Nicolas Nova: Scanning for signals
By Steve Portigal at 1:03 pm, Wednesday October 05 2011
Part 16 of 19 in the series the Omni project

We’ll be interviewing experts and thought-leaders to uncover a range of perspectives on technology and its impact on society. If you or someone you know would be a good interview, let us know!

This interview has been edited, condensed, etc.

Nicolas Nova is a consultant and researcher who undertakes field studies to inform and evaluate the creation of innovative products and services. His work is about exploring and understanding people’s needs, motivations and contexts to map new design opportunities and help designers and engineers. In addition to design ethnography, he is interested in foresight about scanning/analysis of signals about the future of various technologies. He applies his methodologies in the domains of urban informatics, mobile and location-based media as well as video games and networked objects/robots.

He also teaches interaction design and ethnography in design schools (HEAD-Geneva, ENSCI Les Ateliers in Paris) and is curator at the Lift conferences.

the Omni project: How do you define “technology?”

Nicolas Nova: It seems that technology nowadays refers to the design and usage of specific devices (tool, instrument, machine, etc.) to perform a specific function. Given my interest in a people-centered perspective, I use this definition. I don’t make any specific distinction between the digital and the non-digital. I see a vacuum cleaner or a dishwasher as a piece of technology. Perhaps this is because I work in fields related to ubiquitous computing, in which any artifact can be augmented by information and communication technology..

Finally, a technology is not inert like a stone or a meteorite falling from the sky. As Howard Becker stated “It makes more sense to see those artifacts as the frozen remains of collective action, brought to life whenever someone uses them.” This is important as it means that a technology has been designed and made by people, and thus embeds certain preconceptions that have implications when “users” employ those technologies.

tOp: Thinking about the many things I’ve seen you curate/aggregate/ observe such as technology failures embodied as dreams (jet packs, smart fridges, smart kitchens, discarded PCs, video phones), what do these stories (and they way they are told) reflect about our culture and our relationship with technology? Are there positives or negatives? Anxieties? Hopes or expectations? Is there humor?

NN: This is related to the Becker quote. As any piece of technology is the result of a process carried out by humans, some cultural traits are embedded into it, such as: preconceptions about how the technology should be used, the context in which the technology can be deployed, etc. The example of the smart fridge is pretty interesting if you think about all the assumptions designers and engineers made about people’s relationship to food, such as the idea that we don’t want to go shopping and that consumption is just a matter of ordering stuff automatically.

So, if you take any piece of technology, you can uncover (decipher!?) these sorts of assumptions. They generally reveal the kinds of cultural inclination the people in charge of innovation bring to the table: values about what is important and what is not, hopes about a potential future, the need to go faster, the illusion of being more efficient, etc. It’s hard to say if they are “positive” or “negative” because these are very relative. Even if I dislike the very notion of a smart fridge, I can certainly understand that a bunch of guys with lab coats in an aseptic R&D center really though that their project would be super positive and would change the world. What I mean here is simply that technologies embed some values and that these values are shaped by society at a given point in time and by the companies. It’s clear that the Zeitgeist influences the design of products and services. If you consider that the 50-60s were all about the space race, speed and nuclear stuff or that the early 90s were all about cyber-whatever then you can see that this is necessarily reflected in the way technologies are created.

The technological failures that I am especially interested in are the one that are repeated over time such as the videophone or the smart fridge. They clearly reflect this recurring tension between technological possibilities (e.g. automation) and a flawed vision of human aspirations.

It’s interesting you mention the notion of humor, as generally all these projects definitely suffer from a clear lack of this dimension!

tOp: Are dreams of possible technologies ever realized?

NN: Yes, but they are never really used as we expected. Something is realized and over time the ideas find their way by being hybridized with others because of contextual or behavioral adjustments by users.

There’s a perpetual gap between the intents of designers/engineers/marketers and the real use of the product. This is the beauty of human life: we always repurpose artifacts into something different. Fortunately, this is what I am passionate about! Understanding how products are repurposed is a good way to find more user-centered avenues and iterate to create new versions.

I am really curious to see what the smart fridge will become and how upcoming versions will necessarily include other notion of “smartness” based on more human needs and aspirations. Sadly, I don’t think many companies in this business understood they should adopt this humble stance.

tOp: When you think about mainstream consumers, how do you think digital technology is changing their everyday lives?

NN: The biggest change is possibly the use a digital media for a growing set of activities: listening to music, communicating, controlling the heating system of your house, etc. This does not simply mean that any artifact at home gets digital capabilities, but that everything becomes mediated through different channels (generally your computer and your cell phone).

What technology also does is reveal things that are implicit or invisible. It makes things apparent because there are digital traces: SMS stored in your phone, an email message in your email program, your presence on Facebook, etc. And more and more people are being held accountable for this content.

Among all the changes brought by technologies, the most conspicuous is what I call the decision trade-off. Technologies are supposed to help people, or at least to be convenient, and possibly prevent you from doing things you did not want to do any more. Interestingly, most of the time, technologies lead to new decisions that we never really had to take. For instance, choosing a TV channel among 350 possibilities is generally painful and somewhat new (it’s curious to think that other industries found solutions for this, e.g. shuffle mode on MP3 players). More and more micro-decisions like this have to be made everyday, and it can be tiresome.

When you look at your personal life, what kind of impact is technology having? What specific changes are you experiencing?

I don’t have a car (I rent one when I need one), I have no dishwasher, I use a collective laundry (in Switzerland we have one in each building) and I don’t subscribe to any network TV system (mostly because I find them useless and overlapping with what I find on the Interwebs). I have to admit I am very cautious in the way I use digital technologies. That said, I use digital technologies a lot and it forces me to be extra careful about:

  • Work/life balance: I try to shy away from the computer/smartphone in the evening, during weekends and vacations. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I won’t use one of these at those times, but I try to avoid spending a long time browsing the web/reading email/documents, etc. and prefer going for a walk, reading a book, hiking or visiting friends. The more I use digital technologies, the more I need to find moments during which I escape from them.
  • Attention: more and more multitasking, which is bad (for me and the task at hand).
  • Privacy: as I mentioned, digital technologies reveal things that used to be implicit or invisible. This means that I sometimes need to be careful about the traces I leave.

With the changes that technology brings, what do you believe society is gaining, or losing?

NN:The population is not equal. People who grew up with these technologies will be less stressed out by the vague micro-decisions we have to consider, simply because they have lived with this new norm. This is a big difference compared to our grandparents, for instance. Also see Steven Johnson’s book Everything Bad is Good for You. Overall, I see a set of tradeoffs:

  • A huge and diverse quantity of material that can be useful or interesting for anyone curious. I grew up in the countryside and it was a pain in the ass to get access to “long-tail” music/books/fanzines/etc. The web is a formidable source of difference for people intrigued by others’ cultures and who want to learn.
  • However, this huge quantity of material makes us run like headless chickens, taking a quick bite from lots of sources of information but we may lose our ability to sit still and think deeply about a certain topic.
  • At the psychological level, the capacity to cope with large amount of information, integrate multiple factors and make decisions. Yet we also suffer from decision fatigue (e.g., bombarded by requests, information and data).
  • Privacy is shifting and we are more and more obliged to share personal information with others.
  • An urge to be reachable (and aware of current trends) 24/7 which is tiresome too.

tOp: Anything else to share with us?

NN: “One of the diseases of this age is the multiplicity of books; they doth so overcharge the world that it is not able to digest the abundance of idle matter that is every day hatched and brought forth into the world.” Barnaby Rich (1580-1617) wrote that in 1613. This quote inspires me to ask questions about the situation back then and now: if our ancestors felt this overload, how did they cope with it? What happened then? Did this feeling vanish? Was it a continuous feeling or recurring? What about now? Can we draw some inspiration from what happen in the past? Or should we find new ways to move forward?

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One Response to “Nicolas Nova: Scanning for signals”

    Kramer auto Pingback[...] One was with Steve Portigal for his Omni Project, called Creating Wily Subversions. Nicolas did an interview with Steve a little while ago: [...]

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