Futures? a short interview with Warren Ellis

Few weeks ago I published a new book about the kind of topic we deal with at the Near Future Laboratory: the disappearance of "big futures", design fictions, the role of science-fiction, etc. The book is only in French, but some of the interviews I've conducted when preparing it are in English (I translated some of them in the book itself). In the next few days, I'm going to publish this material here on the blog. Some interviews are pretty short, others are longer but they are quite insightful.

The first one features Warren Ellis, the English author of comics, novels, and television.

NN : If the future is dead, if we didn’t get the future that we were promised, it does not mean that the present, the here and now isn’t curious. In a talk you gave few years ago at Improving Reality in Brighton, you coined the term "sci-fi condition", what did you mean by that?

WE : I don’t know if I coined it, to be honest.  But I think it’s important to look at the present moment with clear eyes and understand the wonder of a contemporary context where we can see the glass lakes of Titan and satellites orbiting the sun can report to our phones.  Or even that several thousand years of developing communication technology means that I can type this right now and you’ll see it in seconds.  We tend not to see it.  We’re conditioned to see the present moment as "normal," with all the banality that implies.  This is not a banal moment.  It’s the sort of intense, chaotic moment, full of strange things, that we previously only found in science fiction.  "Right now" feels like all of science fiction happening at once, and needs to be considered in that context -- that  we’re living in that promised world of miracles and wonder, and that we’ve been trained by the culture not to see it.

NN : What kinds of situations/examples/technologies do you have in mind to refer to this awkward condition?

Sometimes it’s the things that seem simplest.  Networked maps on phones.  If you’re in the Western world and in a context of relatively low-level privilege, you will never be lost again.  You could draw up your own list of things that would seem completely alien to someone from 1984.  Or things that would simply seem science-fictional, like public internet kiosks.  

NN : In this context, what’s the importance of science-fiction according to you?

WE : In lab-testing the potential pressures of all possible futures.  And in universalising the poetry of science, which is the machinery of the world.

 

Algorithms+reverse engineering

Everyone interested in software studies and research about algorithms should read this piece by Nick Seaver called "On reverse engineering: Looking for the cultural work of engineers". Based on TheAtlantic's investigation of Netflix's tagging system, the author discusses the consequences of reverse engineering for how we think about the cultural lives of engineers.

Some excerpts that attracted my attention:

"reverse engineering, as both a descriptor and a research strategy, misses the things engineers do that do not fit into conventional ideas about engineering. In the ongoing mixture of culture and technology, reverse engineering sticks too closely to the idealized vision of technical work. Because it assumes engineers care strictly about functionality and efficiency, it is not very good at telling stories about accidents, interpretations, and arbitrary choices. It assumes that cultural objects or practices (like movies or engineering) can be reduced to singular, universally-intelligible logics. It takes corporate spokespeople at their word when they claim that there was a straight line from conception to execution. [...] The risk of reverse engineering is that we come to imagine that the only things worth knowing about companies like Netflix are the technical details hidden behind the curtain. In my own research, I argue that the cultural lives and imaginations of the people behind the curtain are as important, if not more, for understanding how these systems come to exist and function as they do. Moreover, these details are not generally considered corporate secrets, so they are accessible if we look for them. Not everything worth knowing has been actively hidden, and transparency can conceal as much as it reveals."

Why do I blog this? Because it's an interesting argument and practical recommendation for researchers working on such topics. Being interested in the interplay between technical constraints and cultural/imaginary elements, I quite appreciate the point Seaver makes here.

"a Pop-Up Sensor Nail Salon"

"The Future of Wearable Services: A Proposal for a Pop-Up Sensor Nail Salon" is an intriguing design studio project conducted by Kristina Ortega at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, in the Media Design Practices program. It addresses the adoption of wearables, which shouldn't rely on a "one size fits all" approach as "context and specificity matter". Such starting point led the team to focus on nail art and how to embed sensors into layers of a gel manicure.

Useless Wearables (Photo: Kristina Ortega)

Useless Wearables (Photo: Kristina Ortega)

The website described the process they adopted:

For the first part of the lab we designed wearables with the idea that they would be "useless". This was our first version of our nail service, which we called "ritual nail". We experimented with form, 3D printing cats with LEDs embedded in them and embedding a nano pixel into the nail. [...] After our first round of making we decided to take a research trip to a nail art salon. While we were there we were fascinated by the process and negotiation that took place between the technician and the client. We really discovered the place of the service in the process. What would technicians look like in a electronically embedded salon service? The process of making prototypes, some with "sensor extensions" others made extremely brittle from the z corp 3D plaster printer. [...] We tested out five sensored options during a workshop/ user test [...] After user testing our early prototypes we decided that our project wasn't so much about the electronics embedded into nails, but more about the new services that will grow out of the need for wearables that can be specific and customizable. The new question is: who are the technicians in a new electronic fully customizable salon? We stopped looking for a solution and started looking for scenarios.

popup1

Why do I blog this? The topic (wearables) and the way it's addressed via nail art is interesting. I take the project as a relevant counterpart to lots of boring-and-utilitarian products or prototypes. Plus, the design process (with the useless-to-useful move) is curious, and somehow typical as an assignment.

 

 

Resurgence of early software?

Currently reading “Software Takes Command” by Lev Manovich, i’m fascinated by the part where he explains the lack of interest about the history of cultural computing by our cultural institutions and computer industry itself. He explains that a possible reason for this lies in the absence of profits from the old software by current companies, unlike, say, Hollywood which "continues to receive profits from old movies as it reissues them in new formats (VHS, DVD, HD, Blu-ray disks, etc)”. The most intriguing part corresponds to this affirmation that I find super intriguing:

"given that consumer culture systematically exploits adults’ nostalgia for the cultural experiences of their teenage and youth years, it is actually surprising that early software versions were not seen as a market opportunity.”

I guess that’s quite common in the video game industry, see for instance the release of yet-another-version of Eric Chahi’s Another World, but what about other types of software ? What would that entail ? Which software would you pick?

Why do I blog this? Thats looks like a good design fiction angle, and alternatively, a curious assignments for marketing students: how would you sell the resurgence of Quark X Press and Mac Paint ?

Visualizing TV series

This month, I'm giving a workshop at HEAD–Genève with Frédéric Kaplan and Yannick Rochat about Information Visualization and TV-series. The idea is to show the students how to visually depict events, characters' network, geographical evolution, among other things in these shows... using various sources (scripts found in imsdb, subtitles, Wikipedia entries fan encyclopedia like wookiepedia, etc.). Some examples below we discussed in class:

ALL ABOUT TV SERIES by DH101 students EPFL

Production of various visualizations, like the one below (Game of Thrones)

TWIN PEAKS 1990 on moviegalaxies

LORD OF THE RINGS PROJECT by Emil Johansson

CORE-SAMPLE by Aurelien Farina:

This editorial and artistic project is based on the metaphor of "coring", a technique used for geological and industrial ground surveys. The project was elaborated as an application of the coring technique to a particular mass-culture production : the "Starsky & Hutch" TV series. The book consists in a number of chapters made of screenshots captured in the series' first two seasons (1975-1977) : all recurent scenes are gathered and accumulated in series of similar images.

Core sample

Core sample

Core sample

Core sample

Outline

Outline

"we need to talk" pages

"we need to talk" pages

Why do I blog this? Collecting examples for the coming days of the workshop: types of visualizations (social networks, maps), sort of data proposed (texts, images...), the type of analysis, etc.

"These machines can be a metaphor for whatever's on people's minds."

A dialogue from Mad Men S07E04:

"Lloyd: These machines can be a metaphor for whatever's on people's minds.

Don Draper: Because they're afraid of computers?

Lloyd: Yes. This machine is frightening to people, but it's made by people.

Don Draper: And people aren't frightening?

Lloyd: It's not that. It's more of a cosmic disturbance. This machine is intimidating because it contains infinite quantities of information, and that's threatening, because human existence is finite. But isn't it godlike that we've mastered the infinite? The IBM 360 can count more stars in a day than we can in a lifetime.

Don Draper: But what man laid on his back counting stars and thought about a number?

Lloyd: He probably thought about going to the moon."

Why do I blog this? Just found this dialogue interesting as a metaphor for discussion in the 1960s about "computing" and the role of this machinery in society.

"Pop-up studio" manual

Studio D Radiodurans – Jan Chipchase's new boutique – just released an intriguing booklet called "Pop-up Studio: Designing The Design Experience".  It's basically a 43-pages guide that describes "how to run a pop-up studio, when and why it is appropriate, the trade-offs that need to be understood".

Popupstudio

 

Based on various examples coming from Jan and his current/former colleagues, it's full of insightful material for design researchers, field explorers and people interested in product/service/strategy development. The set of tools and the approach explained in this book are meant to show how to manage "rapid immersion" into new cultural forms, people's practices and use that material to surface new ideas and designs. Lots of details are provided about how to do that and what it means practically (studio duration, use of space, budgets, check-lists, ...). It seems like a great companion to the upcoming "the field study handbook".

Why do I blog this? Definitely because I'm interested in others' methods, guidelines, recommendations and informed opinions. It's always good to take them as inspiration and cases to create one's approach. Plus it's related with a current project that aims at describing how designers repurposed ethnography in their own work context (book to be released in few months).

Collection, accumulation, compilation

Coincidentally, I received two magazines today about a similar topic: collection and compilation. The first is the last copy of The Wire, the British music journal; and the second is FACTA, a fascinating Brazilian fanzine about "gambiologia" (the study of creative improvisation and electro-digital DIY).

Transient
Transient
Transient
Transient

"What is a compilation but a collection of similarities and differences? To compile is to suggest or imply that everything within it has something in common, whether it be a sound, a time, a place or a theme. The remainder is difference: the varying species of that sound, other elements in that time or place, alternative angles on that themes" describes Adam Harper in his introduction to the special issue of The Wire on compilation.

Why do I blog this? I'm curious about the role of compilation, collection and selection, mostly with regards to the analytical mindset of designers/artists and ethnographers. There's something in common here that should be explored, beyond the type of artifacts and cultural content that is collected. I generally work using aggregation of various types of material and enjoy this type of process. For instance, the game controller project was based on collecting actual game pads that we explored in conjunction with patents, interviews with designers and players, books about the history of video games... the careful compilation of facts, anecdotes, pictures, opinions, statistics and hypotheses created a curious assemblage that helped creating various intermediary objects (diagrams, genealogy trees, installation in exhibits) and two books.

The Smithsonian on Science Fiction, the Future and design fiction

The May edition of the Smithsonian has an article on sci-fi, the Future (capital F) and design fiction. Based on interviews with various science-fiction authors (Kim Stanley Robinson, Cory Doctorow, William Gibson, Ursula Le Guin, Ted Chiang or Neal Stephenson), this piece by Eileen Gunn highlights how the genre acts as a sort of laboratory and "how the task of science fiction is not to predict the future. Rather, it contemplates possible futures."

Interestingly, this article describes classical debates about the mutual relationships between sci-fi, science and technological research: the opposition between utopian and dystopian futures (as well as the acknowledgment that this dualism is flawed), the "where's my flying car?" frustration that some authors want to move away from, the need to embrace new visions of the future, etc. The paper concludes with this sort of summary of the role of science-fiction for society:

Science fiction, at its best, engenders the sort of flexible thinking that not only inspires us, but compels us to consider the myriad potential consequences of our actions. Samuel R. Delany, one of the most wide-ranging and masterful writers in the field, sees it as a countermeasure to the future shock that will become more intense with the passing years. “The variety of worlds science fiction accustoms us to, through imagination, is training for thinking about the actual changes—sometimes catastrophic, often confusing—that the real world funnels at us year after year. It helps us avoid feeling quite so gob-smacked.”

This piece is quite interesting. However, I'm not sure about the current debate on the importance of reading science-fiction in research labs ("Brueckner laments that researchers whose work deals with emerging technologies are often unfamiliar with science fiction.") Of course, I'm convince about Delany's quote above but I'm unsure whether this applies to ANY book, film, video-game or comic-book related with "the Future". Would the Warhammer 40K series of book really help like a JG Ballard novel? Besides, one might also argue that poetry or other forms of literature might be helpful? And why limiting oneself to this? Perhaps there are other ways to get this "flexible thinking" promoted by the authors there: RTS games or Eve-Online situated in a distant future might be relevant too. This problem was recently address in another article in The Atlantic. Robinson Meyer commented on Google's process for selecting Google X projects: "lt must utilize a radical solution that has at least a component that resembles science fiction.", to which the author wrote:

When we imagine a “science fiction”-like future, I think we tend to picture completed worlds, flying cars, the shiny, floating towers of midcentury dreams. We tend, in other words, to imagine future technological systems as readymade, holistic products that people will choose to adopt, rather than as the assembled work of countless different actors, which they’ve always really been. The futurist Scott Smith calls these ‘flat-pack futures,’ and they infect “science fictional” thinking. Science fiction, too, can underestimate the importance and role of social change. For every feminist science fiction writer or Afrofuturist, there is a still better-known member of the genre’s far-right.

Why do I blog this? I'm currently writing a book (French) about these topics, and such articles offer interesting parallel to my current thinking and projects carried out at the Near Future Laboratory.

For people intrigued by such material, these pieces should be read alongside Julian's essay on design fiction, as well as "Better Made Up: The Mutual Influence of Science fiction and Innovation" (Caroline Bassett, Ed Steinmueller, Georgina Voss, Nesta, 2013) and "Imagining Technology" (Jon Turney, Nesta, 2013).

Design fiction: a bibliography

Some resources about design fiction I'm use to share with students. Note that the term itself is polysemic and covers different perceptions about its meaning.

Auger, J. (2011). Alternative Presents and Speculative Futures: Designing fictions through the extrapolation and evasion of product lineages., Negotiating Futures / Design Fictions, Swiss Design Network 2011, Basel.

Auger, J. (2013). Speculative design: crafting the speculation, Digit. Creat., vol. 24, no. 1, pp. 11--35, 2013.

Bassett, C., Steinmuller, E. & Voss, G. (2013). Better Made Up: The Mutual Influence of Science fiction and Innovation”, Nesta Working Paper 13/07.

Bleecker, J. (2009). Design fiction: A short essay on design, science, fact and fiction, Near Future Laboratory, Los Angeles, CA,

Bleecker, (2011). Design Fiction: From Props To Prototypes, Negotiating Futures / Design Fictions, Swiss Design Network 2011, Basel.

Bleecker, J. & Nova, N., (2009). A synchronicity: Design Fictions for Asynchronous Urban Computing. The Architectural League of New York, New York, NY.

Candy, S. (2010).  The futures of everyday life: politics and the design of experiential scenarios, PhD thesis. The University of Hawai.

DiSalvo, Carl. (2012). Spectacles and Tropes: Speculative Design and Contemporary Food Cultures. The Fibreculture Journal(20).

Dunne, A. & Raby, F. (2011). Design noir: The Secret Life of Electronic Objects. Basel: Birkhäuser, 2001.

Dunne, A. & Raby, F. (2014). Speculative Everything: design, fiction and social dreaming. MIT Press.

Forlano, L. (2013). Ethnographies from the Future: What can ethnographers learn from science fiction and speculative design?, Ethnography Matters.

Franke, B. (2011). Design Fiction is Not Necessarily About the Future, Negotiating Futures / Design Fictions, Swiss Design Network 2011, Basel.

Galloway, A. (2013). Towards Fantastic Ethnography and Speculative Design, Ethnography Matters.

Grand, S. & Wiedmer, M. (2010). Design Fiction: A Method Toolbox for Design Research in a Complex World, DRS, 2010.

Hales, D. (2013). Design fictions an introduction and provisional taxonomy, Digital Creativity, 24:1, 1-10

Jain, A., Ardern, J. & Pickard, J. (2012). Design Futurescaping, Journal of Futures Studies. 

Johnson, B.D. (2009). “Science Fiction Prototypes Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying about the Future and Love Science Fiction”, in Intelligent Environments 2009 – Proceedings of the 5th International Conference on Intelligent Environments, Callaghan, V., Kameas, A., Reyes, A., Royo, D., Weber, M. (Eds.), IOS Press, Barcelona pp. 3-8.

Johnson, B.D. (2011). “Love and God and Robots: The Science Behind the Science Fiction Prototype “Machinery of Love and Grace””, in Workshop Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Intelligent Environments Augusto, J. C., Aghajan, V., Callaghan, V., Cook, D. J., O’Donoghue, J., Egerton, S., Gardner, M., Johnson, B. D., Kovalchuk, Y., López-Cózar, R., Mikulecký, P., Ng, J. W. P., Poppe, R., Wang, M. J., Zamudio, V. (Eds.), IOS Press, Nottingham pp. 99-127.

Kirby, D. (2010). The future is now: Diegetic prototypes and the role of popular films in generating real-world technological development. Social Studies of Science 40 (1), pp. 41-70.

Kirby, D., 2011 Lab coats in Hollywood: science, scientists and cinema. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Morrison, A. (2014). Design Prospects: Investigating Design Fiction via a Rogue Urban Drone, In Proceedings of DRS 2014 Conference. Umeå, Sweden.: 16.06.2014–19.06.2014

Raford, Noah. (2012). From Design to Experiential Futures, The Future of Futures: The Association of Professional Futurists.

Shedroff N. & Noessel C. (2012). Make It So Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction. San Francisco: Rosenfeld.

Sterling, B. (2009), Design Fiction, Interactions 16 (3), pp. 20-24.

Ward, M. (2013). Design Fiction as Pedagogic Practice Towards a fictionally biased design education, Medium. 

Zeller, L. (2011) What You See Is What You Don’t Get: Addressing Implications of Information Technology through Design Fiction” Lecture Notes in Computer Science 6770  pp. 329-336.

"Equipped with a computer chip, the rice cooker can't think'"

An interesting post Olivier Mével sent me, right after I saw a "3D rice cooker": Why Rice Cookers Are Exciting. Some excerpts I find intriguing:

"Consider the everyday rice cooker. It seems rather dull: a squat box occupying space on the countertop, usually without any grace or sense of style. Yet this unimpressive appearing cooking device now simplifies the lives of tens of millions of owners all over the world. A quick search for “cooking with a rice cooker” reveals it being used to cook a wide assortment of food: chicken, fish, bread, and even chocolate cake. Take a closer look and you might be surprised at the sophistication of these devices, with high-end units containing microprocessors, multiple temperature sensors, multiple induction heaters, and displays. They use advanced artificial intelligence with fuzzy logic control systems. As one manufacturer’s description puts it: Equipped with a computer chip, the rice cooker can “think” and adjust cooking length and temperature according to the thermal sensor’s calculations.” For rice, the machine figures out the soaking and steaming times, the cooking temperatures, and then, when the rice is done, switches to a safe holding temperature, where the food can be kept for many hours without affecting taste. "

Why do I blog this? I'm fascinated by how such so-called "mundane artefact" are changing based on recent technological advances. The rice cooker is an unexpected but obviously good example here.