Domus Magazine - June 2011 - © Domus Magazine, Bruce Sterling
Bruce Sterling analyses cross-contamination between design and science fiction. Just as science fiction is a form of fiction, so too ‘design fiction’ is a form of design
I see a problem here in three layers. There’s “science fiction,” represented by a story I once wrote called Kiosk. That story was about computer fabrication. A new idea, four years ago. Then there’s “design fiction,” in an interesting effort by the Unfold design studio of Antwerp. They faked their own version of a “Kiosk” and deployed it as Milanese street-theater during the latest big furniture show.
Then there’s that third layer, which is real technology in real life. That is the darkest part. I always enjoy these classic cyberpunk spectacles of “the street finding its own uses for things.” When I first began visiting Belgrade (where my story ‘Kiosk’ is set), the livid scars of the Balkan war were all over daily life. The city was in the dreadful throes of what economists blandly call “Transition.” The city swarmed with ex-Communist street-hustlers and newly-demobbed sanctions breakers.
These gray-market huts in Belgrade, these street-retail “kiosks,” were as new to the stricken population as they were to me. Flimsy yet shiny, they had a distinctly science-fictional air. They were commonly helmed by chain- smoking middle-aged women rather than grizzled ex-soldiers, but my story needed a hero. Stories do.
That’s the basic problem with science fiction—it’s burdened by the page- turning requirements of “fiction.” My story called “Kiosk” concerns fabrication technology, rampant computerized copying, and piracy machines escaping organized control. However, since it’s fiction, it centers on the tough but soft- hearted Slavic guy who runs the Kiosk. He’s the hero, he’s the reason the reader cares. The Kiosk he owns has the reduced status of a Hitchcock McGuffin. Now, in “design fiction,” one doesn’t face that problem. The Unfold group briskly pirated this sci-fi notion of mine. They didn’t ask my permission to borrow a sci-fi idea, and really, whyever should they bother? Heaven knows I never do! So Unfold cleverly mocked-up a Kiosk, and this device became the star of their Milanese street operation. It’s like a street-puppet at a protest. Unlike my story, Unfold’s “Kiosk” needs no hero. The device itself becomes the center of the action. The gizmo is just there, as a helpful cultural irritant. The Unfold Kiosk is a design-fiction conversation-piece. It’s what Julian Bleecker calls a “theory object.” It’s a device around which commentary can accumulate, without requiring the coherent, linear shape of some fictional narrative. The Internet loves “theory objects.” Since Unfold also included a working 3-D scanner, there’s a propaganda-of- the-deed happening there. Science fiction tales entirely lack those deeds. If I write science fiction about a cheap, street-level fabricator, I can’t give you one. I do, however, know where you can buy one and assemble it yourself for six hundred and fifty dollars. It’s called a “MakerBot,” and it has an open-source archive called “Thingiverse.” I know its builders. That didn’t used to be possible, but nowadays, it’s cheaper for them to send me email than it is for them to try to exclude me from their discussions.
This is one of those “network society” phenomena that Internet theorists talk about. As an author, I can’t remain untroubled in the serene detachment of my “disciplinary silo.” When I write about imaginary objects nowadays, technicians get interested. Design and science fiction are cross-contaminating. Design Fiction is a form of design, while Science Fiction is a form of fiction. I like to think that they might camouflage some of each others’ faults. Sci-fi is sloppily melodramatic, and always has been. Design-fiction is new, but it errs on the side of the geeky. It’s arcane because a fierce designer obsession with imaginary gadgets does not capture the broader public imagination. It’s not sentimental. Who CARES about your phoney made-up gizmo, brilliant designer? There’s no heartbeat there -- nobody cries, like they do for King Kong!
Then there’s that third aspect, the nature of what our society does with technology in real life. That’s the issue that underlies both my story and the Unfold “Kiosk”, and it’s quite a dark matter. My story speculates about that problem by personifying it and dramatizing it. The Unfold Kiosk project is a design intervention, it’s an effort to raise designer consciousness as part of a trade show.
While nobody was looking, the modern fabricator industry became a typical young, globalized, high-tech industry. It’s easy to get informed about fabrication -- just Google the term-of-art “FabLab” and, as a typically bright and cultured Domus reader, you could be up to speed in a week. You can tell all your friends, too! But what can you DO about it? To take effective action in a modern technosocial transition is another matter.
Let’s imagine that FabLabs are dreadful inventions that should be resisted at all costs. That resistance is not possible. The points of effective intervention have been methodically removed, treated as damage and routed-around. National legislation won’t do it. Moral scolding gets nowhere. Ethics are irrelevant. Lawsuits will be defeated through offshoring. It’s a familiar story. We can’t stop fabs; there is no brake. We’d be about as likely to intervene successfully against music piracy.
Music piracy has become the state to which all our modern industry aspires. Music piracy is our organizational nirvana. The real-life of contemporary musicians is the end-state for novelists, designers, and pretty much everybody else. They’re broke, and so is everyone else except the guys who hacked the banks.
If you want music, you can have all you want for nothing. You can learn amazing amounts about music, very quickly. You can do pretty much anything except create a stable business model under which musicians can create contemporary music.
That’s also the great promise of fabrication for industrial design. As much industrial physicality as possible gets ported into the digital hopper: fabjects are made of pixelated dust fried with lasers. It’s not as simple as music, but recording music wasn’t all that simple, either. It’s there, and it’s growing. I’m not saying that this process takes over the world... because I no longer have to say such things. I personally heard the founder of the Pirate Party state that -- Rick Falkvinge, from the “Pirate Bay.” Our Rick gave a corker of speech to a big cyber-event in Belgrade, preaching piracy there... snow to Eskimos. Rick concluded by joyfully praising fabricators, specifically because they destroy the intellectual property surrounding the objects we already create.
In conclusion: it’s not news that “information want to be free.” We cyberpunks said it all the time, and people even believed it; they nodded sagely at the warning, because they always thought it meant trouble for somebody else.