We are a research and design studio. We imagine, investigate, design, build and test ways in which technologies influence and shape our worlds. As our work explores the complex, often intangible nature of technology, we are always interested in finding new, tangible forms for sharing our thinking, processes and outcomes. A conversation with Warren Ellis few months ago resulted in the idea of a new kind of magazine. A magazine that has a constantly evolving form, a magazine whose physicality becomes a means of provocation in itself. Warren said he would be happy to be the Editor and titled the magazine SUPERFLUX. Warren has written a great editorial and writer Tim Maughan has written a series of exceptionally pertinent short fictions for this edition.
So here it is, SUPERFLUX, Issue 1.
PURCHASE A COPY
The magazine is a double sided A1 poster, printed in four process colours using offset lithography, on 150gsm munken lynx matte paper by the great Gavin Martin Colournet printers. They are packaged and shipped with love from our studio in the Biscuit Factory.
We have printed a limited edition, so order a copy for just £20 + postage, and become part of our new adventure!
|SUPERFLUX ISSUE 1 + P&P|
The Drone Aviary - an R&D project from The Superflux Lab - is an investigation of the social, political and cultural potential of drone technology as it enters civil space. Through a series of ongoing installations, films and publications, the project aims to give a glimpse into a near-future city co-habit with ‘intelligent’ semi autonomous, networked, flying machines.
We were pleased to be invited by the V&A to present an installation of the project within the Civic Objects display at their ground-breaking show ‘All Of This Belongs To You’, running from 1st April to 19th July 2015. You’ll find our installation in , within the 20th century design exhibits, in the space adjacent to .
(The Drone Aviary Film, recommended viewing with headphones)
The installation at the V&A contains a family of 5 drones and an accompanying film. Each drone is designed to be symbolic of the convergence of wider social and tech trends with specific tasks and functions that are gaining popularity amongst drone enthusiasts and entrepreneurs.
1. Madison, The Flying Billboard: This is an advertising drone, a hovering display platform, which can swoop, scan and hunt consumer demographics. It uses sophisticated facial recognition to gain feedback on the effectiveness of its content and to tailor advertisements to the interests of those within its vicinity.
2. Newsbreaker, The Media Drone: Supported by algorithmic monitoring news, emergency services and social media in real-time, these nimble devices push the boundaries for what has become known as High Frequency Journalism, helping feed our growing hunger for the very latest breaking news stories as it happens. As it films and streams news in real-time, story writing algorithms parse imagery, audio, web and radio traffic into rapidly growing, and continually edited, column inches.
3. Nightwatchman, The Surveillance Drone: A highly mobile data acquisition device used by everyone from local councils to law enforcement agencies. By securely connecting to a centralised database The Nightwatchman is able to amass and utilise huge amounts of location and subject specific information assisting in everything from documenting civil offences to detecting potential terror threats.
4. RouteHawk, Traffic Management Assistant: This drone fulfills two primary functions: firstly with its high brightness LED display and powerful 8 motor design the RouteHawk can move quickly to problem situations and provide dynamic warnings to approaching drivers. Secondly its LIDAR speed detector and ANPR camera allow the RouteHawk to efficiently log and transmit traffic violations to relevant penalty enforcement departments, often allowing a unit to pay for itself within a month.
5. FlyCam Instadrone: A highly accessible, low cost, user-friendly platform with true 'smart' style functionality. Quickly superseding the Selfie stick as todays must have life-logging and social media tool, the FlyCam allows anyone with a smartphone to share unforgettable memories from the cloud using the Instadrone app. Additionally, its patented context aware algorithm means advertisers can deliver messages to customer when and where it counts.
In the film, the drones become
protagonists, revealing fleeting glimpses of the city from their perspective,
as they continuously collect data and perform tasks. It hints at a world where
the ‘network’ begins to gain
physical autonomy, moving through and making decisions about the world,
influencing our lives in often opaque yet profound ways. A speculative map
highlights where physical and digital infrastructures merge as our cities
become the natural habitat for 'smart' technologies from drones and wearable computers
through to driverless cars.
We made a poster about the project called 'Cartographies of the Sky', which is available for purchase.
(Due to the exhibition context the drones will not be flying for this installation - but they’re very much‘alive’ and we hope to run at least one event during the time of exhibition where visitors will be able to view and possibly interact with a flying drone. This is still under discussion but watch this space.)
In this post, we want to share some of our intent behind the project, as well as our process of research, design, hacking, building and testing, all of which continues to be an intense but great learning curve.
PROJECT JOURNAL: INTENT, RESEARCH AND DESIGN PROCESS
It’s 2015. An inebriated off-duty government intelligence agent sends his DJI Phantom crashing into the White House, resulting in the private drone company forcing a mandatory firmware to disable all Camera Drones in Washington DC’s No Fly Zone with immediate effect. And this came just few weeks after a drone outfitted with mistletoe into a photojournalist's face, bloodying her nose and chin. Whilst the occasional crash stories get all the coverage, the last couple of years have seen a prodigious rise in civilian drones with venture capital funding for drone-related startups totaling to $412 million in 2014. From NASA’s hurricane-hunting drones to methane-sniffing anti-fracking drones, to the larger corporate beasts such as Google’s and Amazon’s , Facebook’s solar drones, the more altruistic ventures such as the , the critical voices of the Centre for the Study of the Drone and Drone Journalism Lab, to the hugely popular - the interest in drones is growing faster than any regulatory framework around their use. Ruth Mallors, director of the UK aerospace Knowledge Transfer Network, estimates the value of all the potential services drones might provide could excede $400 billion a year.
All of this clearly shows the rather overwhelming excitement around civilian drones, whilst the technology remains “a moving target of invention and boundary-testing making it almost impossible to create legal and cultural boundaries quickly enough.” More importantly, it also means there is little opportunity to reflect on the implications of living with it today, or in the near future. How will our cities adopt to them, what supporting infrastructure will need to be built, how will it weave into the fabric of the city, and how will it age?
As we have seen, the word “drone” is a complex, heavily loaded term; simultaneously a mascot of risk-transfer militarism, and an artifact of celebrity obsession, a tool for and a DIY enthusiast’s dream. Whilst the focus is on innovation, there is little contemplation on how the presence of these machines will change our lived experience of the urban environment, and the way we understand and interact with their increasing autonomy. And that is precisely the ambition of the Drone Aviary project: to explore the physical, digital, spatial, and civic complexities of this technology. In our work we use the term ‘drones’ to suggest partial or full autonomy, although our bigger motivation is to use this technology as a vehicle to reflect on the wider consequences of how personal robotics might integrate into our everyday lives.
We also want to use this opportunity to investigate the technology not just as a ‘machine’ with all its technical capabilities, but to explore the vision it will have, the space and geography it will occupy, the network it will operate within, the physical and digital infrastructures it will use, and the legal and regulatory frameworks that bind it.
1. THE OBJECT
2. THE (AIR)SPACE
3. THE VISION
4. THE INFRASTRUCTURE
1. THE OBJECT (THE TECHNOLOGY, ITS MATERIALITY AND AESTHETICS)
We walked over from the Studio to Southwark Park, where Jon placed his drone down in the middle of the expansive patch of grass. He walked a few steps backwards, holding the controller. About seven of us stood right behind him. Dan was holding his laptop, I was ready to film the moment. Jonathan and Dillon were holding spare props and batteries, and Sam had his headphones on ready to listen to the input from his audio recorder.
Whooooosh. Easy lift off, the propeller blades cutting through the grass as it went soaring up into the sky, gently steering left all the way to the end of the park, then right, then back towards us, marking a perfect square. All of us stood in a row, cheering as we witnessed our first fully autonomous flight, from a drone we had built. It was exhilarating. It was the first step towards testing the RTK swift system, and excitedly we were talking about getting 5-10 drones flying autonomously in outdoor space, talking to one central system.
But just then, instead of landing where it was meant to, the drone began to accelerate and flew towards us. Everyone screamed, rushing back. And then almost as abruptly, it averted, flipped, raced backwards and gently landed a few yards away. Someone let out a sigh. A nervous laugh followed. Jon simply turned around and said, “Sorry I didn't mean to scare you”. He had seen the flight going wrong towards the very end, and taken control of the remote just in time. That ever-so-brief moment of horror on the faces of those technologists, makers, designers and artists will remain an acute memory. Those who build and play with the technology, those who would be most equipped to deal with surprises were left shaken, if only for a fraction of a second.
This little episode gives a quick glimpse into our team’s relentless effort to get under the hood of this technology, spending vast amounts of time building and testing, in order to grasp its rapid growth, and understand the limits of (hacked) possibility. We are not drone or robotics experts, but we are designers (and jugaad practitioners, if you like), with enough skills and expertise to understand the complexities of this technology and test its limits. And this process of making, building, hacking, testing, and innovating is important because it’s only through such rigour that one begins to understand the huge disconnect between the hype and the ground-level reality of the technology.
For the original installation, we
could have bought off-the-shelf drones, and got them to operate and fly. But it
was deemed too expensive. We were forced to build everything from scratch - the
frames and the drone brain (the autopilot system), as well as assembling it and
making sure it survives flight. Our project’s
focus has been on outdoor flight. Not indoors, with infrared cameras and
sensors to guide them, but in an environment where
drones are meant to be flying eventually, in order to understand the potential and
limitations of autonomous flight.
Through this process we have also learnt how to move past the current lack of interoperability towards the design of a common operating system, encompassing both hardware and software. But let’s not forget that this whole thing of making it real and making it fly is in order to start revealing what these machines really do. With autonomy will come agency, and that’s when it starts getting messy and complicated. It’s the space we want to explore more and understand better, in order to invent, design, critique and disseminate.
FORM AND AESTHETICS
“Autonomous robots will displace our sense of control precisely because they are out of our control, but occupy the physical world and demand our attention.” Illah Nourbaksh
Each drone that we have developed serves as a touchpoint, a hook, a
node that represents a deeper theme, issue or concern. And so it was important
that the design and the aesthetic of each drone represents that theme, whilst inevitably becoming an integral part of a consumer landscape. Every aspect of each
drone has been specifically built and designed, a conscious and
deliberate aesthetic decision to moves beyond the off-the-shelf “machine” or ‘hacked'/'DIY’ aesthetic. By presenting them as ‘products’ we want
to reference ways in which beautifully designed products and seductive user experience often obfuscate the technology at play, and its intent.
2. THE VISION
“The conquest of physical space, the extension of society’s compass, the ability to be anywhere and see anything.” - Benjamin Wallace-Wells
The second big challenge of
understanding this technology starts the minute you get them to fly. As soon as
they start flying, there is a complete and total collapse of the distance
between us and the airspace surrounding us, as the drone becomes a new kind of
disembodied prosthetic, allowing us to watch over the world with a little
controller. Extreme acclivity can be exhilarating. It can make you feel both
alone and unrivalled. Standing with your feet on the ground, the tips of
your body push up and high into the sky, entering a state of temporary
amaranthine. But this can also be simultaneously terrifying, as the drone can
behave erratically, either because of your own incompetency or technical failure,
and can result in damage, from destroying expensive equipment to causing harm
or injury to people and property.
Stills from the film
Whatever the pros and cons, once you have this air-minded vantage point, you enter a position of strategic advantage and strength. A position that eludes to the magical effect of the pale blue dot, the overview effect and the change in cognitive ability. “Drones can democratize the overview effect. The scale is obviously magnitudes smaller but the principle is the same. They remind us that the truly remarkable thing is not looking up to marvel at the technology of a balloon or airplane or spaceship, it’s really what happens when you are up, and looking down.” .
This might be true, but we also know that this vision becomes more then an adventure sport, it’s more then a breathtaking view. Seeing the world through the drone’s eye is powerful. And that’s because, drones are, most importantly, data-acquisition devices. Joanne McNeill and Ingrid Burrington make this explicit in their : “All drones carry the burden that comes with being an instrument of tremendous power. It is the vantage point they offer, it is the data they collect from that vantage point, and it is the power afforded by that data.” Their sensors can also capture, record, transmit, share, save and even make decisions. As civilian drones become tasked with chores and functions, they will carry more sensors, gain further autonomy and even agency. This shift will be bumpy, full of bugs and crashes, but it will be a paradigm shift nonetheless. A shift that will bring with it a new language, vocabulary and in this instance, optics, which I daresay, will lead to a whole new politics.
Whilst not all drones are harnessing
their sensor power for monitoring or surveillance purposes, they will all
have this vantage point and will gain informational power, as they operate in
this abstract communicational space. When the network is digital and invisible
it appears to be like magic and we remained unchallenged, but what happens when
it starts becoming visible and gain physical form? What will our relationship
to it be, and how will we interpret its actions? Those who own the systems to
breathe life into this informational power are the ones who become the most
powerful. This, in turn has already given rise to a new kind of networked colonialism.
Stills from the film
In the film every drone’s point of view is presented through a series of video feeds, the data they acquire and the metadata they create. This drone vision gives a glimpse of banality of its tasks; capturing, recording and logging data, its capacity to form patterns, infer decisions, and its inevitable clumsiness and fragility. Its an attempt to present a world where the motivations haven’t changed; advertisers still want to sell cans of coca cola, traffic wardens are still scouting cars for parking fees; tasks that seem mundane and perhaps even repetitive enough to hand over to these flying robots. There is lot going on in the film, and we think repeated viewings might start to reveal new layers. For instance, how geofencing width might vary across buildings. Those luxurious highrises would probably afford to have a deeper geofence, whilst the lesser blessed live with narrow boundaries to protect them. In the advertising sequence, you'll notice someone who has an 'access denied' block. We assume annonymity will become a luxury, an expensive service you pay for.
Video footage of a city captured from these drones is juxtaposed with our own trials and tests of building and flying them. The film aims to present the shifts in power the technology is creating, from surveillance drones to personal (insta) drones, to present a gripping experience of the messy, multilayered social and cultural narratives that are constantly being written around it.
3. THE (AIR)SPACE THEY OCCUPY
“We talk about atmosphere, stratosphere, airspace. But none of the words say much about the porousness between the rooftops and the clouds, the bit of the sky we breathe, walk through, and look out upon.” J.M Ledgerd.
Building a multirotor and getting it to fly can be complicated, but simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. But with developments in autonomous flight control software, and changing regulations, the air above our heads could get crowded, and will become increasingly common. When we talk about civic space, as a physical entity, we rarely talk about the space above our heads, partly because of the (somewhat) naive belief that the belt between our heads and airplanes . After all, we can fly kites and go paragliding. From the , where ownership extended "" to the infamous United States v. Causby (1946) airspace, the , and many more, ownership of airspace has become a messy battlefield.
In the US, whilst the airspace is heavily regulated by FAA, the bit above our heads up to 500 ft is also being eyed by entrepreneurs and drone companies who want to claim a slice of it. Bigger companies like Facebook and Google are already using public airspace as real estate in the high-stakes competition for domination of the Internet. In the UK too, the CAA is attempting to build granularity in its laws which at the moment are very fuzzy, . The CAA's focus is purely safety. For every different aspect of the drone’s use, it seems like a different legal body will be required to take action.
As this battle for air rights takes on a new meaning thanks to civilian drones (UAVs), the countermeasures around it are fascinating too. As Parker Higgins comments, “Unlike more traditional hacking scenarios, the consequences of a drone being compromised can be both digital and physical.” We have seen incidents, especially in the US, where several drones have been shot down if found hovering above someone else’s property. Jamming, spoofing and other countermeasures to combat these aerial machines are well documented. The politics and counter-politics of being tracked, combined with some pseudo-power afforded by a jamming “smart drone”, is in some ways a tragic irony of our times.
4. NEW (INVISIBLE) INFRASTRUCTURES
The question of territoriality and airspace takes us into a bigger discussion around infrastructure that will need to be in place for these airborne machines. Whilst the network (through the drones) gets a physical form, the infrastructure to support them is vastly invisible and digital. Amazon recently asked the , on the basis that they will use geo-fencing to keep the drone in an “electronic box” below 400 feet. The creates a curious technological and sovereignty precedent, which initially created a geo-fence that prevented the flight of all Phantoms within a 15 kilometre radius of Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and has now been extended to 350 airports. And of course the recent No fly zone over Washington, and the company inviting members of the public to submit their location data so they can let private drone manufacturers know that they don’t want a drone flying above their heads.
Mapbox's map that represents areas where it is not recommended to fly drones due to regulations
All of this opens up a can of worms. Like so much technology, thought is given to its use, yet all other repercussions and implications remain unanswered. How do we imagine this playing out? How willing are we to give our GPS locations to a private company, who can share it with whomsoever they like? In regards to geofencing, how happy are we to buy something we think we know and then find its functionality constantly change or diminish? And what about all the hundreds and thousands of home made drones that will never obey the geofencing rules laid out by private manufacturers?
This is just the start. Beyond large corporate ventures, the civilian drone industry is booming with gadget lovers buying off-the-shelf technology, DIY enthusiasts, entrepreneurs, public sector and non-governmental ventures, all investing in this technology. As all these drones take to the sky, what are the vertical, digital infrastructural capabilities that cities will need to equip themselves with? What sort of legal and regulatory and frameworks will need to be developed? This is already a contentious issue, which will only become messier unless some careful systems design is not done immediately.
Early sketches for flight paths, zoning and geofencing.
Rules across the world are rapidly changing, almost every week. It’s a political and commercial negotiation between businesses and regulators, with little input from the wider public. We are very interested in this dark matter, because none of the things we have talked about above will exist if this space is not considered. We are creating (speculative) sketches and designs of this dark, invisible architecture such as flight paths, zones, geofences and weight restrictions; basically the infrastructure that would support drones to fly and how the city might be divided.
A Speculative map of the city showing flight paths, zones, charging stations and geofencing.
Credits and Next Steps:
First and foremost we would like to thank Arts Council England for their generous support throughout this project. We would also like to thank the V&A, especially the All Of This Belongs To You team Kieron Long, Corinna Gardner, Rory Hyde, Kate Drummond and Jennie Llyod-Evans for inviting us to show the work.
This project has involved several exceptionally talented people over the course of the past year and its been a humbling experience to work with them.
Project Leads: Jon Ardern and Anab Jain
Design and Prototyping: Jon Flint, Jon Ardern, Dillon Froelich, Ian Hutchinson, DOME Studio
Film Script and Direction: Anab Jain
Visual Designers: Katarina Medic, Georgina Bourke
Motion Designers: Dimitris Papadimitriou, Laurence Mencé, Alexandra Fruhstorfer
Sound Designers: Sam Conran, Ian Rawes
Technologists: Jon Ardern, Dan Williams, Mike Vanis, Philipp Ronnenberg
Still Photography: Owen Richards, Jon Flint, Jon Ardern, Anab Jain
Drone Fictions: Tim Maughan
Acknowledgements: Yosuke Ushigome, David Benque, Elvira Grob, Gejin Gao, Tobias Revell, Anuradha Reddy, Sarah Gold, Lisa Shakespeare, Carolina Vallejo, Martin and Mariko.
Moving forward, we continue to look for a venue with an open space where some of our drones can fly, moving within feet of visitors, giving a visceral, tangible experience of interacting with these flying machines. Whilst the flight is not critical to our work, we do believe the tangibility of the flight experience will play a bigger role in provoking thought and reflection of the actual technology and its implications. Meanwhile we will continue to develop work in this space, expanding to include other autonomous technologies and their changing relationships to us and our lived environment.
So far, 2015 has been generous, and busy, and there's lots to share. Here's our roundup of recent and upcoming news!
BUGGYAIR WINS IOT LAUNCHPAD COMPETITION
The best news came at the end of 2014, as we won INNOVATE UK's IoT Launchpad Competition alongwith six other brilliant companies. We are thrilled to be able to get an opportunity to build BuggyAir, and IoTA through it, in partnership with hardware leaders Sciencescope, software experts Virtual Technologies, our IoTA champion Hugh Knowles and long time collaborator Philipp Ronnenberg. It will be an opportunity to sensitively design, shape and build an alternative IoT project, one which focuses on people, their needs and aspirations. A project where we begin to work directly with people to test accurate mobile sensor kits, understand how data is collected, how they can read and make sense of the data they collect and whom they want, or dont want to, share their data with. From early April we enter into a round of product development, user research and ethnography, whilst actively exploring how we can design open data policy frameworks directly with people and communities. If this is an area that you are working in, do drop us a line.
DRONE AVIARY AT V&A's ALL OF THIS BELONGS TO YOU
We have exciting news from the Lab too. Our ongoing R&D project exploring the emerging cultural significance of civilian drones received great reviews at Tokyo's avantgarde 21_21 Design Sight, as part of their landmark show: THE FABMIND: Hints of the Future in a Shifting World. Following from that, we are delighted to be invited to to present another instantiation of the project at the V&A Museum's upcoming show: ALL OF THIS BELONGS TO YOU. It opens to the public on 1st April, and runs through till 19th July 2015.
A NEW PROJECT AROUND INDIA'S MARS ORBITOR MISSION
We are excited to launch a new research strand in the studio around national space programs and their relationship to people, with our first ethnographic experiment: Mangala for All. As India Mangalyaan Space Probe, or the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), successfully orbits Mars, we roamed the streets of Ahmedabad with a suitcase of miniature deified versions of the Mangalyaan space probe, investigating questions around power, science, progress, development and jugaad-innovation. We are now in the process of making a film which, we hope, will reveal a more complex and fine-grained understanding of people’s relationship with Mangalyaan, and the Indian Space Programme.
ORGANISING AND CURATING LONG NOW LONDON
We have been members of Long Now Foundation's London meetup group ever since Paul Miller started it way back in 2008. It was a great group of people, but after a couple of years the meetup went dormant for a bit. Towards the end of last year, we took on the baton to reinstate the group, with our first Meetup where Corinna Gardner and Rory Hyde of the V&A, and Alastair Parvain from WikiHouse gave fantastic talks. We then had our second meetup in January with guest speakers Genevieve Bell and Adam Greenfield. We are deeply grateful to Impact Hub Westminster for hosting us so far. Do join the group and drop us a line if you have thoughts about potential speakers.
PRESENTING AT ST. ETIENNE BIENNALE
We are delighted to be invited to present the 5th Dimensional Camera at the Hypervital show in the Saint-Étienne Biennale in France later this month, alongwith a great group of colleagues and friends. The project will later be exhibited in Germany for the rest of this year.
We received two beautiful books in the studio last week with our contributions! The Atlas of Contemporary Networks is a complilation of projects by from the MA Communication Design at IUAV Venice, led by Ivor Williams and Marco Ferrari. It includes an editorial by myself, alongside many other brilliant folks. We also wrote about our approach to speculative ethnography for the book 'Beyond Design Ethnography' edited by Nicolas Nova.
We continue doing bits of teaching this year, with an ongoing mentorship role in the MA Media Design program at the HEAD Geneva, and a lecture at Carnegie Mellon, and few upcoming workshops.
SNAPSHOTS FROM THE STUDIO
Here's a quick snapshot of our tinkering activities. Lot of thinking, sketching, prototying and testing for a range of ongoing research and consulting projects.
And finally, as we build a bigger team, and work with new clients and audiences, we would love to hear from you. So do get in touch if you would like to hire us, work with us or collaborate.
Adios for now!
Its 2015, and we couldnt have asked for a better way to start the new year. We are thrilled to welcome two brilliant, talented designers to the studio, joining us on a range of new strategic and design work. First up, we have Sarah Gold, who will be joining us as a core member of our team, developing new client and research projects. Katarina Medić has started her internship with us, and her great graphic and visual design work has already started influencing projects in the studio. Here are their brief biographies, but I am sure you'll be seeing more of them and their work over here soon.
My work engages with our restless futures, broadly within three camps: the near now (drones, bots), data architectures (data licences, blockchains) and the new civic (the new ‘public’, eCitizenship). I finished my Masters in Industrial Design last year, and was presented with a Design Council Future Pioneer Award and Creative Enterprise Innovation Award for my project, the Alternet - a proposal for a civic network. Whilst continuing to work on an array of projects around the Alternet’s key themes, I also collaborate on WikiHouse where I helped cofound the WikiHouse Foundation. It’s a pleasure to join the Superflux team, working on some very exciting projects. Here’s to 2015!
I am a multidisciplinary designer who has a strong interest in systems and like to make sense of society by exploring new themes, analysing different opinions and merging contrasting subjects. I graduated with a BA in Visual Communication Design from University of Ljubljana where I received acknowledgement for Outstanding Academic Achievements. My work has been recognised at the Biennial of Slovene Visual Communications and exhibited in Ljubljana, Zagreb and Warsaw.
Most of my previous experience lies in identity, digital and editorial design including work for the Slovenian Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale and 10th Slovenian Biennial of Illustration. I believe in design that goes beyond a printed page or device and is interested in creating unique visual experiences for digital and physical environments.
We have been very fortunate to have Ruairi Glynn recommend his brilliant student Gejin Gao to us for an internship. Gejin (Helen) has been with us for the last four weeks, so this is a rather late introduction. She joined the studio during a very busy period and got stuck into projects immediately. It has been an absolute delight having her with us whilst she explores her interests and makes decisions on whether she can live in the UK or return to China.
I am a graduate from Bartlett School of Architecture. I am interested in improving human experience through interactions with empathetic architectural spaces and design objects. My interactive project "Cellular Reticulations", in collaboration with Yujiang Wang, is about spatialising 'Cellular Automata', typically constrained to software environments, to understand their potential as dynamic architectural systems. The final outcome (image below) allows for a continually transforming environment that attempts to induce wonder and delight. During my time at Superflux, I have been working on an exciting project exploring the relationship between the Indian Space Program, progress, innovation and geopolitics, and also working on the Drone Aviary Project.
At some point in the last couple of days, as the temperature in London plummeted, this post morphed from 'Autumn' to 'Winter' news. But I'll stick to the title, just to try and make 2014 that much longer, and delay the inevitable.
The last quarter has been one of the most challenging we have had in the studio's history, testing every ounce of our perseverance, integrity and commitment. But it has also made us more resilient and we feel proud of where we are today because of it. I want to use this opportunity to thank everyone who has supported and encouraged us in this journey. And so, this post is a quick roundup highlighting some of the good things that have happened recently.
1. DRONE AVIARY 01 in Tokyo
We are thrilled to be able to show the first instantiation of the Drone Aviary project at Tokyo's stunning 21_21 Design Sight Gallery. It forms part of part of a great show titled The Fab Mind: Hints of the Future in a Shifting World. A shoutout to Dimitri Papadimitriou, Jon Flint, Ian Hutchinson, Sam Conran and Georgina Bourke who played a key role in getting it shipped. And Yosuke Ushigome for orchestrating the work in Tokyo. We shared some of our thinking behind the project on Virgin's Unite's series around drones, which was also picked up by Richard Branson. We wiill be doing a detailed post about the project and the work so far very soon, and also sharing more information on the next show in London. I have been leading this project and feel really happy that we are finally moving forward in a direction we want to pursue after some serious set backs.
2. PRODUCT INVENTION HACKATHONS
We recently wrapped up a big client project focusing on product invention and experience prototyping designed in the form of a series of week-long hackathons, led by Anab. The project remains strictly under NDA, but if all goes to plan, you should see the products out in the world by 2016. It was a joy to work with the very talented Philipp Ronnenberg, Dan Williams and Matt Shannon. The studio was a frenzy of intense activity, as concepts and prototoypes were churned out like never before. And ofcourse, it was a real joy to make proper use of our new Ultimaker. The sheer joy on the face of the key stakeholder, as they saw and played with product prototypes, made the efforts more then worth it.
3. BUGGYAIR KICKS OFF
We are thrilled to continue to receive support for IoTA, as we develop demonstrators that show our investigative research and design approach around IoT. The first version of the website is ready, and Anab wrote about the things we learnt during the journey for Nominet Trust. Based on those foundations, we are now working on BuggyAir, where a group of parents will use bespoke sensor kits to measure ground level air pollution that directly affects their children’s health, and use the generated data as evidence for long term behavioural and legislative change.
4. CITIES UNLOCKED LAUNCHES
Future Cities Catapult just launched a major project: Cities Unlocked in collaboration with Microsoft UK and Guide Dogs. We are proud to have been one of the project partners, working with blind and partially sighted people to identify the characteristics of future cities which will enrich their experiences, and to develop potential cityscapes which would inspire them to make journeys into cities and around them. We will be sharing a detailed report about our approach, methods and outcomes in the coming days, but here's a great interview with Sara Hendren, whom we interviewed early in the process. Also some good press over on BBC, Dezeen and others.
5. BLURRING THE LINES, BRITISH COUNCIL
We are featured in British Council's remarkable 'Blurring the Lines', an exhibition about culture in flux, told through sixteen stories of people reinventing creative exploration and participation. The exhibition is free and open till 19th December, so if you are in the area do check it out. After all, any show where we can sneak in a Playmobil cant be missed.
6. FUTURE FICTIONS, Z33
Dynamic Genetics vs Mann is currently part of the Future Fictions show at the great Z33 in Belgium. With this show, Z33 continues the debate about our future, exploring how contemporary artists, designers and architects relate to future thinking and imaging: from mapping, questioning and criticizing, to developing complex visions about the structures and systems that may shape our life in the future. Designed specifically for the UK context, I continue to hope that one day soon, this project would be show here on home territory.
7. FEATURED IN WIRED UK
I am very pleased that there's a feature about the Drone Aviary in WIRED UK! (although there seems to be some confusion about the title of the project)
8. FEATURED IN BLUEPRINT MAGAZINE
Blueprint magazine has a great article by Vernica Simpson "Speculate to Accumulate" which features our work and practice.
9. UPCOMING TALKS IN THE US
From Monday 10th Nov, Anab is on a whirlwind tour of the US, for a series of talks, meetings and teaching. Starting with New York, where the first public talk is at the School of Visual Arts, followed by School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she is part of their visiting artists program. She then goes to Ann Arbor as part of the prestigious Penny Stamps series, and then finally at MOCAD in Detroit. If you are in any of these cities next week, go say hi.
10. LONG NOW LONDON
After much delay we are pleased to have reinstated the great Long Now London meetup group, with Corinna Gardner from the V&A and Alastair Parvain from Wikihouse as inagural speakers. We are grateful to Hub Westminster for offering us the venue, and to Ana Bradley for helping us with drinks sponsorship.
Ten is a good number so I'll stop here. We also have some exciting news about new people joining us, a project around Indian spacecraft and more, but I'll save that for another post.
Future Cities Catapult just launched a major project: Cities Unlocked in collaboration with Microsoft UK and Guide Dogs. As one of the project partners, we worked with blind and partially sighted people to identify the characteristics of future cities which will enrich their experiences, and to develop potential cityscapes which would inspire them to make journeys into cities and around them. We will be sharing a detailed report about our approach, methods and outcomes in the coming days.
Image from our workshop with visually impaired people, city planners, technologists and designers.
Today, I'll start by sharing an excerpt from an early research interview with Sara Hendren, an artist, design researcher, and writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She teaches socially-engaged design practices, adaptive + assistive technologies, and disability studies for engineers-in-training at Olin College.
SF: Can you give us insights into how you approach themes in your work around adaptability and accessibility? How should designers go about collaborating with people using these technologies?
SH: I think a good general rule is to start by asking detailed questions about the kinds of technologies, low and high, that people with anomalous bodies are already using—including, significantly, their own highly adaptive and embodied sensing systems. These skills tend to get overlooked in tech development. So: canes, animal partners, and then a combination of aural, tactile, olfactory, and other skills are going to be richly in play already. Knowing as much as you can about those experiences will help prevent you from inventing a problem set, as it were, and also be potential (and potentially hidden) sources of inspiration for your design work.
I spoke to scholar and adaptive device user Georgina Kleege about these issues for the Atlantic Tech channel; she has much to say there about the interplay among the senses and assistive tools of various kinds.
SF: You think a lot about the "the future of human bodies in the built environment". What are the most important insights you have gained in your research so far, about how the human body and prosthetics adapt to the built environment, or the other way around? How can we design a more symbiotic relationship, that is inclusive, but also unique to individuals?
SH: Those are questions I think about all the time! I’d say broadly that design researchers need much, much more user interview data than we have now—too often there’s a very small sampling of data that’s used to represent human-centered design research with user-experts. Because aging and sightedness and autism and so many other conditions are wildly various, we need much bigger and more robust data sets for understanding wayfinding and product use. See Boston’s Institute for Human-Centered Design’s new user expert lab as an example. They want to be as large a resource as possible, and one that clients can access and pay for when doing market research.
I also think there’s so much more thinking to be done at the systems level, rather than at the product level—but it should be systems research where designers and artists are key contributors at every stage. I think, for example, in cultures like the US and the UK, there’s a pretty narrow focus on individual independence as the only goal worth seeking out—and that independence is thought to be delivered solely via personal technological devices.
But what about community support programs that would be points of contact throughout a city, for help when a person with developmental disabilities needs help after a bus line has been rerouted, or when an elderly person needs assistance getting groceries in the door/shoveling snow? These kinds of systems would help people get and stay employed and stay in their homes for longer than might otherwise be the case.
Images from Sara's work titled 'Inclined Planes'
Engaging at the systems level would also help designers address issues of equity and access, rather than just shiny gadgets for those who can afford them. That privilege gap is forever plaguing the discourse on new assistive tech, and rightly so.
SF: What according to you are the drivers / weak signals / to which inclusive design for cities should be paying attention? From a technological, as well as social and cultural perspective?
SH: I think designers should first try to be more granular in their approach to “canonical” disabilities: blindness, deafness, and so on. I’d think, for example, about the gradations of sightedness that tend to get overlooked in tech for vision impairments: Most people who are technically blind, after all, *do* have some kind of visual field. They see high contrasts or bright lights only, perhaps. But they don’t operate in total darkness and they do use their vision to see. There’s much more to be done with design accordingly, especially with *editing* cities for enriched use. Like: consider the high-contrast black and yellow markers along stairs and crosswalks and subway platforms and so on. What would users say about making those more tactile environments—even more than they are now? What else would they like to see in structural and architectural forms that could be better imagined or augmented, again with partial and low vision in mind? This would also address aging and the overall slow degeneration in vision as well.
Relatedly, Georgina Kleege and others have pointed out a category of what might be called “print disabilities”—also in that interview—meaning, looking at an excessive cultural reliance on printed text for city wayfinding and information. What could be done with pictorial icons and sounds and tactile environments that make the city *legible* to those who don’t process print, either because of vision or dyslexia or other learning disabilities? Grouping these sets of users together is a really interesting design challenge.
But there are many other “weak signals” that could become design opportunities. If you listen to some of Janet Cardiff’s work, for instance—there are really interesting opportunities to reconsider sensory wayfinding in cities. She makes alternate histories and tours of physical places with aural cues alone. She does part fact, part fiction sound works that would be fascinating as wayfinding that’s *enriching,* not just *more information,* which is where app design so often ends.
I also think the olfactory sense is woefully underexamined as both a useful tool for wayfinding and a potentially rich alternate experience of the city for everyone. I was thinking about this back in February as I walked to work on an especially cold day—I was so bundled up that my (quite ordinary and adept) vision was partially obscured by my hat and coat and scarf. But that day my route included going by a candy factory—and if you hit it at the right time, the building breathes out butterscotch in the most fantastic, immersive way. I can imagine a wayfinding tour of London that’s indexed completely by scents, and all the socio-cultural geography that would result. I was also intrigued by that taste map of the London tube that made wide rounds in the press last year.
This is all, in a way, revisiting Kevin Lynch’s heuristics for wayfinding again: paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks. Seems to me there’s lots of good ways to dig into alternate and invisible counter-histories or supplemental tools when thinking at cities and access and wayfinding.
In the end, it’s less about seeing “accommodations” tailored to each individual population as though those needs were unique to them; it’s about finding interesting ways to make new Venn diagrams out of multiple publics: multiple uses and users of cities. The overall disposition to look at what seem like mere limitations—*starting* with impairment but pointing outward from diagnostic categories to richer, more unusual experiences for all—this is the kind of orientation that can yield much more interesting research and design.
Here's the transcript and slides from my talk at dConstruct 2014, its an updated version of my keynote at the FutureEverything Festival and remains an ongoing investigation into AI, Autonomy, Agency and an attempt to understanding the underlying forces that design influence at scale today. Here's a brief synopsis: "With an ever growing technological proliferation an increase in state and non-state monitoring and information warfare, a visceral sense of ambiguity, uncertainty and unconnectedness is becoming even more pronounced. If we are to understand and equip ourselves better to decipher and decode the intricate nature of these complex relationships and mediated social fictions, we will need to find new conceptual tools and vocabularies. What are these tools? How can we apply them at scale?" I owe a huge thanks to my co-conspirator Jon for the endless late night discussions and draft presentations, he is practically the co-author, and for that I am grateful. I'd also like to thank Anne, Jose and Tobias for the helpful chats.
Here it is, the Valley of the Meatpuppets.
This is a mobile phone my 7 yr old nephew made. It has a projector, a biometric finger print system and a secret eye with a control system that sends him real time information whilst he’s in school.
Whilst he doesnt own an actual spycam, they are easy to buy, And ofcourse spycraft is very a old familiar genre of toys. A while back Barbie came out with Barbie Video Girl Doll, part of the class of toys that act to familiarise children with the realities of life through play. (also, whatever you do, please dont do a search for a "barbie webcam".)
But nothing quite beats this playmobil security check point set. there is fun to be had in the police state One of the reviewers on Amazon says: "This toy is of little or no use as an educational tool: 1) everyone is smiling. 2) no way to do cavity searches.” Another says “Get it now as soon it will no longer be available. SA has requested that this product be removed from the market. It was deemed a security risk as it is virtually identical to the actual training material used to train TSA agents.” We learn early enough today, that watching and being watching is an integral part of our lives. Whilst the integration of spycraft into play goes back atleast as far as bond and dick tracy, nothing quite beats today’s real time assimilation of current events.
Like one min you see Edward Snowden on the 24 hour news cycle, and the next minute, your child might be playing with Snowden and aAssange action figures, as they attempt to make their escape through the playmobil airport security check point.
Earlier this year, you could purchse the Snowden action figure for $99 at thatsmyface.com, which until recenly offered a 10% discount using the promo code NSA. Whilst they claim that some of the proceeds do go to the Freedom of the Press Foundation, turns out the organisation has never endorsed this company. But the company no longer sells these figures, and no explanation has been given.
But dont be too disappointed. my friend Dan Williams, made a Snowden calendar, that you might be able to grab a copy of.
3D action figures and a beam teleconference robot, just couple of examples to show how Snowden is gaining a place alongside James Bond as one of the most prolific, and obvious cultural entities around the notion of surveillance. Whilst the world that Snowden has brought from conspiracy theories into mainstream culture is vast and pervasive, the nebulous problems that he has exposed seem too difficult to grasp. We dont know even how to begin to understand it, let alone engage with it in some meaningful way. John Lancaster put it rather well - "there is an extraordinary disconnect between the scale and seriousness of what Snowden has revealed, and the scale and seriousness of the response". The recently passed Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill (DRIP) is a great example of that.
But lets leave Snowden for a while and looked around us, to see how new forms of monitoring, big data and algorithmic intelligence, are penetrating more deeply in our lives. Today I would like to explore, through some familiar examples, our complex relationships with various architectures of control, from the domestic comfort of our homes, to the promises of our political leaders to wars. Our world where humans, thingbots, agents, actors and puppets cohabit. Where our perceptions are continually being designed. In the Valley of the Meatpuppets.
A meat puppet is used to refer a person who is invited to an internet discussion solely to influence it. A lot of what I am going to talk about is how various tools of influence are used to design and alter our various realities and perceptions, so that word fits quite well. But I would like to use this word to think about ways in which we are all being co-opted to becoming meatpuppets in our everyday life, as we farm data like livestock on facebook or walk around wearing awkward gadgets. We sit alongside thingbots, actors, agents and advertising zombies, helping create and propogate memes, spreading and reinforcing the reality bubble. Ursula Le Guin used this term for the first time - before the internet - in “The Diary of the Rose,” to refer to humans as unthinking bodies, which is a bit of stretch but does fit well. I am here to explore this space today, because I believe this would be useful in helping us think about how we as humans constantly negotiate our own agency whilst living within highly mediated networks.
Lets start with one of our most recent, and popular news story: Facebook’s psychology experiment, where the feeds of 700,000 people were manipulated. From Facebook’s perspective it was legitimate, all they wanted to find out was if exposure to emotions led people to change their own posting behaviours. As one of their pscyhologist remarked, its not even that alarming or exciting. However, hundreds of people got upset, and so Sheryl Sandberg apologised.
But then Christian Rudder, one of the founders of OKCupid said "Well yes Facebook did it, but so do we. Everyone does it, because lets be honest, most ideas are bad. Even good ideas could be better. Experiments are how you sort all this out." (Here are some hastily added OKcupid profiles I found on google image search. The guy on the top right corner used to be on it around 2008, with his stated desire to meet "women from countries that have sustained political turmoil". Western women, he wrote, are "valueless and inane", something he might now regret.
Writer and scholar McKenzie Wark has an interesting thing to say about this. "People are really disturbed about the privacy side, but we realise slowly is that what we are probably really disturbed about is the opposite: the indifference. to them the data is of interest in aggregate, or the users are of interest in aggregate. Nobody really cares about your weird sex thing on the internet, other than as a way to sell you products related to your weird sex thing."
It seems that it is inherently challenging for people to be critical of the decisions that machines make. And this is just beginning to get interesting, as we being to infiltrate our physical world with algorithms, making our material homes, "smart, intelligent".
So this tiny black gadget is called Piper is a home security system. You place it in your front room or bedroom and you can then watch your home from work, whilst traveling or when you are in the garden or bathroom. watching your kids in their bedrooms. A tiny instantiation of crowdsourcing surveillance. As a journalist in new york times put it, instead of the entire space being private, there are going to be public areas in our home.”
Piper is part of the growing generation of internet of things products. Like the internet-connected fridge which reminds you when you run out of milk (apologies to my iot friends for using this example) But recently a fridge apparently sent spam, in bursts of 100,000, three times per day, targeting enterprises and individuals worldwide. David Knight of Proofpoint the security agency investigating this incident said - and probably coined the term "thingbot" in the process.
But David Cameron still believes in them. Little does he or anyone of us know the implications of our emerging relationships with such thingbots. As billions of sensors begin to find there way into everyday objects, what are the new civic codes that will be created? Perhaps the spammy fridge is starting to hint at the reality of IoT beyond the current hype.
As we embed the world with sensors, we also find new ways of interacting with them. Sometimes we co-opt into exciting opportunities to become explorers, or meatpuppets, the wearers of Google glass, always looking slightly above the horizon, holding a finger to a pair of glasses, saying ‘OK’ way too often.
The awkward relationships with such devices are made easier as Google designs the polite rules of engagement, of what you should and shouldnt do with your glass. So far makers of technologies gave us instruction manuals, but now they are beginning to define our behavioural engagement with it in the public domain, which I think is a subtle but profound shift.
This code of conduct got attention because of this particular incident.This is fascinating, and brings me to the famous Daniel Mendelsohn quote:
So far so good, toys, fridges and gadgets. Well, its all fun and games until your neighbour’s car narks on you. A Texas based company Digital Recognition Network runs its own version of taskrabbits. Basically it sells cameras to repossession companies who pay money to private car owners to instal this camera on their cars. The camera picks up 8000 license plates daily, storing time and location of each car. Their bot compares this to the list of cars that need to be repossesed and sends information to insurance companies, financial institutions, law enforcement agencies private investigators. Crowdsourcing, the very antithesis of control and surveillance is now the tool being used by private companies for that very purpose.
And ofcourse the CEO of DRN responds (quote on slide below). Whilst his words show a clear disconnect between raw technological ability and the intent behind that, in a way it also shows the tension that exists here, our desire to share but lack of understanding of where the data is going and what is being done with it.
This sort of crowdsourced surveillance takes on an even more sinister tone, when people in a protest are asked abandon their cause and turn on their allies for a cash incentive. Businesses or police can hire Tiltor to send a message to all the smartphones in a designated area, offering a reward to anyone who attempts to disperse the crowd from within. If the riot ends soon after, everyone who signed up to Tiltor (their website's copy has completely changed in the last couple of months) gets a share of the total reward money. whilst the founder recommends that tiltor should only be used for riots that have arisen for non-ideological reasons such as after sporting losses or during large concerts, their blog is full of Chinese protests.
if you doubt that tools like this will be used, then look no further then the recent events in Ukraine, when thousands of Ukrainian protesters spontaneously received this text message on their cell phones “you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance”, as a new law prohibiting public demonstrations went into effect. Using a cell phone near a clash lands you on the regime's hit list, showing how technology is already being deployed to “detect dissent”.
So this isnt a story about a govt trying to stop a riot, arguably the govt was responsible for perpetuating the riots. These images are from my home in India, taken during the communal riots of 2002, which critics have likened it to a Genocide. India's National Human Rights Commission found evidence in the killings of premeditation by members of Hindu extremist groups; complicity by Gujarat state government officials; and police inaction in the midst of attacks on Muslims. The NHRC also noted "widespread reports and allegations of well-organized persons, armed with mobile telephones and addresses, singling out certain homes and properties for death and destruction in certain districts-sometimes within view of police stations and personnel."
What is interesting is that the man who was accused for having a lead role in this, Gujarat’s chief minister Narendra Modi and now India’s PM was given a clean chit, and has had a huge image makeover to this to the one who is bringing large scale growth in the economy and infrastructure, with projects like the GIFT CITY or the Gujarat International finance Tech-city.
The organisation who is supposed to be responsible for Modi’s image makeover is APCO Worldwide, the second largest lobbying firm in America. The firm specialises in helping corporations advance their goals by manipulating legislators, and drafting and advancing model legislation and regulations. Key tools include the creation of business coalitions and fake, corporate-funded ‘grassroots’ groups tailored to specific issues, a practice known as astroturfing.
Apco is not the only organisation who can design influence at such a scale, the other key players include donor-advised funds, such as Donors Trust and the Donors Capital Fund. One of their secretive funding route helped Conservative billionaires channel nearly £77million to more than 100 groups casting doubt about the science behind climate change between 2002 and 2010. It helped build a vast network of thinktanks and activist groups working to a single purpose: to redefine climate change from neutral scientific fact to a highly polarising "wedge issue" for hardcore conservatives. This is top secret memo from one of such thinktank - The Heartland Institute - who are developing the global warming curriculum for K-12 classrooms. They would like Dr. Wojick who works with the government to show the teachers how the topic of climate change is controversial and uncertain, the two points that are effective at dissuading teachers from teaching climate science.
This slide might appear to be right out of a typical corporate deck.
But then as you progress the nature of the business at hand starts becoming ever more sinister.
These are slides from JTRIG, the Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group, a unit of GCHQ, who created this top secret document for the Five Eyes intelligence partnership that includes Britain, the US, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Their ultimate aim is to control, infiltrate, manipulate, and warp online discourse using the “4 D's:” deny, disrupt, degrade, deceive.
This has echoes of OPERATION EARNEST VOICE, an online persona management system used by US central command. Basically it could secretly manipulate social media sites by using fake online personas to influence internet conversations and spread pro-American propaganda. The project was delivered by Ntrepid, an American software, hardware and cyber security company.
Psychologist Sarah King’s US military's work has references to the kind of thinking JTRIG do, the "information-operations" thinking, which is defined as attempts to "influence, disrupt, corrupt or usurp adversarial human and automated decision making". And today, we can see, how in subtle ways, it is stretching into the civilian world.
Whilst we attribute many of our technological developments to the military, the line between corporate, political and military tactics has never been more tortuous and intertwined in the pursuit for power and influence. Exemplified by the example of DARPA-funded big dog robots acquired by Google.
Who is now called “Cujo” (dog-from-hell) and he’s just back from a test patrol with the US Marines, It walked for miles in across a difficult terrain carrying up to 400lbs of their kit and weapons.
These stories embedded in plastic toys, our smart homes, our cars, our devices, our personal relationships and our security are in fact meticulous social fictions woven through the fabric of our everyday lives with stealth and precision. The connecting thread that runs through them is the scale and diversity of ways in we are actually experiencing an increasing ambiguity about where autonomy lies in the ever growing intricate relationships between people (citizens), technologies (of machine intelligence) and architectures of control (state and non-state actors including JTRIG, 4GS, Serco and many more)
Together, these entities become the key constituents of the valley of the meatpuppets. A new ethereal habitat where people, agents, thingbots, action heroes, dolls, big dogs and --- many more --- cohabit.
And I am reminded of what Joseph Weizenbaum's said: The only way you were going to get a world of thinking machines was not by making computers become like humans. Instead you would have to do the opposite - somehow persuade humans to simplify themselves, and become more like machines.”
And that's becoming possible as we realise that one dominant class is emerging - the class which owns and controls the mode of information, becoming the most powerful one. The Vectoral class as named by Mckenzie Wark, because they control the vectors along which information is abstracted. OK, so we can play with our data, but they control the metadata. And in the process - Terraforming our landscapes to create large faceless data centres.
This new habitat brings big questions about our sense of freedom and our capacity to act under constraints. With an increase in monitoring, surveillance, AI and big data, this ambiguity, this sense of uncertainty and unconnectedness will become more pronounced. Invisible wars over autonomy will become a recurring leitmotif of the 21st century. And if we are to understand and equip ourselves better to decipher and decode the intricate nature of these mediated social fictions, we will need to find new conceptual tools and vocabularies.
The most important toolkit we need today is one that can help create a visceral connection with the complexity and plurality of the worlds we live in, in order to create the momentum that is needed to reclaim our right to re-imagine and reshape the worlds we live in.
Tools that help us see beyond the singular, linear past/present/future trajectory, that is presented to us
To a more multidimensional world with plurality of histories, presents and futures will help reveal the manufactured promises, and give us the capacity to choose, navigate and manoeuvre our journeys. In this lies the idea of taking the long view, looking at long stretches of the past, to see these evolving new ways of being from an imaginary vantage point in a future.
Of course the question is - Why am I interested in this as a designer? A lot of design traditionally services, facilitates and lives within these conditions and is very much entrenched within this world. It is either sleek, seamlessly receding into the fabric of a singular vision, or in the service of those companies or organisations that seek to define that vision. Whilst as a design studio we also practice in this world, we think it is important to continually challenge and question one’s position. I am reminded of a great quote by Lebbeus Woods, and would like to paraphrase it for design.
And so part of our work also falls into what you might call speculative design or design fiction where we create stories, films products and experiences to explore the future implications of emerging technologies on people, society and the environment. Such work seeks to create new perspectives and consider alternate presents by embracing complexity and challenging established narratives. I’d like to share some quick examples to illustrate this.
So, the examples I showed earlier, illustrating how state and non-state actors design large-scale influence and compliance are not just limited to the digital realm, but extend into biotechnology and healthcare as well. The UK DNA database is already one of the world's largest in the world. Historically govts created dna databases exclusively of people with criminal records. But today in the UK there are over 850,000 people on the database who do not have a current criminal record of which 40,000 are children.
In April 2013, UK’s Caldicott Committee proposed new rules for data-sharing which would allow the Government to build a DNA database of the whole population of England in the National Health Service by stealth, which many have likened to the idea of Genetic Panopticon. At Superflux we are exploring the implications of big data in the context of genetics, healthcare and personal genomics, through the lens of an ordinary citizen.
The project titled ‘Dynamic Genetics vs Mann’ is a superfiction, where we use techniques of mirroring real world organisations to reveal some of the intricate relationships and tensions between people politics, economics and technology. The project is presented though a detailed body of evidence from a near future courtcase. The case centers around a protagonist Arnold
who received this DNA sample kit from the NHI - the UK government’s National Health Insurance program, previously known as the NHS. It is mandatory to give a saliva sample to this program.
the NHI’s cost benefit algorithm calculates every individual’s insurance contribution to reflect the potential healthcare costs associated with their genome. If your genetic makeup revealed higher risks of heart diseases, you will pay a higher insurance premium.
This is evidence from the Revenue and Customs that collect the insurance contributions. Arnold who was previously paying £144 annually now has to pay £6127.20. For Arnold this pushes his already stretched budget over the edge.
Trapped between inflated premiums and the costs of private genetic therapy, Mann approaches a black market clinic that offers to use bootlegged gene therapies to modify his DNA, in order to lower his insurance premium. This is a covert surveillance photograph of Arnold getting treated in this clinic.
The illegality of his actions are quickly discovered, and evidence is gathered by the therapy's licence holder, the biotech multinational Dynamic Genetics, who bring a case against Mann.
Their team presents further evidence in the form of forensic photographs documenting the layout of the black market clinic. On the right you see an Improvised CO2 Incubator used in the manufacture of illegal genetic therapies.
a Batch of counterfeit therapies found in the clinic, and boxes containing mice which appear to have been used as test subjects.
Sections of defendant’s machine-readable DNA with matches to Dynamic Genetics copyright material highlighted in yellow. Looking at these strips, with tiny, indecipherable A’s, T’s, C’s and G’s, we don’t know what diseases he was at risk for, how much of a burden he would one day be on the insurance pool, or even if the pirated gene therapy has actually changed his odds of developing the disease. As Christina Agapakis wrote, "with increased health we must give up some of our expectations about genetic privacy".
And finally, footage documenting Arnold’s interrogation. The lens of the court case helped construct a powerful narrative to expose the story of a vulnerable citizen who goes to extreme measures to mitigate the impact of healthcare premiums. Pieced together, these evidential fragments question the ethical, political and economic implications of innovations in biotechnology that are quietly transforming our world. Technologies dont exist in isolation, they interact with a rich and complex world and are subject to forces beyond their makers control. As designers we believe it is important to think about wider complexities in order to challenge the deeper assumptions about technological power and control.
In a project called IoTA, we are bringing smart cities to people. Creating a grassroots platform that will encourage people to move beyond data spectatorship to engage in meaningful ways with the proliferation of sensor technology and data.
The platform encourages communities in gaining empirical understanding about the issues that matter most to them, from exposure to radiation or air pollution. It will not only show how data is made, how it is collected, how it can be read, where it lives, and but most importantly, what it can do collectively, how it can actually become an important tool for informing behavioural legislative change.
We are building demonstrators for the project, the first one was around aircraft noise pollution, and the second one BuggyAir, working with a group of 40-50 parents and carers to understand the impact of Nitrogren dioxide, and Particulate Matter on infants and toddlers. Our intention is that this data does not simply report the state of the world, but acts as political surrogates for a community advocating for its interests.
Another project I’d like to talk about it called The Open Informant. The NSA, GCHQ and other government security services secretly collect and scan our personal information and correspondence for trigger words; from the overtly malevolent: ‘anthrax’, ‘assassination’ and ‘bomb’ to the seemingly benign: ‘pork’, ‘dock’ and ‘storm’.revelations have not just exposed excrutiating details of this activity, but also confirmed extreme disconnect between people and state power.
Such techniques are often justified with an emotive narrative of safety, William Hague, in response to the Snowden revelations: "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear". Statements like these act to control the narrative around surveillance and close down public debate on the complexities of the issue.
Our response, Open Informant wants to confront this normalising narrative. It is an a phone app and e-ink badge that searches your communications for these NSA trigger words and then sends text fragments containing these words to the badge for public display.
By openly displaying what is currently taken by forceful stealth, we question the intrusive forms of mass surveillance. And in the process, it is our intention to shift the conversation around wearables from being about you and your body as machine, to the culture of machine intelligence and algorithmic monitoring.
Whilst these projects and others like them, work well for a certain audience, in their current incarnation they may not have the power to influence mass culture in the way advertising, pr and the film industries do. I wonder if we might be able to borrow some of the powerful techniques that these industries use to meet the core philosophical objectives of our work. To
Help us progress beyond contracted, predefined archetypes of play and explore the ambiguous, nuanced multiplicity of our time. Moving from a state of ideological consumption to autonomous world building.
And break the manufactured state of compliance to encourage creative engagement in the way we interact with and respond to architectures of control.
And finally, to puncture the seductive layers of deception spread by special interest media campaigns, politics and PR strategies, through direct and critical intervention.
We were fortunate and grateful to be working with three very talented designers this summer, coming from different design backgrounds. I'd like to introduce Jonathan Flint, Dillon Froelich and Sam Conran, who are currently do their internship with us.
1. Jon C. Flint
I am a current masters student on the new Design interaction research course at Goldsmiths University of London. I am interested in the idiosyncrasies that emerge in new and old technologies alike and use my previous experience as a product designer to explore this. I enjoy tinkering with electronics and thinking of interesting concepts for installations which I have done with Almost Silent an interactive art collective, their last exhibition used a brain wave sensor to create sound visualisations on water.
2. Dillon Froehlich
My work revolves around cultural narratives and questioning what we, as a society, are willing to accept. I am interested in researching historical pasts, designing contemporary parallels and envisioning potential futuristic outcomes as well as reevaluating lessons from my own background and promoting awareness and education by means of fiction. Through model making, illustration, short stories and renderings, my concepts strive to create worlds where it is possible for us to reflect. While currently interning at Superflux this summer, I will be graduating with a BFA in Industrial Design from RISD next spring.
3. Sam Conran
I am a London based sound artist and designer. I am a graduate of the Sound Art and design department at the London College of Communication and am currently undertaking an MA in Design Interactions at the RCA. My intention for exploring sound stems from a longstanding involvment with music and see myself as following the extensions/abstractions beyond its current format. An occasional performer as well as sound artist/designer, I have shown my work at venues including the Tate Modern, V&A, Cafe OTO and the Science Museum. More of my work can be found here. Some of my favorite books include, Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia. Johnathan Stern, The Audible Past & Hand Made Electronic Music, Nicholas Collins, and favorite people are Max Neuhaus, David Tudor, Iannis Xenakis.
In early May, Jon and I were invited by the HEAD MEDIA DESIGN faculty in Geneva to lead a week long design futurescaping workshop for the first-year students on their postgraduate Media Design programme. Having not previously encountered speculative design, futurescaping, or design fiction, we were tasked with finding a way to drag this bundle of themes and techniques into the participants’ familiar everyday lives. We could easily have spent a week exploring different processes and methods, but, instead, we chose to develop a challenging context-specific brief, through which the HEAD students could start to grapple with some of the questions we ourselves have been exploring through our lab and studio activities.
Drawing on our recent work, talks, and ongoing personal encounters with immigration and the contemporary nation-state, we were drawn to a central theme of political complexity – challenging students to probe notions of borders, territories, and the fragile, increasingly precarious relationship between people and their governments. Developing the brief in collaboration with Justin Pickard, our spooky, mostly virtual studio associate, we wanted to leave workshop participants fully primed and poised, ready to develop their own original work on these and similar issues.
"Looking ahead to the Switzerland of 2025, this workshop challenges participants to design thoughtful responses to emerging political tensions at the intersection of migration, housing, climate change, robotics, surveillance, currency and finance, energy, public protest, and the hollowing out of the contemporary nation-state. Superflux will present the students with a series of weak signals from a near-future world and the students will work individually to respond to this world. At a deeper level, this workshop asks the students to consider the role their design practice may play in a future that is radically different from the one they may have been led to expect."
We kicked off the workshop with a presentation expanding on the initial brief, describing how the workshop would use the notion of ‘failed states’ to ‘explore how political visions of the future fail to account for the complexity of the world, and in doing so, struggle to consider unforeseen events and uncertainty.’ We showed real-world examples of the ways in which unanticipated events – the collapse of the USSR, the Great Depression, etc. – have triggered paradigm shifts in national and international politics, the consequences of which we continue to experience in our everyday lives today, in 2014.
Mid-week Crit, where students present their research and initial design proposals.
With this as background and context, we confronted the workshop participants with a future Switzerland of the mid-2020s; a small, federal state in a world where an increasingly powerful Chinese state holds controlling shares in a number of critical Swiss infrastructure projects, a network of surveillance UAVs have been deployed to monitor and pre-empt civil unrest, widespread food shortages have been met by the nationalisation of many Swiss food companies, and the persistent overuse of antibiotics has led the world into an era in which even minor infections can prove terminal.
Series of UDC propaganda posters, more here.
Sharing our timeline of events from 2013-2025 based on current trends and weak signals, we tasked participants with digesting the interplay of a range of future developments, considering their implications for the everyday experience of future Swiss citizens and inhabitants, and designing a response to the challenges and consequences of this future world. We asked them to engage, critique and infiltrate the dominant political and economic order through a proposed service, product, experience, movement, campaign, or anything else that felt appropriate.
Europe according to Switzerland, 2010, Atlas of Prejudice, by Yanko Tsvetkov
After the initial splash presentation, participants ran through a series of discussions and initial brainstorms, touching on the recent immigration referendum, the incipient anxieties of French students, and the visual language of Swiss political propaganda. The students were asked to consider the elements of this future world that resonated with their own passions and personal politics; what their own lives – and those of their friends and family – might look like in this proximate future; and alternative roles for their own design practice in an unexpected or divergent environment. Over the first few days, participants made extensive use of mapping and fiction and they sought to orient themselves in relation to a series of much larger, interlocking social and technical systems.
Image from Clement Coubès' research. His project explored the idea of disaster tourism in the context of failed states.
After a round of early brainstorms we suggested the students write short stories, that situate them or their loved ones, within this world. This became a great mechanism to create deeper connections with the things that they otherwise did not consider. For instance, here's an excerpt from Vytautas's story:
I’m in my 2-room rented flat with my french girlfriend and our child. My salary is late by more than two months, as the Genevan canton suspended issuing residence permits due to the unclear future of the state. I was thinking of taking all the family and going home, for quite a while, up until Russians invaded Lithuania (for national security reasons, as they state) and are now “maintaining order” just like back in the Soviet Union days. Last week we buried our dog, which was shot in "self-defense” by one angry nationalist rioter. Nobody cares about it anyway, life’s just too difficult right now. Nobody except my daughter. I’m still here, because hoping to get an extension for a residence permit is still a better option than being a refugee with no nationality. All in all, I couldn’t even pass the border.
Final projects tackled questions around immigration, state surveillance, cryptocurrencies, mesh networks, political apartheid, economic protectionism, puppet governments, gated communities, racial discrimination, and the growing influence of China and the Global South.
Vytautas Jankauskas's Proposal "Swiss Independent Citizen Community": ISCC is a project about independent foreign citizen community formed in Switzerland as a failed state, where foreigners offer government balanced community agreements in exchange for social, political and economical guaranties. People can voluntarily provide selected parts of their Big Data, bank transaction info, sign-up as military volunteers, etc. whereas the state issues special citizen IDs allowing free travel, national health insurance and other essentials. The goal is to help stabilize the country as well as improve the living and individual security of struggling foreign citizens
Gaetan Stierlin's Proposal "Economic Wars": In 2025, most of the Switerzland (public services, the mountains) is into the hand of foreign investors (mostly China). This investors control also the government. The Federal Counsil wants Swizterland to keep the beautiful image we have, so they're using massive propaganda to convict the swiss to be happy and confident, has if nothing is happening. Swiss people feel like strangers in their own country, because they have to reimport swiss products, like the Kinder chocolate. The investors love it so much, it's totally exported to China for themselves.
Participants’ work explored the various ways in which they might be able to either infiltrate the system, or design for it from within it. As workshop convenors, we found it emotionally and personally challenging to see how far they were willing to push themselves beyond their comfort zones, in order to explore new thematic and design territories.
Catherine Brand's proposal "The Milky Way & New Kitchenware; or how the Swiss population copes with food shortages in 2025" Since 2019 dramatic heat waves affect Europe. Governments have to face food shortages. In Switzerland, the price of food products has drastically increased, with basic food products having become a rare commodity.Switzerland has nationalised the country’s largest suppliers of in-vitro, lab grown meat. As the country has been kicked out of the Schengen area, they are not able to buy food products in neighbouring countries anymore. This would require a visa. Solutions have to be found in the domestic economy or on digital platforms.
Félicien Goguey's Proposal: The DSPS works as a Peer 2 Peer ever-shifting network based on human flows. Every citizen taking part in it wears a mobile device and own an immobile mailbox. These devices allows to exchange data between citizens without any contact.Thus any citizen wearing a mobile device becomes a messenger of the network. Public transportation (buses, trains, planes...) and crowded places are nodes where the messages can be exchanged. Messages are protected by PGP (Pretty Good Privacy). AI (maybe genetic algorithm) determines the shortest way to deliver the message and compute the path, based on the habits of the peers and predictions. Efficiency and delivery speed rely on the number of citizens using DSPS.
The set of final presentations was inspiring and rewarding, and the students who took the opportunity to engage with this complex and chaotic bundle of issues did remarkably well in such a short period of time. "We learnt how to ask questions" was possibly one of the best feedback we could have asked for. Many thanks to Daniel Schiboz, Nicolas Nova and Marion Schmidt for the hospitality, we hope to be back at HEAD soon.
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