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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Part 2 of my notes coming soon.
Three things crossed my screen in rapid succession, all ruminating on the issue of the shift on our lives from physical to digital, and the changing nature of our sense of artefacts.
First up is this article in the NYT by Carina Chocano on “The Dilemma of Being a Cyborg”, in which she says:
This is the dilemma of being a cyborg: It’s not just that everything we once committed to memory we now store externally on devices that crash or become obsolete or are rendered temporarily inaccessible due to lack of coverage. And it’s not that we spend a lot of time storing, organizing, pruning and maintaining our access to it all. It’s that we’re collectively engaged in a mass conversion of what we used to call, variously, records, accounts, entries, archives, registers, collections, keepsakes, catalogs, testimonies and memories into, simply, data.
It’s accompanied by this lovely cartoon by Tom Gauld which reinforces what we’re constantly saying in Cambridge, that as things change things stay the same.
Next, on Core77, is this little bit of casual fieldwork by John Scalzi in which he shows his daughter an LP (she’s 13 and the object is quite foreign to her). It’s great. And her questions make total sense in retrospect. It IS huge. It DOESN’T hold much. And sticking a needle on it seems DAMAGING. You can never get it if you don’t live it, and that’s the cycle of the generations.
Finally, is this great cartoon I found in these weeks Private Eye, by Russell, entitled “Modern Last Words”.
I’m really delighted to be able to announce that I’ve written a book, entitled The future of looking back and published by Microsoft Press, which deals with the topic of digital legacy, technology heirlooms and other themes close to my heart. It covers a lot of the work that we’ve been doing in Cambridge around memory, reminiscing and so on, as well as including a lot of references to research and design work that I’ve come across that points to new and interesting directions.
The book was announced on the 27th of September as part of Microsoft Research’s 20th Anniversary celebration, and is available for pre-order on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and O’Reilly. I’m expecting it to be physically released in just a week (Amazon says the 4th of October).
The book is broken down into three broad parts (there’s a pretty extensive preview of the content on Amazon). First, in “Stuff and Sentimentality” I talk about the difference in nature of physical things versus digital things, and the impact that our transition from the world of real to the world of the virtual might have on the way we preserve and pass on our content. In “A Digital Life” I talk generally about lifespans, and key life events (including bereavement), focusing on the role that technology is starting to play in each, particularly with regard to the creation of personal and sentimental digital artefacts. Finally, in “New Sentimental Things” I speculate more on the future and trends in technology and the impact that new directions may have in the way we record, remember and reflect on our past.
My book is the launch title for “ The Microsoft Research Series”, newly announced by Microsoft Press, which kicks off a regular release cycle of books that will focus on making the work of the Microsoft Research Division more accessible. You can read more about the series, as well as a Q&A with me on some of the topics in my book, up on the announcement page for Microsoft Press.
A massive thanks to Devon Musgrave at Microsoft Press for pushing me to write this title, as well as to colleagues and family for their support and encouragement.
I really enjoyed the turn of phrase and subtlety embodied in this article on Technology Review by Simson L. Garfinkel on the gains and loss in the shift of our possessions from physical things to digital. While it has the same luddite sense as my own work – that maybe this is only an issue for people who actually experienced physical possessions like books and LPs and won’t be for forthcoming generations who never did – and I didn’t learn anything particularly new, Garfinkel sure can turn a nice phrase. The article could do with a few paragraph breaks, though!
A little sample…
There will never be a well-worn copy of my favorite digital book.Dissolving physical possessions into the cloud is certainly convenient. It may even make us less covetous and more inclined to share. But this new form of property is also shaping up to have more serious consequences than the loss of a few conversations. One is that those previously inanimate possessions can now talk about you behind your back. Watch a movie on Netflix or Amazon, and the company’s servers know who you are and what you watch, when you watch it, where you’re watching from (more or less), and even when you fast-forward.
Physical landlords can’t have a tenant’s possessions trucked off to the dump without due process; even those who withhold rent are given a chance to fight eviction in court. Cloud providers should similarly be prohibited from deleting your data at will, and there should be a legally mandated process for moving digital possessions to another cloud—or copying it to your home computer.
A Cloud over Ownership – Technology Review
Christan Svanes video of objects and their history is a simple piece of work that reminds me of Berg’s visualizations or the great experiments and ideas from the Oslo School of Architecture and Designs “Touch” project (particularly this one). This idea that objects can hold their history, and through that keep us in touch with out past, is one that I find really compelling, and is obviously related to my interest in digital heirlooms. It’s also being explored through projects like “Tales of Things”, using RFID tags to connect objects to their data.
the things we keep from svanes on Vimeo.
Great to see some publicity on DesignBoom for Jenny Lee’s project “Immateriality – The Future Human”. This was a standout from this year’s Textile Futures degree show at Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design. This is the course we worked on a couple of year’s ago for Microsoft’s Design Expo.
Jenny imagines digital skin as a virtual overlay, providing a strange, biological anonymity, a morphing mask. In addition to some great research work she had a live demo at the show that used augmented reality to overlay visitors faces with strange, biological growths (see bottom picture).
jenny bv lee: immateriality – the future human
"I designed a collection of virtual digital skins that was inspired by morphogenesis and mineral crystalisation processes. a series of radical non-human like aesthetics were fashioned, to engage the public to consider if we have the tools to-redesign ourselves, would we still look, feel and be human? I also worked in collaboration with a company called holition who deal with a range of 3d technologies in particular augmented reality. augmented reality technology blurs the boundaries between the real and the virtual worlds; it superimposes graphics, audio and other sense enhancements over a live view of the world. holition and I designed and developed new ways to utilise and implement the AR to enable a more tactile and tangible response to technology, bridging the gap between the immaterial and material worlds. we translated the digital skins into the technology, and developed face-tracking ar to create a virtual experience that would enable the public to interact and visualise the future technological impact on society and the self."
We had an amazing week at the Tumbling River Ranch. One hour West of Denver, in the foothills of the Rockies. No cell. No TV. Lots of riding and time outdoors.
A lot of the written material that we produce in the research team that I’m a part of is directed very much at an academic audience. Through conferences like CHI and CSCW we build on the research work of others and find out about new efforts going on in our domain of human-computer interaction. That’s as it should be for research.
We’ve been trying to think of some ways to make our work more accessible, though. Partially this is because the busy people who work for Microsoft in the US, building products that we want to help influence, don’t have a great deal of time to read a 10 page academic treatise. They need something a little more…succinct, and to the point. In addition to a focus on Microsoft, we think the subject of our research work is generally and genuinely interesting to a broad audience. We deal with the way people live their lives, and try and gain some understanding of the appropriate way in which technology should play a part. We look for the “human values” that motivate people, particularly in their personal relationships and in the places in which they spend time, then we ask how technology can enhance, rather than undermine, them.
So as part of this effort to make our work more approachable we’ve started a magazine called “Things we’ve learnt about…”, which will focus on succinctly summarizing what we’ve learnt around a particular theme, to provide simple insights into how we think people tick. You can download read about, and download the magazine from our site at:
Feel free to print it any way you want, if you want a hard copy. We’ve also made the magazine available through MagCloud, which is another alternative for getting a printed version. They can do a great, glossy print on demand version for you at cost.
The first issue deals with human-to-human communication. We’ve tried to wrap up over 5 years of research and design work in this area to talk about why people communicate. A lot of the focus on communication technologies is on the substance of the message – getting some “data” if you like, from person A to person B. A lot of this issue of the magazine deals with the reasons and methods through which people communicate that have little to do with the message. Sometimes people send message to remind other people that they care about them, for example. The content of the message matters less than the fact that the sender thought about sending it. The magazine is full of little insights like that, that are about the subtle underpinnings that make communication important.
Anyway, hope you like it. Let us know what you think in the comments below. And look for future issues on different themes.