Don Norman: Designing For People

Nielsen Norman Group

Scenarios of the future: Two histories of the 21st century

One way to understand what future events might await us is to develop elaborate, complete scenarios of what life might be like as a result of new designs, inventions, and technologies. It isn't enough to describe the potential technologies: the scenario must illustrate how it might be used in everyday life, examining the implications that result.

Science fiction authors have long done just that: developing stories of a future world where the technology is used in a plausible manner, showing the profound social, economic, psychological, and political implications. Science fiction writers, however, are biased, in that they must produce an interesting story, which means there must be a protagonist and a challenge. As a result, the stories do tend to focus upon evil uses of power, technology, and authority, although not necessarily with evil goals in mind (Contrast Huxley's A Brave New World with Orwell's 1984 (which might better have been named 2084).

The field of Design Fiction has similar goals. See:

Bleecker, J. (2009, March). Design Fiction. A short essay on design, science, fact and fiction.  (pdf version)

The purpose of this note is to recommend two recent books that expand upon the genre:

Oreskes, Naomi and Conway, Erik M. (2014). The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future

Two rather different books, but each with a common approach, and quite often, with similar, overlapping scenarios. Both books pretend to b writing a history of the 21st century, looking backwards about the events in the late 1900s and the first decade of the 2000s that established the preconditions for the ensuing events, designs, and technologies.

Adrian Hon presents 100 short scenarios, each just a few pages long, but the total is amazing in its breadth and analysis of the societal implications. Although each is short, I discovered I could not read more than five at a time because that was all my mind could assimilate at a single reading. The result was twenty wonderful reading experiences. I am still processing the implications.

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, historians of science (Oreskes at Harvard and Conway in Pasadena, California) primarily focus upon climate change (and the resistance of society both to acknowledge that it is/was happening and then, even when acknowledged, to do anything of substance to mitigate it) and then analyzing the resulting physical, social, political, and cultural impact of the devastation that followed. They credit Kim Stanley Robinson's two science fiction trilogies on the development of Mars and on Climate change as their inspirations. (As a fan of Robinson, I highly recommend his novels -- the science behind them is strong and reliable.)

While they are at it, Oreskes and Conway paint a devastating critique of science and its insistence on statistical purity and small details, neglecting the huge impact that their work is describing. (Scientists love to argue over details - that's what they are trained to do. As for the societal impact of their work, that's for other people to decide, for example politicians, they sway, and they want no part of it.)

Here is a sample of their critique:
"some scholars have pointed to the epistemic structure of Western science, particularly in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which was organized both intellectually and institutionally around "disciplines" in which specialists developed a high level of expertise in a small area of inquiry. This "reductionist" approach, sometimes credited to the seventeenth-century French philosophe René Descartes but not fully developed until the late nineteenth century, was believed to give intellectual power and vigor to investigations by focusing on singular elements of complex problems. "Tractability" was a guiding ideal of the time: problems that were too large or complex to be solved in their totality were divided into smaller, more manageable elements. While reductionism proved powerful in many domains, particularly quantum physics and medical diagnostics, it impeded investigations of complex systems. Reductionism also made it difficult for scientists to articulate the threat posed by climatic change, since many experts did not actually know very much about aspects of the problem beyond their expertise."

Read the book. It is short and powerful.

Robinson, K. S. (1993). Red Mars (Mars Trilogy). New York: Bantam Books. 
Robinson, K. S. (1994). Green Mars (Mars Trilogy) New York: Bantam Books. 
Robinson, K. S. (1996). Blue Mars (Mars Trilogy). New York: Bantam Books.

Robinson, K. S. (2004). Forty Signs of Rain New York: Bantam Books. 
Robinson, K. S. (2005). Fifty Degrees Below. New York: Bantam Books. 
Robinson, K. S. (2007). Sixty Days and Counting New York: Bantam Books.