I encountered the notion of the drabble through reading Rob Kitchin’s fiction blog. These short stories of exactly 100 words can have a strange power to them, as little shards of reality that can be thrown out into the world. This is how Wikipedia describes the origins of the drabble:

The concept is said to have originated in UK science fiction fandom in the 1980s; the 100-word format was established by the Birmingham University SF Society, taking a term from Monty Python‘s 1971 Big Red Book.[1][4] In the book, “Drabble” was described as a word game where the first participant to write a novel was the winner. In order to make the game possible in the real world, it was agreed that 100 words would suffice.

There are other forms of micro-fiction. One that interests me is the radical brevity required to represent a scene within the 140 character limit of a tweet. Even more than a drabble, this precludes narrative in a traditional sense and that’s precisely what’s so interesting about it for sociological fiction. It frees the fiction from the narrative demands which might otherwise conflict with sociological concerns, allowing little fragments to be produced which can have a life of their own.

This is one example I wrote earlier in the week, intended to illustrate a theoretical point without invoking theory, though I’m not convinced it does this particularly effectively:

His jaw clenched as he contemplated yet another all nighter.

It was difficult to remember when he’d last slept properly. But his work, the work, couldn’t wait.

Throughout each day, each and every hour, millions of communiques were issued from this control room. Each issuing was important, with potential geopolitical consequences. Not something one could rush. Yet there were always more issuings to come.

He wondered how life might have been if he’d turned down the Neoliberal Diktat Division. But who would do that? The system could not run itself.

He reached for an energy drink from the office fridge.

But I’m finding it really fun to experiment with this. If you’d like to join me, I’m guest-editing a special section of the So Fi zine presenting sociological drabbles. The deadline for submissions is September 30th.

I was fortunate to meet Tim Maughan at the Digital Sociology conference in New York last month. Along with Sava Saheli Singh, he’s been exploring how design fiction can be used to communicate sociological ideas. This is how Sava and Tim describe design fiction:

Design fiction is a term first coined by Julian Bleecker and popularized by SF author Bruce Sterling, who describes it as “the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change.” and that it “attacks the status quo and suggests clear ways in which life might become different.”

Design fiction isn’t science fiction, it’s not just a telling of stories in the future or trying to make predictions of the future, instead it is a way of trying to envision and interrogate possible futures based on research data, current trends, and/or technologies. Originally, primarily used by product designers as a cheap alternative to prototyping new products, it has found traction as a critical tool allowing us to see through the fog of hype and digital evangelism. 

I find this idea really exciting and I invited Tim to give a talk when he visits London. If you’d like to come then you can register here. It’s a free event that will take place at Goldsmiths on the afternoon of May 13th. I’ll be talking, as will Les Back, Keith Kahn-Harris and Sarah Burton.

Eventbrite - Design Fiction for Sociologists

In the meantime, here’s a great example of the work produced by Tim:

For a workshop on future London, five individuals — Arup, Social Life, Re.Work, Commonplace, Tim Maughan and Nesta—created 10 Future Londoners for the year 2023. This is a short fictional piece describing the working day of 19 year old Nicki, a zero hours retail contractor.

https://medium.com/@timmaughan/zero-hours-f68f17e8c12a

Here’s an example of what Sava and Tim have worked on together:

People talk about the future of technology in education as though it’s right around the corner, but most of us get to that corner and see it disappearing around the next. This innovation-obsessed cycle continues as we are endlessly dissatisfied with how little difference these promises make to the people implicated in these futures. These products and practices, cloaked in the latest buzzwords and jargon, often trickle down to non-western geographic regions after they’ve been tried and rejected, yet still adopted as the new and advanced “western” methodology that will solve the “problem” of education.

In an attempt to cut through the relentless TED Talk-like optimism of ed tech marketing, this year at the HASTAC conference in Peru we presented a series of fictional case studies. These four design fiction based personas aimed to illustrate the possible impact on society and education, in both positive and negative ways, of not just emerging technologies but also global social and economic trends. They give brief snapshots of the lives of individuals in imagined futures from different geographic, ethnic, economic, and cultural backgrounds, illustrating how each of them might interface and interact with the different technologies.

https://medium.com/futures-exchange/the-future-of-ed-tech-is-here-its-just-not-evenly-distributed-210778a423d7