Design Fiction + Advanced Designing + Trust in Volume Quarterly

The most recent — now a month or two old — issue of Volume Quarterly was on the topic of The Internet of Things. And within that was a small sub-volume of essays and articles on Trust compiled by Scott Burnham who has been running a project called Trust Design for Premsela which I understand to be The Netherlands Institute for Design and Fashion.

((The Laboratory seems to be a recurring guest in Volume Quarterly. We were in one a couple of issues back — their issue on The Moon.))

Scott started his project on Trust just as we in the Advanced Projects (then Design Strategic Projects) Studio at Nokia were beginning a project with the same name and some of the same questions. One of our questions was to understand what Trust is and how Design can somehow illuminate where Trust exists and its paths and relationships. When I say “illuminate” the image that comes to mind is one of a special detective’s forensic UV light illuminating something under specific conditions that would otherwise not be seen. Or, in those weird 1950s era medical treatments in which a subject drinks some wretched fluid or is injected with something that shows the paths of digestion or the networks of arteries when shown under X-Rays or something. (Maybe it isn’t wretched, but the thought gives me the willies for some reason.)

In any case there were many facets of the Design work we did in the studio, one of which was this Alarm Clock which was meant to operate precisely in this fashion — to focus our attention on a simple interaction ritual in which we were forced to consider characteristics of Trust.

The essay far below below was my contribution to the Volume Quarterly issue.

But first..

There’s a thing or two to add as well, that have more to do with this particular way of doing Design — or Design Fiction. The process of *making these clocks — which were made out of plastic and aluminum and electronics and solder and all that — was only partially about the specifications that determined how those things would be configured. Beyond those pragmatic, specified things were the ideas we sought to force to the surface — the concepts that we wanted to make ourselves address and consider directly. The preposterousness of the interaction ritual that the alarm mechanism forces was a deliberate way of compelling us to think and talk and design for this ephemeral social bargain called Trust. There was no way around it. We couldn’t lose ourselves in the geekery of circuit design; or choosing a color for the LED numerical displays; of obsessing over compound curves in the industrial design of the thing; or fetishizing any aspect of the “Design” as it is traditionally understood — a material instantiation of an already-accepted and well-understood object. There’s not much movement these days in Alarm Clocks. They are what they are and the variations come in things like…size. Like…color. Like…brand. Like…AM/FM or longwave. Like…number of alarms. Like…style. Like…box-y or round-y. Etc. You get it.

You’ll get stuck with those sorts of boring variations if you think about Alarm Clocks traditionally. Rather, thinking *not about Alarm Clocks but about waking up, and the rituals around it changes one’s approach. All of a sudden, you’re mucking with tradition. You’re getting people upset. You’re not responding to the client’s brief the way they expected. You’re not just doing color and materials variations.

Pfft. So what? Well — looking at things a little sideways is, for lack of a better moniker, advancing design. Advancing it beyond the expected. Doing the Fosbury Flop for Alarm Clocks.

The other thing to say about the project is that the making of the thing — all that plastic prototyping; all that circuit design; all that figuring-out-of-colors-and-materials; all that CNC machining; all that figuring out of tool paths; all that figuring out of firmware and interaction algorithms..why was all that done? Yes, of course — to make the thing *work, in the plainest sense. But, more than that — it was all done to do the Design. The making of the thing is *also a way of doing the Design of the thing. We didn’t figure everything out and then said, “right. now we can make it!” The making was the designing. Assumptions and questions are raised. We interrogate our own ideas and create new ones, whilst making and building and handling material and trying out little scenarios. The peculiar nature of the clock was such that we had debates, one in particular was about what the display should do when the little keyfob alarm-buzzer part was removed to be given to a friend. I felt quite strongly that the display on the main clock should go off, so that you’d have to Trust completely the person who was meant to be your human alarm. Otherwise, you can wake up and check the time, which is an implicit way of not really trusting that human alarm person.

This was the bit of fiction insofar as a clock like this would be quite otherworldly. There would be a very different set of assumptions about how relationships work; about what waking up entails and what it is for (getting to a meeting on time; making sure the kids are ready for school; not missing a flight and all the weight and significance of what happens if you *don’t do these things when and what time they need to be done.)

It would be a very different world if we just *woke up when we woke up, rather than waking up to the same time nearly every day. It’s a slightly skewed universe that this clock came from, but it’s crucial to do this kind of design. Why? Well — it advances the realm of possibilities and begins one considering quite directly about creating new, more curious and sensible interaction rituals. It is also a way of advancing design — doing design differently; questioning and challenging assumptions not only of materials and colors and forms and such, which is good. But questioning the actions and rituals and behaviors of the humans, even to the point of something so seemingly absurd as waking up in different ways. This isn’t to say that people will want to wake up to other people knocking on their doors or shaking their pillows, but it forces a number of unexpected considerations and questions and new ideas that plainly wouldn’t come about if one just focused on different colors for clock displays or snooze button styles. Its a kind of advanced design that is able to engage in its topic by throwing out all base assumptions and free-fall a bit into a weird world and then *not allow the usual questions to arise. Sink into the discomfort zone and do some advanced designing.

How does the underpinnings of social relationships become a design principle? How does one design for trust? Can an intangible like trust become embedded in an object?

The principle that “theory” can be expressed in an object plays a part in this question. Substitute “Trust”, a kind of philosophical principle that is perhaps, in my mind, best expressed through exemplars that represent it, rather than the abstractions of philosophical discourse.

The topic of “Trust” presented itself in October 2008 with a tremendous force. The world rattled as global networks of “Trust” institutions collapsed on a scale that sent apcoloyptics scurrying for Old Testament passages consistent with the sequence of events witnessed across the globe. “Trust” became a keyword for these events as macro social institutions that were once “too big to fail” failed despite their size. These institutions that were once the bedrock of society cracked and dissipated and in their failure, revealed what Trust is, at its core. It is, of course – people and the networks of relationships that define what it is to be a social being.

In the Advanced Design studio at Nokia, we were curious about Trust and what it means. Trust is recognized as a core values of the Nokia brand. The worldwide events brought the topic to the fore and provided an impetus for a design-based experiment. Our question was — what is Trust and how could one design with Trust as a guiding principle? How do you embed Trust in the material of a designed object?

The project walked around the topic, building up the studio’s expertise on the topic through the Design equivalent of a “literature review”, both in the sense of readings as well as a more tangible equivalent. We collected essays and books and made things — objects. We brought in both internal to Nokia and external experts on the topic. A social psychologist talked to us about how ordinary people become extraordinary liars. We followed closely the daily events of the macro level systemic failures of insurance companies, banks, economies and entire governments.

Our goals were deceptively simple — to develop a set of principles that could become “actionable” and be “designed-to” in order that Trust could be embedded in the material of an object.

Amongst a dozen principles, one is worth highlighting and is best paraphrased and represented in one of our tangible exemplars. The principle goes something like this: facilitate the trust network — allow people to trust the people they already trust.

Our tangible prototype was, of all things — an alarm clock. We called it the Trust Alarm Clock. The design brief was simply to make an alarm clock that embodied the principle — an alarm clock that highlighted the idea that trust is a relationship between people. At the same time, it was a platform that allowed us to experiment with this simple principle. As you will see, it is an almost absurd object. But it was the response to the brief that we made, without questioning our motivations, but rather following our curiosity on the topic of Trust.

The clock is best described directly. It consists of two components. The main component is not unlike a conventional bedside alarm clock. The second sits nearly where one would expect the canonical “snooze” button of a conventional alarm clock. This second piece is a small, removable “fob”. When one sets the desired time to wake up, the fob is programmed with a digital count down timer. The alarm setting ritual starts when one sets the wake-up time using a dial on the back of the clock. While doing this, the fob timer is configured so that its count down would expire and the fob would “alarm” when the alarm clock setter would like to wake up. The ritual is completed when the fob is removed from the main component and given to a most trusted friend. In that ritual of handing over the fob, the network of trust is established and embodied. The “handshake” of the passing represents the creation, or the invigoration of trust in its most elemental form. Handing over the fob signals that there is Trust amongst this small, two-person social network. If one wants to wake up — or be woken up — one must first consider a number of things. Primarily — who do I trust to wake me up? Who would I want to be woken up by? To whom do I want to convey that I do indeed trust them?

Short animation of an interaction ritual.

We did not suppose that a bedside alarm clock like this has mass-market appeal. It’s a theory object — a way of questioning and probing and exploring the idea of Trust as made into this provocative material exemplar. In a way it is a bit of fiction, only not written, rather made as a physical object that compels one to think of the stories and “user experiences” that may surround it. The fiction is established through a provocation created through design practices.

Theory objects are like material instantiations of ideas — perhaps even our hopes and our imagination. Theory objects refract some social practice in a peculiar and hopefully thought-provoking way. They are “theory objects” in this sense, ways of shaping refining, refracting and altering social practice hopefully in a way that creates more habitable worlds.

The theory object is a way to think about “technology” as something that does more than utilitarian or instrumental. It is an embodiment of some sort of practice that is not outside of the realm of social action. In other words, the theory object is a social object — one that can shape and mutate social practice. Technologies are mutable. They can be what we need them to be, and shape how we experience the world and in that way, are social. What we are doing here is over-emphasizing this point by skirting around the usual assumptions about technology in order to make this point about their social nature more evident and obvious and provocative.

Why should we care enough to make this point that technologies are embodiments of social practice? Because we need to reveal the human hand in their creation and their possibility. Once we can see that people put these things together (and show this process plainly, through images and descriptions without secrets) it becomes possible to talk about how they could be different, or obey different laws and assumptions — possibly become more environmentally conscientious, or help us find playful ways to be more compassionate to mean people, or find ways to be kind to strangers (whatever..need some concrete examples, perhaps anticipating the projects.)

In the case of the Trust Alarm Clock, we were confronted with a rather exciting and unconventional direction for ways of waking up, which everyone does, with the regrettable exceptions, of course. The question evolves beyond *who do I want to wake me up, and who do I trust the most to, say — make sure I get up to make an unusually early meeting or airplane departure. Rather, through this theory object we were drawn into thinking about other *things one may wake up to besides the time of day. What sort of alarm clock might the near future bring that represents a trusted evolution of the waking-up ritual. Perhaps an alarm clock that allows someone in my networked social graph to wake me up. Or — are there things that I trust more than people in these circumstances? Somethings that are beyond the rather mechanistic and mundane ritual of waking to the time, which, after all — is not particularly exciting. Might the things that are more relevant or consistent with our connected age be what wakes us in the near future? In the near future, might we trust more an alarm clock that wakes us up when other people start waking up in order to facilitate that sense of being amongst a larger group of people who are also starting their day. Who are we to say that the now common ritual of waking to a specific time become as antique as luggage without wheels.

The Week Ending 021910

Thursday February 18 19:59

Well, another week, another set of tardy week only seems like sheer anxiety about not being diligent propels me and that only when the subsequent week begins.


It was a week of production of things related to project Trust; completing, debating, refinishing, redesigning as these things go, which seems classic completionist dyslexia, seeing as the next, next *done-by that we set was, technically, the end of February and already the calls are coming in to see it to help with whatever-whatever other thing someone else is doing that they feel could use a burnish or a braze from Trust. We’re genuinely excited to have these conversations — almost a dozen such over the next two weeks according to this scrap of paper with names, dates and locations.

In the midst of this, at this point is the curious letting-of-things-go insofar as the *intelligence or the *ideas in the project have been assumed embedded directly enough in their exemplars that actually figuring out what the ideas are, or refining them and so forth — this has gained little attention with a pure, slightly unnerving emphasis on the communication of them through small films, and a focus on the means and mechanics by which the communication happens. I suppose this is as these things go — for the writer in me (I mean this quite modestly), this is like the polishing and editing of the thought, with the thought and story quite well completed and beyond the point where major revisions can happen. If I can keep on this track of pure production, pure editing, I’d be surprised, knowing my penchant for rethinking at the last minute.

There was a short, two day trip to San Francisco to visit the facilities there and participate in an in-depth technical review, which was 2 parts engaging, 2 parts intriguing and 1 part exhausting. Communicating the experience of interaction touchpoints and *user (bleech..) journeys in order to feedback into the circuits of design, technology, logistics and accounting is something quite new to me, but something I genuinely want to understand and participate in, *only to know how design can shape an influence and be instrumental to the work that (a) engineers do; (b) software programmers do; (c) middling, junior designers do; (d) people under tremendous pressures with financial incentives calibrated to meeting some date in a calendar,; (e) accountants and business people do..etc. ((This thinking calibrates with a talk Mike Kruzeniski gave at IxDA, which I hope to hear one day where he conveys this important, crucial notion that if you cannot make your design criteria, pattern, process, thinking — whatever — communicate to the sensibilities of the engineers making the stuff you draw in story boards, then you may as well take up horse shoeing.))

What also occurred to me during this workshop-y couple of days was the means and mechanisms by which one communicates *feedback. The spreadsheets and awkward photos seems positively medieval, which is not to register anything negative about the facilitators. I think we’re all meant to contribute to this new, new process of review and it got me thinking about another mechanism that is closely to small, short visual films (of’s all we’re doing these days) that may be more impactful if less didactic.

Finally, a lovely close to the week — I sprinted off of the bloated plane from SFO, jumped into my car (becoming the mayor of Parking Lot C on Foursquare, in the process, much to the ridicule of *friends) and headed over to the Gadget OK! exhibition, talk, dinner at UCLA’s D|MA. Sadly, I missed Maywa Denki perform, but I did get to see the exhibition and buttonhole Tosa-san for our obligatory weird photo. ((More photos of the exhibition and stuff are here:

Thursday February 18 21:27

The Week Ending 291210

2=8.41 1=11.40

Rules, instructions, parameters? Embedded inscriptions of some nature, found on a wall in Sayulita Mexico.

Well, maybe weeknotes are from the *week ending* but posted at the *week commencing*. One advantage of being one’s own blog boss, I suppose.

It was a decidedly *quick* week for some reason — perhaps because the Laboratory’s brother was visiting these last couple and action, thinking and events seem to accelerate the time. There was plenty of discussions of stories and filmmaking, which ties nicely into what *must* happen this month: the re-making of several short (30 seconds or so) of this visual design fiction stories meant to communicate some of our principles of Trust as embodied in some props/prototypes. This proves quite creatively engaging and challenging.

There was a pleasant slaloming conversations with the curious and effervescent Natalie, discussing the Latourian design sensibilities and the ways that debates and conversations embed themselves with artefacts. It was lovely to have this chat, if only to begin trying out the various *props* that we’ve been making that are exemplars themselves of these arguments/theories/perspectives. The question remains — what is new here, as an argument? It was encouraging to here Natalie’s excitement and the geneology of this sort of thinking, reaching back to here canonical Live Wire and Rich Gold’s Evocative Knowledge Objects (to which the Theory Object owes everything.)

This decanted into thoughts on a Latour essay presently at desk side.

The third connotation of the word design that seems to me so significant is that when analyzing the design of some artefact the task is unquestionably about meaning — be it symbolic, commercial, or otherwise. Design lends itself to interpretation; it is made to be interpreted in the language of signs. In design, there is alwas as the French say, un dessein, or in Italian, designo. To be sure, in its weakest form design added only superficial meaning to what was brute matter and efficiency. But as it infiltrated into more and more levels of the objets, it carried with it a new attention to meaning.

[[A Cautious Prometheus? A Few Steps Toward a Philosophy of Design (with Special Attention to Peter Sloterjdijk. Bruno Latour]]

[[And special sideways inspiration from Karen, whose present reading/thinking I seem to be accidentally following alongside.]]

And then, I was thinking about Trust in this context and this precise basis for the process of *embedding* the sensibilities and sensitivities of Trust as a design practice. More as this idea develops.

There was a round of planning for future projects at the Nokia Design Strategic Projects studio, which meant thinking about what from Trust moves forward and in which ways and by what means. Similarly, we are beginning to share Trust. And wondering — to whom and to what ends? I am intrigued by this — how do you circulate ideas and with what goals so you know — in a more actionable way — how the ideas materialize and create other goals, especially within such a byzantine organization. This, I think, is one of the larger 2010 *professional* goals, I suppose (seeing as I have not really captured what those might be yet — bit tardy on that objective — I like to have New Year’s goals rather than New Year’s resolutions) — how to communicate ideas such as these, do so without PowerPoint and do so in such a way that you snap people out of a corporate stupor, or whatever it is — and do more than just scrape a bit of paint on the battleship. Rather, help set a different course heading.

The Week Ending 220110

Sunday January 24 14:01

What one finds house hunting in Los Angeles and coming across one owned by a Hollywood set designer. Also looking at the same moment, a demure, polite and inquisitive actress vaguely recognized and thence confirmed to be the nitty Shannon from season one of Lost.

Diligent weeknotes are already eluding me. Perhaps because it was a short week last week and I wasn’t in the studio until Thursday. Nevertheless — mostly a couple of days of dusting off the desk and considering what remained to finish from the previous year and continue on into the new one.

Project Trust achieved its milestone late last year and the last couple of days last week were spent assessing it’s 2010 tributaries — where and to who does it get shared? How to distil what has been learned both in practical terms as well as in the very intriguing, curious *meta* terms such as — what did we learn about how to design in such a way as to achieve unexpected, new, perhaps innovative things? What about the friction of design that hones and reshapes and burnishes a nascent idea into a new, curious, future form that moves away from the hum-drum expected outcomes? What about the style of communication, which has moved away from PowerPoint / Keynote into visual stories? What is that and how can it be informally formalized as a new way of sharing ideas that, for the time being, while this style is still new — shock, excite and awe people into becoming fervent allies and help turn that idea into its deserved material form.

So. Decisions made, for the most part, about what prototypes find their way downstream, or up-the-ladder, or to new lands. Movies blocked and storyboarded, or at least decided upon. That was those two days last week.
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The Week Ending 150110

Saturday January 16 15:51

From here, the next week begins. Sayulita, Mexico to repast, float, read, drink and celebrate with friends, a friend’s birthday.

The week began with the Microsoft Social Computing Symposium, 2010 edition. I’ve put my notes from the event here in the immediately preceding blog post.

Back in the studio on Thursday and Friday to tidy up a few loosened ends with the Trust project and coordinating some final assembly particulars with Tom, Simon and the fine folks at the prototyping family house Aeolab for the second clock. The industrial design is fantastic and lovely which only complements the provocation of new interaction rituals embodied in the object itself. Next Tuesday should be close to the last hand-off of hardware and I suspect we’ll begin machining next week, and finalize some decisions about stock and some workarounds to avoid a rather expensive block of acrylic.

I did a share on the project in-house on Friday, sort of slipping and sliding over the story and the communication — it’s been probably a month since I’ve been up in it, what with the holiday break and all. Soon, it’ll be back on the tip of my tongue.
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Design Fiction Chronicles: Urgency and Emergency, Notification and Warning

Saturday January 31 11:07

Tsunami Evacuation Route on Washington Boulevard at the border — basically 60 degrees North-North-East, directly opposite the coastline in the other direction, but essentially only a few meters above sea-level for a good couple of miles.

Last week, when there was that earthquake in Samoa, we happened to be talking about Tsunamis in the studio — thinking about the ways that the California coast could be gobbled up in an unfortunate, epic disaster. It’s a distinct possibility, and with the Pacific Ocean popping off earthquakes with increasing frequency (or so it seems..), it makes one think about what sort of early warning system could be put in place — and one that would not rely too much on quite fallible technology-based networks. These are the things that typically fail even without a disaster at hand. (For instance, at the Venice Beach Music Festival a few weeks ago, with a relatively smallish contingent of people occupying Abbot-Kinney Boulevard, me and those I was with were hard-pressed to get a cell signal. If you have all of Venice Beach panicking because of an approaching Tsunami, what are the chances AT&T will be able to handle the load? I’d rather not count on them, to be perfectly honest, to help me communicate with family in a disaster.) Perhaps mesh-y networks that do not rely on too much pre-built systems like cellular base stations.

Or, are there more esoteric warning systems, like these rattling cups? Hairs on the back of your neck? A forest of yammering, naddering wild life suddenly falling dead still and quiet? The color of the sky in the morning? Scattering insects all going in the same direction? A sudden feeling that comes from another array of sensors — ones not invented by scientists or technologists or relying on a functioning grid of power, communication and all that?

What are the other “weak signals” of impending disaster, besides the news?

These fictional moments in movie scenes popped into my head while thinking about early warning of impending disaster.

Why do I blog this? Place marks for ideas related to early warning systems and the stories around them. Signals that are not explicit, but suggestive, providing some clues and cues that force one to be more attentive and resilient and resourceful.
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Designed for Transparency

New York City.

Knife shop. Madrid, Spain.

Two curious examples of “everything-ness.” The first is this “Everything Electrical” company which does, well — everything having to do with electrical installations and so forth. They also have these interesting trucks which are made to be easily loaded and off-loaded at work sites or at the warehouse. I like this design, where the “black box” of the normally closed, obscured truck is opened from three sides. Transparency and efficiency of some sort are in effect here. There’s something quite intriguing about this. Similarly, the knife/scissor/tool shop found in Madrid attempts a similar sort of draw, showing all the fascinating kinds of cutters and so forth are displayed in the open, behind glass and in enormous, visual assortment.

Storefront for Art and Architecture, New York City.

Finally, the intriguing architectural frontice of the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York City, with its mechanisms for opening itself up to the street in an atypical manner, with flaps and square portholes raises this question itself. What are the ways that digital contexts can learn from the physical mechanisms of transparency, openness and an ability to draw people’s attention in creative ways? How does openness and transparency translate to frankness and trust.

Why do I blog this? Some visual examples of different strategies for creating physical transparency, something that is strangely absent in digital contexts. Things are either there in front or have to be rooted around for — the “storefront” metaphor in a digital setting hits a number of, err…brick walls when translating these settings. The question here to consider are strategies and tactics for creating digital forms of transparency and display.

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Stating the Obvious

Thursday January 08 1812

Seen in the "Funplex" — a warning sign that prepares those not used to losing that they may in fact obtain nothing for their time and perhaps even lose something in exchange for the token they use to have a whirl at the crane game (try and hoist out a bundle of tickets which can be used to get things – mostly crap — like stuffed animals and plastic toys.)

I found this sign peculiar, but perhaps apropos of two things. First, young kids who are the audience for this Funplex who may be so coddled by their parents that the prospect of not getting what they want results in an eruption of tears and feet-stomping. (Or, that may just be a human universal at these ages. I’m skeptical, though.)

Why do I blog this?The “meta” insight here is a reflection on the times, particularly in a context in which “Trust” is brought into question — the Trust that knits together individuals to make a society, including the institutions that are based on nothing but Trust —banks and other financial constructs that basically told us that they were the place to entrust our futures. This sign is a reminder in an odd context that playing doesn’t mean winning.
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Safety In A Ubicomp World

Timo et al Mediamatic have created a superb physical instantiation of safety in an era when the network leaks rather perniciously into the physical world. Their RFID safe enclosure protects your near-field communication objects from being scanned by faulty equipment or data muggers discretely consuming the swarms of RFID krill floating around most alpha tier urban centers. A lovely instantiation to help think through how people’s concerns around safety, security and trust always seem to leave opportunities for the always entrepreneurial accessories marketplace.

Well done.
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