Science Fiction Prototyping: A Preliminary Assessment.

This is day 2 of the EMERGE event write-up, and my reflections on the workshop, Science Fiction Prototyping with Brian David Johnson, Intel futurist and director of The Tomorrow Project.

I believe that science fiction can be an incredibly powerful tool for shaping public perceptions towards emerging technology. Governance involves assessing risks and policies and making decisions between options, but how can we assess an emerging technology when such basic information as costs, benefits, and consequences are unknown and perhaps fundamentally unknowable? One of the major findings of STS is that supposedly value-neutral methods like cost-benefit analysis and linear extrapolation of trends in fact contain large implicit biases towards certain kinds of ‘valid knowledge’ and ‘rational outcomes’, and more-over, these methods fail to deal with major uncertainties, whether they’re Black Swan events like the collapse of the Soviet Union, or more subtle systemic shifts, like the rise of cellphones and social media in politics.

But the real strength of science-fiction is its broad appeal. Very few people read the white papers produced by bodies like the National Academy of Sciences, the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment was shut down in 1995 by Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” Congress, and the public engagement efforts like EU’s CafĂ© Scientique are considered blockbuster successes if they reach tens of thousands of people. Popular science-fiction, whether in film, game, of print form, reaches billions of people world-wide. My own work on nanotechnology, biotechnology, and the space race has shown the critical role that science-fiction stories have played in framing the policy debate.

People are narrative thinkers; they naturally organize their world into stories, and understand when a story makes sense, and when it does not. By combining realistic characters and social milieus with novel technology, science fiction can engage multiple ways of thinking, and draw out underlying values and sites of conflict and confusion. There are no barriers to participation, anybody with a pen and paper can write, anybody with an internet connection can publish. Science fiction is technology assessment for the rest of us.

But all of the above are just my idiosyncratic and scattered jottings towards some sort of coherent foresight methodology, which is why I was really excited to see how the professionals did it. I’d read Brian Johnson’s book previously, and my impression was the he was on to something, but he hadn’t bothered to write it down.

The first day, Brian delivered a lecture on science fiction prototyping and how to do it. The key points were:
A) The minimalist vision of the future is wrong, because it looks like a prison
B) People like clutter, houses are hairy, look at what makes people comfortable
C) The extremes are what makes a story interesting
As we broke up the day, he instructed us to think about what kind of story we wanted to tell, and gave us the 5 Step Plan for science fiction prototyping.


This is the diagram in the book, and you’ll note that it’s incredibly skeletal and linear. The abbreviated plan for Scenario Development has 8 steps, and requires that you examine both your own biases and purposes, and pretty much every shaping external force in the world. Science-fiction prototyping asks that you dive write in.

The actual process of science-fiction prototyping only sort of matches the diagram above. This is what I experienced in the process of making my prototype.


I want to make some notes here on what worked and didn’t.

The envisioning process depends on the information you have access to: What you know about science and technology, your own life experiences and beliefs, and any materials provided by the organizers. At EMERGE, despite the disparate disciplinary backgrounds of the workshop participants, we were all academics interested in the future, and we had all had the same full day of presentations and lectures.

Pitching and dialog are definitely learned skills, and different people have very different levels of aptitude at them. Some people can’t express a story concisely, others dominate the discussion, and some are simply boring and unknowledgeable. We worked in groups of between three and five people, which allowed everybody to participate in the dialoging process. Unsurprisingly, Brian David Johnson was far better at these tasks than the rest of us. Just a few minutes with Brian could clarify the key issues at in the prototype, and the best way to bring them to the forefront.

Development, the part where you write, draw, film, or otherwise produce the prototype itself, appears to be inherently time-consuming and isolating. Everybody (except for a group working on a comic, which had a clear division of labor), retreated to their laptops to write their own stories. Most people had full outlines, but writing fiction is hard; one manuscript page an hour is a very optimistic rate. Judging from my previous writing workshops, it can take up to a month for an amateur writer to get a 3000 word story into some kind of readable form. The single day we had allocated simply wasn’t enough.

Finally, prototypes are useless unless you bring them out into the real world somehow. In our report out, we pitched the prototypes to the rest of the group, who then asked questions, and tried to nail the prototype down to its essential core. By this point, it was late in the day, we were tired and hungry, and the quality of the discussion suffered. A second pitch attempt with a completed draft is important, but in our case, we could have used more structure and time for the reporting out.

The biggest impression that I got from the workshop was that there’s a lot to science fiction prototyping that isn’t in the book. The relies on tacit knowledge about science, technology, people, institutions, narrative structures, the creative process, and proper presenting and critiquing skills. There’s nothing wrong with tacit knowledge; indeed, the world would collapse without it. The problem with relying on tactic knowledge for foresight is that your visions are going to be infected with unexamined biases, and may confirm what you want to know rather than challenge and transform your vision of the future. The only check against this bias is the skill of the other participants in the process.

Making the tactic knowledge that goes into science fiction prototyping explicit would make for stronger prototypes. This diagram has just some of the invisible entities that surround the prototyping framework.


Science fiction prototyping is definitely useful, but there are many questions which should be answered before I’d be willing to fully trust it as a foresight methodology.

Some questions are procedural: What is the best preparation before going into the prototyping process? How should information and questions be framed so that non-practitioners find it productive? How can you train people to pitch and critique ideas more effectively? Is there a way to develop the prototype that is faster than writing a whole story around it? How can the constructive process of dialog continue throughout the development cycle? How can individual communicate a prototype to a group in an impactful way?

Other questions are related to the core concepts of science-fiction prototyping, and are harder to resolve: What is the proper way to develop the technology through the course of the story, is it a character, a prop, or something else? How does an author recognize their biases and blind spots? How can science-fiction prototyping be used to prompt reflexive deliberation on the future? What does the dialog involved in prototyping imply for the authorship of the work, and the origins of its ideas? Does one need to make science fiction prototypes to find them useful, or is consumption of the right kind of science-fiction adequate for foresight?

I don’t have good answers for these questions now, but I hope that over the course of the next few months, I can finish my own prototype and resolve some of these theoretical and procedural questions. And any thoughts my loyal readers have on this would be very welcome.

1 comment:

  1. Really you blog have very interesting and very valuable information about the prototyping well done.