Paul Coulton is a key member of the design fiction community and he has written in 2016 with Joseph Lindley and Haider Ali Kamal a very insightful paper on plausibility and deception in design fiction. In this paper, the authors try to tackle the question of whether « well crafted design fictions tend toward plausibility, or is it the designers who intentionally deceive their audience to make design fiction worlds appear real when in fact they are not ? » In other words, we may ask how far can we claim that something is true for people to debate? And how far can we “play” with people’s trust?

In order to answer, they propose that there are three types of design fiction when we discuss plausibility:

  • Obvious design fiction: even if they are not communicated as design fictions per se, the signposts are obvious and there are no mistakes to be done here. The archetypal example here being the superflux’s « uninvited guests video ». To our experience this is the kind of video that will not change the minds of people, but reinforces their previous conviction. Since the message is rather obvious and clearly stated, people tend to see those works of fiction as clear messages. It is more or less a tool to display a message, but without a clear impact on the opposite side.

Think for example of Keiichi Matsuda’s exhibition of his famous movie “Hyper Reality” presented at a meeting in Davos.

While tweeting he decided to destroy the TV screen showing his work by saying the local audience wasn’t able to understand the purpose of the movie. Well, let’s say it is probably a normal situation since his work was presented at … Davos, which we can say is not his native environment. Just like the Yes Men are capable of making a horrible fake Human Resources approach seem attractive to … actual companies that are in the audience. So it might be that these fictions end up being a nice tool to identify the state of mind of the audience, rather than a tool that actually has people change their minds. Even if it is a starting point for an intense debate.

  • Identified as design fictions: The fiction is clearly displayed as a design fiction. The archetypal example is probablythe NFL’s « Curious rituals ». These are speculation about a plausible future, with a less clear message. The very fact of making it plausible – when done well – tends to reduce the public’s ability to really think about it. This then becomes a real plausible future in people’s mind. Just think about the power of science fiction: even dystopian works might appear to be a possible future for viewers since they are regularly confronted to these kind of works. At least, this is the kind of hypothesis we should test in order to understand the actual impact of this genre of work.

  • Ambiguous or concealed design fictions. Here the message is not clear or is hidden on purpose. Obviously, Auger and Loizeau’s tooth implant are perfect examples.

The authors underline that the ethical issue of « true » or « untrue » is a difficult one to adress : by definition a design fiction is not true and is doing its best not to look too much untrue. So the issue lies in the potential deceit of the audience and how to deal with it. As they say, « We can say this because of the strange contradiction between a design fiction’s ‘plausibility’ (truth) and ‘fiction’ (untruth). Looked at from this angle however the question of design fiction is shoehorned into a ‘non sequiturial’ space by the paradoxical nature of the phrase ‘plausible design fiction’. Perhaps the more intriguing part of the question we asked relates to the intentionality embodied within the word deceit. It seems that design fiction as a method tends toward deception, but that is a property of design fiction itself, and the only intrinsic intention behind that deceit comes from the decision to use design fiction in the first place. ».

Well, deception is more likely to be in the minds of people who tend to prefer this kind of innovation, while others may feel relieved that this is pure speculation (and they are probably more confident about their choices after interacting with the fiction, knowing now “for real” how bad could be/ is this possible future).

Like the parafictions used by Yes Men and other activists, it is hard to say whether it is a good starting point to for changing people’s mind, or a way to highlight tensions in society.

At IAW, we have the feeling that everything here depends on what is the purpose that is sought for when doing the design fiction. In a former publication at Futuribles, we have proposed the following analysis: design fiction can be critical or agnostic, and can be used for visioning or for action.

Based on this, the key question of deceiving might be analyzed a bit differently: if you need to convey a very specific message for vision, it might be useful to manipulate your audience on purpose. We did a small workshop a few years ago with the students of Audencia’s Master in Marketing, Design and Creation on this subject. We presented three videos to a team of student and asked them how they felt about it and if their opinion of the subject changed after seeing the video. The tree videos where:

  • Hyper Reality, as shown above.
  • A day made of glass. By showing a very clean and neat future, the movie interestingly suspends the incredulity. Some students for example saying that « nobody goes to soccer with shoes that are perfectly clean » for example. By trying to give a vision of what the future might be, Corning seems to produce something that is too clean and perfect, hence breaking the suspension of disbelief.

  • Micro Killer drone robots. The results here are very extreme. The quality of the video does not give much room for disbelief. The students were mostly shocked and debated a lot about the unintended consequences of innovation : « drones are great if you like producing nice images but we did not think of all the potential usages of the technology ».

What is very interesting here is that the suspension of disbelief in the third video led to a very heated debate regarding the technology and its consequences. Had it been announced as being a design fiction, the exchange might have been less engaged. This is where we get back to this issue of how or when can you « manipulate » your audience.

To try to goes a little bit further, we also did such a test on a massive scale during the Hello Tomorrow Global Summit. We inserted ourselves in the startup lineup and pitched for a technology that is currently being developed (for real) but that we had adapted in order to put it in cellphones, in ads in the subway (not for real). Basically, by observing and analyzing ppm in the someone’s body, we could help banks adapt loans, help Tinder find you a healthy partner etc. The setting was extremely professional, with a member of the team pitching as a fake CEO, a professional journalist doing the interview, a promo video, a landing page and even a fake app.

The results were daunting, even if that tech had numerous challenging consequences (guys, we are analyzing your body so the bank can leverage your payments!!!), only one person out of 400 people challenged us. We even received 4 work applications!

By showing a future that might seem preferable to a specific audience, the actual friction may look like side effects with have less impact than the likely benefits of that situation. We then wondered how much we were really shocking people? We hypothesize here that it is more about reinforcing people’s beliefs, shock being something that we use to ourselves: “well, that’s what I use to reject firmly such or such fact“. Design fiction itself, with no post-visioning treatment seems to have a fairly low impact on people’s positions, even if the fiction is emotionally intense.

At the end of the day, we did a presentation and workshop explaining how we got there, what was the approach etc. The key thing here is that we had a vision of a tech and we wanted to discuss its unintended or dangerous consequences. In order to do so we needed to immerse the audience as much as possible, hence « manipulating » it. Interestingly enough, nothing much happened when we explained that it was a fiction. The message seemed to have been more important that the setting here.

However, we still continue to wonder if design fiction is actually a tool to debate, as most practitioners have said so far, or a tool for domesticating a plausible scenario of future. If we are right, it might be more about strengthening people’s vision, making things plausible when an audience is frequently confronted with a certain vision of the future, and a tool to pave the way for innovation because this makes the future is less abstract, hence easier to capture by people.