More Than Words

Several years before iPhone and Siri, a friend and I started working on a voice based computer platform. We realized that it could be done locally, or at distance, with computer speech tools or with an efficient human based engine. This approach was as flexible and as powerful as we could imagine any computing system could be, given that humans were the intended users. We went on to collaborate on other things [1] but didn’t have the positioning to make our system work at the time.

Today, this idea seems a little less exciting. It’s a lot more common, there are a lot of systems all around us that do it relatively poorly, and we see that it has some limits, for at least the foreseeable future. However, we may also realize a greater limitation. Even if it were possible to do this perfectly, or at least as well as it’s done in Her [2] and other examples, all we can do is speak. As far as we can tell, for the time being, there’s no faster, richer communication that we can partake in. This is a little depressing, because it means we may be just a few years away from a state of peak communication efficiency with computers, and yet, we probably still need so much more.

Bret Victor [3] has toyed with a version of this issue and tried to consider how the tools we use to achieve things could be designed to help us do more, more deeply, and more rapidly, than we can now. In the same way that the industrial revolution deeply changed society, Bret proposes a notion of a dynamical representation of thought to let us think about systems and their relationships to understand implications of decisions over time, in a way we have a lot of trouble doing now [4].

Sadly, I don’t know of any other examples of this type of view, and in particular, I don’t think I’ve seen it reflected in thoughts about future interactive systems in popular media or in design fiction literature. Similar to the discussion of what do we do when AI becomes more mature than we do, I wonder how we deal with needing to communicate with ourselves and our computers, better than we can with each other.

References

  1. Shuman, Yosef, and Mark E. Whiting. What Is Service Design? N.p., 2014. Web.
  2. Her. Dir. Spike Jonze. Perf. Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2013. Film.
  3. Victor, Bret. Bret Victor, Beast of Burden. N.p., Web.
  4. Victor, Bret. The Humane Representation of Thought. Vimeo, 2014. Web.
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Quotidian Oracle

Designers are notoriously bad at predicting the future through research methods, in no documented cases of major technological or societal change due to innovation, have design methods been the primary motivator in finding a new need or technological opportunity [1]. Although, as he points out, they are very good at making things better. On the other hand, people tend to be great predictors of the future in a wide range of cases. So, while I agree quite strongly with Kinsley, Kirby, and Dourish’s claims and analysis, I feel it’s also quite obvious (and has been for many years) that our media drives our expectation of the future, our technology development, and in many cases career decisions of a large subset of the population. I also feel that while these papers discuss an interesting philosophical phenomenon, there are rich quantitative opportunities for evaluating this and that these would be a great directions for future research, or perhaps research about 20 years ago, when initial longitudinal results of these trends could have been assessed.

Reading these articles brought me to consider how hard it might be to draw conclusions about historic responses to technology or technology related media as our frame of reference is rather skewed by the current one. That said, I feel it would be another interesting exercise to try to better understand how what the public thought effected what technology came into existence at various points in history around the world. Interestingly, current variance in technology on earth suggests this type of analysis could provide really fascinating results. For example, the expectations of wireless phone infrastructure in various African countries was inextricably bound to other forms of infrastructure in the public view, and solutions for a range of related services became available around the same time through technological workarounds, bypassing the slow moving industries in many more technologically robust nations in the West [2, 3]. Mobile banking is one such example.

References

  1. Norman, Don. The design of future things. Basic books, 2009.
  2. Chipchase, Jan. “Mobile banking: Agents as mediators.” CGAP Blog (2010).
  3. Chipchase, Jan, and Panthea Lee. “Mobile Money: Afghanistan.” innovations 6.2 (2011): 13-33.

An Ideal Forecast

I often wonder how design fiction will really help us. These readings provoked me to wonder, what’s the ideal forecast timeframe relative to industry trends etc.? In other words, I think some forecasting serves to improve our ability to design, while other forecasting may be too focused on being critical or fictional, or perhaps aims to assess a distant future that is too far off to be useful. So, I think working out how to get good value from our forecasting would be an interesting endeavor. Several more particular questions emerge:

  1. How far into the future can we look before we are strictly limited by what we think today?
  2. How much do current trends impact our future design fictions?
  3. What types of design fiction tend to serve in this way best? (e.g. mundane life, catastrophic scenarios, technical fictions, implementations etc.)

I don’t know how to answer these rigorously, but an analysis of past forecasts in comparison to how reality turned out, and, how designers responded to those forecasts, might help us draw some pretty good conclusions.

Future Everyday Ingenuity and Boredom

YOLO to me is the urban grassroots philosophers way of contemplating existentialism. How people deal with boredom offers us a view into the intrinsic health of a society. When people decide to create or do and how they rationalize shows us other aspects of this societal philosophy.

In the future, I have two pressing concerns relating to this. 1) how rate of technological change will impact rate of socio-philosophical change, and 2) how the philosophical responses of automated systems will impact the social norms of the time.

In the first case, I wonder if we will have the same opportunities for boredom that we do today. Everyday design [1] and other types of emergent ingenuity seem to rely heavily on time with an absent mind. Today, it’s so easy to acces media, and media is so carefully designed to addict us, that I think we rarely have the needed time to contemplate nothing and to let our creative minds loose. In the future I imagine this will be compounded so I wonder if a large part of the value of the uninvolved community will diminish.

With regard to my second fear, automated intelligence is likely to eventually exhibit philosophical response, and if our expectations about its differential[2] are true, its likely AI will undergo philosophical development much faster than humans have. At some point it will be more philosophically mature than us, in the same way we are more so than a monkey. That to me, is much more scary than the typical expectations about the future of this field. I’m not worried about systems that become super smart with limited heuristics, but systems that become hyper mature will see us in an unimaginable way.

References

  1. Wakkary, Ron, and Leah Maestri. “The resourcefulness of everyday design.” Proceedings of the 6th ACM SIGCHI conference on Creativity & cognition. ACM, 2007.
  2. Kurzweil, Ray. The singularity is near: When humans transcend biology. Penguin, 2005.

The Growing Complexity of Design

To me, design fiction often seems to ignore the fact that design is getting more complex and more diverse. I think an interesting opportunity lies in working to create tools that will try to demonstrate how hard design might become in the future, as technology is enhanced, and the space of design is more populated and expectations rase.

Will there be a time when we can’t design new things because its just too hard? Will there be new tools to somehow make this easier? Will the new tools influence our design in some unexpected ways?

Thriving on Deceit

This is a response to Confessions of an Economic Hit Man [1], a book by John Perkins on his experience helping the corporate community gain money and power in the name of democracy and economic reform.

Nefariousness plagues the existence we uphold as moral and just. Most modern societies were developed to be resilient to humanity, but humanity seems a more powerful adversary, for as far as we know, no society has succeeded in this goal.

For most of human history, we’ve known that taking advantage of others secretly is a way to get ahead. As society becomes more complex, and as we develop more philosophically comfortable mechanisms for governing it, the sophistication of deceit grows just as fast. In addition to the lies becoming more complex they also seem to move from a governmental level, to an institutional one, and now even to a somewhat personal scale. We don’t have a good sense of how much this effects our lives today, as most relevant narratives and reports are released years after the fact, but we can be sure it’s still happening, and that society is changing to establish a normative prior for the clandestineness we hear about and expect to be running the show, behind the scenes.

To counter the issues human susceptibility to nefarious behavior brings, Red Teaming[2] has become an increasingly popular critical service. This process involves good people impersonating bad people, to find weaknesses in systems hoped to be secure. It’s a high paying job that requires technical, psychological and metacognitive expertise. Many practitioners are former military or intelligence operatives, or hackers (the bad kind), but due to the alluring nature of all that is dark, secret, and militaristic, there’s much excitement around taking these methods into every day life by the armchair militia of our community.

Today we pretend this house of cards is a lingering but controllable issue, something which will be stamped out by regulatory oversight committees, red teams, and personal vigilance. But, a different approach seems better. Why don’t we design society to benefit from human greed? Work has been done showing how making committing certain crimes legal can help avoid more severe ones[3], and that with the right models of integral resilience we can build systems that get stronger by being broken [4], and even that humans problematic limitations can be used as a key design constraint [5], but it remains repugnant to formally provoke a society optimized to thrive on deceit. Mechanism design [6], a field dedicated to supporting a given incentive model by designing new mechanisms that motivate it, is an ideal tool for building a future of this type.

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Thriving on deceit through computational justification (referencing nobel prize winning Mechanism Design work [6], and the Garden of Earthly Delights [7]).

Discussion on this can be found here.

References

1. Perkins, John. Confessions of an economic hit man. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2004.
2. Red Teams. http://redteams.net/about retrieved 02/03/2015.
3. Basu, Kaushik. Why, for a Class of Bribes, the Act of Giving a Bribe should be Treated as Legal. 2011.
4. Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Antifragile: things that gain from disorder. Random House Incorporated, 2012.
5. Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan, 2011.
6. Myerson, Roger B. Perspectives on mechanism design in economic theory. The American Economic Review (2008): 586-603.
7. Bosh, Hieronymus. The Garden of Earthly Delights. painting in oil. 1510.

Tropetropism

Tropes are known as patterns in media and perhaps society, but tropisms are the tendencies for some systems to respond to specific stimuli. e.g. Heliotropism is when plants turn toward or away from the sun on purpose. Both terms come from the greek τρόπος, meaning turning to or following.

Much of Julian Oliver’s work, in particular things like the Snowden Templates seem to offer a meeting of these two definitions in what we could possibly call Tropetropism. This project relies on the trope of CIA or NSA presentations that tend to summarize some nefarious wiretapping activity with overcrowded slides with understated captions. By capitalizing on this pattern that is known to many people regardless of their interest in his work, Oliver tricks us into an alternative framing of the information at hand.

In the same way, much of the work we have discussed seams to use recognizable or imaginable patterns to help us see a specific perspective, not intended by the pattern, but orchestrated by the curator who exposes the pattern to us in a specific context. The tropes of our current world become the signal of our future and give us a tool to comment with. As the Critical Engineering Manifesto points out, exploiting our world is a desirable way to expose it for what it is.