“How you can hack your blood pressure implant to provide fake and healthy data to an insurance company”


"how biomedical data sent wirelessly from a human body, might be re-appropriated by services other than the remote healthcare. This discussion about data monitoring was developed in Nelly Ben Hayoun’s project Cathy the Hacker. Hayoun designed props and made short films documenting “how you can hack your blood pressure implant” to provide fake, healthy data to an insurance company that is monitoring the fictional Cathy’s lifestyle in order to make decisions on the premium she should pay on her health insurance. Through an interview and follow up conversations with Murphy, Hayoun devised hacks which included attaching a sensor to an energetic pet cat, in order to generate a surrogate data set, while “The closing spin cycle of the washing machine also does a good job”

Find in: Kerridge, T. (2009). Does speculative design contribute to public engagement of science and technology? Proceedings of Swiss Design Network Symposium‘09, Lugano.

Why do I blog this? A good example of a phenomenon that may or may not happen in the near future.

Networked lingerie for book reading

Paris, 2014.

Paris, 2014.

Some people are never short of good ideas, so to say. I run across this ad in Paris the other day. The notion of a networked pyjama seems slightly odd (slightly in the sense of "everything's can be connected to the network these days I'm not surprised). So I typed different combinations of keywords into a common search engine and I discovered that Etam – a French lingerie company – decided to create a weird contraption: a QR-code-enabled (this is the "networked" bit) panty/nuisette/pyjama that allows the owner to read short stories on a smartphone. Because yes, it's the rentrée littéraire these days in France (the period of the year in which more than 600 books are released) and people may find it fun to read stuff by scanning underwear... which is why this is the first collection of networked PJs. This thing is designed by Smartnovel, a company focused on new reading experiences.

Why do I blog this? Well, I didn't expect this kind of networking ability, I originally thought this would be some sort of huggable pyjamas but it seems far weirder. It would intriguing to know who actually used it this way (a common question with QR codes these days) and whether anyone conducted a focus group to ask what people may think about when told they can have a connected piece of lingerie. What's next? I mean, the kind of stuff we've put in the TBD catalog is definitely not far-fetched compared to this.

Futures? a short interview with Bruce Sterling

Bruce Sterling at HEAD – Genève / Photo by Emily Bonnet.

Bruce Sterling at HEAD – Genève / Photo by Emily Bonnet.


This is the second interview of the series I started last week, based on my recent book about future, sci-fi and design fictions. After Warren Ellis, here's Bruce Sterling (whose blogging have moved to this wonderful tumblr called 'Wolf in Living Room':

NN: In your opinion, as a science-fiction writer, how to you perceive this difficulty to go beyond the standard visions of "the Future" (from flying cars to humanoid robots)?

BS: At SXSW 2014 I was on a panel with Warren Ellis, Joi Ito and Daniel Suarez where an interesting atemporal design-fiction issue came up.  We science fiction writers were discussing the problem of inventing something far-fetched, satirical, extrapolative or socially critical and then discovering that it was already commercially available on the shelves of Wal-Mart.  This was immediately called the "Wal-Mart Problem."

Atemporally speaking, it’s clearly possible to write a form of "futuristic" science fiction in which all the "sci-fi gadgets" are already real objects in Wal-Mart. No science-fiction reader can possibly know the entire Wal-Mart catalog, so it might be possible to write a thing like this without anybody realizing it, as in recent William Gibson books where the weirdest and most far-out things -- airborne fish, giant Ekranoplans and so forth, are all existent technologies.  

Now that social crowdfunding is available it will probably be impossible henceforth for any journalist, critic or historian to determine if a gadget ever "really existed," or for how long, or in what precise circumstances.  So the apparent lines between designs and design fictions will get more and more blurred.

Daniel Suarez, who is a rather literal-minded guy with a lot of engineers and coders in his readership, is quite worried about the "Wal-Mart Problem," he feels it hurts his credibility. My own feeling is that it’s not a "problem" but a condition which will get bigger and bigger.  I even wonder if it’s possible to LIVE in the Wal-Mart problem deliberately, like literally furnish an apartment with items of these kinds.

NN: Sure it hurts SciFi writers’ credibility (and probably scientists’ credibility as well) but – I would say – what can he do ? The only tech realms where this problem might vanish corresponds to hard science like quantum physics, hyperchord/string theory and/or crazy neuroscientific exploration… simply because this type of science can be unlegible to normal humans. But what can he do? 

BS: He can write fantasy about alien planets, vampires, zombies and flying dragons, of course. That’s where the genre in fact went, as a commercial enterprise. Nobody fusses about the Wal-Mart problem in GAME OF THRONES.

I’ll pose you this puzzle: if there’s a "critical design" that’s brilliantly illuminating as design fiction, and it turns out that it once really existed among a small group of Belgians in the period 1998-2001, does that make it any better or worse as an act of critical design?  Why is that even a criterion of success in the first place?  The Near Future Laboratory video "Corner Convenience" has caffeine in Jack Daniels, but anybody can put caffeine in Jack Daniels, you just pour some whiskey into your coffee.  That doesn’t dilute the conceptual impact of that diegetic prototype within the space of the Near Future Lab video.

Of course this "Wal-Mart Problem" mostly applies nowadays to modest gadgets of the Makerspace and Wal-mart shelf variety, nobody is going to Kickstarter for a nuclear power plant any time soon. 

NN: You have an interest in the role of new media artists and designers in exploring future scenarios. Do you think it can be considered as a good follow-up work to what sci-fi writers used to do?

BS: Yeah, the means of production and distribution in the early days of science fiction and design were much cruder and more folksy, and characters like Ford, Edison and Marconi, were very much weird, self-educated tinkerers. Hugo Gernsback’s early radio experimentation magazines were hugely similar to MAKE magazine nowadays, and "Popular Mechanics" is so much like Makers that the latest issue of Popular Mechanics is all about Makers.  Design and science fiction were emerging out of the same print-cultural compost heap of the pre-radio, pre-TV 1920s.

However, when you point out that design has "taken away the baton from Sci-Fi,"  it would be more accurate to say that the baton has been taken away from all forms of print media, including journalism and history. Only search engines have that baton now.  They don’t hold that baton very well at all.

The "Wal-Mart Problem" isn’t so much a problem as a new historical sensibility.  In my book SHAPING THINGS I was postulating that we might get to a space where nobody really cares if a "real" object really "exists" at all; a spime can probably be made to exist if enough energy is thrown at it, and the real social issue is figuring out how to get rid of them, not to invent them or conjure them up.

I’m always happy when my pet interests in dead media, atemporality, network society, ubiquity and augmentation reveal some deeper unities.  There’s a metaphysical issue there: how do we know what we know that we know? -- and if the media mechanisms by which we build canons of futurity and history are in disruption, then atemporality must be the order of the day, it seems to me. In that Transmediale speech I was urging people not to fear this prospect but to creatively experiment with it, and "design fiction" seems to me to be properly suited to do that; more so than science fiction, which is always trying to sneak into the literary dignity of paper book covers and proclaim, look at me, I’m a classic for the ages now, just like Wells and Verne.

Futures? a short interview with Warren Ellis

Few weeks ago I published a new book about the kind of topic we deal with at the Near Future Laboratory: the disappearance of "big futures", design fictions, the role of science-fiction, etc. The book is only in French, but some of the interviews I've conducted when preparing it are in English (I translated some of them in the book itself). In the next few days, I'm going to publish this material here on the blog. Some interviews are pretty short, others are longer but they are quite insightful.

The first one features Warren Ellis, the English author of comics, novels, and television.

NN : If the future is dead, if we didn’t get the future that we were promised, it does not mean that the present, the here and now isn’t curious. In a talk you gave few years ago at Improving Reality in Brighton, you coined the term "sci-fi condition", what did you mean by that?

WE : I don’t know if I coined it, to be honest.  But I think it’s important to look at the present moment with clear eyes and understand the wonder of a contemporary context where we can see the glass lakes of Titan and satellites orbiting the sun can report to our phones.  Or even that several thousand years of developing communication technology means that I can type this right now and you’ll see it in seconds.  We tend not to see it.  We’re conditioned to see the present moment as "normal," with all the banality that implies.  This is not a banal moment.  It’s the sort of intense, chaotic moment, full of strange things, that we previously only found in science fiction.  "Right now" feels like all of science fiction happening at once, and needs to be considered in that context -- that  we’re living in that promised world of miracles and wonder, and that we’ve been trained by the culture not to see it.

NN : What kinds of situations/examples/technologies do you have in mind to refer to this awkward condition?

Sometimes it’s the things that seem simplest.  Networked maps on phones.  If you’re in the Western world and in a context of relatively low-level privilege, you will never be lost again.  You could draw up your own list of things that would seem completely alien to someone from 1984.  Or things that would simply seem science-fictional, like public internet kiosks.  

NN : In this context, what’s the importance of science-fiction according to you?

WE : In lab-testing the potential pressures of all possible futures.  And in universalising the poetry of science, which is the machinery of the world.


Why Silicon Valley Hates TBD Catalog

TBD Catalog. It started as a workshop-based collaboration with 19 humans and a few algorithms who willingly allowed me to shepherd them through the thoughts in my head and help show what the world may be like in some odd but likely near future — represented as a product catalog rather than some old-fashioned output like a white paper or blog post.

TBD Catalog tells a story about the world we are likely to inhabit if the current moment’s exuberance for the things it gets exuberant about continues at its boom-bust cycle pace.

What exuberance am I talking about?

This exuberance for “disruption”, handcrafted algorithms, security, 3D printers, The Cloud, luxury-bespoke bicycle seats, bigger and bigger self-serving Big Data “data points”, stacks and stacks of weird service APIs, consumer-focused technical gadgets, an Internet of Things where everything is connected to everything (whatever that means), food printers, the end of privacy, algorithmic publishers beating up normal publishers, artisanal hand crafted lickity-split buzzy drone delivery, hype-curves with spectacular riches at the end, connected toilets, saws & axes, and etcetera.

This is an exuberance that we might generally localize to Silicon Valley California. It can now be said that this exuberance has spread to other geographic centers of unbridled enthusiasm, what with the San Francisco/Silicon Valley sprawl bursting at the seams with its $5000 a month studio “apartments” and its general lack of space for people to live and work and get a goddamn burrito that actually makes sense.

Maybe that’s not fair.


Hold on — yes it is.

Although, okay — to appear to be fair I’ll say that Silicon Valley isn’t all that bad, even if it is sometimes quite severely selfish and myopically misguided.

A guy in his living room with a six pack of beer can have some bad ideas about what to do in the afternoon — shoot tin cans off the back fence, surveil his neighbor with a drone, maybe do dirt bike donuts on his neighbors front yard after those beers are gone.

A guy in his living room with $6 billion can have a normatively bad idea about what to do, and do real damage to normal, ordinary everyday humans.

Wait. Where was I?


Oh right. TBD Catalog. A catalog of ideas, extrapolations, insights, points of view, opinions, statistically likely conclusions, satire (which is only satire until it comes to pass, like an App that says “Yo!” which would’ve been the kernel of a good joke until someone thought it would make a better App than a joke and now it’s no longer funny) — all represented as stuff that goes in your home. It’s also the weird crap you find at the checkout counter of your local corner convenience store. And your friendly, neighborhood Data Plumber who advertises on a badly Xeroxed flyer crumpled and shoved through your mail slot or slipped under the windshield wipers of your used self-driving Hyundai Siestafore..the one with the hacked Android DriveOS so you can take it off-road on the weekends without the disturbingly angelic Johannson bot voice you lease for $3.99/month warning you every 15 seconds “Parker..you’ve strayed off course. Please return to Highway 101.”

TBD Catalog is a container of ideas — some which may come to pass, some which probably already exist, some which definitely already exist in some form and some other things that are just plain brilliant ideas that no one in their right mind would dedicate a single dollar bill to create. Cause #ROI.

What is this TBD Catalog then? What does it do that these pre-modern techniques for creative strategizing do not do?

Design Fiction

It’s a collection of micro-fictions, little stories done up to take the form of a product catalog. They are symptoms of a future world. Each product an implication — all collectively implying the lived experience of someone’s likely normal ordinary everyday near future habitat. These are evocative little Macguffin-like clues at what you know may likely come to pass.

Producing a hint of a whiff of the near future is an alternative narrative strategy to the grand vision the old-fashioned futurists were likely to offer. And, ultimately — it’s this alternative narrative element that the PowerPoint deck and the ThinkTank white paper cannot offer. Those simply kill the fun in good, creative design work. They deaden the creative nervous system ruining the possibility of doing good design — of feeling inspired and invigorated. No one was ever invigorated by your typical PowerPoint or 87 page White Paper, were they?

Internet of Things Design Fiction

What are some of these Macguffins? TBD Catalog includes everything. Food to toilets. End-to-end solution, as they say. Life, love, loss, loungewear. From the future of ice cubes to the disposal of 3D printer waste material to “revolutionary” wound-spring PowerPaks.

In TBD Catalog you’ll find a whole thriving business ecosystem of data mangling and an underground of techniques and instruments to allow one to commit “servicide” — that’s social network suicide. There’s everything from shoddy, rusted out old surplus data manglers to the valet-clad, braided epaulet luxury vacation packages where you and your loved ones can hide or expunge all your data trail with the exclusivity and privacy you’ve come to expect from your privileged life.

Algoriture Design Fiction


What sort of world does TBD Catalog come from? What is that near future it is telling us we may likely occupy?

It’s a world where Google and Facebook (or whatever they become) use data analytics to find your child’s perfect algorithmically matched playmate — and their probable soul mate.

It’s an “Internet of Things” world where everything, including the glass you drink with, the bar stool you sit on, and the bathroom door you lock behind you, is connected to everything else.

It’s a world where bland “Algoriture” algorithmic literature are written by Amazon’s data analytic-fed intelligent bots rather than normal, human authors.

Design Fiction

TBD Catalog intimates a world in which the well-heeled summon — as they do Uber cars today — on-demand force-presence security operators to help them recover their lost or stolen iPhone or shepherd them around Burning Man or Coachella.

In the near future of TBD Catalog luxury ice cubes are available for an extra fee in a drought-burdened world, 3D printers require child-safe locks to prevent printing choking hazards, modern plumbers plumb the erratic, clogged data drains of your analytics-generating connected home, and the number one film is 48% crowd funded and 64% algorithm written and the director is a bit of software written by some programmer in Sierra Leone.


That’s TBD Catalog. That’s the “what.”

In Part 2, I’ll talk about Design Fiction — the “how.”

For now — check out TBD Catalog and get your copy. Also, read @sarahrich’s review: Your Mail-Order Future

Algorithms+reverse engineering

Everyone interested in software studies and research about algorithms should read this piece by Nick Seaver called "On reverse engineering: Looking for the cultural work of engineers". Based on TheAtlantic's investigation of Netflix's tagging system, the author discusses the consequences of reverse engineering for how we think about the cultural lives of engineers.

Some excerpts that attracted my attention:

"reverse engineering, as both a descriptor and a research strategy, misses the things engineers do that do not fit into conventional ideas about engineering. In the ongoing mixture of culture and technology, reverse engineering sticks too closely to the idealized vision of technical work. Because it assumes engineers care strictly about functionality and efficiency, it is not very good at telling stories about accidents, interpretations, and arbitrary choices. It assumes that cultural objects or practices (like movies or engineering) can be reduced to singular, universally-intelligible logics. It takes corporate spokespeople at their word when they claim that there was a straight line from conception to execution. [...] The risk of reverse engineering is that we come to imagine that the only things worth knowing about companies like Netflix are the technical details hidden behind the curtain. In my own research, I argue that the cultural lives and imaginations of the people behind the curtain are as important, if not more, for understanding how these systems come to exist and function as they do. Moreover, these details are not generally considered corporate secrets, so they are accessible if we look for them. Not everything worth knowing has been actively hidden, and transparency can conceal as much as it reveals."

Why do I blog this? Because it's an interesting argument and practical recommendation for researchers working on such topics. Being interested in the interplay between technical constraints and cultural/imaginary elements, I quite appreciate the point Seaver makes here.