Mind Blowing Movies: Technological Dream Series: No. 1, Robots (2007)

Mm200This week, Boing Boing is presenting a series of essays about movies that have had a profound effect on our invited essayists. See all the essays in the Mind Blowing Movies series here. -- Mark

Dunne and Raby, "Technological Dream Series No. 1: Robots," 2007, By Bruce Sterling

[Video Link] I first witnessed this strange Dunne and Raby video.... well, I feel sure that it was more than five years ago, but I don't see how that's possible.Some experiences squeeze the past into a different shape.

This video seems pretty opaque, at first encounter. It has no credits. The heroine is mute, nameless, rather elegant, very worried and dressed in black. The soundtrack is wordless electronic gabbling, warbling and scratching. The set is pure gallery white-space, devoid of doors, walls, sinks, beds, stoves or toilets. Odd, meaningless objects are strewn across the floor.

There are some jarring, horror-film jump-cuts, but they lack an apparent purpose. The nonexistent plot never advances. No conflict is settled. No problem is solved. No conclusion is reached. There's no moral to this story. There's no story.

"Technological Dream Series" is not even a "series," because there was only one of them. "Technological Dream Series" is a demo.

This demo looks something like science fiction -- that's why it captured my attention right away, and has held it for years now -- but "Technological Dream Series" is not science fiction. It's a different thing, because it's "design fiction."

"Technological Dream Series No. 1: Robots" is a demo, and the subject being demonstrated is interaction. These products on display, the objects, the "robots" --they're as abstract as chess-pieces. They're not like the designed products that star in commercial ads, they're not glossed-up, they don't have branding, they're not for sale. The heroine isn't the star, either. The star is the interaction.

Once you can grasp the intention of the creators -- they want you to think about user interaction, they're trying to show you how it works, how it might work -- then, the film's quite straightforward. The user -- she's very London, all black-clad, spooky, alterna-rock and high heels -- is tending to the urgent needs of her devices.

Her possessions are not today's dysfunctional, needy mobiles and/or laptops, but tomorrow's dysfunctional, needy "robots" (or, well, whatever those entities are). Like our own rather messed-up tech devices, her robots are pretty far from optimal. Even though she probably can't live without them, and is obviously very concerned about them, these things she owns are not exactly on her side. It's a tense, fraught relationship.

Any aware person nowadays, who is logging-on to Facebook, Amazon, Google, Apple or Microsoft, must surely sense that they are intimately kissing-up to vast, cool, HGWellsian, Martianly unsympathetic entities that are slowly and surely drawing up their own plans. You know that's true, right? That's not sci-fi, that's just how life is now. Now imagine that these vast, quasi-intelligent corporate entities were boiled down to red circles that oozed nervously around your living room.

For our user-protagonist here, that's life. She's co-existing, every day, with "robots" that are glitchy, itchy and so problem-ridden as to manifest emotional neurosis. They are her pets, her spies, her commensal entities, but their inner workings are as remote as the control rooms of Martian tripods.

All this user can do is attempt to humanely empathize with these stricken creatures of her household. They are her darlings: the red ring, the black rolling cone, the pull-toy and the crooked security scanner. She's like an overtaxed new mother. Her love for these quadruplets come at a steep cost to her own sanity.

Science fiction stories have explored this line of thought before. The written sci-fi equivalent of "Technological Dream Series No. 1" would be a rather similar British work of the imagination, "The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista" by J. G. Ballard. Written way back in 1962, this science fiction tale is about the luckless inhabitant of a computerized "psychotropic" house. Since it's by Ballard, it's a pretty good story.

This house, "Stellavista," goes murderously nuts in the typical Ballardian atmosphere of artsy anomie and implacable obsession -- but despite Ballard's fine verbiage, we're never really shown that house, "Stellavista." Stellavista is described, but never demonstrated. We don't get hands-on with it. A written science fiction story is and must remain a verbal composition.

By contrast, "Technological Dream" conveys its "cognitive estrangement" in a quieter, gentler fashion. That's because designers are not authors. An author of fiction is an entertainer, he's deceiving, beguiling and head-tripping the reader -- he's commonly locked in a private, intimate, psychic single-combat with the reader. Written fiction is all about thrills, twists, surprising revelations, page-turning hooks, and similar bulky, time-consuming forms of ideational overhead.

Designers don't have readers, designers have users. So "Technological Dream" doesn't stretch for a dramatic climax, nor does it hammer any point home. A written story must offer a summary ending, but design lacks any written narrative that ends. Science fiction commonly ends in lessons, warnings, pep-talks or evocations, but a design fiction is an intervention, a provocation, an invitation to join an ongoing debate.

What if our machines were too mysterious to understand, but also intimates that we saw every day? What if we couldn't live with them, and they couldn't function without us? What if, what if....

There's never been a "Technological Dream Series No. 2." Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby never extended this "series." Their imaginary-robot models were swiftly inducted into the Museum of Modern Art in New York, along with the video itself.

I'd surmise that Tony and Fiona, like most designers, were adapting themselves to the explicit needs of their user-base. If some client had demanded "Series No. 2" from them, they would have obligingly built and filmed that, but they're designers, so it's not like they feel some gabby, writerly compulsion to churn these things out. They do write some books -- Hertzian Tales is particularly startling -- but they don't write fiction, and those "tales" aren't really tales at all -- they're design documentations, descriptions of design approaches, elucidations of design thinking.

"Design Fiction" is not a form of fiction written about design. Design fiction is a form of design -- it's the design of objects and services that are imaginary. It's design that uses cheap, fast, viral media to spread itself around -- to provoke speculation, to extrapolate, and to criticize. "Design fictions" exist outside the stifling limits of the retail box-store. They are designs, but they are metaphysical, theoretical, technical, cultural, artistic, seductive, fertile and consolatory.

"Design fiction" does important work in spaces where fiction is clumsy, and where science has little to say: the user-centricity, the creative passion for the shapes of things, the engagement with the grain of the material.

This modest little video made me realize that a new approach, a new creative force, had appeared within the domain of the imagination. It's a different way to do "what if." Design fiction expanded my worldview, and gave me a new set of tools with which to engage with the world around me.

It's common to say that your life should be improved by design, but my life was improved by Dunne and Raby "critical design." The shape of things will never be the same.


  1. This sort of thing doesn’t really move me. But as my mentor is fond of saying, “That’s why they make different flavor jelly beans.”

  2. For me, this is a simple and useful artifact. Once you know how to handle it, its utility is pretty clear. It helps me pull the lens back and think about the importance of our current objects a bit more like the way I think about the objects that defined our distant past. It’s an academic viewpoint, and it has it’s disadvantages, but sometimes an ur-distilled description is a great one for formulating big ideas. 

    I heard Anthony Dunne speak last year and show off a few of his students’ projects from the RCA. He embedded some graduate designers with various researchers and asked the students to speculate on the possible commercial uses of each research team’s work. Unlike the researchers’ visions, the best pieces were both apparently feasible and ethically dubious. “Speculative Ethics” was coined by one of the researchers (one of the lot that wasn’t terribly offended), which is a great term and one that seems far easier to manifest via design than underneath all of the “ideational overhead” of fiction writing. Great job of quickly contrasting the two disciplines here, thanks Bruce!

  3. I thought that might be Marina Abramovic, but it probably isn’t.  It just looks like something she might do, only she would be hitting herself with a hairbrush at the same time.

  4. I believe it is a very sexist commentary on women and technology. This woman, dressed as a domestic servant, is, despite her telekinetic powers, unable to assemble a working device from the components presented to her.

    1. Why’d it have to be a girl in a French maid outfit? Why couldn’t it be a pretty boy in eyeliner? Perfect Tommy maybe, or the young Duran Duran.

      1.  I  don’t think there really are any “have to”s in film. There could be many layers of reasons, or it could be a “just because.”

        But on the most basic level: it had to be a woman, because if it had been a young Duran Duran it wouldn’t have been the same film: it would have been a young Duran Duran.

  5. I’m glad to finally see an elaboration on Mr. Sterling’s phrase “design fiction” because I never knew exactly what he was talking about. I may still not, but I’m think I’m getting closer.

    It’s design that uses cheap, fast, viral media to spread itself around — to provoke speculation, to extrapolate, and to criticize. “Design fictions” exist outside the stifling limits of the retail box-store.

    Is a “concept car” a “design fiction” ?

    If not, please explain. Use the backside of the comment-form if necessary.
    Whatever my misunderstandings of design fiction, I have a problem with the following lines:

    That’s because designers are not authors. An author of fiction is an entertainer, he’s deceiving, beguiling and head-tripping the reader — he’s commonly locked in a private, intimate, psychic single-combat with the reader. Written fiction is all about thrills, twists, surprising revelations, page-turning hooks, and similar bulky, time-consuming forms of ideational overhead.

    Okay, designers are not authors. And Mr. Sterling goes on to explain that designers are not authors because “an author of fiction [….]”.

    Wait, what? Are we talking about authors? Or authors of fiction? Or, hokey smokes authors of written fiction?

    I could accept that the designers are not authors of written, mass-market, genre-fiction [whatever genre. Not necessary a “scornful” genre like “scifi”, but perhaps even a “literary” genre, like whatever Updike writes, although ” thrills, twists, surprising revelations, page-turning hooks” would seem to suggest that, no, Updike does not write the sort of written fiction Mr. Sterling is talking about here].

    But I will not, without some sort of non-elided elaboration, accept that designers are not authors. They create, they are authorities, they are — for at least the purposes of copyright — the authors of works.

    Lest I be hoisted by my own historical petard, I recently engaged in debate in BB-post’s comments about using words to mean what one wants, instead of the commonly accepted definition. I don’t think that “author of a work” is stretching accepted definition, while I do think that “author := author of written fiction that is all about thrills, twists, surprising revelation, [and] page-turning hooks” is, if not stretching, then chopping it off at the knees.
    Writing “Mr. Sterling” felt horribly stilted and formal, but I couldn’t seriously stoop to the informal “Bruce.” Even though several inches of bookshelf would attest to my familiarity with the manauthor’s works, I do not think the obverse is the same.

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