It has never been so easy to build things and throw them into people’s pockets, bags, phones, homes, cars. Almost inevitably — with this abundance of ‘solutions’ — it has never been so easy to get caught in the hyperbolic discourses of perpetual technological disruptions with their visions of flawless connectivity and seamless experiences. When translated literally, theses visions often take the form of a questionable world of Internet of Things (IoT).
At Near Future Laboratory, we get the chance to meet amazing people active in the IoT who request critique and feedback on their products. We help them abstract from the hype of the dominant vision and gain fringe insights that can refresh their strategies. To do so, I often dig into the rich literature produced in the early days of ubiquitous computing. Some of the texts were published more than 10 years old, but — trust me — they all carry inspiring thoughts to improve the contemporary and near future connected worlds.
I hope this accessible academic literature is useful for people active in IoT curious to enrich their ethical, human, geographic and social perspectives on technologies. En route and beware of shortcuts!
The shift from the showcase of the potential of technologies to the showcase of active engagement of people
Written in 1995, Questioning Ubiquitous Computing critiqued that research in ubiquitous computing is conceived as being primarily as the best possibility for “achieving the real potential of information technology” and had little to do with human needs and much more with the unfolding of technology per se.
Ten years after, based on similar observations, but with more constructive arguments, Adam Greenfield wrote Everyware to question the implications of the scale up of ubiquitous computing and genuinely how to improve the connected world he coined as “everyware” [my notes].
The shift from the design of a perfect future to the design for the messiness of everyday life
Similarly, in Yesterday’s Tomorrows: Notes on Ubiquitous Computing’s Dominant Vision Genevieve Bell and Paul Dourish highlight that the problems of ubiquitous computing are framed as implementation issues that are, essentially, someone else’s problem, to be cleaned up as part of the broad march of technology. In other words, the dominant vision of ubiquitous computing promotes an indefinitely postponed future in which someone else will take care of solving any technological (e.g. interoperability, fluctuant connectivity, or limited battery life) or social issues. Consequently, the text argues for a “ubicomp of the present” which takes the messiness of everyday life as a central theme [my notes].
That notion of messiness of technological settings provoked the interests of researchers to regard technological imperfections as an opportunity for the design of everyday life technologies. William Gaver pioneered work in that domain with his proposals of Ambiguity as a Resource for Design that requires people to participate in making meaning of a system [my notes] and Technology Affordances that promotes interfaces disclosing the direct link between perception and action. Practically, as advocated by Matthew Chalmers in Seamful interweaving: heterogeneity in the theory and design of interactive systems, this means that people accommodate and take advantage of technological imperfections or seams, in and through the process of interaction. In No to NoUI, Timo Arnall gives excellent additional arguments that question the tempting approach of “invisible design”.
Observing the dynamic relationship of technology, space and humans to demystify the perfect technology
In her PhD dissertation A Brief History of the Future of Urban Computing and Locative Media Anne Galloway shows that ubiquitous technologies reshape people experiences of spatiality, temporality and embodiment in the networked city. Her contribution augments an extensive literature that investigates how technologies are not the sole drivers of urban change and how they co-evolve with the urban fabric as they become woven into the social, economic and political life of cities. Code/Space is a seminal book by Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge that precisely discuss software from a spatial perspective, analyzing the dynamic relationship of software and space. The production of space, they argue, is increasingly dependent on code, and code is written to produce space [my notes]. In that machine readable space bugs, glitches and crashes are widely accepted imperfections as the routine part of the convenience of computers [my notes]. Also, ubiquitous computing helps remake urban spaces through new formed strategies of security. For instance some chapters of the book Cybercities Reader talk about the emerging militarized control society encouraged by the dream of the perfect technology and the myth of the perfect power [my notes].
I took many shortcuts to put together these heterogeneous publications but I hope that some of them can help you better question the dominant visions of the IoT and enrich your approach to improve any of the technologies that are constantly getting closer to people, their homes, streets and clothes (e.g. AI, Big Data, etc).
Or why designers and data scientists should learn from the anxieties, obsessions, phobias, stress and other mental burdens of the connected humans.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.”
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.
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.
The 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.
For 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
In 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).
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.
In 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 Wii™i 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”.
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.
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.
We’re pleased to announce that Rhizome’s 2007-08 Commissions cycle is now open. This year we will commission eleven new art works with awards ranging from $1000-$3000. The deadline for proposals is midnight, April 2.
We are funding in two categories: 1) New Works of Internet-based Art and 2) A Community Project. The second category is new this year, and will be awarded to one artist or group whose project will benefit our community by enhancing communication, participation or the user experience on the Rhizome website.
As a Rhizome Member, you are eligible to participate in our Community Vote, which determines three of the eleven commissions. The first phase of voting begins on April 9. We see the Community Vote as a unique member benefit, as it not only allows you to advocate for works you believe in, but also gives you a chance to survey timely ideas and practices in the field.
We encourage you to get involved and spread the word! As a member, your support contributes to our ability to commission these works and we hope that you will participate – either by submitting a work, voting, or both! – in this year’s Commissions Program.
The ALAVs 2.0 are participatory â€”Â you can call them using your mobile phone and engage in a conversation that affects their behavior and your own. They’re also using a new design that brings them a step closer to being suitable for DIY, kit-based construction, which is pretty cool.
We’ll be installing it at the Art Center Nabi “Connected” event, which runs from December 7 until December 30 in Seoul, South Korea. Here’s the blurb:
We are living in the condition of the constant â€˜logged-inâ€™ through mobile phone, internet, recently emerged wireless technologies. The exhibition aims to reflect on the current state of connectivity and relationship among people, environment, clusters of information, and objects in the networked condition of everyday life. Works in the exhibition question the very concept of mobility, connectivity, locality, kinship, and physicality whether it is poetic contemplation or piercing critique. ‘Connected’, as the first exhibition project in align with Mobile Asia initiative, will also include the winners of the international competition held in 2006.
For the time being, the event website is in Korean, so..there’s that. It’s being translated into English presently!
Are you in Amsterdam? No? If you are, please come to a public lecture I will give this evening, 6pm, at Mediamatic in the Mediamatic Night Garden / Micro-Green Restaurant Oosterdokskade 5, Amsterdam! Last minute..hope someone is there to listen!
Last year, the best conference I attended was Lift06. There was a diversity of perspectives, attendees and topics that was pretty much inspirational. This year, Lift07 stands to be even better. Geneva, February 7-9. If you can be there, I highly recommend it!
The Lift blog follows the build-up to the conference.
John Maeda’s book Simplicity arrived the other day. It’s small, so I sat down to read it over breakfast. I hit a brick wall here, on page i (not page one, page eye, in the preface, I guess):
My early computer art experiments led to the dynamic graphics common on websites today. You know what I’m talking about â€” all that stuff flying around on the computer screen while you’re trying to concentrate â€” that’s me. I am partially to blame for the unrelenting stream of “eye candy” littering the information landscape. I am sorry, and for a long while I have wished to do something about it.
Is he really taking credit for having created web graphics? Oy vey. Only a designer unable to adjust their ego would make such a remark. Boy. I took a short-term gig at Agency.com around 1996. One thing they used to assert in their pitches is that they invented animated graphics on web sites through server-push. I immediately sputter and choke anytime anyone says they were the first at anything. Even if they could prove such through a patent paper trail or a dated notebook, the conceit of being the extra special “one” makes me reach for an antacid.
Should new modes of Leisure & Entertainment be created (or anticipated) that do not vector in on “industrial” entertainment models of production, distribution â€” even genre? That is, why would we expect that the forms of media apparati that are dominantly understood as “entertainment” or as “leisure” be able to accommodate the modes of of such media today?
Should DIY (or amateur) media production (or even DIY craft, DIY electronics, etc.) aspire to emulate or work within, say, Hollywood standards (or standards of commodity craft or electronics)?
Goal: Understand the possibilities for a reconfigured sense of what Leisure & Entertainment are in such a way that these new practices are aligned with an apparatus that is better suited to these new practices. What would that new kind of Leisure & Entertainment look like?