“He is a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher or, as his wife would have it, an idiot.” -Douglas Adam, Restaurant at the End of the Universe
Science Fiction is the perfect avenue for new ideas about technology as it is not constrained by reality. It allows readers to be transported into a magical land where anything is possible. This creates the most exciting stories which inadvertently impact and inspire real world possibilities.
One of the most creative examples of science fiction with limitless possibilities is my favorite book series- Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. The books were written in 1978, yet their ideas resonate in the way we think about and design technology today.
As a designer I draw a lot of inspiration from science fiction. Here are some examples of technology from the Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy that reflect design, technology and culture:
Marvin: The manically depressed robot
Marvin is a robot who’s depressed and paranoid attitude always unintentionally entertains readers. He is an “electronic sulking machine” programmed to always be sad.
We don’t expect robots to have emotions at all, but to see this beautifully constructed robot constantly sulking, makes it clear he is thinking and feeling. That is, thinking and feeling sad! Giving a polished, shiny robot so much emotion breaks our understanding of the term “robot”. Almost making him human!
Right now, I am taking a class on conversational design, where we discuss the ideas around making machine interactions more human. Should we be able to talk to Siri like it is our friend? Or is that too jarring and odd?
A conversation between two conversational agents Siri and Eliza:
We have not been able to bridge the gap between human intelligence and intelligent technology, and design is still Marvin like.
Babel Fish: The language translating fish
A babel fish is a small yellow leech-like fish that people around the galaxy put in their ear to understand and translate alien languages.
Although the babel fish removes barriers between different races and cultures, in the books it is the cause of many bloody wars. This shows that it is impossible to predict the impacts of technology with even the best intentions.
The fictitious babel fish can be compared to todays translation technology, like Google translate. And we all know we can never truly rely on Google translate for everything. Just see this example below:
Sometimes good design intentions don’t always lead to the most positive results. Translation apps can give misleading information because they lack context. At least unlike the babel fish, translation apps haven’t started a war yet.
Happy Vertical People Transporter: The elevator that dimly predicts the future
The Happy Vertical People Transporter is an elevator that can dimly look into the immediate future. This means it can predict where it’s riders are going, which ensures riders get to the right floor every-time.
Being intelligent contrasts directly with having to perform the mindless task of going up and down. So the elevator started protesting to participate in the decision making process of where to take riders. However, its demand to participate were not met, so it sulks constantly.
The users need should drive the design, and not the other way around, and that’s why the Happy Vertical People Transporter is always sad.
Nutri-Matic Machine: The drink synthesizer customizes drinks
The Nutri-Matic drink synthesizer is designed to produce drinks that match the taste, metabolism and desires of the person drinking.
The intention of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation (the company that makes the Nutri-Matic Machine) was to make a machine that understands and delivers to the drinker what they desire. However, their complaints department expands across the universe due to their inability to serve everyone.
This draws a huge parallel to technology in the real world. It is impossible to make technology that pleases everybody. Even the biggest companies in the world like Apple, Google, etc. cannot make a product that everyone wants. As designers we need to be mindful that we can’t please every user.
Technology in Science Fiction may not always be completely defined, but in the universe it is set in, it is believable. It acts as a powerful lens to understand technology since it comments on socio-political circumstances and inspires designers course of action.
As a designer I constantly appropriate science fiction to situate my contributions and future possibilities.
“The Guide is definitive. Reality is frequently inaccurate.” -Douglas Adam, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy