scenario before attempting physical prototyping. Consider the output of a recent MIT Media Lab course, “Science Fiction to Science Fabrication,” taught by Sophia Brueckner and Dan Novy, where the students developed prototypes derived from readings of canonical science fiction works.
The unifying thread of these three approaches to design fiction is a deep engagement with the narratological aspects of the process. These aren’t simply scenarios or personas: They are stories. As a researcher whose work deals with narrative directly, I have learned that the formal properties of a story (its structure, world, and characters) are important, but that they are only half of the equation. The interpretation of a reader or viewer—what we might call the user experience—is equally important. Good design fictions incorporate the elements of good storytelling alongside an understanding of how readers interpret and understand narratives to create compelling (and believable) fictional worlds around an imagined technology. As we continue to find new uses for design fiction, we need to retain that engagement with story, lest we lose the thing that makes this approach so uniquely compelling.
1. Bosch, T. and Sterling, B. Sci-Fi writer Bruce Sterling explains the intriguing new concept of design fiction. The Slate Group, 2012; http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2012/03/02/bruce_sterling_on_design_fictions_.html
Joshua Tanenbaum is an assistant professor at the University of California, Irvine in the Department of Informatics. He is finishing his Ph.D. at the School of Interactive Arts + Technology at Simon Fraser University. His research explores narrative in digital games, design fiction, steampunk, and maker and DIY practice. firstname.lastname@example.org
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