It’s helpful to consider that much (all?) of what we know about the world comes from observation. It’s been said that we are sense-making critters. Our brains are able to take inputs, make meaning, and take action with the aid of opposable thumbs. We observe, interpret, act.
Despite the 90s VHS-tinged title art of my beloved ‘X-Files’, if there is any truth out there, it is on us to determine what it means through observation, discussion, debate, disagreement, and, for better or worse the inevitable and occasional fisticuffs. (Is it that fist fights or worse break out when beliefs in what is true and right are challenged?)
Another way of thinking about Design Fiction is this: consider that the artifacts that you create to be incompletely and partially representing some of the contours of a possible near future. Design Fiction artifacts define the partial shape of things from somewhere, out there.
The Design Fiction artifact encapsultes the results of a world. They are like symptoms of conditions — symptomatic of some arrangement of factors that lead to a moment in the evolution of universal forces to yield, just for one slightly crappy example, Self-Cooking Garlic Meatballs, found in some near future world.
What sort of world would have Self-Cooking Garlic Meatballs? Would we find a pile of discarded pouches if we went into some world for a moment and brought back a garbage bag as an archeological “find”? Are there peculiar things in your garbage bin right now that someone from some other place and time would look at and wonder..”what the heck sorta place is/was/will-be this?”
The Design Fiction artifact we’re creating represents some sort of outcome — the result of — a configuration of contingent factors and forces.
(Speaking of meatballs, if you didn’t catch the Twitter fight between meatflats brand Steak Umms and Neil Degrasse Tyson you may not have missed much beyond the curiousity of a pressed sandwich meat calling out a gameshow host disguised as a scientist, but it was sorta refreshing to realize that I inhabit a world where a sandwich meat gives epistemology lessons to someone who should probably know better. I thought I would have more to say about that. In fact, I thought that was all I was going to write about. I’d be the kind of guy who would love to write something that could have a title like — “The Steak Umms Theory of Knowledge.” But, I suppose it’s comforting that I just mention it in passing and leave the sandwich meat brand for another day.)
When we create a Quick Start Guide to, say, a Moderna EarFreshener®, powered by Kraft Foods we are implying that there is some world containing things called EarFresheners®, and that in some near future Kraft Foods somehow ‘powers’ them (the second order implication is that Kraft Foods still exists in this world, but it seems like it’s not the Kraft Foods we understand today), and it seems like a pharmagiant is the primary stakeholder in these things.
We also learn that, apparently, it’s best that this assemblage have a Quick Start Guide perhaps because of legal requirements and-also so that people can refer quickly to a guide so that they don’t screw up whatever procedure such a thing requires one to, you know — operate its freshening capabilities. Oh, and for some reason we are meant to ponder and debate and question — why is it that our ears need freshening. That is, how did we arrive at a world where EarFresheners are “a thing?”
(We can ask the same question of most anything, and I would advise you to do so in the vein of Perec’s directive to “Question your teaspoons.”. How is it that there are now wheels on luggage when during the before-times, we simply lugged our luggage? It’s easy to take questions of this sort as good reasons to roll ones eyeballs and go back to Netflix. I’d advise a bit more effort at such excavations, without assuming there’s “one” answer. Maybe it was an effort to break up the Airline and Railroad Porters Union by giving them nothing to do.)
That Quick Start Guide itself is a whole ball of meat as well: in a partial way it is going to help us understand not only the mechanical operations of this thing, but what sort of thing it is — palliative? recreational? hygienic?
What symptoms does it alleviate? What social-technical factors have led to such a state of affairs where one might subscribe (wait — is it a subscription mechanic? I’m not sure, but maybe?) to the EarFreshener® service? Rechargeable cartridges? Replacement nozzles?
Who must never use an EarFreshener® for fear of permanent damage or legal consequences? What are the Frequently Asked Questions and why must this be kept away from house pets, a why does it “work great” at Apple Cinemark Theaters, and for heaven’s sake why is there so much small print about non-factoring AIs? Which are what, exactly?
In that short phrase — ‘Moderna EarFreshener®’ — we’ve implied some inner geometry of the world. Some kind of configuration of needs, wants, desires. Perhaps there’s even an arrangement of science values and observation about legal and regulatory concerns.
With this or any one Design Fiction artifact we’ve created a series of forensic clues from a position of partial insight and knowledge. We don’t know what the ‘answer’ might be, just as our inputs that led to this artifact are only partial.
With Design Fiction we ping our insights, inputs and musings in the form of signals at the choas of partial knowledge and see what comes back to us. Very much a bit like sonar pinging into the vast emptiness of an ocean. You get signal returns and try to interpret what might be out there. You never see everything clearly. Any system that assumes one can see anything clearly like, oh, say — the future well, I personally find that suspect. I’m okay with working in the chaos right at the boundary of what we may know and discovering possibilities.
We’re not playing god here. We’re not building entire worlds. We’re creating implications of worlds from partial perspectives. We’re creating things that are exhibits of symptoms of a possible world. We’re creating a sketch, a bit of a contour line around a set of concerns or topics that may have been discussed. And now we simply want to create an artifact that represents that discussion (or debate, observation, disagreement — hopefully there were no fist fights in the workshop) rather than a pile of those bothersome PostIt notes gathered up post workshop, or a written-up conclusion shoved into a PowerPoint slide or email.
It’s like considering that the doing of Design Fiction is the discovering of the “shape” of things. We’re not building an entire world, which only sounds nice in a colonialist sort of way. Like..”if I could just get this entire world to be under my control, everything would be fine. To do that, I’ll build the world myself. The whole thing. I’m a world-builder. That’s what I do.”
I’m being snarky and a bit mean, maybe because I don’t fully understand world building or maybe because I’m unconsciously frustrated because my coffee isn’t up to par or because this permit I need from the city of LA is four years late. But maybe I also intuit the fullness of what ‘world building’ has meant, really, throughout history just enough that it triggers a bit of an allergic reaction and then I just stay away to save myself.
What I may be sensitive to is the understanding I have that there’s no world I’m aware of that works well when it’s built top-down that way, not for long at least. Stalin and KJU and others gave it a go, I suppose. I think Zuckerberg, a16z, Thiel and the rest are doing their-his best to control everything, and that won’t go well for anyone. As fun as it might sound, and as productive as it might be for, you know — designing a computer game or writing a fantasy novel — it’s more my axiousness about occupying a noxious subjectivity for the sake of telling a story, and whenever I’ve tried to occupy that perspective it just doesn’t feel right. As excited as I can imagine one feeling by assuming control over the entirety of a world based on its self-indulgent, self-consistent set of rules or whatever, you’re shaping your sense-making in such a way to prefer or accept such a subjectivity. It’s good to prepare a subjectivity that can deal with the unknown and unexpected. I’ve seen people literally get physically sick (like..bed-ridden) when confronted with relatively mild chaos largely because they’ve always occupied positions of complete control over matters. You’re doing nothing to help yourself when it comes time to occupy positions at the edge of choas, where not much is under your control. Which is, you know — actually the world we occupy for real (cf. India today). The one where, should you trip down some stairs and bang your head, your head hurts and you might even get a concussion, which has consequences that are different from those when you do such a thing with a VR headset on.
And now, for heaven’s sake, there are Masterclasses on World Building. So now more people will assume that building worlds works this way. “I think that the joy of worldbuilding in fiction is honestly the joy of getting to play god. Because as an author, you get to build the world.” I think we need fewer mortals playing god, tbh. (That would be a good topic for General Seminar, it just occurs to me.)
Wow. I really swerved from the topic. Sheesh.
Have you listened to my discussion with Devon Powers about the trends in the business of trends? That’ll bring things back down to earth. Give a listen here.