Omni Quickies

Cockroaches equipped as wireless networks [SF Chron] – While this is not “the” technology that Minority Report made famous (that would be the gestural interface), this reminds me strongly of those scurrying mechanical spiders that made their way through the building to chase down Tom Cruise.

On its belly, each roach carries a dime-size circuit board along with a radio, a microphone and a battery. The gear, which adds up to 2 grams, about half the weight of a roach, is still in the prototype phase. As the bugs crawl into crevices and disperse, their microphones pick up sounds, while the radios transmit data via a local-area wireless technology called ZigBee. In the future, the bugs might carry sensors to detect radioactivity or chemicals. Epstein and his team are working to make the electronic circuitry even tinier, so it can be carried by smaller insects such as crickets and water bugs. They’re also testing a metal composite that flexes like a muscle when electricity is applied. Placing the material on a cricket would alter the flutter of its wings and distort the pitch of its chirp. It’s a way to relay information as aural zeroes and ones, like the bits in a computer, which could be decoded by software. Epstein came up with the idea of using insects to form wireless networks while listening to swarms of cicadas in Shanghai, where his wife is from. Submitting a funding proposal “was like writing a science fiction novel,” Epstein said, but resulted in $850,000 from the U.S. Army.

“Thought Experiments” by Roger Ebert [Asimov’s] – Ebert posits an interesting, if recursive, framework – that the science-fiction enthusiasts who networked maniacally using dead-tree technology were precusors (so to speak) of the type of online behaviors that would show up later. Science-fiction consumption helped pave the way for the science-fiction-like use of technology that we are so familiar with today.

For that matter, we were online before there was online. It is perfectly obvious to me that fanzines were web pages before there was a web, and locs were message threads and bulletin boards before there was cyberspace. Someday an academic will write a study proving that the style, tone, and much of the language of the online world developed in a direct linear fashion from science fiction fandom-not to mention the unorthodox incorporation of ersatz letters and numbers in spelling, later to influence the naming of computer companies and programs. Fanzines acted uncannily like mimeographed versions of Usenet groups, forums, message boards, and web pages-even to such universal design strategies as IYGTFUI (If You’ve Got the Font, Use It). Some of the same people segued directly from fandom to online, especially to places like the Well-not surprisingly, since many computer pioneers were also SF fans. Today, fandom survives on the web, where it is no doubt World Wide, and some very slick fanzines have segued into prozines. Are there still analog (paper) publications called fanzines? I haven’t heard that there are. That world has moved on. Today a twelve-year-old kid in Urbana has other ways to connect with alternative ideas, other worlds to explore. No doubt they are as exciting as fandom was for me. God knows what we would have given in 1958 for the web. To look through these old pages of Xero even today, and find Harlan Ellison right about “Psycho” when the world was wrong, and Blish taking on Amis, is to realize that in the mimeographed pages of a fanzine created in the Lupoff living room there existed a rare and wonderful discourse, and it was a privilege to be part of it.

Inmates at Brazil prison pedal for electricity – and their freedom [TODAY] – While this story frames it as a positive, it’s easily reframed as the tip of a dystopian scenario where the world is so destroyed that inmates are enslaved to produce the most basic of necessities. Black Mirror played out a dark version of this, in its second episode.

By pedaling the prison’s stationary bikes, the inmates charge a battery that’s used to power 10 street lamps along the town’s riverside promenade. For every three eight-hour days they spend on the bikes, Silva and the voluntary program’s other participants get one day shaved off their sentences. The municipal police contributed bicycles that had long been lingering in the lost and found, and neighborhood engineers helped transform them into stationary bikes and hooked them up to car batteries, donated by local businesses. Area entrepreneurs also pitched in the converter used to transform the battery’s charge into the 110 volts needed to power 10 of the cast iron street lamps that dot the riverside promenade. Every night just before sunset, a guard drives the charged battery from the prison, on the outskirts of town, to the downtown promenade. He hooks it up to the converter and a few minutes later the 10 street lamps begin to glow a soft white, like full moons suspended over the rushing waters of the river. Another guard comes in the morning to pick up the battery and ferry it back to the prison.

Lucy Kimbell: Expanding the visible and sayable

This interview has been edited, condensed, etc.

Lucy Kimbell works as a designer, educator and researcher. She is head of social design at the Young Foundation in London and associate fellow at Said Business School, University of Oxford. As an undergraduate she studied engineering design and appropriate technology and made feminist performance/theatre. What she does these days does not look that different. Find her on twitter: @lixindex

Tell us about your work!

Lucy Kimbell: Over the past decade I have worked in a range of contexts, from academia to art to design. I have been able to move fairly fluidly between what might seem quite distinct fields, at a time when innovation and creativity are supposedly what’s needed to address global, community and organisational challenges but when artists, designers and others are not necessarily good at explaining how or why what they do might be relevant or productive, and the effects of their work are as varied as anything else.

In January I started a role as head of social design at the Young Foundation, a 60-person organisation working in the UK and internationally to trigger and support social innovation and venturing. Basically my role – which is new for the organisation – is to explore how practices within design and the arts can help support creating social (in the sense of civil society) ventures and projects. My brief is to build up the Young Foundation’s capability, rather than building a design team. There are lots of other examples of this shift both at government level (like Mindlab in Denmark or TACSI in Australia), and other activities initiated by consultancies and by universities and corporates. I’m hoping to be able to combine some of the ideas I’ve been exploring teaching design to MBAs at Oxford University for the past six years, research I’ve done in design thinking and designing for service in particular, and my own art/design making practice. The latter has dwindled although my Physical Bar Charts have been shown a few times in the past year including at TEDGlobal in Edinburgh and a show at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. Right now I’m setting up a critical reflective conversation about all this stuff, with a series of talks and seminars co-organised with Guy Julier (University of Brighton/Victoria and Albert Museum) and the people at Policy Connect.

tOp: How do you define “technology?”

LK: I don’t think of technology as something that exists outside of people and what we do, who we are, and how we live and work. It’s not a thing, it’s not other, but rather is part of being human. We’re not human without the things we currently call technologies, whether these are Google, or management fads, or pencils. I think of the things often called technologies as stable arrangements or configurations that are a result of the ways humans and material/digital artefacts come together, at specific times and places. But they are not just results; they also shape how things are and how they could be. So our relationship with technologies are changing – who we are as human beings and the cultural practices within which we come to be those people change with this.

tOp: What do stories about technology reveal about our culture and our relationship with technology?

LK: This question makes me wonder who is telling these stories, who is engaging with them, and where they are circulating. The stories I see on TV in the form of adverts are more or less the same as they have been for several decades: This new device/network/thing will help you become a different, better person! more lovely! more effective! will make you become a more connected family! help drive sales! And so on. More or less the same but perhaps with higher levels of anxiety? Then there are the narratives that are often outside of corporate culture, of resistance, and alternatives, and questioning of assumptions. One of the interesting things about the Occupy movements in Western/Northern cities last year was resistance to advancing a totalising alternative – a narrative of what the right answer is. I suppose what I see is narratives about technology being mobilised for quite distinct purposes and there are probably examples of everything.

tOp: What are the factors that influence how (or what) technology is being developed?

LK: Every now and then I hear about a bubble-world I am not familiar with which is focussed on technology for example in healthcare innovation. And as an outsider I am struck by how existing practices in a particular sector constitute differently what the technology question is – what they hope a thing they call technology might be able to do for that sector. These vested interests and ways of thinking about what “technology” can do, whether they are professional or corporate or in the realm of public policy, have a big role in shaping what technology research programmes take shape.

tOp: How do you think technology is changing everyday lives for mainstream consumers?

LK: I wouldn’t say that technology is changing their lives, but rather that new configurations or arrangements of people and things come into being and stabilise and so what is possible, or expected, or what is at any point in time the regular way of doing things, changes. And material and digital techniques, tools and artefacts are part of this but so are the way people use them, adapt to them, break them or improvise in relation to them. So I would say that what it is to consume or rather be constituted as a consumer in relation to possible practices of consuming changes. My consuming as an affluent London resident living within a straight family involved in a global elite of educators and design innovators is different to other consuming I was involved in when I was younger, single, not a parent, less affluent and so on. Technological artefacts are part of that but are not the (only/main) drivers.

tOp: Your working definitions for “technology” and “consumption” seem close to each other. How do they relate?

LK: To be a consumer in an affluent society now involves lots of what in ordinary language we call technology. To be a teacher or student, to be a parent, to be someone who works in a supermarket, to be a bus driver, to be to be a person who goes out in the evening, to be a person who has a garden in a city, to be a person operating in the art world, all of these involve technologically-mediated practices.

tOp: What kind of impacts is technology having on your own life?

LK: My partner and I are finishing a major house refurbishment where we live in London. We sourced many of the buliding materials as well as furniture and fittings via eBay and Freecyle. Not just shelving and beds but also windows, doors, flooring, insulation, radiators, toilets, showers, ovens, tiles and so on. Rather than saying technology had an impact on how we did the refurb, I would say we developed some new ways of living and building, as we increased our skills and knowledge about how to source, price, bid for, exchange, pick up, transport, store, make use of and dispose of all the stuff that is involved in constructing a house. Digital networked technologies have made this possible through giving us access to platforms where people want to give away or sell their unwanted items, and allowing us to search for and research what we need, and get things transported if they are far away, and get input from the architect when we needed it. The carbon and materials costs are not very visible in these transactions but they should be.

Compared to other projects of this size, we may not have saved money (we saved on buying materials but then the contractors had to do lots of non-standard activities to fit or use them) or time (it’s taken two years). But there’s a satisfaction in knowing that the ash floor was picked up from the street where someone had thrown it out, and the gas hob, insulation, sliding windows, toilets and many other things would most likely be in landfill. We’ve paid for them not to be there, through our labour and through paying for adapting our building process to what’s available and when it’s available – a middle-class luxury, in one sense, but also a kind of living out of our values. So the technologies we used made all this possible in ways that we (and probably their designers and manufacturers) would not have foreseen.

tOp: As a society, do you think we are losing or gaining anything with these changes?

LK: I have the hope that the practices and devices that come into view through these changes support wider access to resources, enable participation in decision-making of people who have been excluded or marginalised, increase transparency and accountability, and reduce the effects of climate change. But I don’t think the technologies/practices that we now have that we are learning to live and work with do not necessarily do any of these things per se, even if their designers or funders or champions want it to be so. You can see the influence of the ethnomethodologists and ANT researchers on me here – it all depends on the local, the specific, the what is – I’m avoiding making generalisations, sorry. What remains an always open and public question is the what could be. Art and design practices have very powerful ways to constitute and involve people in collective imaginaries and in particular disrupt the current ones by doing what the French philosopher Jacques Ranci?®re calls expanding what is visible and sayable in the distribution of the sensible (le partage du sensible).

tOp: Is your own work meant to provoke those imaginings? Who do you regard as influential in expanding the visible and sayable?

LK: I asked someone else a version of this question recently and after a long pause, the answer was…hmmm… Bourdieu, Wittgenstein… To be a bit more 2012 I have a whole long list of makers and writers and researchers and educators who provoke me to imagine (although I also like Bourdieu). Within design, this includes the people in the School of Design Strategies at Parsons in NY, Ezio Manzini in Milano, Thomas Binder in Copenhagen, Pelle Ehn in Malmo, Jon Kolko at Austin Center for Design, Nathan Shedroff at CCA, small consultancies like the fashionable young men at Berg London, or the people constituting new digital publics at Futuregov. Within the arts, practitioners like Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie of Somewhere, Heath Bunting or Natalie Jeremijenko. Within the social sciences people like Noortje Marres and Nina Wakeford at Goldsmiths and Cat Macaulay at Dundee. The people behind the Kenyan comic cultural enterprise Shujaaz. Some people I met yesterday who run a hostel for homeless people in Soho. The three Roca brothers who run El Cellar de Can Roca in Gerona, Cataluyna. The producers and writers and actors of TV shows like True Blood and The Wire. The people of the city of Homs in Syria. I seem in recent years to be located (to locate myself) in a way which asks me to be quite careful about how I do any disrupting which is the price of my institutional reconfiguring. It’s too early to say what that’s doing to my imaginaries.

Omni Quickies

Not Quite Smart Enough [NYT] – Smart appliances are back, yet again! Engineers are crammed atop happily dumb products because, well, because they can. The classic of course is the Smart Fridge, the result of jetpack-denied technologists channeling their rage. We’ve heard the use cases over and over again, we aren’t that interested (are we?) but comically, that doesn’t seem to stop them. From past work, I believe there some wonderful opportunities for technology to have a meaningful impact in domestic chores, but this repetition of an undesirable product just isn’t it. Bonus funny/sad: Mike Kuniavsky’s 2008 blog post looks at the history of these ridiculous things. /SP

Still, there are differences in what is offered this time around – especially in the role of smartphones, which were not widely on the market a decade ago. In addition, even if the idea of a connected home, controlled by a smart electrical grid, is years off, it is more than just a pipe dream. For now, though, manufacturers are promoting the high-tech gizmos on their smart appliances, rather than focusing on the potential for being a cog in a smart grid. Samsung offers a French-door refrigerator with an LCD screen and its own apps, allowing consumers to check the weather, browse the Web for recipes, listen to music and keep tabs on what is in the refrigerator. The 28-cubic feet, four-door refrigerator costs about $3,500. LG is introducing a refrigerator that allows consumers to scan a grocery receipt with their smartphone so that the refrigerator can track what is inside. So if you buy some chicken, for instance, the refrigerator will keep tabs on when you bought it and tell you when it is about to expire. If you have chicken, broccoli and lemons in your refrigerator, it will offer recipes that include those three ingredients, even narrowing recipes based on specific dietary needs and goals. Several manufacturers are introducing washers and dryers equipped with Wi-Fi that alert consumers on their television or smartphone when a load is done, and gives them the option of fluffing towels for another 10 minutes or adding a rinse cycle. LG’s robotic smart vacuum can be told, again, through a smartphone, to clean up the living room. And since it’s equipped with a built-in camera, its owner can secretly watch what the nanny is doing, too.

Tenured Professor Departs Stanford U., Hoping to Teach 500,000 Students at Online Start-Up [The Chronicle of Higher Education] – Last week we explored the innovative physical learning environment at the Swedish Vittra school. This week we learn that the future of educational institutions may involve abandoning the halls of the academy entirely in favor of virtual pedagogy and entrepreneurial ventures. Is the university destined for obsolescence? Freelance online classes challenge the value proposition (and often prohibitive cost) of a university degree by offering affordable alternatives that connect teachers who are motivated to share knowledge with students who are eager to learn and apply it, regardless of location. This reminds me of a recent Kickstarter project I funded called Don’t Go Back to School: A handbook for learning anything. For $25 I am getting a whole course and textbook on independent learning. Bargain! /TC

During his talk, Mr. Thrun explored the origins of his popular online course at Stanford, which initially featured videos produced with nothing more than “a camera, a pen and a napkin.” Despite the low production quality, many of the 200 Stanford students taking the course in the classroom flocked to the videos because they could absorb the lectures at their own pace. Eventually, the 200 students taking the course in person dwindled to a group of 30. Meanwhile, the course’s popularity exploded online, drawing students from around the world. The experience taught the professor that he could craft a course with the interactive tools of the Web that recreated the intimacy of one-on-one tutoring, he said.

Interactive film, Bear 71, blurs lines between wild and wired [Montreal Gazette] – News articles on this work, currently showing at Sundance, have difficulty classifying it. Is it a film? A documentary? An interactive experience? Multi-media project? All-encompassing digital experience? An interactive film? Akin to Steve’s comments on smart-appliances above, the interactive multi-media experience has also been around for awhile – remember ye olde CD-ROM? This project, however, is doing more than just using technology to give viewers some ownership and direction in the story-telling. The film-makers seem very tuned in to the philosophical implications of inserting all this technology into a very natural environment, and conscious of the irony of their ambition to use technology to bring us closer to our animal state, despite their claims that technology is the very thing drawing us away from that state. Bear 71 official site. /JN

Enter Jeremy Mendes, a Vancouver-based artist and three-time Webby Award winner with a special talent for interactive work. “I drove out to Alberta and met Leanne [Allison], and when I saw these images, I knew right away that it was bizarre: It was surveillance equipment, essentially. These are the same cameras we use on ourselves. They’re the same cameras in Times Square and 7-11,” says Mendes. “I thought, ‘This is a technology story about us and this bear.'” “We prepared an outline and did all the research, and realized this was a story about communication. It’s about the communication humans use, and the communication animals use,” says Mendes… Call it the natural bulletin board, or deciduous Internet, but the scents tell each animal’s story to other animals – very much the same way we use Facebook of Twitter to keep tabs on other humans. “Humans probably had the same ability to understand that information before technology removed us from the natural world,” says Allison…It’s such a different approach to filmmaking and art, that it may take a while for the average Joe or Jane to take it all in, but that’s kind of the point: We’re only half-awake to our animal nature, and all our ambient technology only serves to shove us deeper and deeper into a state of instinct denial.

Molly Wright Steenson: Shifting time

This interview has been edited, condensed, etc.

Molly Wright Steenson is an architectural historian, designer, researcher and strategist. She is a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University’s School of Architecture, where her dissertation, “Artificial Intelligence, Architectural Intelligence: Nicholas Negroponte ad the Architecture Machine Group” looks at the intersection of technology and architecture in the 60s and 70s, and how AI and architecture created groundwork for contemporary human-computer interaction. Molly began working with the Web in 1994 at a wide variety of Fortune 500 and smaller, creative companies. As a design researcher, she examines the effect of personal and mobile technology on people’s lives, with recent projects in the US, India and China. She was a resident professor at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea in Italy and holds a M.A. in Architecture from Princeton, a Master’s in Environmental Design from the Yale School of Architecture and a B.A. in German from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Molly’s lived online at since the mid-90s. She travels too much and she probably knows someone you know.

the Omni Project: How do you define technology?

Molly Wright Steenson: Technology is a device, the connective tissue, the functional implement. I’m especially interested in how technology drives our communication, whether we’re talking about the Pony Express, the pneumatic post, or the Internet.

tOP: What insight can we gain from the way we conceive of and discuss technology?

MWS: One of the hangovers of Web 2.0 and the there’s-an-app-for-that mentality is that success in technology values the market and shipping a project, not a critical viewpoint or different design questions that can lead to breakthroughs we haven’t had before.

One reason I love teaching in schools of design is the speculative nature of student design work: it does not need to make it to market to be successful; it does not need to answer to a bottom line or an uncreative client. What it needs to do is address the question of the application of art, the incorporation of a stance or point of view, and the execution on a variety of levels, whether drawn, rendered, built as a model, told as a story, presented as a fly through, or enacted as a performance. In order to develop novel ideas for the mainstream or commercial world, it’s important to spend time on speculation and surprise.

I approach technology from a historical perspective to look at the foundations of why we turn to different technologies to help us communicate, to consider the kinds of problems we had in the past and the interfaces we developed to help us deal with it. For instance, telegraphy boomed in the 1870s because it was inexpensive and theoretically instantaneous, but it was difficult to get a telegram across a crowded city like Paris quickly, due to traffic and the labor required to transmit and transpose the messages. So it made more sense to build a network of cast iron pneumatic tubes between post offices, to bypass street-level traffic. Every major financial center had this problem; financial centers drive communication needs and thus the technologies that support communication. Paris developed the largest pneumatic post network in the world with 450 km of pneumatic tubes, and at one point processing 12 million pieces of pneumatic post.

Pneumatic tubes. Doesn’t that seem elaborate? A technological wonder? Magical? Steampunk? Yet at the time, given relationships between civil engineers and the government and communications, it made sense to build something this elaborate. What could we learn from this decision today? What does it teach us about our questions of interface, of network, of capital, of finance?

tOP: As a historian, do you privilege the past over the future? What is the benefit of looking backwards when looking forwards?

MWS: Becoming a historian provided another perspective: it shifted time for me. I like looking at things flatly: newer does not necessarily mean more advanced. My perspective considers equally the contemporary impact of mobile phones on urban India or social network technologies in China, or Web 0.0 and 1.0, or the projects Nicholas Negroponte led as a part of his Architecture Machine Group at MIT in the 1960s and 70s, or the pneumatic post in the 1880s. All of these contexts-and many more I have yet to discover-represent possible futures that haven’t happened yet, or might happen in a different way. They’re all fruitful and ripe contexts for investigation.

So what about near-past casting, instead of future-casting? I’m struck by what Haruki Murakami said about his new novel, 1Q84 in a New York Times interview

“Most near-future fictions are boring. It’s always dark and always raining, and people are so unhappy. I like what Cormac McCarthy wrote, The Road – it’s very well written…But still it’s boring. It’s dark, and the people are eating people…George Orwell’s 1984 is near-future fiction, but [1Q84] is near-past fiction. We are looking at the same year from the opposite side. If it’s near past, it’s not boring.”

Thinking slightly back in time spurs different thinking.

tOP: When you look at your life, what impact is technology having?

MWS: Molly Steenson has come unstuck in time, to borrow liberally from Kurt Vonnegut. I’ve lived my life online in some manner or another since 1992, on the Web since 1994, and as since 1997. I maintain a huge network of people and things, and for better or for worse, the technologies that illuminate our social network makes these things all the more possible. In some ways, I feel a lot more like people a generation younger than me who grew up with the Web and mobile technology: it’s very much a part of who I am. It’s sometimes bewildering to people my age or older outside of high tech culture.

tOP: A network of things?

MWS: I’m interested in how things mediate connections between people-the relations they bring to bear. Some parts of actor-network theory (ANT) influence on how I think about people and interactions with places and things. ANT doesn’t necessarily privilege people (or users) at the center of an interaction, but rather actants: human or non-human elements that stand in relation to each other. The relations become particularly important. So when I look at the world that we interact with, I see people and infrastructures and interfaces. I see people as interfaces for ideas, and interfaces as ways to get what lies beneath and makes ties us together.

When I wrote about the Poste Pneumatique (published in short form in Cabinet, a clip available here) and about the Paris Central Post office, I went back and looked at all of the interfaces I could determine: brass cranks, cast iron tubes, steam engines, water for the steam, cast iron and glass desks for mail sorting, elevators for moving the post, chutes for sending it to the basement. I also looked at the relations that these enabled between people and financial systems, between the movement of capital and the development of communication networks.

But these same kinds of interactions are why I was fascinated by the phone book as a kid, of how to call a foreign country (though I didn’t have anybody to call and I didn’t go overseas till I was 17), why I still stop and look mail sorting facilities and switches and wires. Somehow, they seem to represent us and the relations we build between ourselves. I guess you could say I’m an infrastructure nerd, or a media and communication nerd.

tOP: You have a strong connection between what you are learning and how you are living. How do they drive each other?

MWS: One of the reasons that I went back to school was the experience I had living in Ivrea, Italy, when I was a professor at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea. Ivrea was the headquarters of Olivetti, and although it’s been there since Roman times, it’s best known for its role as a modernist social-corporate utopia. We lived in Talponia (mole city) – a huge 1972 semicircular residence built into the side of a hill, with a meadow in the middle. It was parts Logan Run, parts northern Italian idyllic, and it changed me. For that matter, it changed all of us who lived there. I came back to the US, fairly undone from the whole experience of living and working there, inspired by the architects and industrial designers I worked with, and needed to change my focus. That’s how I ended up studying architectural history: I wanted more depth than my previous career in user experience afforded.

Asking “What can I do to spend a month (or two, or three) where you are?” leads to wonderful things. I just came back from a month in Ume?•, Sweden, where I was a resident at the HUMLab (the digital humanities lab at the university), where I turned 40. Two years ago, I spent the summer in Montreal at the Canadian Centre for Architecture There’s been Berlin, Bangalore and Copenhagen while I’ve been in grad school. In all of these cases, the travel isn’t random: it’s connecting with people and projects and places that I know, and as a student, I’m lucky to have the flexibility I do.

tOP: If society is changing through technology, what is gained, and what is lost?

MWS: Look at this quote: “…the transmission of intelligence, in the most literal sense of the term, annihilates both space and time.” [1] It’s the case today, certainly, but the quote is from 1850, from Dionysius Lardner, and the technology in question in that quote: the electric telegraph. “Nothing facilitates and develops commercial relations so effectually as cheap and rapid means of intercommunication,” he writes.

It seems to me that we’re grappling with the same question today that Lardner asked, whether at the speed of rail travel, as he addressed it, or at the speed of nanoseconds and the scale of planetary orbit. What are we gaining or losing? Maybe that’s the wrong question.

Okay, one thing. I have this thought that we’ve lost our senses of proxemics and proprieception, thanks to our reliance on the mobile phone screen we always looked down at before we make our next move, and it’s changed people’s walking and peripheral vision, even when they don’t have their devices in front of them or in their hand. I think we’ll learn how to reintegrate and multitask both with people in front of us on the street and as we drift in the third space of mediated communication, but it’ll take some time. It makes it really annoying to get anywhere quickly, even in a place like New York or a busy international airport (especially at the top of an escalator, but I digress).

tOP: What else do you want to tell us?

MWS: I’d like to pick up the things I’ve loved but that somehow fell away over the years: playing classical guitar and flute, acting, writing poetry. I’d like to do more of the things that I enjoy but am not awesome at, like running, or drawing and watercolors. My life’s about to focus a lot as I finish my dissertation and find (a likely academic job). And I want a dog.

[1] Dionysius Lardner, Railway Economy; a Treatise on the New Art of Transport, Its Management, Prospects and Relations (London,: Taylor, Walton and Maberly, 1850), 18.

Stories behind the themes: Wonderland

2011 is coming to a close and so are the installments of secondary research for the Omni Project themes. The fifth theme, Wonderland, comes as no surprise. In fact, the ancient Greek playwright Sophocles alluded to it over two thousand years ago when he wrote “And through the future, near and far, as through the past, shall this law hold good: Nothing that is vast enters into the life of mortals without a curse.” Welcome to the future, where the vastness of technology delivers both the promise of possibility and the curse of consequence. Here we share a few examples of how people are consuming, managing, producing, processing and even inadvertently participating in the unstoppable proliferation of technology.

So You’ve Shared a Link? This is How Long it Will Stay Relevant [The Atlantic] – Here discuss a metric they developed called ‘half life’ to measure how long a shared link remains relevant. They analyzed links (shortened through their site) from YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and directly through email and instant messages. The results are not surprising so much as deflating (a feeling which is, after all, only relevant for a few hours). analyzed click data for a thousand popular links shortened through their website and found remarkable consistency in how long bitly stay relevant on various sites. The company’s blog summarizes the results in the chart below. The half life of a Twitter link is the shortest, at two hours and 48 minutes, yet Twitter links tend to garner the most traffic. Links shared on Facebook have on average a half life 24 minutes longer. Similarly, “direct links–those shared through email or instant messaging–have an only slightly longer half life of three hours and 24 minutes. The three types of links share the same basic distribution, reaching their peak number of clicks shortly after being posted and gradually tapering off in clicks from there.

How to stop e-mail overload? Think before you hit send. [Washington Post] – This piece discusses the deluge of information we confront in our email inboxes and the ensuing internal and external battles to stay afloat, which resulted in this Email Charter.

But the unintended consequence is that communication volume is expanding to the point where it threatens to take over our lives. An e-mail inbox has been described as a to-do list that anyone in the world can add to. If you’re not careful, it can gobble up most of your week. Then you’ve become a reactive robot responding to other people’s requests, instead of a proactive agent addressing your own priorities.

Spin, Spin, Die Less Quickly [The Wirecutter] – Here’s a techno-topic that many of us can relate to. Following the death of a hard drive belonging to a friend-of-a-friend, the author reflects upon the frailty of the infrastructure that supports data and content exchange and storage. Hence emerge the challenges of managing and maintaining the onslaught of information so that we may reliably refer back to it in the future.

Data should last forever but individual data storage devices tend to be frail. Just ask the people who run Google’s data centers- In the end, it pays to have your stuff stored the way Google would-in many places at once, in as many copies as you can. Right now, that means having multiple drives for backup, or, having a local drive and an online back up drive like Backblaze or Crashplan. That is the final truth about hard drives.

What Does It Mean To Be Connected in the¬† 21st Century?¬† [TEDxMarin] -¬† Tiffany Shlain explores the “connective tissues” that now bond us (email, texting, etc.) and some of the biological reasons why we are nearly powerless to resist the gravitational pull of technology.

I half expected the statue of liberty to have torch in one hand and be texting with the other- I read that every time you click or check your email or your cell phone, you get a squirt of dopamine. Now dopamine, most people think it’s like a pleasure… but they have actually found out this it is about seeking, and finding, and searching, Dopamine is really associated with searching for information.

David Carr: The News Diet Of A Media Omnivore [NPR] – Interview with a media columnist for The New York Times about his own media consumption habits. Focused primarily on Carr’s entanglement with Twitter including the lovely quote “My persistent concern is that I’ll become so busy producing media that I won’t consume enough of it.” Carr probably isn’t the only one who faces the consequences of being a media prosumer, any of this sound familiar?

This is the first year that I think my productivity has dropped because [of my media consumption]. I’m looking at the coming year and thinking, what am I going to give up? Am I going to give up following the NFL? Am I going to give up listening to music and going out and seeing it? Am I going to give up riding my bike? Or am I going to cut back on some of these digital habits I have that are eating me alive and some of these … endless panels about the future of journalism? The future of journalism is wearing badges and talking on panels, as far as I can tell.

(for more on the future of journalism, check out the IxD12 Student Design Challenge)

The Curse of Cow Clicker: How a Cheeky Satire Became a Videogame Hit [Wired] РCan a cow sitting in pasture, making cud of clicks, reflect the insidious nature of gamification?  It most certainly can, especially when developer of said cow created said pasture and clicks as a tongue-in-cheek satire of deceptively banal games. Even more so when said developer finds himself hungrily grazing in a Pavlovian pasture of compulsive production, trying to keep the hungry cows ruminating.

Bogost kept his players hooked by introducing new cows for them to purchase using virtual mooney or real money. They ranged from the crowd-pleasingly topical (a cow covered in oil and sporting a BP-esque logo on its rump) to the aggressively cynical (the Stargrazer Cow, which was just the original cow facing the opposite direction and for which Bogost charged 2,500 mooney). They may have looked simple, but they were time-consuming to conceive and draw. By the end of the year, Bogost was devoting as much as 10 hours a week to Cow Clicker. Drawings of cows cluttered his house and office. “I was spending more time on it than I was comfortable with,” Bogost says. “But I was compelled to do it. I couldn’t stop.”

‘Tis the Season… If is remotely accurate with their estimates, this post will cease being relevant long before the festivities are done so we better act fast and wish you Happy Holidays! And in case there is any kernel of doubt left in your mind that we are snowed in by a blizzard of techno-possibilities, allow us to regift- er, repost- a little tongue-in-cheek holiday house music to soundtrack this winter wonderland.

Julian Bleecker: Creating Wily Subversions

This interview has been edited, condensed, etc.

Julian Bleecker is a designer, technologist and researcher in the Advanced Projects studio at Nokia Design in Los Angeles and the Near Future Laboratory where he investigates emerging social practices around new networked interaction rituals. His focus is on hands-on design and prototyping as a way to raise questions about commonly held assumptions about digital media and digital devices so as to explore possibilities for innovation. He lectures and leads workshops on the intersections of art, design, technology and the near-future possibilities for new social-technical interaction rituals.

the Omni Project: What is is the Near Future Laboratory?

Julian Bleecker: It’s a place where I can look at what “could be” without the usual encumbrance of academia or industry – I can make, explore and postulate about things that might seem as bizarre as wheels on luggage or starting a revolution in the Middle East with 140 character messages. Anything that people would immediately dismiss as unpatentable or unmarketable or silly or impractical is very interesting to me, because the near future is full of many unexpected things.

We make these sorts of peculiar things, speculate about them and the worlds in which they might be just ordinary, quotidian objects or little UX moments.

We are a design collective that comes together in an adhoc fashion around common interests. We’re not a company in the traditional sense.

tOP: Can you expand on “near future” versus “future?”

JB: Near future is in the realm of imminently possible. It’s more relevant these days, insofar as our expectations about what unexpected new behaviors, devices, language, means of connecting and communicating and sharing and materializing ideas seems to be trotting along at a fairly good clip. I don’t want to say that change seemed less fast at an earlier point in history, but the nearness of a different, markedly changed future means we can correct things quicker, which is important. We don’t have long to deal with population crises, systemic ecological failures, bad socio-political-philosophical-religious polarizations, an inability for many human brains to accept difference and different points of view. All that is problematic and we need to change those things in the near future. Not the future. The near future as in 18-60 months.

tOP: What is design fiction? How does it differ from “science fiction”?

JB: It’s a name for doing design that speculates in the way that science fiction speculates. It’s another way for design to step outside of the constraints of, say – *product* design, where things must be desirable, profitable and buildable. Design Fiction looks at things sideways, or inverts things. It makes fundamentally challenging assumptions. It’s the Twilight Zone of design practice.

It draws from science fiction because I think science fiction may be the exemplary story telling idiom or form of expression for speculating about what could be. It does that quite seriously, and is often a form of critique or commentary on contemporary conditions – macro and micro conditions; a critique of world-scale circumstances or the misguided interaction idioms built into things like center consoles on cars. It also has this wonderful ability to allow one to suspend disbelief on very weird things, all for the enjoyment of a good story.

What I hope for design fiction is that it could do the same thing and its outcomes or products would be accepted as, at worse – things around which conversations can be had that may lead to new near future worlds that are hopefully more habitable. At best, that same suspension of disbelief makes it possible to have a design fiction speculation accepted as imminently possible. That means that the guy in the room who has the check book and the decision making power can say about some curious idea or a disruptive thing that isn’t just another uninspired, middling “innovative” device – yes..that’s what we should do.

Design Fiction differs from science fiction insofar as it makes the things that go along with those future, fictional worlds. I think of it sometimes as making props for those fictional worlds. That is part of the wide world of science fiction because science fiction makes props for itself and its stories as well. For example, science fiction film has an entire professional practice of making the things that will help tell the story. Design Fiction is a material making practice, just as design is in most regards. It creates the things and experiences and moments that are meant to be evocative – they are meant to evoke elements of larger stories about life in these other worlds. I think Design Fiction is particularly effective when those props are just quotidian, no matter how fantastic they may seem. Think of it this way – all the things sitting on your desk right now that would’ve made someone’s head explode 5 years ago, or 10 years ago? They’re quite ordinary today. There’s something about making the extraordinary ordinary that makes it seem all the more possible. Rather than fetishizing the things that may exist in the future and making them gleaming and central to existence, why not make them humble, or even annoyingly stubborn components of the everyday? That’s something that science fiction does and I think it goes a long way towards that crucial element of suspending disbelief because the ordinary is quite believable and therefore possible. And once something seems possible, it becomes easier to seriously consider it rather than laugh and dismiss it.

[Also see Design Fiction: A Short Essay on Design, Science, Fact and Fiction]

tOP: What’s the connection between exploring the future, especially the future of technology, and storytelling?

JB: The future is that which could be. So, you need a story, some kind of narrative that enrolls people in that vision of what could be and then does so in a way that gets them hopped up enough to start materializing that vision. That’s all the future is. It’s really not complicated – but it’s hard to tell the compelling story. Storytelling is really hard. And there are lots of people trying to create those futures, so you have lots of these stories because everyone is trying to get people to do some hammering to materialize their idea of what they think should become.

Those stories can be ways of exploring possible futures as long as we understand that the future is wrapped in a story that is compelling enough for people to get to gather and materialize it.

tOP: The project we have embarked on is about exploring people’s relationship with technology. How do you define technology?

JB: That’s a good question. Technology is an exemplar of culture in an especially reified material that cleverly cloaks itself. That material is stuff we call a bunch of different names – hardware, software, firmware, ethernet, T-3, MP3, MySQL, Oracle, iPad, mobile phone, MakerBot, Lithium Ion batteries, OLED display. Whatever. All those things are very articulate means of remaking us, which is also remaking cultures. That’s why it’s more interesting to make these forms of culture that are quite deliberate about remaking culture – things that do it conscientiously, without wasting time, energy, materials.

Technology should be about more than good/fast/cheap or desirable/profitable/buildable. Technologies, if they are ways of making culture, shouldn’t just be last year’s object, only in different colors or with better battery life.

tOP: Does your work influence the expectations people have from real technology? Or the ideas product developers and technologists have for making real technology?

JB: I can only hope. At the Laboratory, we deliberately create strange, provocative devices that are designed to be wily subversions of what one might expect from technology. They typically amplify, invert or subdue the usual things that least-common denominator technology might do.

They become action-oriented thought-provokers. They can get away with doing something strange that then leads to moments where people get new ideas triggered in their heads and say – huh..there might be a kernel of something in that the Ear Freshener device. We’re not going to make Ear Fresheners, but I learned something by making it that can then doing something new and wonderful in this other, more pragmatic mass-manufactured thing that never would have come about had we not started by making devices that freshen the earball. Not many design projects would start with the brief saying – make things that are like Binaca Blast for people’s ears..something that can get rid of the filmy residue of a day of bad listening. That doesn’t even make sense, unless you frame it by doing a bit of science fiction and say – oh..this is for an evolved human or some weird earball-y transspecies for whom hearing is orders of magnitude more significant than seeing. But – not many design laboratories are going to make that kind of assumption because there is no such “market” or “audience.”

tOP: To what end? What’s the outcome you hope for?

JB: I was trained as an electrical engineer. So, I’m a real technologist – I got a degree and everything. I’m not just a pantomimic artist wielding a soldering iron. I’m just trying to tell slightly different stories than the ones many electrical engineers or computer science people would tell. They’re different from the old-fashioned technologist’s story of “We’ll make it faster next year” or, “We’re going to make peoples’ heads explode” with a “disruption” that’s really just a mass-produced incantation of a middling idea, like voice control for your car stereo system.

So, without the normative measure of “real” versus, what..? “fake” technologists – I think there are loads of possible futures. The futures that “real” product-oriented technologists prefer just aren’t that interesting to me. They track too closely to a predetermined notion of what comes next – their future is up-and-to-the-right. The real future is boring.

tOP: The real future is boring? Do you mean the real future as a creative construct for problem solving and solution envisioning is boring when it’s same-old-same-old, or do you see the future that you are stepping into second by microsecond as boring?

JB: There was a great all-day thing in London I went to a month or so ago called Thrilling Wonder Stories. I couldn’t be there the whole day, but I caught most of the last few hours. I noticed something – people were showing videos of stuff and apologizing that it wasn’t “real.” Like – it was a “concept video” to demonstrate an idea. I got a little annoyed by the apologies because there’s this implication that a good idea needs to be apologized for if it isn’t powered by a real battery or if the admittedly hard work of materializing that idea – making it “run” in “real” code – has not yet been done. Starting a conversation that sustains and gets people hopped up enough to think about it and try it and work through what they imagine in a variety of forms – there’s nothing to apologize for about that sort of work. It’s as real – or maybe a different kind of real – than having a thing with a bunch of wires and batteries that articulates the idea in other forms like code, or servos twitching or something that breaks when it falls.

tOP: How do you think technology is changing people’s everyday lives? How is it changing your life?

JB: That’s an impossible question. It makes the assumption that it is technology that is doing the changing, or that there is even change occurring. If I were flat-footed about it, I’d say technology is changing consumers lives by helping them continue to be consumers.

For myself, I take a very instrumental view of the things I have around me. They help me do the things I may have done anyway, or have done earlier without the same level of fidelity or refinement. Creative activities, mostly – making things like photography, film, new little weird electronic devices. Those are things that I can do and experiment with – and I have in the past. The material is more readily malleable and available it seems. Or it may be that the conversations are more readily available – you can find the people that can help you do what you imagine.

From Us, To Steve: The techno present

For the Omni project we are exploring the impact of technology on people’s everyday lives. This has involved a lot of “looking out” into the world. Of course we are also “looking in” and paying attention to how technology is impacting our own lives, i.e. when it comes to tolerating traffic and making consensual decisions about birthday gifts.

Julie and I had the best of intentions: Head up to the Ferry Plaza building after a meeting in the city to pick up a gift for Steve for his birthday. We knew (more or less) that we wanted to get he and Anne some sort of serving dish from Heath Ceramics to complement the new tableware they purchased last month. Unfortunately traffic was not in our favor that day. As Julie practiced her patience at the wheel we noticed in the sunroof that a helicopter circled above- definitely not a good sign.

By the time we got to the Ferry building, Julie’s patience had run out.

JN: I do not want to deal with parking. Why don’t I just drop you off here and you can run in?

TC: Okay. Wait a minute. I thought we were gonna pick something out together?

JN: It’s fine. We talked about it. I’m sure you can pick something out.

TC: I want us to choose together! Okay, I will text you! Stay tuned!

I got to the shop and met Monica and Michael (whom I had already spoken with on the phone about our mission). They were ready to help and set to showing me exactly what Steve and Anne had purchased. I found myself in a race against time and battery when I saw the dreaded red percentage in the upper right corner of my iPhone. As a gift-giver I was focused on figuring out the present, but I also felt a bit frantic about making sure I had power enough left to find Julie once the shopping was done. The tingling butterflies in my stomach sang a tune of “you are new to this city, never been to this ‘hood before… if you get to 10% better run for the door…”

Julie assuages my fears of never finding her should my battery die before I get back outside to her car.

Monica showed me a bunch of serving platter options that would complement Steve and Anne’s new set. I texted these images to Julie with my suggestion. She agreed and we arrived quickly at a decision. The whole process, including gift wrapping, took less than 15 minutes. I walked out the door directly over to Julie’s car with a perfect present, selected in consensus, and a teeny tiny bit of battery to spare.

The techno-interventions into our gifting ritual did not end there. We planned to meet at Ho Wing’s General Store in the Mission for dinner on Sunday night (which, sadly, is so new it has no website or relevant hyperlinks as of yet). En route to the restaurant¬† the texts started flying among the three of us. *Nota bene: I typically comply with California hands free laws and do not text while driving. I have, however, trained my 8 year-old to masterfully multi-task between giving me directions via Google Maps and reading/replying to text messages.

iMéssage ?† trois illustrating communication of¬† our location, our confusion, our emotions and our search for why.

During our hunt for a birthday gift for Steve, I was reminded of the simple daily interventions of technology. I take for granted that the ways that technology enables me (and my 8¬† year-old) to find and communicate with friends, learn more about friends, stay connected, pass time, navigate, keep anxiety at bay (or not), and share decision making in a way that ensures we both have the same ‘data’. It’s hard to imagine that less than 10 years ago none of this experience would have been possible or, for what it’s worth, noteworthy.

Happy ending! Steve and Anne with their new tray (images courtesy of Steve and Anne…and technology)



Stories behind the themes: Biological

Welcome to the fourth installment of an unfolding bibliography of secondary research that fueled our generation of themes for the Omni project. This time around we are focusing on the blurring biological boundaries between technology and our everyday lives (and bodies). We have seen a number of articles and other tidbits that hint at how far technology has advanced towards human behavior, brain function, and biomechanics. We also see quite a bit that suggests how far humans are leaning towards (and on) technology as inspiration, mediation, medication, and meme.

Is It Time To Welcome Our New Computer Overlords? [] – The human codes of nuance and meaning in language are not yet cracked – they cannot yet be simulated.

Elsewhere, Ferrucci has been more circumspect about Watson’s level of “understanding.” In an interview with IBM’s own magazine ForwardView, he said, “For a computer, there is no connection from words to human experience and human cognition. The words are just symbols to the computer. How does it know what they really mean?” In other words, for all of the impressive NLP programming that has gone into Watson, the computer is unable to penetrate the semantics of language, or comprehend how meanings of words are shot through with allusions to human culture and the experience of daily life.

How much is a life worth in pixels? [SocialMediaCollective] – An effort to quantify the value of a human life (or in this case death) as measured by screen space allocated to reporting it on the webpages of various news sites. Not the most rigorous metric, but certainly a clever approach to valuing human presence in the virtual world.

Frustrated by this, I decided to get a more objective assessment of the coverage by counting the number of pixels different news websites were assigning to the story of the massacre. I know web designers put a lot of work into every single pixel on the screen, especially of high-traffic websites. Visitor’s attention is scarce and every pixel counts. So I took screenshots of¬† the front pages of some of the major news websites and calculated the amount of screen real state assigned to the story of the massacre.

The Cyborg in Us All [] – Tracing the steps we are taking towards a totally hands-free interaction with technology where brains will send messages directly to devices. One less interaction to sit between man and machine.

Now it was my turn. Mukerjee removed the headset and moistened the tips of its electrodes with contact-lens fluid, then arranged the EEG device on top of my hair. The electrodes poked into my scalp like wet fingers. I held the iPhone in front of me and beamed a blast of willpower at it. “Steve Jobs, Steve Jobs, Steve Jobs, Steve Jobs,” I shouted inside my mind. The phone picked George Bush.

PUMPED UP KICKS|DUBSTEP [YouTube] – Here we see technology influencing body – this guy dances like what you are watching is a video effect; in the way that the audio IS an audio effect – loops, run backwards, etc. very digital. But the video is real – this is his way of moving his body, but the aesthetic is entirely defined by something created elsewhere as technology. Yes, we had The Robot in the 70s, but this is different – that was a human dancing like a machine, this is a human dancing like an effect – something that doesn’t exist except as the manipulation of data.

You are a robot [TheTechnium] РKK deconstructs dancing like a robot and highlights the myriad ways the human body can be molded to perform like a techno-being.  

Everywhere we look in pop culture today, some of the coolest expressions are created by humans imitating machines. Exhibit A would be the surging popularity of popping, tutting, and dub step dancing. You’ve seen these dancers on YouTube: the best of them look exactly like robots dancing, with the mechanical stutter of today’s crude robots trying to move like humans. Except the imitators robotically dance better than any robot could — so far.

A Brief Rant on the Future of Interaction Design [] – Bret Victor has his finger (pun certainly intended) on the pulse of our future interactions with technology. The rant focuses on our bodies, namely our hands and fingers, and their place of privilege between humans and technology (I feel a Michelangelo Sistine Chapel reference coming on). If, as they say, all things are created twice (first in the mind and then in reality) then Victor has me wondering if technology has already infiltrated our minds and influenced the pursuit of Pictures Under Glass as opposed to, say, envisioning an experience rich with tactility and manual manipulation.

There’s a reason that our fingertips have some of the densest areas of nerve endings on the body. This is how we experience the world close-up. This is how our tools talk to us. The sense of touch is essential to everything that humans have called “work” for millions of years.

Biomimicry’s Greatest Hits [] – We continue to see blurring of the boundaries between humans and technology in this presentation which offers examples of how nature has inspired and informed some memorable technological advances.

The idea of taking inspiration from nature may be gaining traction in many industries today, but the natural world has always been a powerful inspiration for designers and inventors. Here are some of the most important objects that take their cue from the world around us.

Stories behind the themes: Transformation

Here we offer the third installment of an unfolding bibliography of secondary research that fueled our generation of themes for the Omni project. This time around we are focusing on the transformational role of technology in our everyday lives, both in terms of what is changing (us) and how, i.e. the process of moving ritualistically through the liminal space that sits between what (and how) we once did things and the activities that will become our daily doings. This theme captures not only the place between the old and the new, but also the processes of learning, relearning, and unlearning how to respond to the new and improved version of our lives that technology suggests possible.

Online Banking Bill Pay Changes Ahead [] – Remember the last time you had to show up in person at your bank to conduct business? Yeah, me neither. Remember the last time you had a confounding online banking moment trying to transfer funds to or from one account or bank to another (be it yours or someone else’s)? Yep, me, too! We appear to be wading through the growing pains associated with a transition from institutionally-focused financial rituals to customer-driven (and designed) online personal financing that is largely institutionally-agnostic.

While consumers like seeing all their finances in one friendly place, they don’t like the fact that they can’t do anything about it there–namely pay those bills or move money between accounts–using the same site or app. That capability is gradually coming, with the help of new finance technology, business models and willing, often smaller, banks.

Collaborative Learning for the Digital Age [] – Cathy Davidson puts her teaching (and learning to teach in this era of “This is Your Brain on the Internet”) under the microscope in an exploration of how technology is impacting the collaborative nature of knowledge including how it is consumed, crowdsourced, created, communicated, and (perhaps most fascinating of all) subjected to criticism by various stakeholders. Here we can begin to see that a focus on traditional ways of learning has created attentional blindness to the opportunities for new ways of learning.

Unfortunately, current practices of our educational institutions-and workplaces-are a mismatch between the age we live in and the institutions we have built over the last 100-plus years. The 20th century taught us that completing one task before starting another one was the route to success. Everything about 20th-century education, like the 20th-century workplace, has been designed to reinforce our attention to regular, systematic tasks that we take to completion. Attention to task is at the heart of industrial labor management, from the assembly line to the modern office, and of educational philosophy, from grade school to graduate school.

A Walk to Remember to Remember [] – Anyone who has seen the video of the woman walking into the mall fountain because her eyes are glued to her phone (there’s another walk to remember!) has witnessed the physical (and perhaps more experientially concrete) impact of technology on walking. This piece roots around in some of the more metaphorical and abstract ways that technology has transformed rituals and narratives of bipedal locomotion.

“When I walk,” he describes, “my impression is that a digital sensibility overtakes me [-] the places or circumstances that have drawn my attention take the form of Internet links.” Referring to associative memory as being like hypertext is a perfect example of how the significance and description of walking changes in reference to the time and culture in which it is grounded. The metaphors we use to characterize things we don’t understand often change with relation to extant technology. For example the human mind once described as a tablet is now popularly referred to as being like a computer. But this use of figurative language also demonstrates how metaphor shapes the way we perceive and experience the physical world.

In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores [] – Technology is obviously changing our institutions and, here again,education seems to be a classic meme. There is a defined dream that computers will fix THIS – every generation of tech, from the first Apple PCs to now iPads, are all hailed as “THIS is the thing that will truly, radically improve it!”; but in our measurement-focused education systems, evidence points to “no”.

To be sure, test scores can go up or down for many reasons. But to many education experts, something is not adding up – here and across the country. In a nutshell: schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.

The Gen Y Guide to Collaborative Consumption [] – Technology is enabling alternatives to the mainstream economy that are self-created and subvert standard modes of exchange and value. This easy-to-use DIY guide is a road map for leaving behind ancient rituals of consumption in favor of practices that values possibilities of use over possession.

American youth are slowly realizing that the old system is broken, and no longer holds the answer to all their dreams and desires. We’re discovering that stable, satisfying careers can be found outside the offices and factories around which our parents and grandparents built their lives. We’re acknowledging that the pursuit of bigger, better, and faster things have plunged our country into a time of despair and difficulty. We’re convinced that business as usual isn’t an option any longer–but what’s the alternative?

Stories behind the themes: Relational Connections

Welcome to the next installment of an unfolding bibliography of secondary research that fueled our generation of themes for the Omni project. Today we are focusing on the relational role of technology as a facilitator, participant, and obstacle. This broadly encompasses relationships between human and technology, humans and other humans, human with self, and even technology with technology. The nature of our relationships are changing, as our the tools that are available for us to make meaning of the data that they embody and generate. The items below begin to unpack this tangled web of interconnectedness along with rituals that arise and recede in response to progress and its discontents.

The tribesman who Facebook friended me [] – Really astonishing piece, especially since the whole “picture of a Kalahari desert warrior on a mobile phone” images became totally overdone in our field 15 years ago. Very intriguing characterization of the limited exposure to ideas this tribe had and in a very short time they are on Facebook. This article implicates technology in the evolution and revolution of relationships with (and within) tribes that hitherto were characterized by a lack of interaction with the rest of the globe.

But, what I am here to tell you is that it’s happening now.¬† We now live in a world in which a tribe that had not even heard of a feathered arrow until two years ago, can access every idea in the world.¬† For the first time in history, humanity is truly open-access.¬† Our entire species is “logged in.”¬† Should we mourn the passing of a phase in our history when bands of human minds still lived in isolation, or rejoice that we are finally all on the same page?

Life in the Age of Extremes [] – The internet (which he seems to conflate or equate with processing power and computing capabilities) enables extreme reactions and responses that have great destructive potential. The author argues that interconnectedness via the internet amplifies feedback loops and therefore catalyzes extreme states and transforms the value of individual contributions within these collective contexts.

Optimists have long dominated the cyber-landscape, firm and vocal in their belief that the Internet creates a more transparent world, and that the quick and easy access to information it provides is bringing the global population together into one enlightened chorus of harmony. I have been deeply concerned that the Internet has created a centrifugal force that has the potential to tear us apart. The Internet’s reinforcement of uncompromising positions during acrimonious budget debate in Washington, the Internet-facilitated, high-frequency trading driving volatility in financial markets, and the use of Twitter to organize the recent street riots in the UK brought to mind Eric Hobsbawm’s 1994 book, The Age of Extremes. The book is about the extreme historical events of what Hobsbawm called “the short 20th century.” But he could just as easily have been writing about the 21st century, the Internet age.

Pew Internet Research Report [] – Results of a recent study about cell phone use. Ironically, of the 2,277 interviews conducted about cell phones, 1,522 interviews were conducted by landline phone, and only 755 interviews were conducted by cell phone (that’s about 33%). So here we have a study that evokes questions about how we relate to others via technology and how that very relationship facilitates the study of the relationship. Is this relational research recursion?

83% of American adults own some kind of cell phone–and these devices have an impact on many aspects of their owners’ daily lives. Half of all adult cell owners (51%) had used their phone at least once to get information they needed right away. One quarter (27%) said that they experienced a situation in the previous month in which they had trouble doing something because they did not have their phone at hand.

When Roommates were Random [] – How technology is mitigating the influence of serendipity and randomness. Fueled the conversation of X before Y, i.e. how did we do X before Y came along?

It’s just one of many ways in which digital technologies now spill over into non-screen-based aspects of social experience.¬† I know certain people who can’t bear to eat in a restaurant they haven’t researched on Yelp. And Google now tailors searches to exactly what it thinks you want to find. But this loss of randomness is particularly unfortunate for college-age students, who should be trying on new hats and getting exposed to new and different ideas. Which students end up bunking with whom may seem trivial at first glance. But research on the phenomenon of peer influence – and the influences of roommates in particular – has found that there are, in fact, long-lasting effects of whom you end up living with your first year.

The Rebirth of the Ringtone [] – A little ditty about the rise, fall, and rise again of audible cell phone rings, alternatively about the rise and fall of ‘vibrate’ setting. Begins to track some of the rituals of taming technology to comply with social norms and how our personal (i.e. ringtone) choices are reflective of our relationships and (in some cases) responsible for them.

I rarely hear a phone ring these days. Hell, I’m lucky if I catch a stray beep. Only those without much experience in the wireless world continue to derive pleasure from hearing “Achy Breaky Heart” every time an acquaintance calls. A phone on vibrate gives you a slight informational advantage over the people around you, but at the cost of your public identification with a kind of music. Somehow, putting your phone on vibrate seemed politely self-interested, not just plain sneaky.

Does The Internet Make You More Or Less Connected? [] – There are two sides to the coin of constant connectedness. The distraction from immediate social situations is real, but so is the fact that connections with people can be more frequent and relationships can blossom using technology.

The distractions play an even more aggressive role when it comes to my connection with myself. Most of the moments once reserved for a little alone time have been infiltrated by the realtime Internet. I never just wait for a bus, or just stand in line at a bank, or even just sit and think as I sit stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. At these moments, I pull my phone out of my pocket faster than a gunfighter pulls his weapon out of its holster.

Information Consumes Attention Focus In The Age of Abundant Stimulus [] – The paradox of focus and how it can be improved by meditation and pleasure. A lovely little respite that suggests strengthening our relationship with the present moment and our Self in order to better navigate the influx of attention-grabbing information.

The most promising solution to our attention problem, in Gallagher’s mind, is also the most ancient: meditation. Neuroscientists have become obsessed, in recent years, with Buddhists, whose attentional discipline can apparently confer all kinds of benefits even on non-Buddhists. (Some psychologists predict that, in the same way we go out for a jog now, in the future we’ll all do daily 20-to-30-minute “secular attentional workouts.”) Meditation can make your attention less “sticky,” able to notice images flashing by in such quick succession that regular brains would miss them. It has also been shown to elevate your mood, which can then recursively stoke your attention: Research shows that positive emotions cause your visual field to expand.

Love in the Time of Robots: A Duet With Siri [] – Interview with creator of the viral song/video duet between human and iPhone. This delightful little duet touches on how we derive meaning from our relationships with our devices and gets us wondering about artificial interpersonal communication.

Do you think humans will actually fall in love with their robots one day? Is it happening already? OOOOOOh. Yes. I’m really infatuated with the idea of machines eventually being capable of love. I think it’s kind of inevitable, but I don’t really expect to see it in my lifetime.



Stories behind the themes: Personal Exposure


We recently shared some of the themes emerging from our secondary research for the Omni project. In lieu of a bibliographic deluge, over the next few days we are offering up a sprinkling of the articles, art, commentaries, presentations and other miscellany that contributed to the pool from which our themes were drawn. You will likely find (as we have) that many of these items are illustrative of more than one theme.

First up is the theme of¬†personal exposure and how technology is impacting our identities and behavior. Our participation involves a sacrifice of personal autonomy and control as various technologies require us to respond, reply, reveal, disclose, like, comment, protect, sign-in, sign up, secure, backup, manage, mitigate, translate and aggregate. We are making new choices about old behaviors and developing new rituals to replace outdated interfaces. The boundaries are blurring between private and public, at the same time we have more options than ever before for qualifying and segregating all of the different “I”s that we wish to be, depending on the context.¬† Within this theme we are seeing the topics of identity, trust, consumption, production, control, privacy, regulation, and the facts and myths that capture (and perpetuate) it all.

Tiger Moms and Digital Media [] – A psychotherapist who specializes in Internet and video game addiction offers 9 guidelines for raising children who have “a healthy relationship to digital media.” This starts to point at issues of control and autonomy within families and raises questions about the role of the parent (and technology) in childhood development.

For reasons I cannot explain, I saw the approaching flood, when internet addiction was only a trickle. Now, that flood is upon us. Statistics tell us that between 6 and 13% of the general population meets criteria for Internet Addiction. In the college age population, that number stands between 13 and 19%! That’s a lot of young adults who are addicted to digital technology. In S. Korea and China, the problem is growing so rapidly that those governments have declared Internet Addiction to be their #1 public health threat. Think about it.

Internet Privacy: Is it overrated? [] – A book review of “How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live” by Jeff Jarvis that dives into the challenges of defining the messy term ‘privacy’ and the even messier obstacles associated with information sharing, regulation, and ‘publicness’. Starting to unpack the tangled web of identity and privacy, including expectations of control that accompany acts of exposure.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has tried to recast the desire for privacy as a desire for control over our digital identities. He argues that people want to share information, but we want to determine who gets to see and use it. Jarvis says this definition is too tidy. Privacy is much messier. We live in relationship with other people, after all. How do we even define what qualifies as our own information? If I share information that implicates you, who gets to control that? …. His book is not so much a rallying cry for tweeting your breakfast choices and blogging your company financials as it is a field guide for how to navigate this new technology with optimism rather than fear.

Where an Internet Joke Is Not Just a Joke [] – In light of increasing numbers of detained internet artists and government critics in China, a discussion of censorship and egao (“mischeivous mockery”) that is employed by many to subvert the internet patrols. Example of governmental control and how it is responded to (i.e. averted) through subversive collective channels. Challenges assumptions of exposure as a privilege rather than a right and describes some consequences for individual identity in that scuffle.

No government in the world pours more resources into patrolling the Web than China’s, tracking down unwanted content and supposed miscreants among the online population of 500 million with an army of more than 50,000 censors and vast networks of advanced filtering software. Yet despite these restrictions – or precisely because of them – the Internet is flourishing as the wittiest space in China. “Censorship warps us in many ways, but it is also the mother of creativity,” says Hu Yong, an Internet expert and associate professor at Peking University. “It forces people to invent indirect ways to get their meaning across, and humor works as a natural form of encryption.”

Russian ATM can detect when users are lying [] – Depictions of technology can create distorted views of the future and the present; the notion is that this technology exists but it’s in the lab and it may never make it to the market in a reliable consumable form. The mere suggestion of its potential existence raises a number of questions about current practices involving consumer data. How does disclosure of possible futures impact individual understandings of who we are and how our information is managed, regulated and protected from fraudulent misappropriation?

Though the new ATM design is still in the prototype stages, Sberbank plans to install such machines in malls and bank branches around the country, the NYT reports. Financial institutions elsewhere in the world: time to think about introducing something similar?

My Emergency Contact Information [] – Delicious little piece on how to contact someone in the event of an emergency. It’s fantatsically and unnecessarily complex with hints on how to guess neighbor’s wifi passwords. Unravels the many ways we have learned to be protected,¬†(dis)connected and affected (by easily consumable disasters around the globe).

First, if possible, try me on my cell phone. You should all have the number. I’d really prefer an emergency text message instead of a phone call, especially if the incidenct occurs before 8:00 p.m. on a weekday. Also, I don’t have a data plan, so please do not text images, regardless of the scale of devastation. Instead, Tweet or post pictures to your Flickr or Instagram photostreams and I will download or view them later, when I pass through a hotspot. Don’t forget to geo-tag them so I can determine your location.



the Omni project welcomes Kristine Ng

We’re stoked to announce that Kristine Ng, a 2nd year masters student at UC Berkeley’s School of Information, has been assimilated into the hive mind will be helping out with the Omni project.

Kristine’s studies are concentrating on user experience and HCI, and she hopes to work as an Interaction Designer after graduating next May. Prior to that she worked as a Graphic Designer after achieving her BFA in Design and Visual Communications at Washington University in St. Louis.

She is fascinated by gaining a better understanding of humans and their behavior, in order to better design user experiences. She thrives on tackling challenging problems and is excited to put her thinking cap on to further investigate the many ways that technology impacts our lives.

Find her at @kristineng

And then there were themes: Secondary research results

We read quite a bit on a daily basis here. Once we embarked on the Omni project, everything crossing our screens seemed to relate to the topic at hand. We created a secondary research database to document and collect various articles, blogs, video, blurbs and stories about the role of technology in our lives. We commented on them. We tagged them with keywords. We talked about them. We thought about what we’ve learned from years of doing fieldwork and being curious, and attending conferences and meetings. As they will, patterns and themes began to emerge, which are helping us to ground and organize our thinking as we move forward into our first phase of primary fieldwork.

We’re excited to share some of what’s occupying our thoughts based on that work. Disclaimers and caveats: we are deliberately not including links to all the articles that informed us, to avoid being overwhelming. We’ll post that detailed bibliography next week. We have, however, added a link or two here and there to give you a glimpse into from whence our ideas came.

We noticed a powerful, overarching effect: the discourse about how technology is experienced has been characterized by a remarkably strong polarity. We are either becoming dumber or smarter. Being threatened or enabled to greatness. Dehumanized or globalized. Diseased or cured. If we were to think of this as a personal relationship, we’re at a crossroads. What is gained and lost by this alliance? We are making a list of pros and cons as a culture. Some entries in this ledger are tangible and physical, others are emotional and spiritual. We project our fears and our dreams onto our technology-based interactions and experiences. We are inspired and terrified. Some of us want to break up with technology, others are ready to commit.

Example: Bill Davidow in the Atlantic: Life in the Age of Extremes

We hear a lot of chatter, and have a lot of questions about…

…the notion of our own personal exposure. We put our identity (or identities) out there, and our behavior gathers around it in a massive snowball effect, which defines us in this context. So, that’s done then, to a greater or lesser extent. How do we protect ourselves? From who/what? Is it possible to be safe, or have we ceded control of our personal choices and activities in return for participation? The consequences of participation are unclear. We no longer have a clear mental model about the trajectory of our roles. It’s difficult to preview the positive or consider an exit strategy. The fate of our digital lives after our physical death is an example of this uncertainty. How will more exposure resulting from more access, inter-connectivity and integration of our technologies add to the hullabaloo?

See: CNN Money/Fortune’s Review of Jeff Jarvis’ Book Public Parts Internet Privacy: Is it Overrated?

…the broader relational aspects of our technology-enabled interactions. One:one, one:many, one:technology, tech:tech. The oft-pondered question: are we now closer or more isolated from other people for all this? Are we more or less human as a result of these interactions? Who is serving who, or what? The data we generate can be seen as more interesting than the content (even to our own “friends”). We are forced to analyze and qualify relationships in new ways. How many friends do you have? As magical as the tools and tech we interact with are, our relationships with each other even is more complex than it can support. We don’t have the inner social tools to deal with technologically fueled communication. New tech-driven awkward situations arise, or olde-tyme situations, such as break-ups, take on another layer to navigate. What are strategies help deal with all our connections and interconnections, both with human and non-human actors? When do they fail?

Check out: Jonnie Hughes on Salon The Tribesman who Facebook Friended Me

…the constant state of transformation we’re in, fueled by the rapid and endless development cycle for both experiences and hardware solutions that utilize new tech. We have to first unlearn, then learn and relearn ways to do both common and exceptional tasks on a daily basis. The way I note something on my calendar, for instance, has become orders of magnitude more complex than it used to be. Reinforced behaviors and habits are in a constant state of flux, and complicated by the fact that we are interconnected and affected by what we are doing, relationally, with other people and objects. People, of course, have different levels of comfort and patience with these transformations, thus early adopters vs. laggards. Behavioral change is a notoriously difficult charge for innovators, so how do we address the fact that we are thrusting people into such challenging zones on a regular basis?

For instance: Cathy Davidson in the Chronicle of Higher Education Collaborative Learning for the Digital Age

…the physical effects and experiences with technology. Sure, it’s virtual, but it’s also tangible, and is becoming biological. Consumer technologies that intersect with our bodies and minds are increasingly available, allowing us to quantify ourselves. Different poses and postures are being impacted and invented through devices and interactions. Handwriting is on the decline, finger-typing is passé, thumb-typing is prime, gesture and NUI are on the rise. What are the implications as we think increasingly of technology as part of our brains, biology and environment? How are our bodies and environments evolving to keep up?

As in: Pagan Kennedy in the New York Times Magazine The Cyborg in All of Us

…the onslaught of information/data/content/feeds/streams/news/media which we are thinking of as a wonderland, in the manner of Alice’s rabbit-hole. The Faustian bargain is on – do we revel in the delight of access or cringe under the burden of the onslaught? Apps (Siri, Evernote) and strategies (in-box zero, digital holidays, gamification) abound to manage.

No link here… you’re soaking in it!

Adrian Hon: Illustrate a better future

This interview has been edited, condensed, etc.

Adrian Hon is co-founder and CEO at Six to Start, specializing in game-like stories and story-like games. Clients have included Disney Imagineering, the BBC, Channel 4, and Penguin, and Six to Start has won multiple awards including Best of Show at SXSW.

He also writes about technology for The Telegraph, is writing a Kickstarter-funded book A History of the Future in 100 Objects, and is the co-founder of Transmedia London. Adrian studied neuroscience at Cambridge, Oxford, and UCSD, and has spoken at TED in California about Mars exploration.

the Omni project: What was the impetus for A History of the Future in 100 Objects?

Adrian Hon: The direct impetus was the British Museum and Radio 4’s brilliant series, A History of the World in 100 Objects. While listening to the series, I almost immediately started thinking that this could be a great way to think about the future in a way that would more concrete and accessible to the public.

However, my broader drive is to illustrate a better future for humanity. Not a dystopia or an unthinking utopia, but a world in which we slowly, gradually become happier, healthier, and more kind to each other – and of course technology has a role in that, as it has over the past millennia, but so do changing social norms and greater tolerance.

You only need to open a (western) newspaper to see both the right wing and left wing talking about the imminent collapse of society, financial ruin, global ruin, the notion that our children will have a worse life than us, to see that a very strong and current vision of the future is very negative. Ditto for popular culture. Those are absolutely things we should think about, but it’s not all going to be bad.

tOp: What’s the connection between exploring the future, especially the future of technology, and storytelling?

AH: I am especially interested in the impact that technology has on people and their experiences and relationships. Stories are one of the best ways of imagining different viewpoints, whether that’s putting yourself in the shoes of someone with a very different upbringing, or someone in a different time. They have their limitations, to be sure – they can offer a seductively simplistic picture and they often imply that life has beginnings, middles, and ends – but they are far more effective than simply rattling off a list of how fast planes will be able to travel in the future.

That’s why Apple has been so successful, because both its products and its marketing have focused on what you can do with new technology, rather than the specifications of the technology itself.

From an engineering standpoint it is certainly interesting to know that a phone might have a dual core processor and 1GB of RAM or whatever, but this isn’t what really matters. It could have a quantum computer inside and if it couldn’t check mail quickly, most people couldn’t care less.

It’s harder to extrapolate those experiences. You can’t take Moore’s Law and say that in 18 months, people will start falling in love with the Siri ‘personal assistant’ on the iPhone 4S, and than 18 months after that, the number of people will double. People use technology in unusual ways.

I saw a guy at TEDxSheffield say that we should make humanities degrees cost ¬£90k and engineering degrees cost nothing. What a ridiculous thing to say! Technology without a purpose is just an expensive box. That’s not to say that engineers don’t have ideas, but rather to say that the humanities help us understand what we want to do and why.

tOp: Does your work influence product developers and technologists in making real technology?

AH: We’ll have to see – the book isn’t out yet! I hope it does, and I know that I’ve been greatly influenced by authors such as Vernor Vinge and Neal Stephenson when it comes to designing games and technology. Ideas don’t just appear out of thin air, they’re formed out of what we read and see and interact with, and stories help give ideas a more substantial form.

tOp: Conversely, does the work of real technologists impact the way you conceive of technology in order to tell stories?

AH: To an extent, yes. I want my book to be grounded in real science rather than some of the completely ridiculous “design fiction” out there (Electrolux is particularly bad at getting designers to make concepts that are totally impractical, not to mention often physically impossible). So I do have to keep current with what real technologists and scientists are doing. But it’s possible to be too current and I have to stop myself from just jumping onto whatever the big idea of the day is.

tOp: Ridiculous “design fiction?”

AH: I don’t think they’re trying to make impractical and impossible concepts on purpose. I think they’re just doing it by accident because they don’t care either way. You could say that that’s an admirable thing, an unfettering of the imagination, and in other circumstances I would agree. The issue is that their concepts (like a fridge made of cold green plastic ‘nano goo’ that you can just squish apples into and other food into) regularly get plastered on newspapers as some plausible vision of the future, on par with driverless cars, when in fact they are actually far more difficult to make. That’s marketing, I guess.

tOp: How do you think technology is changing the everyday lives of mainstream consumers?

AH: It’s changing people’s lives dramatically. A lot of people seem to think that a) We’ve always had mobile phones and b) They’re not that big a deal. The truth is that most people only got mobile phones 20 years ago, the internet 15 years ago, the iPod 10 years ago, and smartphones 5 years ago. I use the word “only” because if you went back to the year 1000 and looked for the technological changes from 980, I suspect you wouldn’t find a huge number. Yet the difference between 2011 and 1991 is, I think, pretty enormous. I can now talk to a billion people around the world for almost nothing.

I suppose you could say that none of these things really matters compared to stuff like the car and the washing machine, particularly if you look at economic impact, but that would frankly be bullshit. You only need to walk into a university or a school and take away everyone’s phones and laptops to realise how important these things are.

And I honestly think it’s only just starting. As we see more and more jobs require fewer and fewer humans – from call centres to cars to supermarkets – we’ll see massive strides forward in the standard of living accompanied by massive and sustained unemployment. That’s a big change.

tOp: When you look at your personal life, what kind of impact is technology having?

AH: I find that I’m able to do much more than I could before. Like everyone else, I roll my eyes when I hear the words “social media” but I’m able to make a blog post or a tweet that can go around the world in seconds; and I can now publish a printed newspaper, write a book, or even design a game (with a team!) that can go in front of millions, without being held up by gatekeepers. That’s doesn’t make it easy, but it makes it easier than before. You still need to write a good book.

The other big change is that I am starting to own less stuff. Perhaps this is because:

a) I have had to move three times in the last three years
b) I don’t have any kids

but I find myself very taken with the idea of owning just a few, very high quality, physical possessions. It used to be a real sacrifice to do that but now I can get all of my entertainment and reading digitally, I don’t feel like I’m giving up much in exchange for the ability to move quickly and worry less about getting stuff stolen. I wouldn’t go so far as to extrapolate my experiences to anyone else, but I definitely feel like I’m at Peak Stuff. From here on out, I only own less.

Nicolas Nova: Scanning for signals

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?

Tech relationship similes

Over the past week or so, I’ve noticed some of the ways folks in the media frame and express our relationship to entities we interact with on the web. There’s something odd about the murkiness of roles and power dynamics. One thing is for sure – it’s gone far beyond the consumer-producer relationship.

To Daniel Soar of the London Review of Books, with Google, users are like teachers. By interacting with Google we are unwittingly instructing the machine, giving it lessons on human behavior. I like to think Google, the distributed Google-monster, finds us fascinating, an enormous virtual Andy Warhol.

We teach [Google] while we think it’s teaching us. Levy tells the story of a new recruit with a long managerial background who asked Google’s senior vice-president of engineering, Alan Eustace, what systems Google had in place to improve its products. ‘He expected to hear about quality assurance teams and focus groups’ – the sort of set-up he was used to. ‘Instead Eustace explained that Google’s brain was like a baby’s, an omnivorous sponge that was always getting smarter from the information it soaked up.’ Like a baby, Google uses what it hears to learn about the workings of human language. The large number of people who search for ‘pictures of dogs’ and also ‘pictures of puppies’ tells Google that ‘puppy’ and ‘dog’ mean similar things, yet it also knows that people searching for ‘hot dogs’ get cross if they’re given instructions for ‘boiling puppies.’

To Matthew Creamer of Ad Age, with Facebook, we are like disgruntled, unpaid employees. A more pointless, powerless role may not exist!

Some things are lost with each one of these Facebook changes, but they are not only matters of usability, navigation, privacy and other factors in our part-time but ever-more-involving jobs working as ad impressions for a rich company in Palo Alto, Calif. The stuff that inconveniences you in the short-term may make you rage with a hotness that, if spotted by an alien scout, would either send the visitor whimpering back to Zebulon or alarm him onto war footing, but it’s only so important. You will adapt. Or you will leave.

So, have they got it right? Are we teachers? Employees? Something else? Have you noticed other examples? How would you describe your relationship to Google or Facebook?

See Steve’s recent related post on Facebook changes, in which the above Matthew Creamer quote is cited as a comment.

How did we do X before Y?

As I posted previously, we’re looking for examples of how technology has changed an ordinary task so fundamentally that you can’t believe you once did it differently. As I wrote “Even though I was there and did it, it is beyond my power to comprehend now.” Thanks to everyone who contributed:

Laura Borns: How did I ever figure out how to get places with a folded paper map rather than GPS?

Cyd Harrell: How did I ever maintain relationships without voicemail and text? Remember when you actually had to get somebody on the phone?

Chris Gielow: How did I ever get things done (like the bank and the office) when I had to physically go places to do them?

Grady Karp: How did I ever pick people up at the airport before cell phones?

Lora Oehlberg: How did we meet someone for lunch at a specific time and place? (cellphones have taken care of a lot of last-minute details of “I’m running late” or “I’m on my way” or “I’m on the other side of the street”)?

Lora Oehlberg: How did we find out about music we’d like before friends sending YouTube links, or Pandora (I suppose at a music store, at the radio, or mix tapes)?

Lora Oehlberg (who rocks, if you can’t tell): How did we figure out who was talking to us on the phone before Caller ID? I remember there used to be a polite way of inquiring who was talking, or informing the person on the other end who you were (I’ve forgotten how this exchange goes now). Now we either a) avoid unknown numbers or b) listen to a semi-familiar voice immediately start talking, assuming that we’ll eventually figure out who it is based on what they’re talking about.

Peter Stahl: How did we ever create a flyer or newsletter without word processing or presentation software; when all we had was scissors?

Peter Stahl: How did we ever create a photograph or movie without a phone (like I would have believed “phone” 15 years ago!); we had to use film: purchase, load, expose, unload, take to developers, wait, pick up from developers, pay!

Peter Stahl (who also joins the club of rock stars): How did we make copies before personal printers and scanners? We had to use carbon paper!

@Kimwolf notes that she never has to wait to get home to check her calendar, because it’s always in her pocket.

The smartphone makes a prominent appearance here, of course, but really it’s a nice list from information-related tasks, to social norms, to interacting and collaborating with others, to pure production. This is helpful to put together with our other work streams trying to get at the different thematic areas to explore.

We’ll be running our next crowdsourcing request soon. Meanwhile, feel free to add to this list wherever you are seeing it!

Cat Macaulay: How did we distract ourselves from important tasks before social media? Guess that what was the executive toys were for, do they still exist or has the pendulum thingie been replaced by Twitter and Facebook?

Lora again: How did we get into buildings? Or control access to physical spaces over time? I’m at a university where RFIDs in cardkeys are THE way to let people in/out of rooms. Just set students’ cardkey access to the computer lab expire at the end of the semester, no problem.

Jeff McKown: How did they ever change the channel before the remote control? (Wait, I remember now…my dad would make me get up and do it.)

Nicolas Nova: How did I locate text in a document before Apple/Ctrl-F?

Scott Thorpe: I can’t even remember how I sent text-based messages before email. Did I print it out and mail it? Did I fax it? Did I just spend a long time on the phone waving my hands in the air explaining complex ideas?

Linda: How did we plan vacations without the internet? We relied on travel agents? And how did they know what places were worth visiting and what hotels were attractive and convenient?

Ryan DeGorter: How did I ever check the time while mobile? I no longer need to have an annoyance on my wrist 16 hours of the day.

Give us your examples: How did we do X before Y?

As we begin trying to define the focus and scope of our exploration, we’re in our own lives with our eyes and ears open, immersing ourselves in the space. We’re capturing sources for secondary research, speaking to each other about what we’re reading, and as we always do in in a project, bringing mindfulness and reflection to the topic as we experience it ourselves.

Last week we found ourselves reminiscing with wonder about our work environments from the 90s, where we were expected to perform as we do now, but without (among many tools) a way to schedule meetings with each other. If I recall, I never had a calendar (before a shared calendar across an office network appeared) of any kind. Other than an informal “Hey, let’s meet tomorrow at 10 about this…” we just didn’t formalize our schedules with the granularity that is common now. “How did we collaborate without a calendar program?” was my head-scratching takeway. Even though I was there and did it, it is beyond my power to comprehend now.

A few hours later (hooray for serial noticing) I see this post on Alissa Walker‘s Facebook page:

Aha. This is a thing. How did we do X before Y?

So what’s yours? (Yes, we’re crowdsourcing!) For you, what’s the thing you marvel at, where you savor the value of Y to help you do X and can’t imagine (even if you’ve experienced it) how it was possible?

Note that we’re looking for real examples from your own life. We’ll collect ’em and put together another post with the results.

If you’re seeing this post on our you can comment here. If you’re seeing it on Facebook, you can comment there as well. Or tweet it, using hashtag #XbeforeY. Or drop us an email with your thoughts!

Announcing the Omni project!

Look out honey, cuz I’m using technology!*

Today I’m thrilled to announce that Portigal Consulting is embarking on a self-funded study about the impact that digital technology is having on our lives. That’s certainly ambitious, when put that way, and of course we will be refining our direction, our research question, our business question, etc. in the initial steps (and beyond). We know what we think we want to understand, and we know that it’s going to change.

The impetus for this project is that we constantly hear from research subjects (almost across any project category) that they are challenged by technology, that they are “addicted” to their smartphone, Facebook, their Netflix queue, and beyond, and they struggle to balance the benefits with the more subtle impacts that they don’t understand. Erica (a participant in our previous self-funded study, Reading Ahead), says it well

For instance, my oldest and dearest friend was in Oregon. And sure, I had to pick up the phone and call her, and interact with her, and listen to her voice and talk to her, and a have a conversation. And I would do that. And gosh, like lately, it’s just horrible because, you know, “Oh, we should call. We should talk.” And then I see her Facebook statuses all the time, so in a weird way I feel like I’m completely caught up with her in ways that I would never have been before, which is great. On the other hand, it makes me very lazy. It’s just like I just don’t want to have a real connection in real life. It’s all just so trying and tired, like, “Oh, I don’t want to have the very like long call where I have to catch her up on all these things that involve lots of stuff.” I never used to be like that, so I’m worried that all of these devices that are supposed to make our lives easier and connect us more are, you know, in a sort of sci-fi-y way, making us a little bit zombied out…

At the same time, we are experiencing a torrent (if you will) of cultural stories about the positive impacts of technology (especially economically) and the big and small losses (e.g., Bill Keller on The Twitter Trap; Dalton Conley on college students seeking like-minded roommates).

As I challenged designers, marketers, innovators and product peeps in my interactions column The Hard Work Lies Ahead (If You Want It), these issues exist in much of the work that we are all doing, but they are also being ignored.

We hope to shed some light and provide some grip points (insights, frameworks, opportunities) that teams can use to deal with this complex situation.

An Open-Ended Approach

Unlike many of our engagements, where a specific scope is agreed upon, detailing methodology, timeline, etc. we are going to be a lot more free in our approach to the Omni project. Our priority will always be our client work, so as workflow and capacity shifts around, we’ll be fitting this in as we can. We also are excited about starting with less of a specific objective than in a consulting gig, and figuring it out as we go. We have a lot of ideas about methods already (from inventories of pop culture, to a bibliography and secondary research effort, to in-context interviews purely to try and formulate the problem) and know that those will continue to evolve, as we pick the next step that makes sense from that particular vantage point.

the Omni project?

We wondered who our client could be for this project and thought of Omni Consumer Products, the “fictional megacorporation” from Robocop (and not the real-yet-homagey company – see more on this from Rob Walker, if your bag is meta).

Omni Consumer Products, bringing every sort of technology to the masses, whether they want it or not

We also thought about OMNI magazine which, during my formative high-school years offered a science fiction/science fact vision of the future, the future we are living in now.

OMNI magazine – gaze upon just about every sciencelicious cover here

Of course, “omni” also evokes key attributes to how we’re experiencing technology right now, such omnipotent, omnipresence, and omniscient.

We’ll be continuously blogging about what we’re doing, what we’re thinking, what we’re learning. Stay tuned!


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