In most instances I can think of, science fiction is more than simple dramatic storytelling about the future. It is often allegory through which the present state is refracted back to us — an assessment of who we are as individuals and as larger social formations. It’s a step removed from direct reflection as one might find in essays about our present day culture, politics, daily life and so forth.
The ‘step removed’ is significant. By providing an abstraction from the present and by setting things in some vaguely famiiar elsewhere, in another time or culture, we can activate our imagination and interpret the characters and motivations as indirect references to our present conditions. We do the work of translating the fiction as a reflection of our daily experiences and daily realities.
You, the reader or viewer of a science fiction tale, acts by considering directly or indirectly on the characters and their motivations. You are doing the cognitive maneuver of taking what you read and considering the comment, or opinion, or implication the author is making about the world of the present.
Sometimes these reflections are big - Blade Runner, for example, invites a ‘big’ reflection on the immorality of slavery. Her considers the multiple dimensions of AI and its implications for the manipulability of human emotions and a kind of unsettling use of algorithms as a palliative for loneliness. The clever and concise and multiply interpreted They’re Made Out Of Meat brilliantly startles our assumptions about the material that we are made of.
Design Fiction functions similarly, but through constructions of designed objects that imply the near future fictional worlds from which they may have come.
Recall previously I described the diegetic prototype of Design Fiction as the items indiscriminately gathered by a time-traveling anthropologist who has come back from some future. Design Fictions are composed of such things and in the process we are meant to make sense of the world from which they came. No one is telling you a complete story. No sage has magically predicted anything about what that future is in some complete all-encompassing fashion. You’re meant to do that work yourself or with your team and stakeholders, very much as you might interpret the various moments, artifacts, character motivations and so forth from a more typical science fiction narrative.
We do this because, in the case of Design Fiction, we’re using the approach and, more importantly, the mindset in order to help us imagine and reflect upon the possible futures. Sort of like what science fiction asks us to do.
When we do Design Fiction, we are not doing science fiction, in its typical mode as a literary activity, where it is words on a page to be bound up in signatures to make a book and thence interpreted as an author’s imagination described through characters and their motivations and drama all knitted together as a plot with a beginning, middle, and end.
Doing Design Fiction is wholly different. And just to clarify this more directly - words on a page meant to tell a story in this fashion is not design. It’s writing. I think you’d agree that writing is not, in most senses, design. And, hence, as previously described in Design Fiction, it is most helpful to draw a distinction.
Design Fiction isn’t literature. It’s using the materialization practices of Design to make things that tell stories, not literature that can’t help but tell stories. (And, to an extent, you’re not making things to be things in the traditional sense. They are diegetic prototypes meant to help you imagine possible outcomes or contexts — like Nick’s Cricket Crunch cereal box, one possible conclusion to a world in which insect flour has become a normal, ordinary, everyday source of breakfast protein.
It’s helpful to say that writing literature about the future by translating your imagination into words through the act of punching little plastic squares on a computer keyboard is different from making a material artifact that implies a story (diegetic prototype) about a corner of a possible future. Doing Design Fiction where your imagination is translated into material through some craftwork by doing a bit of CAD or and negotiating with some software algorithms as you attempt to materialize an evocative little gizmo to help provoke a discussion about some future — these are entirely different endeavors based on quite distinct processes for making meaning and evolving ideas.
If you handed someone your excellent short story about a little gizmo, they would take it as a story about a little gizmo not as the gizmo itself. If you left a little gizmo in its hang-card packaging on a table, it would be taken as a little gizmo..not a story about a little gizmo.
Design Fiction and science fiction each have their place, and each speak to the other, and serve their purpose, in the best examples, commendably and quite distinctly.
Apologies again for a brief issue. Same excuse as last time — final-final edits on our forthcoming The Manual of Design Fiction. I will say that we’re all super excited about our forthcoming book, the notes from our trusted early readers are strong, positive and humbling. Shortly we’ll have more details about the when, where, and how. Be well.