Ben Kirman

Fictional Conference

A fictional conference for imaginary people to pretend to talk about fabricated research (2016)

Design Fiction has become really important to Human-Computer Interaction over the past few years. That is, by building fictional or speculative but non-functioning systems, we can explore implications of design choices before they happen. Things like Superflux's excellent "Uninvited Guests" and our own pet-computer interfaces allow us to explore the human (or animal) impact of near-future technology. In both cases the projects ended up making strong arguments that these systems should never be made.

Happily the popularity of Design Fiction has helped us frame some of our earlier work. For example, people often presumed we had actually made the speculative "Evil Kitchen" in 2010, and most were simply baffled by our homoerotic paper about someone having a BDSM relationship with their WiFi router, but now we are able to better define it all as design fiction. In other words, we were doing design fiction before it was cool ;)

Something weird happened in 2014, when Mark Blythe's barnstorming best paper at CHI2014 argued that we should start doing fictional research. He suggested that just as design fiction helps understand design, fictional research can help understand implications of HCI research before complex prototypes get built. He suggested generating "fictional abstracts" as a useful and recognisable format to explore potential research. We might call these abstracts "research fiction".

In 2015, Joe Lindley and Paul Coulton escalated this significantly, with the publication of Game of Drones at CHI PLAY 2015. GoD was a real research paper, but entirely a research fiction. The paper described the development, deployment and evaluation of a system but every aspect of the paper was diegetic - only the final paragraph of the paper reveals that the rest of the paper is fabricated. Joe and Paul wrote a paper unpacking this idea for alt.CHI 2016, and building on Blythe's work to argue for more fictional research. In a bizarre twist, they also published a paper analysing the reviews that both previous papers had. Interestingly it also looks at the reviews it got itself, in a nice self-referential twist (but doesn't go as far as referencing itself). Unfortunately they were forced to redact most of the paper by the conference committee.

Given the trajectory that research fiction was taking, from fictional abstracts, through fictional papers, it was obvious what was next: a fictional conference full of totally fictional research. I got together with Joe Lindley, and recruited a supergroup of people using research fiction and design fiction to act as the organising committee of the International Fictional Conference on Design Fiction's Futures (FCDFF)*.

Illustration of a generic skyline with text 'International fictional conference on design fiction's futures'

We then went through all the motions as you would for a real conference - we found a (fictional) venue, shared a (real) Call for Papers on all major mailing lists, had a (fictional) review process and built a (real) website* and programme. Including (fictional) coffee breaks. We even negotiated with a fictional character to get them to pretend to do a fictional keynote.

We made the CFP somewhat vague, but were really interested in using this to get a feeling for how people felt about design fiction, and also where they felt it might end up (hence "Futures"). We were amazed by the response, both in terms of submissions but also in terms of people's reaction to the concept. It was shared widely and although there was some beffudlement, by and large people seemed to enjoy the idea, and appreciated a little magical realism leaking into the usual stream of emailed CFPs.

We received over 50 submissions from all over the world, pleasingly mostly from people not involved in design fiction research. Although the CFP specifically asks for just a title (since there is no conference, the proceedings are fictional), however we had several submissions of full papers from people who either didn't understand, or in one case got over-excited by the idea. We also had several authors who presumed it was the first stage in a multi-stage process. For sure it was mostly for the craic, which did bring some critics, but the practice of doing all the busywork involved with organising a conference (e.g. arguing about which sessions go before coffee breaks) and then not actually having the conference gives some perverse pleasure. The conference now leaves exactly the same traces online as any other academic conference. The website details the organisers, the aims and the programme, but rather than hiding the papers behind a paywall, they simply don't exist. A little bit of magic hidden in the mass of academic work. It is only a matter of time before those fictional papers start accruing real citations, and each new citation cements the reality of this weird conference a little more.

Download the full Programme for FCDFF

We wrote more about the conference as a chapter in the new Funology book:

  • Ben Kirman, Joe Lindley, Mark Blythe, Paul Coulton, Shaun Lawson, Conor Linehan, Deborah Maxwell, Dan O’Hara, Miriam Sturdee and Vanessa Thomas (2018). Playful Research Fiction: A Fictional Conference. In Mark Blythe and Andrew Monk (Eds) Funology 2: From Usability to Enjoyment. Springer.

*** Note from 2021 ***

Most of the links to the conference site above have now broken (but not all!). This is by design, as part of the natural lifecycle of conference web presences, and they will not be fixed. Most of the content is archived in the book chapter linked above for the curious.