men’s adventures, women’s confession magazines, sports stories,
true crime, and other genres.
For 80 years, science fiction
has been able to find and recruit
fans, and to transform a few
users into cultural producers.
It also made enough money not
to perish under capitalism. And
under Communism, Soviet science fiction was a huge success.
It was much more popular than
Soviet industrial design, which
was ghastly and is now extinct.
Below the professional level
of for-profit publishing, the subculture of science fiction fans
exploited early, DIY duplication
technologies such as Gestetners
and the hectograph. There were
letter-writing campaigns, amateur press associations, local
writers groups, regional science
fiction conventions galore. One
might even argue that contemporary Web culture looks and
behaves much like 1930s science
fiction fandom, only digitized
This long-vanished situation
was not idyllic—it took form
within a specific set of infra-structural conditions. Early
science fiction writers and editors imagined they were selling
popular fiction about science and
technology. They were mistaken.
That was a user-interface artifact. The platform was selecting a
fraction of the population willing
to consume radically imaginary
works through print; that demographic partially overlapped with
science wonks. Scientists never
printed science fiction.
What science fiction’s user
base truly desired was not possible in the 1930s. Believing their
own rhetoric, science fiction
users supposed that they wanted
a jet-propelled, atomic futurity.
Whenever offered the chance at
such goods and services, they
never pursued them. They didn’t
genuinely want such things—not
in real life.
What the user base genuinely
wanted was immersive fantasies. They wanted warmly supportive subcultures in which
they could safely abandon
their cruelly limiting real-life
roles, and play semi-permanent
dress-up. Science fiction movies
helped; science fiction television
helped. Once massively multiplayer online role-playing games
(MMORPGs) were invented, the
harsh limits of the print infrastructure were demolished. Then
the user-base exploded.
No sane person reads science
fiction novels for 80 hours a
week. But it’s quite common for
devoted players to spend that
much time on Warcraft.
This should not be mistaken
for “progress.” It’s not even a
simple matter of obsolescence.
Digital media is much more frail
and contingent than print media.
I rather imagine that people will
be reading H.P. Lovecraft—likely
the ultimate pulp-magazine science fiction writer—long after
today’s clumsy, bug-ridden
MMORPGs are as dead as the
What truly interests me here
is the limits of the imaginable.
Clearly, the pulp infrastructure
limited what its artists were able
to think about. They wore blinders that they could not see and
therefore could not transcend.
The typewriter limited writers.
Magazine word counts limited
writers. Even the implicit cultural
bargain between author and
reader introduced constraints
on what could be thought, said,
and understood in public. Those
mechanisms of interaction—the
letter columns, the fan mail,
the bookstore appearances, the
conventions—they were poorly
understood as interaction. They
were all emergent practices rather than designed experiences.
One might make a
Wittgensteinian argument here
about the ontological limits of
language itself. Wittgenstein once
wrote a famous statement about
the need of philosophers to tactfully shut up in the face of the
unimaginable. It reads as follows:
“The whole sense of the book might
be summed up in the following words:
What can be said at all can be said
clearly, and what we cannot talk
about we must pass over in silence.”
Many science fiction writers,
believe it or not, were capable
of understanding Wittgenstein.
User experience design, however,
was far beyond them. It was also
beyond Wittgenstein, because
there are things we might imagine and speak about that we do
pass over in silence because we
are writing in books.
The “whole sense of the
book” is not the whole sense of
the words. Look at the weird
“Google erudition” of journalism
researched online. Consider the
hybridized “Creole media” of blog
platforms. The line commands in
software are text as an expression of will.
Let me offer an older example
here, to show how deep this goes.
Consider the literary platforms
of a thousand years ago. This
remote period saw the birth,
or rather the stillbirth, of the
novel, with Murasaki Shikibu’s
The Tale of Genji. This Japanese
manuscript scroll, written with
an ink brush in the late 900s