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Material Speculation: Actual Artifacts for Critical Inquiry

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Material Speculation: Actual Artifacts for Critical Inquiry

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div class="page" title="Page 1"> Speculative and fictional approaches have long been implemented in human-computer interaction and design techniques through scenarios, prototypes, forecasting, and envisionments. Recently, speculative and critical design approaches have reflectively explored and questioned possible, and preferable futures in HCI research. We propose a complementary concept – material speculation – that utilizes actual and situated design artifacts in the everyday as a site of critical inquiry. We see the literary theory of possible worlds and the related concept of the counterfactual as informative to this work. We present five examples of interaction design artifacts that can be viewed as material speculations. We conclude with a discussion of characteristics of material speculations and their implications for future design-oriented research. </div
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Material Speculation: Actual Artifacts for Critical Inquiry
Ron Wakkary1,2, William Odom1, Sabrina Hauser1, Garnet Hertz3, Henry Lin1,
Simon Fraser University, Surrey, British Columbia, Canada1
Eindhoven University of Technology, Eindhoven, Netherlands2
Emily Carr University of Art and Design, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada3
{rwakkary, wodom, shauser, hwlin}@sfu.ca; r.l.wakkary@tue.nl; ghertz@ecuad.ca
ABSTRACT
Speculative and fictional approaches have long been
implemented in human-computer interaction and design
techniques through scenarios, prototypes, forecasting, and
envisionments. Recently, speculative and critical design
approaches have reflectively explored and questioned
possible, and preferable futures in HCI research. We
propose a complementary concept material speculation
that utilizes actual and situated design artifacts in the
everyday as a site of critical inquiry. We see the literary
theory of possible worlds and the related concept of the
counterfactual as informative to this work. We present five
examples of interaction design artifacts that can be viewed
as material speculations. We conclude with a discussion of
characteristics of material speculations and their
implications for future design-oriented research.
Author Keywords
Material Speculation, Speculative Design; Design Fiction.
Critical Inquiry
ACM Classification Keywords
H.5.m. Information interfaces and presentation (e.g., HCI):
Miscellaneous.
INTRODUCTION
Interaction design and human-computer interaction (HCI)
have long borrowed from fiction in design techniques like
scenarios, personas, enactments, and even prototyping.
Speculative inquiries in design like futuring, forecasting,
and envisionments have also deeply incorporated practices
of fiction. Recently, design fiction has emerged as a
uniquely productive approach to speculative inquiries. Most
importantly, design fiction has extended the speculative aim
of designits future orientationinto more reflective realms
that critically challenges assumptions we hold about design
and technology. This is a valuable step in interaction design
research toward offering approaches to more critical
speculative inquiries.
In considering the productive pairing of design and fiction
to advance critical speculation, there is an opportunity to
explore other forms of fiction informed practices that might
nurture and expand interaction design research efforts. To
date, fictional thinking in design has focused on science
fiction and scenarios, and on conceptual artifacts like non-
functioning prototypes, storytelling props, and fictional
objects. The HCI community has paid less attention to other
theories of fiction in addition to science fiction. Relatedly,
HCI researchers have largely overlooked the role that actual
and situated artifacts in the everyday can offer for
speculative and critical inquiries in design. This shift in
attention to actual and situated artifacts would reveal design
artifacts and everyday settings to be sites for speculative
and critical inquiry.
This paper introduces a complementary concept to design
fiction that we call material speculation. This concept
draws on the literary theory of possible worlds [cf. 48].
Material speculation emphasizes the material or mediating
experience of specially designed artifacts in our everyday
world by creating or reading what we refer to as
counterfactual artifacts. Material speculation utilizes
physical design artifacts to generate possibilities to reason
upon. We offer material speculation as an approach to
critical inquiries in design research. In plain fashion, for
this paper we consider speculative inquiries that aim to
generate progressive alternatives to be critical inquiries.
Our work builds on speculative and critical design, which
can be seen as broad yet established approaches to design
aimed at exploring and questioning possible, plausible,
probable, and preferable futures [18, 19, 24]. Notions of
speculative and critical approaches to design have a long
history that extends across several disciplines and continue
to be the subject of ongoing theorization and debate [4, 18,
41, 30, 1, 50, 27]. A primary goal of this paper is to
contribute to the growing relevance and interest in a
speculative and critical position on design in the HCI
community. We do this through proposing material
speculation as a conceptual framing for reading and
creating design artifacts for critical inquiry. It is important
to note that we do not propose material speculation as a
means of classification or definition of artifact types or
design approaches. In this sense, aspects of material
speculation may well overlap with design fiction, or related
notions like speculative design or critical design. Our aim is
Copyright© 2015 is held by the author(s). Publication rights licensed to
Aarhus University and ACM
5th Decennial Aarhus Conference on Critical Alternatives
August 17 21, 2015, Aarhus Denmark
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7146/aahcc.v1i1.21299
97
not to develop a mutually exclusive term or to create a
hierarchy among concepts. However, we believe there are
unique benefits and outcomes in using the conceptual
framing of material speculation to understand design
artifacts and to create them.
Our contributions in this paper are multi-fold. We extend
the critical and reflective speculation in interaction design
and HCI research by articulating the concept of material
speculation. This concept advances the notion that the
material existence of specifically designed artifacts situated
in the everyday represent a unique and productive approach
to critical inquiry. This paper also contributes a theorized
understanding of material speculation and, by extension,
fiction-focused practices in design research through the
reasoned adaption of possible worlds theory to interaction
design research. More broadly, the paper can be seen as
another step forward in supporting the need for more
reflective and critical forms of knowledge production in
HCI and interaction design. Importantly, we stress that this
type of critical inquiry occurs through the conceptualizing
and crafting of design artifacts to generate theoretical
articulations and intellectual argumentation.
BACKGROUND AND RELATED WORK
The review of related work that follows is intended to
establish two main points: 1) the potential of critical
speculation in design, 2) the crafting and material strategies
in speculative inquiries in design that serve as antecedents
and inspirations for material speculation.
Speculation and fiction in design
Fiction has had a long trajectory of use in interaction design
research, particularly as a means to aid the process of
interaction design and more recently as a mode of critical
inquiry. Design as a discipline is concerned with change
and preferred futures. As a result there is a natural
orientation towards the future and the use of futuring
activities in design. For example, the creation of personas -
fictional characters representing potential users – [15] and
scenarios narrated descriptions of future design details to
inform design rationales [14]. In parallel, prototyping has
been a useful technique in design leading to final (future)
designs through mockups and models. These practices of
design can be seen to draw on fictional thinking or include
fictional components. In design fiction, the use of fictional
practices in design becomes more explicit and a source for
investigating the speculative potential of design.
Design fictions relate to representations of the future from
science fiction to design scenarios that detail “people,
practice and technology” [8, p.133]. Discussions on
technological futures have been well established within
Science and Technology Studies (STS) [13, 52, 43], yet
these discussions are relatively new to interaction design
and HCI. The term design fiction arose in a presentation
given by Julian Bleecker in 2008 [9]. Bleecker sees in the
idea of science fiction a genre-methodology for design [9]:
“Design Fiction is making things that tell stories. It’s like
science-fiction in that the stories bring into focus certain
matters-of-concern, such as how life is lived, questioning
how technology is used and its implications, speculating
about the course of events; all of the unique abilities of
science-fiction to incite imagination-filling conversations
about alternative futures.”
For Dourish and Bell [17], science fiction provides a
representation of a practice in which technical and material
developments will be understood. It is not only that science
fiction stories offer imaginary prototypes of things to be but
also that science fiction creates environments in which
these things are discussed, understood, and used. The
fictional embedding of design and technology with fictional
people and in practices brings to the fore the cultural
questions of these futures and the roles of technologies.
Dourish and Bell [17] argue that these cultural issues are
inherent in our notions of design and technology. Science
fiction reveals our prior cultural commitments before any
implementation of design or technology. What emerges in
their readings of science fiction is an “imaginative and
speculative figuring of a world” in which new things and
technologies will inhabit; and the bringing into focus of the
“central role of sociological and cultural considerations”
that are often obscured in our techno-centric reasoning of
actual technologies [17]. What is evident is that science
fiction affords an enhanced form of critical reasoning on
technologies and design.
Similarly, Reeves [42] sees design fictions as texts to be
productively read and unpacked. Reeves argues a greater
role should be given to fiction in the futuring activities of
design that he refers to as envisioning. In his view, a more
critical envisioning would disentangle the aspects of fiction
from the less productive qualities of forecasting and
extrapolations [42, p.1580] (see [10] as an exemplary
approach to envisioning through fiction). Reeves
specifically cites Bleecker’s method of design fiction that
sets out the goals of not only reading but generating design
fictions that express multiple futures and by that let go or
challenge assumptions about the direction and breadth of
progress. Bleecker and Reeves see in design fictions a
design method that engages assumptions of the future as a
means to derive critical understandings of the present.
Similarly, Bardzell and Bardzel [3] see how fiction and
science fiction can reinvigorate visioning in HCI through
what they conceptualize as cognitive speculation.1 They
propose a form of speculative thinking that is grounded in
the realities of current science but rely on imaginative
extrapolation that is intellectually rigorous and reasoned.
This methodological approach mobilizes science fiction to
1 It should be noted that our use of the namematerial
speculation” is largely coincidental to the name of Bardzell
and Bardzell’s concept.
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critically inquire and envision technological futures that
foreground the lived experiences of the future world.
These deeply articulated discussions help to reveal the
significance and potential of science fiction in design and
critical inquiry. In essence, the practices of science fiction
bring to design research the reasoning on multiple futures
that challenge assumptions and the sociological, cultural,
and political tendencies that underlies our representations
and considerations of design and technology.
In considering a design orientation to critical inquiry,
cognitive speculation can be seen to have higher-level
concerns that run parallel to our comparatively grounded
concerns with material speculation. With respect to design
fiction, its limitation is its emphasis on the creation or
reading of fictional texts that are embedded with references
to design and technologies. The artifact in design fictions is
a mere reference, prop, or non-functioning prototype
referred to as a diegetic prototype based on Kirby [29]. To
paraphrase Kirby, a diegetic prototype is a technology or
technological artifact that only exists in the fictional world
but fully functions in that world. In opposition to that, our
discussion of material speculation opens the critical
functioning of alternative futures in design through the
crafting of material artifacts that operate and exist in the
actual world. This shift to materialized and crafted
speculations draws on the work we generally refer to as
speculative design.
Crafting material speculations
Speculative artifacts have played important and ongoing
roles in design-oriented research in and outside of HCI. For
example, Sengers and Gaver [49] unpack a range of
speculative design artifacts that critically inquire intoand
often complicate or unsettlethe relationship between
functionality and user interpretation in interactive systems
design. While these design artifacts were diverse and
targeted various contexts, they are united in their aim to
speculatively open up situations that subvert a single
authoritative interpretation of a system in the service of
provoking people to arrive at their own self-determined
understanding of the meaning and ‘use’ of a system. Across
these cases, ambiguity is leveraged as a resource to create
embodied, functional systems to provoke dynamic, varied,
and speculative interpretations of the design artifacts from
the perspective of the user.
Dunne’s earlier notion of para-functionality [20] predates
the related work of Sengers and Gaver [49], where
speculative design artifacts are intentionally crafted to
encourage reflection on how technological devices and
systems shape (and often constrain) people’s everyday
lives, behaviors, and actions in the world. In articulating
para-functionality, Dunne draws on a wide range of
examples from furniture exhibitions to radical architecture
proposals to satirical design projects to unpack how design
artifacts can construct social fictions that critically
speculate on industrial progress and consumer culture, and
on the nature of design itself in these contexts. Dunne
makes clear that the ‘functionality’ of these design artifacts
is to act as materialized props through which alternative
stories emerge that operate in the space between rationality
and reality, where “people can participate in the story,
exploring the boundaries between what is and what might
be” [20, p. 67]. In other words, through leveraging the
seductive language of design, design artifacts are crafted to
provoke people to imagine it in use and the possible future
that would manifest around itto “become lost in a space
between desire and determinism” [20, p. 67].
Dunne and Raby [18] develop this strategy further through
their notion of physical fictions (p. 89), where design
artifacts extend beyond being merely props for films never
made, to being situated as things in exhibition spaces that
“prescribe imaginings” and “generate fictional truths” (see
p. 90). The aim of physical fiction design artifacts is to
critically project different possibilities and to “challenge the
ideas, values, and beliefs of our society embodied in
material culture” (p. 90). Similar to Sengers and Gaver’s
[49] aim to shift the site of meaning-making from the maker
to the user, physical fictions aim to open up moments of
suspended belief and, in doing so, shift our role from user
to imaginer. However, similar to para-functional objects
these are discursive objectscrafted interventions to create
discussions. Dunne and Raby [18] refer to these as
“intentional fictional objects” with no aim to be real:
“physical fictions that celebrate and enjoy their status with
little desire to become ‘real’” (p.89). For Dunne and Raby,
the ideal dissemination for their research and
experimentations is in the form of exhibitions in museums
and galleries, which “function as spaces for critical
reflection” [18, p. 140].
Designers Auger and Loizeau (see www.auger-
loizeau.com) create speculative design projects that, similar
to Dunne and Raby, take the form of installations within
galleries. Drawing on a range of projects from the Royal
College of Art, Auger [2] offers insights into the crafting of
speculation in design. Borrowing from a range of
techniques in the humanities and sciences, Auger reflects
on important dimensions surfaced from these speculative
design projectsfrom generating tension to conflict with
engrained systems in our familiar everyday ecologies to
carefully managing the uncanniness of the design artifact to
provoke viewers to engage with the issue(s) it speculates
on. These dimensions are important for constructing what
Auger calls the perceptual bridge: “In effect, a design
speculation requires a bridge to exist between the
audience’s perception of their world and the fictional
element of the concept” [2, p. 2].
The work discussed above reveals the role the materialized
design artifact can play in critical inquiry and to shift the
authority of the interpretation to the “imaginer” or “user”. A
further lesson is that the material forms, along with the
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concepts, mutually shape the inquiry and through this
process become unique or specialized types of artifacts. In
all cases the artifact serves as a bridge between our current
world and an imagined critical alternative or transformed
view of our world.
The intent and shaping in Dunne and Raby, and Auger and
Loizeau are rhetorical strategies aimed at material artifacts
as discursive interventions. As such, these designers situate
their work in exhibitions arguing it occupies a critically
reflective space between the real and the unreal. We argue
through material speculation that the converse is equally
insightfulthat material speculations find a critical space
of inquiry by occupying the actual or everyday world as
opposed to a gallery space.
In relation to the open-ended and leveraging of ambiguity
in design in the work of Sengers and Gaver [49], work like
the Prayer Companion [23] serves as an antecedent to
material speculation. Through crafting and situating a very
particular material and functional form in the everyday
world it speculates and reasons in a highly critical fashion.
The use of science fiction design has extended it into realms
of critical inquiry that have productively opened new
territory. Design fiction makes explicit the potential of
fiction in combination with design to challenge and
reconsider assumptions and underlying issues in order to
more critically and reflectively consider next steps and
advances in design and technology. Moving beyond
fictional texts that embed references to design and
technologies, crafted speculations are equally critical and
have the capacity and dexterity to tackle broad topics for
inquiry that may reflect back on design or focus beyond the
field. Crafted speculations reveal the potential of shifting
interpretation and meaning making to users and audiences
of design through an openness and provocation embodied in
the design artifacts. In the next section, we begin our
descriptions of material speculation and how it contributes
to this body of work.
MATERIAL SPECULATION
In what follows, we begin with an introduction of the
literary theory of possible worlds. We follow this with a
description of five examples of interaction design artifacts
that can be viewed as material speculations. Lastly, we
describe and interpret characteristics of a material
speculation.
Manifestations of possible worlds
Here we articulate how particular design artifacts can be
seen to generate possible worlds. We draw on key concepts
from possible worlds theory to support our idea of material
speculation. These include the notion of actual versus
possible worlds and the notion of the counterfactual. We
discuss how design artifacts can be seen as counterfactual
artifacts while still being material things. We argue that the
material actuality of counterfactual artifacts enables them to
advantageously occupy a creative space at the boundary
between actual and possible worlds. We also elaborate on
how counterfactual artifacts generate possible worlds
through encounters with people. As a consequence of these
features, material speculation acts as a form of critical
inquiry.
Possible worlds theory
Possible worlds is a philosophical concept developed in the
latter twentieth century by the analytical school, including
philosophers Saul Kripke and David Lewis [34, 48] and
was later adopted by literary theorists [cf. 38, 22, 45].
Philosophically, possible worlds is an approach to the
problem of counterfactual statements in modal logic. For
example, Kripke asks what is the truth condition of the
statement that Sherlock Holmes “does not exist, but in other
states of affairs he would have existed” [31]; or this
counterfactual statement by Ryan [48], “if a couple hundred
more Florida voters had voted for Gore in 2000, the Iraq
war would not have happened.” In modal logic, the
question is how is each of these counterfactual statements
interpreted to be true or false. The philosopher David Lewis
who bridged analytical philosophy to literary theory [32]
offered the position that propositions like counterfactual
statements can be seen to be either true or false dependent
on in which worlds the statement is true and which worlds
the statement is false [34]. This allows for a reasoned
argument to be made on the inevitability of the Iraq war if
Al Gore was indeed elected president in 2000 despite the
fact that he was not elected president. This allows for the
fictional world of Sherlock Holmes to unfold such that any
faltering of the detective’s deductive reasoning would be
perceived as false or a negative development in the
character’s intellect.
Counterfactuals are central to the theory of possible worlds.
By virtue of contradicting one world (e.g., the world in
which Al Gore lost the presidential election), they elicit and
open up another possible world (e.g., a world in which Al
Gore won the presidential election). Lewis describes
counterfactuals as similar to if…then operators that create
conditional modes in which possible worlds may exist [32,
48].
Possible worlds theory relies upon the ideal that reality is
comprised of all that we can imagine and that it is
composed of the “actual world” and all “possible worlds”
[47]. Philosophically, there are different approaches to this
idea however Lewis view tends to prevail and is most
influential with respect to literary theory [47]. Lewis sees
the actual world as the concrete physical universe over
time. In most respects, possible worlds are materially
similar to the actual world, however they are not connected
in any way spatially or temporally [33]. Importantly, Lewis
also views actual worlds as having no privilege over
possible worlds, rather actual worlds are simply our world,
the one we inhabit. The actual world is indexical. It merely
refers to the world of the inhabitant or the one who is
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speaking within a given world. In this sense, all worlds like
the actual world hold their own internal logic and
autonomy.
Metaphorical transference of possible worlds to interaction
design in material speculation
Amongst literary theorists there is the question of the
legitimacy of considering fictional worlds as possible
worlds [e.g. 44]: Would analytical philosophers validate the
idea of fictional worlds as possible worlds? Ryan is equally
content with the notion of a metaphorical transference
between disciplines [48]. She cites fellow theorists
Lubomír Doležel to argue that even if considered a
metaphorical transference, the validity of the application of
possible worlds theory is its potential to identify unique
features of fiction that other approaches do not [48]. It is in
this spirit that we extend possible worlds theory to
interaction design and HCI.
Material speculation is the adaption of possible worlds
theory to design research. As we have discussed, when
considering possible worlds and counterfactuals, in
philosophy or fiction we are concerned with either a
statement of logic or a text. In design, we are concerned
with a material thing. A counterfactual is a virtual or
tangible artifact or system in design and HCI rather than
statement or text. Hence we refer to it as a counterfactual
artifact. The notion of an actual counterfactual is a
departure from Lewis’ criterion that possible worlds have
no spatial or temporal connections to the actual world
they are remote. Yet, here we view this departure more
advantageously than negatively.
The creative boundary between the actual and the possible
There is a productive and creative space at the boundary
between the actual and possible worlds, or the real and the
fictional. There are many examples from fiction in literary
texts, theatre or film where authors intentionally blur the
distinction between actual and possible worlds for its
creative possibilities. Whole genres have emerged like
mystery or interactive dinner theatres that directly involve
audiences in the fictional world. Live action role-playing
games, augmented reality games or alternate reality games
actively transgress the boundary between the real and
fictional. Janet Murray’s notion of the “fourth wall” in
interactive media aimed to cross theatrical illusion and
actuality [35]. In these cases, interactivity is the
counterfactual action that crosses the divide: fictional
characters are not supposed to interact with actual people or
in the actual world. In material speculation, it is making the
counterfactual into an actual artifact that crosses the divide
between the actual and possible worlds since, as we
discussed earlier (see Possible worlds theory),
counterfactuals are not supposed to exist in the same time
or place as the actual world.
Ryan [48] referred to this potential in her principle of
minimal departure in which she argues that in the case of
fiction a reader construes a possible world to conform as
much as possible to his or her actual world. In other words,
the reader departs from his or her perceived reality only
when necessary. The obvious benefit for fictional authors is
that there need be no accounting for the rising and setting of
the sun; if its not described in the text, a reader can assume
the daily rotation of the planet. In addition, critical
differences can be focused upon such as in a reference to a
winged horsea reader can imagine the combination of a
known horse with known wings and speculate on that
difference between the possible and the actual. These
aspects give a critical functioning to the boundary between
the actual and the possible. Truth conditions of the possible
are seen to be relevant to the actual or at least open to be
speculated upon. Further, there is a set of relational
propositions that are automatically considered such as:
What kind of saddle might a winged horse have? Where do
flying horses migrate and settle? Is there a whole new
biological class between the classes of mammals and birds?
The theorist Thomas Pavel [38] referred to this as the
adoption of a new ontological perspective that gives
possible worlds a degree of autonomy.
Given that counterfactual artifacts sit on the actual side of
the boundary between the actual and possible worlds this
sense of a new ontological perspective is arguably more
pressing. An actual counterfactual artifact not only opens
up speculation on the artifact but on its conditions as well.
When encountering a material speculation, potential
reasoning would include not only what is this artifact but
also what are the conditions for its existence (e.g.,
including the systemic, infrastructural, behavioral,
ideological, political, economic, and moral). Material
speculation probes the desirability of the truth condition of
the proposition and the conditions bound to it.
The counterfactual artifact as proposition and generation of
possible worlds
In material speculation we can see the counterfactual
artifact as embodied propositions similar to propositions in
counterfactual statements in analytical philosophy. It is
helpful to think of the counterfactual artifacts as being
if…then statements as we discussed earlier (see Possible
worlds theory). In this sense, the counterfactual artifacts
trigger possible world reasoning that extends beyond them.
In other words, the possible world or fictional account is
not embodied fully in the counterfactual artifact rather it is
generated by interactors in the encounter or experience of
the counterfactual artifact. It is not a limitation that the
counterfactual artifact is of our actual world, rather it is this
very actuality that provokes or catalyzes speculation by
being at the boundary of the actual and the possible.
In fiction, the discussion of where the possible world is
situated is more complex. Since the influence of post-
structuralist thinking on literary theory, namely in concepts
of open work by Umberto Eco [21] and textuality by
Roland Barthes [7], meaning and fiction are seen to be
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generated in the act of reading by readers and not solely by
the author. The importance of this for material speculation
is that those interpreting or reasoning upon the
counterfactual artifacts also generate possible worlds in
multiplicity. Eco viewed a literary text as “a machine for
producing possible worlds” [21, p.246] and in this sense we
view a counterfactual artifact as a “machine” for producing
possible worlds.
The transference of criticality to interaction design
The adaption of possible worlds gives fiction an immense
criticality. Fictional texts can speculatively yet critically
inquire upon our world. As Ryan argues [48], fiction has
the capacity of truth and falsity giving it more consequence
than when perceived as artistic lies or fantasy. Fiction
assumes a real world shared between actual and possible
worlds giving it a perch for relevance and critical insights
into our actual world. However, through counterfactuals, it
does not mimic the actual world, rather readers and authors
alike construct possible worlds different than the actual
world leading to creative and reasoned speculations [48]. In
interaction design, counterfactual artifacts can also be seen
to gain a perch in this critical inquiry space of consequential
propositions rather than matters of functionality or
consumption.
The critical nature afforded to fiction with recourse to
possible worlds is that its embodied propositions can be
accepted as truthful under certain conditions. With respect
to the actual world, or our world, the choice can be to
regard the propositions as false under the conditions of our
actual world. Or it can be seen as a critical alternative,
which is to change the conditions of our actual world to
make the proposition truthful. This, in essence, is the model
for material speculations in interaction design research as a
mode of critical inquiry.
Summary
In summary, we can see how possible worlds theory,
enabled by the work of literary theories, can be applied to
interaction design research to develop the notion of material
speculation. The basic outlines of material speculation can
be summarized as the manifestation of a counterfactual in a
material artifact that we refer to as a counterfactual artifact.
As a material thing it occupies the boundary between actual
and possible worlds. The counterfactual artifact is also an
embodied proposition that, when encountered, generates
possible world accounts to reason on its existence. These
two aspects combined afford material speculations a
position in critically speculating on the actual world.
Examples of material speculation
In what follows we provide an overview of examples of
interaction design artifacts that can be read as material
speculations. We aim to emphasize their actual material
existence situated in everyday settings. With our examples,
we focus largely on the description of the design artifacts as
our aim is to illustrate how they exemplify counterfactual
artifacts. We only hint at the multitude of possible worlds
each may generate since this is part of the lived experiences
of each example. Our accounts of possible lived worlds of
these material speculations are not intended to be
exhaustive since this would require a separate and more in-
depth treatment of each that is beyond the aims of this
paper.
Inaccessible Digital Camera [40]The inaccessible digital
camera is a digital camera that is made of concrete; all
photos are stored locally inside of its concrete case. The
only way for the owner to view the photos stored on the
camera is to, in effect, break the camera and retrieve the
memory card stored inside (see figure 1). The inaccessible
camera is part of a larger set of ‘counterfunctional devices’
designed to explore how enforcing limitations in the design
of interactive technologies can potentially open up new
engaging possibilities and encounters. In a later project
[39], elements of the inaccessible camera design were
embodied in another counterfunctional camera, named the
Obscura 1C, which again had a form comprised of cement
that required its owner to break it to access the digital
photos stored on a memory card inside. Participants were
exposed to the capsule camera in a lab setting and, later in a
different study, the Obscura 1C was handed out or sold to
people via an online website (e.g., Craigslist.com).
The inaccessible camera can be seen as counterfactual in
that it draws its owner into a familiar device and
interactiontaking a photo with a camera. However, its
form and composition depart into an alternative situation in
which one must destroy the digital device recording one’s
life experiences in order to access these digital records. In
our contemporary world of constant availability and
connectedness, these counterfunctional cameras project a
critical stance on ‘functionality’one based on inhibiting,
restricting or removing common or expected features of a
technology. To initiate consumption of one’s digital
photographs, one must first encounter the discomfort of
destruction. On a broader level, encounters with the
inaccessible camera invite critical reflection on one’s own
practices contributing to unchecked digital content
production and the almost unnoticed or assumed eventual
obsolescence and disposal of everyday digital devices.
Figure 1. The Inaccessible Digital Camera [40].
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Rudiment #1 [26]— Rudiment #1 is a small machine
encased in wood and plastics that affixes magnetically to
surfaces, such as a refrigerator door (see figure 2). This
machine consists of two main parts or ‘modules’ that are
connected by a flexible cable. One part moves across a
magnetic surface with magnetic wheels when it’s narrow-
range infrared detector senses peripheral movement. The
speed and direction are also randomly changed each time
these sensors detect close by movement. The second part is
wired to the first part; it provides the first module with
power and also signals further movement when its own
wide-range infrared detector senses movement. Both parts
are able to detect when an edge or obstacle is reached and
are programmed to change direction if either are
encountered. The authors’ aims for designing Rudiment #1
(and also its cousins Rudiment #2 and #3) were to
speculatively explore how interactive machines might
exhibit autonomy, and how this might be interpreted and
speculated on by people living with them. Two households
in the southeast region of the United Kingdom experienced
rudiment #1 for roughly four weeks each.
From the beginning household members struggled to make
sense of Rudiment #1 when they encountered it. Interactive
technologies and machines commonly occupy our everyday
environments, but the combination of an unclear ‘function’
or purpose paired with unfamiliar, yet resolved aesthetics
prompted a range of speculations on what Rudiment #1 is
and the nature of its intelligence and autonomy. These
design qualities provoked and challenged household
members to encounter a world in which machines may
exhibit and enact a form of autonomy that is very different
from what we know and understand in our world today.
This was evident in household members’ initial use of ‘pet
metaphors in attempts to describe their relations to the
Rudiments. However, participants eventually migrated to
focus on qualities of function and engagement to make
sense of the autonomy exhibited by the Rudiments. In one
case household members perceived that Rudiment #1 could
be networked to other machines within their home, and in
other cases ongoing encounters with the Rudiments led
participants to more broadly consider their relationships to
other machines and objects in the home. The Rudiments
effectively struck the balance between offering relatively
familiar materials and formal aesthetics, while operating in
unfamiliar ways that opened up new possibilities for
thinking about human relations to everyday computational
things. Rudiment #1 itself, along with the speculations
triggered by household members’ lived-with encounters,
helped develop and advance a speculative space for moving
beyond the design of “machines for our own good, to a
possibility of interactive machines that might exhibit
autonomy, but not as we know it” [26, p. 152].
Table-non-table [37, 54]The table-non-table is a slowly
moving stack of paper supported by a motorized aluminum
chassis (see figure 3). The paper is common stock (similar
to photocopy paper). Each sheet measures 17.5 inches by
22.5 inches with a square die cut in the middle to allow it to
stack around a solid aluminum square post that holds the
sheets in place. There are close to 1000 stacked sheets of
paper per table-non-table, which rest on the chassis about
one half-inch from the floor. The movement of the table is
in short durations (5-12 seconds) that occur once during a
longer period of time (a random selection between 20 to
110 minutes). The table-non-table lived with one household
for five months, became part of two households for six and
three weeks respectively, and became part of two
households in a preliminary deployment for several days in
Vancouver, British Columbia.
In some ways similar to Rudiment #1, the table-non-table
provoked a range of speculations as participants attempted
to make sense of its purpose and place within their homes.
While initially its owners attributed anthropomorphic
qualities to the table-non-table (e.g., perceiving it had the
abilities to ‘hide’ or ‘pretend’) [54], over time different
Figure 3. The table-non-table [54].
Figure 2. Rudiment #1 vertically affixed to a surface [26].
103
relations emerged as encounters with it accumulated. The
table-non-table became an artifact that was curiously
computational and clearly required electricity, yet many of
the ways participants used and related to it mirrored
manipulations and reconfigurations more commonly
associated with non-digital things. The flat surface of the
table-non-table opened it up to being subtly drawn on, at
times in unknowing ways as other objects were stacked on
top and it slowly became just another thing in the
background of domestic life. When its movement was
noticed the owners often relocated it to different locations
in the house or apartment as if trying to reveal different
understandings of the artifact. In other cases, the subtle yet
persistent movement of the table-non-table catalyzed
emergent, creative interactions by people and their pets as a
way of “resourcing” the table-non-table. For example, cats
alternated between using it as a bed and viewing it as
another entity with either caution or curiosity. In fact, one
cat began to treat a heater appliance next to the table-non-
table in a similar fashion as if similarly constituted objects
were now alive. Both pets and people played with the
sheets of paper from ripping them. People made drawings
on the paper and turned them into large snowflakes [54].
The table-non-table can be seen as radically departing from
how many people experience domestic technology on an
everyday basis. In this way, people, pets and their material
environments were reconfigured over and over again to try
to incorporate the table-non-table alongside other domestic
artifacts, spaces, and experiences over time.
Photobox [36]—The Photobox is a domestic technology
embodied in the form of a well-worn antique chest that
prints four or five randomly selected photos from the
owner’s Flickr collection at random intervals each month
(see figure 4). The two main components of Photobox are
an oak chest and a Bluetooth-enabled Polaroid Pogo printer
(which makes 2x3 inch photos). All technological
components are embedded in an upper panel in the chest in
an effort to hide of ‘technological’ components from view.
The printer is installed in an acrylic case that secured it to a
small opening in the panel to allow a photo to drop onto the
central platform of the box. The Photobox’s behavior is
enacted through an application, which runs on a laptop that
wirelessly connects to the embedded printer via Bluetooth.
At the start of each month, Photobox indexes its owners
Flickr archive and randomly printed four or five photos that
month. In similarly random fashion, it selects four (or five)
photos and generates four (or five) timestamps that specify
the print time and date for each photo; at print time, the
matching photo was printed. The Photobox was created to
speculatively explore how an interactive artifact could
critically intervene in experiences of digital overload (i.e.,
the proliferation of digital photos) and, more generally,
what might comprise a material instantiation of the slow
technology design philosophy [25]—an interactive thing
whose relationship with its owner could emerge and evolve
over time. Three nearly identical Photoboxes were designed
and implemented; three households in Pittsburgh,
Pennsylvania, USA subsequently lived with a Photobox for
fourteen months respectively.
The Photobox combines a recognizable forma wooden
chestand a common experienceviewing and engaging
with digital photoswithin a networked design artifact that
provoked both familiar and alien experiences across all
households as they encountered this design artifact over
time. The Photobox can be seen as counterfactual in that
well-worn wooden chests do not manifest material
rendering of one’s online photo collection, at least in the
world as we experience it today. Nonetheless, it was
perfectly functional and developed a unique character and
configuration within each of the three households that
owned one. In addition to stimulating reflections from its
owners about the memories it surfaced from deep within
their digital photo archives, its unfamiliar (and
uncontrollable) slow pacing paired with its classification
among participants as ‘a technology’, triggered a range of
reflections about participants relations to other technologies
in the home and what values ought to constitute a domestic
technology. The Photobox clearly departed from any kind
of familiar combination of form, materials, and
computational behavior that typically characterize domestic
technologies. As a result, participants speculated on the
nature of the artifact and technology in everyday life,
though lived-with encounters over a long period of time.
These encounters opened a productive space for framing
future speculative design inquires.
Mediated Body [28]—Mediated Body is a symbiotic system
consisting of a human (“the performer) wearing custom-
built technology (the Suit). The system offers a play
session for a single participant (i.e. a person that is not the
performer). The role of the technology is to sense physical
bare-skin connection between the performer and the
participant, where the sensing yields analogue values that
range from a few centimeters from actual touch to light
touch to full contact (see figure 5). The values are
converted into a relatively complex soundscape, which is
Figure 4. The photobox largely took the form of a
European oak chest. [36]
104
played back in the headphones that both the performer and
the participant wear. Thus, from the participant’s point of
view, the performer is a musical instrument that she can
play by touching. However, due to the design of the system,
the instrument can also play its player: When the performer
touches the participant, the soundscape is affected in the
same way. The headphones make the interactive
soundscape a shared experience between performer and
participant, and they also serve to limit surrounding sounds
and thus make the experience more intimate and private for
the two players. Further, the suit includes bright lights on
the performer’s chest, which serve two purposes. First, the
lights enhance the interactive properties of touch by
changing color and pulse when a touch is sensed. Second,
they broadcast some of the interaction dynamics of the
ongoing session to the surrounding area. The mediated
body was encountered at the week-long Burning Man
Festival and in public spaces, such as the subway in Berlin
(see Figure 5).
While different in many ways in terms of its materials, form
and interactivity, the Mediated Body leverages familiar
interactions (e.g., touching another human) to venture into
unfamiliar territory similar to all of the prior examples. It
was evident that encounters with the Mediated Body not
only continually reconfigured relations between the
performer and participant, but also the evolving social and
material ecology encompassing these interactions. It
generated encounters in which issues of social conformity
became peripheral for the performer and participant in favor
of direct, intimate engagements in public spaces. However,
these engagements extended beyond the two people directly
involved in the interaction as those around them also
engaged in making sense of this encounter in ways that
differ considerably from the performer and participant (see
Figure 5). The Mediated Body speculates on many issues
pertaining to the mobile experience of new media, the
cultivation and expression of personal space in public
places, the human body as a technical interface, and the
richness and tensions entangled across all of these themes.
Characteristics of material speculation
Based on the related works, adaption of possible worlds
theory, and the accounts of material speculation examples,
we summarize our conceptual framing with a series of
characteristics.
Material speculation is the coupling of counterfactual
artifacts and possible worlds––Material speculation is the
sum of the counterfactual artifact that is designed to exist in
the everyday world to be encountered and the multitude of
possible worlds it generates by those encounters.
Counterfactual artifacts exist in the everyday world The
counterfactual nature of material speculations rely on the
contradiction of the artifact not appearing to “fit the logic of
things” in the everyday world yet undeniably existing in the
actual world to be encountered. Counterfactual artifacts
situated in the everydayness of our world offer a new
ontological perspective that over time makes more visible
assumptions, implications, and possible change. It is
important for the depth and quality of the emergent
possibilities that material speculations be a lived experience
rather than simply an intellectual reflection. More diverse
and deeper possibilities are generated through cohabitation,
interactions, and constant encounters over time.
Counterfactual artifacts are generators of possible
worldsCounterfactual artifacts in material speculations do
not embody possible worlds, rather they act as propositions
that, if considered, generate lived-with engagements with
new possibilities encapsulated within possible worlds. As
we discussed earlier, counterfactual artifacts are machines
that generate possible worlds. These include the world(s) as
imagined by the designers, world(s) imagined by those who
encounter the counterfactual artifact, and most
speculatively, the counterfactual artifact itself can be
understood to imagine a world.
Counterfactual artifacts are specially crafted
Counterfactual artifacts in material speculations are
specially designed artifacts. They are crafted with the intent
and purpose to inquire on new possibilities. This is not a
straightforward practice; it requires expertise and design
judgment to create an artifact that successfully contradicts
and deviates from the world around it, yet is entertained as
a viable proposition in our everyday world. As evident
across our examples, counterfactual artifacts are carefully
shaped and designed through materials, form and
computation such that the artifact is balanced between
“falsely” existing in the actual world while being “true” in a
possible world.
Figure 5. Top: Mediated Body [28] in use at the Burning
Man festival. Bottom: The Mediated Body performed on a
Berlin subway among many onlookers.
105
Material speculation is critical inquiry––Counterfactual
artifacts by nature challenge the actual world since they are
designed to occupy the boundary between the actual and the
possible. The criticality of a material speculation can arise
from the quantity of possible worlds it opens up or the
quality in which it suggests fewer possible worlds. In either
case this speaks to the nature of the critical space revealed.
The precision and promise of the critical inquiry is
mediated through the crafting of the counterfactual artifact,
which can be shaped and directed toward critical or needed
spaces of inquiry.
DISCUSSION
In our discussion we review our contributions and the
importance for HCI and interaction design research of the
centrality of the actual and situated artifact. We also
consider the potential future of speculative materiality as
part of everyday practices.
Actual and situated artifacts as knowledge
A core goal of this paper is to complement the nascent and
growing interest in design fiction in HCI and interaction
design research through offering an alternative conceptual
framing for critical and speculative inquiries in design. We
aimed to expand on the criticality that design fiction
brought to speculation in design research by motivating and
developing the role that actual design artifacts can play in
critical inquiries. Further, we sought to build on the
traditions of craft and material work of speculative and
critical design, as well as the shifting of responsibility for
interpretation to users by including situatedness and lived
with experience as sites for critical inquiry. A further
contribution we made was to provide an in depth theoretical
account to nurture the development of material speculation
within HCI. We aimed to be as clear and transparent in our
use of theory alongside the material speculation concept
such that other researchers can not only refine and revise
our concept, but also refine and revise our theoretical work,
which may in turn lead to other insights.
On a disciplinary level, fundamental to the concept of
material speculation is the centrality of the actual and
situated artifact as a producer of knowledge in interaction
design research. This articulation can be seen to support the
increasing turn within interaction design and HCI research
to develop forms of knowledge production centered on the
essential role of designed artifacts. This advances the notion
of makingthings as a site of inquiry that produces
insights, theories, and argumentation that is unique to
interaction design research and distinct from critical art
practice and the humanities [5, 51, 30]. We see our work as
contributing to nascent and growing interest in design
artifacts as generators of knowledge (e.g. annotated
portfolios [12], critical making [41] and adversarial design
[16], among others).
More broadly, our work parallels movements emerging
outside of HCI and interaction design that critically advance
the position that the things bare knowledge in distinct and
complex ways. While there are important differences in
their own epistemological commitments, emerging
theoretical notions such as Bogost’s [11] carpentry
constructing artifacts that do philosophy, where their real
and lived existence embodies intellectual argumentation
and Baird’s [6] thing knowledgeartifacts can embody and
carry knowledge prior to our ability to theorize or reason
through languageoffer intriguing perspectives that can be
seen both as critical and generative mechanisms framing
how we do and how we unpack approaches like material
speculation within the interaction design community.
Speculative materiality of everyday practices
If critical speculative research in design shifts the emphasis
of interpretation to the design audience or users, might we
expect this same audience to go beyond interpretation and
appropriation to the active engagement in crafting
speculation themselves? Similar concerns have been
explored previously in considerations of the intersection of
social practices and design fiction. For example,
Tanenbaum et al. [53] looked at the practice of Steampunk
with the lens of design fiction. They discussed how
Steampunk enthusiasts manifest both making and fictional
practice that serves as an exemplar of the meeting of social
practices and speculative inquiries through design. The
authors argue that this intersection of fiction with
materiality through making verges on making a possible
world actual. Despite the impossibility of the Steampunk
world becoming real it forms an ongoing social practice of
non-designers centered on making such impossibility a
reality. Wakkary et al. [55] explore the relation between
speculation and material practices in a different manner.
These authors describe how speculative inquiries in
sustainable design like hydroponic kitchen gardens of the
future or vertical gardens enabled a ‘generative approach.’
These speculations are taken up within the existing
competences and materials of Green-DIY enthusiasts and
realized today through, for example, Ikea-hacks for the
hydroponic kitchen and reclaimed truck pallets turned into
vertical gardens. Here, the meeting of the speculative and
the material takes an everyday turn that is distinct but
related to our discussion of material speculative inquiries
for design-oriented research.
CONCLUSION
This paper has motivated and articulated material
speculation as a conceptual framing to further support
critical and speculative inquires within HCI and interaction
design research. In this, we have reviewed and synthesized
a theoretical account of possible worlds theory and the
counterfactual, described and interpreted a set of examples
of material speculations, and proposed characteristics of
material speculations. Importantly our aim is to not be
prescriptive nor conclusive, rather we intend to provide a
conceptual framing to inspire future generative work at
intersection of critical and speculative inquires targeted at
106
the everyday in HCI. We concluded with actual and
situated artifacts as knowledge and speculative materiality
of everyday practices as opportunity areas for framing
future contributions of material speculations in HCI and
design. In our future work, we aim to refine and expand
these concepts, both materially and theoretically. As the
HCI community continues to seek out critical alternatives
for exploring the nature of interactive technology in
everyday life, we hope material speculation can be seen as a
complementary framing for supporting these initiatives and,
more broadly, the need to recognize and develop ways of
practicing more reflective forms of knowledge production.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of
Canada (SSHRC), Natural Sciences and Engineering
Research Council of Canada (NSERC), Banting
Postdoctoral Fellowships, and Canada Research Chairs
supported this research. We thank the many authors who
gave us permission to reprint their work and images.
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... Their artefacts are developed in detail all the way down to code and electronics (SpeculativeEdu, 2019), but used to explore near futures and alternative realities. As such, they are better described as counterfactual artefacts (Wakkary et al., 2015): "working" artefacts crafted in detail that "falsely" exist in the actual world but are "true" in a possible world. These counterfactual artefacts are crafted to reflect on the role of mundane things and on the compromises that people make every 4 Pierce (2021) defines as analogical friction design that resists the literal and direct, and instead promotes associative and metaphorical interpretations. ...
... are not mutually exclusive Pierce (2021) defines transproductional use as the ability of frictional design practices to enable purposes, uses, functions, effects and values other than the production they prefigure. To better grasp this concept, the author discusses the example of the Tilting Bowl (Wakkary et al., 2015): a ceramic bowl that tilts gently at random moments multiple times throughout a day. Even though tested in real households for a relatively long time (about three months (Wakkary et al., 2018)), the scope of the artefact is not to predict the future of technologically enhanced fruit bowls, but rather to explore how increasingly autonomous things and people could mutually shape each other in the future. ...
... Critical artefacts can resist production here 6 but progress towards it elsewhere Critical design artefacts are often considered "improbable to become mass-market consumer products" (Pierce, 2021), as in the case of the Tilting Bowl (Wakkary et al., 2015) whose quirkiness is considered a clear contradiction of the logical norms of design and production. But, could such an improbability of production be determined by the geographical and socio-technical context of the researcher/ designer developing the project? ...
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... Speculative Design approaches can have healing properties if we compare them to narrative therapy approaches: narrative therapy operates through telling and retelling one's story to escape the dominant narrative that influences the perception of one's life, encouraging the untypical (Payne 2006). Fictional and Speculative Design materialize propositions that bridge preferred realities (e.g., a healed one) while allowing a new inquiry of the present (Wakkary et al., 2015). ...
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... Speculative Design approaches can have healing properties if we compare them to narrative therapy approaches: narrative therapy operates through telling and retelling one's story to escape the dominant narrative that influences the perception of one's life, encouraging the untypical (Payne 2006). Fictional and Speculative Design materialize propositions that bridge preferred realities (e.g., a healed one) while allowing a new inquiry of the present (Wakkary et al., 2015). ...
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Full-text available
The paper presents a multidimensional, participatory, inclusive, and person-centered model that aims to produce design interventions to support the recovery process from Eating Disorders. The research is situated within the emerging field of Design for Mental Health and grounded in a relational theoretical perspective and methodology. The paper provides a transdisciplinary review of the literature on designing for health and mental health, and it provides a historical overview of mental disorders' models and treatments, highlighting exclusions of factors, narratives, and gaps. The relational framework affords defining Eating Disorders as multidimensional and mediated practices, which allows seeing healing as a process with material and spatial consistencies. The paper introduces the methodology generated to develop the model: an assemblage of methods organized through a multi-phase study that produces an inclusive and materially distributed understanding of EDs and recovery. The first model iteration emerges from the analysis of in-depth semi-structured interviews with participants who successfully recovered from Eating Disorders. The paper describes the model through its actions, elements, layers, and its main aim: to produce pragmatic, evocative, and unconventional design propositions, tackling the relationships Eating Disorders are composed of that allow for a new sense of self to emerge as a new way to negotiate one's life.
... The various themes of these papers meant that participants from different groups were provided with the space to exchange their findings and understandings of a certain technology or heritage subjects. Furthermore, it is important to bridge actual and possible worlds with real and fictional worlds in design fiction [1,43]. Thus, this seminar was broken down into and delivered through three components to engage and help participants gain a comprehensive understanding of the relevant literature. ...
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... Haunting Research Products: A (super)natural extension of this is to position intentionally haunted or hauntologically-informed research products [108] in situated encounters in the conditions of everyday life. This could enable rich reflection on questions of entanglements, agency, presence, and explainability. ...
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