Conversation between designers Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, and science fiction novelist and design commentator Bruce Sterling.
Bruce Sterling I've been looking forward to this opportunity to wax off about design fiction. I am a science fiction writer and science fiction writers do a great deal of this, but we don't necessarily do it as well as we can and our emphasis on doing it in a literary or generic fashion actually harms our ability to mess with people's heads, which is kind of our end goal. We have the classic science fiction objects such as ray guns, time machines, robots, humanoid androids, urban battle suits, two-way wrist communicators and so forth, and such objects, which are well known to science fiction thematics, are actually a very small part of the galaxy of potentially thinkable objects. Why is it that we science fiction writers have spent so much time and intellectual effort on this small set of imaginary objects? Well, it's because it suits our literary purposes; they can be made to look good on paper and they're good participants in dramatic situations.
I've been trying to expand the thinking of people in my genre and looking at other lines of work. Design, I think, has a lot to offer. I'm wondering if there isn't a much larger space in design fiction than we thought. Maybe there's something beckoning over the horizon that's not design and not futurism but just something we might call speculative culture. Like, can we find a set of principles or a way to grapple this larger set of social possibilities? I'd just like to list a few of the approaches that I think both design and science fiction have in common: scientific experiment, scenario work of all kinds, user observation studies, simulation, story boards, story telling, flow charts, analytical software, interaction design, brainstorming, historical analogy, extrapolation and last but not least mash-ups. My suspicion is that we're going to be seeing a lot of mash-ups. I think what you're seeing right here is a mash-up: there are people from very different lines of work put in a temporary situation, we got here via the internet, we know one another through these new electronic means of communication and we've been slotted into a space and we're going to leave a kind of stain on one another. It looks like a stain now but could just get thicker, it could gel, it could take on the aspects of a sensibility after a while. When I talk to my own students, I think these formal distinctions that mean so much to me mean very little to them. It really has to be explained to them that there used to be differences between these lines of work. There really is no word for their kind, there isn't a 20th-century word for their polymathic approach to disintegrate disciplines and genres.
Anthony Dunne We teach an interaction design course, which means that it focuses on trying to make digital technologies more usable, and we're broadening the focus of the department to also look into how we could deal maybe with emerging technologies like biotechnology, nanotechnology or synthetic biology. We're finding that there are plenty of ways for designers to get involved with this sort of stuff but not in the traditional ways, not by just coming up with products that can be put into production but by looking at, say, developments in genetics and imagining what would happen if they were mass-produced and distributed in society and then designing for that world, so that we can have a discussion about whether we think that would be desirable or not. We're finding that more and more of the students are embracing that role of a designer in relation to emerging technologies. We had a graduate this year who did a project called Open Sailing, which was about creating a community that lived at sea, autonomously. What was lovely about the project was that the whole thing took shape through social media and the internet. He built up a group of about 30 people that embarked on a trip to sea; he wasn't saying "Let's do a project on digital technology or about some aspect of social software", it was just invisible to him, it was just a way of doing his project and I think that that's very exciting for people like us who are working from a logical era. I think we're trying to deal with two extremes, with how for a younger generation digital technologies are nothing special anymore, just part of their life, and then at the other end looking at new worlds and possibilities for designers in relation to emerging technologies.
Fiona Raby If I can open that up a bit more, I think also the process in which they're working is a bit like a scientific process where you have a hypothesis and you try to experiment not knowing what the outcome is going to be.
Alignment, from Do You Want to Replace the Existing Normal?, 2007 by Dunne & Raby (image: Åbäke)
BS When things get kind of useful they bore me. I recognise that use is important but I'm not trying to make my own work more useful, that's not what excites me. What I want is to keep the positive aspect of science fiction as this crunchy, crispy, mind-bending pop metaphysics that gets to grips with the actual weirdness of existence. I want to be more weird, I want to get to people with a kind of Ballardian intensity. I don't want to just go in and perform the role of AT&T or a Google Youtube video, I want to get more down to the level of critical design, and not even today's critical design – I'd like to see the future of critical design, or a Victorian critical design of the present day, something that has a hallucinatory quality. I can see that structure is breaking down and it's going away because of media transition. If you were a science fiction writer and you were reading, say, Scientific American you would have at least an 18-month lead over the general population in which you could write a story about something in a laboratory and it would appear in a pulp magazine and people would read it and they would be surprised by it because they'd never heard of it. That is not possible [any more], the sluggishness that allowed that particular set of reactions is just not there. I mean now if I blog something that's going on in somebody's lab I'm going to get an email from the guy: "Ah, Mr Sterling, thank you for putting my photon experiment on wired.com, would you like to meet my photon friends? I see you're in London today, how about dropping by the pub." This is a small foretaste of the kind of trouble we're getting into.
When you ask whether that's useful, [maybe] we can ally ourselves with these new pop-up, blinding forces of change. The only thing that worries me about it is not their power, it's their fragility, because Twitter is two guys in a garage. Try to build a building out of the structure of Twitter or a Twitter city – but the frailty of these and the rapidity with which they die and the brevity of a 140-character message. I'm good with that. I don't mind slogans, bumper stickers, I'm happy with brief thematic expressions but it's just very strange and not anything that was planned and maybe something very, very difficult to explain to our children or even just somebody in seven years.
AD There's something quite interesting about the idea of usefulness. We don't know whether it's an advantage or a curse, but this idea of usefulness keeps rearing its head. A lot of people say our work isn't very useful, although a lot of what we're trying to do is see how speculation through design could take on a social usefulness, not in a boring sense but maybe in a more sparky, provocative sense. It is quite interesting that whenever I've read sci-fi literature what I love is the fact that the imagination can just run riot ... it's wonderful. Whereas in design, if our imagination runs too far ahead somehow it ceases to be design. It's hard to say why that is and where that line is. [Where it] becomes fantasy and fantastical as opposed to simply unbelievable aesthetically, and so I think a lot of what preoccupies us is when something becomes too unrealistic and lapses into pure entertainment. You can take all this speculative, fictional type of work and give it a use, and I guess the stuff that's happening in the science world and all the effects that stuff might have on ourselves and our bodies is one area where we think this could be useful.
BS I went to an event in Holland where there was a display of East German industrial design. The use value of these objects was super high and you can see a lot of the designers were Bauhaus graduates but they were also communists who were marooned in a very practically minded, very proletarian, keenly unimaginative, Teutonically useful, totalitarian state. From the point of view of use value these objects are unimpeachable but they're made with such bad materials and they really give one a sense of fantastic unease. I mean, none of these East German objects has any use or any practicality now, they're only sought out by particularly deviant collectors. There's a madness in that kind of East German rationality, it goes beyond the limits of just sci-fi whimsy. I mean there's something really un-heimlich about it, it's uncanny, it's like NOT OK. One experiment would be to – and this would be sadistic – outfit a London flat in completely East German furniture and white goods and try to get somebody to survive in there. It would be beyond pirate Disneyland because it's the psychopathology of everyday life. The problem with these objects is not that they lack use.
Bruce Sterling's novel The Caryatids (2009)
AD What's your view of literature that announces itself as having a particular function or curating social change? When it's trying to be useful, an advancement, is it doing something interesting?
BS Well, my difficulty with that kind of committed literature is that we tend to devote ourselves to ideal forms which are not really ideal forms, they're just associated with a particular means of expression of the time. If I'm a politically committed novelist but printing hasn't been invented yet I'm not going to write a politically committed novel. So to mistake an expression of that kind as some kind of timeless approach is incorrect, they are a period artefact in the way that an East German lamp is a period artefact, and it's very difficult for someone in literature to own up to this because we're egotists like architects and we somehow imagine that we're building for the ages and that we're sitting down with pen in hand and we're completely grappling with abstract ideas, philosophy, metaphysics, politics, whatever interests we have, but those are passing concerns. What interests me with critical design is not the same critical design from, say the Frankfurt school, or the critical design of the early Nineties or a postmodern inflected critical designer. I'd like to see critical design for situations that don't exist, I'd like to see some trans-historical critical design, like what would Ruskin really say about interaction design? Just go ahead and step into the guy's shoes, just steampunk it. If I were Ruskin what would I say about the design of Facebook? and then just go and do the full-scale thing, mock up a Ruskin Facebook. Steampunk is sc-fi fan activity but it's also 19th-century critical design of contemporary objects, like I'm going to make a brass laptop. A lot of people say that steampunk is what happened when goths discovered the colour brown. The reason people find that attractive is because they sense the creative freedom in breaking from the absolute structures and moving into the new-old. I can make up new ways to write science fiction but I can write much better science fiction by stealing ideas from some other practice. I get much more powerful effects by writing design fiction or architecture fiction that's very informed by design thinking or architecture thinking without ever letting on. The limits in my line of work are that publishing is collapsing that's a physical limit, you know, it's just plain going away, bookstores are closing all over the place, the means of production are shutting down, why would I worry about these shibboleths? There's got to be something more productive and just a better investment of one's time and energy.
AD As architects we often run into the critical theories of the Frankfurt school and it's not really something we're interested in. It had it's place in history, it ran its course. It's more the idea of critical thinking, to be critical of the world around us, our interactions with that world and how we let things happen [that interest us] and then thinking how that can form the basis of design education. What kind of projects can you set to encourage that kind of thinking, what kind of products can you create that embody that? An anti-statement would be much more about being sceptical and not just fully embracing everything, but stopping for a moment and questioning it's worth or meaning. When you start doing exercises like reinterpreting today's technologies through Ruskin's thinking I think that is very interesting because it creates contrast. Although it's extremely difficult, we can try to imagine and create fictional value systems and that's where I think literature is really interesting. The breadth and depth and complexity of the imagination is really inspiring. I think the difficult thing is for the designers of more tangible things to describe the thinking that goes into them, whereas even in a short story you can follow the ideas quite closely. There's a sort of a crudeness in design that is interesting because on the one hand it can get the message across very quickly but it's also quite limiting in terms of [its] subtlety.
BS The first thing that attracted me to design was when I realised that objects were really narratives, that they had histories, that they appeared in places for real reasons, that they were protagonists. Experience design is the first school of design that can actually encompass literature as a wing of itself. Reading a novel is an experience and you could write a novel on experience design principles and get some very interesting effects. To see experience design appear is almost as weird as seeing novels appear that actually sell objects. I don't think we're very far off from that: I could easily sell objects off my blog. I could design them, I could have them fabricated anywhere on the planet, I could have them printed out and shipped.
Bruce Sterling's Zeitgeist (2000)
I see these barriers not so much breaking down as sinking into quicksand, I see the signs of it all over the place. I mean we're in this grim, chilly, abandoned industrial building with a couple of digital signifiers to cheer us up. It's not an accident that we're squatting in the remnants of Victorian industrialism and blueskying and networking. I've seen huge bursts of successful creativity out of situations that really look very dark and delimited; 1989 or situations in Eastern Europe or even China. Societies that really look sombre and doomed over the 20th century sort of wake up suddenly and they're doing very inventive things for no detectable reason and not because they're useful or practical. I hate to say I'm optimistic about it but there are just tremendously powerful forces loose. It's a fascinating, revolutionary time to be alive even if it's destroying your prosperity and wrecking your industry.
The thing I'm more worried about is how can I say anything which someone will be able to see in 20 years in the form in which it was created, anything, even a chair would be good. That's a serious problem, it's like a new contemporary problem, how do we make something work in a situation where the means of production are in a maelstrom or things are politically or financially falling apart? I don't expect the bookstores are going be there, I don't think the libraries are going to be there, I certainly don't expect Google, Facebook, Yahoo or Twitter to survive 20 years, I don't expect Microsoft to survive 20 years, I don't expect NATO to survive. I don't know about the EU. This is not like a gospel of despair or anything I just really think we could do something magnificent by just rising to the scale of the actual problem.
Collyn Ahart One interesting thing emerging, going back to mash-up practice, is not writing about architecture but writing as architecture. Experience design is probably the first industry that's actually employed writers as a fundamental component of the design team and they're saying "Who's your writer?" I'm curious what you think.
BS Architects are very big on court writers and there are architecture critics who sort of follow architects like pilot fish and sharks and vice versa. And there have always been crazy architects who are willing to go out there and either explain a building or pitch it or demand urban reform, lobbying mayors and so forth. I'm a major Koolhaas fan really. OK, they're not novels, but they're in a really interesting, useful space. Every web startup I've heard of has some sort of technical writer and this is not a new or frightening development, there is going to be a lot of cross-disciplinary stuff happening.
FRI think it would be a shame if everything was virtual or written in a way that precludes the tangibility of things. What I really want is more objects that are conceptual, that we can imagine being part of our everyday lives, rather than writing it, to bring a visceral quality to some of the experiences we think about in the future.
image: Julian Anderson