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Fabulous forms and design fictions

Design research is a growing domain of interdisciplinary inquiry. It is often inflected with knowledge, processes and artifacts arrived at via mix of practice and analysis. One of the emerging themes in this research is the role of speculation.

(These are notes for the international research seminar on Genre Innovation, Literaturhuset, Oslo. 6 December 2013. Leader Prof. Gunnar Liestøl, Dept of Media and Communication, University of Oslo).

Covering domains such as interaction, products, service and systems, design research often tackles that which is yet to be or is in a state of emergence or becoming. The processes and status of such research is difficult to account for without clear explanation of developmental and unfolding processes of construction. The shaping of form with function is typically iterative in its realisation; it is most often built on abductive logics; it demands no small measure of reflexive review and re-registration.

Recently, design fiction has begun to garner attention as one way to embody and to convey imagined, potential and possible artifact and scenarios of use and cultural expression. It adopts the conjectural as a stance or a mode of inquiry yet it reaches beyond the here-and-now and projects the design inquiry and work into settings and formats that are outside our expectations and at times comfort zones. The epistemic and ontological work that this does it therefore itself potentially risky – and may seem unclear at first glance. However, design fiction strives to work with the speculative in order to offer us projections of events and experiences, products and processes that involve us in the very nature of its shapings.


In this presentation I offer some of the main approaches of recent work in design fiction. I use this to position the work we have been doing in experimenting with blogs and ventriloquy as a way of addressing near future imaginaries concerning relations between humans and ‘things’. This also refers to hybrid relations between us, technology, devices and other mammals. Reference is made to genre theory and the work of Bakhtin, innovations and research in blogging, and developments in Social Science Studies, Actor Network Theory (ANT) and rhetorics of multimodal online research mediation.

I link these analytical views to four design fiction experiments that are about projection. This is to do with the throwing of voice and the casting of three female personas in near future Nordic environments. The environments and personas concern the application of technologies of seeing, perceiving and surveillance in urban settings and in the arctic. The personas are presented and linked to a possible genre of design fiction of the near future imaginary that works within what we have called a prospective hermeneutics (Morrison 2013) that centres on projected, conjectural and speculative ‘texts’ in formation rather than the retrospective analysis of given or historical ones.

However, these design fictions are still textual constructions that build on established conventions and genres, principally from science fiction literature and film, the Futurists and popular cultural socio-technical projects and artifacts. The work also acknowledges the emergence of Future Studies but distances itself from its tendencies to critique related to predictive mappings and policy.

In contrast, I argue that near future design fiction offers us room to develop genre as a means to diegetically problematise our present socio-technical and material cultures. I suggest that it offers a way to promote a prospective criticality that is inquisitive rather than determinist and is crafted to engage minds and imagination in reconsidering assumptions and reflect on potential consequences of current advances and applications of technology. Altogether, this is cast within a wider Object Oriented Ontology (Morton 2013). This is a perspective that seeks to reveal relations between ‘things’ and allow us to see them within hyper systems that are located within what is termed the Anthropocene Age. This is now used to refer to a human geographical and geological age where the character of the current – and indeed future – physical world is markedly impacted by human action.

Design Fiction

As background:



On design techniques and research methods

The design fictional works have been shaped through a series of conceptual design stages. These have ranged from web based searches, abductive mapping of diverse factual material and representations in different media, narrative threads and tracks and the building and selection of a persona and her history and character. With the persona in rough cut, the task has then been to find a voice that fits a set of possible scenarios and topics that the persona then experiences and activates, describes and critiques. Blog entries are made via WordPress, lodged inside a large design research centre’s site. Entries allow links to related news and events, historical and contemporary and allow for an online formative discourse to play itself out to a wider public, with a comments field.

In the first ‘case’ the author is a single person, in the second a group has begun to shape the persona though being collaborators in a large funded research project. Methodologically, the space is one for shared meaning making and for finding ways to communicate and to build a genre of persona led near future design fiction that is itself polyphonically authored, following Bakhtin, and speaks to multiple knowledges and disciplines through a shared ‘mask’.

On forms and formations

My approach to genre is within a socio-cultural view that four main strands defined within writing and disciplinary discourse (Tardy 2009) but may be extended to blogging and to the mix of fact and fiction that these characters articulate.. The first of these connects genre to social action (Miller 1984). The second perspective locates genre within cultural transformation (Bazerman 1994, 1999, Devitt et al. 2004, Prior & Hengst 2014). The third approach more fully places genre as part of knowledge building itself (e.g. Berkenkotter & Huckin 1993). Finally, the fourth strand looks to emergent, dynamic learning processes and constitutive texts. (e.g. Benesch 1993). Overall, Tardy (2009: 20) sees ‘… genres as social actions that are used within specialised communities; that contain the traces of prior texts in their shape, content and ideology; and that are networked with other genres in various ways that influence their production and reception.’

Though design fiction invites a ‘suspension of disbelief’ as an overall quality, it is conductive all the same. By this I mean three senses of conduct. A ‘proper’ and well formed framing. To carry out. And to carry or bear forth. For the purposes of this seminar, I will present examples from one design fictional work. These will be drawn from  blogs written by a sentient and speaking entity I have generated and in collaboration with others.

Ella, Rumina, Adrona and Narratta. These are the four female personas I have been developing in a design fictional frame. I began this work with a talking white elephant called Ella on a cultural exchange from southern Africa to Norway, resulting in her participation in a collaborative locative media fictional work cast by Africans living in Oslo and developed at the concept level only (Morrison & Mainsah 2011, Morrison et al. 2011)). This was followed by a research papers on the ruminations of a wifi enabled cow called Rumina on her life in a future networked city (Morrison 2011). I have then worked on the reflections of a rogue urban drone called Adrona (Morrison et al. 2013), and most recently on a collaboratively crafted figure in the shape of a nuclear powered narwhale called Narratta (Future North project, AHO).

Each of these characters is connected to a funded research; this have covered genre and innovation, the city and technology, technologies of seeing and sensing, and discourses of the cultural landscapes of the future north.

Strange as it may seem that two such entities may occupy similar speaking positions and forms, the connection between them in part lies in their mix of first, second and third person narratives. These are employed to layer their personal relations to specific events and self-identity issues as socio-technical beings.

Into the fabulous

My presentation is made up of a performance of pieces drawn from Adrona’s blogging.

Amos Goldbaum: Make Baby Drones, Not War

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