“Anything that one man can imagine, another man can make real.”
(Igor Szigorsky about his inspiration Jules Verne)
Inventor Igor Szigorsky forever changed aviation by constructing the first drafts of what we today recognise as the helicopter. He was deeply influenced by Jules Verne’s 1887 novel Clipper of the Clouds, and its depictions of travelling through the clouds in pursuit of new adventures, which became his driving motivation to pursue aviation and eventually led to him becoming the pioneer we know him as today.
In the 80s, the television show Star Trek built a universe including multiple technical wonders such as the tablet computer, mobile phones, voice controlled personal assistants, while the world outside of fiction would have to wait for many more years for these technical innovations. In fact, many modern inventions can be traced back to counterparts in literature long before they were realised — most prominently to science fiction.
Imagination as fuel for both science and fiction
Science Fiction as a genre deals with the impact of actual or imagined science on society and individuals. It combines the core elements of fiction — imagination, constructed characters, fictive events — with hypothetical and theoretical scientific factors.
Hence, Science Fiction gives extra space to the power of the imaginary and tickles the same imagination that has always played a major role in innovations and technological progress. Vice versa, technological progress, or any progress really, has always inspired new stories and science fiction narratives.
As Ursula Le Guin puts it:
“Science Fiction is not a prediction, but an observation.”
It takes a current society and extrapolates its characteristics into an environment shaped by different environmental factors, dictated by predicted developments. But imagination can only go so far as the writer manages to think outside its own structural position, which is also why so many Science Fiction novels fail to account for societal advances. The larger body of Science Fiction from the 70s set in our future for instance, seem so antiquated in its societal make up from todays perspective — examples are the absence of women or people of colour in workplaces, or the persistent habit of smoking.
But that aside, one can say that Science Fiction is excellent learning material for designers through its lessons on how to remove the boundaries and limitations, exaggerating the impact of your current medium and following the unfolding narratives of characters with a rich inner life instead of a flat one size fits all persona. In this way, it provides us with the most detailed and complex user journeys, not just a day in the life, but a broad and contextualised journey including character development, key moments and close personal connections.
Good design starts with good fiction.
It starts with a deep understanding of the emotional story and the development of a rich narrative that motivates the user to embark on a journey, carries them through the valleys and peaks of usability and leads them to the concluding moment of a fulfilling engagement. It starts with context, a clear defined setting, a grounding in understanding the environment within which any user journey is set.
When designing for technology, and even more so emerging technology and innovation, this understanding includes not only investigating and analysing the existing context, but also looking ahead, into both the close and the further future, to account for the potential unfolding of these new currents in our society and environment, in terms of adoption, trends and societal consequences.
In these aspects, the creation of good fiction will mean utilising the same tools as the creation of good design. By developing rich stories and narratives which contextualise a certain development and play out potential consequences and the impact they have on the individual or even the society as a whole.
There is always more to the story
Of course, Science Fiction comes in a lot of different flavours, and each illustrates an interesting aspect about the relationship between technology and its protagonists.
The previous example of Star Trek makes subtle use of the utopian potentials of technology by solving some of the biggest causes of unequal societies — scarcity of material for example. It embeds technical advancements in order to elevate the social relationships of its characters, and focusses on using technology to remove certain current limitations to explore a different political system.
Minority Report or Iron Man of the Avengers are examples of how flashy technology enables the human genius, for better or worse. This kind of pop culture sets a certain framing of tech as the shiny new layer of empowerment.
These stories about relationship between protagonists and technology are the foundation of inspiration of a lot of innovation. However, the more dystopian narratives have come back into focus more recently, especially given the rise of more tech-critical debates, such as collected under the #techbacklash in 2017. Many initiatives, authors and influential designers have raised concerns about how our modern way of living interspersed with ubiquitous tech is unfolding in ways we have not properly considered or critically evaluated. Driving an ever faster cycle of adding and expanding by “moving fast and breaking things”, we are not taking our time to really push potential scenarios to the limits of their anticipated effects. These far reaching, more dystopian scenarios however have been around in Science Fiction for decades.
Blade Runner, also certainly to be considered pop culture, paints a reflective picture of humanised technology, highlighting discrepancies in societal developments. It is also a good example of the previously mentioned lens and structural perspective. Rewatching the first movie today makes it painfully clear how our views on certain societal contexts have changed, such as female independence or rape culture. Even in the new movie, the over-exaggerated application of technology as a slave machine for our benefits, including sexual, echos and continues societal issues like rape culture and women as pleasure objects.
In some of the classics, such as Brave New World or Orwell’s 1984 the focus is on the effects technology can have on the close mesh between internalised behaviour modifications and the broader societal fabric. Many of its terms and concepts, such as Big Brother or thoughtcrime, are now commonly used to connote things such as official deception, secret surveillance, brazenly misleading terminology, and manipulation of recorded history by a totalitarian or authoritarian state, as described by the author.
The relevance in their depictions and reflections of economic, political and societal structures as consequences of technical developments has by far outlived the novels in themselves as the essence of the imagined futures has been confirmed beyond the point.
Both have been used as examples over and over again for the dystopian risks that technology can pose when used on a political scale and linked to, for example, developments in social media, or political systems such as in China.
What has been imagined is more likely to become real
Of course, Science Fiction is mainly one thing — fiction. It is however important to be aware of this constant construct of “fiction” and how it shapes reality.
Fiction is the beginning of assumptions. Everybody is influenced by it and it is already an integral part of creating something new. It creates a shared consensus about how a potential future could unfold, and what the aspects are to pay attention to.
Fiction is a lens that shapes our imagination.
It shapes both understanding and discourse of emerging technology and societies, and delivers a beautiful window into imagined futures, showing us which form and shape emerging interactions and media can take.
It provides the basis for a shared opinion that goes deeper than words on paper. Any well turned storyline, supported by emotional moments, will bias us in our perception of a technology that hasn’t come to live yet, in both positive and negative ways.
This bias and that shared consensus is also defined by who is telling these stories and narratives. A preferable or undesirable future will look very different to different people, and the relationship between what we create and the world these creations exist in is reciprocal, each shaping the other. Speculative design and design fiction are therefore powerful tools we have to prepare for real challenges created by our designs, and to prepare for deeper shifts than just usability trends. They pose motivating narratives to guide a more ethical understanding of the impacts design and technology can have and the therefore resulting responsibilities of the people in the situation to shape these non-fiction science facts.
Science Fiction can empower us to understand our responsibilities beyond intuitive interfaces, and to consider societal aspects and consequences of global challenges we know we will be facing very soon, such as climate change or water shortage, so that we can lay the groundwork for the future we want and the future we have the power to design.