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.

sliding-friction

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:

sliding_friction36

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.”

Outcomes of Curious Ritual project

Time for presenting summer project outcomes! In July and August, I spent two months in the Media Design Program department at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. As I mentioned few weeks ago, the project was called CURIOUS RITUALS: Gestural Interaction in the Digital Everyday and focused on the postures, gestures and habits related to digital devices such as laptops, cell phones, remote-controls, sensors or robots.



Along with Katherine Miyake, Nancy Kwon and Walton Chiu, we produced two things: (1) A book (.PDF, 3.1Mb) documenting current digital gestures (based on a preleminary field study in European cities and in Southern California, with essays from Dan Hill and Julian Bleecker), (2) A design fiction film that speculate about their evolution in the near future.

I’ll post more material about the project in the next few weeks (approach, rationale, findings).

A synchronicity: Design Fictions for Asynchronous Urban Computing

This just in: A Synchronicity: Design Fictions for Asynchronous Urban ComputingNicolas Nova and myself conversing about what we’re calling asynchronous urban computing — has been released by the Architectural League of New York. It’s a dialogue on an inverted urban computation framework, with material embodiments of the peculiar designed artifacts we cooked up to help explicate our upside down worlds.

A synchronicity: Design Fictions for Asynchronous Urban Computing

Here’s what the editors have to say:

In the last five years, the urban computing field has featured an impressive emphasis on the so-called “real-time, database-enabled city” with its synchronized Internet of Things. In Situated Technologies Pamphlets 5, Julian Bleecker and Nicholas Nova argue to invert this common perspective and speculate on the existence of an “asynchronous city.” Through a discussion of objects that blog, they forecast situated technologies based on weak signals that show the importance of time on human practices. They imagine the emergence of truly social technologies that through thoughtful provocation can invert and disrupt common perspective.

It’s available from Lulu, which means you can download it for free, or buy it for real and augment the reality of your book pile. I suggest buying it. We don’t get a penny, but the folks over at The Architectural League and the Situated Technologies genies need to keep doing the cool, curious things they do.

Thanks to the Situated Technologies editors, Omar Khan, Trebor Scholz and Mark Shepherd.

Design Fiction: A Short Essay on Design, Science, Fact and Fiction

 

A couple of years ago, in a small discussion group while I was teaching at USC, Paul Dourish presented an early draft of a paper he and Genevieve Bell were working on. If you read this blog, you probably know the paper. It’s called ” ‘Resistance is Futile’: Reading Science Fiction Alongside Ubiquitous Computing.” It’s a wonderful paper for a number of reasons. What is most wonderful, for the purposes of this dispatch, is the clever way the paper creates a conceptual linkage through science-fiction-ubiquitous-computing. The idea that “science fiction does not merely anticipate but actively shapes technological futures through its effect on the collective imagination” and “Science fiction visions appear as prototypes for future technological environments” — well..this is really juicy stuff.

(Their paper is generally around in draft form, for better or worse, thanks to the Google. It’s forthcoming in the Journal of Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, which is generally only readily available to academics and researchers with access to pricey journals.)

Paul asked myself and a number of people to consider writing something like a response or further considerations kind of thing that could sit alongside the article’s publication. I started in on this last summer. Ultimately, for reasons that became clear as I was writing the essay, I decided that there would be more to be said than would be tolerated in a staid, expensive, peer-reviewed academic journal, never mind that there could possibly be a wider conversation beyond the ubicomp community as my thinking ran into film, design, fan culture and unanticipated other places.

The short bit I wrote ended up as “Design Fiction: A Short Essay on Design, Science, Fact and Fiction.” It’s available as a downloadable PDF, out there in the on The Near Future Laboratory’s modest puff of Internet Cloud. (Its various incarnations as slideshows and talks can be found here on Slideshare.)

 

ST-TechnicalManual_1

Schematics and parts list for the Star Trek communicator from the original series, of course. Speculation and imagination beyond the surface, imagining a more fully realized near future world. From Franz Joseph. 1975. Star Trek Star Fleet Technical Manual.

 

What is this all about?

Extending this idea that science fiction is implicated in the production of things like science fact, I wanted to think about how this happens, so that I could figure out the principles and pragmatics of doing design, making things that create different sorts of near future worlds. So, this is a bit of a think-piece, with examples and some insights that provide a few conclusions about why this is important as well as how it gets done. How do you entangle design, science, fact and fiction in order to create this practice called “design fiction” that, hopefully, provides different, undisciplined ways of envisioning new kinds of environments, artifacts and practices.

I don’t mean this to be one of those silly “proprietary practices” things that design agencies are fond of patenting. This is much more aspirational than that sort of nonsense. It’s part an ongoing explanation of why The Near Future Laboratory does such peculiar things, and why we emphasize the near future. The essay is a way of describing why alternative futures that are about people and their practices are way more interesting here than profit and feature sets. It’s a way to invest some attention on what can be done rather immediately to mitigate a complete systems failure; and part an investment in creating playful, peculiar, sideways-looking things that have no truck with the up-and-to-the-right kind of futures. Things can be otherwise; different from the slipshod sorts of futures that economists, accountants and engineers assume always are faster, smaller, cheaper and with two more features bandied about on advertising glossies and spec sheet.

Design Fiction is making things that tell stories. It’s like science-fiction in that the stories bring into focus certain matters-of-concern, such as how life is lived, questioning how technology is used and its implications, speculating bout the course of events; all of the unique abilities of science-fiction to incite imagination-filling conversations about alternative futures. It’s about reading P.K. Dick as a systems administrator, or Bruce Sterling as a software design manual. It’s meant to encourage truly undisciplined approaches to making and circulating culture by ignoring disciplines that have invested so much in erecting boundaries between pragmatics and imagination.

Horizons_Cover

The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, a professional science fact organization, considers the way Arthur C. Clarke and 2001: A Space Odyssey has contributed to space travel in their April 2008 newsletter. Well worth the read for revealing the entanglements of science, fiction and fact.
AIAA Houston Section newsletter, April 2008.

 

When you trace the knots that link science, fact and fiction you see the fascinating crosstalk between and amongst ideas and their materialization. In the tracing you see the simultaneous knowledge-making activities, speculating and pondering and realizing that things are made only by force of the imagination. In the midst of the tangle, one begins to see that fact and fiction are productively indistinguishable.

Design is about the future in a way similar to science fiction. It probes imaginatively and materializes ideas, the way science fiction materializes ideas, oftentimes through stories. What are the ways that all of these things — these canonical ways of making and remaking and imagining the world — can come together in a productive way, without hiding the details and without worrying about the nonsense of strict disciplinary boundaries?

Wednesday March 11 2009, 195455

How did William Shatner change the world? If you’re wondering, allow yourself to enjoy the remarkable, campy and entertaining documentary (of sorts) called How William Shatner Changed the World Science fact and science fiction are given a good stir in this show, which explores “the science behind the science-fiction of Star Trek.” Whereas Joseph’s technical fan art translates the science fiction into a speculative science fact, this short, campy docu-film follows William Shatner, playing William Shatner, trotting about the world pointing to the ways that Star Trek influenced real, science fact in the world today. We see interviews with real people — scientists and technologists mostly — who have anecdotal stories about how Star Trek inspired their breakthrough ideas, or provided a backdrop near future imaginary for their aspirational thinking.

 

Saturday April 23 1994, 000000

The intermingling of science, fact, fiction, production is exhibited on this ancient cover of Time Magazine, 14 years ago during the last Jurassic Park (the movie) dinosaur craze. (Read this closely: it contains truth, a science, a film, a correction to your grade school knowledge, and special effects made props/prototypes of science.) Curious crosstalk between science fiction and science fact, genetics, science politics and museum exhibition design was energized by this Spielberg/Crichton/Horner collaboration. Horner? Who? He is the swaggering outlaw paleontologist hired on by Spielberg to serve as a technical consultant – who was also the basis for the thinly veiled Sam Neil character called Alan Grant in the film. He held a controversial theory that dinosaurs were more bird-like than previously thought. This was a minority view in the paleontology (the science) community. But, with the film and his participation as a science consultant, it was a view that became bolstered way behind the possibilities of peer-review, patient experimentation, annual science convention discussions and scholarly arguments. If you need more convincing that the science of fact and the science of fiction are all tangled up, and can be productively intertwined, read on.

 

Thursday July 03, 03:04:17

Aspire, imagine, make the future you want.

 

I’ve written more about this, from some conversations with friends and colleagues last fall. It’s here, in this PDF called “Design Fiction: A short essay on design, science, fact and fiction.” It started at that discussion group with Paul in 2005 or 2006, and evolved into something I presented last fall at the Design Engaged ’08 workshop in Montreal, then the SHiFT 08 conference in Lisbon last October, then at the Moving Movie Industry conference, finally at the O’Reilly ETech 2009 conference.

Subsequently, this topic has been taken up in a variety of forms and venues. Bruce Sterling has a wonderful essay on the topic in the ACM Interactions journal. And I organized a panel at South by Southwest 2010. with Bruce, Sascha Pohflepp, Stuart Candy and Jake Dunagen with Jennifer Leonard doing an excellent job of wrangling and moderating. (The video should be available in a month or so from mid-March 2010.)

By request, here is a Design Fiction Printable Edition that will print on normal, human paper, to scale on 8.5×11.

Why do I blog this? A written kind of design provocation. For the last several months, there’s been a bit more word cobbling than wire soldering. The two practices contribute to the same set of objectives, which is to make and remake the world around us, provide new perspectives and evolve a set of principles that help make the making more imaginative, more aspirational.
I should also add that, when I was writing my master’s thesis on Virtual Reality some time ago (it’d have to be ‘some time ago’ for that topic), I wrote about science fiction meeting science fact, which was some of the earliest inspiration for this work, shared by the laboratory imaginary of the grad student “cyberfreaks” in the University of Washington HITLab and our reading/re-reading of Gibson’s Neuromancer during the early 1990s. Not just Neuromancer but all kinds of science fact/fiction. The simultaneity of the science fiction and the military science fact that was the first Gulf War. I wrote about that, too, because I was being taught by the guy who made that military technology, which was an unpleasant experience, but one from which I learned a great deal about how fact and fiction can swap properties. That same curiosity led to further interest in visual stories and their role in understanding and making sense of the world around us, especially in science fiction film and video games. I wrote a dissertation on this, studying with Donna Haraway, err..when I was a young lad in 1993-95. Therein was a chapter on Jurassic Park as simultaneously science fact and fiction. We had plenty of lively discussions specifically on this film. (Sarah Franklin was visiting at UCSC then and wrote some really amazing stuff about science fiction and genetics out of that, back in the late 90s that appears in “Global Nature, Global Culture.”) There was a seminar paper I did on “Until the End of the World”, looking at the Sony Design concepts Wim Wenders used to create a compelling science fact within the science fiction diegesis. In there was one of the earliest bits of video game commentary (SimCity 2000) from a critical theory perspective, not that I care about ordinality, but some folks seem to. There was a chapter on the SGI Reality Engine, ILM and Special Effects in science fiction (mostly Jurassic Park, which brought me to David Kirby’s early work – he’s the guy who coined this phrase ‘diegetic prototypes’, btw) and science fact showing the techniques and technologies that allow media to cross from fiction to fact. And so on. In many ways, this essay is a continuation of these interests and one I share with a great deal of friends, colleagues and complete strangers, I’m sure. Lots of people are playing around in here, excitedly and eagerly swapping ideas and stories. It’s a conversation that’s usually quite energetic and fun. If the ideas herein intersect and entangle with yours, it means you’re a healthy, creative individual, aspiring for a better near future we all hope to one day to live within. It’s a waste of my time to say things like — yes, I’m working on that. Yes, I have been working on this while you were in grammar school. And to do this every time someone mentions something you are also thinking on? That’s just preposterous. I used to do that with students, or point out to them someone who has also been working on something they think they have thought about for the first time. Inevitably, for the younger students who think they’re the only ones in the world who thought about such-and-so idea — they shrink and pout and get petty and don’t realize that they are in a world of ideas and their uniqueness is in the doing, not the clamoring to be Sir Edmund Hillary climbing that hill for the first time. That’s an ancient, sick model of intellectual and creative cultural production. It’s a world of circulation these days, with knots and rhizomes and linkages between lots of activities.
And that’s all I have to say about that.

Sliding Friction: The Harmonious Jungle of Contemporary Cities

Sliding Friction: The Harmonious Jungle of Contemporary Cities:

It has finally arrived! After months of fun labor, Nicolas and Fabien released Sliding Friction: The Harmonious Jungle of Contemporary Cities. This pamphlet assembles photos and annotations we took here and there along our dérive through the many cities they lived in and visited. Sliding Friction is an attempt to showcase the curious aspects of contemporary urban spaces. Through 15 topics and 4 themes they focus their lenses on the sparkles generated by the many frictions between ideas, practices and infrastructures that populate cities. They hope to provide some raw food for thoughts to consider the city of the future. Do we want to mitigate, or even eliminate these frictions?

Here’s a “flip book” of it:

Sliding Friction: The Harmonious Jungle of Contemporary Cities
Nicolas Nova and Fabien Girardin

And here’s a normal, human PDF.

in Walabab editions, Designed by Bread and Butter, Preface by Bruce Sterling, Postface by Julian Bleecker.

sliding friction

A Manifesto for Networked Objects — Cohabiting with Pigeons, Arphids and Aibos in the Internet of Things

One of my pieces of “output” from the workshop on Blogjects/Networked Things that Nicolas and I put together is the document contained herein. (BTW, we’re very close to having our more formal workshop “write-up” completed.) It started out as some scribblings on what I learned from the workshop, seeing the groups’ projects, and so forth. It then grew into more of a polemic as I recognized what were some consequential stakes — why things would matter, or help, if Things were networked? Why would I want a world such as that? And how would I design interactions for such a world?

I didn’t want to lay low and play the engineer who might just geek out on the technology behind networked Things (I do.) I didn’t want to lay low and play the social scientists and just geek out on theorizing or studying how engineers make and how social beings interact in a world of networked Things (I do that, too). I wanted to start by creating a near-future kind of technology fiction about one particular set of design goals for a world in which networks pervades space and social practice and in which networks are co-occupied by slightly differentiated social beings — us and Things.

What would I want from such a pervasively networked world? A better bead on what the state of that world is that is impactful. Hence, my stumbling about trying to describe a world of networked Things that aren’t only around to help track packages, but are around to help create a world-wide accessible register of various real-time “feeds” of macro and micro states of the social and ecological environment.

This is not complete and the translation of my ideas to a progression of articulate words sometimes feels like someone who slips on the ice for about 20 minutes and refuses to give up the struggle and just fall down to save themselves the mounting embarassment.

Why Things Matter or A Manifesto for Networked Objects — Cohabiting with Pigeons, Arphids and Aibos in the Internet of Things

Abstract: The Internet of Things has evolved into a nascent conceptual framework for understanding how physical objects, once networked and imbued with informatic capabilities, will occupy space and occupy themselves in a world in which things were once quite passive. This paper describes the Internet of Things as more than a world of RFID tags and networked sensors. Once “Things” are connected to the Internet, they can only but become enrolled as active, worldly participants by knitting together, facilitating and contributing to networks of social exchange and discourse, and rearranging the rules of occupancy and patterns of mobility within the physical world. “Things” in the pervasive Internet, will become first-class citizens with which we will interact and communicate. Things will have to be taken into account as they assume the role of socially relevant actors and strong-willed agents that create social capital and reconfigure the ways in which we live within and move about physical space.
To distinguish the instrumental character of “things” connected to the Internet from “things” participating within the Internet of social networks, I use the neologism “Blogject” — ‘objects that blog.’

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