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.”

Near Future Laboratory Seldom Dispatch

Enough curious things and publications and prototypes and robot news and VLOGS are currently happening in our different bureaux that we need to issue a  dispatch with a note from each of us.

From Julian

OMATA

Together with Rhys Newman — a friend and colleague from back at Nokia — we started a company 14 months ago called OMATA to build a beautiful analog GPS bike computer. We launch our product in a few weeks on Kickstarter. It’s something Rhys and I had been talking about for a good long time and the wind-down of the Advanced Design studio at Nokia gave us the impetus we needed to start a company and build a product.

A bike speedometer? Why this, you might ask? What ever happened to weird future algorithms, catalogs and robots? What about workshops and consulting to future-starved clients?

Making “things” has always been a passion as followers of the Laboratory will understand. Making “things from the future” is a driving motivation for all of us here at the Laboratory. OMATA is an opportunity to do that on the terms that Rhys and I set, without the slow, arduous, punishing, soul-crushing briar patch of decision making protocols found in large, old-fashioned consumer electronics companies.

Aside from my passion for cycling, this product is, in many ways, a deviant object from a future where people have given up on the assumption that everything needs to be fully digital, have a touchscreen, be a nebulously defined “thing” of the Internet, and be a receptacle for distracting alerts/updates/notifications/etc. This is a focused object, designed to show what matters most while riding a bike: how fast, how far, how high and how long. It’s incredibly modern on the inside — very sophisticated GPS, ARM processor, BTLE, beautiful mechanics and world-class industrial design. It just ends up looking more beautiful on the outside then your typical connected digital thing.

You can follow along on Instagram and sign-up on the mail list on OMATA.

From Herr. Foster

I turned 40. I started a Vlog. Why?

  1. Turning 40 made me evaluate a lot of things, but primarily that life moves fast. Whilst I consider myself generally well-motivated to stay creative and busy, I feel that sometimes I slip into the Netflix and pub comfort zone. There’s nothing wrong with this, but I have a feeling that I want to do more of the things which forge stronger memories.
  2. I want to understand social media a bit more than I do. By creating a YouTube channel I have already learned a great deal about what’s good and bad about the platform, how it all goes together and how it feels to use it.
  3. I procrastinate a lot. By forcing myself to make a film every week, I’m going to have to get quicker at production. This will force me to learn on the hoof and improvise, which will hopefully make me a better film-maker.
  4. It’s a good experiment in storytelling. Much of the work I do, particularly the work at the Near Future Lab involves telling stories. I’ll only get better at that with practice.

So what’s it about? Primarily I’m scoring my weeks. A 10 would be ‘best week ever’, based on an entirely non-scientific algorithm, but not limited to: new things, new places, new people and the creation of interesting things.

So here goes. As the mantra of the Vlogger goes: PLEASE SUBSCRIBE

Fabien Says

Humans app

Most connected humans suffer from poor ‘data hygiene’. I wrote a piece on Medium on the reasons why we developed Humans an app that offers a way to rationally manage too many social media contacts and slows down the consumption of status updates, tweets, selfies, and photos of all kinds. This work invites designers and data scientists to adapt their social interfaces and algorithms to human pace rather than uniquely focus on the real-time, the ‘now’, and the accumulation of ‘likes’ and ‘contacts’.

Dr. Prof. Nicolas Nova

Smart Frictions

I recently wrote a book (with Joël Vacheron) about/bot algorithmic cultures. Régine Debatty at We Make Money Not Art blogged about it last week. Besides that, I recently gave a talk on the topic of “Smart Fictions” with Simone Rebaudengo (Automato Farm) at IxDA Interaction 2016 in Helsinki about frictions with smart technologies. I’m also starting work on a new project regarding mobile phone repair cultures.

Social Media at Human Pace

Most connected humans suffer from poor ‘data hygiene’. For instance, we are plainly grotesquely overfed on social media with its ‘anytime’ ‘anywhere’ experience and there is no rational end in sight. In this article, I introduce the reasons why I developed Humans, an app that offers a way to rationally manage too many social media contacts and slows down the consumption of status updates, tweets, selfies, and photos of all kinds.

A fictional Humans ad suggesting a better practice of ‘data hygiene’
A fictional Humans ad suggesting a better practice of ‘data hygiene’

We live in a society that captures the moment, refashions it to ‘share’ across a network of social media endpoints containing algorithms and human, perpetually. Social media, its algorithms and its humans are highly optimized to never stop the cycle. Consequently, we experiencing an unprecedented increase in the rate of this ‘anytime’ ‘anywhere’ consumption cycle. As of 2014, according to the Nielsen US Digital Consumer Report almost half (47%) of smartphone owners visited social networks every day. On top of that, it is not uncommon for a Facebook user to have 1,500 posts waiting in the queue when logging in. Yet, the perpetual consumption yields to very little and there is no rational end in sight. We are quite plainly grotesquely overfed on social media.

Social media needs its consumption cycle. It depends on ‘views’, ‘eyeballs’, ‘reshares’, ‘likes’, ‘comments’ — the euphemism used by the media mavens is the optimistic word ‘engagement’. We are bloated on ‘engagement’ to the point where we sleep with our nodes, wear them on our wrists, clip them to our dashboards, autistically shove them in pockets only to immediately remove them only to shove them back in our pockets only to immediately remove them in order to slake our thirst for more content. This ‘too much, too fast’ consumption cycles has reduced an ability to pay sustained attention, have a meaningful conversation, reflect deeply — even be without our connected devices.

Humans create technologies, adapt their behaviors to them and vice-versa

The fact is that each major revolution in information technology produced descriptions of humans drowning in information unable to face tsunamis of texts, sounds, images or videos. For instance, in the 15th century Gutenberg’s printing press generated millions of copies of books. Suddenly, there were far more books than any single person could master, and no end in sight or as Barnaby Rich wrote in 1613:

“One of the diseases of this age is the multiplicity of books; they doth so overcharge the world that it is not able to digest the abundance of idle matter that is every day hatched and brought forth into the world”

Besides a Luddite position of some that rejected technological change, the invention of printing began to generate innovative new practices and methods for dealing with the accumulation of information. These included early plans for public libraries, the first universal bibliographies that tried to list all books ever written, the first advice books on how to take notes, and encyclopedic compilations larger and more broadly diffused than ever before. Detailed outlines and alphabetical indexes let readers consult books without reading them through, and the makers of large books experimented with slips of paper for cutting and pasting information from manuscripts and printed matter — a technique that, centuries later, would become essential to modern word processing.

Historically, humans have adapted to the increasing pace of information exchange with the appropriation of new practices and means to filter, categorize and prioritize information feeds.

Similarly, a couple of centuries later, the increasing presence of the telegraph multiplied the levels of stress among merchants used to more local, slower and less competitive transactions. They eventually adapted to the new pace of information exchange with new practices and means to filter, categorize and prioritize information feeds.

From social media ‘diets’ to ‘data hygiene’

What today’s most connected people share with their ancestors is the sense of excess and related discomfort, and stress linked to information load. In many ways, our behaviors for coping with overload have not changed. Besides the promises of AI and machine learning that trade control for convenience, we still need to filter, categorize and prioritize, and ultimately need human judgment and attention to guide the process.

These behaviors perspires in popular media and the many articles that share tips to follow successful social media diets, detox, or cleansing programs. The authors typically advise their readers to move away from being constantly ‘on top of things’ and to give up on concerns of missing out or being out of the loop. The diets are about replacing one behavior with another more frugal by pruning the many social networks (‘quit’, ‘uninstall’, ‘unplug’, ‘remove profile’) and contacts (‘mute’, ‘unfollow’). Yet they target a temporal improvement and fail to promote a more profound sustainable behavior with positive reinforcement.

Besides the promises of AI and machine learning that trade control for convenience, we still need to filter, categorize and prioritize, and ultimately need human judgment and attention to guide the process.

Social media platforms have also slightly updated the interfaces to support these behaviors. For instance Facebook recently started to allow users to specify the certain friends and pages that should appear at the top of the feed and Twitter introduced a ‘while you were away’ feature to its home timeline. Yet, social media feeds still feel like an endlessly accumulating pile of messy dirty laundry.

There is an opportunity to reconsider how we use social media and how we build it. Social media that gives human control to prioritize certain feeds over others, but without normalizing content into something less messy, and less complicated than a human. In fact, adapting to social media overload is not about being ‘on a diet’ than having a good ‘data hygiene’ with a set of rituals and tools. This is what I explored along with my colleagues at Near Future Laboratory with the design and development of Humans.

A fictional Humans ad suggesting a proper ‘data hygiene’.
A fictional Humans ad suggesting a proper ‘data hygiene’.

Introducing Humans

Humans is an app that offers a way to rationally manage too many contacts and slows down the consumption of status updates, tweets, selfies, photos of all kinds. Its design inspires from observations on how humans adapt to the feelings of information overload with its related anxieties, obsessions, stress and other mental burdens. Humans is the toothbrush for social media you pick up twice a day to help prevent these discomforts. It promotes ‘data hygiene’ that helps adjust to current pace of social exchanges.

First, Humans gives means to filter, categorize and prioritize feeds spread across multiple services, like Twitter, Instagram, and Flickr. The result forms a curated mosaic of a few contacts, friends, or connections arranged in their context.

Humans gives means to filter, categorize and prioritize feeds spread across multiple services, like Twitter, Instagram, and Flickr.
Humans gives means to filter, categorize and prioritize feeds spread across multiple services, like Twitter, Instagram, and Flickr.

Additionally Humans strips social network interfaces and algorithms from their ‘toxic’ elements that foment addictions and arouse our desire to accumulate rather than abstract. And that without altering the fascinating dynamics of social networks. One inspiration this ‘data hygiene’ design pattern is the Facebook Demetricator provocative project that removes any number present in the Facebook interface. Its developer Benjamin Grosser advocates for the reduction of our collective obsession with metrics that plays out as an insatiable desire to make every number go higher. Another inspiration is the Little Voices app that removes the ‘noise’ from Twitter feeds and that is ‘ideal for those who like their feeds slightly quieter’.

Taken together, the benefits of using Humans are:

Reduce the compulsion to perpetually check Instagram, Twitter and Flickr

A frequent use of multiple social media services reduces our ability to contextualize and focus. With Humans, you can mitigate that online social service schizophrenia and establish a rational regimen for following without the constant barrage and noise of too many extraneous strangers’ updates. It works with the main social media platforms.

Keep away from the distractions in social media feeds

Get access to content stripped out of the social media distractions. Humans removes visual noise and arrange in their context the many status updates, links, selfies, photos of all kinds.

Mitigate feelings and symptoms of remorse whilst taking short or long offline breaks

If you have been away from your screens or too busy, Humans creates digestible doses of context that will get you up to date.

I designed and developed Humans to exemplify a new mean for ‘data hygiene’ with an interface and algorithms that adapt to human pace and do not uniquely focus on the real-time, the ‘now’, and the accumulation of ‘likes’ and ‘contacts’. Or as our fictional experts in ‘data hygiene’ would suggest:

Humans data hygiene experts

Check lovehumans.co for more information and request the app.

The near future of data hygiene

At Near Future Laboratory, we like to investigate alternative paths for technology. As data and connectivity augment our lives, hygiene might no longer only relate to maintaining a healthy body. Connected humans produce ‘data doppelgängers’ and consume data ‘anywhere’ and ‘anytime’ at an unprecedented rate. Consequently, they start to experience discomforts such as social media overload that Humans helps mitigate.

Like other information technology revolutions, there is a necessity for people to adopt new rituals and tools. In the near future we might see emerge interfaces, experiences, algorithms, design patters that reshape our social practices and for instance:

  • moderate our collective obsession with metrics and the pervasive evaluation and comparison of one self.
  • reclaim space for conversation over the illusion of the connection, its ‘retweets’ and ‘likes’.
  • reduce the social cost to ‘unfollow’.
  • promote solitude as a good thing.
  • regulate our insatiable desire to capture ‘moments’ and accumulate ‘contacts’.
  • help us overcome the ineluctable situations of digital amnesia.
  • empower our skills for abstraction and generalization from the ‘moments’ we capture.
  • help us forget to better remember.
  • invite us to expect less from technology, and more from ourselves and each other.

More on these topics in upcoming projects.

Some Critical Thoughts to Inspire People Active in the Internet of Things

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It has never been so easy to build things and throw them into people’s pockets, bags, phones, homes, cars. Almost inevitably — with this abundance of ‘solutions’ — it has never been so easy to get caught in the hyperbolic discourses of perpetual technological disruptions with their visions of flawless connectivity and seamless experiences. When translated literally, theses visions often take the form of a questionable world of Internet of Things (IoT).

At Near Future Laboratory, we get the chance to meet amazing people active in the IoT who request critique and feedback on their products. We help them abstract from the hype of the dominant vision and gain fringe insights that can refresh their strategies. To do so, I often dig into the rich literature produced in the early days of ubiquitous computing. Some of the texts were published more than 10 years old, but — trust me — they all carry inspiring thoughts to improve the contemporary and near future connected worlds.

I hope this accessible academic literature is useful for people active in IoT curious to enrich their ethical, human, geographic and social perspectives on technologies. En route and beware of shortcuts!

The shift from the showcase of the potential of technologies to the showcase of active engagement of people

Written in 1995, Questioning Ubiquitous Computing critiqued that research in ubiquitous computing is conceived as being primarily as the best possibility for “achieving the real potential of information technology” and had little to do with human needs and much more with the unfolding of technology per se.

Ten years after, based on similar observations, but with more constructive arguments, Adam Greenfield wrote Everyware to question the implications of the scale up of ubiquitous computing and genuinely how to improve the connected world he coined as “everyware” [my notes].

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In the same period voices raised to rephrase the approach of ubiquitous computing. For instance, in Moving on from Weiser’s vision of calm computing: engaging ubicomp experiences Yvonne Rodgers promotes connected technologies designed not to do things for people but to engage them more actively in what they currently do [my notes].

The shift from the design of a perfect future to the design for the messiness of everyday life

Similarly, in Yesterday’s Tomorrows: Notes on Ubiquitous Computing’s Dominant Vision Genevieve Bell and Paul Dourish highlight that the problems of ubiquitous computing are framed as implementation issues that are, essentially, someone else’s problem, to be cleaned up as part of the broad march of technology. In other words, the dominant vision of ubiquitous computing promotes an indefinitely postponed future in which someone else will take care of solving any technological (e.g. interoperability, fluctuant connectivity, or limited battery life) or social issues. Consequently, the text argues for a “ubicomp of the present” which takes the messiness of everyday life as a central theme [my notes].

That notion of messiness of technological settings provoked the interests of researchers to regard technological imperfections as an opportunity for the design of everyday life technologies. William Gaver pioneered work in that domain with his proposals of Ambiguity as a Resource for Design that requires people to participate in making meaning of a system [my notes] and Technology Affordances that promotes interfaces disclosing the direct link between perception and action. Practically, as advocated by Matthew Chalmers in Seamful interweaving: heterogeneity in the theory and design of interactive systems, this means that people accommodate and take advantage of technological imperfections or seams, in and through the process of interaction. In No to NoUI, Timo Arnall gives excellent additional arguments that question the tempting approach of “invisible design”.

Observing the dynamic relationship of technology, space and humans to demystify the perfect technology

In her PhD dissertation A Brief History of the Future of Urban Computing and Locative Media Anne Galloway shows that ubiquitous technologies reshape people experiences of spatiality, temporality and embodiment in the networked city. Her contribution augments an extensive literature that investigates how technologies are not the sole drivers of urban change and how they co-evolve with the urban fabric as they become woven into the social, economic and political life of cities. Code/Space is a seminal book by Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge that precisely discuss software from a spatial perspective, analyzing the dynamic relationship of software and space. The production of space, they argue, is increasingly dependent on code, and code is written to produce space [my notes]. In that machine readable space bugs, glitches and crashes are widely accepted imperfections as the routine part of the convenience of computers [my notes]. Also, ubiquitous computing helps remake urban spaces through new formed strategies of security. For instance some chapters of the book Cybercities Reader talk about the emerging militarized control society encouraged by the dream of the perfect technology and the myth of the perfect power [my notes].

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Precisely with the objective of moving beyond these dreams that foster indefinitely postponed futures, Nicolas Nova wrote Futurs? La panne des imaginaires technologiques that explores alternative ways to imagine and design future objects and experiences including Design Fiction.

I took many shortcuts to put together these heterogeneous publications but I hope that some of them can help you better question the dominant visions of the IoT and enrich your approach to improve any of the technologies that are constantly getting closer to people, their homes, streets and clothes (e.g. AI, Big Data, etc).

The Global Village and its Discomforts

Or why designers and data scientists should learn from the anxieties, obsessions, phobias, stress and other mental burdens of the connected humans.

Photo courtesy of Nicolas Nova
Photo courtesy of Nicolas Nova

We live in the ‘Global Village’ and our behaviors as connected humans have been evolving since Marshall McLuhan popularized the term in the 60s. Today, we form a society that captures the ‘moment’, refashions it to ‘share’ across a network of endpoints containing algorithms and humans, perpetually. Simultaneously, we live in a society that prizes speed. Amazing technologies are delivering real-time notification of those moments to our wrists, pockets and handbags. Through the virtue of feedback loops, real-time predictive algorithms and collaborative filtering, things are recommended to us for instant actions. That optimized movement of information promise to help us gain now the time that we can then put back in our life.

That evolution came with a price. In the Global Village, it is common to hear a co-worker complain over lunch about ‘social media overload’, to have a friend share their ‘chronic infobesity’ issue with a simple look on their Tweetdeck, to overhear in the metro a person who cannot keep up with their multiple profiles on Tinder or to observe a ‘validation junky’ defying Dunbar’s number and obsessively seeking new forms to obtain ‘likes’ from ‘friends’.

In this essay, I argue that most connected people are subject to anxieties, obsessions, phobias, stress and other mental burdens resulting from living in the Global Village. In an era where some behaviors and habits are measurable, there is an opportunity to learn from the negative effects of technologies that extend our social practices. Particularly, designers and data scientists — besides from being held accountable for many of these discomforts — could get inspirations from the descriptions of these social media related pathologies to improve their design of user experiences and algorithms.

Pathologies of the Global Village

As of 2014, according to the Nielsen US Digital Consumer Report almost half (47%) of smartphone owners visited social networks every day. On top of that, it is not uncommon for a Facebook user to have 1,500 posts waiting in the queue when logging in.

Since the presence of social network is relatively new, the real gains and losses of their use can be found in the mood, behavior, rituals, manners and feelings of connected people. Only recently, the popular media started to consider the psychological effects of ‘social overload’, its impact on mental, social and even physical well-being. We are starting to hear about compulsive behaviors or any other kind of pathologies with acronyms such as FoMO (Fear of Missing Out) or FoBO (Fear of Better Options) provoked by the exposure to social media. That evolution can also easily be traced in recent academic literature. For instance, social psychologist Andrew Przybylski and his colleagues defined FoMO as:

“A pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent, FoMO is characterized by the desire to stay continually connected with what others are doing.”

Building on that definition, Michael Hogan proposed a number of categories of FoMO consequences including: Pressure, Paranoia, Separation, Self-identity problems, Dissatisfaction, Loneliness, Negative Self-Image, Personal Inadequacy, Disconnection, Jealousy, and Judgement.

The consequences of FoMO. Source: Facebook and the ‘Fear of Missing Out’ (FoMO)
The consequences of FoMO. Source: Facebook and the ‘Fear of Missing Out’ (FoMO)

As a consequence, some people who first embraced constant connectivity are now looking for ways to resist the constant call to be permanently connected. These reactions manifests a need to establish boundaries, resist information overload, and strike a greater emotional balance. Some opt to follow media ‘diets’ or ‘detox’ programs as attempts to move away from being constantly ‘on top of things’ and to give up on fears of missing out or being out of the loop.

Every Technological Extension is Also an Amputation

Social network platforms act as an extension of our social practices. Like with any technological extension we are right to be fascinated by its power and scale. However, we too frequently choose to ignore or minimize the ‘amputations’ and implications they produce. Or as French cultural theorist Paul Virilio would argue:

“The invention of the ship was also the invention of the shipwreck”

For instance, our capacity to record every moment of our lives comes with the high vulnerability of digital data. In fact, no machine can today read a 15 years old hard drive. It is ironic that we have the technological means to record and share our social lives, yet we all might suffer one day from ‘digital amnesia’. Similarly, the capacity to record our lives might reduce our ability to forget inconsequential factoids which is the way for our brains to optimize the recollection of important things. Indeed, our memory uses abstraction and generalization to forget and better remember.

The understanding of these ‘amputations’ represent a source of inspiration and discussion to improve the design and algorithms of social media or any technology that touches humans and extend their social practices.

Gathering Material from Fictional Near Future

With the objective of producing an inventory of ‘amputations’, designer Etienne Ndiaye and myself projected into the near future the current discomforts in using social media. With an approach called Design Fiction, we employed that inventory as a totem for discussion and evaluation of alternative ways to experience social media.

In this exercise we postulated the future increase of cases of ‘validation junkies’ (i.e. individuals who obsessively like, favorite, share and retweet) and ‘input junkie’ (i.e. individuals obsessed with social network feeds). After a vast study on social habits and individual addictions to social media, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) decided to set up a large technology initiative that placed limits on design, algorithms and access to social media. For instance, they imposed limits to Facebook photo clicking. In consequence NGOs and the media started to portray pathologies like FoMO as the nicotine of social network platforms forcing the Facebooks, Googles and Amazons to react.

Based on that premise, our Design Fiction took the form of a fictional start-up called 6andMe active in the sector of wellness for connected humans.

The landing page of 6andMe.
The landing page of 6andMe.

That Design Fiction helped us think on how popular media might describe conditions like FoMO in the future. We debated on the tools and behaviors that could prevent or mitigate the discomforts augmented by social media; the mechanisms that 6andMe could use to detect feelings like ‘lone envy’, ‘social exclusion’, ‘missing out’ and ‘being left out’. For instance we listed the indicators that could give signs of unfilled need of ‘belongingness’ and ‘connectedness’ of a person.

Relative Production, Relative Participation, Reciprocal Endorsement, Relative Social Dispersal, etc. The 6andMe diagnosis rely on a battery of basic tests gathered from an individual behavior on social media services to rate concerns for social media related pathologies.
Relative Production, Relative Participation, Reciprocal Endorsement, Relative Social Dispersal, etc. The 6andMe diagnosis rely on a battery of basic tests gathered from an individual behavior on social media services to rate concerns for social media related pathologies.

Further into the exploration, we looked at the evolution of language and how some mental conditions might be linked to popular figures. For instance, 6andMe can detect levels of Systrom’s Anxiety. This fictional pathology originates from Instagram’s CEO Kevin Systrom who once said:

“We humans are forever on a quest to take a moment and record it forever in time. Because however long life is, or however short life is, we know we may never get that moment back.”

that we translated into the following symptoms:

Systrom’s Anxiety (SA)

Systrom’s Anxiety is a feel of having to capture and share a moment from the fear of not being able to get to live it again. It happens in situations when one has to decide whether a moment is best enjoyed in the present tense or preserved for posterity online.

We also investigated the emergence of technologies and research that measure social media behaviors. For instance, Michal Kosinsk at Stanford and companies like Apply Magic Sauce API are currently optimizing ways to transform digital footprints into psychological profiles. Our fiction stands 2 or 3 iterations away from that reality. As a result, data scientists at 6andMe use similar algorithms to produce a diagnosis for social media related pathologies. For instance:

The results: 2 weeks after sharing the access to your social media activity, 6andMe sends you by mail a complete diagnosis with levels of concerns on social media related pathologies (e.g. Cloud Syllogomania, Online Tachylalia, Fear of Missing Out, …)
The results: 2 weeks after sharing the access to your social media activity, 6andMe sends you by mail a complete diagnosis with levels of concerns on social media related pathologies (e.g. Cloud Syllogomania, Online Tachylalia, Fear of Missing Out, …)

Cloud Syllogomania (CS)

Like many people, you have a tendency to compulsively hoard documents in the cloud such as photos, music, videos, discussions, emails, or any other data formats. However, when reaching storage limit you fail to organize and discard large numbers data even to the point of causing significant clutter and impairment to basic operation of a software, computer or mobile device. This hoarding behavior is often unwanted, automated by online services and can become distressing.

Online Tachylalia (OT)

You have a tendency to share social content fast, frenetically and very frequently, so frequently that it becomes impossible for your relatives, friends, colleagues and contacts to follow you online. It may be exhibited as frequent streams of rapid posting without prosody leading to online social rejection and disdain.

Profile Schizophrenia (PS)

You suffer from a personality disorder that emerges when losing control of multiple accounts and profiles on social networks. Profile Schizophrenia (PS) becomes latent when you start to notice gaps and inconsistencies between the information that you share online. For instance you might develop different personalities from your life biography on LinkedIn and what you share on Facebook, your World of Warcraft characters and your Twitch videos.

Online Monophobia (OM)

You feel alone in online social networks. You might have relatively too few online contacts and receive low amounts of contact requests, likes, comments, reblogs or retweets. Many people with this fear feel awkward and uncomfortable on social networks. It is related to Online Athazagoraphobia that is fear of forgetting or being forgotten on social networks.

Overshadower Syndrome (OS)

In this form of a judgment disorder your mind blurs the social etiquette of knowing too much about somebody else from the information available on the Web. That behavior often leads to uncomfortable social and cultural situations when too much knowledge on a person is gathered from the extensive use of search engines and social networks.

Storage Claustrophobia (SC)

In moments of bandwidth restrictions, abusive data plans, or limited cloud space you notice an extreme fear and feeling of being confined to the limits of a specific data plan or storage system.

Six Degrees Jealousy (SDJ)

You feel or show envy of an online contact for receiving more attention in the form of “likes”, “comments”, number of contacts or the klout score. Inspired by network theories on six degrees of separation, Six Degrees Jealousy is often a reaction of teenagers to a strong social pressure and fear of not belonging to a community or tribe leading to Online Monophobia (OM).

Find more informal descriptions on 6andMe of: Timeline Myopia (TM), Impulsive Posting Disorder (IPD), Social Media Dependence (SMD), Social Media Overwhelm (SoMO), Sense and Attention Overload (S&AO), Abrupt Online Dropout (AOD), Pocket Check Obsession (PCO), Screen Addiction (SA), Compulsive Screen Absorption (CSA), Stressful Attention Battles (SAB), Online Attention Disorder (OAD), Tagophobia, Compulsive Data Cleaning Disorder (CDCD), Data Loss Meltdown (DLM), Digital Amnesia (DA), Online Athazagoraphobia (OA), Visiobibliophobia, Social Escapism (SE), Online Perseveration (OP), Avataragnosia, etc.

Our Design Fiction and the description of these fictional pathologies do not claim to be medical but are provocations on how connected humans might express their anxieties, obsessions, phobias, stress and other mental burdens in the future.

Takeaways for the present

While working on wonderful technological extensions of human body and mind, designers and data scientists need also to consider the amputations provoked by the experiences and algorithms they introduce into the Global Village. In the the book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr worries that the flood of digital information is changing not only our habits, but even our mental capacities:

Forced to scan and skim to keep up, we are losing our abilities to pay sustained attention, reflect deeply, or remember what we’ve learned.

The inventory of social media related pathologies listed in 6andMe highlights these types of technological implications. The descriptions of FoMO, Systrom’s Anxiety, Six Degrees Jealousy, etc. provide a new source of inspiration and discussion to improve the design and algorithms of any technology that touches humans and extends their social relations.

To build better data products and services, I would argue that most designers and data scientists should be aware of notions such as graphopticon introduced by the like economy and question if the technology they build establish an insatiable ‘desire for more’ or any other type of discomfort. Moreover, they should get inspirations from the techniques social media user develop to strike a greater emotional balance.

Many companies have the data and skills to consider the wanted, unwanted and toxic changes in behaviors their services or products create and amplify. For instance, Facebook introduced the roles of social engineers and a group of trust engineers to make the online world a ‘kinder, gentler place’. In their first approximations they introduced mechanisms for their users to tune the feeling of status update overload.

Currently, only a few apps and platforms promote social media experiences that mitigate the types of discomforts listed in 6andMe. Meshfire is a recent attempt to ‘make social media human again’ or as its CEO puts it in abstract terms:

“If we were to start again with social media — a completely clean slate — we’d like to see real human interaction rather than all the automatic output we witness today.”

Screenshots of Little Voices by Charles Gower
Screenshots of Little Voices by Charles Gower

Another example is the app Little Voices that removes the Tweets that contain images, links and replies from Twitter feeds. As its developer Charles Gower describes it:

“Little Voices is complementary to Twitter, not a replacement. It’s ideal for those who like their feeds slightly quieter.”

Finally, at Near Future Laboratory we have been building Humans as a platform to ‘experience social media at human pace’. Humans offers a way to rationally manage too many contacts and slows down the consumption of status updates, tweets, selfies, photos of all kinds. Its aim is to:

  • Reduce the compulsion to perpetually check for status updates.
  • Keep away from the distractions in social media feeds.
  • Mitigate feelings and symptoms of remorse whilst taking short or long offline breaks.

The Humans landing page.

More on Humans soon!

Creating Fictional Data Products and Their Implications

Creating Fictional Data Products and Their Implications

When conceptualizing a service or product based on data, I first transform visions into a tangible visualization or prototype that anyone in a multi-disciplinary team can feel and understand. Additionally, I generally create Design Fictions that explore possible appropriations of the envisioned data product along its life. Taken together, prototypes and fictions present tangible concepts that help anticipate opportunities and challenges for engineering and user experience before a project gets even founded. These concepts give a clearer direction on what you are planning to build. They are a powerful material to explain the new data product to others and they act as a North Star for a whole team has a shared vision on what they might to want build.

Taken together, prototypes and fictions present tangible concepts that help anticipate opportunities and challenges for engineering and user experience before a project gets even founded.

This is the approach I aimed to communicate last week in a 5-days workshop at HEAD design school in Geneva to an heterogeneous group of students coming from graphic design, engineering, business or art backgrounds.

The syllabus of the 5-days workshop
The syllabus of the 5-days workshop

Part 1: Sketching with Data

Sketching with DataThe first part of the workshop was dedicating to become familiar with the theories and practices related to data science, data visualization, and information design. Along with Julian Jamarillo from Bestiario, we introduced different ways of extracting insights from data and convey a message effectively from the simple result of a collaborative filtering algorithm to the proper use of a map or a chart. The main objective for the students was to acquire a hands-on experience visualizing data and transform them into small stories.

The day of a bike sharing systemFor instance, through the manipulation of a real dataset participants apprehended its multiple dimensions: spatial, temporal, quantitative, qualitative, their objectivity, subjectivity, granularity, etc. It only took a full day of sketching with data with Quadrigram, for participants to start write and tell small stories about crime in San Francisco or mobility in Barcelona. Embedded as a data-driven web page, we motivated students to provide a critical eye on the current hype about big data: What are the limitations? Do they tell a story but not THE story? Consequently, we discussed the notions of trust, quality and integrity of the sources, the ownership of personal data, and the subjectivity in many design decisions to convey a message.

Through the manipulation of a real dataset participants apprehended its multiple dimensions: spatial, temporal, quantitative, qualitative, their objectivity, subjectivity, granularity, etc.

Part 2: Creating implications

Creating implicationsIn the second part of the workshop we projected into the future the datasets and their stories. We started to imagine a future service, product, solution that link data to fashion, entertainment, the environment, social relations, etc. Using an approach called Design Fiction, we encouraged participants to build elements of a possible data product without being too precious or detailed about them. The aim was to spark conversations about the near future of data, check the sanity of visions and uncover hidden perspectives.

A Design Fiction approach to bring a technology to the world starts by anticipating how people could co-evolve with it. Instead of designing for Time 0 (T) when people start using a data product or service, I believe it is important to consider the evolution of the user experience with its frictions, rituals, and behaviors at T+ 1 minute, T+ 1 hour, T+1 day, T+1 week, T+1 month, etc. until the actual end of life of the product (e.g. what happens to my data when I retire my Fitbit into my box of old devises).

The evolution of the user experience
The evolution of the user experience with its frictions, rituals, and behaviors at T+ 1 minute, T+ 1 hour, T+1 day, T+1 week, T+1 month, etc. until the actual end of life of the product. Inspired by Matt Jones’ Jumping to the End talk .

Hence, in our workshop, similar to Amazon’s Working Backward process of service design, we asked students to write first a press release that describes in a simple way what a potential data product does and why it exists. The format of the press release is practical because it is not escapist. It forces to use precise words to describe a thing and its ecosystem (e.g. who built it, who uses it, what does it complement, what is it built with?).

Writing a fictional press release forces to use precise words to describe a thing and its ecosystem. Quite naturally it leads to listing Frequently Asked Questions with the banal yet key elements that define what the data product is good for.

With the press release in hands, the next exercise consisted in “cross-pitching” their concepts for 2 minutes to each other. Quite naturally, from the questions that came up during the exchange some participants started to list the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ). The FAQ includes the banal yet key elements that define what the data product is good for. That exercise forced participants to consider the different situations and frictions users could have along the life of a product.

As the concepts clarified, we sketched storyboards of use cases and mocked up interfaces that described in more details the user experience with the product. Finally, each embryonic concepts of data product became alive with the production of a piece of design fiction.

Creating implicationsIn Design Fiction, we use cheap and quick content production material (e.g. video, data visualization, print, interface mockups, …) to make things (e.g. diegetic prototypes) as if they were real. For instance, one student project took the form of the user manual of a smart jacket that shows how a customer should use it, what personal data are exploited, how the information is revealed.

This type of exploration serves to design-develop prototypes and shape in order to discard them, make them better, or reconsider what we may take for granted today. It served at considering the data product and its implications. The Design Fictions act as a totem for discussion and evaluation of changes that could bend visions and trajectories. They are some sort of “boundary objects” that allow heterogeneous groups of participants to understand with a common language the exploitation of data and their instantiation into a product or service.

Some of the created and discussed implications include the Fashion Skin jacket that explore through a user manual the affordance of smart clothes and how people might interact with contextual information. The press release says:

The Fashion’Skin, with its unique sensing and adaptive fabric, is a revolution in the fashion and the smart clothing landscapes. It is always accorded to the people’s feelings, the weather, or the situation, without compromise. The fabric can change its color, its texture and its form.

Others looked at the data intake rituals of the near future and the hegemony of mean-well technologies with Noledge a data patch that transfer knowledge on languages directly into your brain. Here is its unboxing video.

Almost all groups looked at the virtues and pitfall of feedback loops. For instance Real Tennis Evo for the Wiii that models data generated with Wilson-Sony rackets into simulations of one-self. The game cover advertises that “you can improve your skills by playing against your real self at home”.

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The next generation mixed reality tennis experience: Real Tennis Evo.

Data visualizations help extract insights, and prototypes force to consider the practical uses of those insights. Design fictions put prototypes and visualization in the context of the everyday life.

Take aways

Data visualizations, prototypes and design fiction are ‘tools’ to experiment with data and project concepts into potential futures. They help uncover the unknown unknowns, the hidden opportunities and unexpected challenges.

Data visualizations help extract insights, and prototypes force to consider the practical uses of those insights. Design fictions put prototypes and visualization in the context of the everyday life. They help form a concept and evaluate its implications. The approach works well for abstract concepts because it forces you to work backward and explore the artifacts or the byproducts linked to your vision (e.g. a user manual, an advertisement, a press release, a negative customer review …). Eventually the approach encourages considering the ecosystem affected by the presence of a data product: What do people do with it over time? Where are the technical, social, legal boundaries?

Thanks to Daniel Sciboz and Nicolas Nova for the invitation, Julian Jamarillo and Bestiario to share their practice and Quadrigram and the students of HEAD and HEG for their creativity, energy and capacity to leave their comfort zone in design, engineering, business and art.

Our Approach of Design Fiction

One of our objectives at Near Future Laboratory is to help carry Design Fiction to maturity and any interrogation or critique from the public is a source of reflection and an opportunity for describing our understanding as to what Design Fiction is, how it’s best practiced, and in what ways it can evolve.

We frequently receive requests from journalists, students, fellow practitioners and clients to describe Design Fiction and shed some light on our approach as a micro-multinational company. All the questions are legitimate as Design Fiction was, not a long time ago, still an emerging practice. We have gathered here a potpourri of the recent recurrent questions. Many thanks to their authors for their curiosity.

This is the Q&A on our approach of Design Fiction as of Summer 2015.

We are interested in foresight; futures research and in this idea that we can’t predict, but anticipate and speculate on near future worlds

Q — You are working on future exploration. How is speculation incorporated in your work?

NFL — At The Near Future Laboratory, three of us have a background in academic research, and one in industrial design, all with a proven experience of multi/inter/un-disciplinary work. We are interested in foresight; futures research and in this idea that we can’t predict, but anticipate and speculate on near future worlds. We grew interest in design and how designers work, and think there is a strong potential in connecting between these two fields, future and design. This appeared particularly true with the recent increasing capacity to design, build and prototype tangible things fast and at low budget.

In 2009, we chose the notion of Design Fiction and began to develop it. We started to investigate how design can help to materialize and to make tangible scenarios about a near future by using very mundane artefacts that we can craft and design. We introduced and appropriated the term ‘diegetic prototypes’ to account for the ways in which cinematic depictions of future technologies demonstrate to large public audiences a technology’s need, viability and benevolence. These technologies only exist in the fictional world — what film scholars call the diegesis — but they exist as fully functioning objects in that world. For instance, we produced catalogs, newspapers or user manuals from the future, which are objects that could be designed to exemplify and to materialize these scenarios about possible futures for clients as well as for our own investigations.

Today, for each project we engage with a growing list of Design Fiction archetypes (e.g. unboxing videos, user reviews), we test alternative approaches, draw their processes and debate the best practices of Design Fiction.

Somebody’s future is somebody else’s present. We are particularly attentive to “weak signals” of the everyday life in form of behaviors, new rituals and frictions.

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Q — What is the difference between your work at the Near Future Laboratory and that of other more traditional designers?

NFL — We are a bit peculiar in our studio structure. We are what you might call a ‘micro-multinational’ company with headquarters in Venice Beach, San Francisco, Geneva and Barcelona. We came together through our academic careers, but mostly driven through our curiosities about the emerging practices of a peculiarly transforming world — the networked world. As academics, we were trained to question and interrogate emerging social, technological, cultural practices that we observed — and there were plenty of weird emerging social practices around the first, second and third dot-com events. Those observations led us to consider implications and consequences, and develop our own set of techniques for understanding and then communicating our insights.

The Near Future Laboratory crew

We are particularly attentive to “weak signals” of the everyday life in form of behaviors, new rituals and frictions. For instance in TBD Catalog we depict a fantastic near future translated into its inevitably fraught, low-battery, poor reception, broken firmware, normal, ordinary, everyday sensibilities. It is neither boom, nor bust. It is just the near future as if it was now.

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We have largely eschewed the traditional academic channels of research papers, academic conference talks and the like. Producing evocative little pamphlets, fictional product catalogs, software that is quite counter to prevailing intuition about what software should be, little hardware devices that are designed to be used less rather than more — these are the kinds of provocations we like to produce. Not academic papers or typical research studies. We found it more engaging and more to our own individual sensibilities to produce material that was available to larger, more public audiences. We also have a strong instinct towards making things — props, prototypes, objects, software, devices, films — that we felt told stories about implications of modern society more effectively than pure academic prose.

Q — Which are the steps of the process of thinking and designing a new and still unknown product?

NFL — Depending on projects and client, the starting point of a Design Fiction can be a new technology (e.g. self-driving cars), evidences of a practice (e.g. gestural interaction with technology), a vision described in a few sentences (e.g. the bank of the future), a full investigation (e.g. the future of water) or a whole field (e.g. big data in sport). Alternatively, we developed our own Design Fiction Product Design Work Kit  to help define the core elements of a designed product.

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Then we run materialization of conversations amongst a small group often composed of a mix of visual/industrial/product designers, makers, researchers, curators, creatives, engineers and writers. Together we express the pragmatic concerns, ambitions, fears, everyday needs and wishes of the inhabitants of some envisioned near future. Also, we consider the evolution of the ways and means of production of the near future, as well as shifts in the dynamics of creativity, law, norms, economic models, aesthetic, social and personal values and incumbent measures of cultural achievement.  We then turn talk into deliberate actions and artifacts (i.e. “diegetic prototypes”), that is material from a near future represented as fully functioning objects in that world: a product catalogue, a manual, an app, a Kickstarter, a magazine, advertisement, popular book review or cover jacket, news broadcast, talk show interview, unboxing video, medical prescription, a video showing a days in the life of a particular character, etc.

In Design Fiction we make implications without making predictions.

Q — What is the aim of designing products that do not really exist? Or asked differently, how do you know that the future will be approximately like the one you describe?

NFL — Design Fiction doesn’t so much “predict” the future. It is a way to consider the future differently; a way to tell stories about alternatives and unexpected trajectories; a way to discuss a different kind of future than the typical bifurcation into utopian and dystopian.

In Design Fiction we make implications without making predictions. We propose and build elements of a possible future without being too precious or detailed about them. Our aim is to spark conversations about the near future, check the sanity of visions and uncover hidden perspectives. Our work serves to design-develop prototypes and shape embryonic concepts in order to discard them, make them better, or reconsider what we may take for granted today.

For instance in our Pilot Helios Quick Start Guide, we consider what would be the experience of a self-driving car owner: when driving, no driving, when using the car in an automatic mode or not. We listed the main issues about how to adapt to that, the problem that may appear, the kind of regulation likely to be adopted, etc. Since we worked with a good group of 15 designers from various part of the world to do that, the answers were quite broad and enabled us to embrace a wide range of options that describe how such service may come to be.

The Design Fictions act as a totem for discussion and evaluation of changes that could bend visions and trajectories

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Q — In your Design Fictions, do you also take into account the technical characteristics of the products and services?

NFL — With our engineering backgrounds, we are fairly aware of the technical features of a device and the technologies that lay beneath them. However, technical constraints do not lead to fertile creative process and discussions. We do not stop to think that — because something is not technologically possible or too expensive today — it should be removed from consideration. What if there is a breakthrough or what is there are legal, social, ethical or economic changes that make a certain limitation become possible? We want our clients or the public in general to suspend their disbelief as to what is possible and focus on the implications for the company, a product, its customers and society in general, because our techno-cultural-political world is weird.

Our approach of Design Fiction is a way to perform “micro” future studies that pays particular attention on the everyday life and the standard objects or services that might fill possible futures.

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Q — What is your interest in using Design Fiction methods when it comes to deal with possible futures?

NFL — We do not position ourselves as “optimists” or “pessimists” when it comes to technological evolutions. We are not exuberant about the future of 3D printing, nor Google-powered autonomous vehicles. At the same time, we aren’t apocalyptics who believe Algorithms will lead us to Terminator-like smoldering ruin. We are not in the business of making predictions — rather, we make multiple propositions meant to lead to productive conversations about what’s next. Creating representations of our perspectives in material form produces these conversations and discussions. This is our goal.

To contrast with other similar design approaches, we think Design Fiction is a bit different from critical design, which is a bit more abstract and theoretical compared to our own interest in design happening outside of galleries or museums. Design Fiction is about exploring a future mundane. It tackles a future-oriented problem or opportunity with an everyday-object to address it to anyone who could be concerned in few years.

In many cases, time horizons of innovation have shorten and we believe that the 5-10-30 years timeline is no longer useful today

The old models of scenario planning from the mid-century and newer models referred to as design research from the late 20th century considered to future to be 5-10-30 years forward. In many cases, time horizons of innovation have shorten and we believe this timeline is no longer useful today. The effects of the network, the ways and pace by which ideas circulate, the availability of exceptional scales of funding and resources for even the craziest of ideas by very anxious, eager, intrepid entrepreneurs, the importance of “fixing” the world’s problems much quicker than 10 years — all of these indicate that we need a new set of tools to develop solutions to our ideas that don’t work at the old-fashioned scales of large governments and world organizations. We need tools, approaches and ways of thinking that are based on the pace of the modern human creative apparatus, that can find possibilities in unexpected places that are not known in advance. This is what Design Fiction is able to do and why it is an important creative design tool.

That being said, our interest is not to focus on abstract and theoretical perspectives, but rather to make people conscious about certain changes and opportunities. They can be technological, social or political. This goal makes us think about the right artifact or the right format to start a discussion with people about these stakes and uncover hidden perspectives. When we say people, we mean anybody, not necessarily specialists. Hence, we are interested in very mundane and banal type of artifacts to create this discussion. It’s not necessarily about making people believe that these things have already happened in reality, with a fictional product for example, but to raise awareness that there are weird possibilities and changes going on.

Unlike other foresight studies which remain generally quite polished and theoretical, we are less formal in our approach. We do not invest too much time in measuring and analyzing the macro variables of change, the “big shifts” or “large crisis”. We are influenced by design and have a more implicit way of operating that starts with finding the appropriate representations of a possible future. Our approach of Design Fiction is a way to perform “micro” future studies that pays particular attention on the everyday life (e.g. the rituals, the behaviors, the frictions), its short term evolutions (3-5 years) and the standard objects or services that might fill these possible futures. The Design Fictions act as a totem for discussion and evaluation of changes that could bend visions and trajectories. This emphasis on the relation of individuals with technology contrasts with classical future scenarios that analyze the world at longer terms and a large range of variables.

For our clients a successful Design Fiction means that they can feel, touch and understand near future opportunities and with convincing material of potential changes of their customers, markets, technologies, or competition.

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Q — You make your work public in museums, galleries, magazines and your shop, but is Design Fiction useful for companies?

NFL — We divide our efforts between self-initiated projects that we make public and private consultancy for clients. Projects like TBD Catalog showcase the influence of designers, writers, researchers, entrepreneurs, artists and engineers in our approach of Design Fiction. Design Fiction demands creative skills as much as a capacity to understand and analyze the world, technologies, people and its evolutions. Companies approach us for our multi/inter/un-disciplinary points of view as well as our ability to propose potential near futures. Their requests rarely specifies a need for “Design Fiction”. Rather, the discussion with clients often from R&D, Innovation, or Marketing starts with more specific needs around the development of new products or services and strategic choices related to them.

Design Fiction is one approach among others, but its contribution focus on the near future and is tangible. For instance, instance of participating to workshops of multi-disciplinary experts with a powerpoint filled with ideas for a technology, we propose to create the user manual for the envisioned product or produce a video that showcases how an employee appropriates the technologies with its features and limitations. These artifacts are meant to materialize changes, opportunities and implication in the use of technologies. They particularly point out details in situations of use with the objective to avoid a “general discussion”. For instance in our Quick Start Guide project, the outcome of that Design Fiction is not the guide per se. Rather the outcome is the discussions provoked by the many diverse “real” situations described in the guide and that highlight the challenges, the issues, the frictions and the necessity to think a service into its details.

For our clients a successful Design Fiction means that they can feel, touch and understand near future opportunities and with convincing material of potential changes of their customers, markets, technologies, or competition. For instance TBD Catalog is an alternative to traditional ways of imagining, constructing and discussing possible near futures. Rather than the staid, old-fashioned, bland, unadventurous “strategy consultant’s” report or “futurist’s” white paper or bullet-pointed PowerPoint conclusion to a project, we wanted to present the results in a form that had the potential to feel as immersive as an engaging, well-told story. We wanted our insights to exist as if they were an object or an experience that might be found in the world we were describing for our client. We wanted our client to receive our insights with the shift in perspective that comes when one is able to suspend their disbelief as to what is possible.

The point is to be creative, to discuss, to debate and produce artifacts

Q — In projects like TBD Catalog are the products already invented or did you thought about all of them? Where did you take the ideas from?

NFL — Ideas and concepts come from our research mixed with evidences, imagination and dialog between people of multiple disciplines and backgrounds. Because the future is unevenly distributed and somebody’s future is somebody else’s present it is common to stumble on some concepts that are already real products/services or Kickstarter projects. Our approach is then to consider what these objects, products or service might feel or look like in one, two or three iterations? Or how might people talk about them in the near future? We don’t actually care at all if our creative process comes up with some idea that someone else has already imagined, discussed, built or sketched. The point is not to be “the first” — the point is to be creative, to discuss, to debate and produce artifacts.

Q — Which kind of improvement could be brought to your approach of Design Fiction? For instance, do you look at methods and tools borrowed from ethnography?

NFL — In projects like Curious Rituals, we employed our expertise in ethnography particularly to study and understand people’s behavior, people’s habits and their rituals, with technologies . So far we have not used ethnographic methods after the production of a Design Fiction, but mostly before as a way to feed the design process. However, there is surely something interesting to think about, in terms of getting back to the people who shaped our perspective about the future and to explain what we did with all their insights. There is also room for exploration on that side.

The World Of Self-Driving Cars

It’s easy to get all..Silicon Valley when drooling over the possibility of a world chock-full of self-driving cars.

The fact of the matter is that a world where self-driving cars are a reality will be as prickly as the world today, only Algorithms will be the source of our frustration rather than other drivers..at least until the underground of self-driving car retrofits, mods and hacks come along and everything goes all amuck despite Google-Apple-Facebook-Amazon’s best efforts to convince us things are better..

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It’s easy to speculate breathlessly about the world of the future when the self-driving car is normal, ordinary and everyday. However, when an idea moves from speculation to designed product the work necessary to bring it into the world means that it is necessary to consider the many facets of its existence — the who, what, how, when, why’s 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.

A Quick Start Guide as Design Fiction Archetype

To spark a conversation around the larger questions regarding a technology that could substantially change mobility in the future we followed a Design Fiction approach to produce this Quick Start Guide.

Our Quick Start Guide is a 14-page z-fold document from the near future. It’s a reminder that every great technology needs instructions for the uninitiated. That instruction may be a document, a tutor from a friend, ‘rider’ instructions — something that gives a feel of the things car owners might do first and do often with their first self-driving vehicle. Get your copy.

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This Design Fiction archetype is a natural way to focus on the human experiences around complicated systems. It implies a larger ecosystem that indeed may be quite complex. It also allows one to raise a topic of concern without resolving it completely — often an approach that’s necessary in order to not be bogged down in details before it’s necessary. For example, mentioning that it costs more to park your car rather than sending it back on the roadway as a taxi is a way to open a conversation about such a possibility and its implications for reclaiming space used by parking garages. In the Quick Start Guide, you will find:

  • What do you do if you forget a bag of groceries — or your sleeping child — after sending your self-driving car off for the evening to earn a few shekels in ‘Uber’ mode?
  • Is there a geo-fencing mechanisms to control where the car goes — and how fast it goes?
  • How do you activate and lock the “Child Safe Mode” for your teenage son to take to football practice?
  • Does it conform to ISO1851 Codified Child Rearing Mandates and Findings?
  • How does the car pickup groceries — and how do you upload the list — when you send it on errands?
  • Will you pick a car based on the size and features of its Cold-n-Hot Grocery Trunk?
  • What do you do when the display shows “Unknown Profile”?
  • Does your self-driving car obey the most recent DoT Emergency Maneuvers requirements?
  • How do you activate ValetPark®, Amazon PrimeValet®, EverDrive™, RE-FRESH™ and of course the agnostic Interior Ambience by Amazon®?
  • Which countries/protectorates/jurisdictions allow a total car history reset?
  • How to install your Dynamic Insurance plug-in from your insurance providers’ download site?
  • What supplementary fees does the car charge for using Apple Roadways?
  • And more…

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The Design Fiction Workshop

The Quick Start Guide was produced as part of a workshop at IxDA 2015 in collaboration with students from the California College of the Arts and conference participants. In a short amount of time, 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, gurus, and anyone else involved in the development of a technology. Through the collective production of Quick Start Guide it became a totem through which we could discuss the consequences, raise design considerations and hopefully shape decision making.

The Design Fiction approach led to:

  • Better thinking around new products, a richer story and good, positive, creative work.
  • Identify topics that may not come up when discussing the larger system.
  • Create rather than just debate, and represent topics concisely to focus the work and challenge us to describe features succinctly.
  • Experience the consequences and implications of a world with self-driving vehicles.

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The Assumptions

Visions of exciting future things rarely look at the normal, ordinary, everyday aspects of what life will be like to turn the thing on, fix a data leak, set a preference, manage subscriber settings, address a bandwidth problem, initiate a warranty request for a chipped screen or increase storage. It’s those everyday experiences — after the gloss of the new purchase has worn off — that tell a rich story about life with a self-driving vehicle. In this project, we made a few category assumptions.

  1. The self-driving vehicle is all about the data. When Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Google and/or Apple become part of the vehicle “ecosystem” — either by making cars, having their operating system integral to the car, owning roadways or whatever their strategy teams are dreaming up — they will do it because #data. To them it will be about knowing who is going where, when they’re going there, to get what; it will be about knowing when your tires are wearing down; it will be to give you discounts when send your car to get Pizza Hut for dinner; it will be to have your car go through the Amazon Pantry Pickup Warehouse to do your grocery shopping. The data.
  2. As fundamental as mobility is to humans, owning a network of millions of interoperable vehicles is big business. Apple’s vehicle ecosystem will be always moving, as will Google-Uber’s. It will cost you more to park your self-driving car because it can earn money for them (and maybe you) by putting it into “Taxi” or “Uber” mode when it’s dropped you off at work. This led us to consider what one might need to do if one’s car has strangers in it while you’re at work, or the movies, or asleep. And what will happen to all those parking garages?
  3. Roadways will be the new platform play. How will (or will not) roadways that are owned by Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Google and/or Apple interoperate? Will Google have the best, fastest, least congested roadways in Los Angeles? What are the consequences of switching to semi-partial manual drive mode? What happens when those Fast and Furious guys figure out how to jailbreak their vehicle’s OS and supercode the engine?

Get Your Quick Start Guide

To experience those assumptions, get the copy of your first self-driving car Quick Start Guide.

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Acknowledgments

The Quick Start Guide is a Near Future Laboratory project produced based on a workshop at IxDA 2015 in collaboration with students from the California College of the Arts and conference participants:

  • Rafi Ajl (CCA)
  • Phil Balagtas (GE Global Research)
  • Sankalp Bhatnagar (Carnegie Mellon University)
  • Julian Bleecker (Near Future Laboratory)
  • Maru Carrion-Lopez (CCA)
  • Wendy Cown (Charles Schwab & Co.)
  • Bill DeRouchey (Aviation GE)
  • Blake Engel (Nextbit)
  • Nick Foster (Near Future Laboratory)
  • Cristina Gaitan (CCA)
  • Susan Hosking (GE Global Research)
  • Shani Jayant (Intel)
  • Flemming Jessen (Designit)
  • Zhouxing Lu (Indiana University Bloomington)
  • Chris Noessel (Cooper)
  • Anna Mansour (Intel)
  • Nicolas Nova (Near Future Laboratory)
  • Angelica Rosenzweigcastillo (GE Global Research)
  • Margaret Shear (Margaret Shear | Experience Design)
  • Liam Woods (CCA)
  • Aijia Yan (Google).

Special thanks to John Sueda, Ben Fullerton and Raphael Grignani.

A fictional newspaper from 2018 that imagines possible futures of data and football

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How will the so-called beautiful game of global football be different in a world where sport itself, and the culture of the fans who love it, is altered by the rush of data, quantification, analytics and digital delivery? What might a high-stakes match of the near future be like when every move is measured, and every tactic forecast by silicon? What will the technologically savvy supporter and the lifelong fan alike experience differently when Big Data takes on the game?

Launched at the National Football Museum in Manchester last week, our latest project, Winning Formula, explores these questions and some of the more unreal features of data-driven football future.

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Winning Formula touches on more easily seen aspects of performance analytics, and new ways to depict and consume football in media, but also explores near-future possibilities hiding just below the surface, possible phenomena such as data manipulation as a kind of doping, the impacts of high-frequency sport betting, or politics related to data-based services like media, measurement and reporting. Commissioned by National Football Museum, Future Everything and CCCB, the result of our investigation takes the form of a newspaper sports section from April 2018. This hypothetical daily European tabloid called ‘Today’ is an exemplar of the way we use narrative and Design Fiction to create an engaging, thought-provoking perspective on a possible, plausible near future world that need not result in either a PowerPoint deck nor corporate white paper. The mundane form of a disposable daily newspaper, coming to you from April 2018 puts into the hands of everybody a possible day in the future when data, both large and small, alters some aspects of sports, from training to commentary, enhancements to prosthetics, rulings to viewing.

Winning Fomula

Some implications that the newspaper highlights are:

  • New measures of player and team performances
  • Data manipulation as a form of doping
  • High-frequency betting
  • Communication (sensors, images) hacking
  • Enhanced data services (TV and games)
  • New language to describe players and their roles
  • Tactics, micro-strategies and their readability
  • A resurgence of the local, artisanal, working-class lager


When parents purchase the DNA kit that their kid’s route to athletic excellence


The Molecular Football™ algorithm automatically produces snapshots of systems and micro-tactics such as: The Born Again Christmas Tree, The Spinal Trap, Perpetual Motion, or Zugzwang

In this project we mixed foresight techniques such as horizon scanning and scenario development to capture weak signals and posit disruptions in technology and society with a design approach to create fictional narratives of the future that focus on the implications behind the signals. We applied unusual approaches to interweaving everything from raw videogame datasets to rich description of artifacts and advertising from a hypothetical future to forecasts about politics, genomics, law, finance, technology, ethics, and climate change informed our design of both narrative and visuals contained within the quotidian vessel of the newspaper frame.

Winning Fomula

The project will be exhibited at the National Football Museum in Manchester until April 3, 2014 as part of the Future Everything festival. Last Friday, it was inserted in 130,000 copies of the Manchester Evening News. It will be part of the Big Bang Data exhibition at CCCB in Barcelona from May 9 to October 26, 2014, and at Fundación Telefónica in Madrid in 2015.

Credits
Winning Formula is a Near Future Laboratory project commissioned and produced by FutureEverything, National Football Museum, Centre for Contemporary Culture Barcelona – CCCB, and Fundación Telefónica, supported by ECAS, a European Commission Culture Fund project and MEDIAPRO.

It is international, transdisciplinary effort that involved futurists, technologists, designers, and writers stretching from Europe, South America to the US, and is an example of a number of small practices and studios working in close collaboration. The project was conceived and directed by Fabien Girardin of Near Future Laboratory, and developed in tight collaboration with futurists Scott Smith of Changeist and Philippe Gargov of Seeklup. It was designed with Bestiario and includes the writing of Natalie Kane, Margot Baldassi, Christophe Kuchly and Valéry Mba Aboghe, and the translations of Eva Fernández García, Raphael Cosmidis with the help of Fanny Negre.

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