Design Fiction

In September 2013 I delivered a lecture at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town titled ‘Design Fiction’, in which I explored design (especially designed objects) as a story-telling medium. From the festival programme: “Contemporary design projects are often a form of story-telling, used to communicate narratives to users and audiences. Ralph Borland explores examples of where design, for better or worse, acts as a form of fiction that is sometimes at odds with its intended purpose”.

I opened my presentation with a photograph of ‘Blikkiesdorp on Ocean View Drive’ – the architect Carin Smut’s home in the upmarket area of Seapoint in Cape Town, which was graffitied with a disparaging message (since lovingly preserved by the architect) because of her use of corrugated iron in its design. ‘Blikkiesdorp’, literally ‘tin can town’, is a reference to a bleak shanty town on the outskirts of Cape Town. I used this anecdote as a talking point around how even simple materials can have strong communicative and symbolic properties, and particular connotations for viewers – here residents were unhappy about a ‘shanty town’ material used in an upmarket area.

Blikkiesdorp on Ocean View Drive

Blikkiesdorp on Ocean View Drive

I moved from there through a range of examples of objects which can be ‘read’ in particular ways – like our propensity for seeing faces in objects – through the role of objects in narratives (knives in Cormac McCarthy or Borge’s work for example) and objects deliberately designed to be characters in a wider story (such as critical designers Dunne & Raby). This set up a discussion of the role of ‘objects in development’, the subject of my PhD thesis, centred around the PlayPump.

Provocative Technology

I recently reread some writing I’d produced about the term ‘provocative technology’ in the first year or two of my PhD, reproduced below. Supported by other references to the term, I define provocative technology as an object or tool which has functions for the user but that also challenges the contexts of its use, and provokes questions and debate in wider audiences.

At one point I was going to make my PhD about provocative technology, identifying examples across disciplines and contexts and defining its principles. This turned out to be too broad a topic, and I shifted my attention to analysing examples in the field of ‘design for development’, the field which seemed to have perhaps the most real world impact, using perspectives from other disciplines where I’d identified provocative technologies, such as critical design and interventionist art, and science and technology studies.

The term sunk into the background of my PhD, but I still kept it as a useful term to refer to a set of characteristics across a range of practices (and as a particular way of looking at objects). I used the term again recently for a course I taught at the Cologne International Institute of Design (KISD) in 2012. I used it to describe my selection of objects (as ‘Political Art and Provocative Technology’) for my exhibition ‘Sideshow‘ at the Nextwave Festival in Melbourne, Australia in 2006. And I’m working on an idea for an exhibition at the moment that will explore it further.

From my notes:

Provocative Technology 2007 (redux 2013)

The subject of my research is ‘provocative technology’; in business, the term can refer to technologies which have the potential to be ‘disruptive’, overturning incumbent technologies and systems; for certain designers, academics and technology producers it describes a type of tool or technology which intervenes in, interrogates and communicates the social, political or economic contexts of its use. This purpose can be intentionally designed for, or read into objects.

Etymology:

In order to define the term ‘Provocative Technology’ for my research, I searched for and analysed documented uses of the phrase as applying to a field of practice. The result is this ‘etymology’ of the term.

The term ‘provocative’ is sometimes used in business and technology contexts to describe a technology with the potential to significantly impact markets or existing technologies[1], or colloquially in broader public contexts to indicate the possibly disruptive social or ethical implications of a new technology[2]. While retaining some of these meanings,  ‘Provocative Technology’ is also used in a narrower way to describe a specific, emerging field of practice. These instances of use include:

Professor Krzysztof Wodiczko refers to the the mobile shelter for homeless people he designed as a ‘provocative technology’ in an interview in ‘The Interventionists’ (2003, MIT Press). Professor  Wodiczko is the director and founder of the Interrogative Design Group (IDG) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). His definition of ‘interrogative design’, his field of practice since the mid-1980s, contributes to a definition of provocative technology. In the IDG’s ‘Statement of Purpose’, he imagines a tool or technology which reveals the circumstances that necessitate its use:

A bandage covers and treats the wound while at the same time exposing its presence. Its presence signifies both the experience of pain and the hope of recovery. Is it possible to further develop such a bandage as equipment that will communicate, interrogate, and articulate the circumstances and the experiences of the injury? Could such a transformed bandage address the ills of the outside world as perceived by the wounded? To see the world as seen by the wound! [3]

Rebecca Hansson and Tobias Skog of the PLAY Research Group, Interactive Institute in Sweden stated their intention in 2001 to produce concepts and prototypes under the title ‘Provocative Technology’, in which their ambition was to “create artefacts which can be used as a starting point when discussing, for instance, ethical and moral issues regarding the design and use of information technology. We also want to provoke users of those artefacts to reflect upon and become aware of certain issues, and perhaps to persuade them to change their views or feelings.”[4]

A term also used by Hansen and Skog is ‘persuasive technology’. Stanford University advances the term through their Persuasive Technology Lab which “creates insight into how computing products — from websites to mobile phone software — can be designed to change what people believe and what they do”[5].

Provocative technologies are more open-endedly informative or communicative than specifically persuasive, and are not limited to human-computer interaction (HCI). Their mode of action can be antagonistic, as alluded to in the next text.

Brooke Foucault, Pheobe Sengers, Helene M. Mentis and Devon Welles explored “the potential usefulness of disturbing, uncomfortable systems, demonstrating that provocative technology can have a positive effect on social relationships” in their paper ‘Provoking Sociability’, presented at CHI 2007. They wrote:

For obvious reasons, HCI design has primarily focused on the goal of creating systems that are comfortable and pleasing for human users. The recent push into emotion in HCI, likewise, has focused on enhancing positive affect and reducing negative affect. Nevertheless, some researchers are questioning the focus on the positive and pleasing, suggesting that this leaves out important dimensions of human experience that HCI needs to take into account or perhaps even support.

One of the most influential arguments for this new focus stems from Dunne and Raby’s formulation of design noir. They suggest that electronic product design has been focused too exclusively on sanitized versions of human life and behavior and argue for the inclusion of “darker,” more genuine human needs in the design of technology. As they elaborate, “an occasional glance through almost any newspaper reveals a view of everyday life where complex emotions, desires and needs are played out through the misuse and abuse of electronic products and systems.” Yet, “the range of emotions offered through most electronic products is pathetically narrow.”[6]

Dunne and Raby are Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, designers and academics (with the Computer Related Design (CRD) Research Studio at the Royal College of Art, London). Their description of their use of “products and services as a medium to stimulate discussion and debate amongst designers, industry and the public about the social, cultural and ethical implications of emerging technologies”[7] contributes to our definition of provocative technology, as does the idea that technologies could be designed to antagonise our social-technological terrain in order to reveal valuable information about it. [At this stage, in 2007, I don’t think I’d yet read much of Dunne and Raby’s work. I ended up referring to it quite extensively in my thesis after reading ‘Hertzian Tales’ and ‘Design Noir’ – RB 2013]

William J. Mitchell., Alan S. Inouye, and Marjorie S. Blumenthal edited the book ‘Beyond Productivity’ (2003) for the National Academy of Sciences, USA. In the chapter titled ‘The influence of Art and Design on Computer Science and Development’, the term ‘provocative technology’ is used in the description of a project to “confront users with negative aspects of technology” (surveillance), though “users who saw the “product” demonstrated in an ostensibly commercial presentation were surprisingly enthusiastic”.[8]

The chapter describes a field of practice they term ‘information arts’, a cross-disciplinary art and science collaboration which uses “artistic practice to manage and interpret information at the cusp of technological and scientific research.”[9] Information Technology and Creative Practices (ITCP) looks to the artist as a mediator, between the science and technology establishment and the public, for example. This management, interpretation and communication of information around technological and scientific research we can also define as a possible feature of provocative technology practice. The role of the artist in provocative technology is expanded on later in this report.

The Disruptive Design Team (DDT), the research group within the department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering at Trinity College of which [was] a member, has referred to ‘Provocative Technologies’ as one of the topics members focus on since the group’s inception in 2003:

The focus of the research group is to challenge traditional ideas of connectivity, connection, communication and sociability through the creation of installations and applications that subvert uses of technologies and create situations for questioning. The research students are engaged in a wide range of projects that focus on topics such as Urban Public Space Art, Provocative Technologies & Interactive Spaces, Urban Wearables, Urban Narratives and New Media & Feminist Methodologies. A multi-disciplinary approach to these topics is taken. There is an emphasis both on developing theoretical ideas and on creating and building work to progress ideas.[10]

Creating ‘situations for questions’ is a feature of provocative technology as a design practice; as is the challenging of traditional ideas about the use or meaning of technology through creating work.


[1] ‘Fed-Watcher Extraordinaire David Gitlitz Joins MetaMarkets Think Tank’, Business Wire, July 17, 2000

[2] ‘Stem cell research: Breakthroughs and controversies’, in The Jewish Standard http://www.jstandard.com/articlerss/cat/23/

[3] The Interrogative Design Group, MIT http://web.mit.edu/idg/, 2002 (now changed)

[4] ‘Provocative Technology’, http://www.tii.se/play/projects/provocative/

[5] Persuasive Technology Lab, Stanford University http://captology.stanford.edu/

[6] ‘Provoking Sociability’, CHI 2007 http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1240624.1240860

[8] Mitchell, W. J., Inouye A. S., Blumenthal M. S., Ed. (2003) Beyond Productivity: Information technology, Innovation and Creativity. USA: The National Academies Press Chapter 4, p.9

[9] Mitchell, W. J., Inouye A. S., Blumenthal M. S., Ed. (2003) Beyond Productivity: Information technology, Innovation and Creativity. USA: The National Academies Press, p.2 Chapter 4, p.9

[10] Disruptive Design Team website, http://www.mee.tcd.ie/~ledoyle/DDT/DDT.htm

Debunking the ‘Tragedy of the commons’

Just a brief post to link to an important essay I came across a few years ago, Ian Angus’ refutation of Garrett Hardin’s popular text ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ (1968) – Debunking the `Tragedy of the Commons’ (2008). The idea of the tragedy of the commons (that shared resources will always be depleted) has become a figure of speech, an idea that is apparently self-evidently true; in common with other popular ideas such as ‘zero tolerance’ or ‘broken-window’ theory in urban design and policing, it needs challenging.

(Sidenote: while looking for Angus’ text again I found this reference to Elinor Ostrom, who received the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economics in Memory of Alfred Nobel in 2009, and whose work also apparently goes some way towards debunking the ‘tragedy’… http://dbzer0.com/blog/can-we-finally-bury-the-tragedy-of-the-commons-myth)

Provocative Technology at KISD

In November 2012 I taught a short course at the Köln International School of Design (KISD) in which students were asked to research, design and fabricate a prototype for a ‘provocative technology’ – an object or tool which has functions for the user but that also challenges the contexts of its use, and provokes questions and debate in wider audiences.

I came up with the term ‘provocative technology’ around the start of my PhD research to describe work across disciplines that uses the design of functional objects to provoke questions and commentary. I have a post about it here.

You can download my proposal for the class, which roughly represents the outline of the course. I’ll post some documentation of the projects students produced in response asap. So far I have documentation for the projects ‘InstaFRAME’ and TRASH.

A couple of students who weren’t in the class, but attended some of our presentations, were later inspired to design a ‘provocative technology’ as an output of their research into gentrification in Berlin: an anti-gentrification vending machine, the Gentr-o-Mat.

Things that Talk

I’m at the Max-Planck Institute in Gottingen, who fund my postdoc position, using their excellent little library. Looking for books on objects and object studies, I find the book ‘Things that Talk – Object lessons from art and science’, edited by Lorraine Daston (Zone Books, 2004). In the introduction, Daston refers to ‘things, those nodes at which matter and meaning intersect’ (p.16), which is rather a nice way of describing my interest in objects as both functional and communicative. I’ve also read the whole of Kingsley Amis’ 1950s novel ‘Lucky Jim’ over the past few days while travelling, which I think is affecting my writing style (rather).

I’m also interested in her description of things used as evidence – in relation to an idea I’ve been trying to capture about the apparently self-evident truth (or ‘truthiness‘ perhaps) of objects; the way a designed object seems to act in itself as a powerful argument to onlookers, an ‘object argument’ which appears stronger than a proposal or concept. The fact of its materiality and function (thinking here of the realm of design for social impact especially) seems to persuade audiences of its value. Here Dalston writes about objects as evidence (p.12 – 13):

Historically, things have been said to talk for themselves in two ways, which, from an epistemological point of view, are diametrically opposed to one another. One the one hand, there are idols: false gods made of gold or bronze or stone that make portentous pronouncements to the devout who consult them… On the other hand, there is self-evidence: res ipsa loquitur, the thing speaks for itself. It does so in mathematics, law and religion… within Christianity, miracles were almost always worked in things, be it the body of a cripple suddenly made whole or the water turned to wine at the wedding feast, and constituted an immediate and irrefragable token of God’s will. In all these cases, the talking thing spoke the truth, the purest, most indubitable truth conceivable. The chief reason why the truth was so pure was that it had been uttered by things themselves, without the distorting filter of human interpretation.