Placebo Interaction

About Placebo Interactions
Placebo interactions are interactions that lead you to believe you have control of something when really you do not. They take advantage of the sloppiness in feedback loops, giving either superficial, incomplete, or false feedback in response to an input. The primary example, and my introduction to the subject was with “close door” buttons in elevators. It turns out that these frequently are not hooked up to the elevator system, even though they may light up when pressed. The feedback loop is such that the tiny feedback from the light is enough to convince you that the button works even if it has no observable effect on the door closing. My idea was to project placebo design into the future via a public service portal–think public service announcement but in web form–that alerts the public to their dangerous lack of control over the built environment.

Key to my idea was to include both placebo interactions that already exist–the elevator door button, thermostat controls in large office buildings–placebo interactions that could exist right now–voting for instance–and placebo interactions attached to products and activities that do not yet exist. The reader, if proceeding through the site in order, encounters the real, then the plausible, and then the absurd. By the end, the ridiculousness of the project should be apparent.

The project hopefully gets people to think about a couple of things. First, placebo design itself. The best part of this process for me was hearing all of the stories that people had about design that could be considered placebo design. It was gratifying for storytellers to have a category for a life event that may have gone previously unrecognized, or simply left as “manipulation.” In an exhibit setting, I would hope it could spur conversation around this same topic, and give people a new tool to categorize design they encounter. Second, I am interested to encourage people to think about what they would potentially be invited to control in the future, and what controls will be taken away. Placebo design, in my research, can be used to manipulate–as in gambling–or to help cope and give oneself back a sense of control (even if it is acknowledged to be a placebo). If we are moving to a world with more embedded computation receding to the periphery but controlling things in unseen ways, what will we forget that we have lost control of? Will systems designers let us have that control back?

Related Work
The project relates only mildly to Anthony Dunne and Fionna Raby’s placebo design project. The title is similar but they had a specific investment in understanding how people cope with invisible electromagnetic forces. Where both of these projects align might be in what Bill Gaver calls ambiguous design. Gaver describes ambiguous design as design that can be interpreted based on circumstance. This was precisely the case with Dunne and Raby’s project where they asked people to use speculative projects over a period of time in their homes. For placebo interaction, the ambiguity of function can be interpreted for a different impression of the system. Gaver hope that “by impelling people to interpret situations for themselves, it encourages them to start grappling conceptually with systems and their contexts” (233). While placebo interactions do not encourage this kind of reflection in themselves–after all, they usually don’t want you to speculate about their system at all, lest it be uncovered–my hope is to show the ambiguity of these interactions and help people to project forward with a healthy does of mistrust.

The project most similar, in some ways, might be James Auger’s audio tooth implant. The project works in a similar problem space but with very different means. If the placebo interactions site fools anyone, it should only be momentarily, unlike Auger’s extended deception. But both deal with plausible technologies and the model that people create of those technologies in their mind. Placebo interaction generates a model through use, the audio tooth simply through press.

Process & Reflection
My process was a poor one: it involved months of exploratory writing and research (I have over 6000 words in notes and reflections–a full seminar paper of wheel spinning) and intense frustration about not knowing how to embody any of the ideas that I found engaging about placebo interaction. I wish that I had pushed myself to build more as a part of the design process, rather than figuring out the very best way to build a placebo design fiction project (which I never did, anyway). From here, I wrote all of the copy for the website, developed the graphics and coded it up.

In my explorations, I read news, reviewed projects that I had found engaging, and pondered how to extract the narrative value from placebo interaction (here’s a great article on placebo design). Most importantly, I collected anecdotes about where placebo design is and where it may be going. I then categorize those stories and ideas in an attempt to abstract principles that I could use to design new speculative placebo interactions. While none of the ideas I collected are immediately in the project, the talks did end up informing all of my later SPIs.

Gaver, William, Jacob Beaver, Steve Benford. “Ambiguity as a Resource for Design.” CHI Letters. Volume 5, Issue 15. 2003.

DF Project III

I would like a speculative device/service that could help me read ideology, not just in texts but in all kinds of things: in forms, in products, in television shows, in services. I want a device that helps me to understand what the underlying assumptions of such a product/service/media could be and then I can read more and more, as much as I might want to, into the given thing.

The people who do this now are primarily writers and journalists: they take something, look at it very closely, look at those who created it, extrapolate about what values are embedded within it and what values it recommends to others. An interpretation device, it does interpretive work. Or, better, it supports interpretive work, even if in a shallow way.

What would this mean: people who are curious about, say, a political argument, can see what the foundations of such a line of reasoning and the rhetoric might be. They can also, however, look at a computer mouse and see what values structure that form, the aesthetic, the relationship to productivity and pleasure. All of the underlying assumptions that inform all of the things that we use and consume everyday.

Discourse and Metadiscourse

I’ve been interested in the discourse that surrounds design fiction and how central that discourse is to understanding the design fiction itself. Tonkinwise noted that many people claim to be generating provocative speculative design objects, but are often simply throwing an idea “over the wall” without consideration of the implications without also providing adequate support for the kinds of discourse they wish to generate. James Auger claims success from generating discourse around a project, even if that project is presented as real and, as a result, the discourse becomes very much a part of the design fiction: if we typically indicate the non-realness of the fictional object and use that object to bridge our way to a possible future, in the case of Auger’s tooth project, it is in reading the discourse of people who think that the fictional object is real that we can observe other people forced to imagine the bridged future first-hand.

The Emerge project seems more self-conscious about its process of documentation and attempts to build a framework for the discussion around the work to emerge at a number of levels: you have the workshops and the documentation, you have the museum exhibition of the workshop content, and the web documentation of the exhibition. Each seems to be a way to support discourse about the former: the web serves to widen the audience and give tools for discussion of the exhibited work and the exhibited work gives a forum for discussion and engagement with the outcomes and processes of the workshop. Interestingly, for as much interactive potential as the website has, even the most viewed items have been interacted with only minimally based on the number of comments and tags added or voted on. The exhibition, however, sounds like it was fantastically successful with 20,000 visitors over three months: “Visitors created several hundred physical sculptures, over 250 letters, and contributed 537 future-themed audiovisual responses via the video diary booth” (7).  Why is the supposedly more democratic medium of the internet, then, functioning so much less well to foster these interactions? What does it mean, at least in the case of this project, to support a public discourse? All discourses here, are, to some extent, metadiscourses: workshop documentation explored in a museum in turn developed into a web platform for further discussion. Part of the problem in this case may be that the physicality of the both of the former two experiences was central to becoming invested in the discourse around it, especially if that discourse itself become enmeshed in the porous diegetic world of the fiction.

The Market University

Context Narrative:

The day begins for Jamin: he wakes up, takes a shower, and, over coffee, looks at the  class feed for the next week. Twenty, well-off, Jamin attends a medium sized technical college in the northeast where he is in his third year of study. The day’s classes scroll by on Jamin’s phone, and he notes that the upcoming section of psych 402 has a high market value and makes a note to attend if he doesn’t see anything better by the next time it rolls around, but moments later, business 300 scrolls by with a higher market value though a worse work to profit ratio. Jamin selects it, it is added to his schedule, and he switches out of the class market feed to answer a few emails.

On his way in to school the next week, Jamin worries a bit about having not gone to too many other business classes in the three hundred level, but if it doesn’t work out, it won’t drop his net worth too much, especially not in cultural capital—it is only a business class, after all. And even so, it’s only for a week and he will be on to better things.

Jamin takes an isle seat of the small lecture hall. “I am Professor Stangard, and I am the only full professor in the school of business. I know that you might have had classes with the adjuncts, but I promise you that this will be a different experience. The class has been a bull for this last year for a reason and it is because I have the time and resources to the research that the adjuncts simply do not, and I use those resources to help push you hard.” Jamin looks to his left to see two students walking out of the class. He considers following, but decides it might be worth his while. If he can get another business skill line on his resume, it will be worth it.


Process & Background:

The project started as a collection of speculative objects that could illustrate the corporatization of the university: a receipt instead of a diploma, a fast-food style name button for the professors, a “gamified” report card full of badges that signify mindless repetition, and, most interestingly, a stock ticker for universities ratings. The last idea was inspired by Bill Readings’, The University in Ruins, in which he discusses the idea of “excellence” as the guiding star for the university that has replaced reason and culture: “Excellence is clearly a purely internal unit of value that effectively brackets all questions of reference or function, thus creating an internal market” (27). Readings clearly condemns excellence as being somewhat hollow self-referential, but I thought the idea was worth exploring further. A stock ticker that measures this different kind of value, but also, like a stock ticker, shows it as a kind of abstract and relative system.

Here, the process becomes somewhat messier: I wanted to hold onto the idea of the stock ticker as an icon of the market but link it differently with the university in a way that “real time” information might make more sense. I decided to go with a reconceptualization of the university that depended on taking many one-week long courses that had their content evaluated in real-time based on a number of factors: reported salaries of those graduates who taken the course, the average amount of work time put in by students, live student course evaluation, and number of students enrolling. Students check out the feed at the beginning of the week and keep track of it throughout the week: if it begins to drop too much they might drop the course before its one week is over. It isn’t necessary to complete every course that you begin during a given semester.

The application does work on the android phone, though the feed information is all fictitious. I developed it using Processing. Working on a fictional application has a lot in common with developing a diegetic prototype, but lacks the physicality that folks like Dunne and Raby consider particular to speculative design. It still functions on a platform with which many of us are familiar, the smartphone, but it is only functional in a future in which universities had an alternative structure and this particular kind of big data was collected. Still, it does work as Bleeker might hope a diegetic prototype would, by offering the idea of this university structure a more immediate “cultural legibility:” we are familiar with the everyday form of phones and apps and this can create a bridge into the speculative future.

While this project could have been more satisfying if, as I had originally hoped, it offered a Tonkinwisian affirmational future, the lure of dystopia was too strong. I understand a little more of the practical challenge of creating the kind of affirmational fiction that Tonkinwise describes: in this case, it felt like it would not engage people in the same way, or, at least, the kinds of artifacts that it would be practical to make around an affirmational future would be a lot trickier make engaging that dystopian objects.

where we were going, we wouldn’t have needed roads

It’s exciting reading media criticism along with the more affirmative design fictioning work. If much of our reading has dealt with how design fiction can reach an audience, if it can, and how we can make it have an effect even if it does, “Things to Come” takes a decidedly critical view. The argument has more to do with the potential effects upon nearly anyone that the visioning projects of HP and Microsoft may have.

What I find engaging about the piece is the line between advertising and futuring: it isn’t quite advertising because they are not promising to make anything in the video, but they still bank on you anticipating such a future and having such an anticipation justify spending on that company’s present offerings. Kinsley writes that “one should enrol into this aspiration, and buy the soon-to-be launched device more widely advertised by HP or Microsoft, because we are compelled to believe that is the way the future is developing,” (2779). This argument is partly tangential to what Kinsley is trying to argue about the embodied affective experience of these visioning activities, but it is an interesting line none-the-less: why is it worth it for a company to make an design fiction video for products that they may never produce? In the above example, Kinsley compares the fiction to a “soon to be launched device,” both are unreal but there is something seductive about the one  fictional future that gets you invested in the close-to-reality device.

The expectation of “the next big thing” is always an expectation, critically, it is not something that can be delivered as such. So how can you be a part of the “material and always deferred present future”? That is, if it is always deferred, how can you be materially a part of it? It is a little fuzzy to me, but it sounds like Kinsley would argue that you are connected to something that contains more “somatic markers” to help affectively tie you to that kind of future world. That is, in the case of certain gestural interfaces, it seems a little like you participating in a small-scale, dull version of an amazing future of complex gestural interaction. But you’ll never get there because a past anticipation is “still an anticipation and will remain having been an anticipation for all of time.” It reminds me of how we are now in the year of Back to the Future. But, of course BTTF remains an anticipation rather than an actualization. Even if we had all of the technologies in BTTF it would still remain an anticipation because the rhetoric of discovery and disbelief at what the future has become (within the diegesis of the movie).

Market Attuned

OK a little on the market from Tonkinwise’s “How We Intend to Future:” “Speculative designs must work homeopathically with the same language of desire and imagination as market-let product design but in order to constitute the very alternative futures that market-led product design refuses” (181). Here, I think, we run into an argument that we have been having in class this whole semester: what kind of audience is design fiction attempting to reach and what tools is it using to get there? Even the idea that reaching a wide audience is connected inherently to an idea’s value seems to employ the same flawed logic of, “if they buy it, then it’s good” or “75 million NASCAR fans can’t be wrong,” or, you know, vise-versa.
So can we or should we reframe the question of appeal? Because not any kind of appeal can carry any kind of idea, and the ideas that we may want to convey, say, of “positively affirmed” futures may not be able to travel via the same “sexy” traditional means of appeal (to use Tonkinwise’s example, of high end fashion aesthetics, or noir aesthetics), nor, perhaps, should they. But then what do we have available to reach an audience? Or should this kind of mass appeal even be a priority? The problem is, finally, as Tonkinwise also suggests, that DnR offer no real theory of change—how is shopping our way to better futures actually going to change anything of the larger context?

Power of Eight

The best thing about Hand and Jain’s “Power of Eight” project and article is the practical advice that extends beyond the challenges of co-design and normal group work by considering working wit ha group which has even less commonality among members, necessarily, than one would find in other design projects. It’s a reminder that in thinking about non traditional forms of design, it will reflect back on everyday practice in important ways. Bringing in a truly interdisciplinary team to work in the context of design where the participants have a different state of mind than other diverse situations like co-design or participatory design: they have volunteered, yes, but still do not have the same kind of investment.
Jain describes using visualization and storytelling processes not to “build consensus” but rather to find common ground. Setting these kind of priorities and expectations for people with different sets of values seems critical: you cannot expect the same kinds of progress when you have an interdisciplinary team; things must function differently. Yet, the team remains grounded in design methodology as the common meeting point. It would be interesting to know how the process would have looked differently if the methods shaping the project had, themselves, been an interdisciplinary mix stemming from the expertise of the participants rather than all design-style activities in which many forms of expertise participated.
These are lessons and distinctions that can feed back into all types of design practice: when do we need to build consensus and when do we just need to reach a common ground? When do we need to operate within uncertainty and when do we really need to embrace new kinds of messy and organic processes? These are questions from the avant garde of collaborative DIY futuring, but they reflect tensions already evident in all modes of design.