The delicious gooey center of Design Fiction is what you get when you take on a mindset such that the work of doing Design Fiction is not external to the possible outcomes. In other words, you’re not collecting a bunch of inputs and cobbling them into some vague, not-fun-to-read package of some sort — a PowerPoint or summary report. One significant objective of Design Fiction is to translate insights and such into some form or archetype and to do so with an exceptionally high level of verisimilitude and acuity.
The process of doing Design Fiction is one and the same as the outcomes. The Process becomes the work product, which is then preserved by itself — your finished ‘Design Fiction’.
Let’s say we’re curious about NFTs — non-fungible tokens — which are all the rage these (last 12 or so) days. (I hear a sitcom is in development that takes place in a corner of the blockchain with NFTs as the main characters.) Between desk research, readings, discussions with stakeholders we immerse ourselves in this world of NFTs for a couple of weeks, or hours. We stretch the zealousness into some reasonably peculiar and ordinary future — desk lamp + NFT. Or, feet + NFT, for that matter. We want to capture the breathless goldrush-y exuberance. We want to represent that familiar hyperbole that off-gases when anything tech starts to feel like it’s obviously going to save the world. Art finally will be liberated from elite collectors! Finally, we’ve perfected this or that thanks to the blockchain and computers! And also we want to represent the party-poopers with their solemn, cautionary reports of excessive energy consumption for blockchain computation. And also — what about AIs on the blockchain. Blockchain! The future of work will be blockchain! Where’s Satoshi!?
And then, make it ordinary. Routine. Corner store. Non-fungible chewing gum, for example.
Effectively we level-up our knowledge of the world of NFT — from the straight-laced and somber, to the absolutely inscrutible mad but real, like generative feet taking up room on the blockchain.
We might have a workshop — really conversations and sketching/skamping ideas in material where inputs come from a variety of points of view, clusters of experience and insight, and everything seems quite imminent and plausible — if not quite here yet.
We corral our insights through discussion and begin to imagine some container into which we could pour representations of our key thoughts — our Design Fiction archetype. The container of our skamping/sketching and discussing. We’re mindful that we want to create a representation that could be mistaken (in the best of ways) with something we might see today. But, nothing is off-the-hook or obviously science-fictional — like there’ll be no robots packing us into slimey coccoon eggs to harvest our biochemistry, or faster-than-light travel. We need something just at the edge of a near future sense of plausible. We don’t want to deceive — we just want to suspend disbelief for a moment or two, because something cool happens at that junction between possible-plausible and just barely believable that lowers our defenses just enough to open our neurochemistry to ask questions and wonder so that we can imagine other kinds of futures, other kinds of trajectories, other kinds of strategies for more habitable worlds.
Through the discussion, there may be some imagining that starts with the phrase, “What about if..”, or “I wonder what it would be like..”, or “Wouldn’t it be cool if..” Listen for these. They are little prompts in the form of questions that are just on the boundary of imagining possible/probable/peculiar aspects of a near future.
In the end, ideally what you want to obtain is a representation of these insights, conversations, speculations, agreeable disagreements and provocations in the form of a thing into which all of this is decanted. It might be something like a Harvard Business Review magazine cover story about a unique, one-of-a-kind NFT sitting somewhere on the HBS blockchain with a contract containing an AI that performs exceptionally well as Apple’s CEO, and is now worth more than Apple itself, and whose computational energy usage produces the same tonnage of greenhouse gases every day as Belgium.
To be honest, I’d rather have a copy of a Design Fictional HBR magazine as a way to preserve that work and thinking and conversation rather than a PowerPoint any old day. The decanting of all of that into a Design Fictional HBR cover story feels like something awkwardly plausible, especially if somehow now feet are making their way onto the blockchain, which reminds me of the weird stuff that was on the Internet before it became a transactional product marketplace and there were no influencers and everyone had an open API because that was fun.
I was listening to the ‘Conversations with Tyler’ podcast with podcast with the Neal Stephenson. The host, Tyler Cowen, throws out little kernels of chicken feed questions at one point in a kinda rapid fire with no follow-up in his podcasts and one of the questions with Stephenson went like this:
COWEN:Which ideas, or which areas of life, do you feel right now are not sufficiently thought about? Not enough pondered? STEPHENSON:People have a hard, hard time — even pretty fairly educated, smart people have a really hard time with statistical thinking and probability. There’s any number of . . . Well, a classic example is global climate change, where people have a hard time distinguishing between climate and weather. But that’s just one example of a really common thing, which is that there are a lot of things that, really, the only rational way to think about them is to think about them in terms of statistics, but that just doesn’t come naturally to people.
Without follow-up I imagined how that may have opened up into an extended answer. Like there was an opening for a feller like Stephenson to say something about other ways besides statistics for thinking about “a lot of things.”
Okay, we’re bad with statistics and probability. Let’s assume we all know what that means. Numbers. Fractions. Formulas with Greek symbols and diacriticals above the Greek symbols. Scary stuff. Not really something that ‘comes naturally’ to most anyone, we can agree on that.
The first thing that popped into my head was — Neal’s right. That’s an easy one. Fractions and math can be scary.
Why are they scary?
Because they seem otherworldly and outside of what we’re used to as humans living in the worlds that we live in. Most everyone reading this will be used things like cloudy days and coffee gone cold. Statistics don’t communicate embodied, lived experience directly. You have to be a pretty good statistician to obtain a level of intuition about what some graph means to everyday existence to not be scared by it.
Statistics deliberately abstracts embodied, lived, experiences. And experience is lost in the statististical abstraction for the benefit of being rational, ordered, and manipulable by computation and algorithms. Statistics disconnects from the normal, ordinary, everyday experience of the lived world.
The day after listening to Neal Stephenson, I was listening to a different episode of the same podcast with Philip Tetlock who’s the superforecaster guy. They talk about statistical predictions about possible outcome of megatrends. Superforecasting is like sport for big questions — the likelihood of the economic collapse of this or that nation. Will war break out over a newly found minearal deposit given current marketplace dynamics? It’s very RAND-y and slightly, just vaguely sinister in its hubris to be super at forecasting.
In the Superforecasting world, answers to big questions like these end up with a number between 0.0 and 1.0, which I personally find hysterical. Like..really crazy. To reduce it all to a number, and do so without irony, is ultimately a kind of hubristic colonization of the future. And there are prediction markets for these, and teams, and some teams are like — considered better than others.
I get it. I also find it somewhat naive and dated in its modernist sensibility that this is a good way to assess the future — based on the likelihood of particular outcomes rather than a focus on achieving particular desireable outcomes by making futures.
And why am I going on about statistics as representations of possible/probable/likely near futures? Because I wonder what it is that makes these representations, at least to my ears and based on that episode of the podcast to my ears, so compelling to the host and guest while I found them sorta preposterous.
The question that was ringing around in my head was this: what would these outcomes — 0.0 -> 1.0 — look like if they were more vivid, high-acuity representations of those statistics? And then what would the interpretations and conversations around those sound like?
Does anyone know if ‘supercasters’ and strategists and futurists and designers could ever work together to create representations of possibilities? Or are their epistemologies and sensibilities and goals at odds such that it wouldn’t work?
Next time - Future Prototyping.
In the meantime: Watch Nick and Matt Ward on Phil’s Ztopia Show talk about NFT Feet, amongst other curious things.