XXVII.1 January - February 2020
Page: 22
Digital Citation

Take root among the stars: If Octavia Butler wrote design fiction

Gabriele Ferri, Inte Gloerich

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The Butler Timeline (BT) is a parallel universe where renowned speculative fiction author Octavia E. Butler engaged in a critical dialogue with researchers in human-computer interaction, shaping the genre of design fiction differently from how it unfolded in our timeline. Here we present a meta-speculation, imagining what could have been different if Butler, a prominent African American writer and intellectual, played a key role in establishing speculative design research. We do not want to create a temporal paradox but, if we had a transdimensional portal, we could simply observe how speculative research came to be in the BT. Hopefully, this could suggest another way of doing design fiction in our own reality, with a different ideology and purpose. That is why we volunteer for this interdimensional travel.

The BT diverges from our reality in the early 1990s, when Butler—already an accomplished novelist—encountered multilinear storytelling systems. A small but lively niche of authors at the crossroads of computers and narratives had been active there for decades. The relatively fast adoption of home entertainment computers in the early '80s facilitated the growth of a genre of video games called text adventures, where fictional worlds are described piece by piece in short narrative fragments and can be interacted with by entering textual commands such as collect key or use key with lock. In the 1990s, however, interactive narratives reached a newfound level of artistic maturity: Perhaps, in the BT universe, Butler played with Olia Lialina's "My Boyfriend Came Back from the War" [1], a hypertext fiction where a couple is reunited after the end of an unnamed conflict but find it difficult to reconnect.

Net art and hypertext fiction were among the material that prompted Butler to publish, in the BT world, her Earthseed series in interactive form, the largest nonlinear narrative to date and a landmark in the adoption of this genre. In addition to being an unexpected popular success, the experiences that she represented in new forms found fertile ground among a broad number of researchers, practitioners, and activists at the crossroads of computing, interactive narratives, digital arts, and community organizing. Earthseed's [2] momentum among artists and scholars culminated into the first edition of the MV conference, its name a reference to the Unix command for move, as well as to migrations past and future. Through our portal to the BT world, we could observe the first edition of MV, in 1996 BT. The full details are lost to interdimensional bit rot, but we applauded Octavia Butler's keynote on the politics of narrative interactivity, Janet Murray's response on the ethics of interactive authorship, and Alondra Nelson moving beyond the notion of digital divide. Among the attendees, we spotted a younger Bruce Sterling [3] chatting with the cyberfeminists of VNS Matrix and hacktivists known as Luther Blissett, and we are almost certain to have observed him writing the words design fiction in his notebook a decade earlier than in our timeline.

BT design fictions are inherently plural and refuse a single privileged point of view.

Synthesizing our observations of the BT, we can tease out some significant points that we wish to share with colleagues in our native universe: Leveraging a broad variety of media, BT design fictions are diverse and plural, speak to more than just designers, and are used critically instead of commercially.

First, BT design fictions are inextricably intertwined with literary genres spanning from Afrofuturism [4] to Solarpunk. Among the many consequences we observed, two are particularly noteworthy. Butler's success as an author of interactive/design fiction spurred a newfound cultural awareness about Western centrism. When we visited a bookstore in the BT dimension, we picked up a copy of Brenda Laurel's Computers as Theatre - Volume 2 [5], in which she extends her work, placing side-by-side interactive stories inspired by Aristotelean theory with others from a wealth of different cultures. The book could not be transported here, but we were quite inspired by a chapter on Australian aboriginal story structures. Furthermore, BT design fictions are inherently plural and refuse a single privileged point of view, a mechanic that is coherent with their hypertextual origin. This is particularly effective when giving voice to the marginalized: Within participatory processes, BT design fictions are co-developed with underserved populations, enabling them to have a say in which futures are desirable and which are not.

Second, BT design fiction is taught not only to designers but also in the humanities, in practice-based classes connecting literature and philosophy, sociology, and arts and design. Furthermore, it has its roots in interactive narratives and also makes use of video games, live-action role-playing games (LARPs), branching stories, and other forms of nonlinear storytelling to involve people in speculation. In our exploration of the BT, we had the chance to visit the Pasadena City College—Butler's own alma mater—and take a peek at some of the syllabi inspired by her work. For instance, an interdisciplinary end-of-semester assignment for undergraduates in sociology, design, engineering, and social work required the students to co-create a LARP about homelessness in urban areas together with the residents of a shelter. Students are invited to experience the feeling of not having a stable home and then tasked to let their interviewees take a leading role in imagining how social services might be different. In this way, BT design fiction is accessible also to those—for example, migrants or refugees—who might be uncomfortable with other research methods.

ins01.gif A glimpse of the BT: "Vodunaut #002 (Hybercharger)" (E. de Medeiros) imagines an Afrofuturist aesthetics of space travel.

Finally, in the BT universe, researchers and educators embrace design fiction as a critical tool to challenge widespread beliefs, to construct a dialogue between diverse publics, and to extend their knowledge. Through our interdimensional portal, we witnessed a protest at the Las Vegas COMDEX trade fair in 1997 BT, where cultural critic bell hooks [6] took the megaphone to denounce the use of diversity as a manipulative tool of commercialism. For this reason, BT designers are wary of futurism as a seductive ideology for consumers to embrace a company's vision. Collaborative design fictions in the BT build on a history of indigenous artistic practices that defy the idea of individual authorship, problematizing the model of intellectual ownership and copyright that still dominates our own timeline. In this way, design fiction remains true to its critical and speculative roots, and it resists attempts from commercial entities to co-opt it for marketing purposes.

As we power down our transdimensional portal, the differences between today's design fictions and those that Octavia Butler could have inspired come into focus: BT design fictions are inclusive, transdisciplinary, interactive, and used critically rather than promotionally. Butler's legacy is not limited to the BT reality. Far from it: Her impact as an intellectual, activist, and visionary is widely recognized throughout our own world. Here is another part of her legacy that we should take very seriously.

back to top  References

1. Lialina, O. "My Boyfriend Came Back from the War" (hypertext), 1996;

2. Butler, O.E. Earthseed: The Complete Series. Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy, 2017.

3. Sterling, B. Shaping Things. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA:London, UK, 2005.

4. Bould, M. and Shavers, R., eds. Afrofuturism. Science Fiction Studies 34, 2 (July 2007);

5. Laurel, B. Computers as Theatre. Addison-Wesley, 1991.

6. hooks, b. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Between the Lines, Toronto, ON, 1992.

back to top  Authors

Gabriele Ferri is senior researcher at the Lectorate in Play and Civic Media and co-coordinator of the M.Sc. program in digital design at AUAS. He works and teaches at the crossroads of research through design and playful interactions, urban spaces, interactive narrative, design ethics, and futuring. [email protected]

Inte Gloerich is a researcher at the Institute of Network Cultures at AUAS. She co-edited MoneyLab Reader 2: Overcoming the Hype (with Geert Lovink and Patricia de Vries) and State Machines: Reflections and Actions at the Edge of Digital Citizenship, Finance, and Art (with Yiannis Colakides and Marc Garrett). [email protected]

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