Diegetic Business

Fiction is not enough, but it is necessary.

Fictional Entrepreneurship allows for innovation within a fictional model. It allows for wiggle room, iteration, failure, and for ideas to transform into other ideas. Fictional Entrepreneurship is about raising social and critical dialogue around issues within our daily lives, our governments, and our societies. It is about telling a damn good story, but above all, about creating things that could never exist, or changing that which we think we have an understanding of. It is about being an entrepreneur of the “impractical.”

“Mainly they were worried about the future, and they would badger us about what’s going to happen to us. Finally, I said: ‘Look, the best way to predict the future is to invent it. This is the century in which you can be proactive about the future; you don’t have to be reactive. The whole idea of having scientists and technology is that those things you can envision and describe can actually be built.’ It was a surprise to them and it worried them.” – Alan Kay

Diegetic Business, on the other hand, is about the transformation from fiction to non-fiction. Diegetic Business is not “non-fiction,” it is the in-between of the imaginary and the real. It is a process that begins to involve people, profit, non-profit, etc., but is not quite there yet. Diegetic Business is about failure, problem-making, and being a naive inventor.

If entrepreneurship and innovation are about making a need that only that product can fill, entrepreneurship, like design, is growing as a field that is not “problem-solving,” but “problem-making.” True innovation, and true futuring practices come not from fixing things, but breaking them.

Why would we want to foster entrepreneurs and business models that do not take care of our daily annoyances, but create them? Why would a consumer ever engage with a product that make their life less efficient? We don’t want to, and they wouldn’t, but it is a necessary step in this transformative phase from the imaginary to the real. A successful entrepreneur, or “future inventor” does not meet our current needs, but foresees our future needs and problems. In order to do this, they need to make them.

 “I don’t know who discovered water, but it wasn’t a fish.” – Marshall McCluhan. 

If you are immersed in the context and the content, you have an extremely difficult time being able to see what is going on. This is proof of the idea that being naive is actually crucial when approaching the design of a business model. In a conversation with Peter Lunenfeld, a master of futuring practices and media design education, he claimed that we, as a society, need more “hedgefoxes.” A hybrid creature that is part hedgehog (able to deep-dive into a subject matter), and part fox (able to go quickly back and forth between subject matter). I believe the same is in the field of business – it is ideal to be have deep knowledge in one matter, but have hybridity in your nature, allowing you to freely explore other mediums that are unfamiliar to you. Choose mediums you are unfamiliar with, but bring your bits of familiarity with you.

Invisalign, Amir Abolfathi

In April (2011), I paid a visit to some of Silicon Valley’s most successful and innovative entrepreneurs in order to discuss my radical approaches to business and entrepreneurship and get their take on it. One executive in particular, Amir Abolfathi, embodies the persona of a fictional entrepreneur. Amir is the co-inventor of Invisalign, the world’s first invisible teeth correcting device, as well as many other products within the dental industry. When I heard about his newest company, Sonitus Medical, I became intrigued by the project’s “imaginary” qualities – a hearing aid embedded in teeth. Sonitus Medical is the world’s first removable hearing aid that uses bone conduction of the teeth to enhance hearing. Amir admitted to me that, while he is a master of teeth, he honestly knew nothing about the hearing industry before starting this company. He claimed that is was this naivety that actually made him a better innovator in the hearing industry, because it allowed him to come up with hundreds of ideas and sketches that were in no way possible or practical. By leaving practicality behind, and by being naive to the capabilities and possibilities in the hearing industry, Amir was able to come up with ideas that were never previously considered.

Failure, like naivety, in entrepreneurship is critical – this is where fictional entrepreneurship can play a strong role. By being an entrepreneur of fiction (fictional consumers, fictional capital, fictional product), you have nothing to lose, and can iterate freely until ready to become diegetic.

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.

While the interfaces and products in Minority Report are the result of a fictional entrepreneur’s innovations, the interfaces and products of Ooblong industries are that of a Diegetic Business – they are able to hold onto the innovative and imaginative qualities of the fictional series of explorations as seen in the movie, while seamlessly entering the beginning stages of commercialization.

The transformation from a fictional enterprise to a diegetic enterprise does not need to be one with commercial intentions, but can also be one that is used as a tool for raising social dialogue and maintaining critical integrity. The successful qualities of using business as a medium for these kinds of communicative tools is that it is very accessible – business is a medium that everyone (whether it is realized or not) is a part of. We are surrounded by business, and are embedded within business on a daily basis. Therefore, using business as a tool for raising these issues or jamming our culture can reach a larger market and attract more participation then any other medium. Two examples of Diegetic Business, and entrepreneurs of cultural criticism are The Yes Men and Natalie Jerimijenko’s “Environmental Health Clinic.”

The Yes Men are a group of over 300 culture jammers. They impersonate leaders and big corporations in order to publicly humiliate them while raising dialogue around the wrong-doings we often forget about. Most recently, The Yes Men executed a prank known as Coal Cares™, a fictional non-profit that posed as an initiative of Chevron.

 Coal Cares™ is a brand-new initiative from Chevron, one of America’s proud family of coal companies, to reach out to American youngsters with asthma and to help them keep their heads high in the face of those who would treat them with less than full dignity. For kids who have no choice but to use an inhaler, Coal Cares™ lets them inhale with pride. (http://coalcares.org/)

A Diegetic Business, Coal Cares™ had the mission of making coal cool for kids, providing some very exciting inhalers. They even had one with Justin Beiber on it. So why is this a Diegetic Business as opposed to a Fictional Enterprise? Coal Cares™, and the rest of The Yes Men’s work goes beyond the imaginary by brining fictional personas and products into a society as a way to shift culture. These projects are Diegetic because they exist as operating businesses that have roots in the imaginary, but are able to maintain the social and critical values through the threshold of “real.” They are an artifact – extracted from a story. How can a simple object, a result of critical-entrepreneurial thinking, use charm and humor to communicate a profound cultural issue?

Natalie Jerimijenko takes existing models and re-mixes them to raise dialogue around social and environmental dialogue. Jerimijenko’s business, The Environmental Health Clinic, operates as any other health clinic would, but instead of coming to this particular clinic with your own health issues, you come to it to discuss the health of your environment. After their consultation, visitors of the clinic are given tools for water sampling to understand the state of their water supply raise, and raise their issues with people of office.

The Environmental Health Clinic is a Diegetic Business that begins to engage a culture by giving them real, working, products to both educate and empower them to raise their own dialogue and start their own initiatives around environmental issues. The bizarre nature of their sampling tools immediately provokes questioning from the peers around them – this creates a model which uses diegetic artifacts to tell the story to others, and watch it spread virally throughout the city.

“These bespoke futures go beyond profit and loss statements, to create an opportunity space for the imagination, enabling individuals and independent groups to create visions of the future that inspire them. The point is to move from P&L to V&F—profit and loss to vision and futurity—from ROI to ROV –the Return on Investment to a Return on Vision.” (Lunenfeld)

The key to creating a Utopian vision of the future is community engagement and the collective agreement of the masses. As Peter Lunenfeld highlights in his book, “The Secret War of Downloading and Uploading,” a Dystopian vision, “Mutants in the Rosebowl,” is the default answer from designers of the future because utopia can not be agreed upon. Utopia is different for every individual, like a fingerprint, no one person’s perception of utopia can ever be the same and another’s. Dystopia, on the other hand, is widely agreed upon. How can we start planning for a more ideal future, designing one that we would actually appreciate engaging in dialogue around? How can we, as designers of the future, design utopia for a wide demographic that extends beyond ourselves? How can an entrepreneurial method / approach to thinking engage a wide audience, or at least one that is bigger than ourselves?

But non-fiction is not enough.

People are a critical force behind the evolution of a diegetic business to a non-non-fiction business. Employees, innovators, consumers – people. People are needed to share the visions – to create a collective ideal, to be collective entrepreneurs, and to “make it real.”

Works Cited:

  1. – Kay, Alan. “Predicting The Future.” Ecotopia, 20 May 2011. <http://www.ecotopia.com/webpress/futures.htm&gt;
  2. – McCluhan, Marshall. Quoted in “Predicting The Future.” Alan C. Kay, Ecotopia. 20 May 2011. <http://www.ecotopia.com/webpress/futures.htm&gt;
  3. – The Yes Men. “Coal Cares™.” 30 May. 2011. <http://www.coalcares.org&gt;
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