Pushing the Limits of Design Fiction: The Case For Fictional Research Papers

Pushing the Limits of Design Fiction: The Case For Fictional Research Papers


– Right, apologies for the
screw up at the start, there. I’ll just dive straight
in, so, I’m Joseph Lindley. I’m a doctoral student at
Lancaster University in the UK. My coauthor is Paul Colton, who’s Professor of Speculative and
Game Design also at Lancaster. Today I’m talking about
creating and publishing research papers that
were entirely made up. So, this is pushing design
fiction to the limit. Now, you might ask, “what
fictional research papers?” Well, one thing we’re worried people have been thinking is that,
what’s represented here, that we’re just making
up research, because research is actually difficult. Well, research is difficult, but actually, we hope there’s
something more to this, and there’s actually a useful
kernel of knowledge in there. The way the presentation is set up is really mirroring the paper, itself. Like the train it’s just
a gratuitous metaphor, there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. In the beginning, we offer just an introduction to design fiction, a kind of related work section. Our review is particularly broad and tries to cover the breadth of design fiction and HCI all together. By the middle, we go into an overview of one particular way of using design fiction and HCI
called imaginary abstracts, which was introduced a couple of years ago by Mark Blythe. Then we describe and
explore game of drones, which is a example fictional paper. By the end, we contrast
imaginary abstracts with fictional papers, we highlight some apparent strengths and weaknesses, and we do that in order to finally advocate for fictional papers. Finally, we note some questions
that this work has raised. Before anything else, I just want to address what design fiction actually is. We’ll get to a bit more of a formal definition shortly, but in plain English, I would say that design fiction is just a type of speculative design, and speculative design intends
to explore yet-to-be realized concepts, ideas,
and or technologies. It tries to understand the future. And design fiction does this speculative designing in a particular way. It does it by creating fictional worlds. And these fictional worlds contain prototypical concepts. HCI researchers, as is
you’ll see, with some of the stuff on the screen here, have embraced the concepts and applied it in a whole range of different ways. Our related work section
at the start of the paper tries to explore some of these approaches in order to, mainly to
establish the breadth of design fiction practice in HCI. Just a few quick examples here, there are projects that center entirely around the production of a design fiction prototype or a design fiction artifact. These projects have much in common with other research through design projects. One example is this short paper and film from NordiCHI 2014 that I was involved in. The work offers insights about artificially intelligent interfaces, and the insights are mainly
derived by reflecting on the making process and on
the finished product itself. This is one way of doing
design fiction in HCI. There’s also projects that use design fiction mainly as a workshop tool. I would say it’s a way of facilitating ideation to unpack and
explore new ideas, and this relatively well-cited
paper in the field is one such project. There’s several examples
in the corpus of HCI design fiction where it’s
used as a critical tool. In this mode, we can say design fiction is maybe used as a stimulus to generate data or develop critical insights from which findings can be derived. This one is an example that’s critical of gadgetry designed
for animals with things like the Litterbug, the
cat-a-log, and EmotiDog. If you haven’t seen it,
I would check it out. Design fiction can also be an output for a more traditional project. Speculative designers can encapsulate research findings into
a new design fiction. In this example, the original study was a kind of ethnographic study and the output was a series
of design fictions, one is shown on the right, and these were made in the form of kind
of product advertisements. Finally, the related
works section acknowledges the fact that design fiction exists entirely independently
of academia and HCI. It’s practiced by corporations, artists, and design-houses amongst other people. And just to reflect on
the related work section a little bit before I move on, it’s there to showcase the diversity
of how design fiction is practiced, demonstrating
its flexibility. But, then also to acknowledge
that design fiction is what I’m saying is pre-paradigmatic. The understanding why
it’s used, how to do it, and even to succinctly define what it is. All of those things are often quite problematic in how to express, so please, bear that in mind for the
rest of the presentation. On the issue of definition,
the paper refers to Bruce Sterling’s frequently cited phrase, design fiction is the intentional use of diegetic prototypes to
suspend disbelief about change. In this definition, diegesis is usually considered to mean
storyworlds, as I labeled here. Sterling’s definition works great, but I just want to add that
in our 2015 British HCI paper that calls for clarity
around communications to do with design fiction,
we offered an alternative. We say that design fiction is something that creates a storyworld
which has something being prototyped within it. And, that definition might seem somewhat vague, because something in both instances can
mean literally anything. It might be the something that creates a storyworld is a piece of prose, or a film, or a art installation, or anything, maybe a academic
abstract, or a paper. And the thing being prototyped within it, could be anything from
a data input device, a display, a new type of
vehicle, or even a whole policy. So, it can be something that’s
doing something, or anything. I labeled that as well. The flexibility is purposeful, it allows us to articulate that things like abstracts, or whole papers, can be the thing that
creates the storyworld. And that the prototype
concept or interface described by that is the
thing being prototyped. It also avoids the
somewhat tricky philosophy that surrounds that notion of diegesis in Sterling’s definition. Now, I just want to get on to the middle section, imaginary abstracts. These are a particular type of design fiction that’s tailor-made for HCI research, or HCI researchers, and the term was coined by Mark Blythe in a 2014 CHI paper. These abstracts report findings from studies that did not take place, and it’s suggested that as part of a research through design project, imaginary abstracts might be a means of reflecting on what could be learned through a prototypes development. I say, it’s a prototype
prototype, if you will. Mark went to some lengths in his original paper on this topic to analyze a corpus of literature. And the purpose of that was to ensure that the imaginary abstracts, the fictional abstracts, would appear real. So these imaginary abstracts mirror real research through design abstracts. Now I’d say in spite of the lengths gone to to make those design fictions believable and accessible, Mark still acknowledges that the crazy concept he’s introducing requires a willing suspension of disbelief from the reader. Even when they’re made to look real, abstracts for research prototypes that are fictitious, the
whole thing’s clearly challenging, and this
paper that I’m presenting to you now introduces a slightly different proposition that I think is a logical extension of this notion
of imaginary abstracts. Rather than limiting yourself to writing an abstract, how about writing a fully fictional paper. How would that differ? And to re-quote Mark’s words about imaginary abstracts, Please bear with me, while I talk you through our example fictional paper that’s
called game of drones. Now the first thing to note, when we refer to fictional papers, is we’re not suggesting that the paper itself does not exist, rather that the content in the paper is part of a story. The text itself is real, while what the words describe is a fiction. So this fictional paper
is called game of drones. It’s a short paper that I and Paul wrote in 2015 and we submitted to CHI PLAY’s work-in-progress track, where it went through
a peer review process A slightly lighter peer review process than the full CHI conference, though. Now, to tell you the story, the paper, it describes a prototype system where quadcopter drones are trialed as part of a gamified civic enforcement initiative. Users score points by catching fellow citizens who park illegally or allow their dogs to foul on the streets. They catch them by piloting
these drones around remotely. The paper does various things. It writes up details
of the trial, including who the users were, who the people involved in the trial were,
what hardware was used. We had to rewrite UK legislation to make the trial feasible
in terms of legality. We designed some landing stations, which you can see around the middle of the poster there. We designed some signage, considered the data protection policies. There’s a whole load of stuff that didn’t make it into the paper, fake data and graphs, and things that I created. The paper does describe itself as design fiction. It informs the reader that the whole project was not real, however, interestingly it does that at the very end of the paper. Also, this video was submitted with it demonstrating what such
a system might look like. Now, just before I go into a bit more detail on it, I want to note that game of drones isn’t the only example of a paper that’s entirely fictional, but you’ll find archived in the ACM digital library as part of CHI. The kerminator entails CHI in the Future Robot Enslavement of
Humankind: a retrospective, is another example of one whose content is entirely made up. It differs from game of drones, though, game of drones is actually
quite boring, the paper. It’s cold, it has no humor in it, and it’s somewhat somber. It’s trying to be as
objective as possible, or appear as objective as possible for something that’s made up. Whereas the robot enslavement paper, well, it’s written by a team of robots and features people like Ben,
the Kerminator, Kerman. While it’s clearly a
bit more interesting and a bit more exciting, it’s got that long word in the keywords, I
don’t know what that means. But, both papers are equally unreal, but game of drones is intentionally
masquerading as reality. But, why? The robot paper is trying
to be critical of something. But what’s this fictional paper that’s trying to appear real trying to do, what’s the point in it? The simplest way to explain that, is to refer to a quote at
the end of game of drones. I’m gonna read through it for you, but it’s up on the screen too. The research in this paper and the associated artifacts are
part of a design fiction. Therefore, while this paper presents a fictional account of
plausible future HCI research, it’s purpose is not only to highlight the potential usability
or utility issues such systems might present but also to create a discursive space in which researchers can consider the wider
societal and ethical issues of technological futures
in which drones might be widely adopted, but
then, it finishes with, in future publications we will
consider the effectiveness of this design fiction in
addressing such challenges and design fiction more generally as a method for exploring issues related to introduction of technologies. Now, it’s the note about future work that I think is the most significant. The future work that we refer to there turned out to be this paper I’m presenting to you now, and this paper advocates for the creation of
fictional research papers like game of drones, and
to do that as a means mainly to explore practical issues about the introduction of a specific technology but also about wider societal
and ethical considerations. A practical example
with game of drones that Paul just mentioned to me
before I came up here is maybe game of drones is,
on a practical level, a response to Amazon Prime
adverts where you see these drones landing outside a beautiful house with a beautiful couple and somehow delivering a product. That’s a way of trying to look at the future of quadcopters but it’s not really very useful or realistic. We’d like to think that
what we went through is a bit more, a bit closer, to what might actually happen and a bit more useful as a way of interrogating the future. Now, just to move away
from the game of drones things for a second and
back to the more general point of this paper, I
need to make it clear that writing fictional papers and then writing a real paper about the
fictional paper, in doing that we’re not simply doing
the equivalent of rolling tires across the desert, which my girlfriend Lydia is doing here. There is a point. The closing passages of the paper compare the relative properties
of imaginary abstracts with fictional papers. We aim to leave the reader
with a compelling argument for why creating fictional papers can actually play a key role in further, or a role in, further
empowering HCIs burgeoning design discourse as we think imaginary abstracts do to. I’d love it if you all
go and read the paper, and in particular read the
conclusions of the paper. I’m trying to sum it up here, but it is very difficult, I’m afraid. The most significant contrast between the fictional paper model
and imaginary abstracts, is an element with some kind of deception. Imaginary abstracts confirm
their fictional status up front. They tell the reader first, game of drones on the other hand, and
perhaps other fictional papers applying the same model, only inform the reader at the end about
the fictional nature of it. The deception also relies
on the fictional paper including the fullest
possible picture of the storyworld, or the diegetic
landscape, as possible. In doing so, it puts
a burden on the author to go to some considerable lengths to think through the details and in fact, to properly design elements of the system. In our case, we designed
the landing stations, the legislation, the signage, and a few other bits and pieces. But that burden on the author
is paid back to the reader. It almost entirely removes the requirement for them to suspend their own disbelief and instead allows them to become part of the magic circle, or in fact, doesn’t allow them, it almost forces them to because they’re not being told they’re being deceived. To look at the inverse
side of that equation, imaginary abstracts place
a burden on the reader. They do have to willingly suspend their disbelief and put effort into immersing themselves into the storyworld. However, the creation of the design fiction is significantly less onerous for the author, perhaps making abstracts a bit more of a quick and dirty way to create a design fiction, let’s say. It’s a lot easier, I would
say, and not that they’re completely easy, I don’t want to offend Mark, or anyone who’s done them. The notion of a paper that’s submitted to a real venue but is in fact fiction clearly opens up a
ethically dubious space. Is it okay to intentionally deceive the reviewers and the readers. Is it okay for the deception to end in a work that’s almost entirely fiction being archived alongside
other real research? Regardless of the answers
to those questions, I’d like to think it’s safe to assume that design fiction does have a place in HCI research, and the number of design fiction papers at
this year’s conference, I’d like to think, supports that. If the strength of these fictional papers are to be harnessed without undermining research ethics and rigor, then the conversations must happen about how to create, review, and
publish this kind of work. We need to establish conventions. Just to leave you with
a few final thoughts, in the paper reflecting on our own work, of course, writing it
third person to protect our anonymity, we honestly point out that fictional papers are,
putting it colloquially, taking the piss. Using more slang, in the review process, one reviewer wrote, “at moments the “paper seems to fold in on itself, “sometimes a satire of its own existence “in a sort of self-satisfied
fog of academic wankery.” It’s reassuring that despite having this belief, one that I think
I and Paul probably share, even though it’s our own work, that the reviewer still saw value in the work and gave it a good score and
it finally ended up here. In our rebuttal, we promised that real people would turn up
to do the presentation. So, I’ve attempted to
be as real as possible, although reveling in its own anarchy, which again is something
that one of the reviewers mentioned, and pushing the boundary of an already-weird practice even further, we hope that the paper shows that there really is a case for creating fictional research, however, there is clearly more work to do if this kind of approach is to become a normal feature in future CHI conferences. The conversations about employing fictional papers in real HCI research I hope start in earnest here, or continue in earnest here. Thank you very much, and now, like reviewer three, I’m going to disappear in a puff of logic, and maybe take a few quick questions
if there’s time, thanks. – [Master Of Ceremonies] Thank you, do we have anyone wanna ask a, yes we do. – [Elizabeth] Hi, I’m Elizabeth Buie from Northumbria University. Mark Blythe is my primary supervisor and I’ve worked with him
on imaginary abstracts, Joe knows this, but the audience doesn’t. I just wanted to say
I’ve thought all along that imaginary abstracts
are kind of a start to developing a fiction
and yes, they are easy.

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