A recent article written by Jon Turney for AEON sparks a new perspective on how design fiction, not science, hints at the future we actually want.
Turney’s argument is infatuated with the concept of how design fiction’s efforts to create imaginative realisations of technology (which consciously try to evoke discussion that avoids polarising opinion) have a key ingredient.
Unlike the new worlds of sci-fi novels, or the ultra-detailed visuals of futuristic cinema, their stories are unfinished. 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.
The article below has been fabricated as a springboard to provoke further discussions, a loftier goal is at stake that goes beyond the creation of ideas for things we want, positioning instead a world that questions why we want them, are they really better, and how will they change us should we get what we 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 don’t fancy the meat ice-cream today, but there’s 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 unappetising-looking muscle fibres that might be fit for filler in pies or burgers. But suppose the researchers’ ambitions are realised? 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.
To read the full article by Jon Turney please visit AEON.