Anthropocene and Digital Imaginaries

An art project I ran across at the Lyon Art Biennale back in 2011.

An art project I ran across at the Lyon Art Biennale back in 2011.

The Post-Digital seminar at ENS in Paris organized this rather interesting conference in few weeks : Sans ordinateur / Without computer : Anthopocène et imaginaires numériques / Anthropocene and Digital Imaginaries. The call of paper can be found here and here are some excerpts that I find relevant to my own research:

Based on the hypothesis of a collapse of the IT infrastructure, and so, of a post-digital collapse, this symposium aims at suspending the occupation of the world. Given the omnipresence of computers, we want to provoke reflection to imagine what comes after. (…) Under- standing the roots of the mobilization of the world, of which the digital is a part, may mean not reproducing the causes of that which we want to escape in so-called “solutions” to the contemporary ecological crisis. This imaginary, the ambivalent source of the anthropocene, should be described. Our hypothesis is that it is at the crossroads of our science, mythical narratives and images of the world and technology (…) The interventions will aim at analysing the material and ideological impact of digital technologies on our environment and assess their future sustainability. They will also be able to question the use of digital in apocalyptic or innovation stories.

Why do I blog this? Addressing the role, the design and the use of digital technologies in the context of the current environmental crisis is a new interest in my research. Probably not that new considering that I started working on repair practices and the hybridization of low tech and high tech.

Organic informatics

33395441768_a0b0cbb974_o.jpg

Seen in Italy last week-end, the eco-trend is here. That being said, I’m fascinated by the 100% bamboo thing, made me think of all those artists and designers interested in creating wood-based computers.

When Automation Bites Back

The business of dishonest automation and how the engineers, data scientists and designers behind it can fix it

The pilots fought continuously until the end of the flight“, said Capt. Nurcahyo Utomo, the head of the investigation of Lion Air Flight 610 that crashed on October 29, 2018, killing the 189 people aboard. The analysis of the black boxes had revealed that the Boeing 737’s nose was repeatedly forced down, apparently by an automatic system receiving incorrect sensor readings. During 10 minutes preceding the tragedy, the pilots tried 24 times to manually pull up the nose of the plane. They struggled against a malfunctioning anti-stall system that they did not know how to disengage for that specific version of the plane.

That type of dramatic scene of humans struggling with a stubborn automated system belongs to pop culture. In the famous scene of the 1968 science-fiction film “2001: A Space Odyssey”, the astronaut Dave asks HAL (Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer) to open a pod bay door on the spacecraft, to which HAL responds repeatedly, “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that“.

1. The commodification of automation

Thankfully, the contemporary applications of digital automation are partial and do not take the shape of an “artificial general intelligence” like HAL. However, the computational tasks that once were exclusively applied to automate human jobs in critical environments like a cockpit have reached people’s everyday lives (e.g. automated way-finding, smart thermostat) and the techniques often deployed for more frivolous but yet very lucrative objectives (e.g. targeted advertisements, prioritizing the next video to watch on YouTube).

“What concerns me is that many engineers, data scientists, designers and decision-makers bring digital frictions into people’s everyday life because they do not employ approaches to foresee the limits and implications of their work”

The automated systems that once relied on programmed instructions based on their author’s understanding of the world now also model their behavior from the patterns found in datasets of sensors and human activities. As the application of these Machine Learning techniques becomes widespread, digital automation is becoming a commodity with systems that perform at Internet scale one task with no deep understanding of human context. These systems are trained to complete that “one” job, but there are evidences that their behavior, like HAL or a Boeing 737 anti-stall system, can turn against their user’s intentions when things do not go as expected.

2. The clumsy edges

Recent visual ethnographies at Near Future Laboratory like  #TUXSAX and Curious Rituals uncovered some implications of that commodification of automation. In a completely different scale of dramatic consequences that brought down Lion Air Flight 610, these observations highlight how some digital solutions leave people with a feeling of being “locked in” with no “escape” key to disengage from a stubborn behavior. A wide majority of these digital frictions provoke harmless micro-frustrations in people’s everyday lives. They manifest themselves through poorly calibrated systems and a design that disregards edge cases. For instance, it is common to experience a voice assistant unable to understand a certain accent or pronunciation or a navigation system that misleads a driver due to location inaccuracies, obsolete road data or incorrect traffic information.

Curious rituals is a fiction that showcases the gaps and junctures that glossy corporate videos on the “future of technology” do not reveal. Source: Curious Rituals.

These clumsy automations can be mitigated but will not disappear because it became impossible to design contingency plans for all unexpected limitations or consequences. However, other types of stubborn autonomous behaviours are intentionally designed as the core of business models that trades human control for convenience.

3. The business of dishonest automation

Many techniques to automate everyday tasks allow organizations to reduce costs and increase revenues. Some members of the tech industry employ these new technological capabilities to lock customers or workers into behaviors for which they have no legitimate need or desire. Those systems are typically designed to resist from their user’s demands AND are hard to disengage. Let me give you a couple of examples of what I call “dishonest automations”:

3.1. Data obesity

Automatic cloud backup systems have become a default feature of operating systems. They externalize the storage of personal photos, emails, contacts and other bits of digital life. Their business model encourages customers to endlessly accumulate more content without a clear alternative that promotes a proper hygiene with their data (i.e. nobody has yet come up with “Marie Kondo for Dropbox ™”). Regardless of the promises of the providers, it becomes harder for people to declutter their digital lives from a cloud storage service.

Upgrade your storage to continue backing up: an automatic cloud backup system that locks in its user, leaving no alternative to the accumulation of content.

3.2. Systemic obsolescence

Today’s apps automatic updates often increase the demand of resources and processing power for cosmetic improvements almost in a deliberate attempt to make a hardware obsolete and the software harder to operate. After years of impunity, there is now a bigger conscience against systemic obsolescence because it is wasteful and exploits customers.

3.3. Digital attention

As content grows exponentially on the Internet, (social) media companies rely increasingly on automation to filter and direct information to each one of their users. For instance, YouTube automates billions of videos to play next for 1.5 billion users. These algorithms aim at promoting content for higher engagement and tend to guide people against their interest.


In the light of these examples of clumsy and dishonest automation, what concerns me is that many engineers, data scientists, designers and decision-makers bring these frictions into people’s everyday life because they do not employ approaches to foresee the limits and implications of their work. Apart from the engineering of efficient solutions, automation requires professionals to think about the foundations and consequences of their practice that transcend any Key Performance Indicator of their organization.

4. The design for humane automation

The design of automation is not about removing the presence of humans. It is about the design of humane, respectful and trustful systems that automate some aspects of human activities. When working with data scientists, designers and engineers in that domain, we envision systems beyond the scope of the “user” and the “task” to automate. I encourage teams to a) learn from the past b) critique the present and c) debate the future. Let me explain:

4.1. Learn from the past

When it comes to automation, the acquisition of knowledge in academia and in the industry are not separate pursuits. Over the last 50 years, there has been an extensive body of work produced in research institutions on the implications of automating manual tasks and decision-making. The key findings have helped save money in critical environments and prevent numerous deadly errors (e.g. in cockpits).

Today, that knowledge is not translated into everyday tasks. For instance, many engineers or data scientists do not master concepts like automation bias (i.e. the propensity for humans to favor suggestions from automated decision-making systems) or automation complacency (i.e. decreased human attention to monitor automated results) theorized by research communities in Science and Technology Studies or Human-Computer Interaction. Sadly, only a few organizations promote platforms that gather academics, artists, engineers, data scientists and designers. Industries in the process of digitization would greatly profit from this type cross-pollination of professionals who learn from considerations that already emerged outside of their discipline.

4.2. Critique the present

I believe that the professionals involved in the business of automating human activities should be persistent critical reviewers of the solutions deployed by their peers. They should become stalkers of how people deal today with the clumsy, the dishonest, the annoying, the absurd and any other awkward emerges of digital technologies in their modern lives.

#TUXSAX is an invitation to engage with these knotty, gnarled edges of technology. It provides some raw food for thoughts to consider the mundane frictions between people and technologies. Do we want to mitigate, or even eliminate these frictions? Source: Documenting the State of Contemporary Technology.

When properly documented, these observations offer a complementary form of inspiration to the multitude of “naive optimism” and glamorous utopian visions of the tech industry. They provide material for professionals to question arguably biased goals of automation. Moreover, they set the stage to define attainable objectives in their organization (e.g. what does smart/intelligent mean?, how to measure efficiency?, what must become legible?).

4.3. Debate the future

In today’s Internet, the design of even the most simple application or connected object has become a complex endeavour. They are built on balkanized Operating Systems, stacks of numerous protocols, versions, frameworks, and other packages of reusable code. The mitigation of digital frictions goes beyond the scope of a “Quality Assurance” team that guarantees the sanity of an application. They are also about documenting implications on the context the technologies live, unintended consequences and ‘what if’ scenarios.

It’s easy to get all Silicon Valley when drooling over the possibility of a world chock-full of self-driving cars. However, when an idea moves from speculation to designed product it is necessary to consider the many facets of its existence - the who, what, how, when, why of the self-driving car. To address these questions, we took a sideways glance at it by forcing ourselves to write the quick-start guide for a typical self-driving car. Source: The World of Self-Driving Cars.

Typically, Design Fiction is an approach to spark a conversation and anticipate the larger questions regarding the automation of human activities. For instance, we produced Quick Start Guide of Amazon Helios: Pilot, a fictional autonomous vehicle. In that project, we identified the key systems that implicate the human aspects of a self-driving car and we brought to life such experiences in a very tangible, compelling fashion for designers, engineers, and anyone else involved in the development of automated systems. Through its collective production, the Quick Start Guide became a totem through which anybody could discuss the consequences, raise design considerations and shape decision-making.

5. The business of trust

Like many technological evolution, the automation of everyday life does not come without the frictions of trading control for convenience. However, the consequences are bigger than mitigating edge cases. They reflect human, organization or society choices. The choice of deploying systems that mislead about their intentions in conflict with people and society’s interests.

In his seminal work on Ubiquitous Computing in the 90s, Mark Weiser strongly influenced the current “third wave” in computing, when technology recedes into the background of people’s lives. Many professionals in the tech industry (including me) embraced his description of Calm technology that “informs but doesn’t demand our focus or attention.” However, what Weiser and many others (including me) did not anticipate is an industry of dishonest automation or solutions that turn against their user’s intentions when things do not go as planned. Nor did we truly anticipate the scale in which automation can bite back the organizations that deploy them with backslashes from their customers, society as well as policymakers.

View this post on Instagram

#curiousrituals #classic #vendingmachine

A post shared by nicolas nova (@nicolasnova) on

These implications suggest an alternative paradigm that transcend the purely technological and commercial for any organization involved in the business of digital automation. For instance, a paradigm that promotes respectful (over efficient), legible (over calm) and honest (over smart) technologies. Those are the types of values that emerge when professionals (e.g. engineers, data scientists, designers, decision-makers, executives) wander outside their practice, apply critical thinking to uncover dishonest behaviors, and use fictions to take decisions that consider implications beyond the scope of the “user” and the “task” to automate.

I believe that the organizations in the business of automation that maintain the status-quo and do not evolve into a business of trust might eventually need to deal with a corroded reputation and its effects on their internal values, the moral of employees, the revenues and ultimately the stakeholders trust.


End of the Year Swimsuit Spectacular Booklet

Do these selfies taken by two people who don’t know each other give us a glimpse of the future? Will the ever-increasing use of technological devices reconfigure our bodies? Will it affect our posture even in the most banal situations?

Those are some of the questions we asked in Mobile Ordinary Gestures, a booklet that describes a typology of gestures and postures adopted when using smartphones. Without claiming completeness, this selection represents a pictorial archive documenting people intriguing interactions with mobile technology.

Similar to Curious Rituals, we use this type of visual ethnography as signals of change of the present from which to extrapolate when designing futures. The documentation of this current body language can also inform the adaptation of current interfaces, or the creation of products that can support, help or benefit from the gestures and rituals we found.

Get a free digital PDF from our shop, or purchase a normal, human, non-streaming, non-downloading, non-data-using media “hardcopy” through Lulu.com

Paperback by Nicolas Nova (Near Future Laboratory) in collaboration with Constance Delamadeleine (Future Neue)
Publisher: The Near Future Laboratory
Published: October 1, 2016
Language: English
Pages: 68

Design Fiction at the Design Museum

This week we have taken over The Design Museum of London’s Instagram feed. We did this in coordination with the publication of our Ikea Catalog (of the Near Future) for The Design Museum’s current exhibition, “Home Futures” — running until March 2019.

We created eight tiny “Design Fictions” (two of them will appear as Instagram Stories — so keep an eye out..they may be the best ones) that will appear in their feed.

Why did we create these? Aside from the unique opportunity to work with the Design Museum, it gave us an opportunity to do what we enjoy the most: creating meaningful design fictions that reflect upon the challenges of life in today’s weird worlds. Those reflections are meant to be engaging enough that designers of all kinds, which does not include “technologists” nor “business managers” — will consider that their ideas for tomorrow may actually be really shitty, and they should go back to their workstations and workshops and try harder to make products, services, experiences that stand a better change of making a more habitable near future.

We look at design fiction as a form of extrospection — looking from today to see possible near futures based on present state. What might the world look like tomorrow if the assumptions about what’s “new” projected into the future? What are the procedures and methods by which we can project into the near future a new product idea or service strategy — and learn about where the idea might work really well, or how the service strategy could go horribly wrong?

Design Fiction is one of the ways we work with our partners and clients to learn from the future and apply those learnings and insights to make better decisions.

We hope you enjoy these little Design Fictions the Near Future Laboratory created for the Design Museum. You can see the full slate on the Near Future Laboratory’s Vimeo channel.

We encourage you to reach out to us and learn more.

Hello from the Design Museum

The Design Museum (London) has just opened their Home Futures exhibition. Our Ikea Catalog From The Near Future (2015) is on exhibition, with physical copies for museum visitors to peruse and take home.

The Ikea Catalog From The Near Future was done in collaboration with Boris Design and Mobile Life Centre. It was done as a workshop to teach Design Fiction — one of our approaches to investigating possible near futures by making things tangible, imminent and extant.

Why did we chose an Ikea catalog? Because it is one of the more compelling ways to represent normal, ordinary, everyday life in many parts of the world. The Ikea catalog contains the routine furnishings of a normative everyday life. It’s a container of life’s essentials and accessories which can be extrapolated from today’s normal into tomorrow’s normal. In this case, we projected a set of key technical issues, societal concerns, imminent artifacts and instruments into an unspecified “soon.”

Each of our Design Fictions has its moment as they project in a line from their present (in this case, a time in 2015 in Stockholm) into their near future. Much like the Design Museum’s “Home Futures” exhibition — which looks at predictions made in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s about the home of the future — the Ikea Catalog From The Near Future looked at the “Ikea Home” as we considered it from 2015.

The Home Futures exhibition runs at the Design Museum from November 7, 2018 – March 24, 2019. The catalog itself is a must-have, I’d say. Well-produced and fulsome in its representation of objects and artifacts.

More:

While we’re fans of the ‘catalog’ as a Design Fiction Archetype (cf TBD Catalog), we’ve also done Quick-Start Guides, Newspaper Supplements, Reports on Modern Life & Rituals, bespoke Design Fiction Field Reports for clients, all as ways to enter into a discussions about our future.

Hello World. This is Próximo.

An introduction and call for early adopters.

Ever since the slow death of Dopplr after its acquisition by Nokia a decade ago, the internet has lacked a dedicated space for people to casually share their travel intentions. Back in those days, it was also a feature of trip planning services like TripIt which since then pivoted to booking management for frequent flyers and real-time notifications when things go out of the route. With the ubiquity of smartphones, it made a lot of sense for social network platforms to propose services that focus on the instantaneous, the moments and the now. The fascination of the Big Now has been the major trend of the current version of the internet.

For some of us — regularly on the move — the practice of documenting familiar destinations and travel intentions demands its own casual and intimate space. This is what Próximo provides.

In consequence, I have observed people using multiple channels like emails, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp to share their travel plans and request knowledge about destinations from their online contacts. And almost inevitably, I have noticed how that information would get lost in the noise of overfed inboxes or get buried within minutes under endless social media feeds.

Próximo: Thoughtful Words with Pretty Maps

For some of us — regularly on the move — that practice of documenting familiar destinations and travel intentions demands its own casual and intimate space. This is what my recent pet project Próximo provides and I need your help to figure out how it can better cover that need.

Próximo /ˈpɾoɡsimo/ means nearby and upcoming in Spanish. I have conceptualized, designed, developed and deployed it thinking about travelers who perform any of these habits: the record keepers, the connoisseurs and the prospectors.

Habit #1. The Record Keeper

You regularly transform what you hear and see about destinations into reminders, notes or references. You have probably already tried Google Maps, Evernote or travel planning apps to organize them. Próximo offers a natural way to further support that practice. You can both provide context to your notes like in a travel guide AND easily map the relevant places.

Provide context to your notes like in a travel guide AND easily map the relevant places.

Habit #2. The Connoisseur

You have good tastes and your friends, colleagues and family know that.You respond to email/social media requests for personal recommendation about the cities and destinations you are familiar with. In Próximo you can write brief notes tailored to your vegetarian coworker, his sister on her honeymoon, that shopaholic colleague, the foodie friend on a weekend wedding anniversary without her kids or a cousin on a business trip.

Keep brief notes as reminders for yourself or tailored to a specific audience.

Habit #3. The Prospector

You ask around for ideas, suggestions or personal anecdotes to step away from the beaten path. You are also good at browsing the web for hours to spot that special sunrise place in Maui or that unique capsule hotel in Kyoto. In Próximo, you can keep notes of your research and invite friends to contribute with their thoughtful words, recommendations or stories based on who you are.

Disclose your travel intentions and invite friends to contribute with insights.

Call for Early Adopters

If any of these habits sound familiar and you feel intrigued, I invite you to try Próximo. Currently, it is web-based service hosted on proximo.world and you need a Google account to sign in.

It is built on the latest secure web frameworks and technologies (MEAN stack: MongoDB, Express, Angular, and NodeJS). You can delete your account at all time if you are not convinced or no longer want to use Próximo. Click the “Delete Account” in your “Profile” panel and all your data and texts will be deleted immediately.

Like an amateur painter I mainly create software like Próximo for myself. Keeping my hands dirty helps me think better as a professional. I am honored if a few people find the result compelling or inspiring. However, I never fall into the distraction that every idea must scale. This is human scale technology, built for a few, not the whole world. It is the best scale to learn.

I would love to hear from you or anybody you know who might be interested. Thanks for spreading the message. Feel free to comment or contact me.


At Near Future Laboratory we regularly engage into prototyping and envisioning exercises that explore how people negotiate their relation with time and space via digital technologies. For instance: Slow messengerHumansMementoOmata and now Próximo.

Introduction to ethnography & field research at the Angewandte

Context: this month I’ve been invited by Anab Jain to give the introductory workshop to the Design Investigations program at the Angewandt (University of Applied Arts Vienna). This is the brief.

Context

Among the means of framing and inspiring design projects, understanding people and their practices is a fundamental aspect of design projects. Product designers, interaction designers, or architects are often informed by “design ethnography”:

  1. concepts from the social sciences (Anthropology, Sociology) that help making sense of the world,

  2. “field research” methods that rely on observation, participant observation and interview techniques in order to understand social and cultural context.

Beyond the purely ergonomic and functional dimensions, such understanding is thus a fundamental component of current design in order to inspire, constrain, adapt and define the design space in an innovative and original way. Moreover, this understanding aims to overcome the stereotypes of a "user-centered design" that is often not sufficiently concerned with the complexity of individuals' uses and practices, as well as the major role of the surrounding context in the people’s motivations.

 Documenting trash, N.Nova, 2011.

Documenting trash, N.Nova, 2011.

Studio brief

In this studio, students will learn how to employ design ethnography in the context of a small project focused on the digital infrastructure of urban everyday life.

Surveillance cameras, routers, traffic sensors, mobile phone towers, WiFi antennas, cables such as copper wire or optical fibers, data centers, server farms... All of these correspond to the tangible underpinnings of the so-called “virtual interactions” people have with their computers and smartphones. The urban environment, more than anywhere else, is filled with such devices and the myriads of services they rely on, ranging from repair phone shops fixing broken screens and bloated operating systems, to maintenance teams changing underground cables.

 Networks of New York, Ingrid Burrington.

Networks of New York, Ingrid Burrington.

Although these technological components are fundamental, they are often invisible and unbeknown to most of us. Their existence, often dismissed as banal and purely technical, is, however both fundamental as they shape our social and political interactions.

Interestingly, there has been an increasing interest from designers, artists and social scientists towards them (see references). Based on a series of observation, interviews, and possibly research interventions (participant observation, use of non- working prototypes, probes), students will explore the potential of the digital infrastructure of the urban environment in product/service/interaction design. Can they be repurposed for other more inspiring usages? How can we combine these technical elements in order to build more habitable near-futures? Can one take advantage of existing flaws/limits? Can we protect citizens from their overwhelming presence?

Expected output(s)

Based on both the field explorations and the process of analysing the observations, students will have to submit produce two artefacts:

  • Output 1: a document that summarizes the research findings (map? poster? Brief fanzine?)

  • Output2: an object that presents their design concept about how to take advantage of the digital infra/network. This may be done through objects, a short film, a performance, a series of drawings or visualizations; it is up to the students to select the most appropriate resolution for their outcomes.

These two artefacts will be presented orally the last day of the workshop.

Readings and references

General inspiration for field research
Perec, G. (2011). Thoughts of Sorts, Notting Hill Editions.
Perec, G. (2010). An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, Wakefield Press. Smith, K. (2008). How to be an explorer of the world : portable art life museum. NYC : Penguin Books.

Field research methods in social sciences
Causey, A. (2016). Drawn to See: Drawing as an Ethnographic Method
, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Sanjek, R. (1990). Fieldnotes: The Makings of Anthropology. Ithaca: Cornell University press.

Weiss, R.S. (1995). Learning From Strangers: The Art and Method of Qualitative Interview Studies. Simon & Schuster.

Field research methods in design/UX
Dourish, P. (2006). Implications for design, in Proceedings of the conference on Human Factors in computing systems (Montréal, Québec),pp. 541–550, ACM.

Gaver, B., Dunne, T., & Pacenti E. (1999). Cultural Probes. Interactions, 6 (1), 21-29.

Gaver, W. W., Boucher, A., Pennington, S., & Walker, B. (2004). Cultural probes and the value of uncertainty. Interactions, 11 (5), 53-56. Retrieved from http://cms.gold.ac.uk/media/30gaver-etal.probes+uncertainty.interactions04.pdf

Goodman, E., Kuniavsky, M. & Moed, A.(2012). Observing the User Experience: A Practitioner’s Guide to User Research (2nd ed.), Morgan Kaufmann.

Nova, N. (2014). Beyond Design Ethnography. Berlin : SHS Publishing. Available at the following URL.

Portigal, Steve (2013). Interviewing Users: how to uncover compelling insights. San Francisco: Rosenfeld Media.

Digital/network infrastructures in social sciences/design/art

Arnall, T. (2014). Exploring 'Immaterials': Mediating Design's Invisible Materials. International Journal of Design, 8 (2).

Augé, M. (1995). Non-places: Introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity. London: Verso.

Burrington, I. (2016). Networks of New York: An Illustrated Field Guide to Urban Internet Infrastructure. NYC: Melville House; Ill edition.

Gabrys, J. (2016). Program Earth. Environmental Sensing Technology and the Making of a Computational Planet. Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press.

Star, Susan Leigh (1999): "The Ethnography of Infrastructure", American Behavioral Scientist 43, pp. 377‐91.

Sherpard, M. (2011). Sentient Cities: Ubiquitous Computing, Architecture, and the Future of Urban Space. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Varnelis, K. (2009). The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles. Actar.

Sensor fail

IMG_6016.JPG

September 22, Lausanne (Switzerland). I guess sensor-based soap dispensers have been designed in order to provide a touch-free system that is supposedly more hygienic for its users. However, almost everytime I run across such device, there's a little bit of soap under it. It's the messiness versus elegance that always happen when one think technology would be an easy solution for a simple problem.