IICloud(s) – Inhabiting and Interfacing the Cloud(s)

CERN, Geneva.

CERN, Geneva.

Update from the front here: a new project I recently started at the Geneva School of Art and Design (HEAD – Genève) with my colleague Charles Chalas, along with Patrick Keller, Christophe Guignard, Christian Babski (fabric/ECAL) and Lucien Langton from ECAL, as well as the architecture team of Dieter Dietez (EPFL) and EPFL-ECAL Lab (Nicolas Henchoz) in Lausanne.

Funded by the RCSO (a local research body here in Switzerland), it's called "IICloud(s) – Inhabiting and Interfacing the Cloud(s)" and it addresses the design and the user experience of personal clouds. Here's the project proposal abstract:

This design research project explores the creation of counter-proposals to the current expression of “Cloud Computing”, particularly in its forms intended for private individuals and end users (“Personal Cloud”). It is to offer a critical appraisal of this “iconic” infrastructure of our modernity and its user interfaces, because to date their implementation has followed a logic chiefly of technical development, governed by the commercial interests of large corporations, and continues to be seen partly as a purely functional, centralized setup. However, the Personal Cloud holds a potential that is largely untapped in terms of design, novel uses and territorial strategies. Through its cross-disciplinary approach, our project aims at producing alternative models resulting from a more contemporary approach, notably factoring in the idea of creolization. From a practical standpoint, the project is intended to produce speculative versions of the “Personal Cloud” in the form of prototypes (whether functional or otherwise) of new interfaces, data processing, reactive environments and communicating objects. To do this, the project will be built around three dimensions forming the relevant pillars of a cross-disciplinary approach: interaction design, the architectural and territorial dimension, and the ethnographic dimension.


Our intention is to address the following questions with a series of workshops:

-    How to combine the material part with the immaterial, mediatized part? What functions are given concrete form through physical means and what others through digital means? Does physical concretization involve nearness to the Data Center? Can we imagine the geographical fragmentation of these setups? (Interaction design, architecture).

-    Might new interfaces with access to ubiquitous data be envisioned that take nomadic lifestyles into account and let us offer alternatives to approaches based on a “universal” design?[v] Might these interfaces also partake of some kind of repossession of the data by the end users? (Interaction design, ethnography).

-    What symbioses can be found by occupying the ground and the space between men and machines? Where and how is this ground, are these “expanses”, to be occupied? Are they to be camped in, to maintain mobility? Settled on a long-term basis? How do we factor in obsolescence factors? What setups and new combinations of functions need devising for a partly deterritorialized, nomadic lifestyle? Can the Cloud/Data Center itself be mobile [vi](Architecture, interaction design, ethnography).

-    Might symbioses also be developed at the energy and climate levels (e.g. using the need to cool the machines, which themselves produce heat, in order to develop living strategies there)? If so, with what users (humans, animals, plants)? (Architecture, ethnography).

More about it here.

“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.


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.

Street IP address

Geneva, June 2014

Geneva, June 2014

An IP (Internet Protocol) address written on the wall of this building in Geneva, Switzerland. A new kind of graffiti ? An awkward reminder ? A weird joke ? A curious ritual anyway.

Update: my friend Hannes Gassert, on FB, commented on this by saying something that makes it's even more intriguing:

That's not an address, that's a subnetwork definition ("mask"), the /24 indicating a network with 255 possible participants. Usually that's used with, so this is one off, for some reason. This notation was introduced with a network architecture that is called classless, so this might very well the most nerdy propaganda for small, classless societies ever encountered. Or, as the name of that notation is CIDR and it's a bit off, someone just might have had a bit too much cider.

Lucky charm assemblage

Lausanne, Switzerland

Lausanne, Switzerland

A fascinating assemblage – a five Swiss francs coin duct taped to a calculator – spotted at a bubble tea place in Lausanne few weeks ago. When asked about the meaning of this, the waiter told me that "the owner is from Taiwan and she's quite superstitious"... which is a good explanation for this coin-based lucky charm that I found interesting.

Why do I blog this? I like the low-tech character of this obviously, and lucky charms are generally low-tech, but the combination of plastic, duct-tape and metal is very interesting. I wonder about similar approach with smartphones, laptops and other digital artefacts. Are we going to see smart-watches turned into lucky charms with weird materials? Seing this, I'm pretty convinced that it's going to be the case.

“Eclats d’Amérique”: Chronicles of Google Streetview


Just finished reading "Eclats d'Amérique" by Olivier Hodasava. It's an intriguing compilation of chronicles about the US of A based on the author's drifting and musing on Google Streetview. Hodasava never actually visited North America. He wrote his text based on his perception of certain selected scenes he liked. It's only in French though,


The book is an extension of his long-time work written on his weblog called "Dreamlands": each post extrapolates on a Google Streetview scene. Characters receive names, intentions, history and tastes, places get projected meaning and situations are the objects of fascinating speculations.


Why do I blog this? I think I mentioned the "Google Demo Slam" a while back (two guys who used Google Streetview to race across America without ever leaving their home), which was quite a thing to watch. In the case of this book, the intention and the result is far more intriguing and poetic. Such a great example of how a tool can be re-appropriated to project meaning, and extend the notion of fiction.

I don't really know whether this would count as a "locative media" proper but it certainly a curious case of storytelling as described by Ben Russell in the headmap manifesto back in the days ("..spatial maps of films: where do the characters go? ..do they stay in a confined area or travel (linear or circular?)").