Theresa Jean Tanenbaum,
Simon Fraser University
Design Fictional Interactions:
Why HCI Should Care About Stories
The notion of design fiction is relatively new to the scene of HCI and interaction design research, but increasingly prevalent. First coined by sciencefiction author and futurist BruceSterling in his 2005 book ShapingThings, the term has found adherentswithin the HCI community, drivenin part by the work of Julian Bleeckerand in part by its appearance in acover story in Interactions (written bySterling). Its meaning has remainedsomewhat up for grabs within theresearch community, however. Isit fiction about design? Is it sciencefiction? Is it speculative design? TheHCI community, broadly speaking, hasa longstanding interest in design, bothas a practical tool for materializingtechnical knowledge and as a way ofknowing and exploring the world. Weknow plenty about how one designs,and about how that process createsknowledge, but we have much to learnabout how one design fictions (if such averb might be coined).
future technology to tell a story aboutthe world in which that technology issituated: It uses narrative structuresto explore and communicate thepossible futures for technology. It isthe notion of diegesis that I want to diginto here, because I think it is easy forus to lose sight of its importance whenattempting to incorporate design-fiction-based methods into our ownpractice and research.
In contemporary narratology,diegesis has come to refer to anythingthat exists within the reality of afictional world. I like to explain thisin terms of the difference betweenthe underscoring in a film and themusic playing on a radio in a film.Underscoring exists as part of thefilm as a media artifact, but only theaudience hears it: Having no presencewithin the fictional world, it is thusnondiegetic. Music playing on a radio,on the other hand, is there to be heardby the characters as much as by theaudience: It is considered diegeticbecause it exists within the film’sreality.
and technologies that exist within thefictional world must abide by the rulesof that world. Even if we don’t fullyunderstand those rules, they still mustbe seen to exist and to operate withconsistency. We don’t know how theteleporters in Star Trek work, but weknow they have specific constraintsand affordances that govern theiroperation within the story. The logicsof the story are what give a designfiction its power, and I would arguethat in the absence of those logics,a design fiction ceases to operate. Itbecomes something else—speculativedesign, or imaginative design. I believethat design fiction, if it is to remaindesign fiction, needs to have a story tocontain it.
I favor Sterling’s recent definitionof design fiction as “the deliberateuse of diegetic prototypes to suspenddisbelief about change” . If youaren’t a film scholar or a narratologist,you might get hung up on the worddiegetic, a term that has its roots inGreek philosophy and narrativetheory. Sterling is borrowing thenotion of “diegetic prototypes” fromBleecker, who in turn was borrowingfrom David Kirby, a film scholar whocoined the term to describe “cinematicdepictions of future technologies…thatdemonstrate to large public audiencesa technology’s need, benevolence,and viability” . Design fiction,then, uses these fictional depictions of
Diegesis is important to ourunderstanding of design fictionbecause it requires that we take theworld of a story seriously: Objects
Situating a new
a narrative forces us
to grapple with
questions of ethics,
Narratives and stories are amongthe oldest human informationtechnologies. Narrative structuresare uniquely suited to preserve andcommunicate experiential knowledgeand to teach new information. Welearn from an early age to use storiesto make sense of the world, and wecontinue throughout our lives to frameour experiences in terms of narrativescripts that we acquire in childhood.Situating a new technology within anarrative forces us to grapple withquestions of ethics, values, socialperspectives, causality, politics,psychology, and emotions. This type ofwork can serve several important roleswithin HCI research and practice.
First, it can be a method forenvisioning new futures andtechnologies. This includes envisioningnot just the technical aspects of aninvention, but also the possible social,political, and personal consequencesand outcomes of a world with thattechnology.
Second, it can be a tool forcommunicating innovations to other
Most up-to-date version: 12/15/20
22 INTERACTIONS SEPTEMBER–OCTOBER2014