Using Design Fiction and Science Fiction to Interrogate Privacy in Sensing Technologies

This post is a version of a talk given at the 2017 ACM Designing Interactive Systems (DIS) Conference on a paper by Richmond Wong, Ellen Van Wyk, and James Pierce, Real-Fictional Entanglements: Using Science Fiction and Design Fiction to Interrogate Sensing Technologies in which we used a science fiction novel as the starting point for creating a set of design fictions to explore issues around privacy.  This blog post is also cross-posted on Richmond’s blog, The Bytegeist. Find out more on our project page, or download the paper: [PDF link ] [ACM link]

Many emerging and proposed sensing technologies raise questions about privacy and surveillance. For instance new wireless smarthome security cameras sound cool… until we’re using them to watch a little girl in her bedroom getting ready for school, which feels creepy, like in the tweet below.

Or consider the US Department of Homeland Security’s imagined future security system. Starting around 2007, they were trying to predict criminal behavior, pre-crime, like in Minority Report. They planned to use thermal sensing, computer vision, eye tracking, gait sensing, and other physiological signals. And supposedly it would “avoid all privacy issues.”  And it’s pretty clear that privacy was not adequately addressed in this project, as found in an investigation by EPIC.


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Image from Note the middle bullet point in the middle column – “avoids all privacy issues.”

A lot of these types of products or ideas are proposed or publicly released – but somehow it seems like privacy hasn’t been adequately thought through beforehand. However, parallel to this, we see works of science fiction which often imagine social changes and effects related to technological change – and do so in situational, contextual, rich world-building ways. This led us to our starting hunch for our work:

perhaps we can leverage science fiction, through design fiction, to help us think through the values at stake in new and emerging technologies.

Designing for provocation and reflection might allow us to do a similar type of work through design that science fiction often does.

So we created a set of visual design fictions, inspired by a set of fictional technologies from the 2013 science fiction novel The Circle by Dave Eggers to explore privacy issues in emerging sensing technologies. By doing this we tap into an author’s already existing, richly imagined world, rather than creating our own imagined world from scratch.

Design Fiction and our Design Process

Our work builds on past connections drawn among fiction, design, research, and public imagination, specifically, design fiction. Design fiction has been described as an authorial practice between science fiction and science fact and as diegetic prototypes. In other words, artifacts created through design fiction help imply or create a narrative world, or fictional reality, in which they exist. By creating yet-to-be-realized design concepts, design fiction tries to understand possible alternative futures. (Here we draw on work by Bleecker, Kirby, Linehan et al, and Lindley & Coulton).

In the design research and HCI communities, design fiction has been used in predominantly 1 of 2 ways. One focuses on creating design fiction artifacts in formats such as textual ones, visual, video, and other materials. A second way uses design fiction as an analytical lens to understand fictional worlds created by others – including films, practices, and advertisements – although perhaps most relevant to us are Tanenbaum et al’s analysis of the film Mad Max: Fury Road or Lindley et al’s analysis of the film Her as design fictions.

In our work, we combine these 2 ways of using design fiction: We think about the fictional technologies introduced by Eggers in his novel using the lens of design fiction, and we used those to create our own new design fictions.

Obviously there’s a long history of science fiction in film, television, and literature. There’s a lot that we could have used to inspire our designs, but The Circle was interesting to us for a few reasons.

Debates about literary quality aside, as a mass market book, it presents an opportunity to look at a contemporary and popular depiction of sensing technologies. It reflects timely concerns about privacy and increasing data collection. The book and its fictional universe is accessible to a broad audience – it was a New York Times bestseller and a movie adaptation was released in May 2017. (While we knew that a film version was in production when we did our design work, we created our designs before the film was released).

The novel is set in a near future and focuses on a powerful tech company called The Circle, which keeps introducing new sensing products that supposedly provide greater user value, but to the reader, they seem increasingly invasive of privacy. The novel utilizes a dark humor to portray this, satirizing the rhetoric and culture of today’s technology companies.

It’s set in a near future that’s still very much recognizable – it starts to blur boundaries between fiction and reality in a way that we wanted to explore using design fiction. We used Gaver’s design workbook technique to generate a set of design fictions through several iterative rounds of design, several of which are discussed in this post.

workbook pages
We made a lot of designs – excerpts from our design workbook can be found on our project page

Our set of design fictions draws from 3 technologies from the novel, and 1 non-fictional technology that is being developed but seems like it could fit in the world of The Circle, again playing with this idea blurring fiction and reality. We’ll discuss 2 of them in this post, both of which originate from the Eggers novel (no major plot points are spoiled here!).

The first is SeeChange, which is the most prominent technology in the novel. It’s a wireless camera, about the size of a lollipop. It can record and stream live HD video online, and these live streams can be shared with anyone. Its battery lasts for years it, can be used indoors or outdoors, and it can be mounted discretely or worn on the body. It’s introduced to monitor conditions at outdoor sporting locations, or to monitor spaces to prevent crimes. Later, it’s worn by characters who share their lives through a constant live personal video stream.

The second is ChildTrack, which is part of an ongoing project at the company. It’s a small chip implanted into the bone of a child’s body, allowing parents to monitor their child’s location at all times for safety. Later in the story it’s suggested that these chips can also store a child’s educational records, homework, reading, attendance, and test scores so that parents can access all their child’s information in “one place”.

Adapting The Circle

We’re going to look at some different designs that we created that are variations on SeeChange and ChildTrack. Some designs may seem more real or plausible, while others may seem more fictional. Sometimes the technologies might seem fictional, while other times the values and social norms expressed might seem fictional. These are all things that we were interested in exploring through our design process.

SeeChange Beach

For us, a natural starting point was that the novel doesn’t have any illustrations. So we started by going through the book’s descriptions of SeeChange and tried to interpret the first scene in which it appears. In this scene, a company executive demos SeeChange by showing an audience live images of several beaches from hidden cameras, ostensibly to monitor surfing conditions. Our collage of images felt surprisingly believable after we made it, and slightly creepy as it put us in the position of feeling like we were surveilling people at the beach.

ChildTrack App Interface

We did the same thing for ChildTrack, looking at how it was described in the book and then imagining what the interface might look like. We wanted to use the perspective of a parent using an app looking at their child’s data, portraying parental surveillance of one’s child as a type of care or moral responsibility.

The Circle in New Contexts

With our approach, we wanted to use The Circle as a starting point to think through a series of privacy and surveillance concerns. After our initial set of designs we began thinking about how the same set of technologies might be used in other situations within the world of the novel, but not depicted in Eggers’ story; and how that might lead to new types of privacy concerns. We did this by creating variations on our initial set of designs.

SeeChange being “sold” on

From other research, we know that privacy is experienced differently based on one’s subject position. We wanted to think about how much of SeeChange’s surveillance concerns stem from its technical capabilities versus who uses it or who gets recorded. We made 3 pages to market SeeChange as three different products, targeting different groups. We were inspired by debates about police-citizen interactions in the U.S. and imagined SeeChange as a live streaming police body camera. Like Eggers’ book, we satirize the rhetoric of technological determinism, writing that cameras provide “objective” evidence of wrongdoing – we obviously know that cameras aren’t objective. We also leave ambiguity about if the police officer or citizen is doing the wrongdoing.  Thinking about using cameras for activist purposes – like how PETA uses undercover cameras, or how documentarians sometimes use hidden cameras , we frame SeeChange as a small, hidden, wearable camera for activists groups.  Inspired by political debates in the U.S., we thought about how people who are suspicious of the Federal Government might want to monitor political opponents, so we also market SeeChange as a camera “For Independence, Freedom, and Survival,” for this audience. Some of these framings seem more worrisome when thinking about who gets to use the camera, while others seem more worrisome when thinking about who gets recorded by the camera.

seechange angles
Ubiquitous SeeChange cameras from many angles. Image © Ellen Van Wyk, used with permission.

We also thought about longer term effects within the world of The Circle. What might it be like once these SeeChange cameras become ubiquitous, always recording and broadcasting? It could be nice to be able to re-watch crime scenes from multiple angles. But, it might be creepy to use many multiple angles to watch a person doing daily activities, which we depict here as a person sits in a conference room using his computer. The bottom picture looking between the blinds, simulating a small camera attached to the window is particularly creepy to me – and suggests capabilities that goes beyond today’s closed circuit TV cameras.

New Fictions and New Realities

After our second round of designs, we began thinking about privacy concerns that were not particularly present in the novel or our existing designs. The following designs, while inspired by novel, are imagined to exist in worlds beyond The Circle’s.

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User interface of an advanced location-tracking system. Image © Ellen Van Wyk, used with permission.

The Circle never really discusses government surveillance, which we think is important to consider. All the surveillance in the book is done by private companies or by individuals. So, we created a scenario putting SeeChange in the hands of the police or government intelligence agencies, to track people and vehicles. Here, SeeChange might overcome some of the barriers that provide privacy protection for us today: Here, police could also easily use the search bar to find anybody’s location history without need for a warrant or any oversight – suggesting a new social or legal reality.

Truwork – “An integrated solution for your office or workplace!”

 Similarly, we wanted to think about issues of workplace surveillance. Here’s a scenario advertising a workplace implantable tracking device. Employers can subscribe to the service and make their employees implant these devices to keep track of their whereabouts and work activities to improve efficiency.

In a fascinating twist, a version of this actually occurred at a Swedish company about 6 months after we did our design work, where employees are inserting RFID chips into their hands to open doors, make payments, and so forth.

childtrack advertisers
Childtrack for advertisers infographic. Image © Ellen Van Wyk, used with permission.

The Circle never discusses data sharing with 3rd parties like advertisers, so we imagined a service built on top of ChildTrack aimed at advertisers to leverage all the data collected about a child to target them with advertisements. This represents a legal fiction, as it would likely be illegal to do this in the US and EU under various child data protection laws and regulations.

This third round of designs interrogates the relationship between privacy and personal data from the viewpoints of different stakeholders.


After creating these designs, we have a series of reflections that fall broadly into 4 areas, though I’ll mention 2 of them here.

Analyzing Privacy Utilizing External Frameworks

Given our interest in the privacy implications of these technologies, we looked to privacy research before starting our design work. Contemporary approaches to privacy view it as contextual, dependent on one’s subject position and on specific situations. Mulligan et al suggest that rather than trying to define privacy, it’s more productive to map how various aspects of privacy are represented in particular situations along 5 dimensions.

After each round of our design iterations, we analyzed the designs through this framework. This allowed us to have a way to map how broadly we were exploring our problem space. For instance, in our first round of designs we stayed really close to the novel. The privacy harms that occurred with SeeChange were caused by other individual consumers using the cameras, and the harms that occurred with ChildTrack were parents violating their kids’ privacy. In the later designs that we created, we went beyond the ways that Eggers discussed privacy harms by looking at harms stemming from 3rd party data sharing, or government surveillance.

This suggests that design fictions can be design for and analyzed using frameworks for specific empirical topics (such as privacy) as a way to reflect on how we’re exploring a design space.

Blurring Real and Fictional

The second reflection we have is about how our design fictions blurred the real and fictional. After viewing the images, you might be slightly confused about what’s real and what’s fictional – and that is a boundary and a tension that we tried to explore though these designs. And after creating our designs we were surprised to find how some products we had imagined as fiction were close to being realized as “real” (such as the news about Swedish workers getting implanted chips – or Samsung’s new Gear 360 camera looking very much like our lollipop-inspired image of SeeChange). Rather than trying to draw boundaries between real and fictional, we find it useful to blur those boundaries, to recognize the real and fictional as inherently entangled and co-constructed. This lets us draw a myriad of connections that might let us see these technologies and designs in a new light. SeeChange isn’t just a camera in Eggers’ novel, but it’s related to established products like GoPro cameras; to experimental ideas like Google Glass; linked to cameras in other fiction like Orwell’s 1984; and linked to current sociopolitical debates like the role of cameras in policing and surveillance in public spaces. We can use fictional technical capabilities, fictional legal worlds, or social worlds to explore and reflect on how privacy is situated both in the present and how it might be in the future.


In summary, we created a set of design fictions inspired by the novel The Circle that engaged in the blurring of real and fictional to explore and analyze privacy implications of emerging sensing technologies.

Perhaps more pragmatically, we find that tapping into an author’s existing fictional universe provides a concrete starting point to begin design fiction explorations, so that we do not have to create a fictional world from scratch.

Find out more on our project page, or download the paper: [PDF link ] [ACM link]