Design fiction, speculative design, and "creepiness"

In "design fiction" and "speculative design," designers and science fiction writers create fictional products and services, which go on to inform real engineering and product design processes.

Sometimes these designs are meant to inspire (see, for example, the Catalog of Missing Devices), sometimes they're designed as a warning (see, for example, my story The Knights of the Rainbow Table) and sometimes they're meant to do a little of both (for example, Future Not Made in EU).

One of the foremost practitioners of design fiction is Near Future Labratory, co-founded by Julian Bleecker and Nick Foster, who now works for the secretive Google/Alphabet division called "X" whose mission is to "think outlandish thoughts and to turn them into reality."

Foster and his group created a now-notorious video depicting a Black Mirror-ish product called The Selfish Ledger. Because it was leaked from such a secretive division without any context, and because Google is so big, a monopolist, and has helped normalize surveillance capitalism, The Selfish Ledger was interpreted as a suggestion that X was making to its product teams, rather than a warning about how things might go if they failed to pay sufficient attention to the privacy and other risks of their designs.

Writing in Wired, Felix Salmon calls the process "creepy," though he's a little muddy about what part of it is creepy -- given the current clamor for technologists to think about the ethics of their work, design fiction and its dystopian commercial brethren like Black Mirror are a seemingly welcome intervention, an explicit inquiry into the ethical dimension of technology.

Salmon seems to agree, and locates at least some of the problem in X's secretiveness, which I'll go along with. Salmon namechecks the work of Genevieve Bell, the Intel anthropologist whose groundbreaking work was open to the public. I'd certainly welcome a future in which that was the ethos of all design fiction.

Was The Selfish Ledger Foster’s attempt to warn Googlers of the possible dystopian consequences of their actions—an Alphabet version, if you will, of the famous Boz memo at Facebook? Did Foster really want to call his video “The Ugly,” and warn the company he worked for (confidentially, internally) that there was a risk it would go too far?

That’s the impression X is trying to give, when the company talks about the video as a piece of speculative design. But it’s not a Black Mirror episode, it’s not self-evidently horrific, and to many Googlers, it might even be an exciting harbinger of technological possibility. What’s more, the video is not some kind of ancient history, as X’s “from years ago” phrasing might imply: it was created at the end of 2016, right around the time that Donald Trump was being elected president.

The Selfish Ledger, then, is clearly a piece of design fiction more than it is a piece of speculative design. It wasn’t really designed to be disturbing, it just is disturbing. And it’s particularly disturbing by dint of the fact that it was made by Google, in secret, for internal distribution only. Some speculative design thinkers, like Genevieve Bell, are very happy to talk in public and in detail about what they do. She does it now, at Australian National University, and she did it in her previous job, too, when she worked as a vice president at Intel.

The Creepy Rise of Real Companies Spawning Fictional Design [Felix Salmon/Wired]