Sunday, April 26, 2009

Design Fiction

Bruce Sterling on the changing nature of user experience and maker experience of science fiction in light of industrial design and technological change:

The “whole sense of the book” is not the whole sense of the words . Look at the weird “Google erudition” of journalism researched online. Consider the hybridized “Creole media” of blog platforms. The line commands in software are text as an expression of will.

Let me offer an older example here, to show how deep this goes. Consider the literary platforms of a thousand years ago. This remote period saw the birth, or rather the stillbirth, of the novel, with Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji. This Japanese manuscript scroll, written with an ink brush in the late 900s and published in modern times as a book, is nevertheless a true novel. More specifically, it’s a romance. Jane Austen fans could easily parse The Tale of Genji.

While this proto-novel was being written, a rival work appeared, known as The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. This other composition is certainly not a novel. It’s intensely literary, yet it can’t be described by contemporary literary-platform terminology. The Pillow Book is a nonlinear set of writings jotted down on a loose heap of leftover government stationery.

The Pillow Book is not a diary, a miscellany, an almanac, a collection of lists, or even a resource for composing Japanese poetry, although it seems to us to have some aspects of these modern structures. It is better described in terms of user experience.

This experience was a four- or five-year effort to beguile the tedium of a tight circle of Imperial ladies-in-waiting. The experience had a star author/designer-the glamorous and attention-hungry Court Officer Sei-but it had no press, no publisher, no editor, no distributor, and it was never for sale. Its user base- in total, maybe 200 women-probably never read it. Instead, they heard the work recited aloud by someone crouching near a lantern after dark.

A strictly literary approach to this experience hurts our ability to comprehend what The Pillow Book is doing. This ancient “book” is related only distantly to our books; in function and audience, it has more kinship with a small-scale blog.

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