A fascinating poster encountered few days ago in the wholesale district of Los Angeles. A very straight-forward way to indicate the evolution of objects/technologies. Let's appreciate the examples chosen by this local tech historian.
Geneva (Switzerland), December 21, 2015.
The power plugs available for the flea/farmers market in Geneva are often used by people to recharge their mobile phones. The rain sometimes prevents them from using the plugs, but some guy obviously found a protection. Interestingly, the owner, who's fifty meters away, do not seem to care much about his device, only observing it from the distance.
Strangely enough, I had to come to the Southwest part of Madeira to discover Crap Future, an insightful new blog "about futures, innovation, politics, technology" by Julian Hanna and James Auger. The premise looks great as can be seen from the About page:
"Crap Futures casts a critical eye on corporate dreams and emerging technologies. It asks questions about where society is heading, who is taking us there, and whether ‘there’ is where we really want to end up."
Perhaps the most fascinating entry so far is the one about their critique of "smartness"... which looks quite close to long-time research interests here.
Why do I blog this? Knowing James' work for a long time, I'm curious about their analyses. Also, like the two authors of Crap Future, I also believe it's preferable to explore near future worlds by investigating islands. As they say:
"escaping from a big city to a distant island also reminds you of how far we’ve been brought down by technology: how inhuman many aspects of our lives have become, how much we’ve lost or traded away in a few quick swipes. From here on the margins of Europe, what we’re promised by advertisements and political manifestos looks even less shiny than it does in the steel-and-glass centre. We know intuitively that the smart home is not our home; for the margins it’s cast-offs, afterthoughts, crap phones. "
Given the news from Las Vegas' CES – with smart fridges among other products that may or may not appear on the now infamous @internetofshit twitter stream – it's definitely wise to adopt a more critical perspective, and I guess Crap Future may be helpful for this.
I've always been fascinated by "rock speakers", i.e. audio speakers hidden in faux-rocks. Quite a weird object category, very ironic actually. There are some available on Amazon (see this one) and it's quite intriguing to read the technical features as well as the reviews by buyers. I can see that as an example of Invisible technology, perhaps in a different way than Mark Weiser's definition of Ubiquitous Computing.
What does it mean? What's the need to hide technology in a crappy plastic stone?
Quite enjoyed this excerpt from J.G. Ballard's critique of Star Wars episode IV:
"The visual ideas in Star Wars are ingenious and entertaining.Ironically it's only now that the technology of the cinema is sufficiently advanced to represent an advanced technology in decline. I liked the super-technologies already beginning to rust around the edges, the pirate starship like an old tramp steamer, the dented robots with IQs higher than Einstein's which resembled beat-up De Sotos in Athens or Havana with half a million miles on the clock. I liked the way large sections of the action were seen through computerized head-up displays which provided information about closing speeds and impact velocities that makes everyone in the audience feel like a Phantom Pilot on a Hanoi bombing run."
Back in December 2014, I've been contacted by Ludovic Noël, director of Cité du Design (Saint Etienne, France). He basically asked me whether I'd be interested in being a curator for an exhibit on "interfaces". I immediately said yes and realized it would be a great opportunity to explore the mutual relationships between design (in the context of digital technologies) and science-fiction, quite an important topic for us at the Near Future Laboratory. Here's a translation of the short text I wrote apropos the exhibit:
Minority Report, Back To The Future 2, Avatar, 2001, Iron man, Star Trek… Numerous science-fiction films and series depict technological objects. The interfaces – the ways to control or communicate with machines – are perhaps the most notable example of such phenomenon. So much so that some producers and directors collaborate with designers to improve the quality or the plausibility of these accessories. However, these fictional representations also influence the work of designers and engineers involved in interface design. To overcome the keyboard/mouse duo, virtual reality headsets, neworked gloves, mobile phones, gestural interfaces, smartwatches, and interactive surfaces, to name but a few have been reinvented in the last thirty years. Such examples highlight the fertile relationships between design and science fiction culture. They point out possible directions pursued by interface designers. Returning to the main archetypes of past and interfaces under development, Culture Interface addresses the reciprocal influences between Science Fiction and the design of digital interfaces. Alongside this historical return, the exhibition shows how designers overcame the stereotypes to offer unique creations, which, in turn, renew these great fictional models.
The exhibit, called "Culture Interface: interfaces numériques et science-fiction" opened last month, and it's going to last till Mid-August.
From a curatorial perspective, I selected seven "archetypes" which are constantly encountered in science-fiction culture: VR headsets, gestural interfaces, neuro-headsets, augmented reality, vocal interfaces, smartwatches, interactive surfaces. For each, I chose two science-fiction movies (e.g. "Johnny Mnemonic" and "Lawnmower Man" for the VR Headsets), five diagrams coming from patents and a selection of design projects both historical (e.g. the Famicom 3D System and the Virtual Boy) and recent (e.g. Oculus Rift with an intriguing game, Google Cardboard). My guiding principle here would be that these different elements would highlight the dialogue between fiction and design work. Sometimes of course, there are direct connections between fictional work and reality, as represented for example by a short excerpt of Dragonball Z (the infamous "it's over 9000 meme") and Google Glasses (“>9K” is printed on the PCB).
There's also an additional categories that consists in design projects that propose alternative visions to such archetypes: paper-digital hybrids, wood-digital hybrid, networked objects, soft interfaces, etc. Another important decision for me was to mix the different "flavors" of design, ranging from speculative design to projects conducted in big corporations, commercial products versus unique prototypes, projects made by students versus the ones done by agencies or R&D centers, etc. Mixing this with movie excerpts and patent drawings certainly is an intriguing choice but it definitely highlights the proximity between the design decisions at stake in the interfaces shown there.
A tremendous thanks to all the designers, and artists, who accepted to be part of the exhibit, the production and communication team who turned spreadsheets/emails/text files into an exhibit, as well as Ludovic for trusting me on this! Big up to Julian Bleecker, Fabien Girardin and Nic Foster at the Near Future Laboratory for their support and discussions about this.
Another stimulating paper about repair is "Rethinking repair" by Steven J. Jackson. In this book chapter, the author advocates for a shift in social sciences, a shift from a modernist perspective to address what he calls “broken world thinking” which “asserts that breakdown, dissolution, and change, rather than innovation, development, or design… are the key themes and problems facing new media and technology scholarship today." In other words, "broken world thinking" implies acknowledging the importance of fixing/reconfiguration/recombinations. Practically speaking, this kind of statement means that "repair" is relevant to address:
"The fulcrum of these two worlds is repair: the subtle acts of care by which order and meaning in complex sociotechnical systems are maintained and transformed, human value is preserved and extended, and the complicated work of fitting to the varied circumstances of organizations, systems, and lives is accomplished. Repair in this connotation has a literal and material dimension, filled with immediate questions: Who fixes the devices and systems we “seamlessly” use? Who maintains the infrastructures within and against which our lives unfold? But it also speaks directly to “the social,” if we still choose to cut the world in this way: how are human orders broken and restored (and again, who does this work)?"
For Jackson, addressing repair is pertinent wrt to innovation and innovative practices:
"At first glance, nothing could seem farther apart than the apparently separate questions of innovation and repair. Innovation, in the dominant coding, comes first: at the start of the technology chain, in moments of quasi-mythical origination, a creature of garage-turned-corporate engineers, operating with or without the benefits of market research and user experi- ence operations. Repair comes later, when screens and buttons fail, firmware is corrupted, and the iPhone gets shipped back to wherever iPhones come from. (We generally prefer to think not at all of what happens after such moments, in the piles of e-junk accumulated in attics and landfills or shipped overseas to Africa or Asia.) In scientific computation and collaboration, the language of innovation is generally reserved for new and computationally intensive “bright and shiny tools,” while repair tends to disappear altogether, or at best is relegated to the mostly neglected story of people (researchers, information managers, beleaguered field technicians) working to fit such artifacts to the sticky realities of field-level practices and needs. In both cases, dominant productivist imaginings of technology locate innovation, with its unassailable standing, cultural cachet, and valo- rized economic value, at the top of some change or process, while repair lies somewhere else: lower, later, or after innovation in process and worth. But this is a false and partial representation of how worlds of technology actually work, when they work."
Hence the following question/role for the social sciences (and probably design + engineering): "How might we begin to reverse this dominant view, and reimagine or better recognize the forms of innovation, difference, and creativity embedded in repair?" ... which leads him to define a sort of research program "with special attention to the existence, dynamics, and tensions of innovation beyond moments of ideation, design, and up-front adoption." In the context of repair, there a variety of questions to be addressed:
"can repair sites and repair actors claim special insight or knowledge, by virtue of their positioning vis-à- vis the worlds of technology they engage? Can breakdown, maintenance, and repair confer special epistemic advantage in our thinking about technology? Can the fixer know and see different things—indeed, different worlds—than the better-known figures of “designer” or “user”? Following on the claims of Hegelian, Marxian, and feminist theorists, can we identify anything like a standpoint epistemology of repair?"
Why do I blog this? The excerpts listed here show a set of general questions and problems to be addressed. Ethnography – and design research – can certainly help here, and I'm wondering about how to address these in conjunction with electronic objects such as smartphones, tablets or game consoles. Such issues also echo a lot with current field research in mobile phone repair shop.
A crappy picture taken on a rainy day. One of the local mobile phone repair shop here in Geneva is looking for "technicien(s)", i.e. an expert in iOS, android and Windows Phone repair. SIM cards unlockins and OS flashing seem to be the most important skills, as indicated on the sheet. The picture is curious too, it looks the guy's blowing in the USB connector – a common trick that some of you may have used on NES cartridges back in the days.
Why do I blog this? As such shops appear here and there in the city, it's interesting to observe how they work, and what happen in there (it's basically one of the sites I'm interested in, as a field researcher). Who's qualified? How do you become qualified for this? Who will give one's "CV" (résumé)?
New topic, new project line here: the repair and maintenance practices of electronic objects. Nothing fancy so far, I'm just writing a research grant. But, as usual, it's hard not to start the project before getting the grant. Maybe the grant writing is already the beginning of the project, which is a common situation these days when you're on foot in academia and one foot out.
Anyway. I'm collecting material (research reports, papers, articles, et al.) and doing a little bit of field observation. It's funny because it forces me to revisit content I've blogged about here. For instance this paper called "Out of Order: Understanding Repair and Maintenance" by Stephen Graham and Nigel Thrift (blogged back in 2009) seems to be a seminal reference on the topic of "repair ethnography". This paper is important as it shows how the focus on repair and maintenance can be seen as a way to address a "missing link" in social theory. The authors use these topics in order to "understand of modern societies and, particularly, cities".
Some elements that caught my attention :
"Things only come into visible focus as things when they become inoperable – they break or stutter and they then become the object of attention. [...] it is in this space between breakdown and restoration of the practical equilibrium – between the visible (that is, ‘broken’) tool and the concealed tool – that repair and maintenance, makes its bid for significance."
As Virilio expressed earlier, and as stated by Graham and Thrift, the accident is part of the thing:
"it becomes increasingly difficult to define what the ‘thing’ is that is being maintained and repaired. Is it the thing itself, or the negotiated order that surrounds it, or some ‘larger’ entity? Similarly, it can be argued that the accidents that stem from so many breakdowns are not aberrant but are a part of the thing itself. To invent the train is to invent the train crash, to invent the plane is to invent the plane crash, and so on"
As a consequence, a focus on repair and maintenance is important for various reasons, some are described in this paragraph:
"maintenance and repair also illustrate the importance of human labour and ingenuity. [...] when things break down, new solutions may be invented. Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that this kind of piece- by-piece adaptation is a leading cause of innovation, acting as a continu- ous feedback loop of experimentation which, through many small increments in practical knowledge, can produce large changes [...] maintenance and repair can itself be a vital source of variation, improvisation and innovation. Repair and maintenance does not have to mean exact restoration. Think only of the bodged job, which still allows something to continue functioning but probably at a lower level; the upgrade, which allows something to take on new features which keep it contemporary; the cannibalization and recycling of materials, which allows at least one recombined object to carry on, formed from the bones of its fellows; or the complete rebuild, which allows some- thing to continue in near pristine condition. And what starts out as repair may soon become improvement, innovation, even growth. The examples are legion: the constant tinkering of consumers with consumer goods, which can certainly lead to customization and may even lead to redefinition, as in the case of the early automobile"
This leads them to highlight the importance of expertise
"information and communications technologies have largely replaced the system of automobility as both the most central and yet the most likely to break down, not least because of design flaws that are widely acknowledged but seem to be subject to a law of inertia (Norman, 1998). Whole generations are becoming expert at rebooting, defragging and downloading new security patches."
Which leads to the importance of designing products with this in mind:
"Products could be designed so that they are easily maintained, repaired and upgraded, using light materials and structures and various forms of metering (Van Hinte and Beukers, 1998). Technological paradigms oriented towards the fetishistic generation of accelerating waves of quickly disposed of hard products could be reorganized around longer- term and sustainable systems of service delivery designed from the outset to be easily and continually upgraded"
The author give the following examples for that matter:
"Alternatively, repair and maintenance activities could be actively expanded, so that commodity production and waste were both minimized (Verbeek, 2004). Design consultancies like the Eternally Yours Foundation in the Netherlands (Eternally Yours, 2004), have already attempted to design products that would have a new and more knowing relationship to maintenance and repair."
Why do I blog this? The paper offers both a theoretical perspective (on how focusing on repair/maintenance is a shift in social theory), and a series of insights about where to look.
"Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment: InterLace Telentertainment, 932/1864 R.I.S.C. power-TPs w/ or w/o console, Pink2, post-Primestar D.S.S. dissemination, menus and icons, pixel-free Internet Fax, tri- and quad-modems w/ adjustable baud, Dissemination-Grids, screens so high-def you might as well be there, cost-effective videophonic conferencing, internal Froxx CD-ROM, electronic couture, all-in-one consoles, Yushityu nanoprocessors, laser chromotography, Virtual-capable media-cards, fiber-optic pulse, digital encoding, killer apps; carpal neuralagia, phosphenic migraine, gluteal hyperadiposity, lumbar stressae."
David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, 1996, p.60
Why do I blog this? because it's a lovely type of poetry.
Maskenfreiheit (seen here) : German term that indicates the liberty that comes from wearing a mask... and metaphorically to stay anonymous, or to partly hide one's identity in public sphere.
1701 : an adjective sometimes employed to express the "futuristic" character of an object/situation; comes from the name of Star Trek's vessel The Enterprise (NCC-1701).
Auto erect : an expression which refers to the sexual connotation implied by texts/SMS/messages transformed by the auto-correct feature.
Brouteurs : an idiom used in Côte d'Ivoire to designate people committing internet frauds (seen in a text by N’Guessan Julien Atchoua found in "Quand l’Afrique réinvente la téléphonie mobile")
MTurk Research : scientific research projects that employ crowdsourcing platforms such as Mechanical Turk, Rapidworkers, etc. (seen in this article).
A wide range of pen possibilities here, found in a French convenience store. The form is the same, the affordance too, but the behavior's different. The dual pen (paper + capacitive screen) sits in the center, more expensive than the others, with a colorful look discreetly showing its edgy character.
"Each video in this series was shot on the New York City subway and captures a passenger’s interaction with his/her phone. The video has been edited frame-by-frame to call attention to the strange hand “choreographies” that our constant use of handheld screens has engendered."
Why do I blog this? An intriguing project that's related to my "Curious Rituals" project. I like the focus on the hands themselves and the way the movement is represented. It allows to highlight specific gestural aptitudes related with digital artifacts such as phones.
It's also intriguing to stumble across this roughly at the same time as Facebook's "Photos of hands holding various phones, to be used in any presentation of your designs." (which are far less inspiring).
Joël Vacheron and I recently published a book about the role of software/bots in cultural production, and the hybridization of cultural forms (music, visual arts, literature) produced by digital technologies.
It’s called “DADABOT An Introduction to Machinic Creolization” and it deals with Twitter bots, generative music, software-based literature, and all those weird art/design experiments with digital hybridization and mash-ups. The book is made up of an essay, experiments with mechanical turks, interviews with Florian Hecker, Holly Herndon, Constant Dullaart, NORM, Silvio Lorusso, Matthew Plummer-Fernandez, an essay by Maxime Guyon, as well as a lexicon of the terminology used by these practitioners.
Designed by Raphael Verona, it's published by ID Pure, and it can be ordered directly from their on-line shop. Some spread below: (a) Mahma Kan Althaman, Whatever the Price by Khalid Al Gharaballi and Fatima Al Qadiri (written in arabix, see more in this Frieze article), (b) a lexicon as well as intriguing list of programming languages, (c) an experiment in which I crowdsourced the description of glitched images to "mechanical turks".
Mark Meadows wrote an interesting piece at Robohub. Basically, on virtual assistants such as Apple's SIRI, Microsoft's Cortana or Facebook's M are "the testbeds for tomorrow’s personal robots":
"Our mobile devices are becoming natural language interface hubs for life management and, as a result, having a gravitational pull on an increasingly complex buzz of connected services and APIs. This means that things like search will change: we will no longer have to speak Googlese; paper and page metaphors will be supplanted by the more dynamic (and cognitively more addictive) character metaphor. And if trends in virtual assistants and intelligent helpers – software robots – continue, then knowledge-bases (such as Wolfram Alpha or IBM Watson) will continue to come peppered with a patina of natural language, allowing us to move through data faster, with less training, and in a more human manner.
[...] We can also foretell the future by looking at less advanced natural language systems. Bots – essentially natural language oriented scripts – are a good indicator of where the robotics industry is at because bots are pervasive, useful, and simple to author. TwitterBots and FacebookBots crawl through these systems like bees in a hive, industriously providing retweets, reposts, summaries, aggregations, starting fights and flocking to followers. They can be bought, auctioned, sold, and deleted; you can buy 30,000 Twitter followers on eBay for as little as for $20, provided they’re all bots."
Why do I blog this? Although I'm not sure whether these agents need a proper physical instantiation (bigger than a phone), Mark's argument is relevant; especially if you consider how talking to objects (interacting with voice, or chatting/tweeting to bots) becomes slightly more present (= less weird).
Various sensors worn on different body parts. Multiple tracking systems, different data produced.
Zykluserkennungssoftware, die: German word "drive cycle recognition" software, a term used in a comment seen on Spiegel Online... that refers to software used to pass pollution tests (🚗💨)… modified by VW (so that they work only during tests).
AI trainer : a new job profile that consists in supervising/train computer programs: "A team of 'AI trainers' works with the program, and if there’s a request that M doesn’t understand the trainers take over. M then learns from what the human trainer does, and can use that technique with later requests." (seen here, thanks Fabien Girardin)
Plogging : the transposition of the (we)blogging logic to social networking platforms such as Facebook or Twitter (which may allow longer posts), seen in this article (merci Virginie Bejot)
开挂 (abbreviation of 开外挂 "kai1 gua4") : a Chinese term used to express disbelief or that something has been enhance/forged (e.g. a Photoshopped image), and which originally refers to "the act of running an illegal plug-in on a game, either for practical usability purposes (translating an interface into Chinese) or to cheat (faking in-game presence to accumulate more virtual currency, or even packet modification to make a character move faster in an online game)" (Source: BoingBoing)
Seen in Paris few weeks ago, a private car using the Autolib infrastructure to power up its batteries.
Why do I blog this? The need to recharge electrical objects – ranging from smartphones to cars – is more and more prevalent... and lead to such kind of behavior... reminding me of people looking for power plugs in trains (obviously toilets can help here) or in weird urban places (such as the outlets made available for farmers market owners).
My interest in design fiction has always been related to my ethnographic practice (see for instance this piece about it) which is why I find it interesting to run into these two notions :
"Ethnographies of the possible", coined by Joachim Halse (2013):
"are a way of materializing ideas, concerns and speculations through committed ethnographic attention to the people potentially affected by them. It is about crafting accounts that link the imagination to its material forms. And it is about creating artifacts that allow participants to revitalize their pasts, reflect upon the present, and extrapolate into possible futures. These ambitions lie at the borderland between design and anthropology. For designers involved in this type of process, it is a new challenge to craft not beautiful and convincing artifacts, but evocative and open-ended materials for further experimentation in collaboration with non-designers. For anthropologists, it is a new challenge to creatively set the scene for a distorted here and now with a particular direction as a first, but important step toward exploring particular imaginative horizons in concrete ways."
Halse, J. (2013). "Ethnographies of the possible", in Gunn, W., Otto, T. & Smith, R.C. (eds). Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, Bloomsbury, pp. 180-196.
"Anticipatory ethnography", proposed by Lindley and Sharma:
"Anticipatory ethnography suggests that the properties of the traditional inputs to design ethnography (situated observations) are analogous with the ‘value adding’ element of design fictions (diegetic prototypes). [...] Assuming that these suppositions are correct, then we can infer that combining the exploratory and temporally independent techniques of design fiction, may allow design ethnography to glimpse the future. Conversely, design ethnography’s established tools for sense making and analysis can be applied to explorations in design fiction. Can anticipatory ethnography lend speculative, the gravitas of hindsight?"
Lindley, J. & Sharma, D. (2014). An Ethnography of the Future. Paper presented at ‘Strangers in Strange Lands’ – An anthropology and science fiction symposium hosted by the University of Kent, Canterbury.
Why do I blog this? These definitions echo with my own research interests. More specifically, a project like Curious Rituals is based on a dual movement : a field research phase that aimed at designing a fictional representation of everyday gestures with digital technologies. To some extent, it is close to the two concepts defined above... and I see design fiction as a sort of "downstream user research" approach to test scenarios about the future... for instance by running focus groups with users and project stakeholders, generating a debate about pieces of technologies by taking concrete instances/scenarios (videos, catalogues, user manuals, etc.).
These definition also reminded me of Laura Forlano's text on Ethnography Matters. Called "Ethnographies from the Future: What can ethnographers learn from science fiction and speculative design?", it dealt with similar issues and ended up with this insightful remark:
"As ethnographers, it is not enough to describe social reality, to end a project when the last transcripts and field notes have been analyzed and written up. We must find new ways to engage and collaborate with our subjects (both human and nonhuman). We need better ways of turning our descriptive, analytical accounts into those that are prescriptive, and which have greater import in society and policy. We may do this by inhabiting narratives, generating artifacts to think with and engaging more explicitly with the people formerly known as our “informants” as well as with the public at large."
(I used to run a daily idiom thing on twitter few years ago, never had the time to continue, but I guess a weekly lexicon is easier to maintain)
Speakularity (spotted on Nautilus) : a word proposed by journalist Matt Thompson and that corresponds to the transition between a society in which "the default expectation for recorded speech will be that it’s searchable and readable, nearly in the instant." (while the default nowadays is that it's not)
Sega-core (found in Killscreen) : sub-genre of chiptune music, produced by machines with 16-bits processors (Sega Genesis in particular)
Stratocaching : evolution of geoaching (a game in which participants use a GPS receiver or mobile device to hide and seek containers, called "geocaches) with flying objects (balloons, flying capsules, etc.) dropped to earth from the sky.
Fork bomb (also called rabbit virus, or wabbit) : a denial-of-service attack wherein a process continually replicates itself to deplete available system resources, causing resource starvation and slowing or crashing the system.