Social scientists have developed approaches to study digital materiality. The critical walkthrough method invites researchers to examine how interactive systems work and how they are related to interactive systems' vision, operating model and governance (Light et al., 2018). Interviews and observations have been actively used to understand what and how interactive systems are used (e.g. Orlikowski and Gash, 1994; Silfverberg et al., 2011). These approaches can also be used to study prototypes. Instead of asking these questions about a real functional interactive system7.1we instead ask a more speculative question: What if the interactive system would appear and behave like this?
This is known as the speculative design approach: focus on alternative futures, either preferable or dystopian. Auger (2013) highlights how speculative design with interactive systems
encourage contemplation on the technological future but can also provide a system for analysing, critiquing and re-thinking contemporary technology.This is a position where social sciences can engage with speculative prototypes. They allow analysing what attributes and perspectives different people attribute to technologies and their creations and what that may reveal about the society. Through showing different speculative interfaces to mitigate political polarisation, Nelimarkka et al. (2019) and (in review) examined how national cultures and political party affiliations relate to political polarisation. The prototypes were conceptually designed to present aspects like breaking the in-group and out-group effects, focusing on informed discourse and demonstration of political parties as mass parties. Therefore, prototypes allowed them to examine complex ideas through these user interface mock-ups, and as the mock-ups originated from social science theory, allowed integration of those into studies rather easily.
Figure 7.2 shows how even speculative prototypes can be dull. They are not particularly provocative and to some degree could be used (or are being used) by social media companies. However, for social sciences, neither the novelty of ideas for the interactive system nor the quality of prototyping is the main point. Rather, the importance emerges from what kinds of inquiries can be developed with the prototypes and what types of sociological imagination emerges in response to them. The prototypes are just a side product, used to engage participants similar to other forms of materials one might use during the interview.