Unbelievably, its summer already. The studio has been a hive of frenzied activity for the last six months, and in this post we wanted to share some of our top highlights of projects and activities.
This article discusses the growing interest in drones and the challenges around regulations, cities, and infrastructure.
Yet another year gone by. As we edge towards 2016, we would like to take a moment to thank those of you who gave us your trust, support, advise and time. It’s been a good year for the studio and for this we remain grateful.
Here’s a quick glimpse of our 2015 highlights.
Mangala For All: The year started with us roaming the streets of Ahmedabad, India with miniature Mangalyaan space probes. The project has been a fascinating discovery of India’s space ambitions within the context of global (meta)geopolitics and the commercial space industry.
Drone Aviary at the V&A: Through a series of drone models, publications and films this project investigated the social, political and cultural potential of drone technology as it enters civil space. It has been shown at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Design 21_21 Tokyo, Museo Villa Croce (Inaugurazione di RAM House), and ZKM Karlsruhe, and will continue touring in 2016.
Superflux Magazine: We launched an amorphous magazine! The first issue designed as a double sided A1 poster titled ‘Cartographies of the Sky’ explores the vertical geographies and digital infrastructures that cities will need in order to accommodate civilian drones. It has an editorial by Warren Ellis and short drone fictions from Tim Maughan.
Uninvited Guests: With a focus on IoT and connected homes within the context of elderly healthcare and remote tracking, our short film for Thingtank explores the frictions between an elderly man and his smart home.
BuggyAir: Following our winning application for Innovate UK’s IoT Launchpad Competition we have built, and are testing working prototypes of an accurate mobile sensing kit that helps parents understand their children’s exposure to air pollution.
Data Futures: We developed the strategy and accompanying narratives, scenarios, and artifacts around future of data and alternate financial institutions for a client. The project investigates the changing value of data as currency, and the role of technologies such as IoT and distributed ledgers within this new landscape.
How Will We Live?: My opening keynote at NEXT Conference in Hamburg, Germany connected seemingly disparate ideas of psychology, chunking, artificial intelligence, drones, refugees, and political activism to paint a picture of our contemporary lives.
Knotty Objects, MoMA and MIT Media Lab I was fortunate to contribute to the first MIT Media Lab Summit devoted to design, Knotty Objects which gathered designers, scientists, engineers, makers, writers, curators, and scholars to examine the transdisciplinary nature of contemporary design. Here’s the video from my session ‘Manufactured Objects‘.
Drone workshops: Jonathan Flint and Jon Ardern led a series of drone making workshops with young people (aged 13-16) introducing them to the technology through a series of making and Q&A sessions. There have been some great results so far.
State of Eindhoven: In October, I joined the City of Eindhoven’s ‘Smart Council’ to confront and provoke policymakers, designers and businesspeople as the city shapes up its remit as a ‘participatory smart city’. More on the ongoing work and related publications soon.
Team: Jonathan Flint and Vytautas Jankauskas joined us as full time designers / makers / researchers, and alongwith our newly recruited studio manager, we are really pleased with how the team is shaping up.
Press & Media: Motherboard, Dezeen, BBC Futures, VICE, Creative Applications, Creators Project were some of the publications who featured our work. Also, the brilliant newspaper ‘Paprika‘ from Yale School of Architecture interviewed us for their latest edition.
We leave you with Ursula Franklin‘s definition of peace as our hope for 2016:
“not so much the absence of war but the presence of justice… the absence of fear… a commitment to the future.”
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 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.
ABOUT THIS ISSUE:
This first edition of SUPERFLUX focuses on our ongoing R&D project Drone Aviary, which explores the social, political and cultural potential of drone technology as it enters civil space. The illustration ‘Cartographies of the Sky’ on the front is a speculative map exploring the vertical geographies and digital infrastructures that cities will need in order to accommodate civilian drones. From restricted zones to geofences, flight paths to charging stations, it looks at how our airspace may become divided and occupied in the years to come. We hope it can act as a tool for contemplation, raising critical questions around the future of public space and ownership of the skies above our heads. The other side captures the project’s thematic concerns around our changing relationships with algorithmic intelligence and increasingly autonomous machines. We designed a series of civilian drones with specific tasks and functions that represent the convergence of wider social and technological trends. (The work is currently on show at the V&A as part of the All Of This Belongs To You show.)
We collaborated with Tim Maughan for the project, who wrote brilliant short fictions for each drone, and an introductory piece on how we hope to present the work as a live experience. From the Superflux team: Jon Ardern and myself (creative direction), Katarina Medic (map and poster design), Jon Flint, Yosuke Ushigome (drone designs), Dillon Froelich and Georgina Bourke (map concept development) have been instrumental in bringing it to life.
We are thrilled to have this out in the world, and are grateful to our colleagues at Superflux, Tim Maughan and Warren Ellis for making this a reality.
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)
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.
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.
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 Youteam 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.
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.
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!
An editorial about Machine networks alongside many other brilliant folks.
The year has flown by! What should be a monthly update has now become a quarterly (perhaps even semi-annual) update, our attempt to share studio highlights, and a fleeting moment to reflect on what has happened and what we have learnt.
On the Consultancy front, we have been lucky to have the opportunity to work with some great clients this year. Couple of quick project hightlights that we can share publicly:
Future Cities Catapult / Family Day Out Programme
One of the most exciting projects we have been working on this year is with the Future Cities Catapultcalled ‘A Family Day Out Programme’. The project seeks to work with partially sighted and blind people to help identify the characteristics of future cities that will enrich their experience of it and develop potential cityscapes that would inspire them to make journeys into cities and around them. We have been through an extensive design research, horizon scanning and futurescaping process and are currently visualising some of the outcomes.
Museum of Future Government Services / PMO, UAE
We were lead creative consultants for the concept and scenario development of the Museum of Future Government Services commissioned by the Prime Minister’s Office of the UAE, working the incredible Tellart, Fabrica, Near Future Laboratory and Institute of the Future, spearheaded by Noah Raford. The project launched at the Government Summit, a global platform dedicated to the improvement and enhancement of government services and related opportunities. The six exhibits being shown at the Museum are immediately visually compelling, yet provocative, and ambitious visions of how services ranging from border control to health care to education could be delivered in the future, in an attempt to stimulate thought and action, from their leaders and civic officials in the UAE. Our colleagues at Tellart and Fabrica, working with the PMO, have done a remarkable job in translating concepts, developing elements, and ultimately executing the exhibits.
On the Lab front, currently two projects are keeping us on our toes.
Things that Fly and Watch Over You: Quadcopters, multirotors, positioning systems, and such other stuff has kept us occupied in the Lab, in huge amounts. Project Impossible is a beast that is simulteneously exciting and terrifying. One of the most fun part of the project is an opportunity to work with a host of amazingly talented people, all to be announced in an upcoming press conference.
IoTA: Internet of Things Academy: A full update on this project requires a separate blogpost, but suffice to say, we have made good progress. We are grateful to have a team of great people working with us: Gyorgyi Galik, Philipp Ronenberg, Martin Charlier and Daniel Pomlett. We have moved in a different direction from our initial proposal, but feel we now have a much clearer, far more exciting direction. Our focus is on people, on social and environmental concerns, and thinking of ways in which IoT can ultimately shape and influence legislation and policy. We are grateful for the incredible support of our partners Hugh Knowles and Louise Armstrong from the Forum for the Future and funders Nominet Trust and Founders Forum for Good, as well as the brillants folks at Suncorp who have been supporting our work. For regular updates follow @IoTAcademy on twitter or have a peek into our process on our tumblr.
Also on the Lab front, we were in India earlier this year, and have revisited Lilorann, with an renewed interest in Tactical Design and Tools for Critical Jugaad. We are in talks with several collaborators in the hope of realising a small thing this winter. Stay tuned.
Our Associate Tobias Revell has recently completed a commission ‘Monopoly of Legitimate Use‘ premiered at the Lighthouse Brighton, which we highly recommend making a trip for. Also, Yosuke Ushigome is currently developing a fascinating project “exploring high-speed and speculative trading of our bodily-harvested energy/data/knowledge/assets” to be exhibited in October in Tokyo.
TALKS & EXHIBITIONS
Keynote, Futureverything: I delievered a keynote at the Futureverything Festival in Manchester end of March. Titled ‘Valley of the Meatpuppets’, the talk explores the ethereal space where people, agents, thingbots, action heroes and big dogs coexist and how influence is designed within this space. I think the conference videos should go online soon. It was also great to exhibit the 5th Dimensional Camera and Open Informant at the Festival too.
Design and Violence, MoMA New York: We were invited by Paola Antonelli to contribute to their online show Design and Violence with a critical response to the work of Phil Ross. We wrote a short fiction piece exploring a future world where Mycotecture becomes a favoured material and what its implications might be.
V&A Friday Late: Candyce and I presented Dynamic Genetics vs Mann, followed by a series of sessions with the Synbio Tarot Cards at the V&A Friday Late for Synthetic Aesthetics. We had never run this sort of a session previously, but judging by the evening’s success are considering new avenues for such toolkits.
We will be showing Dynamic Genetics vs Mann at the DEAF Biennale in Rotterdam later this month as part of the ‘Blueprints for the Unknown’ Exhibition, and hoping that there will be a way for the project to be shown in the UK soon, perhaps where the project will resonate the most. I will also be giving a talk at the DIY ‘Altopia’ Seminar at the Biennale. I’ll be joining Tobias Revell at the Lighthouse to discuss his new work and explore themes of migration, borders, and networks. And I think that might be it, in terms of talks this year, apart from Chicago much later this year. Due to time contraints I have recently had to turn down few very exciting conference invitations for this year, but looking forward to it next year.
We enjoy teaching and our favourite form is intense workshops, which gives us an opportunity to set a brief, and a concetrated time with students to develop responses. We just wrapped up a workshop at HEAD, Geneva, with the Media Design MA students, working with them on a highly challenging brief titled ‘Failed States: Tactical Design for Uncertain Futures. Developed in collaboration with Justin Pickard, we invited students 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, for a near-future Switzerland. Needless to say, it was a highly energetic, inspiring week, and we’ll be writing a bit more about it soon.
This was meant to be brief, so I’ll stop. Just a quick final note to say that we are also considering new projects, collaborations and partnerships for 2015, so if you have something in mind, do drop us a line.
Adios, be well!
Intro by Anab Jain:
Last year we were lucky to have some fantastic guest posts from Paul Graham Raven, Scott Smith and Christina Agapakis. Continuing the tradition into our second year, I am thrilled to welcome Alexis Lloyd, Creative Director R&D New York Times, to our blog with a great essay. When I met Alexis last year, it was clear that there were crossovers in our work, and we are grateful that she agreed to write for us, brilliantly exploring a space that we are currently preoccupied with in the studio. Over to Alexis.
IN THE LOOP: DESIGNING CONVERSATIONS WITH ALGORITHMS
Earlier this year, I saw a video from the Consumer Electronics Show in which Whirlpool gave a demonstration of their new line of connected appliances: appliances which would purportedly engage in tightly choreographed routines in order to respond easily and seamlessly to the consumer’s every need. As I watched, it struck me how similar the notions were to the “kitchen of the future” touted by Walter Cronkite in this 1967 video. I began to wonder: was that future vision from nearly fifty years ago particularly prescient? Or, perhaps, are we continuing to model technological innovation on a set of values that hasn’t changed in decades?
When we look closely at the implicit values embedded in the vast majority of new consumer technologies, they speak to a particular kind of relationship we are expected to have with computational systems, a relationship that harkens back to mid-20th century visions of robot servants. These relationships are defined by efficiency, optimization, and apparent magic. Products and systems are designed to relieve users of a variety of everyday “burdens” — problems that are often prioritized according to what technology can solve rather than their significance or impact. And those systems are then assumed to “just work”, in the famous words of Apple. They are black boxes in which the consumer should never feel the need to look under the hood, to see or examine a system’s process, because it should be smart enough to always anticipate your needs.
So what’s wrong with this vision? Why wouldn’t I want things doing work for me? Why would I care to understand more about a system’s process when it just makes the right decisions for me?
The problem is that these systems are making decisions on my behalf and those decisions are not always optimal: they can be based on wrong assumptions, incomplete understanding, or erroneous input. And as those systems become more pervasive, getting it wrong becomes increasingly problematic. We are starting to realize that black boxes are insufficient, because these systems are never smart enough to do what I expect all the time, or I want them to do something that wasn’t explicitly designed into the system, or one “smart” thing disagrees with another “smart” thing. And the decisions they make are not trivial. Algorithmic systems record and influence an ever-increasing number of facets of our lives: the media we consume, through recommendation algorithms and personalized search; what my health insurance knows about my physical status, the kinds of places I’m exposed to (or not exposed to) as I navigate through the world; whether I’m approved for loans or hired for jobs; and whom I may date or marry.
As algorithmic systems become more prevalent, I’ve begun to notice of a variety of emergent behaviors evolving to work around these constraints, to deal with the insufficiency of these black box systems. These behaviors point to a growing dissatisfaction with the predominant design principles, and imply a new posture towards our relationships with machines.
The first behavior is adaptation. These are situations where I bend to the system’s will. For example, adaptations to the shortcomings of voice UI systems — mispronouncing a friend’s name to get my phone to call them; overenunciating; or speaking in a different accent because of the cultural assumptions built into voice recognition. We see people contort their behavior to perform for the system so that it responds optimally. This is compliance, an acknowledgement that we understand how a system listens, even when it’s not doing what we expect. We know that it isn’t flexible or responsive enough, so we shape ourselves to it. If this is the way we move forward, do half of us end up with Google accents and the other half with Apple accents? How much of our culture ends up being an adaptation to systems we can’t communicate well with?
The second type of behavior we’re seeing is negotiation — strategies for engaging with a system to operate within it in more nuanced ways. One example of this is Ghostery, a browser extension that allows one to see what data is being tracked from one’s web browsing and limit it or shape it according to one’s desires. This represents a middle ground: a system that is intended to be opaque is being probed in order to see what it does and try and work with it better. In these negotiations, users force a system to be more visible and flexible so that they can better converse with it.
We also see this kind of probing of algorithms becoming a new and critical role in journalism, as newsrooms take it upon themselves to independently investigate systems through impulse response modeling and reverse engineering, whether it’s looking at the words that search engines censor from their autocomplete suggestions, how online retailers dynamically target different prices to different users, or how political campaigns generate fundraising emails.
Third, rather than bending to the system or trying to better converse with it, some take an antagonistic stance: they break the system to assert their will. Adam Harvey’s CV Dazzle is one example of this approach, where people hack their hair and makeup in order to foil computer vision and opt out of participating in facial recognition systems. What’s interesting here is that, while the attitude here is antagonistic, it is also an extreme acknowledgement of a system’s power — understanding that one must alter one’s identity and appearance in order to simply exert free will in an interaction.
Rather than simply seeing these behaviors as a series of exploits or hacks, I see them as signals of a changing posture towards computational systems. Culturally, we are now familiar enough with computational logic that we can conceive of the computer as a subject, an actor with a controlled set of perceptions and decision processes. And so we are beginning to create relationships where we form mental models of the system’s subjective experience and we respond to that in various ways. Rather than seeing those systems as tools, or servants, or invisible masters, we have begun to understand them as empowered actors in a flat ontology of people, devices, software, and data, where our voice is one signal in a complex network of operations. And we are not at the center of this network. Sensing and computational algorithms are continuously running in the background of our lives. We tap into them as needed, but they are not there purely in service of the end user, but also in service of corporate goals, group needs, civic order, black markets, advertising, and more. People are becoming human nodes on a heterogeneous, ubiquitous and distributed network. This fundamentally changes our relationship with technology and information.
However, interactions and user interfaces are still designed so that users see themselves at the center of the network and the underlying complexity is abstracted away. In this process of simplification, we are abstracting ourselves out of many important conversations and in doing so, are disenfranchising ourselves.
Julian Oliver states this problem well, saying: “Our inability to describe and understand [technological infrastructure] reduces our critical reach, leaving us both disempowered and, quite often, vulnerable. Infrastructure must not be a ghost. Nor should we have only mythic imagination at our disposal in attempts to describe it. ‘The Cloud’ is a good example of a dangerous simplification at work, akin to a children’s book.”
So, what I advocate is designing interactions that acknowledge the peer-like status these systems now have in our lives. Interactions where we don’t shield ourselves from complexity but actively engage with it. And in order to engage with it, the conduits for those negotiations need to be accessible not only to experts and hackers but to the average user as well. We need to give our users more respect and provide them with more information so that they can start to have empowered dialogues with the pervasive systems around them.
This is obviously not a simple proposition, so we start with: what are the counterpart values? What’s the alternative to the black box, what’s the alternative to “it just works”? What design principles should we building into new interactions?
The first is transparency. In order to be able to engage in a fruitful interaction with a system, I need to be able to understand something about its decision-making process. And I want to be clear that transparency doesn’t mean complete visibility, it doesn’t mean showing me every data packet sent or every decision tree. I say that because, in many discussions about algorithmic transparency, people have a tendency to throw their hands up, claiming that algorithmic systems have become so complex that we don’t even fully understand what they’re doing, so of course we can’t explain them to the user. I find this argument reductive and think it misunderstands what transparency entails in the context of interaction design.
As an analogy, when I have a conversation with a friend, I don’t know his whole psychological history or every factor that goes into his responses, let alone what’s happening at a neurological or chemical level, but I understand something about who he is and how he operates. I have enough signals to participate and give feedback — and more importantly, I trust that he will share information that is necessary and relevant to our conversation. Between us, we have the tools to delve into the places where our communication breaks down, identify those problems and recalibrate our interaction. Transparency is necessary to facilitate this kind of conversational relationship with algorithms. It serves to establish trust that a system is showing me what I need to know and is not doing anything I don’t want it to with my participation or data; and that it is giving me the necessary knowledge and input to correct a system when it’s wrong.
We’re starting to see some very nascent examples of this, like the functionality that both Amazon and Netflix have, where I can see the assumptions that are being made by a recommendation system and I am offered a way to give negative feedback; to tell Amazon when it’s wrong and why. It definitely still feels clunky — it’s not a very complex or nuanced conversation yet, but it’s a step in the right direction.
More broadly, the challenge we’re facing has a lot to do with the shift from mechanical systems to digital ones. Mechanical systems have a degree of transparency in that their form necessarily reveals their function and gives us signals about what they’re doing. Digital systems don’t implicitly reveal their processes, and so it is a relatively new state that designers now bear the burden of making those processes visible and available to interrogate.
The second principle here is agency, meaning that a system’s design should empower users to not only accomplish tasks, but should also convey a sense that they are in control of their participation with a system at any moment. And I want to be clear that agency is different from absolute and granular control.
This interface, for example, gives us an enormous amount of precise control, but for anyone but an expert, probably not much sense of agency.
A car, on the other hand, is a good illustration of agency. There’s plenty of “smart” stuff that the car is doing for me, that I can’t directly adjust — I can’t control how electricity is routed or which piston fires when, but I can intervene at any time to control my experience. I have clear inputs to steer, stop, speed up, or slow down and I generally feel that the car is working at my behest.
The last principle, virtuosity, is something that usually comes as a result of systems that support agency and transparency well. And when I say virtuosity, what I mean is the ability to use a technology expressively.
A technology allows for virtuosity when it contains affordances for all kinds of skilled techniques that can become deeply embedded into processes and cultures. It’s not just about being able to adapt something to one’s needs, but to “play” a system with skill and expressiveness. This is what I think we should aspire to. While it’s wonderful if technology makes our lives easier or more efficient, at its best it is far more than that. It gives us new superpowers, new channels for expression and communication that can be far more than utilitarian — they can allow for true eloquence. We need to design interactions that allow us to converse across complex networks, where we can understand and engage in informed and thoughtful ways, and the systems around us can respond with equal nuance.
These values deeply inform the work we do in The New York Times R&D Lab, whether we are exploring new kinds of environmental computing interfaces that respond across multiple systems, creating wearables that punctuate offline conversations with one’s online interests, or developing best practices for how we manage and apply our readers’ data. By doing research to understand the technological and behavioral signals of change around us, we can then build and imagine futures that best serve our users, our company, and our industry.
About the Author: Alexis Lloyd is the Creative Director of the Research and Development Lab at the New York Times where she investigates technology trends and prototypes future concepts for content delivery. Follow on twitter @alexislloyd.