Speculative Fiction and Internet of Things: A workshop/experiment

Kseniia Kalugina & Annette Markham
May 2017

Kseniia Kalugina presented a workshop on speculative fiction writing at Aarhus University on April 26, 2017. This is the first of a series of methodology experiments to explore how certain questions or provocative statements elicit critical analysis around the socio-technical characteristics or impact of so-called “Internet of Things.”

For humanities and social science scholars analyzing the Internet of Things, the target is both difficult to hit and difficult to miss. That’s because everything and anything can be the Internet of Things, since it’s such a vague and broad term. What does it mean? Rather than try to find the definitive answer, Kseniia Kalugina is searching for good questions. This makes sense, as whatever we call “IoT” is constantly shifting. If we’re soon to be surrounded by sensors in our smart devices, homes, workplaces, and cities, it behooves us to think less about what it is and more about what these sensors are doing, how the data being collected is stored and used, and how the internet functions to mediate our everyday lives in material as well as immaterial ways.

There are many texts on speculative forms of analysis and design. We find particular inspiration from Donna Haraway, whose work on ‘speculative fabulation’ encourages us to ‘stay with the trouble,’ think of cultural formations as ‘cat’s cradles,’ and to use ‘what if’ as a starting point for critique

The workshop was focused on the so-called Internet of Things. IoT is simultaneously exciting, terrifying, and vague. What is it? How does it work? When will we live in the IoT, or are we already experiencing it? What does a world full of devices and sensors look and feel like? To develop the groundwork for the workshop, Kseniia analyzed current popular discourse around IoT. Based on the stated promises and premises of pundits and companies promoting IoT, she generated questions first and later, provocative statements to prompt speculative sci-fi thinking, such as:

  • Devices have started writing fake reviews about themselves;
  • The Internet of Things goes on strike
  • The person and the sensor become connected
  • Individuals become invisible to IoT as their data-generating patterns grow more and more redundant
  • Sensors begin to lack enthusiasm for what they sense

Choosing from prompts like these, participants were invited to “write a science fiction in 8 minutes.” After sharing their story with others, the process was repeated with a different prompt. While some of us wrote traditional science-fiction-ish scenes or dialogues, others wrote just snippets of things that would indicate or imply a larger science-fiction story beyond the scope of the exercise.

We encouraged shorter and alternative world building pieces and offered some techniques to make it easy for participants who didn’t –or don’t think they could– write science fiction. E.g., bullet point snippets from newscasts or Tweets following a general strike by Devices; a manual for hacking one’s own body to avoid embedded IoT; tips for distinguishing human from non-human authored product reviews; or arguments between sensors. This technique takes inspiration from J.G. Ballard’s “answers to a questionnaire.” It’s also something that participatory design scholar Ann Light has used in several workshops related to her “World Machines” project.

The workshop worked in many ways. First, we learned which prompts were easier than others. By this, we mean that certain statements or questions lend themselves to quick brainstorming and writing. Prompts that are too complicated only confuse the writer rather than open up possibilities for generative thinking. We also learned that everyone could create an interesting story or description of artifacts from this worlding exercise. We found it inspiring that such critical analysis was accessible to a wide audience with no prior training in research or/and fiction writing. We were surprised that people could write something in such a short time span. Given only 8 minutes, the pieces were sketchy, to be sure, but they were also compelling and left us all wanting more. Finally, we realized that after doing this exercise twice, people were tired. So we stopped at that point and had a discussion instead. 

The outcome of such speculative fiction writing opens up possibilities for reinterpretation of socio-technical present and critical discussions of socio-technical futures. Thus, it enables participants to build and change relationships with the digital in more informed ways. Speculative methods are used in design, city planning, policymaking, and other development environments. This workshop can help academics, developers, and media critics alike.

We’ll give more updates as these pilot workshops continue.

Creating Future Memories

This is part of a series of articles related to Creating Future Memories, an Aarhus University funded research project exploring speculative, future-oriented, and participatory methods for citizens to understand and better control the data being produced through and around the everyday use of digital media.