Slow Technology Workshop | Part 1

I was in Newcastle for the Designing Interactive Systems conference from the 12th to the 15th of June. This conference takes place every couple of years, and looks at the social science of technology, with a particular emphasis on design. This year it was hosted by the University of Newcastle, and organized primarily by the Culture Lab, the university’s technology research group.

I helped co-organize a workshop on Monday with Will Odom, David Kirk, Abi Durrant and James Pierce. By co-organize I mean that I drafted on the coat-tails of the slightly over-achieving Will, who seemed to do 90% of the work. Anyway, the workshops title was Slow Technology: Critical Reflection and Future Directions. It was very well attended, with about 24 participants, which shows a general interest in the area.

‘What area?’ you might ask, which seems like a fair question. I’ve been thinking about the idea of slow technology in the context of design work I’ve done like the Backup Box in which part of the point of the work is to think about what it might be like to keep our digital things, like our tweets, for decades as a record of our past, like a diary of our life. It’s ‘slow’ because it contrasts with the quickness of our online lives in which things only matter if they happened really recently.

Part of my interest in the workshop, then, was in seeing what the phrase “Slow Technology” meant to the participants. Fortunately, our day was structured to help get a sense of that, with a morning of presentations by everyone who had submitted position papers when we originally announced the workshop. We put the emphasis on artifacts in this workshop, with each presented asked to talk about their sense of Slow Technology, ideally through some kind of object that they had designed (or not).

So here are my very rough notes of what each participant presented. They’re rather extensive, so rather than wait another week to see them all, here’s my first set. I’ll follow with a second set soon.

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Presentations

 

Rachel Jacobs, Mark Selby, Steve Benford – University of Nottingham
Paper: Engaging With Slowness: A Temporal Experience of Climate Change

Rachel and Mark had designed a beautiful system that played back year after year of climate change data, showing the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere. Each year was drawn on a large, circular piece of paper, using an automated system that created marks with a soldering iron. From a slow technology perspective, Rachel and Mark’s goal was to find some way to time-shift climate change data, from (in real-time) being extremely slow, and barely perceptible by the public, to being faster and more consumable. Their system has a performative aspect to it, and was presented in a gallery environment. It raised issues of the authenticity of scientific data versus designed experiences and of what it means to make slow-time tangible.

As each year of marks came off the machine it was hung in a row with others, creating a physical visualization over the years, not just within a year. Visitors to the exhibition inevitably found themselves seeking their own birthdays in the data, making human lifespans a part of the experience.

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A Conversation Between Trees from Rachel Jacobs on Vimeo.

 

Tim Regan – Microsoft Research, Cambridge
Engineering Slow Technologies

Tim’s artefact was a piece of code. Tim’s been working on the deployment of a device called Photo Box. This was originally created by Mark Selby, and is being deployed by Will Odom in the US. It’s a box that lives in the corner of a house, randomly and very rarely printing out photos from its owners Flickr stream. It might only print a couple out a month, and is intended to explore not just slow technology, but also the nature of physical vs. digital things. Will will have it in the field with his subjects for at least a year (he published a separate paper on this work at DIS this year).

Tim made some interesting points about the technical aspects of deploying technology for research over a long period of time, including questions of robustness and resilience of code, how to deal with crashing, as well as changes in APIs and other issues with drawing from online services over time.

 

John Fass – Various
Designing for Slow Technology: Intent and Interaction

John outlined a number of attributes for slow technology, that are useful for thinking about the space going forward. Slow technologies…

  • …reveal their function over time.
  • … are resilient to degradation.
  • … are adaptable.
  • …are modular.
  • … have redundancy built in.

His artefact was a beautiful, hand drawn data visualization of the genealogy of an Inuit tribe, created over many years by (I think) the explorer and anthropologist Knud Rasmussen. It shows the complex relationships built up over time, and the overlap between members of the tribe, sometimes just connected by name, or with ancestors in common.

 

Jo Briggs, Jon Hook, Mark Blythe – Newcastle/Northumbria Universities
No Oil Painting: Digital Originals and Slow Prints

Jo is playing with notions of time in artistic creation, as well as what it means to create “authentic” artwork. She is working with an artist who painstakingly takes four months to create a single painting in a hyper-realistic style. Once he has finished a piece, many people think it has been digitally, rather than manually, generated.

She is installing a camera system into the artists studio to record and reveal the process of painting over time. The assembled time-lapse film will be displayed, itself, in the context of an art venue. If the video itself is available for purchase, it raises questions about authenticity, and what it means for a digital create to have provenance.

 

Veronica Ranner – Royal College of Art, Design Interactions
From Hardware to Wetware: How Sericulture Could Shift our Manufacturing Attitude in an Age of Biotechnology

Veronica is a graduate of the Royal College of Art’s Design Interactions course in London, which uses designed objects as a way of telling stories and raising questions about possible futures. Biophilia was her graduation project, and it explores the centuries old tradition of raising silkworms for cloth, and its potential for the very modern application of organ creation, using the worms to build ‘scaffolds’ onto which synthetic organs could be grown.

Although a very conceptual project, it raises questions for slow technology in contrasting the 5,000 year old tradition of Japanese silkworm farming, which is quite primitive, slow and simply executed, with the fast, mysterious and unknown world of synthetic biology. The irony in synthesis is that there still isn’t a man made substitute for silk that is as soft and durable. In her work, Veronica therefore draws a contrast between the speed of biology and biological processes and contemporary pace.

Silkworm are part of the scientific process now. Their DNA was basically sequenced in 2008, and since then genetic work has been done to increase silk output, and even make luminous silk. Some questions that Veronica raises include:

  • What would a silkworm organ factory look like?
  • Do bio-materials require a ‘humane’ process. even crafted.
  • If so, what might the designed experience of visiting a craftsman to pick up your organ look like?

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Costas Bissas and  Stefan Agamanolis – Distance Lab, Scotland
Cow-Cam.tv: An experiment on Slow Technology

Cow-cam tv was part of a project called ‘Neuromatic’ looking at “encouraging rural modern life through the use of ‘slow’ technologies”. As its name implies, Costas and Stefan literally strapped a webcam onto a large cow, and started transmitting images from the cow’s perspective onto the internet.

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So in some ways the project is about the frenetic pace of urban life and our perceptions of rural life as slow and steady. Interestingly, though, Costas and Stefan did an analysis of Twitter looking for the words ‘slow’ and ‘technology’ and found that most people weren’t complaining about the pace of technological change, but instead were complaining when their devices weren’t fast enough, or new technology wasn’t being released quickly.

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Part 2 of my notes coming soon.

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