My NESTA working paper on SF and tech is now published. I had a lot of fun doing it.
Thanks to all those who helped (see the acknowledgements), but especially to Cheryl Morgan, who knows far more about SF and the people who write it than I do.
You can download it from here.
There’s an interestingly complementary companion piece from the Sussex group who looked into the same question here.
If you’d just like to know where my review of all this ends up, here’s the conclusion…
…the stories embodied in technologies, or designs, and fiction form an intricate, evolving web. Efforts to pinpoint causes and effects are rarely convincing. They might not be especially useful even if they were. We are discussing the weaving of culture, and no individual case is likely to be repeatable. But there does seem to have been a gradual, general movement over time.
It can be roughly summarised.
Technology, and plans for technology, revolve around stories. These, minimally, say: we will make a thing that does this.
Science fiction asks, if we made a thing like this, how might the world look? What effects might it have?
Design fiction says: here is a thing we could make: what do you feel about a possible world that has such things in it?
These kinds of stories are not mutually exclusive. Each can influence the other. Technologists promoting their projects can adopt ideas from science fiction to say: the thing we will make will be like this. In film, they can sometimes insert the image of what they hope to make. People who want to discourage particular technological projects can of course do likewise. Design fiction is more like an open question. If the capacity to make things like this comes about, what would we like to do with it? Nor do any of the stories necessarily have the effects their authors hope for. But all three benefit from the illimitable flexibility of fiction. As Rudy Rucker put it, before design fiction was conceived: “The reason why fiction thought experiments are so powerful is that, in practice, it’s intractably difficult to visualize the effects of new technological developments. Only if you place the new tech into a fleshed-out fictional world and simulate the effects on reality can you get a clear image of what might happen.” Or, more briefly, when it comes to technology assessment, “inspired narration is a more powerful tool than logical analysis”.
And a concluding question about where one might take all this…
The collection of diverse items – texts, discussions, projects, artworks, events and videos – which can be gathered under the heading of design fiction also deserve more investigation. It is not easy to know what effect or impact they have had, individually or collectively. Have they influenced any subsequent real-world design projects or prototypes? What has been their public reach compared with other influences on public attitudes to technology, or other images of possible futures – including more conventional science fiction texts? Finally, what scope it there for making more use of design fiction, and who might support such efforts? There are interesting affinities emerging, for example, between design fiction and art/science/design projects intended to provoke discussion about synthetic biology – an area of technology which promises to make design a meaningful notion in the life science. For example, Alexander Ginsberg’s Irrational Genome Project is, in effect, a challenge to others to create design fictions drawing on the ambitions of synthetic biologists. It also points toward other, more participatory modes related to design fiction, such as biohacking
There seem to be an increasing number of routes to using our increased awareness of the importance of images of possible future technologies in shaping what actually gets developed. More research and thinking about the whole collection, gathered under the heading of design fiction, might help us see more clearly how they can be exploited to help selection and development of technologies which can be part of our preferred futures.
I hope some will read the whole thing. It’s a discussion paper, so any reactions are welcome – I think there’ll be some discussion on NESTA’s blog, or you can comment in the space below.