As technological choices become ever more complex, design fiction, not science, hints at the future we actually want.
Picture yourself in a supermarket aisle in 2050. These new magic meatballs, brightly coloured for the kids, seem worth a try. Better have some of the meat powder too, one of the more established products from the mass-manufacturers of cultured meat you can make that creamy meat-based fondue that always satisfies. You dont fancy the meat ice-cream today, but theres still time left for a trip to the deli counter, for some expensive, but delicious rustic meat, matured in special vats, or perhaps some knitted steaks. And you can pile your cart secure in the knowledge that no animals were harmed in the making of any of these offerings.
At the moment, in vitro meat is a laboratory venture, yielding expensive and unappetizing-looking muscle fibres that might be fit for filler in pies or burgers. But suppose the researchers ambitions are realized? Where will the technology go? How will it be marketed and consumed? Who might want it, and what for? These questions animate The In Vitro Meat Cook Book (2014) by Koert van Mensvoort and Hendrik-Jan Grievink, whose recipes for hypothetical products are sampled above. The authors open-ended, imaginative approach makes the book a good example of a new way of questioning technology: design fiction. As questions about technological choices trouble us more and more, it could be that design fiction, not science, has the better answers.
The stories we tell ourselves about technology typically, optimistic ones from would-be innovators, pessimistic ones from their critics are usually too simple. Making them more complex can support a richer discussion about where a technology might be going, and the kind of futures it could open up. That calls for a kind of realism in the depiction of technical possibilities that is inspiring a new cadre of practitioners of design fiction, or critical design. In the cookbook, for example, that realism comes from using a familiar recipe format to take the reader into unfamiliar worlds. The future facts are imagined, but not fanciful in the context of current research. They might never happen, but they could.
There are plenty of other examples of this effort to spur us to new thinking. In 2014, the Near Future Laboratory, a US-European design studio, published the TBD Catalog , an entire compendium of possible future products, from drone dog-walkers to environmentally sound seed-based feedstock for a 3D-printer. Other designers are committed to making actual objects or convincing mock-ups to think with. Either way, it is the detail that diverts. The 3D-printer cartridges, complete with model numbers and prices, look close enough to real adverts for things you’ve already bought to carry conviction. These finely textured depictions of the potential accouterments of the future stimulate discussion in ways that earlier efforts to imagine technology often fail to do. They might even offer a more effective way to create futures we actually want.
Design fictions draw on a long tradition of technological storytelling. Every technology starts with a story. We don’t know how the first hominids who fashioned a hand-axe from a flint shaped their thoughts, but the very action of flint-knapping implies a plan for the future: the result will be better, in some way, than the flints already to hand. So it is with all technologies. A tool always implies at least one small story, writes the historian of technology David Nye in Technology Matters (2006). It begins in the imagination, and that imagining extends to what the tools will help us to achieve.
They are also interwoven with more familiar kinds of science fiction. The ties between scientific speculation, technological imagination and sci-fi are close, and complex, even if genuinely new ideas most often come up in the tech arena first. Arthur C Clarke is often cited as a techno-visionary for his ideas about geostationary communication satellites, but these were first outlined in 1945 in a technical essay, not in fiction. And yet the causal chain can run in the other direction: Clarkes road map to the planets fundamentally shaped NASAs space policy in the 1960s and, earlier, the pioneers of rocketry drew heavily on the fictions of Jules Verne and H G Wells.
Often the imaginings of sci-fi and technology work as an echo-chamber, reflecting ideas back and forth, with tech innovators claiming sci-fi inspiration as a way of communicating what their devices might do. Martin Cooper, the US engineer who led the team behind the first cell phone demonstrated in 1973 happily told reporters it was inspired by the Star Trek communicator; yet, at the time, he had been working for Motorola on hand-held police radios, and the mobile phone was a simple extension of that idea. But name-checking Star Trek was a good way to get peoples attention.
Sci-fi media can be astonishingly effective at promoting possible technologies. This takes on a new dimension in film, which trades in realistic depictions of new tech to underpin fictional worlds. Sometimes this cinematic realism is directly exploited by innovators. The computer interface that Tom Cruises character uses to manipulate data with gestures in Minority Report (2002) was based on designs by John Underkoffler, a former MIT Media Lab researcher in visualisation who was working towards just such an interface. Although the films narrative was dark, the interface caught peoples imagination, and Underkoffler used its cinematic impact to help secure investment in his research.
Design fictions efforts to create imaginative realisations of technology, which consciously try to evoke discussion that avoids polarising opinion, have a key ingredient, I think. Unlike the new worlds of sci-fi novels, or the ultra-detailed visuals of futuristic cinema, their stories are unfinished. Minority Report is not about critical design because its narrative is closed. In good design fiction, the story is merely hinted at, the possibilities left open. It is up to the person who stumbles across the design to make sense of how it might be part of a storied future.
Jon Turney is a science writer, editor and reviewer. He co-authored the book Fifty Years at the Heart of Health (2012) with Julie Clayton. His latest book is I, Superorganism (2015).
How design fiction imagines future technology – Jon Turney – Aeon