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”.

Real Tennis Evo
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.

Why Silicon Valley Hates TBD Catalog

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

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

What exuberance am I talking about?

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

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

Maybe that’s not fair.

DonnelProfessionalDataEnlargement-01

Hold on — yes it is.

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

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

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

Wait. Where was I?

megmulsy-TBD-2014-08-24_06-46-28

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

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

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

Design Fiction

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

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

Internet of Things Design Fiction

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

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

Algoriture Design Fiction

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

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

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

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

Design Fiction

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

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

BeholdDesignFiction

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

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

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

Missed Opportunity – A Crank on a Camera

An idiomatic miss here with this little, darling, silly little camera. First read says to me that crank+camera equals either, like..advance-the-image or, like..crank-the-moving-film through.

The Sun & Cloud is a unique and innovative lo-fi camera designed to take simple and creative images. The creator said it best: “We never wanted cameras as precision machines, rather we imagine the camera as a sort of sketchbook, something with which you easily record bits of your life.”

What strikes you immediately about the Sun & Cloud is its unusually cubic shape and the the folding hand crank and solar panel, already making this a camera not like others you have seen. Superheadz wanted to give users ultimate freedom, so they built a camera that can be charged without needing to be tethered to a wall. Even with a completely dead battery, crank the Sun & Cloud for just one minute and you’ll have enough juice for between 4 and 8 pictures. With three customizable quick access buttons, you can easily select your favorite color and B&W filters. The Sun & Cloud is philosophically pure, and the lo-fi photos it takes reflect just that.

I’d much rather that if my imaging thing is going to have a crank on it. Like a moving film camera. Or even a still image camera with a crank..that advances the film. A bit heavy with irony, but a better start at the least. There are all sorts of new practices for image making that would come from enforcing old, relevant mechanical rituals in the age of digital things.

The hug-chest-palmss-on-cheeks // isn’t it darling? sensibility of a camera that needs the sun to see makes me want to throw up forever.

I suppose the fact that this darling little thing lets me crank a bit to take a photo when, otherwise — a camera’s battery may’ve gone flat is a bit of a thing. Like, when I used to shoot with an old Nikon F2A, I always knew I could take a photo even if the meter battery went out because it’s 100% mechanical otherwise. But, still..

Continue reading Missed Opportunity – A Crank on a Camera

Green Pages

Nick and I came back again to the Emerge 2013 event at Arizona State University to workshop an issue of “Green Pages”, the Laboratory’s ‘Quarterly Design & Technology Fiction Almanac.’

For those of you who haven’t subscribed, or don’t know about it, Green Pages is Design Fiction operationalized. Green Pages makes Design Fiction into something the entertainment industry can use directly.

In Part 1 of each issue we curate a careful selection of imminent and emerging technologies, provide a brief on each. In Part 2 we select a number of these and provide authored narrative and cinematic elements that are one-page diegetic prototypes, elements of fictions, Macguffins, props, prototypes, conceits, etc.

An example of Part 2 would be a one page plot synopsis, or a bit of production design for a prop informed by one of the technologies introduced in the issue.

The stories in Part 2 for this issue are especially good. They do not make the technical element central, but rather use it as stimulus for a proper narrative. We spent a lot of time unearthing good, dramatic, character-driven stuff that wasn’t ham-fisted techno-thriller fodder. I’m excited by these stories — they’re quite compelling, evocative moments of larger dramas that could easily see their way to being produced in some form — film, pilot, novel, etc.

Since this is the first time we’ve mentioned Green Pages here on the blog, I should say that it is a trade publication — it’s not an art project, or flight of design fancy. It’s an edited journal for a specific trade audience — producers, agents, writers, production designers, directors, etc. It’s not a PDF — we print it, authenticate each copy of each issue, and mail them out like normal, human print publications.

There has been interest beyond Hollywood for a publication like this. That’s partially because of the content but also some interest in the approach we take to translating raw technology ideas into compelling narratives — scenarios, they’re called in other domains.

For the workshop here at Emerge 2013, we thought the general approach to creating these Design Fictions and diegetic prototypes would be a worthwhile learning experience for folks at a large research university like ASU. For example, engineers and scientists who perhaps could learn how to translate technical stuff into compelling stories that help them round out the purely technical idea (wireless power distribution, for example) with issues and implications in a broader sense. Working in a room with engineers, policy gurus, creative writers all at once — everyone with their game-face on — was truly exciting and extremely productive. We had some excellent, exciting starters .We managed to get a solid bit of work on them the first day. Then on the second day we had some super exciting creative work — a screenplay excerpt, page one of a novel, a film synopsis, character casting notes and production design for a key prop of eco-thriller.

We’ll be working over the next weeks to clean up the material — in one and a half days it’s difficult to really complete a full issue, printing and binding and all that. But we were able to get the core done and hand out a few to the Emerge participants.

Good stuff.


Arizona, February 2013

From the desk of The Editors

Welcome to Issue 7 of Green Pages.

This is a milestone issue for a number of reasons.

Firstly, our subscriptions have more than doubled since we first launched — and that happened entirely by word of mouth. This kind of growth is unprecedented in the trade journal world.

We’ve also received an unprecedented number of recommendations from you, our subscribers, recommending colleagues for a complimentary issue. Thank you for the suggestions. We are working hard to follow through and vet your nominations.

We’re also excited because this issue was done in collaboration with the Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination. This is the first time we’ve worked directly with a major research university. We hope this will set a new precedent for the way we create and curate our content.

Inside this issue you’ll find a diverse collection of our front pages containing concepts that range from biotech to counter-surveillance to prosthetic enhancements. There’s Swarm Robotics, Encoded Ballistics, Image-based Diagnostics, Foliage Penetrating Radar, Lab Grown Bone, Afterlife Cells, Surveillance Drone Mitigation, Depression Detection Systems, Lighter Than Air Vehicles, Billion Pixel Camera, Digitigrade Prostheses, Tracheal Scrubbers, Data Magnets, Predictive Vaccines, Nanoturbine Surfaces, Organ Printing, ‘Miracle Salt’, Svalbard Gene & Seed Bank, Vortex Ring Gun, and more. There are some very exciting, provocative research projects that are easily extended into the realm of story telling — and not all as purely techno-thrillers. We’ve developed several of these into one pages conceits and précis both cinematic and traditional narrative-based. We have some evocative production design as well.

Overall, we’re quite happy with this issue. We hope you enjoy it.

Dr. Bleecker and Mr. Foster (Eds.)

News from the Executive Suite, Los Angeles Bureau

Amongst the projects we publicly declare here on the Laboratory blog, there are probably x2 others that we don’t. We plan to change that ratio henceforth.

These are our “non-battery” powered projects. By that I mean that they are not traditional technocultural things — those things that have come to define the laboratory, from Flavonoid engineered prototypes to industrially fortified data vizualization software to game controllers for pets to studies in curious interaction rituals.

But, they are projects and they reflect the more complete aspects of the Laboratory as a practice. They are a reflection of our additional interests, curiosities and explorations. Some of them are exercises of a more proto-professional nature, to explore ways of studying the world around us, short probes into a field of practice about which we want to understand by doing rather than by idle observation. In sum, they represent ways that the Laboratory is always curious, always learning, never set or fixed in what it does and how it does it. This makes me understand the Laboratory as a practice. A bit like a studio. But, I understand now even more as we grow and as more people join in, that it is better to communicate the multivalent character of the Laboratory through more aspects of what we here do.

There are no “side projects” in this practice. There are we all who are always following our curiosities.

New Aesthetic // OOO // Future of Things

It’s very gratifying to see how the #newaesthetic discussions are popping and percolating across the networks. There’s something to it, I think. Specifically the observations that something here under the New Aesthetic rubric is worth considering, thinking-through, working-towards.

What is that *something? It is perhaps an aesthetic thing. Perhaps it is symptomatic of the whole algorithmic life thing. Perhaps quite a good bit of articulate insights and cleverly stated things by some smart fellas. Also, perhaps those fellas having the *gumption to get up and say some things in a highly entertaining way. Perhaps it’s the thing of a bit of well-deserved very vocal network meme pot-stirring. Certainly some combination of all of these and likely more, you know..things.

Giving a name to an observed phenomena to muster hunches and instincts and observations and focus the meaning-making of things helps to organize thinking around it. That’s the upside.

The downside is that the thing sort of reifies in a way that isn’t always helpful. Or, you know — when things get a bit too academic. Too yammery..less hammery.

Another downside? The art-tech wonks claiming they’ve been doing it all along — of course they have..of course they have..It’ll get worse when it gets theorized as an aesthetic. Then it’ll get all ruined. An aesthetic about the cultures we live in? How do you get to such a thing? Do you use a really tall ladder?

And there’s some linkage to the #OOO // Object-Oriented Ontology world. Ian’s book Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing points towards the inexplicable (as of yet) dark matter // God Particle // elusive ionized Bogoston particle behind it all, I suspect.

The questions that loosely link #OOO // New Aesthetic // Future of Things in my mind are still quite loose and inarticulate. THere’s something amongst them if only because they each point to “things” as having a sort of uncanny role in our networked world. They’re idiotic things, like Siri and algorithmic Cows. They’re the Long Follow Droid. They’re P.K. Dick style Dazzle Camouflage .

I’m trying to nail down the un-nail-downable. Clarity comes whilst in the middle of a night cycle when I’m utterly convinced of my lucid train of thought, which inevitably disappears into a “what? that makes *no sense” recollection after putting the bike away. But here goes..Questions that somehow wrangle these things:

* What are the ways our things of (presumably) our creation begin to express/articulate themselves in unexpected and weird ways? What is the catalyst for these differently animated, chatty things? Sensors? Networks? It’s been done before — talismans, tea leaves, idols, urns. We talk to thing and let them talk back to us, guide us from beyond. What different now? A bathroom scale that tweets your weight. Plants that yammer for water. I tried to figure this out a fistful of years ago when I wrote a short essay called Why Things Matter (The blog post was called A Manifesto for Networked Objects.) I’m not much further along in understanding why, but I think Alien Phenomenology is helping.

* What are these new things? They seem to be articulate enough to express themselves across the digital-physical barrier, in whatever way, with whatever assumptions one might make about the capabilities of the network+algorithms+human+imagination to produce collectively. When architecture expresses digital sensitivities in a physical way, should we be rolling our collective eyeballs at the irony? Or take it as a weak signal of systemic brake pads weeeing and screeching?

* Something is going on in the world of bespoke things, I think. Things made that capture sensibilities that are far away from what can be made en masse. What is that something-going-on? Is it an aesthetic? Is it new again? Is Kickstarter (uh..) equally #newaesthetic and #thefutureofthings an indicator that massively made is old fashioned and highly particular // nearly custom // curated is fun again?

* Things that live in the networked age and with the sensibilities and expectations we have now for what things are capable of, suggest something new is going on. Drones, wondering, autonomous, robotic vision (absent HAL-like autonomous / artificial intelligence), bots, droids, listening things. That’s weird. It’s uncanny. Unsettling and seductive all at once. Look at that droid following that dude. He can’t get away. I mean — if it’s lugging crap for me, cool, I guess. If it’s following me like a hungry, zealous, huge, disgustingly fast man-eating Possum..not so cool..

I think the #newaesthetic is best left as it is for the time being. A simmering stew of lightly curated matter scrolling by with a giant *shrug across James’ New Aesthetic Tumblr. Inexplicable, by definition. Lightly joked about. Sought out, hunted for, skinned and stuffed and mounted on the Tumblr by the rogue curious.

Please, don’t make me throw wet cabbage at you. It’s the symptom of the algorithm. It’s what comes out of the digital-political-economy of cultures that live by networks and the machinary (soft/hard/hashtag-y) that underpin it all. All this #newaesthtic #ooo #futureofproduction stuff is the excess. The unexpected, unplanned for result. It’s the things that happen without one self-consciously *going after* #newaesthetic / object-oriented ontological / future of network connected things sensibilities.


You can’t force this one. You can’t “do” New Aesthetic. It’s a Zizekian-Lacanian symptom of the networked world smushed up with overzealous design-technology and real aspirations to get things done. It’s horrifyingly beautifully unappeallingly seductive. It’s the nostril that must be picked. It’s the *shrug of bafflement upon seeing connected porn vending machines on a Lisbon Alto Barrio street corner with a screen built-in for watching right there. It’s what results from kooky, well-meaning stuff that gets connected, gets digital and gets inexplicable and comes out weird.

A Screen-y FutureScape-y 2025

[pullquote author=”FutureScapes”]FutureScapes is all about imagining what the world of 2025 will look like and the role technology could play in our lives.[/pullquote]

Sony put up these FutureScape videos — little design fiction films that introduce us to a conflicted world in the year 2025. This is design fiction par excellance at least insofar as we are effectively transported to this world as best as can be done for a little film. There is narrative punctuation that leads us through various epic events that have happened — we don’t need to know the intimate details of these events. Suffice it to say that political, economic and other struggles have swerved things as they always do. There are events, loosely referred to as “2021” — that are this future’s “9/11”. Etc.

As narrative, this sort of thign works. It does something to gradually get me out of the contingent moment and into the fun bits of the story so I can take it all in and see what that world might be like.

And, of course — it’s Sony so there’s going to be some technology. That part sorta sucks, I have to say. The technology is a bit much. It’s more than a prop; it’s a demo. And it’s all screens. Screens screens screen screens screens. Touch touch touch touch touch.

Okay. Fine. I’m the guy who’s looking for the other, other near futures. The one’s where we’ve moved along or took a swerve towards other interaction modalities. The future of UX and UI design seems to be stuck on a rail and no one is looking for anything else. I’m not saying that there *has to be something else; but what good is design if it doesn’t explore other interaction idioms? If it just makes fonts bigger and puts interactions on cupboards and walls? Seriously? Doesn’t that sound like fun? To challenge the existing dominant paradigm, if only to explore uncharted, unknown unknown territories?

I think the technology is fetishized way too much here. The tools are easy *and optimized for rendering and animating a specific kind of technology — touch screens/surfaces/planes. That optimization determines what will go into these design fictions. The tools predetermine the technological surround of these near future worlds that FutureScapes has produced.

But..that’s me. I’m sensitive to these sorts of things — the lineages of outcomes like this, where you wonder — how’d we get to this world of touch interaction? Was it because some films made it possible to cohere a speculative idea because some decision makers were enthralled with a visual spectacle and decided — hey, that’s the strategy. Touch-interactive cupboards and shelves!

You find this all the time. Poorly considered ideas that find their way in the world *somehow — and investigating the *somehow is useful. So too is realizing that you’re complicit in crap ideas if you get enthralled by a tool and over use it to the degree that someone assumes that this is the way things should be. I had a call with an engineer who thought our interaction design was too simple — one button — and should be ‘made better’ by adding a mobile phone interaction where you touch the mobile to the thing and, using NFC, the phone and the thing would connect and then a browser window pops open on the mobile and then you interact with the thing using the browser on the mobile to control the thing over Bluetooth so that anyone can do it.

*shrug.

Nip that sort of thing in the bud. What are the alternatives to consider besides what you see everywhere, or what you take for granted, or what is considered “hygiene” in your industry, or what cool new drop-down feature AfterEffects CS12 has, or what everyone else is doing, or what you think Steve or Sir Jony would do because you can get off their teet.

The other thing to say here is that the VFX amateurs are going bonkers with planar tracking. They love to track something in a scene and then put some semi-transparent animations of UI’s on it. They LOVE it. And then they move the camera a bit so it looks *real — like the UI is actually there in the thing and maybe it’s compelling enough that people think — huh, wow..is that real? At some point the VFX animation of planar tracked surfaces simply jumped the shark and now people do it cause they can. The VFX have determined the design. That’s bad design. Doing it cause you can, not cause you should.

And that, friends, is why we end up with a world of screen-based interactions. Because the folks at Imagineer System made the wonderful and wonderfully over-used Mocha Pro — a relatively inexpensive tool that anyone can use and — lo! — comes bundled with AfterEffects. There’s a criteria in there — when a tool becomes a *tool, rather than a bespoke, handcrafted workflow, then it’s sorta jumped the shark. I don’t blame them – Imagineer Systems. Maybe I blame Adobe a little. But, either way — I would expect more from those who use it to pull back a bit from making everything a planar interactive surface.


Continue reading A Screen-y FutureScape-y 2025

Corner Convenience // The Near Future // Design Fiction

We did a Design Fiction workshop as a kind of follow on to the Convenience newspaper. Our idea was to take the observation that the trajectory of all great innovations is to asymptotically trend towards the counter of your corner convenience store, grocer, 7-11, gas station, etc. Discerning the details as to why this occurs isn’t our primary concern. It’s an observation that tells some stories about convenience as a cultural aspiration of some sort, broadly; it’s a way of talking about industrialization, capital, the trajectory of “disruptive innovations”; it’s a way of talking about the things we take for granted that we wouldn’t were convenience to go away in some sort of puff of apocalyptic dust; it identifies the net present value of things as 99¢ and buy 1 get 1 free.

But that was the newspaper version that took the things today and made them plain. (You can get a PDF of it here.) It also serves as the conceptual set-up for what we did next which was for Nick Foster and I to tramp to Tempe Arizona to the Emerge event at ASU in order to run a workshop that would take the Corner Convenience as our site to do a bit of Design Fiction gonzo filmmaking. We imagined the Corner Convenience in some Near Future.

A couple of notes about the production of these films, but also the production of Design Fiction films generally. As the genre progresses — and it is progressing like crazy, which is fantastic — and evolves as a way to do design and make things rather than just film them, systems and structures and processes get informally put into place. I’m talking about things like styles and conventions and the visual language of Design Fictions. I’m attentive to these because it becomes useful in a Bruce Block sort of way to make use of the developing visual language and genre conventions.

One thing I notice is the way that now, early on in evolution of Design Fiction, tools have determined, or perhaps over-determined, what gets made to count as Design Fiction. Contemporary visual effects tools and software are incredibly sophisticated at what they do. I think they may have a tendency to over-determine the filmmaking. By that I mean to say that, now that we can do desktop motion capture, planar tracking, and animation in scenes — we end up with Design Fiction of surfaces as screen interfaces as if that’s the future of interaction. Which it might be, but seriously — what else? At the same time, things like green screen which is effectively a drop-down menu item in AfterEffects, or the insertion of CAD rendered objects composited seamlessly into scenes with (almost) drop-down menu item workflows, etc. That’s all a bit of the tool leading the ideas, which is generally disconcerting especially if you don’t realize or take notice of the way an algorithm is determining one’s thinking about what could be.

Don’t get me wrong — they are seductive eyeball candies. The Corning one is particularly enjoyable as pure visual experience. So is that Microsoft Office future fiction film. But these don’t feel real except for the degree of finesse in the visual effects. It almost feels like someone found the tools to do this and then the tools over-determined the diegetic prototyping. The tool was the door knob and then the designers or marketing people or whoever was behind this took the door knob and tried to build a house around it. And, in any case — they are so clean and almost fascistic in their fetish of the slick, glamorous, gleaming and super pricey stuff we’re being told we’ll live with in the near future.

What about the forgotten underbelly of the mundane futures? The ordinary and quotidian. The things that are so tangible as imminent as to be almost ignored. Like the things one would find in the Corner Convenience store but were once fantastic, extraordinary, mind-boggling disruptive stuff.

Using the Corner Convenience as our design fiction site directed us to consider things that were once amazing and are now 99¢ or $1.99 or 3 for 99¢. They’d be available *everywhere, which is as important to consider as some sort of silly ersatz coffee table that has a touch screen built into it. A thing that 1% of the world cares about, or can even comprehend or conjure some half-baked rationale to own and use before it gets tossed out when its planned obsolescence means it won’t show the antique JPEG format anymore without a firmware upgrade that probably won’t upload to it because of some byzantine tech issues that frustrates you to the point of not even caring about the thing anymore. You know? I’m still trying to get my brand new $99 5-star reviewed Brother laser printer (which replaced the 10 year HP I had that just stroked out and died) to run the crappy configuration software so I can use its built-in WiFi features. But, like..I’ll always be able to flick the flint-y scroll of a BiC lighter and make fire.

That was an aspect of the design principles that shaped these three films we made. We were deliberate in designing the production and the things in such a way that they were whiz-bang-y iPhone things with touch screens and surfaces. It was real stuff that would tip into that realm of convenience without missing a beat, and without Wieden+Kennedy running a campaign that seduces the 23-year-old bearded, skinny, waifish, Williamsburg/Brick Lane/SOMA hipsters into bending their knee — again — to the Palace of Apple.

In this Near Future Corner Convenience Store, Snow Leopard is a variety of synthetic meat jerky, not an operating system.

Anyway. Enjoy our three design fiction films.

The Players
John Sadauskas — Ersatz Shoplifter
Julie Akerly — Clerk
Dan Collins — Caffeinated Drunk/Hangover Guy
Joshua Tanenbaum — Panda Jerky Porno Trucker Guy

Background Talent
Nicole Williams
Muharrem Yildirim

Workshop Props & Make Stuff Team
Alex Gino
Joshua Tanenbaum
Adiel Fernandez
John Sadauskas
Nicole Williams
Muharrem Yildirim
Byron Lahey
John Solit

2nd Unit Production
Byron Lahey & John Solit

Thanks To Tops Liquor Staff
Greg Eccles — Owner
Matt Bannon — Manager & Nametag Maker

Special Thanks To
Assegid “Ozzie” Kidane

Directed By Julian Bleecker
Produced By Nick Foster

A *Near Future Laboratory* Production

Pretty Maps – 20×200 Editions

Some of you may have noticed, mostly probably not — but the Laboratory has expanded its ranks. It’s starting to feel like a proper design collective in here. One of the lovely attributes of the people in the Lab are the broad sectors of activity they cover that doesn’t make it seem like they do a zillion different things, but do many things to work though a relatively core set of interests.

Take Aaron Staup Cope. He writes algorithms that tell computers what to do. He makes maps out of paper. He makes maps out of algorithms. He makes you think about the ways that algorithms can do things evocative of map-ness..on paper.

Etc.

What I’ve learned from all of Aaron’s exploits in Dopplr-land, Open Street Maps-land, Walking Maps-land is that maps are dynamic, living things that should never be fixed in their format, style, purpose. They should never be taken for granted — even if the Google Map-ification of the world is doing just this. They should come in a bunch of sizes and shapes and colors and purposes. Etc.

Check out Aaron’s 20×200 Editions of his Pretty Maps. Get yours. I did. LA’ll go on one side of the wall. NYC will go on t’other.

Here’s what they say about Aaron over on 20×200.

For now, let’s set our eyes West, on L.A. County. Like prettymaps (sfba), prettymaps (la) is derived from all sorts of information, from all over the internet. Its translucent layers illuminate information we’re used to relying on maps for–the green lines are OSM roads and paths, and orange marks urban areas as defined by Natural Earth. They also highlight what’s often not seen–the white areas show where people on Flickr have taken pictures. It’s an inverse of a kind of memory-making–a record of where people were looking from instead of what they were looking at, as they sought to remember a specific place and time.