Design Fiction As The Epistemological Monkey WrenchDesign Fiction As The Epistemological Monkey Wrench
Design Fiction As The Epistemological Monkey Wrench

We can use Design Fiction to monkey around with what we know and understand about the world, and why.

Contributed By: Julian Bleecker

Published On: Thursday, April 8, 2021 at 08:37:46 PDT

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  1. The whole NFT thing? It’s like standing between different worlds.
  2. What do I mean by that?
  3. What I mean is this: the idea of an NFT doesn’t make sense to enough people, and does make sense to enough people, that we’re in between two different ways of making sense.
  4. Replace “worlds” in (1) with “ways of knowing” or “ways of seeing” or “epistemologies.” Or “ideologies.” Or “ways of sense-making.”
  5. Parenthetically, NFT is also a sense of hope for a new way of representing value. Or maybe it’s about democratizing art. I heard that one in a super chatty Clubhouse “room.” And-also NFTs are perhaps finally a reason to download and play with 3D software to make some 3D art that looks like that one thing that that one guy sold for a large fortune. Wait..I got it..NFTs are also a new angle to bamboozle some suckers. Could be that it’s a strategem for accumulating more power, right? Because..more. It’s also a good enough reason to say “I told you so! Shoulda bought some crypto in 2017!” Or a new source of anxiety as to why you can’t seem to make it as an artist, cause look at this crap people pay for, and they get to quit their day job, ‘the hell!? Oh..say.. do you have Photoshop/Blender/A Computer/Cinema 4D/Photos of your BFA Thesis Project/, let’s get rich. Etcetera.
  6. Whatever it is to you at this moment, because it isn’t settled even in your own multiply-split consciousness (I’m just guessing, but probably you’ve been talking to yourself about it all), it hasn’t settled into something so sensical that you don’t even bother to talk to yourself about it. You know, like…when you stop thinking about something because it may once have been weird but now it’s boring, ordinary and normal? When things settle down and are no longer miraculous or controversial, or mysterious, or even nonsense? You know what I mean. We’re old enough now and not so silly as we once were to where we would legitimately wonder about where the effluvia goes when we flush the toilet. We don’t really care how an aspirin works. We don’t consider that that cat toy keyfob thing we got at the corner store is a laser light..a fucking Nobel Prize winning laser..on a keychain. Booorrrrriinnnngg stuff. NFTs are not boring and if you think they are you’re probably being defensive and need to be at least curious. Doesn’t mean you have to drink the Kool-Aid.
  7. Actually, NFTs may not make sense to anyone absent the money part, and money makes sense to most everyone so..let’s mint some shit. Like, would anyone besides a handful of crypto nerds give two poops about NFTs if Andreessen Horowitz and the others weren’t pumping serious bank into the ‘ecosystem’. Hellllzzzno! If that wasn’t going on and Clubhouse NFT rooms weren’t nuts, we’d be down at the pub already. Instead, we’re trying to figure out what the heck this ‘Blender’ 3D software thing is everyone keeps talking about in that positively excrutiating Clubhouse room and now why do I keep getting Google ads for kitchen blenders.
  8. Why do I mention NFTs? It’s not really because I feel like opining on the current moment although I guess I have been (cf. 1-7 above, and 9-62 below) and you’d barely have to scratch the surface to see that I’m amused-confused AF.
  9. The most satisfying (to me, anyway) insight I have to say is this:
  10. This is an object lesson on what an emerging consciousness sounds like — and it sounds as gooey and oozy and otherwordly as a creature in a Cronenberg horror film. And-also:
  11. NFTs could have been anything, but happen to have the right mix of:
    • Drama and Mystery (“Crypto!” Satoshi!)
    • ‘Get rich quick’ stories (I mean, ‘got rich quick’ stories)
    • A sense-making gap between those for whom it all makes sense, and those for whom it does not make sense.
  12. Forget about crypto and those three letters for a moment
  13. Instead, focus on the gap between the non-sense and that which can be made sensible.
  14. (BTW, I’ve learned that those three letters are now pronounced ‘NIFTY’. I know this because that’s how they say it in that soul-crushing Clubhouse room that has me massaging the bridge of my nose.)
  15. There is lots of efforts towards sense-making going on out there. It’s happening in Subreddits, in Youtube live feeds, in ad-hoc Zoom webinars, in newsletters, and they’re making a go of it in that Clubhouse room. Etcetera.
  16. What is all that yammering and opining about? That frothiness is people trying to close the gap between their inability to sense-make, and their desire to have it make sense so the storm in that vascularized piece of meat in their skull can settle down, and (possibly) help them make a quick bitski. If it were anything without the mystery-drama of Satoshi, the whiff of gold in them th’ar hills and were just a stock-in-trade thing that didn’t make sense and hurt your brain and otherwise didn’t seem to matter to you or your bank account, then it would be called ‘Calculus’ or ‘Quantum Mechanics’, or even ‘Cost Basis Accounting’. And then most people would be perfectly happy to have it not make any sense, to ignore it all, and just leave it to the nerds to babble on hello I’m off to the pub later for you and your gravity waves and triple integrals and spreadsheets.
  17. “What? $69M for something that anyone at this moment right now can have for $0M? That doesn’t make sense to me. That’s stupid. Beer me, whisky back, thank you.”
  18. “Wait. Someone actually paid the equivalent of $69M for something I can have right now for the equivalent of $0M? I need another aspirin, and-also maybe I should get a coffee in me and give this Blender thing a go.”
  19. This moment of confusion, controversy, and non-sense is symptomatic of new modes of sense making in the process of emergence.
  20. By most reckonings, this emergence of ‘decentralized finance’ has been going on for decades. Maybe longer.
  21. (I was recommended a book, that I bought for regular fungibles, on the topic of DeFi written by a genuine Yogi. Yeah. A Yogi. I’m confused too. Maybe I need a Yogi’s perspective, along with everyone else’s opinion from/in that infernal Clubhouse room.)
  22. In the last few weeks or maybe it’s been a month or so, it’s as if the controversy cleared its lungs, took a deep breath, and made a shrill, sustained scream.
  23. “I’m here. Get used to it. Life’s gonna change for you, buddy. Now you’ll be lucky to get 15 minutes down at your pub.”
  24. “Controversy” might be overstating or misstating the present moment. Whatever “it” is, “it” is a symptom of a wide range of reactions, reflections, exuberance, unease, excitement, a lot of FOMO, and a lot of people who never used 3D software or Photoshop suddenly using 3D software and Photoshop. You also have a lot of folks who would consider themselves artists suddenly hurting because a lot of people who wouldn’t previously have considered themselves artists suddenly consider themselves artists and are making bank. Or hoping to. Just like artists.
  25. Consider that what’s going on at the present moment is an invitation for us to observe and reflect on the molten moments of an evolving and emerging epistemology — a new way of meaning-making, or a new meaning associated with ‘value’.
  26. For those who prefer their money, and value systems, and exchange mechanics the old fashioned way, this hurts. That hurt in your head around all of this that the aspirin isn’t helping? That’s the feeling of this emerging consciousness.
  27. Whatever happens with crypto + art, there will be this moment and we’ll want to figure out what it means, why it came about, who instigated it and who stands to benefit.
  28. Why am I writing this when I said I wasn’t interested in writing about NFTs and crypto and bitcoin and all that? What’s the point?
  29. The point is to take this opportunity to say that “NFTs”, were they a Design Fiction, would be an awesome example of where precisely Design Fiction lives — at the cusp of sense and non-sense. This is precisely because Design Fictions are built specifically to productively and usefully monkey wrench with our understanding of what the world might be like if “X” happened, or was going on, or became a normal, ordinary, everyday thing. What would the world look like if “crypto”? Or, what would the world look if Google made toilets that analyized our effluvia, because, you know — all the world’s data.
  30. How’s that?
  1. Design Fictions are meant to guide our consciousness into a slightly changed world, spend a bit of time there, then come back and reflect, plan, take action.
  2. Design Fictions are like Epistemological Monkey Wrenches.
  3. Design Fictions operate like tools that monkey around with our understanding of what a near future world could be like. They imply a world in which meaning-making is slightly askew. A world in which, for the crypto example, value is attributed by ownership of an index to a thing in a globally shared ledger, rather than having the indexed thing actually in one’s possession to the exclusion of anyone else. I mean..the thing itself isn’t even in the ledger. Could you imagine if ledgers actually had the thing? How would you fit a factory or house or container ship in a ledger? (Lest you feel confused, that was me being cynical probably because I don’t want to admit I’m lost and confused here.)
  4. (Also, ‘Ledger’ has a nice Dickensian ring to it compared to ‘Spreadsheet’, don’t you think? More evocative of modest, humble, visor-wearing fellers in crisp white shirts with those sleeve protectors lest they get ink on their cuffs. Spreadsheet has a terrible connotation. It makes me think of Excel. That makes me want to throw up forever. Spreadsheets can be so confusing. ‘Ledger.’ Say it as if you were Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. ‘Ledger..’ That works, Satoshi. Thanks. Good branding, that.)
  1. Speaking of monkey wrenches — they weren’t monkeys, but remember in 2001: A Space Odyssey when the Monolith first shows up? And those almost-human primate beasts are all freaked out and the one guy, let’s call him Edgar, well..Edgar, against any good hygiene protocols, he up and touches it, right? The best interpretation of the moment is that the Monolith compels the emergence of an imaginative consciousness about tool use so that Edgar now realizes that the rib bone there on the ground can be used to do stuff — like club some other primate to death and assert will, power, water rights, etc.
  2. Substitute ‘Monolith’ for ‘NFT’ when you’re taking the puppy dog for a walk or your equivalent of such an activity and ponder that to see how it plays out. I did that and this is what I came up with:
  3. This NFT moment is a bit like that one in 2001, including the bellowing howls and wild, unbridled, frothy exuberance of something new now finally making sense. To some people, at least. I mean the tribe of primates who figured it out and get to do the clubbing, they figured something out. Maybe they were more imaginative as they consider that those once stupid bones can actually become useful clubs. The ones who didn’t figure that out are getting clubbed, or gonna get clubbed. They might be on Clubhouse in that one room called NFT Tips and Tricks!!!🥇💫🍕🧨🤖. They’re in there trying to figure out how to get rich — err..I mean imaginative — with Photoshop and Blender.
  4. Art&D.
  5. It’s no accident that art is integral to this moment.
  6. It’d be boring to be more precise about what art might mean in that last sentence. Suffice it to say that there may be no other suitable way to imagine a new system of meaning-making and sense-making than art. It’s an especially shrewd framework for expressing the imagination. It’s a kind of cultural R&D. Which is one reason why art is centered in this frothy controversy. Could this all come from a master of business administration? From a state legislator or government minister? From a car dealer or Chief Marketing Officer or even Chief Innovation Officer? Would a certified Design Thinking facilitator get to this point? A trends forecaster? Not to mention your next door neighbor who insists on watering their lawn in a drought? Or the clerk at the county courthouse? Maybe. Doubt it.
  7. Gotta make the Art, it’s the best R&D.
  8. CryptoKitties are like Kubrick’s primates after the Monolith in this slightly askew and confusing NFT world. Cryptopunks? That’s a cave drawing. From a technical-artistic perspective, they’re close to shit. Sorry. I said it. Because that’s what they’d be if you couldn’t make sense of them. “Cute”, at best. But if you lost one, you’d probably be fine. Now if you had one and lost your “crypto wallet”, you’d be pulling your hair out. “Where’s my crypto wallet!? Shitshitshit..”
  9. Those CryptoKitty and CryptoPunk things are about as meaningful a representation as, well — literally a cave drawing, which only really make sense when they’re given meaning as the emergence of human imagination or ‘storytelling’, if you prefer. (Unless you skipped the art history lesson in which case they’re just cave drawings.)
  10. I can see another cave dweller rolling their eyeballs as Edgar — tongue pushing at the inside of his cheek, head askew in concentration — tries his best to find the line that’ll get that damn four-legged thing he saw outside to look right on this damp cave wall.
  11. “Edgar. Dude. Did you lick that Monolith thing again? That looks nothing like an antelope. NOTHING like it..say, you gonna finish your Brontosaurus Burger, what?”
  12. Cave drawings find their value from the meaning laminated on them consequent to this moment. You know..the archeologists or anthropologists or art historians or whoever it is that wants to make those drawings make sense.
  13. Same goes for @jack’s self-indulgent NFT sale of a screengrab of his first tweet. At the moment of creation, they’re complete non-sense except to a few who could live in that world where it makes sense. It’s shit, that tweet. I could’ve written a better first tweet, damnit. Actually, I may have but I’d have to scroll for days. But maybe it’d be worth it? Mint that shit into something so it makes sense?
  14. (Someone right now may be saying that I’m completely off my rocker. They may be saying that I’m making sense of all this all wrong. Someone is also sighing with relief saying..finally..someone understand what the heck is going on and is helping me understand what the heck is going on.)
  15. I was talking about art as the articulation of human thought and the willful expression of the imagination and also art as the ability to playfully craft new systems of meaning, untethered from some other less imaginative, purely instrumental frameworks like next-day package services, medical procedures, hardware store supply chains, instructions for tightening that one bolt that keeps the engine on the plane, McDonald’s precise burger grilling directions, etcetera. There’s art, which is childish and silly. And then there’s fast-food burger making, which sure as shit better not be an experiment of the human imagination cause the FDA or whoever would shut. it. down. (And planes would fall from the sky frequently.)
  16. Exactly 17 years ago I created this ‘art’ project as a commission from Eyebeam Atelier. I called it WiFi.ArtCache. It was a box that established a reality distortion field — really! If you got in it, shit got weird. So weird that I’m sure it was pure shit to most people. Maybe it was even shit to all 12 people who saw it.
  17. That’s because it just barely made any sense. And there was no one who wanted to bother to make it make sense, so it stayed a bit shit. In fact, it could only make sense as an art project.
  18. (That’s another way of saying that it could only be ‘justified’ as an art project. And bonus time for getting a proper commission to do it. I think I could make half my rent with that commission, but I spent it on supplies.)
  19. I said it was a box. In that box was a bit of hardware and some custom code.
  20. None of this ‘full-stack’ rubbish. Proper wild, wild west computer code. It was a Blunderbuss to the full-stack guy’s F-22, but it got the job done.
  21. It was code that effervesced little non-fungible bits of art over WiFi which you could download when you were connected to the cache. When you went home and looked at the art you had downloaded, it was entirely different — and was maybe even ‘dead’..a big white square whereas once there had been vibrant color and activity.
  22. This makes no sense. Breakfast cereal makes more sense that that stupid shit.
  23. Why should the digital artifact be different just because you were no longer at the effervescent fountain of the WiFi.ArtCache?
  24. 🤷🏽‍♂️
  25. Because it’s curious to make up an object from a world in which things are a bit different, including a world in which place matters — could an NFT sound different if it were listened to over here versus over there? We could wonder about that and write about it — or we could create a prototype of an object that was from that world. Which is what I did. Why? Because it’s more articulate to make the thing from the world you’re imagining than just writing about it. Leastways, that’s how I think. Maybe it’s because I don’t want to put my engineering degrees and designer’s sensibilities to waste. Also, writing is hard.
  26. That (59) is Design Fiction. (That project was done before I would’ve called it that. I think it was just an art provocation back then, as in — provoking conversations and questions at least by the dozen people who bothered to wonder. I’m pretty sure they were all my friends.)
  27. (That’s also the subtext of Anil Dash’s short essay on his prototype of the general principle of NFTs with Kevin McCoy, I would say. Although it sounds like his opinion is within the controversy rather than an observer of the controversy. Which makes a difference, I think. I heard that hackathon project they did is gonna go for long dollars on some NFT art market. Loooonnng dollars. Kevin McCoy deserves it. He’s been at it as a digital artist for ages, bless him.)
  28. I just remembered that the first and only NFT-y art thing in the WiFi.ArtCache had a monkey in it. My friend Marina made it. I goaded her into doing the project, but the monkey was all her idea.
A page from a workshop with a drawing of an epistemological diagram