Designing The Magical #5: Magical Design Fictions

My work often takes the form of a design fiction, a term first used by the artist and technologist Julian Bleeker.

“This is a kind of prototyping that couples the speculation inherent in design with the creative license of fiction and the pragmatic, imminent reality of fact. Tangible, materialized props that live in between fact and fiction and are both speculative and possible. They aren’t specifications for making, but they are specifications for imagining. These are prototypes that express possibility more powerfully than either fact or fiction could do if they were each left to their own intellectual and creative provinces. This deliberate blurring of fact and fiction is what we have been calling “design fiction.” Fiction borrowing from fact and thereby rethinking and re-imagining what may be possible.” (Bleeker, 2011)

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.”

Magic performances also speculate through storytelling and blur the line between fact and fiction. There is a difference between traditional theatre “depicting events as though they were happening” and magic performance “depicting events as though they were really happening” (Leddington, 2016). The intention of both design fiction and performance magic is to suspend disbelief.

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.

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

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 Fiction I could mix real and fictional capabilities in order to see how they would work together and to explore moral and ethical aspects of the emerging mind-reading technologies.

Working on a long-term Design 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 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.

Design fictions can be problematic when participants are overly enchanted by speculative technologies and technophile utopian fantasies presented as simple extensions of the present through naive techno-determinism. “While fiction invites the audience to imagine the depicted event—and the main point of the fiction is to help them in this—magic coerces the audience into trying to imagine how the illusion of the depicted event might be produced—and the main point of the performance is to prevent them from succeeding” (Leddington, 2016). Presenting design fictions in the framework of performance magic can foster a counterbalancing skepticism encouraging a sustained aporia with regards to the future. A wise and playful awareness of how careful we have to be when we try to imagine the future.

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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Further Reading

Bruce Sterling’s “Shaping Things”.

Julian Bleecker (Nokia researcher and Near Future Laboratory co-founder) presentation given at the Engage Design conference in 2008.

Julian Bleecker, Design Fiction: From Props To Prototypes, Negotiating Futures / Design Fictions, Basel, Swiss Design Network, 2011.

Jason Leddington, The Experience of Magic, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 74 (3), pp. 253–264, 2016.

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