This is the domain of future studies I have always called imaginary objects or speculative design, now being called design fiction:
Objects as oracles
[…] there is a growing practice of designing and writing about speculative objects as mechanisms for peering into the near future. In the emerging field of design fiction, these notional objects are created in order to embody stories about the the social, cultural and ethical implications of emerging technologies. These objects are like fragments of a hologram: They contain the residue of a whole world frozen from one perspective. They don’t (quite) exist yet, rather they are artifacts extracted from potential futures that allow us to think through the emergent behaviors and unexpected repercussions of our current trajectories.
In Design Fiction as a Pedagogical Practice, Matt Ward speaks to the power of exploring unintended consequences:
Things that don’t work create interesting stories…Finding the uncomfortable haunting fiction that surrounds an object, the place where social life starts to break down and fracture is far more interesting than a world that ‘just works’.
A powerful example of exploring the seams where things break is in Warren Ellis’s Lich House, a crime story by Warren Ellis told from the point of view of a networked house that is being murdered. In discussing the piece, Ellis says that in “looking for the place where a society of networked matter breaks,” he “went straight to ‘Where’s the crime story there?’” The result is both profoundly strange and deeply familiar — technology doesn’t alter who we are as humans, but it gives us new expressions of those essential needs, desires, and flaws. “Lich House” is part of The Institute for the Future’s short story collection, “An Aura of Familiarity: Visions from the Coming Age of Networked Matter,” which contains quite a few examples of speculative object fiction.
Warren Ellis is ten steps ahead, his design fiction is actually fiction, not just a anecdote about sensors Twittering.
“The internet is ubiquitous, yet its detailed inner workings remain wrapped in mystery. We rely on a wide range of myths, metaphors and mental-models to describe and communicate the network’s abstract concepts and processes. Packets, viruses, worms, trojan horses, crawlers and cookies are all part of this imaginary bestiary of software. This new mythology is one of technological wonders, such as live streams and cloud storage, but also of traps, monsters and malware agents. Folk tales of technology, however abstract and metaphorical, serve as our references and guidelines when it comes to making decisions and protecting ourselves from attacks or dangers. Between educational props and memorabilia, this series of objects visualises and celebrates the abstract bestiary of the internet and acts as a tangible starting point to discuss our relationship to IT technology.”
The Forget Me Not reading lamp requires constant dialogue — touching — to remain open and on.
I am leery of pronouncements coming from Harvard Business Review, but I found a recent piece pretty smart:
Larry Downes and Paul F. Nunes, Big-Bang Disruption
The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen warned incumbents to recognize new entrants’ picking off low-end customers as an early indicator of industry transformation—and as a signal to begin experimenting with emerging technologies while there was still time. Surviving disruption, his research showed, often required a separate organization to incubate a competitive response. If you did everything right and the stars aligned, you could then move the new product into the market using your company’s existing infrastructure and advantages of scale, making up quickly for lost time.
None of that was easy, but it was at least possible. Today, given the potential for “sudden death” from a big bang, you may have no time to develop an incubated alternative.
And the new footing for this postnormal age? The authors make some suggestions:
See it coming — Go find some visionaries — which the authors call ‘truth tellers — because early market-based experiments will fail. They mention Yukiyasu Togo of Toyota, who pressed for the launch of Lexus, but had to threaten to quit to get them to listen.
Slow the disruptive innovation long enough to better it — You can’t stop it, but you can deflect. For example, an established company can lock customers in to long-term contracts based on lowering prices. But this is just a stalling technique, to buy time.
Get closer to the exits and be ready for a fast escape — Some times the only way to win is not to play at all. Instead of selling itself off while it still had value, Border was liquidated.
Try a new kind of diversification — ‘Think again of Amazon, which isn’t so much a set of businesses as it is a technology platform that allows the company to repurpose its intangible assets—its expertise in e-business, its remarkable efficiency in forming collaborative partnerships with thousands of other businesses, and its leadership in software virtualization—as market conditions change.’
The authors offer this:
You can’t see big-bang disruption coming. You can’t stop it. You can’t overcome it. Old-style disruption posed the innovator’s dilemma. Big-bang disruption is the innovator’s disaster. And it will be keeping executives in every industry in a cold sweat for a long time to come.
In a world moving so quickly, and where everything is connected, the lag between the moment when all the factors in a market niche come together to allow a big bang change and the moment of widespread adoption of that innovation has fallen to just a year or so, today, and in the near future it could be even less.
Long-term strategic planning is obsolete. Near term strategies based around speculative design is the only hope, and yes, companies should be looking for ‘truth tellers’ who have consistently presaged major market shifts. That vision, to see the ‘turning point’ in markets, is the only means to future proof a company, now, not planning.
Dev Patnaik, cited by Robert Safian in This Is Generation Flux: Meet The Pioneers Of The New (And Chaotic) Frontier Of Business
We are in the Postnormal now, where volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity have reached unparalleled heights. We are constantly in a strategy fog, unable to see very far ahead, to plan, or even think about problems and solutions. We live in a time defined by dilemmas: unsolvable situations that can only be coped with, balanced against.
Like a martial artist who knows she may be attacked at any time, by any opponent, with any weapon, the most productive approach is to practice, speculatively, but remain fluid in mind, and unfocused on any specific techniques.
This is why I counsel speculative design as a discipline. Instead of trying to imagine a future world, instead imagine an imaginary appliance of that future world, and its use by the denizens of that future. Then consider the implications of those interactions. That is the equivalent of a karate-do doing kata: we are sparring with the implications of our speculations.
(h/t Victoria Young)
Bruno Latour, cited in Innovation in Policy - NESTA & MindLab
Otherwise known as abductive reasoning, when explanatory hypotheses are formed and evaluated experimentally. This is also the core of speculative design-based reasoning.
I plan to push on the speculative design front in 2013.
The Sewickley Arts Initiative is readying an intriguing exhibition that should attract gamers and people interested in social issues and education, not to mention art-lovers. Input/output is a show by artists who use games to present interactive art addressing social issues such as immigration. (via Games as art in new gallery show | Program Notes)
Yesterday, I was doing a dress rehearsal for a webinar that will be live tomorrow. I was talking with Fred McClimans, Geoffrey Colon, and Alan Dickenson about the future of cloud computing and how that intersects with big data. This morning something occurred to me regarding the application of social data in the future.
Imagine that the workings of human social networks are finally figured out by crunching real data from really large social networks. And at the same time, the the deep forces of social influence are revealed, and the mathematics lurking below our interactions is cracked. And in parallel, imagine that continued research into cognitive science has led to more understanding of how social interaction is linked to brain chemistry, and for the first time, effective techniques are developed to make the sad happy, and the lonely loved.
Ok, I know, but let me finish the thought experiment.
So, imagine that researchers are able to create algorithms that can actually — with real success — influence our behaviors. Through a society-spanning combination of content marketing, social media, and targeted social network strategies, researchers are able to decrease cigarette smoking, or increase bike riding. And the unscrupulous or avaricious would be able to get people to chew one kind of gum, or watch a particular TV series.
Alright, let me add the last ‘what if’ to the scenario, although it is starting to sound like a chapter of Daniel Suarez’s Daemon. So, imagine that some global non-profit, like the Gates Foundation, builds a software system that leverages all this new-found knowledge about social influence and social cognition, and sets about changing us.
This system — let’s call it Grace — has access to the world’s major datasets, which contain millions of petabytes of social data in this hypothetical future. Grace would work surreptitiously and guardedly, applying social math to each of our private social contexts, convincing us to brush more often, to read to our kids, to help others in need. Grace would reward us at the physiological level, by convincing one person to touch another, unleashing oxytocin and building trust where none existed before. Teams would work more efficiently. Friends would make that extra effort, families would settle old differences. Politicians would reach out to their opponents to find common cause and to put aside partisan division. Warring factions in dusty far-away lands would lay down their AK-47s and make peace where there had been decades or millennia of war.
Cue the harps.
And the reason I called this system Grace is a nod to Richard Brautigan’s All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace:
I'd like to think (and the sooner the better!) of a cybernetic meadow where mammals and computers live together in mutually programming harmony like pure water touching clear sky. I like to think (right now, please!) of a cybernetic forest filled with pines and electronics where deer stroll peacefully past computers as if they were flowers with spinning blossoms. I like to think (it has to be!) of a cybernetic ecology where we are free of our labors and joined back to nature, returned to our mammal brothers and sisters, and all watched over by machines of loving grace.
In my version, Grace is operating behind the scenes, without our knowledge, nudging us to do good and make nice, an animatronic Jimminy Cricket, the invisible conscience we need to become more humane.
And the question is, if we could make such a thing happen, should we? There is no doubt that marketers will attempt to take our growing knowledge of social connection and neuroeconomics to try to sell baby food and sports cars. And dictators might use such mechanisms as mind control and hyper-efficient propaganda engines. But what if such tools could be used to make the world a better place?
Should we? Is it immoral to surreptitiously influence humanity, even if the result is a better place? Ultimately, the question becomes who gets to decide what better means, and so in my it-could-almost-be-a-novel scenario, it would likely be the choice of a solitary genius, as in Daemon, following personal convictions rather than some plebiscite.
What if it would only work if it was secret? What if the world could be bettered, famines averted, wars ended, climate change reversed, but only if the mechanism to do so was completely unknown to the world?
In my early morning musing, in the twilight stage between sleeping and waking, I envisioned Grace moving the world from exploitative, growth-at-all-costs hyper-capitalism toward a steady-state, sustainable economy and social compact, where we’d ramp down the population to a few billions over the next few decades, provide meaningful and interesting work rewilding the planet, building livable and beautiful cities, and growing healthy food and a smaller number of better-loved and better-fed babies.
But I was dreaming, obviously.
Nora Schmidt, New Bike Share System by RAFAA (Rafael Schmidt) (CH)
The Bike Share System must become more than just a transporting system. It deals not only with the problem of stocks and flows of people, but must add extra value to its user and to the city itself. We suggest that the Bike Share System becomes an integral part of the city. The bicycles should function as censors and inform the system about certain behaviours, so that the system can react according to the situation.To predict the performance of a system, the entities have to exchange information. An internet-based platform can analyse the different interests and could then manage possible conflicts. The bicycles are equipped with GPS und W-Lan, so they are connected to each order and can inform the system about their position and status. (Is a bike being used? Where is the bike and where is it moving to? Is there a reservation for the bike? etc.) Privacy protection is a matter that has to be taken into account in the process. To increase the number of commuters travelling by bicycle from 37% to 50% by 2015, approx. 25.000 bicycles have to be integrated into the urban fabric; these bikes will need at least 20.000 m2 of storage space. We see a high risk of overloading the squares, streets and stations of Copenhagen. Therefore, our focus is to reduce the „visual pollution“ wherever possible. At the same time, easy accessibility as well as the system’s visual presence has to be maintained (hide & show policy). The following proposal distinguishes between three different trajectory scales: S,M and L.