the omni project posts

Omni Quickies July 11th, 2012
Part 13 of 19 in the series the Omni project

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.

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Lucy Kimbell: Expanding the visible and sayable March 6th, 2012
Part 15 of 19 in the series the Omni project

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.

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ChittahChattah Quickies February 10th, 2012

Are You Learning as Fast as the World Is Changing? [HBR Blog Network] – Innovation is about the new. It begins with new thinking and typically involves learning new things and being exposed to new ideas. Through our self-funded study, the Omni project, we describe this challenge to keep up with the pace of possibilities in the Transformations theme. Here the author suggests three “habits of mind” (diverse sources of¬† inspiration, copy success from other industries, and collaboration) that promise to keep you learning as fast as the world is changing.

Today, the challenge for leaders at every level is no longer just to out-hustle, out-muscle, and out-maneuver the competition. It is to out-think the competition in ways big and small, to develop a unique point of view about the future and help your organization get there before anyone else does. Which is why a defining challenge of leadership is whether you can answer a question that is as simple as it is powerful: Are you learning as fast as the world is changing?

The human factor in service design [McKinsey Quarterly] – The¬†customer service landscape is continually evolving and responding to the winds of technological change and floods of social media. Here, three company stories illustrate different ways to think about the human side of service interaction.¬†The article suggests that you ask yourself three questions to diagnose opportunities for improvement: How human is your service? How economic is your service? Can your people scale it up? The only question I’d add is: How do you know? since this line of inquiry into the design of services is fueled by research with humans both inside and outside the organization.

When putting together services that are economically attractive and grounded in a good understanding of what motivates customers, companies shouldn’t overlook their own employees-the other human beings involved in a transaction. Companies give themselves a big edge when they design service processes that a widely distributed workforce can easily adopt, understand, automate, and execute.

Let’s Debunk 4 Myths About How Great Companies Innovate [Co.Design] – This “mythbusting” article delivers a punchy dose that dispels any notion that innovative companies are fueled solely by visionary leaders, industry competition, market mimicking, and luck. It appears that we have no excuse not to innovate.

A growing base of consumers with new expectations and new demands only fuels the fire for more products and services. Firms that claim to be fast followers are often merely just followers. As a firm grows and matures, its bureaucracy, decisions, and approvals inhibit its ability to bring a new product to market quickly. The company can’t respond fast enough to innovators or consumer demands. In this period of rapid change and global competition, innovation isn’t a “nice to have” but an important core competence; those firms that can’t keep up will inevitably perish.

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Omni Quickies January 25th, 2012
Part 17 of 19 in the series the Omni project

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.

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This week @ Portigal January 23rd, 2012

Sometimes I get a good feeling… that it’s gonna be a great week here at Portigal.

Here’s what we are looking forward to…

  • After bidding a fond farewell to Etta James last week, this week we will lovingly remember two completed projects with a team debrief + reflection.
  • Tamara and Julie are preparing for fieldwork next week in LA (woot! woot!). Let us know if there is anything particularly fantastic we should try to squeeze in, though we will of course be pretty darn busy.
  • Steve is in the final week of preparation for Interaction 12 in Dublin (another woot! woot!) and getting everything in order for the Student Design Challenge.
  • Steve is writing his book about the Art and Craft of User Research Interviewing and Tamara will be interviewing him about writing. Stay tuned for highlights…
  • Steve continues some interviews for the Omni project. Did you see the recent interview with Molly Wright Steenson?
  • Julie and Tamara will be out and about learning from fellow practitioners this week at a number of sweet gigs around the city including SF Service Design Drinks at Adaptive Path, Creative Mornings at Typekit, and theWhiteboard at SonicRim. Will you be at any of these? If so, please do say “Hi!” We would so love to meet you!
  • Julie is nose deep in details and planning for some fieldwork for the Omni project. More to come on this.
  • Steve is exploring an exciting project opportunity in partnership with another studio. Viva collaboration!
  • Tamara is ready for a creative fuel injection when she chaperones her son’s school field trip to the Children’s Creativity Museum tomorrow. Fun for all ages!

Hope to see you out and about.

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Molly Wright Steenson: Shifting time January 17th, 2012
Part 12 of 19 in the series the Omni project

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 Girlwonder.com 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 girlwonder.com 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.

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This Week @ Portigal January 16th, 2012

We all survived Friday the 13th last week and are ready to take on another week that certainly promises to end less ominously…

So, what’s happening this week at Portigal? Quite a bit…

  • We are up to our ears in interesting opportunities that require some creative thinking about participant engagement. Our research gears are turning!
  • Steve and Tamara will be giving a curtain-call presentation of findings from a recent study.
  • We continue to prepare for upcoming fieldwork (New York!! Los Angeles!!) and Julie is going to be busy making some tools to catalyze conversation.
  • Steve presses on with writing for his forthcoming book, synthesizing fabulous interviews with change agents who have driven the adoption of user research and pulling together the great suggestions people contributed to Tips to Improve Your Interviewing Skills (and a request for more!)
  • We are percolating some sweet ideas for primary research in 2012 for the Omni project and plan to share them soon. Stay tuned…
  • Steve continues to plug away on various tasks related to the upcoming Interaction 12 in Dublin.
  • We are all eagerly awaiting the arrival of Wednesday so we can get our geek on at Nerd Nite SF!
  • Steve is meeting with a big Silicon Valley player to explore how we can deliver design research training to their teams.
  • We continue to search for (and find!) cool opportunities for learning, teaching, and sharing. Julie and Tamara are currently in the throes of submitting proposals for Agile2012 and a few other gigs…
  • Tamara continues to dive deep into the eye-candy-land of visual thinking, doodling, mind mapping, graphic facilitation, etc. and welcomes suggestions for articles, websites, examples or groups of local SFists who like to get together with colored markers, blank paper, and ideas.

Merry Monday and Happy Week to you!

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This Week @ Portigal January 9th, 2012

Monday, Monday…

We here at Portigal are off to a bustling start of the week (contrary to the wispy, relaxing vibe that tune implies).

  • We spent the morning ideating approaches and tools for upcoming ethnographic interviews. Imagine three dedicated research geeks in a room surrounded by whiteboards, post-it notes, laptops, and lots of markers. In addition to sharing our own ways of thinking about interviewing tactics, we had the chance to explore ways others are are practicing this magic.
  • We are excited to dive back in to the Omni project this week as we welcome back Kristine Ng to review her primary research efforts and craft a plan for more collaboration this year.
  • In lieu of tempting our latent gambling and tech addictions, we will be watching the flurry of CES excitement from the sidelines (er, our desks) this week.
  • Julie is vying for Crock Pot Champion this week but it’s going to take a transformational eating experience to top Tamara’s Beefy Barley Vegetable Stew from last week…
  • Steve has a To-Do list longer than anyone wants to acknowledge as he prepares for Interaction 12 in Dublin. Have you checked out the videos from the four winners of the Student Design Challenge yet? Wow.
  • In the aftermath of last week’s 2012¬†off-site planning meeting for Portigal, we are building a list of events, conferences, and workshops that look shiny in the new year. Please don’t be shy! Let us know if you can think of something we should attend. Better yet, is there an upcoming event where you’d like to see us present a talk or workshop? As much as we enjoy hanging out in the office together, we are ethnographers and compulsively curious so we love even more excuses to get out of the office and into the wild.
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Stories behind the themes: Wonderland December 22nd, 2011
Part 12 of 19 in the series the Omni project

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 bit.ly 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).

Bit.ly 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 bit.ly 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.

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Julian Bleecker: Creating Wily Subversions December 21st, 2011
Part 14 of 19 in the series the Omni project

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.

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From Us, To Steve: The techno present December 5th, 2011
Part 19 of 19 in the series the Omni project

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)

 

 

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Stories behind the themes: Biological November 28th, 2011
Part 11 of 19 in the series the Omni project

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? [TheAtlantic.com] – 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 [NYT.com] – 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 [worrydream.com] – 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 [FastCompany.com] – 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.

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Stories behind the themes: Transformation November 21st, 2011
Part 10 of 19 in the series the Omni project

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 [FastCompany.com] – 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 [Chronicle.com] – 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 [Full-Stop.net] – 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 [NYT.com] – 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 [Shareable.net] - 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?

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Stories behind the themes: Relational Connections November 15th, 2011
Part 9 of 19 in the series the Omni project

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 [salon.com] - 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 [theatlantic.com] – 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 [pewinternet.org] - 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 [nytimes.com] – 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 [theatlantic.com] – 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? [npr.org] – 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 [boingboing.net] – 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 [theatlantic.com] – 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.

 

 

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Stories behind the themes: Personal Exposure November 9th, 2011
Part 8 of 19 in the series the Omni project


 

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 [psychologytoday.com] - 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? [fortune.com] - 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 [nytimes.com] – 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 [springwise.com] – 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 [mcsweeneys.net] – 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.

 

 

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