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Science Fiction and Design as World-Making

By Evan Raskob

Recently, I had a discussion with a colleague who makes robot drones that automatically build outdoor structures, like buildings. “How great would it be,” he said, “if we could also automate the process of making the drones? Drones could make other drones and both could build buildings?” This is the concept of the self-replicating machine, certainly not a new idea. The difference between my colleague’s idea and past ideas was that this was no thought experiment. He planned to make these self-replicating construction machines, and soon.

His concept is a riff on the same dream as the creators of the RepRap1, started over 15 years by Dr Adrian Bowyer. RepRap machines were designed from low-cost 3D printers that would eventually evolve into self-replicating machines. These machines never fully achieved that dream, but a swarm of new companies evolved their open-source hardware and software into marketable products around the world.

In that sense, they did manage to replicate themselves all over the world and continue to evolve, albeit indirectly. RepRap helped to seed a complex ecosystem of similar machines that make, made up of evolving designs, parts, software, manufacturing technologies, companies, and users. This ecosystem around the entire world, from the UK to China, Russia to South Africa.

In the book Accelerando2, Charles Strauss imagined self-replicating machines as a sort of virus infecting the universe. Self-replicating factories are sent into space to turn the raw materials of empty, uninhabited planets into the factories and infrastructure needed to support human colonists. In all walks of life, they replace human labour entirely. His humans were mostly left to a life of leisure, study and playing politics.

The great challenges for humans in Strauss’ future world weren’t the usual job insecurity, low wages, or health and safety for unskilled labour. The semi- and post-human-era people are more concerned with keeping the robots and the AIs that run them from becoming sentient - and protecting themselves from the ones that were. Sentient, super-intelligent robot collectives that seized the means of their production could make humanity irrelevant at best, extinct at worst.

Science fiction has been trying to conjure up a future of automated production for some time now. The trope of “a device that can effortlessly make anything” is a well-worn one. William Gibson put them in the mundane convenience stores that anchor city blocks around the world. Star Trek had replicators, food synthesizers, bio-matter re-sequencers and even a full-on Holodeck to the keep waste from building up and the crew well fed.

In science fiction, the point of these devices were mainly narrative. Writers were more concerned with the dramatic, personal adventures of the high-level crew members than the intricacies of the waste management systems and the workings of a massive starship kitchen. Sadly, no Anthony Bourdain appeared on the Enterprise, writing a tell-all book about cybernetically-enhanced chefs and an intergalactic rabble of line cooks struggling to produce palatable cuisine for members of different species.

Our collective imagination of what future humans will do with our augmented cybernetic selves and robotic companions generally lacks the practical details of day to day life - and focuses more on the grand social activities of love, politics and war. As Tim Harford pointed out, the landmark sci-fi film Blade Runner had a future android hunter (Deckard) using a pay phone as a main means of communication. A great many people today, 30 years on, have never even seen the outdated technology of a pay phone. “…when asked to picture how everyday life might look in a society sophisticated enough to build such biological androids, our imaginations falter.”3

Perhaps that is a function of the escapist, emotionally-charged nature of our fiction. Perhaps that is because writing is more of a mental task than a physical one and worlds of imagination flow more freely from the pen and word processor. Or perhaps it is because not enough designers, makers, industry veterans, and academics are engaged in writing science fiction.

Design Science Fiction Storytelling as a Card Game

Or, it could be something in the mainstream techniques for telling stories. A majority of Western tales rely on the structure of the “Hero’s Journey”4 from Joseph Campbell (recently revised by “Rick and Morty” creator Dan Harmon5). As a gross oversimplification, these stories follow a relatable “hero” (or “anti-hero”) character who acts as a relatable proxy for the audience. They experience the ups and downs of the tale as the hero faces challenges that they need to overcome, and in the end experience how the hero is changed by their journey in unexpected ways.

One problem with using this structure for future planning is that it limits the audience’s point of view to very few characters, mainly focusing on the hero. In the disciplines of Scenario Planning, Futuring, Design Science Fiction, or Economic Science Fictions, we are looking to understand a complex, unpredictable future system from the point of view of many “characters:” organisations, be they companies, governments, trade unions, nations, or other collectives of people at any scale.

If economics itself is a form of science fiction, as William Davies argued,6 we need more stories of economic systems to tell than the largely dystopian ones we’ve got. But from a practical standpoint, it’s very difficult to use single narratives employing single point-of-view characters to meaningfully explore such systems.

Reimagining a world as a collection of alternate forms of media with alternative narrative structures could be one such way. “Media,” in this sense, could be anything that humans can create, such as the written and printed page, along with illustration, video, sculpture, performance, sound, and interactive objects and spaces. A mainstream example of this is the Star Wars Expanded Universe7 of fan fiction, trading cards, authorised novels, comic books, and films helped flesh out a more fully-formed world than the classic Hero’s Journey of Luke Skywalker from the original films. Immersive theatre has moved in this direction, Punch Drunk and Secret Cinema being a few examples, as has Virtual Reality with exploratory narrative game like The Invisible Hours.

Creating these multi-media, multi-perspective narratives is a challenge for individuals, no matter how creative. That is partly what motivated us to create a card-based board game to help designers and artists and other creative people quickly develop design science fiction stories. Frank Herbert’s Dune was an inspiration for his use of narrative based less on characters than on changing institutions and ecology.

In our game, we anchor the gameplay by providing all the players with shared general plot points in a future narrative. Inside these plot points, people put together story elements using different rules to create fleshed out narratives of how future people and organisations might behave. Players generate creative and provocative stories by combining classic storytelling elements like real “characters,” conflict, metaphor, and context using informative cards with key organisations and people, future events, and tidbits of relevant research into current and future issues. In this version of the game, all the story elements come from actual research into automated computer manufacturing by academics and industry, so the resulting stories have a rigour and realness to them. The devil is in the details.8

Another design decision was to use my background in teaching and constructive criticism to build in gameplay that is supportive and cooperative but also critical. Finding the balance of support and critique is one of the hardest parts of education. The creative act of imagining future worlds is a vulnerable one. All imagined worlds are flawed in some way, because who can imagine a perfect future?

A competitive game would have players tearing vulnerable ideas apart before they have a chance to mature into plausibility. And mature they must, because implausible stories distract from their purpose, especially those meant to persuade. The point is not to perfect but to provoke and discuss, so cooperation and constructive criticism is a central part of playing.

Design Science Fiction as Tool-Making

Beyond narratives, we can use tool-making9 as a form of future thinking. The future doesn’t have to be imagined, it can be actualised. Now that we have actual, widespread 3D printing and robot manufacturing in use, we have a different, more practical view of automated production’s strengths and weaknesses.

Accerlerando (and arguably Star Trek) is a thought experiment studded with some prescient predictions that says as much about our present existential anxiety as it does about the real possibilities of future automation and AI. One path to understanding the future, which Strauss’ takes, is to conjure it up in such detail that it must soon exist. Another way, the way of the scientist, engineer, designer, and tinkerer is to pick a new direction and start experimenting until something becomes real.

Most designs for 3D printing and automated production are born in a computer and are hatched into a physical reality. This area of computational physical design is lacking in, ironically, a sense of the physical. They must rely on computers from the start of their idea to the finished object, which more-often-than-not fails to come out as planned. At the high end, this process works with a degree of efficiency: professional designers have access to expensive, powerful computational tools and the collective manufacturing experience that comes from working in industry.

At the low end, for students, home offices, small businesses, and crafts practitioners, it is a wasteful and inconsistent process that can produce novel results but at a considerable cost of time, materials, and energy. The design process is still iterative, but the designer has to wait until the entire process is finished before iterating a design. Feedback given along the way is screen-based, a best-guess simulation or simply suggestions of best practice reflected in colour-coded on-screen models. The designer starts in one CAD program, moves to another 2 or 3 to “clean up” their model, then yet another one that prepares it for printing. during the print, they have little direct control until the physical object is finished or fails, the latter happening much more often. This process is disjointed, complex, and brittle. There is a lot of waiting involved, for rendering, slicing, and printing. It is not a “live” process.

Tools for Liveness in Computational Design

Liveness here is a direct connection between designer and the medium they are designing for. Direct here means that the designer can make a change and instantly (or near enough) experience that change, in that medium. For example, a traditional designer working with wood in a live manner can touch the object they are making, hold a piece of sandpaper to smooth it, use a bandsaw to cut it, and both see and feel these effects as they happen. The speed with which a trained carpenter cuts into wood with a saw changes the nature of their cuts: depth, width, roughness.

“Liveness” in computational design already exists under a collection of names and genres but currently lacks a coherent argument that binds them together. In the foreword to “Maeda\@Media” in 2000 Nicholas Negroponte bemoaned the complexity of software for making drawings, diagrams, and manipulating images. Software, especially for graphic design, had become “a compost heap of useless options, expired releases and nonsensical interfaces.”

One of the hallmarks of John Maeda's work was the liveness that he brought to screen-based, 2D design. Eventually, these experiments in liveness begat the minimalist creative coding tool Processing, which in part morphed into the minimalist physical computing platform Arduino. Both platforms brought an exacting immediacy to computational graphic design and physical computing to much more mainstream audiences than ever before. They were free, live, and being self-contained were relatively easy to distribute, install and use.

Such are the lofty goals for LivePrinter, our new system for live computational sculpting[^10]. LivePrinter is a live, immediate system for combining the design and 3D printing of objects. It is an interactive experiment in painting plastic forms in space using computer code that live-controls a 3D printer. Livecoding is used to control manufacturing precisely and procedurally with real-time flexibility. It brings improvisation and intuition to the act of making new computational forms. It gives back space in physical computational design for live improvisation and experimentation, especially with key properties that directly affect printing materials, like temperature and print speeds.

The project, initiated by myself with help from my collaborator Nick Rothwell, is about developing an open, interactively programmed 3D printing system for live computational making. The system extends digital printing and CNC machining into the realm of performance and also has potential in design and science pedagogy. It is not an end in itself, but a tool for investigating what future cybernetic design can be.


  1. "RepRap project - Wikipedia." [[\_project]{.underline}]( Accessed 4 Jul. 2018.
  2. "Accelerando - Charlie\'s Diary - Antipope!." [[]{.underline}]( Accessed 4 Jul. 2018.
  3. [[]{.underline}](
  4. "Hero\'s journey - Wikipedia." [[\_journey]{.underline}]( Accessed 4 Jul. 2018.
  5. "Story Structure 101: Super Basic Shit \| Channel 101 Wiki \| FANDOM \...." [[\_Structure\_101:\_Super\_Basic\_Shit]{.underline}]( Accessed 5 Jul. 2018.
  6. "Economic Science Fictions \| The MIT Press." [[]{.underline}]( Accessed 5 Jul. 2018.
  7. "Star Wars Expanded Universe - Wookieepedia - Fandom." [[\_Wars\_Legends]{.underline}]( Accessed 5 Jul. 2018.
  8. "The devil is in the detail - Wikipedia." [[\_devil\_is\_in\_the\_detail]{.underline}]( Accessed 4 Jul. 2018.
  9. Orkhan Telhan in "From Growing Tools to Designing Organisms: Changing the Literacies of Design", in: (M. Filimowicz & V. Tzankova, eds.) "Teaching Computational Creativity", Cambridge University Press, 2015 called it tool-making in but others like Wolfgang Jonas might call it "a cybernetic model for design research" or "research through design:" "A Cybernetic Model Of Design Research. Towards a trans-domain of knowing", in: (Paul A. Rodgers and Joyce Yee, eds.) The Routledge Companion To Design Research, London New York: Taylor & Francis Group 2014
  10. </ol>