Monthly Archives: April 2011

Fictional Entrepreneurship

Numbers are a hindrance on history-making skills. Producing cultural change is an act that is far too radical for a quantitative practice. Entrepreneurs, and researchers of business often turn towards numbers to see how coordination or reallocation can be optimized to provide a great benefit to either corporate or social entities. A quantitative and theoretical stance like this is actually crippling to the radical thinking an entrepreneur is capable of, limiting their ability to innovate that which does not exist and change the way we, as consumers and human beings perceive the world around us, on both a macro and micro scale. Culture-shifting entrepreneurs open possibilities for consumers to change the way they see themselves. What is a logo? What is a business? If a logo is merely a representation of something, perhaps it is not limited to a vector or typeface, but instead can be understood in terms of architectural structure. In the same way, perhaps a business is not an exporter of goods and services, but instead a manufacturer of vision, narrative, and critical discourse. Perhaps business is a way of seeing the world from the lens of the future as a way to understand the here and now. The latter is what this essay explores.

“Why waste your time trying to discover the truth when you can so easily create it?” (Baldacci)

Sealand (wikipedia)

“The appearance of objects in information society […] is no longer primarily visual, but informational. The informational imprint of a brand – or lack thereof – provides a new paradigm for it’s management. Sealand could be a model (a construction) without crest, logo, or identity. Something implicitly suggested rather than explicitly stated.” (Metahaven 52)

Lifestyle, Social, and Serial are the current ways of defining an Entrepreneur’s intentions. An understanding of these three approaches to entrepreneurship is crucial as we begin to examine the need for a new category. The Lifestyle Entrepreneur is a catalyst for enterprise that is motivated by a deep passion for the goods and services they produce. This can be often found in local, “brick and mortar,” business as well as extreme niches and family owned business, passed down from generation to generation. The principal of a “lifestyle enterprise” takes sincere pride in the tradition of their business as well as the integrity of their exports, placing that love before revenue. Perhaps a more “greedy” category of entrepreneurial endeavor is known as the “serial entrepreneur.” A serial entrepreneur is a business innovator that is attracted to profit and tends to see a value and opportunity in everything. These are the kinds of innovators that will sell something they feel no passion towards just to turn a profit. Revenue is the primary concern. Businesses that are the result of such intentions tend to be knock-off brands, or other products and services that lack originality and innovation. The final category within the field of entrepreneurship is the Social Entrepreneur. A social entrepreneur is a designer of business whose intentions are not in capital gain, but instead in the advancement of the greater good of society. A social enterprise is one that thinks and operates as a non-profit organization would, but has interesting design in it’s planning so as to be able to sustain itself and actually create a profit as opposed to relying on funding from the government or local donors. This innovative approach to business is often referred to as “good capitalism,” a response to the greed and excess the business industry is so often criticized for. While each of these three approaches to entrepreneurship are drastically different, they each are connected in the sense that they are “reactionary.” It is believed by business theorists that consumers only know what they need after a change or event has taken place (Spinosa 41). Therefore entrepreneurship is always a “response.” I would like to question this outlook on entrepreneurship by suggesting a new category within the field that is not a response, but a catalyst. Fictional Entrepreneurship.

“Why save the world when we can design it?” – Serpica Naro

Now, more than ever, is the time for the field of business, and the role of entrepreneurs to change drastically. We have entered a time in which we lack the capability to foresee what technological advancements and capabilities will take place in the next 4 years. The 10 most sought after jobs of 2010 did not exist in 2004, and I argue that the top 30 jobs of 2017 do not exist as I sit at my desk, typing this today. So how do we, as designers, understand the future of markets, and the future of business design? We make it up.

“Larger providers will engage in a frenzy of consolidations to acquire stockpiles of repurposable content. Diversity declines as the little guys continue to go out of business. This ugly situation will continue until somebody smart enough to take advantage of the opportunity creates new business models with which content – real, engaging content – can flourish. Again, business innovation is as important as technological invention. We face a crisis in content – who will make it, how will it be paid for, and what will it be worth in a new media world?” (Laurel 93)

It should go without saying that imaginary thinking and fiction is a necessity in the field of business. Without invention and risk-taking, the world becomes synonymous to a treadmill. I argue that the innovation process can be pushed to a radical extreme, a level none of us can possibly foresee or imagine. This requires a substantial risk, calling for the entrepreneur to not be one with capitalistic and financial obsession, but instead an innovator of fiction to inspire and frame futures that we can understand and work towards. To succeed in this age of technological innovation that has proven to spread faster than a bad rash, we really have no choice but to work in terms of fantasy. I should be clear in my definition of “success” here by stating that success is measured here by the impact of change in a culture’s understanding of the world around them. If that substantial impact of change includes a revenue, then so be it, but that is not the priority here. Fictional Entrepreneurship takes what is expected of the future, and turns it on it’s head in order to change the ways in which we understand the world, and the way we understand the future of business design. It is a method of story-telling through imagining new business and a tool to help imagine new innovations within the business industry in order to craft the culture of the future, or critique the culture of the present.

The design of fictional business can accomplish more than the design or growth of any non-fictional business. Business is an industry that is extremely limited by practicality due to the interest of investors, demographics, and financial matters. The desire for efficiency and viability is a hindrance on the creativity of an entrepreneur, and the ability for an entrepreneur to define our future. Fictional Entrepreneurship, on the other hand, requires no investment of money, only the investment of imagination. This form of “investment” not only allows us to imagine what future business may be capable of, but also define our future culture. An interesting tool that Design Fiction (speculative, critical and narrative driven design) brings to the table an advocacy for the use of an expansive imagination and an elimination of practicality in order to pose questions that, like Science Fiction, are not impossible, but possible.  In the same way, Fictional Entrepreneurship offers a method that calls for a complete abandonment of practicality in order to think in new, very specific ways and radical ways, with the intention to generalize and inspire a practical, real, outcome.

minority report

Oblong Industries is a living example of viable business as a result of speculative thinking. Though the goal of the business is not to raise social and critical dialogue, it remains a prime example of Fictional Entrepreneurship due to it’s ability to influence a change on humanity’s perception of daily lives and routine. Originally a fantastical image of the future, the infamous “Minority Report” interface has been made a reality by the “g-speak” platform, a product of Oblong Industries and the speculative design innovation of John Underkoffler, the technology consultant for Minority Report, and the Chief Scientist for Oblong. In 2010, I had the pleasure of visiting Oblong Industries to see the product in action, and meet the CEO, Kwindla Hultman Kramer. A highlight from my discussion with Kwindla asked the question: “Is the process of making a concept of fiction a viable business model a difficult one?” Kwindla informed me that he believes all innovative business starts as fictional construct, but that the process of attracting investors to believe in such a speculative concept can be a difficult one. I argue that the detail seen in the design of Minority Report’s gestural interface successfully suspends the audience’s disbelief and uses fictional entrepreneurship to make these abstract visions of the future tangible.

“Corporate accountability: The Home Depots and Nikes of the world have greater capacity to achieve more for greater good because of their scale. Once incremental change for them becomes massive change for the entire industry.” (Mau 131)

“Peace of Mind™,” Jackson Wang

I argue that future thinking in regards to entrepreneurship is not only a method of creating speculative enterprise, but also social enterprise. An inherent issue with capitalism is it’s tendency to not only think of the here and now as opposed to the future implications of our work. A fictional entrepreneur is one that creates the ideal in order to imagine a perfect future, using fiction to work towards it and to express it. In a sense, it is this idealism, and ability to create culture-shifting models that makes a fictional entrepreneur something far more powerful than any CEO – a critical design entrepreneur. Jackson Wang’s “Peace of Mind™” uses “Speculative Intrapreneurship,” a technique Fictional Entrepreneurship, to imagine a future collaboration between the Department of Homeland Security and Target. “Speculative Intrapreneurship” is the use of fiction to imagine a pre-existing business or institution in a different, often-times future, scenario. Through this “Intrapreneurial” fantasy depicted in “Peace of Mind™,” Jackson Wang successfully transforms two well known entities in a way that makes the critical and political commentary on society’s hyper-paranoia in regards to terrorism tangible, and grounded in a world we all understand.

“Contempt for the intelligence of the audience engenders graphics that lie… graphic excellence begins with telling the truth.” – Edward R. Tufte

As we see with the “Peace of Mind™” project, Fictional Entrepreneurship’s capabilities are not limited to the cultivation and invention of new markets, products, and services through imagination and speculation in the field of business alone. Fictional Entrepreneurship also has the ability to work within the realm of research and academia, adopting this speculative approach as a way to talk about complex issues in an accessible manner. I argue that fictional entrepreneurship allows us to not only speculate the future, but influence and invent it. By not responding to change and instead serving as a catalyst for it, we are not “guessing” the future needs or desires, but we are initiating them. I find this to be true entrepreneurship.

“Tools for Improved Social Interaction” & “Conversacube” by Lauren McCarthy

If design fiction is meant to “exercise the human imagination,” (Bleecker) as Julian Bleecker states in his essay that defined the practice, then why are the forms and language surrounding these projects often times so inaccessible? Pushing this line of work into the context of a business, something we encounter daily, and that we are all a part of, we are able to make critical discourse approachable and transparent in and out of academia’s very tall walls. Powerful critical design does not present itself as critical design. Powerful design fiction does not present itself as fiction. I argue that instead, a critical message that will truly resonate with an audience is one that suspends disbelief, and Fictional Entrepreneurs have this capability. Lauren McCarthy is a critical design entrepreneur with an interest in the effects of technology on our society’s social interactions.

McCarthy’s work takes the shape of technological innovation products as a way to both suspend the audience’s disbelief, and make this critical discourse accessible to a wider audience. “The Happiness Hat” is a part of the “Tools for Improved Social Interaction” series, and is a wearable device that “trains” the user to smile more through a punishment system that stabs the hat-wearer in the back of the head when a frown is detected. “Conversacube,” like “The Happiness Hat,” trains the user to adapt to social situations by prompting each conversant with directions or specific lines to keep the conversation running seamlessly with minimal awkward pauses and uncomfortable moments. What new products and services will emerge as our society becomes more and more socially inept due to invasive technology? How can we stop these products from ever having to be manufactured? The latter is at the heart, or communicative desire, of a dystopian, fictional, enterprise such as the models of business presented in Lauren McCarthy’s work, but what is the advantage of mass-production?

“People with imagination may be able to achieve a synthesis with a given combination that other people would be unable to visualize. It is the imagination that dictates what kinds of synthesis are believed to be possible.” (Casson 120)

“Queer Technologies,” Zach Blas

Queer Technologies is a fictional organization founded by critical design entrepreneur, Zach Blas. QT explores the concept of an “interstitial organization” that innovates and manufactures a product line for queer agencies, interventions, and social formations. Blas describes his work as being an established flow of resistance within a larger sphere of capitalist structure that uses common viral tactics of mass production and dissemination as atool for engaging an audience in discourse surrounding issues of queer socialites in current technological trends.

“Queer Technologies product line includes transCoder, a queer programming antilanguage; ENgenderingGenderChangers, a “solution” to Gender Adapters’ male/female binary; Gay Bombs, a technical manual manifesto that outlines a “how to” of queer political action through terrorist assemblages of networked activism; GRID, an etymological reformulation of the name briefly held by HIV/AIDS and digital grids of communication and transmission, is a data visualization application that tracks the dissemination of QT products and maps the “battle plans” for spreading, networking, and infection.” (Blas)

The “Queer Technologies” project uses “Shop Dropping,” a technique of fictional entrepreneurship, as a tool for engaging a larger audience. A “shop dropper” creates a fictional product and places it in a store in which the entrepreneur sees fit, left for consumers to stumble upon. “QT” products such as the “ENgenderingGenderchangers” were dropped in Radio Shacks, Best Buys, and other technology shops across the nation (until they were discovered by the employees, of course). This tactic allows the discourse to enter the public realm, simultaneously suspending the consumer’s disbelief while allowing them to question reality, and raise questions of their own around the critical issues at hand. What if critical design entrepreneurs were not the sole practitioners of their fictional enterprise, but instead designed a model that allows anyone to take part in the manufacturing of critical goods?

Measures of Discontent,” Michael Kontopoulos

“Measures of Discontent” is a line of dystopian products by Michael Kontopoulos, a fictional entrepreneur. Equally inspired and disgusted by the tradition of “Gross National Happiness” in Bhutan, an effort to impose quantifiable values to the “happiness” of it’s people, Kontopoulos’ critical scenarios imagine a future in which products / tools are manufactured to allow users to measure their discontent. But Kontopoulos is not the sole proprietor of his fictional enterprise, it is open source. In the true spirit of an imaginative future in which these tools would be needed by all, schematics and step-by-step guides are provided, as part of the project, so that anyone could theoretically build these devices on their own. In the true spirit of fictional entrepreneurship, the body of work presents the audience with something that is not impossible, but possible, and in doing so, allows us to imagine the possible ramifications and implications of such a world.

We have just explored a small sampling of projects that sit on the threshold of critical design, fiction, and entrepreneurship. Whether the projects are gestural interfaces from science fiction films, or a desire to raise dialogue around technologically crippled social interactions, all of these projects have the potential to shift our culture and change the perspective of a society – through fiction.

But fiction is not enough.

The invention of fantasy, scenarios, and products of fiction is not where the process ends, it is what allows us to see and react to what is needed. To continue requires fictional entrepreneurs to take a fictional construct and root it back into what is feasible today. In doing so, a critical design entrepreneur creates a model that is far more powerful then the suspension of disbelief, the design of “fact.” Could a fictional entrepreneur, then, actually be non-fictional? Fictional Entrepreneurship is not an ending point, but instead a process that leads critical design entrepreneurs to non-fictional innovation, or “diegetic business.” In creative fiction writing, diegesis is a tool for crafting an “inner world,” or defining the setting of a story. A diegetic business, then, is an enterprise that serves as a metaphor for the context around it. It is a non-fictional business that can tell a story and serve as a representation for the criticality it hopes to communicate, the time in which it exists, and the narrative it hopes to tell. What does Diegetic Business look like?

Works Cited:

  1. – Baldacci, David. “The Whole Truth.” quoted in Newsweek.
  2. – Blas, Zach. “Queer Technologies.” Zach Blas. 25 Mar. 2011. <http://www.zachblas.info&gt;.
  3. – Berman, David. do good design. Berkely: AIGA Design Press, 2009.
  4. – Bleecker, Julian. “Design Fiction: A Short Essay on Design, Science, Fact, and Fiction.” Near Future Laboratory. 29 Mar. 2009. 12 Mar. 2011. <http://www.nearfuturelaboratory.com/&gt;.
  5. – Casson, The Entrepreneur, 120. quoted in Disclosing New Worlds.
  6. – Laurel, Brenda. Utopian Entrepreneur. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2001.
  7. – Mau, Bruce. Massive Change. London: Phaidon, 2004.
  8. – McCarthy, Lauren. “Tools for Improved Social Interaction.” Lauren McCarthy. 12 Mar. 2011. <http://www.lauren-mccarthy.com&gt;.
  9. – McCarthy, Lauren. “Conversacube.” Lauren McCarthy. 12 Mar. 2011. <http://www.lauren-mccarthy.com&gt;.
  10. – MetaHaven. UNCORPORATE IDENTITY. Switzerland: Lars Muller Publishers, 2010.
  11. – Spinosa, Charles, Fernando Flores, and Hubert L. Dreyfus. Disclosing New Worlds: Entrepreneurship, Democratic Action, and The Cultivation of Solidarity. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1997.
  12. – Wang, Jackson. “Peace of Mind™.” Peace of Mind™. 06 Mar. 2011. <http://www.peaceofmind.us.com&gt;.
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