Editor’s Note: Laura Forlano (@laura4lano) is a tenure-track Assistant Professor of Design at the Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology and she was a Visiting Scholar in the Comparative Media Studies program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2012-2013. Her research is on emergent forms of organizing and urbanism enabled by mobile, wireless and ubiquitous computing technologies with an emphasis on the socio-technical practices and spaces of innovation. In her contribution, Laura describes the lessons ethnographers can learn from Science-Fiction and a sub-domain of design referred to as “speculative design”.
In the recent science fiction film Elysium, by South-African-Canadian director Neill Blomkamp and Matt Damon, the world has descended into a dystopia in which the poor, non-white population must live in squalor on Earth working for a factory that makes robots while the wealthy have moved to a man-made country club in the sky. A recent segregation-mapping project profiled in WIRED illustrates that extreme geographic divisions between rich and poor are not reserved for Hollywood but are actually part and parcel of our current social realties (Vanhemert, 2013). Increasingly, narratives from science fiction (as well as speculative design and design fiction) are being used as modes of imagining alternative futures in a critical and generative way (without being technodeterministic) in emerging research and design practice, and these practices have much promise for ethnographic methods. For example, for over a decade, the film Minority Report has inspired technologists and designers alike as a classic, deterministic vision of a future in which gestural interfaces and biometric technologies are commonplace.
Ethnography as Time Travel
Ten years ago – about one year after I had acquired my very first mobile phone, a silver Samsung clamshell style with a distinctly awful ringtone – I remember standing in a cramped elevator compartment at the Central European University in Budapest with a number of senior colleagues when I announced that I had decided to focus my doctoral research on the wireless Internet. One colleague snorted and laughed, stating, “You can’t study something that doesn’t exist.”
Yet, as ethnographers and designers of emerging technology, this is exactly what we must find ways to do. And, in 2002, I set out to explore the many ways in which it is, in fact, quite possible to study the future. In my case, it did not matter that, in reality, Bryant Park, a park near Times Square in mid-town Manhattan, had had a fully functioning free, public wireless network since 2001. The important thing was that, in the public imagination, even among telecom experts, the technology was not yet part of everyday life.
From deep hanging out (Geertz, 1998) to interviewing lead users (Von Hippel, 1978) to adopting and experimenting with emerging technologies themselves, I developed strategies that allowed me to glimpse cultures, patterns and behaviors before they were widely known or understood. As a result, I developed new research questions, opened up new topics of inquiry in my field and devised new methods for studying them. For example, I used a wireless spectrum analyzer in order to read the electromagnetic signals in public spaces; a technique that became invaluable to supplement the limitations of the ethnographer’s gaze.
Through this research, I felt as if I was some sort of glamorous social scientific time traveler, sent to the future to develop detailed descriptions of everyday life in a more advanced society, one that had been imagined in science fiction programs of my childhood in the 1980’s from the talking car of David Hasselhoff’s Knight Rider to the flying police box TARDIS[i] (Time and Relative Dimension in Space) in Doctor Who. In their article “Resistance is Futile,” Dourish and Bell describe research on emerging technologies as a “form of collective imagining” much in the same way that science fiction has shaped technological futures (2009). Yet, back at home, in my uniform of well-worn blue striped pajamas, I wondered what exactly could be done with this so-called ethnography from the future. (Of course, the very idea that there is a future that is more advanced or more evenly distributed than our current existence is itself a social construction as postcolonial scholarship has made clear. In fact, there are many different futures (Dourish & Bell, 2011; Suchman, 2011).
Human-Centered Design Traditions
While ethnographers and designers – and, especially, those that work across research and design — share a number of common perspectives (such as empathy, storytelling and human-centeredness), their fundamental orientation is, in fact, quite different. While ethnographers seek to understand and describe the cultures and practices of specific communities, designers must take a more generative approach in order to create new products, services and systems.
For designers working in the human-centered design tradition, this typically means conducting research with people for the express purpose of distilling practices into needs that can be transformed into design guidelines. This is typically done by translating specific themes from research into more active statements that create opportunities and constraints for designers. These prompts, which are often called “How might we…” statements help to frame the context and goals of design for the purpose of ideation and prototyping. This approach focuses on solving specific problems that are identified in a design brief or documented in user research. Design students working within this paradigm are often concerned with completing projects for their portfolios that are easily accessible and directly applicable to potential employers. As a result, they sometimes shy away from the more creative or artistic ideas in favor those that are highly sanitized, uncritical and easy to explain. Such projects actually do a disservice to the human-centered design tradition, which is still making considerable inroads in traditionally hierarchical and proprietary areas such as healthcare and government. Yet, alternative modes of design practice offer the same (if not greater) opportunities to illustrate high-quality research and analysis leading to creative probes, artifacts and prototypes. Creative ideas can always be reined in but, if you never risk having them, the result is the design equivalent of pink slime.[ii]
Emergent Modes of Design Practice
Specifically, codesign and participatory design (based on Scandinavian models from the 1970s) approaches have been introduced, which engage “users” in research and prototyping activities for the purpose of ideation. In this mode, designers are no longer the sole arbitors of the design process. Instead, in its ideal form, designers are facilitators of the design process, which may engage users in a variety of ways (Sanders, 2008).
In contrast to predictable, solution-oriented projects, critical design (Dunne, 1999), speculative design and design fiction approaches have emerged as ways to probe alternative technological futures. Here, the purpose of design is to allow critical reflection through future narratives that are often mediated through objects (Bleecker, 2009). As such, the objects that are created are not the solution to a design problem but rather objects with which to think creatively (Raford, 2012). These projects offer unexpected results, from dystopian fantasies to utopian paradises, which are often surprising and worthy of critical reflection.
A recent example of a design fiction project is Dunne and Raby’s United Micro Kingdoms exhibit at the London Design Museum, which I visited in June (Moore, 2013). The project reimagines the United Kingdom through the lens of four distinct techno-political ideologies such as Digitarians (a right-wing, authoritarian perspective), Bioliberals (a left-wing, libertarian perspective), Anarcho-evolutionists (a right-wing, libertarian perspective) and Communo-nuclearists (a left-wing, authoritarian perspective). The artifacts created to complement each of these visions seem to be the culmination of a series of workshops or codesign activities based on the exhibit’s documentation.
Image from United Micro Kingdoms exhibit (taken by Laura Forlano)
Dunne and Raby bring each of these ideologies to life through maps, images and artifacts. For example, the Digitarians live in Digiland where they drive electric self-driving cars that constantly negotiate peak commuting and parking tariffs automatically. According to the United Micro Kingdoms project site:
“Digitarians depend on digital technology and all its implicit totalitarianism — tagging, metrics, total surveillance, tracking, data logging and 100% transparency. Their society is organised entirely by market forces; citizen and consumer are the same. For them, nature is there to be used up as necessary. They are governed by technocrats, or algorithms — no one is entirely sure, or even cares — as long as everything runs smoothly and people are presented with choices, even if illusionary. It is the most dystopian, yet familiar of all the micro kingdoms.”[iii]
As a social scientist based at a design school, I found these artifacts curious and provocative in their warnings about current socio-technical debates and potential design responses. At the same time, it was difficult to decode the artifacts in the exhibit due to the relative lack of documentation about the research and design process itself (admittedly, I was a bit bleary-eyed from the overnight flight). While social scientists often have difficulty turning their descriptive accounts into more prescriptive policy recommendations, designers working in the mode of speculative design have been criticized for lacking a sustained political impact (DiSalvo, 2012). While Dunne and Raby’s project is deliberately caught up in the politics of the socio-technical, their specific goals are unclear in part due to the relatively limited audience that might engage with it in the space of the museum as well as online. If the project aims to provoke change in existing social conditions through the presentation of alternative future, who should view it and how should they respond? This remains to be one of the open questions for the practice of design fiction and speculative design.
So, what can ethnographers learn from science fiction and speculative design? I will offer just a few examples of what I believe to be productive ways of bridging both analytical and generative practices moving forward.
Last year, at the Society for the Social Studies of Science (4S) annual conference at Copenhagen Business School in Copenhagen, Denmark, the keynote presentation came in the form of a performance of “The Design Mailboat” project by Laura Watts (archaeologist of the future), Pelle Ehn (collective designer) and Lucy Suchman (anthropologist of technoscience). The performance, which was both entertaining and rigorous, was a kind of speculative fiction in that it used narratives and artifacts in order to convey a myriad of scholarly concerns about technologies and futures. Similarly, designers often use bodystorming and other roleplaying techniques as a kind of embodied brainstorming in order to probe alternative possibilities (Schleicher, Jones, & Kachur, 2010).
In my own work between the fields of communications, science and technology studies and design, I have used open design and codesign methods in order to convene diverse groups around themes including organizational innovation, urban technology and well as health and environmental issues. In these workshops, storytelling around future technology concepts is often an important component of the ideation and prototyping process. For example, for a series of workshops called “Designing Policy” (see the related toolkit here) that were funded by the Urban Communication Foundation, my collaborator Anijo Mathew and I asked participants to consider designing urban technology for their city 30-50 years in the future. The purpose of this was to allow participants to be more creative and generative by removing some of the constraints associated with thinking about our existing urban contexts.
Image from Designing Policy workshop in New York in March 2013 (taken by Laura Forlano)
With respect to urban technology in particular, one of the most interesting aspects is that, in contrast to discourses around ubiquity and seamlessness, in reality, our experience of these technologies is fraught with tension, gaps, holes and seams (Chalmers, MacColl, & Bell, 2003). For example, the moment when we realize that we can only make mobile phone calls from the corner of the apartment nearest to the window. Rather than waiting for that promised day when these conflicts will disappear, I believe that we need to move from design fiction to an active practice of design friction. Design friction, in my mind, would use the alternative futures and storytelling methods from speculative design in order to interrogate the gaps and seams that we uncover through ethnographic research.
As ethnographers, it is not enough to describe social reality, to end a project when the last transcripts and field notes have been analyzed and written up. We must find new ways to engage and collaborate with our subjects (both human and nonhuman). We need better ways of turning our descriptive, analytical accounts into those that are prescriptive, and which have greater import in society and policy. We may do this by inhabiting narratives, generating artifacts to think with and engaging more explicitly with the people formerly known as our “informants” as well as with the public at large.
This is not to suggest that every ethnographer should do it all, or that ethnographers are not already traversing the boundaries between analyst, activist and artist. Most likely, our best work will be (and is already being) done in teams where description and analysis can inform design but at the same time, we can innovate within our own skillsets and practices. We can compare across our many field sites and topics and create design fictions that interrogate the issues and themes that come to the fore.
This will require new venues for publication (targeting both scholarly audiences and the broader public) and new criteria for gaining credit for our work. For example, how will an ethnographer’s work of design fiction be presented, peer-reviewed and published? Will it be in the form of a textual narrative, a series of photos or an exhibit of artifacts? As ethnographers from the future, it is our responsibility to find ways to move beyond existing social realities through the probing of alternative socio-technical realities in order to affect positive change in society and this, it seems, is a perfect job for speculative design.
Bleecker, J. (2009). Design Fiction: A short essay on design, science, fact and fiction. . http:// www.nearfuturelaboratory.com/2009/03/17/design-fiction-a-short-essay-on-design-science-fact- and-fiction/
Chalmers, M., MacColl, I., & Bell, M. . (2003). Seamful design: showing the seams in wearable computing. Paper presented at the Eurowearable.
DiSalvo, Carl. (2012). Spectacles and Tropes: Speculative Design and Contemporary Food Cultures. The Fibreculture Journal(20).
Dourish, Paul, & Bell, Genevieve. (2009). “Resistance is futile”: reading science fiction alongside ubiquitous computing. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, 1-10.
Dourish, Paul, & Bell, Genevieve. (2011). Divining a Digital Future: mess and mythology in ubiquitous computing. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Dunne, A. . (1999). Hertzian Tales – Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience and Critical Design. London: Royal College of Art.
Geertz, Clifford. (1998). Deep hanging out. The New York Review of Books, 45(16), 69-72.
Moore, Rowan. (2013, May 4, 2013). United Micro Kingdoms – review, The Gaurdian.
Raford, Noah. (2012). From Design to Experiential Futures The Future of Futures: The Association of Professional Futurists.
Sanders, Elizabeth B. -N. and Stappers, Pieter Jan. (2008). Co-creation and the new landscapes of design. CoDesign, 4(1), 5-18.
Schleicher, Dennis, Jones, Peter, & Kachur, Oksana. (2010). Bodystorming as Embodied Designing. Interactions(Nov. – Dec.).
Suchman, Lucy. (2011). Anthropological relocations and the limits of design. Annual Review of Anthropology, 40, 1-18.
Vanhemert, Kyle. (2013). The Best Map Ever Made of America’s Racial Segregation. WIRED.
Von Hippel, E. (1978). Users as Innovators. Technology Review, 80(3), 31-39.