Ethnographies from the Future: What can ethnographers learn from science fiction and speculative design?
Editor’s Note: Laura Forlano (@laura4lano) is a tenure-track Assistant Professor of Design at the Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology and she was a Visiting Scholar in the Comparative Media Studies program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2012-2013. Her research is on emergent forms of organizing and urbanism enabled by mobile, wireless and ubiquitous computing technologies with an emphasis on the socio-technical practices and spaces of innovation. In her contribution, Laura describes the lessons ethnographers can learn from Science-Fiction and a sub-domain of design referred to as “speculative design”.
In the recent science fiction film Elysium, by South-African-Canadian director Neill Blomkamp and Matt Damon, the world has descended into a dystopia in which the poor, non-white population must live in squalor on Earth working for a factory that makes robots while the wealthy have moved to a man-made country club in the sky. A recent segregation-mapping project profiled in WIRED illustrates that extreme geographic divisions between rich and poor are not reserved for Hollywood but are actually part and parcel of our current social realties (Vanhemert, 2013). Increasingly, narratives from science fiction (as well as speculative design and design fiction) are being used as modes of imagining alternative futures in a critical and generative way (without being technodeterministic) in emerging research and design practice, and these practices have much promise for ethnographic methods. For example, for over a decade, the film Minority Report has inspired technologists and designers alike as a classic, deterministic vision of a future in which gestural interfaces and biometric technologies are commonplace.
Ethnography as Time Travel
Ten years ago – about one year after I had acquired my very first mobile phone, a silver Samsung clamshell style with a distinctly awful ringtone – I remember standing in a cramped elevator compartment at the Central European University in Budapest with a number of senior colleagues when I announced that I had decided to focus my doctoral research on the wireless Internet. One colleague snorted and laughed, stating, “You can’t study something that doesn’t exist.”
Yet, as ethnographers and designers of emerging technology, this is exactly what we must find ways to do. And, in 2002, I set out to explore the many ways in which it is, in fact, quite possible to study the future. In my case, it did not matter that, in reality, Bryant Park, a park near Times Square in mid-town Manhattan, had had a fully functioning free, public wireless network since 2001. The important thing was that, in the public imagination, even among telecom experts, the technology was not yet part of everyday life.