Its 2015, and we couldnt have asked for a better way to start the new year. We are thrilled to welcome two brilliant, talented designers to the studio, joining us on a range of new strategic and design work. First up, we have Sarah Gold, who will be joining us as a core member of our team, developing new client and research projects. Katarina Medić has started her internship with us, and her great graphic and visual design work has already started influencing projects in the studio. Here are their brief biographies, but I am sure you'll be seeing more of them and their work over here soon.
My work engages with our restless futures, broadly within three camps: the near now (drones, bots), data architectures (data licences, blockchains) and the new civic (the new ‘public’, eCitizenship). I finished my Masters in Industrial Design last year, and was presented with a Design Council Future Pioneer Award and Creative Enterprise Innovation Award for my project, the Alternet - a proposal for a civic network. Whilst continuing to work on an array of projects around the Alternet’s key themes, I also collaborate on WikiHouse where I helped cofound the WikiHouse Foundation. It’s a pleasure to join the Superflux team, working on some very exciting projects. Here’s to 2015!
I am a multidisciplinary designer who has a strong interest in systems and like to make sense of society by exploring new themes, analysing different opinions and merging contrasting subjects. I graduated with a BA in Visual Communication Design from University of Ljubljana where I received acknowledgement for Outstanding Academic Achievements. My work has been recognised at the Biennial of Slovene Visual Communications and exhibited in Ljubljana, Zagreb and Warsaw.
Most of my previous experience lies in identity, digital and editorial design including work for the Slovenian Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale and 10th Slovenian Biennial of Illustration. I believe in design that goes beyond a printed page or device and is interested in creating unique visual experiences for digital and physical environments.
We have been very fortunate to have Ruairi Glynn recommend his brilliant student Gejin Gao to us for an internship. Gejin (Helen) has been with us for the last four weeks, so this is a rather late introduction. She joined the studio during a very busy period and got stuck into projects immediately. It has been an absolute delight having her with us whilst she explores her interests and makes decisions on whether she can live in the UK or return to China.
I am a graduate from Bartlett School of Architecture. I am interested in improving human experience through interactions with empathetic architectural spaces and design objects. My interactive project "Cellular Reticulations", in collaboration with Yujiang Wang, is about spatialising 'Cellular Automata', typically constrained to software environments, to understand their potential as dynamic architectural systems. The final outcome (image below) allows for a continually transforming environment that attempts to induce wonder and delight. During my time at Superflux, I have been working on an exciting project exploring the relationship between the Indian Space Program, progress, innovation and geopolitics, and also working on the Drone Aviary Project.
At some point in the last couple of days, as the temperature in London plummeted, this post morphed from 'Autumn' to 'Winter' news. But I'll stick to the title, just to try and make 2014 that much longer, and delay the inevitable.
The last quarter has been one of the most challenging we have had in the studio's history, testing every ounce of our perseverance, integrity and commitment. But it has also made us more resilient and we feel proud of where we are today because of it. I want to use this opportunity to thank everyone who has supported and encouraged us in this journey. And so, this post is a quick roundup highlighting some of the good things that have happened recently.
1. DRONE AVIARY 01 in Tokyo
We are thrilled to be able to show the first instantiation of the Drone Aviary project at Tokyo's stunning 21_21 Design Sight Gallery. It forms part of part of a great show titled The Fab Mind: Hints of the Future in a Shifting World. A shoutout to Dimitri Papadimitriou, Jon Flint, Ian Hutchinson, Sam Conran and Georgina Bourke who played a key role in getting it shipped. And Yosuke Ushigome for orchestrating the work in Tokyo. We shared some of our thinking behind the project on Virgin's Unite's series around drones, which was also picked up by Richard Branson. We wiill be doing a detailed post about the project and the work so far very soon, and also sharing more information on the next show in London. I have been leading this project and feel really happy that we are finally moving forward in a direction we want to pursue after some serious set backs.
2. PRODUCT INVENTION HACKATHONS
We recently wrapped up a big client project focusing on product invention and experience prototyping designed in the form of a series of week-long hackathons, led by Anab. The project remains strictly under NDA, but if all goes to plan, you should see the products out in the world by 2016. It was a joy to work with the very talented Philipp Ronnenberg, Dan Williams and Matt Shannon. The studio was a frenzy of intense activity, as concepts and prototoypes were churned out like never before. And ofcourse, it was a real joy to make proper use of our new Ultimaker. The sheer joy on the face of the key stakeholder, as they saw and played with product prototypes, made the efforts more then worth it.
3. BUGGYAIR KICKS OFF
We are thrilled to continue to receive support for IoTA, as we develop demonstrators that show our investigative research and design approach around IoT. The first version of the website is ready, and Anab wrote about the things we learnt during the journey for Nominet Trust. Based on those foundations, we are now working on BuggyAir, where a group of parents will use bespoke sensor kits to measure ground level air pollution that directly affects their children’s health, and use the generated data as evidence for long term behavioural and legislative change.
4. CITIES UNLOCKED LAUNCHES
Future Cities Catapult just launched a major project: Cities Unlocked in collaboration with Microsoft UK and Guide Dogs. We are proud to have been one of the project partners, working with blind and partially sighted people to identify the characteristics of future cities which will enrich their experiences, and to develop potential cityscapes which would inspire them to make journeys into cities and around them. We will be sharing a detailed report about our approach, methods and outcomes in the coming days, but here's a great interview with Sara Hendren, whom we interviewed early in the process. Also some good press over on BBC, Dezeen and others.
5. BLURRING THE LINES, BRITISH COUNCIL
We are featured in British Council's remarkable 'Blurring the Lines', an exhibition about culture in flux, told through sixteen stories of people reinventing creative exploration and participation. The exhibition is free and open till 19th December, so if you are in the area do check it out. After all, any show where we can sneak in a Playmobil cant be missed.
6. FUTURE FICTIONS, Z33
Dynamic Genetics vs Mann is currently part of the Future Fictions show at the great Z33 in Belgium. With this show, Z33 continues the debate about our future, exploring how contemporary artists, designers and architects relate to future thinking and imaging: from mapping, questioning and criticizing, to developing complex visions about the structures and systems that may shape our life in the future. Designed specifically for the UK context, I continue to hope that one day soon, this project would be show here on home territory.
7. FEATURED IN WIRED UK
I am very pleased that there's a feature about the Drone Aviary in WIRED UK! (although there seems to be some confusion about the title of the project)
8. FEATURED IN BLUEPRINT MAGAZINE
Blueprint magazine has a great article by Vernica Simpson "Speculate to Accumulate" which features our work and practice.
9. UPCOMING TALKS IN THE US
From Monday 10th Nov, Anab is on a whirlwind tour of the US, for a series of talks, meetings and teaching. Starting with New York, where the first public talk is at the School of Visual Arts, followed by School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she is part of their visiting artists program. She then goes to Ann Arbor as part of the prestigious Penny Stamps series, and then finally at MOCAD in Detroit. If you are in any of these cities next week, go say hi.
10. LONG NOW LONDON
After much delay we are pleased to have reinstated the great Long Now London meetup group, with Corinna Gardner from the V&A and Alastair Parvain from Wikihouse as inagural speakers. We are grateful to Hub Westminster for offering us the venue, and to Ana Bradley for helping us with drinks sponsorship.
Ten is a good number so I'll stop here. We also have some exciting news about new people joining us, a project around Indian spacecraft and more, but I'll save that for another post.
Future Cities Catapult just launched a major project: Cities Unlocked in collaboration with Microsoft UK and Guide Dogs. As one of the project partners, we worked with blind and partially sighted people to identify the characteristics of future cities which will enrich their experiences, and to develop potential cityscapes which would inspire them to make journeys into cities and around them. We will be sharing a detailed report about our approach, methods and outcomes in the coming days.
Image from our workshop with visually impaired people, city planners, technologists and designers.
Today, I'll start by sharing an excerpt from an early research interview with Sara Hendren, an artist, design researcher, and writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She teaches socially-engaged design practices, adaptive + assistive technologies, and disability studies for engineers-in-training at Olin College.
SF: Can you give us insights into how you approach themes in your work around adaptability and accessibility? How should designers go about collaborating with people using these technologies?
SH: I think a good general rule is to start by asking detailed questions about the kinds of technologies, low and high, that people with anomalous bodies are already using—including, significantly, their own highly adaptive and embodied sensing systems. These skills tend to get overlooked in tech development. So: canes, animal partners, and then a combination of aural, tactile, olfactory, and other skills are going to be richly in play already. Knowing as much as you can about those experiences will help prevent you from inventing a problem set, as it were, and also be potential (and potentially hidden) sources of inspiration for your design work.
I spoke to scholar and adaptive device user Georgina Kleege about these issues for the Atlantic Tech channel; she has much to say there about the interplay among the senses and assistive tools of various kinds.
SF: You think a lot about the "the future of human bodies in the built environment". What are the most important insights you have gained in your research so far, about how the human body and prosthetics adapt to the built environment, or the other way around? How can we design a more symbiotic relationship, that is inclusive, but also unique to individuals?
SH: Those are questions I think about all the time! I’d say broadly that design researchers need much, much more user interview data than we have now—too often there’s a very small sampling of data that’s used to represent human-centered design research with user-experts. Because aging and sightedness and autism and so many other conditions are wildly various, we need much bigger and more robust data sets for understanding wayfinding and product use. See Boston’s Institute for Human-Centered Design’s new user expert lab as an example. They want to be as large a resource as possible, and one that clients can access and pay for when doing market research.
I also think there’s so much more thinking to be done at the systems level, rather than at the product level—but it should be systems research where designers and artists are key contributors at every stage. I think, for example, in cultures like the US and the UK, there’s a pretty narrow focus on individual independence as the only goal worth seeking out—and that independence is thought to be delivered solely via personal technological devices.
But what about community support programs that would be points of contact throughout a city, for help when a person with developmental disabilities needs help after a bus line has been rerouted, or when an elderly person needs assistance getting groceries in the door/shoveling snow? These kinds of systems would help people get and stay employed and stay in their homes for longer than might otherwise be the case.
Images from Sara's work titled 'Inclined Planes'
Engaging at the systems level would also help designers address issues of equity and access, rather than just shiny gadgets for those who can afford them. That privilege gap is forever plaguing the discourse on new assistive tech, and rightly so.
SF: What according to you are the drivers / weak signals / to which inclusive design for cities should be paying attention? From a technological, as well as social and cultural perspective?
SH: I think designers should first try to be more granular in their approach to “canonical” disabilities: blindness, deafness, and so on. I’d think, for example, about the gradations of sightedness that tend to get overlooked in tech for vision impairments: Most people who are technically blind, after all, *do* have some kind of visual field. They see high contrasts or bright lights only, perhaps. But they don’t operate in total darkness and they do use their vision to see. There’s much more to be done with design accordingly, especially with *editing* cities for enriched use. Like: consider the high-contrast black and yellow markers along stairs and crosswalks and subway platforms and so on. What would users say about making those more tactile environments—even more than they are now? What else would they like to see in structural and architectural forms that could be better imagined or augmented, again with partial and low vision in mind? This would also address aging and the overall slow degeneration in vision as well.
Relatedly, Georgina Kleege and others have pointed out a category of what might be called “print disabilities”—also in that interview—meaning, looking at an excessive cultural reliance on printed text for city wayfinding and information. What could be done with pictorial icons and sounds and tactile environments that make the city *legible* to those who don’t process print, either because of vision or dyslexia or other learning disabilities? Grouping these sets of users together is a really interesting design challenge.
But there are many other “weak signals” that could become design opportunities. If you listen to some of Janet Cardiff’s work, for instance—there are really interesting opportunities to reconsider sensory wayfinding in cities. She makes alternate histories and tours of physical places with aural cues alone. She does part fact, part fiction sound works that would be fascinating as wayfinding that’s *enriching,* not just *more information,* which is where app design so often ends.
I also think the olfactory sense is woefully underexamined as both a useful tool for wayfinding and a potentially rich alternate experience of the city for everyone. I was thinking about this back in February as I walked to work on an especially cold day—I was so bundled up that my (quite ordinary and adept) vision was partially obscured by my hat and coat and scarf. But that day my route included going by a candy factory—and if you hit it at the right time, the building breathes out butterscotch in the most fantastic, immersive way. I can imagine a wayfinding tour of London that’s indexed completely by scents, and all the socio-cultural geography that would result. I was also intrigued by that taste map of the London tube that made wide rounds in the press last year.
This is all, in a way, revisiting Kevin Lynch’s heuristics for wayfinding again: paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks. Seems to me there’s lots of good ways to dig into alternate and invisible counter-histories or supplemental tools when thinking at cities and access and wayfinding.
In the end, it’s less about seeing “accommodations” tailored to each individual population as though those needs were unique to them; it’s about finding interesting ways to make new Venn diagrams out of multiple publics: multiple uses and users of cities. The overall disposition to look at what seem like mere limitations—*starting* with impairment but pointing outward from diagnostic categories to richer, more unusual experiences for all—this is the kind of orientation that can yield much more interesting research and design.
Here's the transcript and slides from my talk at dConstruct 2014, its an updated version of my keynote at the FutureEverything Festival and remains an ongoing investigation into AI, Autonomy, Agency and an attempt to understanding the underlying forces that design influence at scale today. Here's a brief synopsis: "With an ever growing technological proliferation an increase in state and non-state monitoring and information warfare, a visceral sense of ambiguity, uncertainty and unconnectedness is becoming even more pronounced. If we are to understand and equip ourselves better to decipher and decode the intricate nature of these complex relationships and mediated social fictions, we will need to find new conceptual tools and vocabularies. What are these tools? How can we apply them at scale?" I owe a huge thanks to my co-conspirator Jon for the endless late night discussions and draft presentations, he is practically the co-author, and for that I am grateful. I'd also like to thank Anne, Jose and Tobias for the helpful chats.
Here it is, the Valley of the Meatpuppets.
This is a mobile phone my 7 yr old nephew made. It has a projector, a biometric finger print system and a secret eye with a control system that sends him real time information whilst he’s in school.
Whilst he doesnt own an actual spycam, they are easy to buy, And ofcourse spycraft is very a old familiar genre of toys. A while back Barbie came out with Barbie Video Girl Doll, part of the class of toys that act to familiarise children with the realities of life through play. (also, whatever you do, please dont do a search for a "barbie webcam".)
But nothing quite beats this playmobil security check point set. there is fun to be had in the police state One of the reviewers on Amazon says: "This toy is of little or no use as an educational tool: 1) everyone is smiling. 2) no way to do cavity searches.” Another says “Get it now as soon it will no longer be available. SA has requested that this product be removed from the market. It was deemed a security risk as it is virtually identical to the actual training material used to train TSA agents.” We learn early enough today, that watching and being watching is an integral part of our lives. Whilst the integration of spycraft into play goes back atleast as far as bond and dick tracy, nothing quite beats today’s real time assimilation of current events.
Like one min you see Edward Snowden on the 24 hour news cycle, and the next minute, your child might be playing with Snowden and aAssange action figures, as they attempt to make their escape through the playmobil airport security check point.
Earlier this year, you could purchse the Snowden action figure for $99 at thatsmyface.com, which until recenly offered a 10% discount using the promo code NSA. Whilst they claim that some of the proceeds do go to the Freedom of the Press Foundation, turns out the organisation has never endorsed this company. But the company no longer sells these figures, and no explanation has been given.
But dont be too disappointed. my friend Dan Williams, made a Snowden calendar, that you might be able to grab a copy of.
3D action figures and a beam teleconference robot, just couple of examples to show how Snowden is gaining a place alongside James Bond as one of the most prolific, and obvious cultural entities around the notion of surveillance. Whilst the world that Snowden has brought from conspiracy theories into mainstream culture is vast and pervasive, the nebulous problems that he has exposed seem too difficult to grasp. We dont know even how to begin to understand it, let alone engage with it in some meaningful way. John Lancaster put it rather well - "there is an extraordinary disconnect between the scale and seriousness of what Snowden has revealed, and the scale and seriousness of the response". The recently passed Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill (DRIP) is a great example of that.
But lets leave Snowden for a while and looked around us, to see how new forms of monitoring, big data and algorithmic intelligence, are penetrating more deeply in our lives. Today I would like to explore, through some familiar examples, our complex relationships with various architectures of control, from the domestic comfort of our homes, to the promises of our political leaders to wars. Our world where humans, thingbots, agents, actors and puppets cohabit. Where our perceptions are continually being designed. In the Valley of the Meatpuppets.
A meat puppet is used to refer a person who is invited to an internet discussion solely to influence it. A lot of what I am going to talk about is how various tools of influence are used to design and alter our various realities and perceptions, so that word fits quite well. But I would like to use this word to think about ways in which we are all being co-opted to becoming meatpuppets in our everyday life, as we farm data like livestock on facebook or walk around wearing awkward gadgets. We sit alongside thingbots, actors, agents and advertising zombies, helping create and propogate memes, spreading and reinforcing the reality bubble. Ursula Le Guin used this term for the first time - before the internet - in “The Diary of the Rose,” to refer to humans as unthinking bodies, which is a bit of stretch but does fit well. I am here to explore this space today, because I believe this would be useful in helping us think about how we as humans constantly negotiate our own agency whilst living within highly mediated networks.
Lets start with one of our most recent, and popular news story: Facebook’s psychology experiment, where the feeds of 700,000 people were manipulated. From Facebook’s perspective it was legitimate, all they wanted to find out was if exposure to emotions led people to change their own posting behaviours. As one of their pscyhologist remarked, its not even that alarming or exciting. However, hundreds of people got upset, and so Sheryl Sandberg apologised.
But then Christian Rudder, one of the founders of OKCupid said "Well yes Facebook did it, but so do we. Everyone does it, because lets be honest, most ideas are bad. Even good ideas could be better. Experiments are how you sort all this out." (Here are some hastily added OKcupid profiles I found on google image search. The guy on the top right corner used to be on it around 2008, with his stated desire to meet "women from countries that have sustained political turmoil". Western women, he wrote, are "valueless and inane", something he might now regret.
Writer and scholar McKenzie Wark has an interesting thing to say about this. "People are really disturbed about the privacy side, but we realise slowly is that what we are probably really disturbed about is the opposite: the indifference. to them the data is of interest in aggregate, or the users are of interest in aggregate. Nobody really cares about your weird sex thing on the internet, other than as a way to sell you products related to your weird sex thing."
It seems that it is inherently challenging for people to be critical of the decisions that machines make. And this is just beginning to get interesting, as we being to infiltrate our physical world with algorithms, making our material homes, "smart, intelligent".
So this tiny black gadget is called Piper is a home security system. You place it in your front room or bedroom and you can then watch your home from work, whilst traveling or when you are in the garden or bathroom. watching your kids in their bedrooms. A tiny instantiation of crowdsourcing surveillance. As a journalist in new york times put it, instead of the entire space being private, there are going to be public areas in our home.”
Piper is part of the growing generation of internet of things products. Like the internet-connected fridge which reminds you when you run out of milk (apologies to my iot friends for using this example) But recently a fridge apparently sent spam, in bursts of 100,000, three times per day, targeting enterprises and individuals worldwide. David Knight of Proofpoint the security agency investigating this incident said - and probably coined the term "thingbot" in the process.
But David Cameron still believes in them. Little does he or anyone of us know the implications of our emerging relationships with such thingbots. As billions of sensors begin to find there way into everyday objects, what are the new civic codes that will be created? Perhaps the spammy fridge is starting to hint at the reality of IoT beyond the current hype.
As we embed the world with sensors, we also find new ways of interacting with them. Sometimes we co-opt into exciting opportunities to become explorers, or meatpuppets, the wearers of Google glass, always looking slightly above the horizon, holding a finger to a pair of glasses, saying ‘OK’ way too often.
The awkward relationships with such devices are made easier as Google designs the polite rules of engagement, of what you should and shouldnt do with your glass. So far makers of technologies gave us instruction manuals, but now they are beginning to define our behavioural engagement with it in the public domain, which I think is a subtle but profound shift.
This code of conduct got attention because of this particular incident.This is fascinating, and brings me to the famous Daniel Mendelsohn quote:
So far so good, toys, fridges and gadgets. Well, its all fun and games until your neighbour’s car narks on you. A Texas based company Digital Recognition Network runs its own version of taskrabbits. Basically it sells cameras to repossession companies who pay money to private car owners to instal this camera on their cars. The camera picks up 8000 license plates daily, storing time and location of each car. Their bot compares this to the list of cars that need to be repossesed and sends information to insurance companies, financial institutions, law enforcement agencies private investigators. Crowdsourcing, the very antithesis of control and surveillance is now the tool being used by private companies for that very purpose.
And ofcourse the CEO of DRN responds (quote on slide below). Whilst his words show a clear disconnect between raw technological ability and the intent behind that, in a way it also shows the tension that exists here, our desire to share but lack of understanding of where the data is going and what is being done with it.
This sort of crowdsourced surveillance takes on an even more sinister tone, when people in a protest are asked abandon their cause and turn on their allies for a cash incentive. Businesses or police can hire Tiltor to send a message to all the smartphones in a designated area, offering a reward to anyone who attempts to disperse the crowd from within. If the riot ends soon after, everyone who signed up to Tiltor (their website's copy has completely changed in the last couple of months) gets a share of the total reward money. whilst the founder recommends that tiltor should only be used for riots that have arisen for non-ideological reasons such as after sporting losses or during large concerts, their blog is full of Chinese protests.
if you doubt that tools like this will be used, then look no further then the recent events in Ukraine, when thousands of Ukrainian protesters spontaneously received this text message on their cell phones “you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance”, as a new law prohibiting public demonstrations went into effect. Using a cell phone near a clash lands you on the regime's hit list, showing how technology is already being deployed to “detect dissent”.
So this isnt a story about a govt trying to stop a riot, arguably the govt was responsible for perpetuating the riots. These images are from my home in India, taken during the communal riots of 2002, which critics have likened it to a Genocide. India's National Human Rights Commission found evidence in the killings of premeditation by members of Hindu extremist groups; complicity by Gujarat state government officials; and police inaction in the midst of attacks on Muslims. The NHRC also noted "widespread reports and allegations of well-organized persons, armed with mobile telephones and addresses, singling out certain homes and properties for death and destruction in certain districts-sometimes within view of police stations and personnel."
What is interesting is that the man who was accused for having a lead role in this, Gujarat’s chief minister Narendra Modi and now India’s PM was given a clean chit, and has had a huge image makeover to this to the one who is bringing large scale growth in the economy and infrastructure, with projects like the GIFT CITY or the Gujarat International finance Tech-city.
The organisation who is supposed to be responsible for Modi’s image makeover is APCO Worldwide, the second largest lobbying firm in America. The firm specialises in helping corporations advance their goals by manipulating legislators, and drafting and advancing model legislation and regulations. Key tools include the creation of business coalitions and fake, corporate-funded ‘grassroots’ groups tailored to specific issues, a practice known as astroturfing.
Apco is not the only organisation who can design influence at such a scale, the other key players include donor-advised funds, such as Donors Trust and the Donors Capital Fund. One of their secretive funding route helped Conservative billionaires channel nearly £77million to more than 100 groups casting doubt about the science behind climate change between 2002 and 2010. It helped build a vast network of thinktanks and activist groups working to a single purpose: to redefine climate change from neutral scientific fact to a highly polarising "wedge issue" for hardcore conservatives. This is top secret memo from one of such thinktank - The Heartland Institute - who are developing the global warming curriculum for K-12 classrooms. They would like Dr. Wojick who works with the government to show the teachers how the topic of climate change is controversial and uncertain, the two points that are effective at dissuading teachers from teaching climate science.
This slide might appear to be right out of a typical corporate deck.
But then as you progress the nature of the business at hand starts becoming ever more sinister.
These are slides from JTRIG, the Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group, a unit of GCHQ, who created this top secret document for the Five Eyes intelligence partnership that includes Britain, the US, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Their ultimate aim is to control, infiltrate, manipulate, and warp online discourse using the “4 D's:” deny, disrupt, degrade, deceive.
This has echoes of OPERATION EARNEST VOICE, an online persona management system used by US central command. Basically it could secretly manipulate social media sites by using fake online personas to influence internet conversations and spread pro-American propaganda. The project was delivered by Ntrepid, an American software, hardware and cyber security company.
Psychologist Sarah King’s US military's work has references to the kind of thinking JTRIG do, the "information-operations" thinking, which is defined as attempts to "influence, disrupt, corrupt or usurp adversarial human and automated decision making". And today, we can see, how in subtle ways, it is stretching into the civilian world.
Whilst we attribute many of our technological developments to the military, the line between corporate, political and military tactics has never been more tortuous and intertwined in the pursuit for power and influence. Exemplified by the example of DARPA-funded big dog robots acquired by Google.
Who is now called “Cujo” (dog-from-hell) and he’s just back from a test patrol with the US Marines, It walked for miles in across a difficult terrain carrying up to 400lbs of their kit and weapons.
These stories embedded in plastic toys, our smart homes, our cars, our devices, our personal relationships and our security are in fact meticulous social fictions woven through the fabric of our everyday lives with stealth and precision. The connecting thread that runs through them is the scale and diversity of ways in we are actually experiencing an increasing ambiguity about where autonomy lies in the ever growing intricate relationships between people (citizens), technologies (of machine intelligence) and architectures of control (state and non-state actors including JTRIG, 4GS, Serco and many more)
Together, these entities become the key constituents of the valley of the meatpuppets. A new ethereal habitat where people, agents, thingbots, action heroes, dolls, big dogs and --- many more --- cohabit.
And I am reminded of what Joseph Weizenbaum's said: The only way you were going to get a world of thinking machines was not by making computers become like humans. Instead you would have to do the opposite - somehow persuade humans to simplify themselves, and become more like machines.”
And that's becoming possible as we realise that one dominant class is emerging - the class which owns and controls the mode of information, becoming the most powerful one. The Vectoral class as named by Mckenzie Wark, because they control the vectors along which information is abstracted. OK, so we can play with our data, but they control the metadata. And in the process - Terraforming our landscapes to create large faceless data centres.
This new habitat brings big questions about our sense of freedom and our capacity to act under constraints. With an increase in monitoring, surveillance, AI and big data, this ambiguity, this sense of uncertainty and unconnectedness will become more pronounced. Invisible wars over autonomy will become a recurring leitmotif of the 21st century. And if we are to understand and equip ourselves better to decipher and decode the intricate nature of these mediated social fictions, we will need to find new conceptual tools and vocabularies.
The most important toolkit we need today is one that can help create a visceral connection with the complexity and plurality of the worlds we live in, in order to create the momentum that is needed to reclaim our right to re-imagine and reshape the worlds we live in.
Tools that help us see beyond the singular, linear past/present/future trajectory, that is presented to us
To a more multidimensional world with plurality of histories, presents and futures will help reveal the manufactured promises, and give us the capacity to choose, navigate and manoeuvre our journeys. In this lies the idea of taking the long view, looking at long stretches of the past, to see these evolving new ways of being from an imaginary vantage point in a future.
Of course the question is - Why am I interested in this as a designer? A lot of design traditionally services, facilitates and lives within these conditions and is very much entrenched within this world. It is either sleek, seamlessly receding into the fabric of a singular vision, or in the service of those companies or organisations that seek to define that vision. Whilst as a design studio we also practice in this world, we think it is important to continually challenge and question one’s position. I am reminded of a great quote by Lebbeus Woods, and would like to paraphrase it for design.
And so part of our work also falls into what you might call speculative design or design fiction where we create stories, films products and experiences to explore the future implications of emerging technologies on people, society and the environment. Such work seeks to create new perspectives and consider alternate presents by embracing complexity and challenging established narratives. I’d like to share some quick examples to illustrate this.
So, the examples I showed earlier, illustrating how state and non-state actors design large-scale influence and compliance are not just limited to the digital realm, but extend into biotechnology and healthcare as well. The UK DNA database is already one of the world's largest in the world. Historically govts created dna databases exclusively of people with criminal records. But today in the UK there are over 850,000 people on the database who do not have a current criminal record of which 40,000 are children.
In April 2013, UK’s Caldicott Committee proposed new rules for data-sharing which would allow the Government to build a DNA database of the whole population of England in the National Health Service by stealth, which many have likened to the idea of Genetic Panopticon. At Superflux we are exploring the implications of big data in the context of genetics, healthcare and personal genomics, through the lens of an ordinary citizen.
The project titled ‘Dynamic Genetics vs Mann’ is a superfiction, where we use techniques of mirroring real world organisations to reveal some of the intricate relationships and tensions between people politics, economics and technology. The project is presented though a detailed body of evidence from a near future courtcase. The case centers around a protagonist Arnold
who received this DNA sample kit from the NHI - the UK government’s National Health Insurance program, previously known as the NHS. It is mandatory to give a saliva sample to this program.
the NHI’s cost benefit algorithm calculates every individual’s insurance contribution to reflect the potential healthcare costs associated with their genome. If your genetic makeup revealed higher risks of heart diseases, you will pay a higher insurance premium.
This is evidence from the Revenue and Customs that collect the insurance contributions. Arnold who was previously paying £144 annually now has to pay £6127.20. For Arnold this pushes his already stretched budget over the edge.
Trapped between inflated premiums and the costs of private genetic therapy, Mann approaches a black market clinic that offers to use bootlegged gene therapies to modify his DNA, in order to lower his insurance premium. This is a covert surveillance photograph of Arnold getting treated in this clinic.
The illegality of his actions are quickly discovered, and evidence is gathered by the therapy's licence holder, the biotech multinational Dynamic Genetics, who bring a case against Mann.
Their team presents further evidence in the form of forensic photographs documenting the layout of the black market clinic. On the right you see an Improvised CO2 Incubator used in the manufacture of illegal genetic therapies.
a Batch of counterfeit therapies found in the clinic, and boxes containing mice which appear to have been used as test subjects.
Sections of defendant’s machine-readable DNA with matches to Dynamic Genetics copyright material highlighted in yellow. Looking at these strips, with tiny, indecipherable A’s, T’s, C’s and G’s, we don’t know what diseases he was at risk for, how much of a burden he would one day be on the insurance pool, or even if the pirated gene therapy has actually changed his odds of developing the disease. As Christina Agapakis wrote, "with increased health we must give up some of our expectations about genetic privacy".
And finally, footage documenting Arnold’s interrogation. The lens of the court case helped construct a powerful narrative to expose the story of a vulnerable citizen who goes to extreme measures to mitigate the impact of healthcare premiums. Pieced together, these evidential fragments question the ethical, political and economic implications of innovations in biotechnology that are quietly transforming our world. Technologies dont exist in isolation, they interact with a rich and complex world and are subject to forces beyond their makers control. As designers we believe it is important to think about wider complexities in order to challenge the deeper assumptions about technological power and control.
In a project called IoTA, we are bringing smart cities to people. Creating a grassroots platform that will encourage people to move beyond data spectatorship to engage in meaningful ways with the proliferation of sensor technology and data.
The platform encourages communities in gaining empirical understanding about the issues that matter most to them, from exposure to radiation or air pollution. It will not only show how data is made, how it is collected, how it can be read, where it lives, and but most importantly, what it can do collectively, how it can actually become an important tool for informing behavioural legislative change.
We are building demonstrators for the project, the first one was around aircraft noise pollution, and the second one BuggyAir, working with a group of 40-50 parents and carers to understand the impact of Nitrogren dioxide, and Particulate Matter on infants and toddlers. Our intention is that this data does not simply report the state of the world, but acts as political surrogates for a community advocating for its interests.
Another project I’d like to talk about it called The Open Informant. The NSA, GCHQ and other government security services secretly collect and scan our personal information and correspondence for trigger words; from the overtly malevolent: ‘anthrax’, ‘assassination’ and ‘bomb’ to the seemingly benign: ‘pork’, ‘dock’ and ‘storm’.revelations have not just exposed excrutiating details of this activity, but also confirmed extreme disconnect between people and state power.
Such techniques are often justified with an emotive narrative of safety, William Hague, in response to the Snowden revelations: "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear". Statements like these act to control the narrative around surveillance and close down public debate on the complexities of the issue.
Our response, Open Informant wants to confront this normalising narrative. It is an a phone app and e-ink badge that searches your communications for these NSA trigger words and then sends text fragments containing these words to the badge for public display.
By openly displaying what is currently taken by forceful stealth, we question the intrusive forms of mass surveillance. And in the process, it is our intention to shift the conversation around wearables from being about you and your body as machine, to the culture of machine intelligence and algorithmic monitoring.
Whilst these projects and others like them, work well for a certain audience, in their current incarnation they may not have the power to influence mass culture in the way advertising, pr and the film industries do. I wonder if we might be able to borrow some of the powerful techniques that these industries use to meet the core philosophical objectives of our work. To
Help us progress beyond contracted, predefined archetypes of play and explore the ambiguous, nuanced multiplicity of our time. Moving from a state of ideological consumption to autonomous world building.
And break the manufactured state of compliance to encourage creative engagement in the way we interact with and respond to architectures of control.
And finally, to puncture the seductive layers of deception spread by special interest media campaigns, politics and PR strategies, through direct and critical intervention.
We were fortunate and grateful to be working with three very talented designers this summer, coming from different design backgrounds. I'd like to introduce Jonathan Flint, Dillon Froelich and Sam Conran, who are currently do their internship with us.
1. Jon C. Flint
I am a current masters student on the new Design interaction research course at Goldsmiths University of London. I am interested in the idiosyncrasies that emerge in new and old technologies alike and use my previous experience as a product designer to explore this. I enjoy tinkering with electronics and thinking of interesting concepts for installations which I have done with Almost Silent an interactive art collective, their last exhibition used a brain wave sensor to create sound visualisations on water.
2. Dillon Froehlich
My work revolves around cultural narratives and questioning what we, as a society, are willing to accept. I am interested in researching historical pasts, designing contemporary parallels and envisioning potential futuristic outcomes as well as reevaluating lessons from my own background and promoting awareness and education by means of fiction. Through model making, illustration, short stories and renderings, my concepts strive to create worlds where it is possible for us to reflect. While currently interning at Superflux this summer, I will be graduating with a BFA in Industrial Design from RISD next spring.
3. Sam Conran
I am a London based sound artist and designer. I am a graduate of the Sound Art and design department at the London College of Communication and am currently undertaking an MA in Design Interactions at the RCA. My intention for exploring sound stems from a longstanding involvment with music and see myself as following the extensions/abstractions beyond its current format. An occasional performer as well as sound artist/designer, I have shown my work at venues including the Tate Modern, V&A, Cafe OTO and the Science Museum. More of my work can be found here. Some of my favorite books include, Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia. Johnathan Stern, The Audible Past & Hand Made Electronic Music, Nicholas Collins, and favorite people are Max Neuhaus, David Tudor, Iannis Xenakis.
In early May, Jon and I were invited by the HEAD MEDIA DESIGN faculty in Geneva to lead a week long design futurescaping workshop for the first-year students on their postgraduate Media Design programme. Having not previously encountered speculative design, futurescaping, or design fiction, we were tasked with finding a way to drag this bundle of themes and techniques into the participants’ familiar everyday lives. We could easily have spent a week exploring different processes and methods, but, instead, we chose to develop a challenging context-specific brief, through which the HEAD students could start to grapple with some of the questions we ourselves have been exploring through our lab and studio activities.
Drawing on our recent work, talks, and ongoing personal encounters with immigration and the contemporary nation-state, we were drawn to a central theme of political complexity – challenging students to probe notions of borders, territories, and the fragile, increasingly precarious relationship between people and their governments. Developing the brief in collaboration with Justin Pickard, our spooky, mostly virtual studio associate, we wanted to leave workshop participants fully primed and poised, ready to develop their own original work on these and similar issues.
"Looking ahead to the Switzerland of 2025, this workshop challenges participants to design thoughtful responses to emerging political tensions at the intersection of migration, housing, climate change, robotics, surveillance, currency and finance, energy, public protest, and the hollowing out of the contemporary nation-state. Superflux will present the students with a series of weak signals from a near-future world and the students will work individually to respond to this world. At a deeper level, this workshop asks the students to consider the role their design practice may play in a future that is radically different from the one they may have been led to expect."
We kicked off the workshop with a presentation expanding on the initial brief, describing how the workshop would use the notion of ‘failed states’ to ‘explore how political visions of the future fail to account for the complexity of the world, and in doing so, struggle to consider unforeseen events and uncertainty.’ We showed real-world examples of the ways in which unanticipated events – the collapse of the USSR, the Great Depression, etc. – have triggered paradigm shifts in national and international politics, the consequences of which we continue to experience in our everyday lives today, in 2014.
Mid-week Crit, where students present their research and initial design proposals.
With this as background and context, we confronted the workshop participants with a future Switzerland of the mid-2020s; a small, federal state in a world where an increasingly powerful Chinese state holds controlling shares in a number of critical Swiss infrastructure projects, a network of surveillance UAVs have been deployed to monitor and pre-empt civil unrest, widespread food shortages have been met by the nationalisation of many Swiss food companies, and the persistent overuse of antibiotics has led the world into an era in which even minor infections can prove terminal.
Series of UDC propaganda posters, more here.
Sharing our timeline of events from 2013-2025 based on current trends and weak signals, we tasked participants with digesting the interplay of a range of future developments, considering their implications for the everyday experience of future Swiss citizens and inhabitants, and designing a response to the challenges and consequences of this future world. We asked them to engage, critique and infiltrate the dominant political and economic order through a proposed service, product, experience, movement, campaign, or anything else that felt appropriate.
Europe according to Switzerland, 2010, Atlas of Prejudice, by Yanko Tsvetkov
After the initial splash presentation, participants ran through a series of discussions and initial brainstorms, touching on the recent immigration referendum, the incipient anxieties of French students, and the visual language of Swiss political propaganda. The students were asked to consider the elements of this future world that resonated with their own passions and personal politics; what their own lives – and those of their friends and family – might look like in this proximate future; and alternative roles for their own design practice in an unexpected or divergent environment. Over the first few days, participants made extensive use of mapping and fiction and they sought to orient themselves in relation to a series of much larger, interlocking social and technical systems.
Image from Clement Coubès' research. His project explored the idea of disaster tourism in the context of failed states.
After a round of early brainstorms we suggested the students write short stories, that situate them or their loved ones, within this world. This became a great mechanism to create deeper connections with the things that they otherwise did not consider. For instance, here's an excerpt from Vytautas's story:
I’m in my 2-room rented flat with my french girlfriend and our child. My salary is late by more than two months, as the Genevan canton suspended issuing residence permits due to the unclear future of the state. I was thinking of taking all the family and going home, for quite a while, up until Russians invaded Lithuania (for national security reasons, as they state) and are now “maintaining order” just like back in the Soviet Union days. Last week we buried our dog, which was shot in "self-defense” by one angry nationalist rioter. Nobody cares about it anyway, life’s just too difficult right now. Nobody except my daughter. I’m still here, because hoping to get an extension for a residence permit is still a better option than being a refugee with no nationality. All in all, I couldn’t even pass the border.
Final projects tackled questions around immigration, state surveillance, cryptocurrencies, mesh networks, political apartheid, economic protectionism, puppet governments, gated communities, racial discrimination, and the growing influence of China and the Global South.
Vytautas Jankauskas's Proposal "Swiss Independent Citizen Community": ISCC is a project about independent foreign citizen community formed in Switzerland as a failed state, where foreigners offer government balanced community agreements in exchange for social, political and economical guaranties. People can voluntarily provide selected parts of their Big Data, bank transaction info, sign-up as military volunteers, etc. whereas the state issues special citizen IDs allowing free travel, national health insurance and other essentials. The goal is to help stabilize the country as well as improve the living and individual security of struggling foreign citizens
Gaetan Stierlin's Proposal "Economic Wars": In 2025, most of the Switerzland (public services, the mountains) is into the hand of foreign investors (mostly China). This investors control also the government. The Federal Counsil wants Swizterland to keep the beautiful image we have, so they're using massive propaganda to convict the swiss to be happy and confident, has if nothing is happening. Swiss people feel like strangers in their own country, because they have to reimport swiss products, like the Kinder chocolate. The investors love it so much, it's totally exported to China for themselves.
Participants’ work explored the various ways in which they might be able to either infiltrate the system, or design for it from within it. As workshop convenors, we found it emotionally and personally challenging to see how far they were willing to push themselves beyond their comfort zones, in order to explore new thematic and design territories.
Catherine Brand's proposal "The Milky Way & New Kitchenware; or how the Swiss population copes with food shortages in 2025" Since 2019 dramatic heat waves affect Europe. Governments have to face food shortages. In Switzerland, the price of food products has drastically increased, with basic food products having become a rare commodity.Switzerland has nationalised the country’s largest suppliers of in-vitro, lab grown meat. As the country has been kicked out of the Schengen area, they are not able to buy food products in neighbouring countries anymore. This would require a visa. Solutions have to be found in the domestic economy or on digital platforms.
Félicien Goguey's Proposal: The DSPS works as a Peer 2 Peer ever-shifting network based on human flows. Every citizen taking part in it wears a mobile device and own an immobile mailbox. These devices allows to exchange data between citizens without any contact.Thus any citizen wearing a mobile device becomes a messenger of the network. Public transportation (buses, trains, planes...) and crowded places are nodes where the messages can be exchanged. Messages are protected by PGP (Pretty Good Privacy). AI (maybe genetic algorithm) determines the shortest way to deliver the message and compute the path, based on the habits of the peers and predictions. Efficiency and delivery speed rely on the number of citizens using DSPS.
The set of final presentations was inspiring and rewarding, and the students who took the opportunity to engage with this complex and chaotic bundle of issues did remarkably well in such a short period of time. "We learnt how to ask questions" was possibly one of the best feedback we could have asked for. Many thanks to Daniel Schiboz, Nicolas Nova and Marion Schmidt for the hospitality, we hope to be back at HEAD soon.
The year has flown by! What should be a monthly update has now become a quarterly (perhaps even semi-annual) update, our attempt to share studio highlights, and a fleeting moment to reflect on what has happened and what we have learnt.
On the Consultancy front, we have been lucky to have the opportunity to work with some great clients this year. Couple of quick project hightlights that we can share publicly:
Future Cities Catapult / Family Day Out Programme
One of the most exciting projects we have been working on this year is with the Future Cities Catapult called 'A Family Day Out Programme'. The project seeks to work with partially sighted and blind people to help identify the characteristics of future cities that will enrich their experience of it and develop potential cityscapes that would inspire them to make journeys into cities and around them. We have been through an extensive design research, horizon scanning and futurescaping process and are currently visualising some of the outcomes.
Museum of Future Government Services / PMO, UAE
We were lead creative consultants for the concept and scenario development of the Museum of Future Government Services commissioned by the Prime Minister's Office of the UAE, working the incredible Tellart, Fabrica, Near Future Laboratory and Institute of the Future, spearheaded by Noah Raford. The project launched at the Government Summit, a global platform dedicated to the improvement and enhancement of government services and related opportunities. The six exhibits being shown at the Museum are immediately visually compelling, yet provocative, and ambitious visions of how services ranging from border control to health care to education could be delivered in the future, in an attempt to stimulate thought and action, from their leaders and civic officials in the UAE. Our colleagues at Tellart and Fabrica, working with the PMO, have done a remarkable job in translating concepts, developing elements, and ultimately executing the exhibits.
On the Lab front, currently two projects are keeping us on our toes.
Things that Fly and Watch Over You: Quadcopters, multirotors, positioning systems, and such other stuff has kept us occupied in the Lab, in huge amounts. Project Impossible is a beast that is simulteneously exciting and terrifying. One of the most fun part of the project is an opportunity to work with a host of amazingly talented people, all to be announced in an upcoming press conference.
IoTA: Internet of Things Academy: A full update on this project requires a separate blogpost, but suffice to say, we have made good progress. We are grateful to have a team of great people working with us: Gyorgyi Galik, Philipp Ronenberg, Martin Charlier and Daniel Pomlett. We have moved in a different direction from our initial proposal, but feel we now have a much clearer, far more exciting direction. Our focus is on people, on social and environmental concerns, and thinking of ways in which IoT can ultimately shape and influence legislation and policy. We are grateful for the incredible support of our partners Hugh Knowles and Louise Armstrong from the Forum for the Future and funders Nominet Trust and Founders Forum for Good, as well as the brillants folks at Suncorp who have been supporting our work. For regular updates follow @IoTAcademy on twitter or have a peek into our process on our tumblr.
Also on the Lab front, we were in India earlier this year, and have revisited Lilorann, with an renewed interest in Tactical Design and Tools for Critical Jugaad. We are in talks with several collaborators in the hope of realising a small thing this winter. Stay tuned.
Our Associate Tobias Revell has recently completed a commission 'Monopoly of Legitimate Use' premiered at the Lighthouse Brighton, which we highly recommend making a trip for. Also, Yosuke Ushigome is currently developing a fascinating project "exploring high-speed and speculative trading of our bodily-harvested energy/data/knowledge/assets" to be exhibited in October in Tokyo.
TALKS & EXHIBITIONS
Keynote, Futureverything: I delievered a keynote at the Futureverything Festival in Manchester end of March. Titled 'Valley of the Meatpuppets', the talk explores the ethereal space where people, agents, thingbots, action heroes and big dogs coexist and how influence is designed within this space. I think the conference videos should go online soon. It was also great to exhibit the 5th Dimensional Camera and Open Informant at the Festival too.
Design and Violence, MoMA New York:
We were invited by Paola Antonelli to contribute to their online show Design and Violence with a critical response to the work of Phil Ross. We wrote a short fiction piece exploring a future world where Mycotecture becomes a favoured material and what its implications might be.
V&A Friday Late: Candyce and I presented Dynamic Genetics vs Mann, followed by a series of sessions with the Synbio Tarot Cards at the V&A Friday Late for Synthetic Aesthetics. We had never run this sort of a session previously, but judging by the evening's success are considering new avenues for such toolkits.
We will be showing Dynamic Genetics vs Mann at the DEAF Biennale in Rotterdam later this month as part of the 'Blueprints for the Unknown' Exhibition, and hoping that there will be a way for the project to be shown in the UK soon, perhaps where the project will resonate the most. I will also be giving a talk at the DIY ‘Altopia’ Seminar at the Biennale. I'll be joining Tobias Revell at the Lighthouse to discuss his new work and explore themes of migration, borders, and networks. And I think that might be it, in terms of talks this year, apart from Chicago much later this year. Due to time contraints I have recently had to turn down few very exciting conference invitations for this year, but looking forward to it next year.
We enjoy teaching and our favourite form is intense workshops, which gives us an opportunity to set a brief, and a concetrated time with students to develop responses. We just wrapped up a workshop at HEAD, Geneva, with the Media Design MA students, working with them on a highly challenging brief titled 'Failed States: Tactical Design for Uncertain Futures. Developed in collaboration with Justin Pickard, we invited students to design thoughtful responses to emerging political tensions at the intersection of migration, housing, climate change, robotics, surveillance, currency and finance, energy, public protest, and the hollowing out of the contemporary nation-state, for a near-future Switzerland. Needless to say, it was a highly energetic, inspiring week, and we'll be writing a bit more about it soon.
STUDIO & NEW PEOPLE
We feel very much like an elastic studio, expanding and contracting on an almost daily basis, held together by Elvira's assiduity, and a constant supply of PG Tips, Waghbakri Chai, and Soyabean Cha. On some days its heaving with people, and the energy is palpable, at other times its quietness is calming. In the midst of the recent deadlines, we havent had a chance to properly welcome Candyce Dryburgh, Anuradha Reddy, and Jon Flint, three brilliant designers in various stages of internship with us.
Also, we were fortunate to have Romain Menieur intern with us for few months, do check out his great work. Apart from the regulars, we have been fortunate to welcome a range of awesome folks to the studio: Mike Vanis, Dan Williams, Martin Charlier and Daniel Pomlett to name a few.
This was meant to be brief, so I'll stop. Just a quick final note to say that we are also considering new projects, collaborations and partnerships for 2015, so if you have something in mind, do drop us a line.
Adios, be well!
Last year we were lucky to have some fantastic guest posts from Paul Graham Raven, Scott Smith and Christina Agapakis. Continuing the tradition into our second year, I am thrilled to welcome Alexis Lloyd, Creative Director R&D New York Times, to our blog with a great essay. When I met Alexis last year, it was clear that there were crossovers in our work, and we are grateful that she agreed to write for us, brilliantly exploring a space that we are currently preoccupied with in the studio. Over to Alexis.
IN THE LOOP: DESIGNING CONVERSATIONS WITH ALGORITHMS
Earlier this year, I saw a video from the Consumer Electronics Show in which Whirlpool gave a demonstration of their new line of connected appliances: appliances which would purportedly engage in tightly choreographed routines in order to respond easily and seamlessly to the consumer’s every need. As I watched, it struck me how similar the notions were to the “kitchen of the future” touted by Walter Cronkite in this 1967 video. I began to wonder: was that future vision from nearly fifty years ago particularly prescient? Or, perhaps, are we continuing to model technological innovation on a set of values that hasn’t changed in decades?
When we look closely at the implicit values embedded in the vast majority of new consumer technologies, they speak to a particular kind of relationship we are expected to have with computational systems, a relationship that harkens back to mid-20th century visions of robot servants. These relationships are defined by efficiency, optimization, and apparent magic. Products and systems are designed to relieve users of a variety of everyday “burdens” — problems that are often prioritized according to what technology can solve rather than their significance or impact. And those systems are then assumed to “just work”, in the famous words of Apple. They are black boxes in which the consumer should never feel the need to look under the hood, to see or examine a system’s process, because it should be smart enough to always anticipate your needs.
So what’s wrong with this vision? Why wouldn’t I want things doing work for me? Why would I care to understand more about a system’s process when it just makes the right decisions for me?
The problem is that these systems are making decisions on my behalf and those decisions are not always optimal: they can be based on wrong assumptions, incomplete understanding, or erroneous input. And as those systems become more pervasive, getting it wrong becomes increasingly problematic. We are starting to realize that black boxes are insufficient, because these systems are never smart enough to do what I expect all the time, or I want them to do something that wasn't explicitly designed into the system, or one “smart” thing disagrees with another “smart” thing. And the decisions they make are not trivial. Algorithmic systems record and influence an ever-increasing number of facets of our lives: the media we consume, through recommendation algorithms and personalized search; what my health insurance knows about my physical status, the kinds of places I’m exposed to (or not exposed to) as I navigate through the world; whether I’m approved for loans or hired for jobs; and whom I may date or marry.
As algorithmic systems become more prevalent, I’ve begun to notice of a variety of emergent behaviors evolving to work around these constraints, to deal with the insufficiency of these black box systems. These behaviors point to a growing dissatisfaction with the predominant design principles, and imply a new posture towards our relationships with machines.
The first behavior is adaptation. These are situations where I bend to the system’s will. For example, adaptations to the shortcomings of voice UI systems — mispronouncing a friend’s name to get my phone to call them; overenunciating; or speaking in a different accent because of the cultural assumptions built into voice recognition. We see people contort their behavior to perform for the system so that it responds optimally. This is compliance, an acknowledgement that we understand how a system listens, even when it’s not doing what we expect. We know that it isn’t flexible or responsive enough, so we shape ourselves to it. If this is the way we move forward, do half of us end up with Google accents and the other half with Apple accents? How much of our culture ends up being an adaptation to systems we can’t communicate well with?
The second type of behavior we’re seeing is negotiation — strategies for engaging with a system to operate within it in more nuanced ways. One example of this is Ghostery, a browser extension that allows one to see what data is being tracked from one’s web browsing and limit it or shape it according to one’s desires. This represents a middle ground: a system that is intended to be opaque is being probed in order to see what it does and try and work with it better. In these negotiations, users force a system to be more visible and flexible so that they can better converse with it.
We also see this kind of probing of algorithms becoming a new and critical role in journalism, as newsrooms take it upon themselves to independently investigate systems through impulse response modeling and reverse engineering, whether it's looking at the words that search engines censor from their autocomplete suggestions, how online retailers dynamically target different prices to different users, or how political campaigns generate fundraising emails.
Third, rather than bending to the system or trying to better converse with it, some take an antagonistic stance: they break the system to assert their will. Adam Harvey’s CV Dazzle is one example of this approach, where people hack their hair and makeup in order to foil computer vision and opt out of participating in facial recognition systems. What’s interesting here is that, while the attitude here is antagonistic, it is also an extreme acknowledgement of a system’s power — understanding that one must alter one’s identity and appearance in order to simply exert free will in an interaction.
Rather than simply seeing these behaviors as a series of exploits or hacks, I see them as signals of a changing posture towards computational systems. Culturally, we are now familiar enough with computational logic that we can conceive of the computer as a subject, an actor with a controlled set of perceptions and decision processes. And so we are beginning to create relationships where we form mental models of the system’s subjective experience and we respond to that in various ways. Rather than seeing those systems as tools, or servants, or invisible masters, we have begun to understand them as empowered actors in a flat ontology of people, devices, software, and data, where our voice is one signal in a complex network of operations. And we are not at the center of this network. Sensing and computational algorithms are continuously running in the background of our lives. We tap into them as needed, but they are not there purely in service of the end user, but also in service of corporate goals, group needs, civic order, black markets, advertising, and more. People are becoming human nodes on a heterogeneous, ubiquitous and distributed network. This fundamentally changes our relationship with technology and information.
However, interactions and user interfaces are still designed so that users see themselves at the center of the network and the underlying complexity is abstracted away. In this process of simplification, we are abstracting ourselves out of many important conversations and in doing so, are disenfranchising ourselves.
Julian Oliver states this problem well, saying: “Our inability to describe and understand [technological infrastructure] reduces our critical reach, leaving us both disempowered and, quite often, vulnerable. Infrastructure must not be a ghost. Nor should we have only mythic imagination at our disposal in attempts to describe it. 'The Cloud' is a good example of a dangerous simplification at work, akin to a children's book.”
So, what I advocate is designing interactions that acknowledge the peer-like status these systems now have in our lives. Interactions where we don't shield ourselves from complexity but actively engage with it. And in order to engage with it, the conduits for those negotiations need to be accessible not only to experts and hackers but to the average user as well. We need to give our users more respect and provide them with more information so that they can start to have empowered dialogues with the pervasive systems around them.
This is obviously not a simple proposition, so we start with: what are the counterpart values? What’s the alternative to the black box, what’s the alternative to “it just works”? What design principles should we building into new interactions?
The first is transparency. In order to be able to engage in a fruitful interaction with a system, I need to be able to understand something about its decision-making process. And I want to be clear that transparency doesn’t mean complete visibility, it doesn’t mean showing me every data packet sent or every decision tree. I say that because, in many discussions about algorithmic transparency, people have a tendency to throw their hands up, claiming that algorithmic systems have become so complex that we don’t even fully understand what they’re doing, so of course we can’t explain them to the user. I find this argument reductive and think it misunderstands what transparency entails in the context of interaction design.
As an analogy, when I have a conversation with a friend, I don’t know his whole psychological history or every factor that goes into his responses, let alone what’s happening at a neurological or chemical level, but I understand something about who he is and how he operates. I have enough signals to participate and give feedback — and more importantly, I trust that he will share information that is necessary and relevant to our conversation. Between us, we have the tools to delve into the places where our communication breaks down, identify those problems and recalibrate our interaction. Transparency is necessary to facilitate this kind of conversational relationship with algorithms. It serves to establish trust that a system is showing me what I need to know and is not doing anything I don’t want it to with my participation or data; and that it is giving me the necessary knowledge and input to correct a system when it’s wrong.
We’re starting to see some very nascent examples of this, like the functionality that both Amazon and Netflix have, where I can see the assumptions that are being made by a recommendation system and I am offered a way to give negative feedback; to tell Amazon when it’s wrong and why. It definitely still feels clunky — it’s not a very complex or nuanced conversation yet, but it’s a step in the right direction.
More broadly, the challenge we’re facing has a lot to do with the shift from mechanical systems to digital ones. Mechanical systems have a degree of transparency in that their form necessarily reveals their function and gives us signals about what they’re doing. Digital systems don’t implicitly reveal their processes, and so it is a relatively new state that designers now bear the burden of making those processes visible and available to interrogate.
The second principle here is agency, meaning that a system’s design should empower users to not only accomplish tasks, but should also convey a sense that they are in control of their participation with a system at any moment. And I want to be clear that agency is different from absolute and granular control.
This interface, for example, gives us an enormous amount of precise control, but for anyone but an expert, probably not much sense of agency.
A car, on the other hand, is a good illustration of agency. There’s plenty of “smart” stuff that the car is doing for me, that I can’t directly adjust — I can’t control how electricity is routed or which piston fires when, but I can intervene at any time to control my experience. I have clear inputs to steer, stop, speed up, or slow down and I generally feel that the car is working at my behest.
The last principle, virtuosity, is something that usually comes as a result of systems that support agency and transparency well. And when I say virtuosity, what I mean is the ability to use a technology expressively.
A technology allows for virtuosity when it contains affordances for all kinds of skilled techniques that can become deeply embedded into processes and cultures. It’s not just about being able to adapt something to one’s needs, but to “play” a system with skill and expressiveness. This is what I think we should aspire to. While it’s wonderful if technology makes our lives easier or more efficient, at its best it is far more than that. It gives us new superpowers, new channels for expression and communication that can be far more than utilitarian — they can allow for true eloquence. We need to design interactions that allow us to converse across complex networks, where we can understand and engage in informed and thoughtful ways, and the systems around us can respond with equal nuance.
These values deeply inform the work we do in The New York Times R&D Lab, whether we are exploring new kinds of environmental computing interfaces that respond across multiple systems, creating wearables that punctuate offline conversations with one’s online interests, or developing best practices for how we manage and apply our readers’ data. By doing research to understand the technological and behavioral signals of change around us, we can then build and imagine futures that best serve our users, our company, and our industry.
About the Author: Alexis Lloyd is the Creative Director of the Research and Development Lab at the New York Times where she investigates technology trends and prototypes future concepts for content delivery. Follow on twitter @alexislloyd.
Over the last few weeks we have been working on a very exciting project with the Future Cities Catapult called 'A Family Day Out Programme'. The project seeks to work with partially sighted and blind people to help identify the characteristics of future cities that will enrich their experience of it and develop potential cityscapes that would inspire them to make journeys into cities and around them. The critical objective of this research project is to identify areas of innovation around integrated city systems relating to city navigation by partially sighted people, and inspire innovation around design techniques that enrich the city experience by partially sighted or blind people.
An important aspect of this project is to engage with a diverse range of participants to create tangible instantiations of various future visions. For this collaborative visioning process, we are conducting a one-day workshop with a series of different key stakeholders: partially sighted and blind people, urban designers and planners, technology developers and funders, product designers, government agencies, transport providers and financiers. It will be an opportunity to create high level future worlds, that include the end user’s perspective alongside that of experts. This workshop will culminate in a series of early-stage future cityscapes that are inclusive and empathetic - visions that include the voices, challenges and aspirations of a large group. In the workshop we will use processes of co-creation, world-building and storytelling to collate fragments of an unevenly distributed futurity, which has previously manifested in the form of cityscape prototypes, psychogeographic narratives and artefacts.
If you are a designer, city planner, technologist, policy planner, architect, urban designer or involved in shaping our built environment, and interested in the workshop, it would be great if you can join us on the 18th of March. If you would like to join us drop us a line telling us who you are, and why you want to participate.
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