(In which my reach no doubt exceeds my grasp)

(Begin brain dump:)

Two concepts Warren Ellis rumbled on a good bit about last year were design fiction and hauntology. Here they are, quickly defined:

Design fiction:

Design Fiction is making things that tell stories. It’s like science-fiction in that the stories bring into focus certain matters-of-concern, such as how life is lived, questioning how technology is used and its implications, speculating bout the course of events; all of the unique abilities of science-fiction to incite imagination-filling conversations about alternative futures. It’s about reading P.K. Dick as a systems administrator, or Bruce Sterling as a software design manual. It’s meant to encourage truly undisciplined approaches to making and circulating culture by ignoring disciplines that have invested so much in erecting boundaries between pragmatics and imagination.

Julian Bleecker


As applied to musics, hauntology is an attempt to define that particular sonic which is the sound of the present being audibly haunted by the past. Songs heard as if from three rooms away, in the middle of the night. The ghostly music-boxes heard in Philip Jeck pieces. Crackle. There’s a connection with Electronic Voice Phenomenon in there, and a tenuous connection is at least passively inferred with Paul Devereux’s experiments in archaeoacoustics.

Warren Ellis

I confess, they didn’t particularly grab my attention as I originally understood them. So with the exception of Machines of Desire, I mostly glazed over those posts. Then a week or two ago I came across Matt Jones’s raw notes on a conversation between Bruce Sterling, Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby about design fiction at the 2009 Icon Minds programme. They were just that: raw notes. Cryptic, sometimes undecipherable dispatches from an event I didn’t attend, filtered through a mind I don’t know. Like sitting in 1920 and reading someone’s Twitter stream from 2010. Most of it was meaningless because I had no context. But there were enough shiny objects that my curiosity was piqued to the point where, while sitting in a dark house at 6AM this morning waiting for the boy I babysit to wake up, I typed “design fiction” into Google on my phone and did some reading. If you’re interested in the path I took, here’s what I read in the order I read it:

-Design Fiction by Bruce Sterling (you should read at least this one before continuing because I refer back to it a number of times)

-Conversation between architect Francois Roche and graphic novelist Warren Ellis

-Design Fiction: Conversation between designers Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby and science fiction writer Bruce Sterling (A full transcript of the very dialogue Matt Jones had been taking notes on. You can also watch it as video.)

And this time, for whatever reason, the concept landed. I got it. It got me thinking. Especially the talk of “architecture fiction” as a subset of design fiction. Most of that talk was about the narratives of buildings, but of course the idea’s incomplete without looking at the edifices of narratives. I’m suddenly reminded of this little diagram from Viki King’s How to Write a Movie in 21 Days, which despite its self-help-carnival-barker-hucksterish title is one of my favorite books on writing. I currently have more than one on my shelf because I’m always giving it away. Anyway, the diagram:

This whole idea of narratives (which are essentially shaped ideas) as structures immediately got me thinking again about memory palaces. If you’re not familiar with the term, memory palaces (or method of loci) are (reductively) imaginary rooms or buildings used to memorize large swaths of information. The concept can be traced back to the Greek lyric poet Simonides of Ceos (c. 556 BC-468 BC) and hearkens to a time when the art of memory was considered as important a mind science as other practical learned skills like logic and rhetoric. I did a good deal of musing (some of the links in those 5 posts will be broken because I have since migrated the calebmonroe.com domain from that blog to this current one) on this subject in 2007 as I experimented with the idea of a mental office space, a constructed head space one goes to each day to work, instead of going to an office or coffee house or commuter train or whatever physical space we tend to set apart as a “work” space. I had just moved to New York at the time, disrupting all my previous patterns of time and space and was looking for a writing workplace that couldn’t be disrupted by time nor space, that would always be there ready for me to get to work because it was in my mind, which is where most of the work of writing occurs anyway.

One of the reasons my thought experiments with memory palaces and memory offices petered out was I hadn’t been exposed to design fiction yet. Now that I have those thoughts have returned with a vengeance.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. There’s a concept Alan Moore put forth called Idea Space. Defined thusly:

Alan Moore has this notion that inspiration lives in an ethereal morphogenic field he terms “ideaspace”, and that we all access it. The field has its own weather, and predominant conditions in the field affect the culture. This is why bunches of similar ideas appear at the same time—it’s the weather of ideaspace.

Warren Ellis

And Alan Moore:

We’ve all got our own Idea Space which is individual and unique to us. This is like having your own house. We’ve all got part of our unconscious in the back garden but the back gardens all lead onto the same street. In another model you might say there’s all these little individual inlets of consciousness, but they all connect to the same central ocean.

Alan Moore

So if we all have our individual “houses” in the thoughtscape, these structures are who we are (à la King), yet also consciously shapable (à la method of loci). The back yard becomes an idea garden, and we can choose exactly how large or small, how elaborate or how public or private it will be. The same with our character, which comes down to choices. in every situation we make we make a choice that further defines who we are.

Idea Space is responsive to our will.

As we move deeper and deeper into an information/conceptual age with a creative economy, we’re learning that really any human experience—no matter how ethereal, intangible or theoretical—can be designed. Tim Ferriss has dubbed what he does lifestyle design: designing a human life. Experience design, dubbed by Sterling as “the most imperial, most gaseous, most spectral form of design yet invented…with a radically universalized prospectus,” is concerned with designing experience itself. Which Idea Space falls under.

The thoughtscape is designable.

A pause and a digression: Design fiction, architecture fiction, engineering fiction, experience design, lifestyle design and a few more to come below. This proliferation of neologisms remind me of the backmatter in Doktor Sleepless #12:

The music papers were almost more important [than the music], because from them I could learn about music I couldn’t yet hear. It appealed to my imagination. And god knows that writers like the crowd on the Melody Maker (who, for a while there, were the best arts journalists anywhere in the country) loved their neologisms. At times they fairly delighted in making up names for perceived new musical movements….

Music writing as science fiction writing.

The neologism is central to sf writing, where it often also gives body to the novum. The novum, a term coined by Darko Suvin (though I read about it first in Samuel Delany), is, if you like, a unit of novelty in science fiction. A visible point of difference, a discontinuity from the commonly-understood present day. The time machine, the invisible man — these are nova. The storied line from Robert Heinlein — “the door dilated” — contains within it a novum, and the other touchstone of written sf. Differently-pressured language. In science fiction, the sentence “she opened her eyes” can mean two different things. That is, in the belief of many people, why a significant percentage of the audience is repulsed by written sf — because it demands you process its information in radically different ways, all the time. Some people feel like sf is trying to trick them with every line.

Warren Ellis

Which is interesting because Ellis comes right back to that idea of how sf demands a different sort of processing in his talk with Francois Roche, which I linked to above. Okay. End digression.

So how do we design Idea Space?

I think the answer lies in generative design. “Patterns and forms conjured out of programmed randomness.”

Generative design is not about designing a building. It’s about designing the system that designs a building.

Lars Hesselgren

It’s not about designing the story. It’s about designing the system that designs the story.

Physics is constantly trying to understand and recreate the conditions of the Big Bang. The moment of creation. What are the conditions of your moment of creation? Can they be recreated at will? Given a better interface? Made more user friendly?

The birth of ideas is, much like the physics of the Big Bang, a black box process. You can’t just walk up to it and have a look. Besides, the very act of observing is likely to change the whole process anyway. We can conceive, and therefore design for, the inputs and outputs, but what happens to them inside the box remain a mystery. We can design a creative habit, but ultimately whatever box we use becomes Schrödinger’s. Only by opening it can we see what’s been made. But, of course, that same opening eliminates the possibilities of what could have been made.

Which is where the shortcomings of using real-world objects like gardens and houses as Idea Space metaphors become apparent: it’s an entangled reality, filled with more possibility than actuality. Which means it’s not the container, but the unknowable process inside the container that becomes the narrative.

Which is where hauntology comes in. Because it’s a way of thinking about the life span of inputs within a space, and the possibilities of outputs over the course of time. When we think about the architecture of Idea Space, when we think about the intangible aspects of ourselves as structures, then hauntology is a way of looking at the life span and possibilities of our processes, including the creative process.

Consider conducting an archaeoacoustic experiment like Alvin Lucifer’s I Am Sitting In A Room within your personal Idea Space. The Jesus Prayer can be looked at this way: a simply-worded prayer repeated internally until it becomes a constant echo whose sound maps the spirit.

Every structure has a resonance. Find yours. Then pattern it out.

Generative architect Christopher Alexander has invented a concept called “design patterns”:

Which Merlin Mann over at 43 Folders seized upon as a language for thinking about creativity in his talk “Toward Patterns of Creativity” at the Macworld conference early last year. Design patterns are like weather patterns. Weather is subject to the same patterns day after day, season after season, year after year, but the results are never repeated. Creative design patterns are what Alan Moore’s talking about when he describes Idea Space as having “weather”.

One of Alexander’s websites contains the following quote:

These tools allow anyone, and any group of people, to create beautiful, functional, meaningful places. You can create a living world.


That’s not just about architecture. That’s fiction right there. That’s writing.

Which brings me to my point. Design, specifically architectural design, specifically generative architectural design, specifically the design patterns of generative architectural design may have finally given us a practical interface for discussing and utilizing the black box tech that is the creative process.

Once it’s parsed as a language it, like a language, can be taught to anyone. Sure, some will have greater aptitude for it than others. But everyone can learn it with the right effort.

That effort has no 20th-century description. I rather doubt that it’s ever been tried. It seems to me like a good response to events.

Bruce Sterling

Why is this important? Why do we need a teachable language of imagination? Because (emphases mine):

The technoculture that we currently inhabit (it’s not the postmodern anymore, so we might haltingly call it a cyberneticized, globalized, liberal capitalism in financial collapse) well, it was neither rationally designed nor science-fictionally predicted.

Why is that? What happened? Why are we like this now? What next, for heaven’s sake? Can’t we do better?

We have entered an unimagined culture.

Bruce Sterling

The internet turns 40 this fall. Access by the general public is less than half that age. Web use, as a normal part of life for a majority of the developed world, is less than half that age. We just got here. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.

Clay Shirky

If you think of it, children starting school this year will be retiring in 2065. Nobody has a clue…what the world will look like in five years’ time. And yet we’re meant to be educating [children] for it. So the unpredictability, I think, is extraordinary.

My contention is that creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.

Ken Robinson

Technology and culture are changing faster than they can be understood. Real Space is now mapped onto Idea Space, is just as unpredictable, intangible and undefinable. It’s no longer what we think that matters. It’s how we think.

So we need to stop communicating the what and start communicating the how. Which demands a language.

Find the resonance of your mental space. Pattern it out. Design patterns are just situational programs. You can write a program for creativity. So write the one that creates the originating conditions that keep you creating in an infinite number of ways.

Write an app for your imagination. Then make it open source.

All you have to do is give up any certitude of the outcome so the process can take it’s course.

I once wrote an extensive narrative of myself…Looking back, I now realize what was missing: the abandonment of certitude, the willingness to give up on making sense of it all, and the honesty to admit it. When we let go of our certitude, as Samuel Beckett puts it, something happens.

Alfonse Borysewicz

Learn to be incomplete. So things can happen.

Help imagine our unimagined culture.

(End frenetic brain dump. If you’ve made it all the way through to this final sentence, go have yourself some celebratory–or recovery–ice cream.)

6 Responses to Patterns of Incomplete

  1. Scott Berta says:

    WOW!!! That is really great Caleb. Not sure I grasped the concept completely but it resonates with something inside and that warrants further inquiry. Thanks for putting this together and thanks for the links to follow.

  2. Caleb says:

    Thanks, guys!

    In hindsight, I think perhaps I should have converged more or converged less.

    Either way, it’s a fairly good glimpse of the way things were looking in my head as I wrote it, as “rough” as that may be. I see ideas as these weird sort of three-dimensional webs tied all into one another and this time everything I’d been reading recently seemed to be converging into one enormous Thought.

  3. Congrats on getting a link from Bruce Sterling as well.

    I love the description of the creative process as a ‘black box’. Each person’s is different and responds to inputs with wildly varying outputs. Reminds me of non-reversible hash functions in computer science. What goes in produces a unique output, but that output can’t be decomposed back to its sources.

  4. Angela says:

    I arrived here from the Bruce Sterling link today. I am a pattern weaver myself – putting a glimmer of this idea together with a piece of that one from over there to find my concept – so this was a bit of delightfulness bubbling into my day. And, even better, has set the ideas all tumbling around in my head – reorienting themselves in the glow of the connections you made here.

  5. Caleb says:

    Welcome aboard David, Angela!

    I’m a bit goggled by the Sterling link myself. Funny how he sending people to a Tumblr post showing an old studio map of California led some of you here to read a post in which I so heavily reference him.

    Welcome to the ubiquitous cloud!

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