A Dreamer, A Thinker, A Speculative Philosopher

“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.

Conclusion

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

Designing the future

“First electricity, now telephones. Sometimes I feel as if I were living in an H.G. Wells novel.” – Dowager Duchess (Downton Abbey)

One of my favorite characters in television is the Dowager duchess from Downton Abbey, who will do anything to avoid the future. Her attempts to live in the past are comical, but there is no escaping the future. 

Avoiding the future can have disastrous consequences. That is why as a designer I need to actively design for the future. While designing products I try to have foresight and awareness of the kind of society I am creating.

In my project FoodPop, my team and I preempted the future we would be designing for by world building, and creating a narrative for our autonomous car project.

The Seamless Future: Omniscient Data :  High Infrastructure


In the Seamless Future we are completely connected to the city and the city is connected to us. When we move through the city, transport and pathways are timed for our arrival and optimized for your destination. It’s a future where getting lost is an impossibility.

The Neighborhood: Limited Data :  Low Infrastructure

Autonomous vehicles make longer commutes a time of relaxation rather than frustration. Suburban and community centered lifestyles have become very desirable. Even though many in these pleasant burroughs benefit from technology they value face to face interaction and community. 

By creating tools and experiments designers can actively think about the future.

I try to remember that the future’s temporal context might not be the same as the present. It is impossible to predict the future, but the only thing that is certain is that it will be different from the present.

I also try to account for diversity and expect multiple outcomes when I design. Designing in a closed environment like a lab or classroom is a good starting point, but understanding the greater context and implications of designing in the real world is more important.

As designers thinking about the future and context of design is not only a necessity, but also a responsibility.

“Designers are always designing the future”- Herb Simon

My team: Aaron Sisneros, Rachel Roberts, Isamu Taguchi. Image credit: Aaron Sisneros