Brainstorm! Syllabus for course on gadgets, design fiction, and design history

Clearing out the gadget drawer

The following is a draft syllabus for a small doctoral course that I will propose for the Umeå Institute of Design. We have talked about possible opportunities for research- and teaching collaboration between the history of technology approaches that I work with and the design researchers at UID, and this is one first attempt at doing so. Ideally, the course would involve both design and history students. It will require a certain amount of research from the students, but the final output will not be a standard text. Instead, I would like them to work in small groups to make a poster of some kind that can be put on display as a public exhibit of some kind.

Any comments on this proposal? I’d be particularly grateful for suggestions for readings – shorter articles in particular.

Design Fictions and Design Histories: Exploring the Past Futures and Future Afterlives of Technological Gadgets

PhD Course Proposal, 5hp
Umeå Institute of Design

Finn Arne Jørgensen

Ubiquitous and mobile, technological gadgets open our everyday lives to a world of entertainment, information, and utility. This course explores the design, production, use, and disposal of such gadgets, particularly focusing on the creation of narratives or design fictions surrounding new technologies. How do gadgets get their shine of novelty and desirability, the fabled “reality distortion field” of Steve Jobs’ Apple Inc.? How and why are gadgets so rapidly overtaken by obsolescence? What happens to our gadgets when we no longer want them? And why do we no longer want them in the first place?

In exploring these questions, the course combines approaches from design fiction and design history to understand the material and cultural, historical, contemporary, and prospected future of technological design. Science fiction writer and futurologist Bruce Sterling called design fiction “the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change.” Design fiction places novel designs within narratives about their use and utility. The imagination encouraged by design fiction as a practice is often directed towards the future, as a way of imagining the future lives and users of the design in question.

This course seeks to complement design fiction with design history to help us open up the idea of an unchangeable design past. As historian of technology David Edgerton has stated, “the technological boosterism of the past has too often been turned into the history of our material world.” The past tends to write its own future. It makes the evolution of certain technologies seem necessary and self-evident, where things could not have been otherwise. Alternatives and predecessors end up on history’s scrap heap, literally and metaphorically. In this process, obsolescence often becomes synonymous with progress. Can design history help us create alternative design fictions about technological gadgets?

Learning Outcomes
At the end of the course, students should be able to:
– recognize the ethical, political, and societal stakes of artifact design
– demonstrate and evaluate the methods of design fiction and design history
– offer historical and cross-cultural perspectives to the production, us, and disposal of gadgets
– discuss the principal approaches to and challenges of extended life-cycle analyses of technological designs

Suggested reading

The student assignments will focus on object biographies, integrating both design history and design fiction approaches. The students will work in groups of 2-3 people to produce a poster exploring the past futures and future afterlife of one particular gadget.

2 thoughts on “Brainstorm! Syllabus for course on gadgets, design fiction, and design history”

  1. Hi Finn Arne, thanks for showing off this proposal. It looks like a neat class. I’d like to take it.

    I wonder how you could get at the notion of users and user-driven innovation. You can go back to Ron Kline’s stuff, but it might be just as easy to use the intro or some other piece of Von Hippel’s _Democratizing Innovation_.

    Also, it might be cool to get at “maker culture.” You could use parts of Maines’ _Hedonizing Technologies_ for that. You could just use pieces of Make magazine. Also, Sophia Roosth has some work on ‘garage science’ that gets at the gadget driven life, but that might be going a bit far afield.

    Finally, you might get a kick out of this Bruce Sterling book:


  2. Hi Lee, thanks for the comment! I’ve been meaning to put Sterling’s book on the reading list, but I keep forgetting. He was here in Umeå last year, talking about augmented reality and design fiction. Maker culture might be interesting, though I’m not sure if I’ll go into it this time round – we’re uh… making a make lab down at the arts campus, think it would be more interesting to design a course around it when the lab is fully operational. Perhaps Rachel Maines’ vibrator book might be fun right now – it’s certainly a gadget wrapped in different kinds of design fictions…


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