08 August 2013
Writer, Paul Graham Raven, introduces the idea of Infrastructure Fiction, ahead of his talk at Lighthouse's Improving Reality 2013 conference this September.
This September, Lighthouse will be continuing our curatorial exploration of technological systems and infrastructures in our programmes for Brighton Digital Festival this year. Alongside Timo Arnall’s Immaterials exhibition, which makes networked infrastructures visible, we’ll be exploring the notion of ‘infrastructure fiction’ within our flagship conference, Improving Reality 2013.
We are pleased to share with you a major piece of writing by one of the conference speakers, Paul Graham Raven. It was originally published on the website of design agency, Superflux, who’s founder, Anab Jain spoke at last year’s conference.
The piece is rooted in Paul’s experience of working with engineers at the University of Sheffield to imagine the future of infrastructures. Paul visited Lighthouse this May to take part in a brainstorming discussion about infrastructures, design fiction and near-futures, with fellow Improving Reality speakers, Justin Pickard and Georgina Voss, and Lighthouse’s July Monthly talk speaker, Scott Smith.
Paul’s subsequent essay outlines many of the ideas we will be exploring within Improving Reality 2013. The conference will explore these ideas from a range of different perspectives, including architecture, urbanism, artistic practice, engineering ethics, design fiction, data visualisation, and scientific enquiry.
There are still tickets available for Improving Reality, and we highly recommend booking soon, so you can be there when Paul Graham Raven, alongside our other speakers, including Keller Easterling, Timo Arnall and Farida Vis, deepen our understanding of the deep reach of technological infrastructures into our lives.
Here is Paul’s blog:
My name’s Paul Graham Raven, and I’m a researcher in infrastructure futures at the University of Sheffield. Team Superflux have very kindly invited me to take the mic and talk about the potential of applying critical design practice and futures thinking to the infrastructural domain. What follows is very much a theory under development; feedback and critique is not just welcome, but actively encouraged.
To begin, though, allow me to quote one of my hosts:
“These projects bypass the established narratives about the present and future that create the hypnosis of normality, and in doing so allow for an emotional connection with the raw weirdness of our times, opening up an array of possibilities.” – Anab Jain, keynote talk from Next13
I’ve begun with this quote from Anab because it’s one of the neatest summaries I’ve found of what design fiction does. Defining how it does what it does, however, is a little more slippery, as it’s less about method than it is about results. We can say that design fiction tends toward the visual: images, videos, simulations, renderings, even theatrical performance. We can also say that in order to produce the desired effect – which we might sum up as a thought-provoking cognitive estrangement – a design fiction has to believe in itself, or at least give the impression of believing in itself. But rather like the presentation of a paper at a conference, the images and videos and so on are the medium, a delivery system for the memetic payload. The payload is possibility, the potential for a different world: a loud bang to break the spell of hypnosis.
Over the last year and half, a bunch of infrastructure academics and researchers, myself among them, managed to commit design fiction by accident.
“All-in-One” was an EPSRC-funded project involving researchers and investigators from the University of Sheffield’s Pennine Water Group, Cranfield University, De Montfort University and the University of Leicester. The project’s remit was unusually open-ended, especially for an infrastructure gig: the basic research question was “would it be possible to replace all the disparate utility infrastructures which we have currently with a system that uses one single unified infrastructure to fulfil all the needs of end-users?” (Research questions are the polar opposite of poetry.)
With a background in science fiction and speculative thinking, this was right up my street. But it was new territory for the civil engineers, modellers and risk analysis types I was working alongside; they were used to working in predominantly quantitative modes, with established systems, analytical frameworks and processes, with strict specifications and roadmaps to completion. Infrastructure is prosaic, practical stuff – it’s mundane, in the literal sense of being of-the-world. It’s about keeping the lights on; if you start getting all visionary, people might think you’re some sort of Tesla wannabe.
Design occupies an interesting position astraddle C P Snow’s two-cultures divide, with one foot in the engineer’s world of practical considerations and the manipulation of materials, and the other foot in the more arty realms of the unfettered imagination. Designers think differently to engineers because design has internalised the notion of critical production, of praxis as discourse, of reflexive rhetoric. To a designer, what a thing means is as important – sometimes more important – as what it does and how it does it.
My theory is that is if you combine a speculative writer like me with engineers, then the gestalt entity that results sits somewhat nearer the centre of the two-cultures spectrum. Just about where you might expect to find a designer, in fact.
The core output of the All-in-One project’s early stages were a handful of vignettes that described possible – if not necessarily plausible – solutions to the All-in-One question. These largely took the form of presentations in the established engineering project-proposal style: much talk of practicalities, materials, logistical problems and sociopolitical challenges.
But leave the format aside for a moment, and look at the actual ideas we came up with: a “city blood” circulatory system, wherein energy is carried to homes dissolved in water like oxygen is carried to our cells by haemoglobin; a rhizome-topology urban network of underground freight-delivery tunnels; the entire planet powered by orbital solar collector satellites, and eventually by a belt of photovoltaics on the moon; and a subterranean modular city based around the central need for water, energy and fresh air. These are combinations of prior speculations and actual contemporary tech developments (the “solar globe” vignette owes a debt to the Shimizu Corporation’s more ambitious blue-sky projects, for instance, and my own “Intertubes” vignette used the Foodtubes proposal as its jump-off point), and they were put together with an engineer’s eye for actual achievable systems, at least as far as technological plausibility is concerned. The links embedded above will let you download the “condensed flyers” we did toward the end of the project; you’ll note that these still speak the language of the proposal, of the project pitch. We were trying to convince our audience of the possibilities, because we were also trying to convince ourselves of them.
Remember what I said back at the beginning, about how design fiction has to believe in itself to do its work? I think if we’d had the knack of that, if we’d found ways to present them not as proposals but as faits accompli, we’d have had four chunks of infrastructure fiction on our hands.
To read the rest of Paul’s blog, please visit http://superflux.in/blog/infrastructure-fiction
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