We are concerns for the many perspectives that present a misconstrued perspective on Design Fiction. We felt the need to add a few notes to rectify some of the most common confusion about Design Fiction. A must read: On Design Fiction: Close, But No Cigar.
We are running a little background experiment to turn our “new idioms” observations into digestible and inspiring images that anybody can flipped through when chatting or working on projects. Follow #newidiomsfromthefringes on Instagram.
Nicolas was part of a panel about future imaginaries in Nantes during the Scopitone festival. Organized by Bastien Kerspern (Design Friction), Nicolas shared a presentation describing how we produce design fiction at the Laboratory, and discussed the implications of futures research with Mawena Yehouessi and Irini Papadimitriou (Future Everything).
After Helsinki in 2014, Taipei in 2016 and Mexico last year, Lille (north of France) is going to be the World Design Capital. Nicolas has been asked to be part of the curatorial committee of a big exhibit about design and fictions that will happen around April. More about that soon.
Fabien was part of a panel discussion at PrimerEU in Madrid and reported back from the conference. Like last year in Helsinki, it is the contributions of the younger designers on stage and in the audience with fresh approaches that really make Primer Europe unique and original. We also enjoyed how Jorge Camacho, who recently opened Diagonal Studio, explained in practical detailed his most recent “ethnographic futures” project. Jimmy Loizeau proved again how much of of good man he is with a long “personal” talk about his previous projects with James Auger and more recent work with refugee communities.
Nick spoke at the Emerging Practices Conference in Shanghai about the impact of Machine Intelligence on Culture. He also ran an introduction to Design Fiction session and teamed up with local Creative Associate Simone Rebaudengo to perform some cultural voyeurism through the city.
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“The contents of your shopping basket may change. Almost 30% of our food currently comes from the EU, and it is likely that some foods, such as fresh vegetables and fruit, will become more scarce and more expensive in the event of no deal.”
Today, Brexit would have happened if what eventually happened had not happened. The fears of a soft or a hard Brexit have been extended with a very abstract understanding of what might happen next.
As part of our regular internal Design Fiction exercises, we took something conflictual like Brexit and we placed it firmly in the context of a mundane archetype. Something everyone might experience in the future.
We bring a potential future to the present, not as a prediction but to create a shared understanding of a decision and to evaluate possible implications. The image above is how we translated the BBC headline into that type of mundane situation.
We are super excited and thrilled that the term “Design Fiction” is being heard beyond the relatively small community of designers who have been practicing it over the last decade or so. More organizations and teams are now coming to us looking for a fresh and different approach to addressing their needs, concerns, fears, failures and ambitions that the old PowerPoint and Post-it Design Processes simply cannot handle.
This is encouraging for us as we believe the practice of Design Fiction has enormous potential.
We are also concerned — concerned for the many perspectives that present a misconstrued perspective on Design Fiction.
Note #1: Design Fiction is about understanding implications of decision making. Design Fiction is like a design-based A/B test.
— Have an idea or a range of possible ideas?
Run it through the Design Fiction process to understand how these ideas might play themselves out. Design Fiction allows you to engage the implications of your ideas deeply by creating some possible/probable outcomes. In those engagements you are actually creating artifacts that exist in those possible/probable futures. The artifacts you create are things from the future. When you do Design Fiction, you are like some kind of time traveling anthropologist bringing back things you’ve found. When you create these artifacts, you are engaging the context of its existence — why does this exist? what kind of world surrounds it? who are the people and what are their goals and ambitions?
In this kind of Design Fiction process, the discussions with your team and other stakeholders are bound to yield new ideas. The primary activity though, is to work with your team and stakeholders to understand the implications of decision making. Implications come first. New ideas follow.
Yes, we know that organizations often want to be told the solution to their problems and Design Fiction can certainly help here, as just described. Design Fiction is about studying possible implications — not all of them ‘preferred’, but they are always pragmatic and aligned with reality — not reality distorted.
— How do we do this?
Through the Design Fiction process we create design-based tangible artifacts that represent those implications. Sometimes we refer to these artifacts as props, as if they were the objects from that future, brought back to today to be considered, discussed, mulled over, debated and reflected upon.
With Design Fiction so may get your ‘new possibilities’, but you will get something more valuable: a richer understanding of the results of your ideas, good, bad, normal. This ultimately better prepares you for what happens when your idea is in the world. It allows you to de-risk based on the unexpected outcomes (which always happen).
Design Fiction does something no other design process does — it analyzes the outcomes of decision making today, so you have a clearer perspective and understanding of your possible/probable futures.
Note #2: The Design Fiction process produces tangible future artifacts. It does not produce written stories about a future state. This is a common and understandable misconception, probably based on the fact that the word “Fiction” is in the name.
Design Fiction is not a literary style, nor a purely dystopian visual style, despite its roots in Science Fiction and more specifically the important work of Near Future Laboratory Ambassador, His Eminence, Bruce Sterling, one of the founding fathers of the cyberpunk genre and aesthetic.
If you end up with a draft of a short story or a few paragraphs of a typical UX interaction scenario, or a storyboard, or a little film of someone swiping on a screen to show how your App idea would work — you have not done Design Fiction.
What you’ve done is write a short story, which can only possibly be read as a short story. You haven’t created a designed artifact that is the result — an implication — of a set of decisions, current conditions and other inputs, and wrote something down about it.
What you should ideally produce is something a casual observer may mistake for a contemporary artefact, but which only reveals itself as a fiction on closer inspection. It should be very much “as if..” this thing really existed. It should feel real, normal, not some fantasy. Nor should it be construed as a representation of the future — like a short story, or an illustration of some kind of interaction. (My favorite example of an artifact based on a recent workshop? A pizza menu — from the near future. An actual menu that describes a future state of food tastes, ingredients, means of payment, etc.)
Note #3: Creating an artifact forces you to get into the details of your future world in a way that writing a story does not. When writing, it is easy to skip over uncomfortable details in favor of the “big picture”. Design Fiction makes you sweat the details. For example, if you create a Quick Start Guide for a Self Driving Car there are myriad topics that would need to be addressed to describe how to activate, switch into Uber mode, upgrade firmware, etcetera.
— What should you do then if Design Fiction is more than writing stories?
You should be creating artifacts from that world and going through the work of actually making them — not writing about them.
If you’re exploring a future of self-driving cars and the implications for urban policy, create a physical map for a city as might be given out to the local public, or tourists. What would be in the map and why? Have debates with stakeholders about the challenges that would be faced, the failures that might occur, the brand names of services, new kinds of signage, etcetera. Now you’re doing Design Fiction.
Note #4: Creating artifacts happens early.
Design Fiction is called Design Fiction because it adheres to the principle of making-things-with-which-to-think. If you do this at the end, you’ve missed the point of Design Fiction. You have missed the opportunity to discuss, discover with your team and stakeholders the implications of decision making.
Note #5: Design Fiction does not bias towards “perfect” or preferred outcomes — not because we wouldn’t like these, but because we’re pragmatic.
We are skeptical optimists. We have been doing this long enough to know that such things are always mired in the intractably complicated ways in which earnestly naive ideas (particularly from Silicon Valley) are disconnected from the way they are received and reacted to in the real world.
Most design processes fail to indicate the risks and challenges of decision making today. They are all “Blue Team” exercises that can only imagine the perfect outcomes. The world does not work this way. Decisions today never lead to ideal outcomes. Design Fiction allows you to run through multiple perspectives, multiple outcomes (Good. Neutral. Bad. Ugly.) It’s your “Red Team” exercise that goes along with the hopeful, optimistic outcome that explore a rich, wide, fulsome set of outcomes represented in tangible artifacts — Instagram Stories, YouTube Unboxing Videos, Customer Testimonial Videos (good ones, bad ones), a lower-thirds chyron crawl describing some epic fail of your idea as shown on Fox News, A Quick Start Guide that forces you to figure out how your “idea” would actually work so you can discover that even you can’t (yet) describe how it would actually work. These truly tangible futures help decision makers assess not only their “ideal” outcomes (which we always hope for and, if you’re honest, rarely get perfectly) but the neutral and completely failed outcomes.
When discussing and writing about the future of cities with autonomous vehicles, it is easy to skip over complex details in favor of the “big headlines”.
Any decision-maker serious about evaluating the key opportunities of an idea, investigating challenges and possible complications, must consider the details through-and-through. This is what Design Fiction is good at. It is good at understanding the implications of today’s decisions. It reveals the ways futures could come to life and shows what that looks like in the form of material objects — the tangible artifacts from the future. For example, the creation of a Quick Start Guide for a Self Driving Car reveals a myriad of topics that would need to be addressed to describe how to activate, switch into Uber mode, upgrade firmware, etcetera.
This is the reason why the Department of Mobility at the Canton of Geneva commissioned us to investigate their “what if” scenarios around automated driving. Using our loose Design Fiction process, we selected an artifact that could reveal the implications for urban policy. We wanted a popular artifact, intelligible by a large audience. We created a foldable map of Geneva and brought it back from the future to be given out to the local public or tourists. The point of doing Design Fiction is to create the artifact and going through the work of actually making them — not writing about them. Practically, we loaded OpenStreetMap layers into a Geographic Information System (QGIS) to organize and project the road segment data into a possible future. We iterated several times after discussing the results and using Illustrator to polish the details (e.g. remove road segments, highlight potential consequences) and imagine new legends (e.g. urban canyons, levels of automated traffic).
The foldable map format also gives opportunities to add content alongside the actual street plan. We expanded the world-building inserting descriptions of career opportunities, an upcoming Swiss federal vote on the topic and how the system of fleets of autonomous vehicles actually works with its pick-up and drop-off areas. This content hides provocations and simple hooks to generate discussions. The overall result shows how self-driving cars may have an influence on traffic, urban infrastructures and mobility in general.
The intention for the Department of Mobility at the Canton of Geneva was to generate debates about the challenges that would be faced, the failures that might occur, the services that might emerge, the new kinds of signage and rules, etcetera. The map was used in the context of a local event about the future of the city, along with a series of talks and workshops on various topics public institutions have to deal with (places for kids, agricultural facilities, urbanism against climate change, etc.). In this context, it acted as a tangible future for a group of people with conflicting opinions to exchange point of views. We found out that the discussion revolves around two main topics : the way urban traffic may be reconfigured and redefine what is acceptable on certain streets (e.g. pedestrian movements, presence of non-autonomous vehicles), and the energy infrastructure needed for this technology to happen.
In this project, we imagined the near future as a territory. Maps provide a popular support to tell us how humans, technology and nature co-evolve. They make you travel to a future without actually going there. They bring a future into the hands of an audience with an objective to better understand the implications of today’s socio-technological developments might have on everybody’s life. Finally, our experiment of mixing today’s datasets with future narratives opens the doors of a new practice that uses techniques in Data Science not to predict what comes next but to speculate on the implications of the work of Data Scientists (e.g. automation, augmented intelligence).
The business of dishonest automation and how the engineers, data scientists and designers behind it can fix it
“The pilots fought continuously until the end of the flight“, said Capt. Nurcahyo Utomo, the head of the investigation of Lion Air Flight 610 that crashed on October 29, 2018, killing the 189 people aboard. The analysis of the black boxes had revealed that the Boeing 737’s nose was repeatedly forced down, apparently by an automatic system receiving incorrect sensor readings. During 10 minutes preceding the tragedy, the pilots tried 24 times to manually pull up the nose of the plane. They struggled against a malfunctioning anti-stall system that they did not know how to disengage for that specific version of the plane.
That type of dramatic scene of humans struggling with a stubborn automated system belongs to pop culture. In the famous scene of the 1968 science-fiction film “2001: A Space Odyssey”, the astronaut Dave asks HAL (Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer) to open a pod bay door on the spacecraft, to which HAL responds repeatedly, “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that“.
1. The commodification of automation
Thankfully, the contemporary applications of digital automation are partial and do not take the shape of an “artificial general intelligence” like HAL. However, the computational tasks that once were exclusively applied to automate human jobs in critical environments like a cockpit have reached people’s everyday lives (e.g. automated way-finding, smart thermostat) and the techniques often deployed for more frivolous but yet very lucrative objectives (e.g. targeted advertisements, prioritizing the next video to watch on YouTube).
“What concerns me is that many engineers, data scientists, designers and decision-makers bring digital frictions into people’s everyday life because they do not employ approaches to foresee the limits and implications of their work”
The automated systems that once relied on programmed instructions based on their author’s understanding of the world now also model their behavior from the patterns found in datasets of sensors and human activities. As the application of these Machine Learning techniques becomes widespread, digital automation is becoming a commodity with systems that perform at Internet scale one task with no deep understanding of human context. These systems are trained to complete that “one” job, but there are evidences that their behavior, like HAL or a Boeing 737 anti-stall system, can turn against their user’s intentions when things do not go as expected.
2. The clumsy edges
Recent visual ethnographies at Near Future Laboratory like #TUXSAX and Curious Rituals uncovered some implications of that commodification of automation. In a completely different scale of dramatic consequences that brought down Lion Air Flight 610, these observations highlight how some digital solutions leave people with a feeling of being “locked in” with no “escape” key to disengage from a stubborn behavior. A wide majority of these digital frictions provoke harmless micro-frustrations in people’s everyday lives. They manifest themselves through poorly calibrated systems and a design that disregards edge cases. For instance, it is common to experience a voice assistant unable to understand a certain accent or pronunciation or a navigation system that misleads a driver due to location inaccuracies, obsolete road data or incorrect traffic information.
These clumsy automations can be mitigated but will not disappear because it became impossible to design contingency plans for all unexpected limitations or consequences. However, other types of stubborn autonomous behaviours are intentionally designed as the core of business models that trades human control for convenience.
3. The business of dishonest automation
Many techniques to automate everyday tasks allow organizations to reduce costs and increase revenues. Some members of the tech industry employ these new technological capabilities to lock customers or workers into behaviors for which they have no legitimate need or desire. Those systems are typically designed to resist from their user’s demands AND are hard to disengage. Let me give you a couple of examples of what I call “dishonest automations”:
3.1. Data obesity
Automatic cloud backup systems have become a default feature of operating systems. They externalize the storage of personal photos, emails, contacts and other bits of digital life. Their business model encourages customers to endlessly accumulate more content without a clear alternative that promotes a proper hygiene with their data (i.e. nobody has yet come up with “Marie Kondo for Dropbox ™”). Regardless of the promises of the providers, it becomes harder for people to declutter their digital lives from a cloud storage service.
3.2. Systemic obsolescence
Today’s apps automatic updates often increase the demand of resources and processing power for cosmetic improvements almost in a deliberate attempt to make a hardware obsolete and the software harder to operate. After years of impunity, there is now a bigger conscience against systemic obsolescence because it is wasteful and exploits customers.
3.3. Digital attention
As content grows exponentially on the Internet, (social) media companies rely increasingly on automation to filter and direct information to each one of their users. For instance, YouTube automates billions of videos to play next for 1.5 billion users. These algorithms aim at promoting content for higher engagement and tend to guide people against their interest.
In the light of these examples of clumsy and dishonest automation, what concerns me is that many engineers, data scientists, designers and decision-makers bring these frictions into people’s everyday life because they do not employ approaches to foresee the limits and implications of their work. Apart from the engineering of efficient solutions, automation requires professionals to think about the foundations and consequences of their practice that transcend any Key Performance Indicator of their organization.
4. The design for humane automation
The design of automation is not about removing the presence of humans. It is about the design of humane, respectful and trustful systems that automate some aspects of human activities. When working with data scientists, designers and engineers in that domain, we envision systems beyond the scope of the “user” and the “task” to automate. I encourage teams to a) learn from the past b) critique the present and c) debate the future. Let me explain:
4.1. Learn from the past
When it comes to automation, the acquisition of knowledge in academia and in the industry are not separate pursuits. Over the last 50 years, there has been an extensive body of work produced in research institutions on the implications of automating manual tasks and decision-making. The key findings have helped save money in critical environments and prevent numerous deadly errors (e.g. in cockpits).
Today, that knowledge is not translated into everyday tasks. For instance, many engineers or data scientists do not master concepts like automation bias (i.e. the propensity for humans to favor suggestions from automated decision-making systems) or automation complacency (i.e. decreased human attention to monitor automated results) theorized by research communities in Science and Technology Studies or Human-Computer Interaction. Sadly, only a few organizations promote platforms that gather academics, artists, engineers, data scientists and designers. Industries in the process of digitization would greatly profit from this type cross-pollination of professionals who learn from considerations that already emerged outside of their discipline.
4.2. Critique the present
I believe that the professionals involved in the business of automating human activities should be persistent critical reviewers of the solutions deployed by their peers. They should become stalkers of how people deal today with the clumsy, the dishonest, the annoying, the absurd and any other awkward emerges of digital technologies in their modern lives.
When properly documented, these observations offer a complementary form of inspiration to the multitude of “naive optimism” and glamorous utopian visions of the tech industry. They provide material for professionals to question arguably biased goals of automation. Moreover, they set the stage to define attainable objectives in their organization (e.g. what does smart/intelligent mean?, how to measure efficiency?, what must become legible?).
4.3. Debate the future
In today’s Internet, the design of even the most simple application or connected object has become a complex endeavour. They are built on balkanized Operating Systems, stacks of numerous protocols, versions, frameworks, and other packages of reusable code. The mitigation of digital frictions goes beyond the scope of a “Quality Assurance” team that guarantees the sanity of an application. They are also about documenting implications on the context the technologies live, unintended consequences and ‘what if’ scenarios.
Typically, Design Fiction is an approach to spark a conversation and anticipate the larger questions regarding the automation of human activities. For instance, we produced Quick Start Guide of Amazon Helios: Pilot, a fictional autonomous vehicle. In that project, we identified the key systems that implicate the human aspects of a self-driving car and we brought to life such experiences in a very tangible, compelling fashion for designers, engineers, and anyone else involved in the development of automated systems. Through its collective production, the Quick Start Guide became a totem through which anybody could discuss the consequences, raise design considerations and shape decision-making.
5. The business of trust
Like many technological evolution, the automation of everyday life does not come without the frictions of trading control for convenience. However, the consequences are bigger than mitigating edge cases. They reflect human, organization or society choices. The choice of deploying systems that mislead about their intentions in conflict with people and society’s interests.
In his seminal work on Ubiquitous Computing in the 90s, Mark Weiser strongly influenced the current “third wave” in computing, when technology recedes into the background of people’s lives. Many professionals in the tech industry (including me) embraced his description of Calm technology that “informs but doesn’t demand our focus or attention.” However, what Weiser and many others (including me) did not anticipate is an industry of dishonest automation or solutions that turn against their user’s intentions when things do not go as planned. Nor did we truly anticipate the scale in which automation can bite back the organizations that deploy them with backslashes from their customers, society as well as policymakers.
These implications suggest an alternative paradigm that transcend the purely technological and commercial for any organization involved in the business of digital automation. For instance, a paradigm that promotes respectful (over efficient), legible (over calm) and honest (over smart) technologies. Those are the types of values that emerge when professionals (e.g. engineers, data scientists, designers, decision-makers, executives) wander outside their practice, apply critical thinking to uncover dishonest behaviors, and use fictions to take decisions that consider implications beyond the scope of the “user” and the “task” to automate.
I believe that the organizations in the business of automation that maintain the status-quo and do not evolve into a business of trust might eventually need to deal with a corroded reputation and its effects on their internal values, the moral of employees, the revenues and ultimately the stakeholders trust.
We created eight tiny “Design Fictions” (two of them will appear as Instagram Stories — so keep an eye out..they may be the best ones) that will appear in their feed.
Why did we create these? Aside from the unique opportunity to work with the Design Museum, it gave us an opportunity to do what we enjoy the most: creating meaningful design fictions that reflect upon the challenges of life in today’s weird worlds. Those reflections are meant to be engaging enough that designers of all kinds, which does not include “technologists” nor “business managers” — will consider that their ideas for tomorrow may actually be really shitty, and they should go back to their workstations and workshops and try harder to make products, services, experiences that stand a better change of making a more habitable near future.
We look at design fiction as a form of extrospection — looking from today to see possible near futures based on present state. What might the world look like tomorrow if the assumptions about what’s “new” projected into the future? What are the procedures and methods by which we can project into the near future a new product idea or service strategy — and learn about where the idea might work really well, or how the service strategy could go horribly wrong?
Design Fiction is one of the ways we work with our partners and clients to learn from the future and apply those learnings and insights to make better decisions.
The Ikea Catalog From The Near Future was done in collaboration with Boris Design and Mobile Life Centre. It was done as a workshop to teach Design Fiction — one of our approaches to investigating possible near futures by making things tangible, imminent and extant.
Why did we chose an Ikea catalog? Because it is one of the more compelling ways to represent normal, ordinary, everyday life in many parts of the world. The Ikea catalog contains the routine furnishings of a normative everyday life. It’s a container of life’s essentials and accessories which can be extrapolated from today’s normal into tomorrow’s normal. In this case, we projected a set of key technical issues, societal concerns, imminent artifacts and instruments into an unspecified “soon.”
Each of our Design Fictions has its moment as they project in a line from their present (in this case, a time in 2015 in Stockholm) into their near future. Much like the Design Museum’s “Home Futures” exhibition — which looks at predictions made in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s about the home of the future — the Ikea Catalog From The Near Future looked at the “Ikea Home” as we considered it from 2015.
The Home Futures exhibition runs at the Design Museum from November 7, 2018 – March 24, 2019. The catalog itself is a must-have, I’d say. Well-produced and fulsome in its representation of objects and artifacts.
Most connected humans suffer from poor ‘data hygiene’. For instance, we are plainly grotesquely overfed on social media with its ‘anytime’ ‘anywhere’ experience and there is no rational end in sight. In this article, I introduce the reasons why I developed Humans, an app that offers a way to rationally manage too many social media contacts and slows down the consumption of status updates, tweets, selfies, and photos of all kinds.
We live in a society that captures the moment, refashions it to ‘share’ across a network of social media endpoints containing algorithms and human, perpetually. Social media, its algorithms and its humans are highly optimized to never stop the cycle. Consequently, we experiencing an unprecedented increase in the rate of this ‘anytime’ ‘anywhere’ consumption cycle. 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. Yet, the perpetual consumption yields to very little and there is no rational end in sight. We are quite plainly grotesquely overfed on social media.
Humans create technologies, adapt their behaviors to them and vice-versa
The fact is that each major revolution in information technology produced descriptions of humans drowning in information unable to face tsunamis of texts, sounds, images or videos. For instance, in the 15th century Gutenberg’s printing press generated millions of copies of books. Suddenly, there were far more books than any single person could master, and no end in sight or as Barnaby Rich wrote in 1613:
“One of the diseases of this age is the multiplicity of books; they doth so overcharge the world that it is not able to digest the abundance of idle matter that is every day hatched and brought forth into the world”
Besides a Luddite position of some that rejected technological change, the invention of printing began to generate innovative new practices and methods for dealing with the accumulation of information. These included early plans for public libraries, the first universal bibliographies that tried to list all books ever written, the first advice books on how to take notes, and encyclopedic compilations larger and more broadly diffused than ever before. Detailed outlines and alphabetical indexes let readers consult books without reading them through, and the makers of large books experimented with slips of paper for cutting and pasting information from manuscripts and printed matter — a technique that, centuries later, would become essential to modern word processing.
Historically, humans have adapted to the increasing pace of information exchange with the appropriation of new practices and means to filter, categorize and prioritize information feeds.
Similarly, a couple of centuries later, the increasing presence of the telegraph multiplied the levels of stress among merchants used to more local, slower and less competitive transactions. They eventually adapted to the new pace of information exchange with new practices and means to filter, categorize and prioritize information feeds.
From social media ‘diets’ to ‘data hygiene’
What today’s most connected people share with their ancestors is the sense of excess and related discomfort, and stress linked to information load. In many ways, our behaviors for coping with overload have not changed. Besides the promises of AI and machine learning that trade control for convenience, we still need to filter, categorize and prioritize, and ultimately need human judgment and attention to guide the process.
These behaviors perspires in popular media and the many articles that share tips to follow successful social media diets, detox, or cleansing programs. The authors typically advise their readers to move away from being constantly ‘on top of things’ and to give up on concerns of missing out or being out of the loop. The diets are about replacing one behavior with another more frugal by pruning the many social networks (‘quit’, ‘uninstall’, ‘unplug’, ‘remove profile’) and contacts (‘mute’, ‘unfollow’). Yet they target a temporal improvement and fail to promote a more profound sustainable behavior with positive reinforcement.
Besides the promises of AI and machine learning that trade control for convenience, we still need to filter, categorize and prioritize, and ultimately need human judgment and attention to guide the process.
There is an opportunity to reconsider how we use social media and how we build it. Social media that gives human control to prioritize certain feeds over others, but without normalizing content into something less messy, and less complicated than a human. In fact, adapting to social media overload is not about being ‘on a diet’ than having a good ‘data hygiene’ with a set of rituals and tools. This is what I explored along with my colleagues at Near Future Laboratory with the design and development of Humans.
Humans is an app that offers a way to rationally manage too many contacts and slows down the consumption of status updates, tweets, selfies, photos of all kinds. Its design inspires from observations on how humans adapt to the feelings of information overload with its related anxieties, obsessions, stress and other mental burdens. Humans is the toothbrush for social media you pick up twice a day to help prevent these discomforts. It promotes ‘data hygiene’ that helps adjust to current pace of social exchanges.
First, Humans gives means to filter, categorize and prioritize feeds spread across multiple services, like Twitter, Instagram, and Flickr. The result forms a curated mosaic of a few contacts, friends, or connections arranged in their context.
Additionally Humans strips social network interfaces and algorithms from their ‘toxic’ elements that foment addictions and arouse our desire to accumulate rather than abstract. And that without altering the fascinating dynamics of social networks. One inspiration this ‘data hygiene’ design pattern is the Facebook Demetricator provocative project that removes any number present in the Facebook interface. Its developer Benjamin Grosser advocates for the reduction of our collective obsession with metrics that plays out as an insatiable desire to make every number go higher. Another inspiration is the Little Voices app that removes the ‘noise’ from Twitter feeds and that is ‘ideal for those who like their feeds slightly quieter’.
Taken together, the benefits of using Humans are:
Reduce the compulsion to perpetually check Instagram, Twitter and Flickr
A frequent use of multiple social media services reduces our ability to contextualize and focus. With Humans, you can mitigate that online social service schizophrenia and establish a rational regimen for following without the constant barrage and noise of too many extraneous strangers’ updates. It works with the main social media platforms.
Keep away from the distractions in social media feeds
Get access to content stripped out of the social media distractions. Humans removes visual noise and arrange in their context the many status updates, links, selfies, photos of all kinds.
Mitigate feelings and symptoms of remorse whilst taking short or long offline breaks
If you have been away from your screens or too busy, Humans creates digestible doses of context that will get you up to date.
I designed and developed Humans to exemplify a new mean for ‘data hygiene’ with an interface and algorithms that adapt to human pace and do not uniquely focus on the real-time, the ‘now’, and the accumulation of ‘likes’ and ‘contacts’. Or as our fictional experts in ‘data hygiene’ would suggest:
At Near Future Laboratory, we like to investigate alternative paths for technology. As data and connectivity augment our lives, hygiene might no longer only relate to maintaining a healthy body. Connected humans produce ‘data doppelgängers’ and consume data ‘anywhere’ and ‘anytime’ at an unprecedented rate. Consequently, they start to experience discomforts such as social media overload that Humans helps mitigate.
Like other information technology revolutions, there is a necessity for people to adopt new rituals and tools. In the near future we might see emerge interfaces, experiences, algorithms, design patters that reshape our social practices and for instance:
moderate our collective obsession with metrics and the pervasive evaluation and comparison of one self.
reclaim space for conversation over the illusion of the connection, its ‘retweets’ and ‘likes’.
reduce the social cost to ‘unfollow’.
promote solitude as a good thing.
regulate our insatiable desire to capture ‘moments’ and accumulate ‘contacts’.
help us overcome the ineluctable situations of digital amnesia.
empower our skills for abstraction and generalization from the ‘moments’ we capture.
help us forget to better remember.
invite us to expect less from technology, and more from ourselves and each other.
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.