Building future worlds through design fiction
A case study of worldbuilding using design fiction films
In my master’s thesis I submitted back in 2014, I explored the emerging creative practice called design fiction for the first time and questioned how design fiction artifacts can be used to spark and facilitate discussions about the future. With that purpose, I set up a roundtable and invited four fellow students from our programme to co-analyze a speculative short film. In this article, I summarize my findings.
Design fiction is a creative practice that envisions possible futures through prototyping and storytelling. It doesn’t try to predict the future; it illustrates potential outcomes and wraps them in “what if” scenarios to spark conversations. This is why I strongly believe it’s an effective tool to prototype potential worlds. Let’s dig into the findings.
The roundtable workshop lasted about one and a half hours, and I kicked off by showing the film to the participants, without getting into defining design fiction.
“Design fiction creates conversation pieces, with the conversations being stories about the kinds of experiences and social rituals that might surround the designed object” — Julian Bleecker*
In our case, the short film was our “conversation piece”, our design fiction subject. The entire discussion was set up around what we had seen in the film, with the inner workings of the technology and the world it exists in were open to interpretation.
The film and the technology
Several professors from Nordic institutions including our own gathered in the University of Southern Denmark’s Kolding campus, for a co-theatre experiment to explore the potential of improvised theatre activities and embodied interaction in a workshop setting. I oversaw recording the experiment and turning it into a sharable film by editing and adding sound effects to create the illusion that the design props in the video were actually working.
The film speculates about a brain-to-computer interface technology that allows people to exchange knowledge with each other. By placing a device on the subject’s wrist, the “extractor” pulls out the needed data which is to be “uploaded” to another person in a similar fashion. The experiment used the academic setting, in which, academic knowledge is claimed to be owned by a university and transferred from the retiring professor to his replacement.
After watching the film together, each participant briefly shared their initial thoughts. They were unsure about what exactly is being transferred from the retiring professor, as all they can learn about the technology relied on the dialogs and visual cues in the film. Is it just the information related to his job, or is it more than that? This sparked further speculations about privacy and who owns the knowledge one gains during an employment period.
To make these insights tangible, I provided the participants with an A4 sheet divided into two columns: pros and cons. In pairs, they listed down the positive and negative implications of the technology in question:
Extrapolation to other contexts
This is where it gets exciting. After sharing the pros and cons and a brief reflection, I asked the participants to think of other contexts where this technology might be applied. Within about 10 minutes, we already had several:
Context 1: Transferring love
Group 1 questioned: “Can we transfer love?”
This provocative question went as far as transferring love between the birth family and the foster family, to transferring love to your ex partner’s new lover so that they can be happy. As one of the participants said, many Hollywoodesque ideas emerged from this brainstorming session.
Context 2: Transferring jail sentence
The idea from the second group was as interesting: transferring jail sentence.
One of the participants was from the U.S. and she shared that in the U.S., people argue about how expensive it is to feed people in jail and some people even get killed because of that. She suggested: “we give him the sentence and transfer the sentence and say, “now you feel like you have been in jail”.
Design fiction as a world building tool
In the workshop, I was fascinated by how effective a design fiction film is, in terms of sparking conversations and further ideation. The film showed us a glimpse of a future where a technology that seem “almost” in the science fiction territory is a mundane part of academic life. Then, by speculating further and designing different contexts, we expanded our vision and grasp of this future.
By practicing design fiction and using its outcomes as tools for worldbuilding, we can better explore any emerging technology’s near future implications. This, in turn, might help us shed more light into the unknown future, as well as chart a course towards a more habitable one.
*Bleecker, J. (2010). Design Fiction: From Props to Prototypes. Negotiating Futures–Design Fiction, 58–67.