Magical Design Semi-Fictions

Bruce Sterling’s “Shaping Things” first introduced the Design Fictions concept in 2005.
Julian Bleecker (Nokia researcher and Near Future Laboratory co-founder) gave it some more shape in a presentation given at the Engage Design conference in 2008.

Sterling calls Design Fictions,

“an approach to design that speculates about new ideas through prototyping and storytelling.”

He also says that Design Fictions involve,

“…the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change.”

Given the historical links between theatrical magic and the suspension of disbelief, Design Fictions are a concept I have been naturally drawn to.

One historical example of a Magical Design Fiction might be The Mechanical Turk.

The Turk was a fake chess-playing machine constructed in the late 18th century. From 1770 until its destruction by fire in 1854, it was exhibited by various owners as an automaton. Constructed and unveiled in 1770 by Wolfgang von Kempelen (1734–1804) to impress the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, the mechanism appeared to be able to play a strong game of chess against a human opponent, as well as perform the knight’s tour, a puzzle that requires the player to move a knight to occupy every square of a chessboard exactly once.

The Mechanical Turk

The Mechanical Turk

The Turk was in fact a mechanical illusion that allowed a human chess master hiding inside to operate the machine. With a skilled operator, the Turk won most of the games played during its demonstrations around Europe and the Americas for nearly 84 years, playing and defeating many challengers including statesmen such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin.

The Turk, and other automata, allowed us to imagine machines with human, and superhuman, abilities. It inspired a number of inventions and imitations including El Ajedrecista, built by Leonardo Torres y Quevedo that made its public debut during the Paris World Fair of 1914. Capable of playing rook and king versus king endgames using electromagnets, it was the first true chess-playing automaton, and a precursor of sorts to Deep Blue a chess-playing computer developed by IBM which beat world champion Garry Kasparov in 1997.

Gonzalo, Quevedo's son, showing his automaton to Norbert Wiener at the 1951 Paris Cybernetic Congress.

Gonzalo, Quevedo’s son, showing his automaton to Norbert Wiener at the 1951 Paris Cybernetic Congress.

Kasparov vs Deep Blue. May 1997.

Kasparov vs Deep Blue. May 1997.

IdeoBird began as a pure Design Fiction as I was developing a keynote and performance on The Future of Deception for FutureFest 2012. It was part of a series of imagined mind-reading objects drawing on the traditions of fortune-telling birds and magical automata.

By developing IdeoBird as a Design Semi-Fiction we could mix real and fictional capabilities in order to see how they would work together and to explore some aspects the human experience of mind-reading technologies and the moral and ethical issues they make visible.

Working on a long-term Design Semi-Fiction is an fascinating and subtle process. As the work progresses, initially fictional capabilities become real capabilities and the devices become more nuanced. We’ve also become pretty good at detecting and measuring Ideomotor Responses with a range of other devices such as OuijaBird and through working with Peter Bennett on the Resonant Bits tangibles.


Resonant Bits: Ideomotor Interaction with Musical Instruments from Resonant Bits on Vimeo.

Of course, it took over 200 years to move from The Mechanical Turk to Deep Blue. The developments of The Mindreading Web are moving considerably faster and it only took a few months for IdeoBird to move from Design Fiction to functioning prototype, though she still can’t fly.

As we tackle these complex design futures I appreciate the challenges raised by Near Future Laboratory’s statement on Design Fictions…

This is the platform best suited for taking a sideways glancing blow at a set of open issues, exploring unknown unknowns, working through turbulent alternatives, contesting the status quo and walking down strategic alternatives.

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