Designing Death: G-design, Fatal Aesthetics, and Social Science Fiction
The article is published in: The Edge of Our Thinking, edited by Florian A. Schmidt (London: Royal College of Art, 2012, pp. 32-46)
Julijonas Urbonas, Design Interactions, Royal College of Art, 2012
This paper presents my project, Euthanasia Coaster, an alternative euthanasia machine in the form of a roller coaster, engineered to take the life of a human being. The text will outline the crucial aspects of the project’s development: engineering, physiology, ethics, fiction design, and conceptualisation. It will also include some notes on the quite extensive and diverse feedback the project has received from the public and media, with contributions from scientific, medical and technological experts as well as those with artistic, ethical and entertainment backgrounds.
Euthanasia Coaster was developed as a part of my PhD research on the topic, “Gravitational Aesthetics,” an exploration of the interplay between gravity, aesthetics and technologies. The rudiments of the idea of the coaster started to emerge at a later stage of the research, while sketching some ideas on the concept of the dead body (in terms of disembodying trends in design and cultural development as well as exhaustion of aesthetics of amusement park rides) which has been a critical model for the whole thesis. These sketchy ideas turned into a design thought experiment, hypothesising what the ultimate roller coaster would be like. The R&D of the idea involved diverse approaches, both theoretical and studio-led, and different kinds of skills and expertise. I have consulted with roller coaster engineers, an expert in mechanical engineering simulation, an aircraft stress analyst, aerospace physiologists, and a suicide psychologist.
The coaster is presented as a scale model accompanied by a technical drawing and video footage showing pilots’ faces in high-g training in a human centrifuge.1 The 1:500 scale model is one meter high, and consists just of a single coaster track supported by a series of string-thin columns erected from a pile of black fine-grained sand. The track accentuates the engineered falling trajectory, the key object of the project. The drawing, as a stylised engineering draft in 1:1000 scale, depicts just the front projection of the coaster, and presents the physical calculations of the coaster’s track. The video composition is created from real footage of pilots’ high-g training, showing the effects on the body such as the distortion of the facial tissues, fainting, intensive breathing, etc.
The Euthanasia Coaster’s loops are specially engineered in the shape of a clothoid loop to sustain a uniform and constant g-force throughout the ride. Specifically, it sustains 10 g which is not enough to cause physical damage, yet which will not allow the subject to return alive.
(g)Design of the coaster
The most important part of a roller coaster is generally its track which shapes the ‘story-line’ of the ride, usually taking the shape of a creatively distorted falling trajectory. The very experience of the ride depends on the curvature of the track, and therefore all the design and engineering involved in building a roller coaster is basically structured around this linear element: its play with gravitational forces, the resulting effects on the rider’s body, dynamic loads on the supporting architectural structure, and the physics of the ride, such as the tendency to slow down due to air drag and friction, etc.
In Euthanasia Coaster, the track incorporates both the aesthetic and the functional aspects of the ride. Both converge in the human-gravity design interface, and permeate the personal and public levels of aesthetics, dealing with the bodily experiences of the ride including pleasurable death, the ritual, but also the sculptural appeal of the coaster’s construction.
Based on physics calculations, the coaster’s track has a laconic shape and is completely functional in terms of elegantly and pleasurably terminating the life of the rider. It consists of two core parts: (1) the drop tower — for dropping the coaster’s vehicle down the track to achieve a kinetic energy that allows it to sustain 10 g for about a minute within (2) a series of seven teardrop-shaped vertical loop elements, arranged in decreasing size and forming a spiral. In order to keep constant force, the size of the lethal loops decreases along the course according to the car’s reduced velocity owing to friction and drag. The drop-hill features a heart-line roll element, a whirling coaster track element, where the rider’s heart stays roughly in line with the centre of the drop trajectory, around which the body spins. This element adds a vertiginous experience, but also works as a sort of disorienting anaesthetic for the later, harsher part of the ride, the loops. The latter incorporates GLOC (G-force induced Loss Of Consciousness) and subsequent brain death caused by cerebral hypoxia, oxygen deprivation in the brain — which is, curiously, usually a euphoric experience accompanied by surreal dreamlets.
When it comes to efficiency, a coaster is in fact not the best solution to end someone’s life using g-forces, there are more efficient ways of killing people, such as the human centrifuge, the Euthanasia Coaster’s closest analogue, or the many killing machines and techniques introduced by the Nazis. In comparison to those, the coaster is extremely bulky and grandiose, but this heaviness is balanced by the aesthetics of experiential, functional and sculptural lightness devoted to the dignified death of a human being. Moreover, it is also ‘light’ for the earth as the coaster is driven almost solely by gravity.
Another issue related to the coaster’s efficiency is variation in the size of bodies and the presence of sickness or disease. For example, it is possible that quadriplegics might survive the ride since their bodies lack sufficient volume in the lower extremities to pool the blood.2 However, there is no scientific data on this, and this project does not intend to work on feasibility studies or tests, nor appeal to all audiences.
To deal with the physiological issues of the coaster, I’ve been consulting with Dr. Michael Gresty. He has given enormous help in familiarising me with aerospace medicine. However, to say the truth, Dr Gresty does not actually believe in euthanasia in general. His contribution to the project was just advising on relevant written references and aerospace medicine-related contacts. It was very difficult to get some direct advice from experts in this area as everybody was very sensitive to the topic and was afraid of being involved in it should it be misinterpreted by the public. In fact it seems there is no documented evidence stating how long does it take for a high downward acceleration to kill a person. But I managed to find a few scientists (with the help of Dr Gresty) who gave their guesses on how much force and time would a person need for a lethal dose. They asked to not disclose their names though.
Euthanasia (from the Greek „good death“) refers to the practice of ending a life in a manner which relieves pain and suffering. Euthanasia is categorised in different ways which include voluntary, nonvoluntary, or involuntary and active or passive. Euthanasia is usually used to refer to active euthanasia, and in this sense, euthanasia is usually considered to be criminal homicide, but voluntary, passive euthanasia is widely non-criminal. Euthanasia conducted with the consent of the patient is termed voluntary euthanasia. Voluntary euthanasia is legal in Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the U.S. states of Oregon and Washington. When the patient brings about his or her own death with the assistance of a physician, the term assisted suicide is often used instead. Euthanasia is the most active area of research in contemporary bioethics.3
Leaving aside the ethical question whether euthanasia should be legalised or not, I looked into contemporary euthanasia in the countries where it is legal, and what drew my attention was that the procedures of terminating a patient’s life are highly hospitalised and not much different from the mundane injection of medicine. For example, usually the sedative sodium thiopental is intravenously administered to induce a coma. Once it is certain that the patient is in a deep coma, typically after some minutes, pancuronium is administered to stop breathing and cause death. There is no special ritual nor is death given any special meaning apart from the legal procedures and psychological preparation. It is as if death is divorced from our cultural life just as death rituals are in our secular and postmodern Western society. But if it is already legal, why not make it more meaningful, not in a way the aboriginals mourn the deceased by ecstatic singing and dancing around a bonfire, for example, but as a ritual adapted to the contemporary world, where churches and shrines are being replaced by theme parks or at least achieving equal power by producing spiritual effects (More and more people attend theme parks for selfmeliorative purposes — relaxation, self-cultivation, socialisation; or as an alternative testimony, take the increasing number of spiritual theme parks around the world, such as Holy Land in the US, Hindu Park in India and many others4 )
It has been observed that ‘jumpers’, people who commit suicide by falling to the ground, often demonstrate some sort of aesthetic preference for a nice place or structure to kill themselves. They will, for example, travel long distances to find a suitable venue, but they also perform some ritual acts such as folding their clothes neatly before jumping or holding a hat on their head with both hands all the way down.5 What’s more, sometimes the jumpers are undressed or perform some choreography – it seems that they care about how their bodies meet the air. All this testifies that not all self-murderers are apathetic in relation to the ritual of killing themselves, and seek some sort of aesthetic meaning in it.
In fact, falling is a unique experience that sets itself apart from other types of death: while rushing towards the ground or, in the case of the Euthanasia Coaster, towards the loop, knowing and anticipating with the whole body the exact time of death, there is still a fraction of time for reflection. This real-time interface and inherent dramatic structure — the leap, the fall, the impact — a three act tragedy, are not present in lethal injection, shooting yourself or in overdosing on drugs, for example. Pull the trigger and you receive the shot — there is no gap between the act and its result, while with lethal injection or overdose there is an unknown time interval. In the Euthanasia Coaster the ritualistic drama is exaggerated even more. There is the ride up the tower, the drop, the serpentine fall, the vertiginous and euphoric entry to a series of the loops, and, eventually the fatal ride within the loop. Moreover, another unique aspect is that this dramatic spectacle is open to the public, be it the relatives of the rider or the victims of those sentenced to capital punishment, revealing the full drama of their demise.6 Given all that, the coaster incorporates the private and public aesthetics of a humane and meaningful death: for the faller it is a painless, whole-body engaging and ritualised death machine, for the observers a monumental mourning machine.
Social science fiction, design fiction and fiction design
Euthanasia Coaster is a design proposal based on a scientific, engineering and medical foundation. However, the coaster could be considered ethically/socially unrealistic today, and so it can be interpreted as a social design fiction.
The term “social science fiction” (SSF) was coined by Isaac Asimov to describe a new science fiction trend in the 1940s, „which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance upon human beings,“ and places creative and investigative emphasis on the social, or more broadly, upon the human condition, rather than on technological, material or scientific reality.7 Such fiction might be seen as a „morality tale, warning of possible futures, playing through the means necessary for them to be avoided or rectified.“8 By presenting alternative realities which reflect the social trends and preoccupations of the time, social science fiction functions as a forum for diagnosing the present — probing and bringing to the discursive foreground the technological and scientific effects on humans, and for visualising the possible futures that might come out of them. Thus it is an effective technique not just for speculating on the future, but also for shaping it, and for empowering decision making. Asimov argues that SSF offers a mode of thought to question and imagine change. „We’ve got to think about the future now. For the first time in history, the future cannot be left to take care of itself; it must be thought about.“9
But the impact of SF literature on reality and the future has inexorable limits, basically those of the written word, as Bruce Sterling, the father of the term “design fiction”, once said.10 Introducing this specific design approach, he calls for the designers to help liberate words from their constraints, to free themselves from paper, the publishing infrastructure, the demands of the shelf. What literature really lacks in my opinion is the richness of experience, the realness and sensual texture of the encounter, and an interactive contact with the complexity of materiality. As fiction serves as a series of textual or theatrical props that fuel the reader’s or the viewer’s imagination to produce all sorts of emotional or physical states,11 in a way, fiction design (I prefer this term to design fiction because it has less to do with literature) might extend this effect by serving as a unique kind of reality simulator, where alternative realities could be encountered, lived, tested, discussed.
In fact some forms of these design strategies could date back to the 1930s. For example, they could have been partially initiated by the ultra-modern city model “Futurama” at the New York World’s Fair in 1939 and more recently, from the 60s onward, by the utopian architectural experiments of groups such as Superstudio, Archizoom, Ant Farm, Haus-Rucker-Co and Coop Himmelblau.12,13 Although architecture once seemed to dominate the stage, today this kind of scenario-building is permeating more disciplines and has become increasingly valued in providing a platform to not only recognise, consider and reflect uncertainties in a complex industrial or technological setting,14 but also to address fuzzy design problems characterised by complex networks of trade-off and interdependency.15 Most recently, this type of design practice is proliferating and is usually associated with speculative design, critical design, and especially value fiction.16
Euthanasia Coaster as a social fiction design is an incomplete story as it is actually a functional design proposal for a killer coaster: just an engineered falling trajectory. It does not say anything itself about the settings (historical moment in time, geographic location), ethics, institutionalising, legal issues, etc. Presenting itself in such a minimalistic way, it reveals itself as a script proposal (of the usage) or as a McGuffin17 object for your own story. Thus it aims to be less didactic, more suggestive and open for multiple interpretation, generating possible trajectories of the usages or failures — the other realities — in the ‘user’s’ imagination. Thus such design is capable of existing in several realities at once, or in the words of Michel Foucault, heterotopias, that, unlike utopias, are neither ‘here’ nor ‘there’, but are simultaneously material and mental, such as the space of a phone call or the moment when you see yourself in the mirror.18 In the case of the coaster, it has even more ‘existences,’ it is polyreal. It is simultaneously present in physical reality, such as the tangible one experienced here-and-now during the direct encounter in a gallery, and in scientific realities like the ‘world’ of engineering, medicine and entertainment, but also in the imaginary ones rendered by the open-to-interpretation nature of the project. This insight was partially validated by the huge attention from the media and other people with very diverse cultural, professional, personal backgrounds.19 Some people accepted the coaster as an alternative euthanasia machine or an execution device, others as the most extreme thrill ride hacked with anti-g equipment, a beautiful sculptural structure or just an SF horror story. One American offered and even begged to be the 1st guinea pig, should the project be brought to life.
Be it an engineering proposal, a sculpture or a story, the project demonstrates the fiction design’s polymorphic power of operating within several domains – both professional and nonexpert – and with several purposes at once, but also functioning as a creative zone of an exceptional freedom, where even the most radical and ambitious ideas could be tested by their authors such as designers or engineers safely and economically, and, most importantly, voted and evaluated democratically by wide audiences, both the potential users and just curious ones, with the help of the public forum a fiction design provides, such as an online commenting or the spread of word of mouth. Thus the shaping of the future could be made accessible to almost everyone. If it fails, you, the fiction designer, can always say it was just a fiction, or even comedy, even it is a black humour.20 There is nothing wrong about that as long as it stays in feigned realm, where horror or comedy movies also operate in a somewhat similar fashion.
1 Human centrifuge is a device which rotates at various speeds about a vertical axis and which carries a small cabin within which a person can be strapped in. It is used as a training device for acceleration aspects of complex flight missions, and as a tool that aeromedical scientists use to study effects of g-forces.
2 This observation was made as comment to a blog entry on the coaster by a person, presenting himself as Prof. Norman Fairview with affiliation to Aerospace Modelling, Alton Towers. He states that he did the coaster’s physics recalculations and double checked the engineering and claims that “the lower G forces and durations calculated with [his] methods predict the ride wouldn’t quite put an end to some quadriplegics, instead further entombing them with retinal detachment and burst ear drums.” The latter insight in fact is not true, such experiences happen in other type of accelerations, such as horizontal ‘eyeballs-out’ g-force or vertical longitudinal negative acceleration. The coaster produces positive ‘upward’ g-force. Thus that error reveals the true nature of Prof. Fairview’s claims, either the absence of aerospace physiology knowledge or a shallow investigation, although the quadriplegics related observation is quite realistic. Fairview, N., 2011. Euthanasia coaster: assisted suicide by thrills. Boing Boing [blog] 20 April. Available at: [Accessed 24 April 2011].
3 Borry, P., Schotsmans, P. & Dierickx, K., 2006. Empirical research in bioethical journals. A quantitative analysis. Journal of Medical Ethics, 32(4), pp. 240-245.
4 Mitrasinovic, M., 2006. Total Landscape, Theme Parks, Public Space. Ashgate Publishing, pp. 181.
5 Soden, G., 2005. Defying gravity: land divers, roller coasters, gravity bums, and the human obsession with falling. New York: W.W. Norton, p. 106.
6 This insight has been modified and borrowed from: Soden, G., 2005. Defying gravity: land divers, roller coasters, gravity bums, and the human obsession with falling, New York: W.W. Norton, p. 103.
7 Miller, M.M., 1977. The Social Science Fiction of Isaac Asimov. In: J. D. Olander & M. H. Greenberg, eds. Isaac Asimov. New York: Taplinger Publishing Co., p. 14.
8 Smith, W., 2004. Science Fiction and Organization, Routledge, p. 5.
9 Asimov, I., 1971. Social science fiction. In: D. Allen, ed. Science fiction: the future. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, pp. 263-291.
10 Sterling, B., 2009. Design Fiction. interactions, 16, pp. 20–24.
11 Goldman, A.I., 2006. Simulating minds: the philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience of mindreading, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 284.
12 Midal, A., 2008. Tomorrow now : when design meets science fiction, Luxembourg: MUDAM Luxembourg, p. 7.
13 Midal, A., 2010. Design and science fiction: all that glitters is not gold. In: Swiss Design Network, 6th Swiss Design Network Conference – Negotiating futures – design fiction. Basel: Swiss Design Network, p. 29.
14 Varum, C.A. & Melo, C., 2010. Directions in scenario planning literature – A review of the past decades. Futures, 42(4), pp.355-369.
15 Peldszus, R., Dalke, H. & Welch, C., 2010. Science Fiction Film as Design Scenario Exercise for Psychological Habitability: Production Designs 1955-2009. In: AIAA (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics), 40th International Conference on Environmental Systems (ICES). Barcelona, 2010, Reston, Virginia, USA: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, p. 3.
16 Dunne, A. & Gaver, W.W., 1997. The pillow: artist-designers in the digital age. In: ACM (Association for Computing), Conference on Human Factors in Computer Systems (CHI ’97). Atlanta, 1997, New York, USA: ACM, pp. 361–362.
17 McGuffin is a plot device used for setting a story into motion. Usually employed in mystery films, thrillers, film noir, this cinematic tool can be something that all the characters are trying to get their hands on, or can also be someone or something that is lost and being sought, Beaver, F.E., 2006. Dictionary of Film Terms: The Aesthetic Companion To Film Art. Peter Lang, p. 153.
18 Foucault, M. & Miskowiec, J., 1986. Of Other Spaces. Diacritics, 16(1), pp. 22-27.
19 The project has been featured in dozens of media entries, blogs and hundreds of online discussions and forums that vary quite radically in content, perspectives and audience. Since its first presentation to the public in the HUMAN+ exhibition in the Science Gallery, Dublin in April 2011, the coaster has drawn more than 250K visitors who have accessed the project’s website, 180K watched the SG’s video on Vimeo, and more than 300K read the Wiki article.
20 From my experience, occasionally, I was finding the non-expert public interpreting Euthanasia Coaster as a joke, a black humour, but I think it is completely acceptable, even might be desirable, because, first of all, humour is a powerful tool to talk about painful topics, to challenge preconceptions, but also to make the contact with the public more intimate, design becomes less didactic and less elitist yet open to more serious contemplation to those who are willing to do so.