Ethnographic experiential futures

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Stuart Candy recently blogged about this design framework he and his colleagues use:

"ethnographic futures is more descriptive; looking for what's present but often hidden in people's heads. Experiential futures is more creative; rendering these notional possibilities visible, tangible, immersive and interactive, externalising and concretising representations of them for closer inspection and deeper discussion."

Why do I blog this? Currently looking back at our research process at the Laboratory. This one's kind of close to our interests and approaches.

On Fadell’s regrets and techno-determinism

The other day I read this piece on Fast Company – not an usual website I peruse though – that reported on a panel that was organized at the Design Museum in London. The conversation, was between Tony Fadell (founder of Nest, and who participated in the iPod/iPhone design ten years ago), historian of science and technology David Edgerton, STS researcher Judy Wajcman and another entrepreneur, Bethany Koby.

Some quotes I find interesting, reported by the journalist address Fadell's concerns about the digital technologies he helped designing:

"I wake up in cold sweats every so often thinking, what did we bring to the world? (...) Did we really bring a nuclear bomb with information that can–like we see with fake news–blow up people’s brains and reprogram them? Or did we bring light to people who never had information, who can now be empowered? (...) And I know when I take [technology] away from my kids what happens (...) They literally feel like you’re tearing a piece of their person away from them—they get emotional about it, very emotional. They go through withdrawal for two to three days."

Why do I blog this? Well, I'm less interested here in the actual comments Fadell makes about the consequences of the technologies he helped designing than the fact that he expresses such concerns.

Also, what is strange here is that I'm pretty sure the two social sciences scholars – Edgerton and Wajcman – certainly explained that such vision might be deterministic and that there's more than a sole piece of technology to blame here. As Wajcman discussed in a piece published by Aeon few years ago, the situation is a bit more subtle. She's not exactly talking about self-absorbing cultures but her comment struck me as important to ponder Fadell's claim.

"Smartphones, of course, extend expectations of perpetual availability. But the fact that we feel the need to respond to email quickly is not due to the speed of data transmission, but because of norms that have built up about appropriate response times (...)  If we feel pressed for time today, it is not because of technology, but because of the priorities and parameters we ourselves set. Digital time is no different – ultimately it needs to be understood as a product of the ways in which humans use, interact with and indeed build technology. If we want technology to bring us a better future, we must contest the imperative of speed and democratise engineering. We must bring more imagination to the field of technological innovation."

Ethology/ethnography documentation

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Although the focus on this book I a bit remote from my research interest, "Ornithology" (by Anne Geene & Arjan De Nooy) is one of the most fascinating kind of printed document that arrived on my desk (my kitchen table actually):

"Anne Geene and Arjan de Nooy combine visual tools from the science of birds with the specific characteristics of photography, thereby imparting a fresh look at both. Through their pseudoscientific approach, Geene and De Nooy explore the boundaries between the two disciplines, adding a layer that is usually absent in the representation and science of birds: humour. Their classifications form comical results through creative and associative thinking, and yet they use the scientific method to also create an artistic microcosm that seems far removed from its strictly ornithological counterpart. Together, Geene and De Nooy depart from the “classic” aesthetic of bird representation."

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Imaginaires synthétiques

What does it mean to live in an hybrid environment made of organic and synthetic matter? What happens when technologies become so ubiquitous that it becomes difficult to know what is "natural" or not? Such concrete tetrapods used as armour unit on breakwaters of the Mediterranean sea can be seen as a metaphor for this hybridity. How do artists and designers explore this hybrid character? How does their work overcome the opposition nature / technology and reveal new imaginaries of a future in the making?

Peripheral ethnographies

(A follow-up to this blogpost, quick notes without the necessary academic framing, for the sake of putting this on the table)

Recently, in different contexts, I've been asked (both by researchers and students) about "my approach" in field research... which feels slightly weird because I wasn't sure I had a definite one. However, given recent projects with the Laboratory, as well as workshops in design schools and talks here and there, it seems there's a common way of doing things. I called it "peripheral ethnography" (or "ethnographie périphérique" in my language) because of my interest in marginal practices, peculiar behaviors, curious rituals, odd appropriation/repurposing of technologies, little things that people talk less about, situations in which technical objects age, things that do not fit, intriguing artifacts ("intriguing to whom?" one might say). All of those could be seen as what futures researchers call weak signals, and that designers might cherish in order to give direction to their work.

The term "peripheral" is relevant here because it means both "relating to or situated on the edge or periphery of something" and "of secondary or minor importance"... which is close to what French sociologist-turned-writer George Perec described as observing what is often overlooked (in "Species of space" back in 1974), what he referred to as the "infra-ordinary".

By saying that I'm interested in peripheral ethnographies, it means that my focus – on any topics I'm looking into – at these little details that seem avoided, weird or overlooked at first glance... as a complement to the diversity of practices (in a very Mauss-ian way). The hypothesis here being that addressing practices and things which be relatively peripheral (and discussing this aspect with informants), and contrasting this to more standard observations, helps to understand cultures "en devenir" (and eventually craft design fiction work).

(to be continued)

Documenting the State of Contemporary Technology

Or how the observations of mundane technological glitches and frictions offer a complementary form of inspiration to the multitude of glamorous utopian design visions.

At the Near Future Laboratory we are fascinated by the co-evolution of humans and technology, how technology is changing and how it is changing people. Practically, this means we constantly observe this interplay, and we love to question, design and create the future of this relationship. We are persistent stalkers of the partially broken, the tinkered, the seamful, the annoying, the absurd and any other awkward ways technologies surfaces in our modern lives. These observations offer us a complementary form of inspiration to the multitude of glamorous utopian design visions.

TV Control instruction for my fictional AirBnb guests. Courtesy of Nick Foster.
TV Control instruction for my fictional AirBnb guests. Courtesy of Nick Foster. #TUXSAX

In a recent project in the form of the fanzine TUXSAX: the user experience will be as shitty as expected we highlight that perfection, prediction and seamlessness are biased goals for the design of future technologies. They describe an ultimately unattainable and arguably undesirable world.

Our observations are not meant to accuse or mock the institutions or people that are behind all the little digital glitches and frictions that all connected humans must deal with in their daily life. Rather they act as documentation of the state of contemporary technology, how we as a society experience a constantly postponed future, how the promises of tech giants are never really met and more importantly how people deal with the implications: cleaning memories from a bulging cloud storage service, finding out that your USB cable was planned for obsolescence, entering a 16 characters password handwritten on a small piece of paper to access the hotel WiFi, mastering a living room system with 5 different remote controls…

Image courtesy of Nick Foster.
Image courtesy of Nick Foster. #TUXSAX

This work echoes with Sliding Friction: The Harmonious Jungle of Contemporary Cities a pamphlet that assembles photos and annotations we took here and there along our dérive through the many cities we lived in and visited. Published 8 years ago but still very contemporary, Sliding Friction was an attempt to showcase the curious aspects of contemporary urban spaces and question the visions of the ‘smart city’. Through 15 topics and 4 themes we focused our lenses on the sparkles generated by the many frictions between ideas, practices and infrastructures that populate cities.

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Both TUXSAX and Sliding Frictions, are invitations to engage with the knotty, gnarled edges of technology that say ‘there is humanity here’. We aim to provide some raw food for thoughts to consider the mundane frictions between people and technologies. Do we want to mitigate, or even eliminate these frictions? Or as Julian argues in the postface of Sliding Friction:

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Friction is a force exhibited at the point of contact between two objects. As a metaphor, friction is a powerful image describing where life happens. The effect of contact between ideas, practices, infrastructures is seen at the points where that contact squeaks and groans or throws sparks. We operate from the perspective that friction is something that should be mitigated, even eliminated. But friction is absolutely necessary, especially even as a metaphor. Without friction, our shoes would not allow us to walk. Without friction, airplanes and birds would drop from the sky. Without accepting friction and its effects as necessary, we would be fooling ourselves into thinking perfection were the ideal.

Our aspirations should be to embrace the humanity that is imperfection — the humanity that friction echoes. Whether in the imperfection of broken and exposed wires that suggest net- works of communication, the faulty and imperfect WiFi zones that require a very human kind of improvisation or the rewriting of infrastructures with human faces, friction effects are an enduring mark of human and individual action, rather than systemic, technocratic and faceless agency.

Friction is the sinews of the world as we know it. It holds things together even in its messiness. Friction is the rough edge of planned social space and the mark of social activity — it is part of the lived social world where humans live, play, argue and pay taxes. Improvised trash bins in hollow tree stumps, and service personnel trying their best to keep street surfaces clean are evidence of these rough edges. Friction is part of the “real world” — the world of individual action resisting seamless, smooth perfection to inscribe the presence of its occupants. Perfect, planned, frictionless operation is a faulty perception that some hold as the goal for the future city. In my mind, it describes an ultimately unattainable world. I’d much rather see the knotty, gnarled edges as exhibitions that say “there is humanity here.”

Mobile Ordinary Gestures

As I explained few months ago, I'm working on a follow-up to the "Curious Rituals" project. The project focuses on an anthropological perspective on smartphone usage. It's basically a visual ethnography approach and I recently collaborated with Constance Delamadeleine (from Geneva-base design studio Future Neue) to publish this Print-On-demand booklet that describes a typology of gestures and postures adopted when using smartphones. It can be seen as an intermediary steps between the field research and the writing/crafting of a much more text-based documents... which I'm working on currently.

The book can be found at the following URL.