I saw it there, unmistakable; it was unlike anything I had seen before (or would ever see again).
Often existing just on the edge of familiarity—there exists here a certain resonance with Freud’s “uncanny“—the realm of Science Fiction (SF) might be seen to possess an intuitive relationship with design, with the distinctive look and feel of a crafted world often our first clue that we have transcended everyday reality. On one level, the connection between SF and design seems rather banal, with repeated exposure to depictions of outer space or post-apocalyptic visions of the Earth—we have been there and done that (figuratively, if not literally).
Yet, upon reflection, I think that it’s not only natural for SF to be concerned with the concept of design, but a part of the process itself for both concepts ask the same basic questions of how things could be and how things should be. Science Fiction, then, like design, is concerned with contemplation and speculation, a point echoed by Brian David Johnson.
And contemplation and speculation in SF often takes the form of artistic expression that is largely driven by the realization of relationships that do not yet exist: if a job of a writer is to commit unexplored connections to paper—or perhaps to see established links in a new and/or unexpected light—then the SF writer might tend to focus on relationships as they intersect with technology. In other words, one possible function of SF writers is to explore the interaction between us (as individuals or collectively) and the world around us, highlighting technology as a salient subject; SF provides a creative space that allows authors to probe the consequences of permutations latent in the near future.
The term “technology,” however, should not merely imply gadgets or machines (although it certainly includes them), but rather a whole host of tools (e.g., paper) and apparatuses that comprise the tangible world. We might even broaden the scope of our inquiry, asking whether “technology” is a product, a process, or both. We see, for example, that Minority Report pushes the envelope by proffering new conceptualizations of tools used for imaging and data storage, but John Anderton’s interaction with information surely suggests a rethinking in process as well. Does this practice, on some level, constitute a new technology? Or, perhaps we return our gaze back to futuristic buildings and structures: advances in construction materials certainly represents a new type of technology (in the traditional sense) but architecture as a form also underscores a kind of social interface, its affordant qualities subtly hinting at directions for movement, observation, or interaction. How, then, might the design of something also be considered a type of technology?
So if elements of technology infuse design, and a quick mental survey indicates that design is largely concerned with technology, we might argue that Science Fiction possesses the potential to intersect with design on several levels.
One such implementation, as John Underkoffler points out in his TED talk, is the development of the user interface (UI), an incredibly important milestone in our relationship with computers as it translated esoteric programming syntax into a type of language that the average person could understand. Indeed, as our abilities become more sophisticated, we seem to be making computers more accessible (and also intuitive, although this is a separate issue) to even the most basic users as we build interfaces that respond to touch, gestures, and brain waves.
 Alternatively, one might also suggest that “we are not in Kansas anymore” as a nod to the transformational properties of the third of three related genres: Horror, alluded to by the the uncanny, Science Fiction, and Fantasy.
“Ping!” my phone chimed, pleasantly alerting me to a new e-mail. Rolling over onto my side, I glanced at the tiny screen illuminating the darkened room and briefly debated abandoning the warmth of the comforter but burrowed deeper into instead.
After starting to work, I’ve become one of those people who’s addicted to e-mail: I can’t stand not being linked to the world around me. Computers have become my gateway to the world and I’m constantly agitated when a connection is not at hand.
As I lay in bed trying to go back to sleep, I settled onto my half of the bed and began to muse upon the ways in which my electronic obsession defined both me and the way in which I interacted with the world.
In recent months, a new service called inSPOT has come online, which allows people to send e-mail notifications informing others that they should get tested for a Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI). After hearing about the website, I immediately began to feel a sense of conflict roil up inside: What is the greater good? Raising awareness or addressing the social factors that prevent people from talking about these issues in person?
Initially, I rebelled against the site as I thought that people who engage in sex should prepare themselves for the associated responsibilities. In my mind, the picture has always been clear: it’s difficult enough to have a conversation where you tell your partner that he or she should get tested but, in an ideal world, wouldn’t your ability to have that conversation help to determine if you were ready to engage in sex at all?
On the other hand, I find it difficult to argue that getting more people tested is a bad thing. In fact, the thought that an early notification system could prevent people from unknowingly infecting others is a very compelling argument. And, while I can’t pretend to speak for all young people, haven’t most of my peers integrated electronic communication into their routines? Why not embrace this as an extension of that developed instinct? I certainly don’t disagree with anything that the site is trying to do, but I foresee trouble ahead.
While I generally love to incorporate technology into my life, I can’t help but wonder if we are giving up something by becoming so reliant on these new forms of message dissemination. I probably use text messages or Facebook every day of my life, but do indirect forms of communication contribute to social anxiety? Do we become accustomed to avoiding conflict by not actually talking to each other?
I think that the idea of actually sitting down and talking about serious issues tends to become so foreign and scary because we’ve conditioned ourselves to avoid the fear; by refusing to confront our growing discomfort, we only make things worse. Taking this a step further, what would happen if we didn’t practice our interpersonal relations skills and found ourselves in a situation where we had to have a face-to-face: one can’t have an argument with a spouse, for example, via text message (N.B. “We have to talk” is never a good way to start a discussion).
In the end, I realize that it’s naive to think that everybody is going to develop the skill set necessary to talk to infected partners prior to engaging in sex and the bottom line is that the website might very well be aiding the fight against STIs. Perhaps the result of the clash between idealism and realism is the understanding that there really isn’t a magic bullet that will serve to make STIs disappear; ultimately this approach might have its flaws but it’s undeniably a step in the right direction.