Sophia Brueckner: Sci-Fi Prototyping and Critical Optimism

Sophia Brueckner:  Sci-Fi Prototyping and Critical Optimism

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[Music] welcome everyone's distinguished speaker series [Music] [Applause] sophia bruckner walked away from the job that all of my students want she was a software engineer at google now this was more or less during the dot-com boom my students come to me and they say they want to be a software engineer at google but it's the job she walked away from now i'm not telling you that she's not qualified in more traditional ways but i think if someone walks away from a job at google in the middle of the dot-com boom it might be one of the more interesting things about their background she has the traditional credentials too she's got the mfa from the rhode island school of design she has a master's degree from the mit media lab she's truly an exceptional person she's on track to be a superstar with exhibitions uh invitations all over the world so she has the traditional credentials the resume it looks great but why did she walk away from the job that all of my students want when i think about her contribution when i think about her portfolio of work i think about three things the work itself is about the future and i think that comes with it what i would call integrity i think that maybe she couldn't produce the kind of work she wanted to while working in silicon valley what i mean by integrity you might think about people as a futurist or someone interested in the future as sophia bruckner is and you might think of them as i don't know maybe even a shill for tech corporations or an advertisement but work about the future is fundamentally about political criticism that might not be what you think of but let's think about the word utopia you might not know the origins of the word but the word itself just means an imaginary future where everything is perfect it was coined in the 1500s by sir thomas moore and he was writing a book that he wanted to be political commentary and he wanted to be political criticism and he was afraid that the king would put him to death and so he somehow invented the idea of speculative futures and coined the word utopia which in greek means nowhere because he wanted to make it clear that he wasn't really doing political criticism but we all know now that he was he was imagining a future that could be he was imagining a future and whenever you imagine a future whenever you say this is how things might be better it you can't help but criticize the president you're saying that there's something wrong now uh whether it's explicit or not utopian work is political criticism and sir thomas moore knew it too he was eventually put to death his gambit only worked for a few years the second word the first word integrity the second word depth when i think about sophia's work i think about depth because she's an artist who engages with technology and a lot of artists do that and i'm not saying that somehow you have to be a technological expert to produce good art i think that that's not the case but there is something about having a deep engagement with the technical that produces different kinds of work sophia has a bachelor's degree in computer science i already emphasize that she worked as a software engineer at google when she comes to the work i think that it's clearer than it is with other artists working in the area that there's some knowledge about what goes into something like an algorithm or machine learning so i think this depth is something that makes the portfolio better so it's about the future but from someone who might know something about the technologies of the future that that you don't know the third word i think of when i think of sophia's work after depth would be scale and that's because the depth that i mentioned before as a as a compliment could also be considered a negative sometimes people get too excited about the technical and you see work that is a kind of kitchen sink approach where everything has to go in because they learned how to do it and that's not what i see when i think of sofia bruckner the work is brilliant in part it succeeds because it has a kind of it has an intervention that it intends to make it it makes it it succeeds and it partly does so because it's spare it's it's focused it's pointed i think one of the reasons the work achieves that is another facet of her background and that's that you may have heard there's all kinds of phrases that have the word art in them and they also have the word as so you've heard of art as research maybe or art as education and there's also attempts to combine art with other things or to shift kind of between art and design so people who at one time might have called themselves artists sometimes now think of themselves as designers maybe they even think of themselves as design scientists i think all of these areas have valuable contributions to make and sophia has dabbled in these via collaborations and other means but i think the thing that i really love about her work that sets it apart is the sensibility of an artist and that the sensibility is the kind that leads sophia to stare at something for hours or days and to just say i've got to get the sky right i just have to get this guy right and what is it that makes the sky right how do you verbalize what it means for this guy to be right you can't maybe it's about the craft it's about the practice the sky just has to be right and it's this sensibility that i think comes from sophia as an artist that also sets her apart from other work that might be about technology or it might be about the future but i think it's this artist sensibility that gives the work the scale that's kind of appropriate for the intervention that is being made to conclude i mean as a kind of an exercise to set myself i tried to think what do i think of uh when i think of sophia's work i had a thought experiment and one of the things that always comes to mind when i think of sophia's portfolio about technology the future i think about donna haraway donna haraway a noted scholar of science and technology studies also a biologist famous for commenting on the future and technology but also a sort of an essential figure in feminist theory and donna haraway wrote that paraphrasing that in in thinking about the relationship between humans and machines it's impossible to say who is shaping and who is shaped and i think that's also a central question that sophia is asking in this work it's about the technologies that we produce and that produce us thank you back in the mid auts i graduated from brown with a double major in applied math and computer science i just got my first job on the other side of the country as a software engineer in the bay area i loved computer science and algorithms because it was such a creative medium i was excited to apply what i learned at school in the real world for the first time the company that hired me was not very well known back then that company's name was google back then it was actually pretty small and i remember my parents were actually pretty mad at me for taking a job there instead of somewhere more reputable like microsoft but i thought i would get to do more interesting stuff there and i turned out to be right about that google was only a few thousand employees when it started and it grew very very fast that meant as a young engineer i got to work on important things that were used by tens of millions of people per day i'm not sure how many of you remember a time before smartphones but back then there were no smartphones we had those old-fashioned clamshell phones and so of course there were no smartphone apps but there were apps people had home pages that they customized with apps similar to the ones that you have on your phone now and that is what i worked on i became one of the biggest homepage app developers in the world the apps i designed and built had several million users each the other thing about working at google when it was smaller was that we didn't have a huge team of people handling customer support and users wrote all of their emails about my apps to me directly this isn't something most engineers at big companies get to experience and it changed me forever when i added some new useful feature i would get hundreds thousands of effusive emails from delighted users thanking me it was an amazing feeling to have this sort of positive impact on so many people but sometimes i'd be asked to do something that i knew wasn't going to go over well i got those emails too and while i knew that our users weren't going to like it i was caught off guard by the intensity of their emotion the users acted like we had betrayed them and i would say that they even felt violated by the changes we wanted people to put all of their information both personal and work related in one place and they did they had structured their lives around our product and my changes were affecting the personal and work lives of millions of people on a granular daily level this was an extremely humbling experience and i learned another extremely important thing at google that when you launch something it is nearly impossible to undo it once the infrastructure is there and you have users usually all you can do is add new features and not make any big changes to how things work so we see the implications of this everywhere now and i'm grateful that it is finally part of the mainstream conversation to discuss problems with how social media is structured online advertising data privacy and many others but changing how these technologies fundamentally work now that they are already so popular is really risky for a company so risky that it seems impossible so i ask could we have avoided this could these negative consequences have been prevented or mitigated this lack of foresight not only hurts people it is also bad for businesses many of my students are hoping to go into these industries and some of you watching might be designing new technologies yourselves how much time have you spent considering what might happen when your ideas scale up these days when imagining the future of technology i see an unhealthy inclination to cling to one of two extreme views at one extreme i see an attitude of blind optimism for how technology is the perfect solution to every problem at the opposite extreme i see an attitude of unconstructive pessimism where people can only see how technology is ruining everything and they struggle to come up with alternatives a good example of this type of binary thinking was in this new yorker article written last year about silicon valley executives who are doomsday preppers meaning they are literally preparing for the world to fall apart these are the same people who are building the technologies that govern our lives and they sincerely believe that the world might end there was a very striking quote in this article my current state of mind is oscillating between optimism and sheer terror not only do i see people in industry either clinging to or oscillating between these extremes i see it in the world of research and art i see it in my students and i see it in the attitudes of average consumers neither of these extreme attitudes prevented the negative consequences that we see in today's technologies instead we need a different attitude instead of clinging to or oscillating between these extremes i believe we need to cultivate what i would call a critically optimistic approach a more balanced approach of earnestly proposing ideas but not without the healthy dose of criticality needed to prevent or mitigate their misuse so you're hopefully and constructively trying to build something but you are also able to critique its weaknesses and consider where it might go wrong my intention is to cultivate a critically optimistic attitude to be hopeful with a sensitivity to the possible consequences so that you can deliberately shape the future instead of just letting it happen to you and all the others who might be affected by your choices i'm going to tell you more about my personal story because i too was guilty of this exact sort of black and white thinking until i was forced to change i will talk about science fiction as a way to learn extrapolative thinking how to think about scale and consequences and i'm going to talk to you about my projects i will show you how i exemplify this way of thinking through my prototypes and artwork by the time i'm done i hope you are thinking about each small design choice you make much more carefully with an eye towards the future so a little bit more about me i got my first computer when i was two you can see me here with my commodore 64 and i've been inseparable from computers ever since my unconventional life path has traversed engineering art and design but through it all my relationship with technology has been more intense than most i spent five years in silicon valley working as an engineer but i eventually returned to graduate school to study art and design i wanted to be the person who envisioned future technologies rather than be the person who implemented the visions of others i then spent seven years reflecting on technology as an artist and designer first at the rhode island school of design and then at the mit media lab so while i was at risd i decided to paint all of my computers for memory this is a painting of my commodore 64 the computer that i got when i was two years old this was my dell dimension pentium 2 one of my grade school computers which i also painted from memory and so as i painted these i started to notice something really funny about the way i was painting them the paintings looked uncannily like this if you are old enough or nerdy enough you might recognize these as screenshots from the different rooms in maniac mansion which is a classic adventure game from 1987. now having gotten my first computer when i was two i spent quite a bit of time playing games like these my paintings looked like these games with a strange use of perspective an unusual level of detail to weird things like vents and windows and i think i abstracted the views from the windows because the views from the windows in those games were already very always very abstract but they were abstract in those games because the pixels were huge back then there was no reason i had to do this so all these characteristics of how physical spaces were represented in these old games were showing up in the way i remembered the physical spaces around my childhood computers we are all cyborgs but most people just don't realize it when i made these paintings i saw clearly that i was a cyborg i could not disentangle who i was from the technology that shaped me think about all the technologies that you grew up with and all the ones that you use now how have they shaped you so while i was at risd i was still in my very optimistic phase and all of my work there reflected my enthusiasm and love for technology like in this piece where i sang my c plus code aloud to my computer i'm just going to play a little clip for you it's actually an hour long double quotes [Music] close paren semicolon [Music] fluent in the available programming that you can just express your intentions as code without having to translate them it feels like the code is just flowing from your fingertips however to achieve this in the zone state you have to adapt yourself to the interface and give up some of your humanness you have to make yourself think like a computer in this state you can only think what the programming language allows and this doesn't just happen with programming which is actually a very special type of interface more generally user experience designers strive for this in their designs they want you to only be aware of what you are trying to do and to forget that the interface exists and the result of that is that you become unaware of how the interface is shaping you in this artwork i wrote a generative c plus program that sings its own code by mapping it to sound i wanted to convey to a wider audience that for programmers code is almost poetic i carefully mapped the aesthetics of code to sounds i recorded using the built-in microphone on my computer my imac was my instrument i mapped things like good use of white space line length and punctuation all things that programmers really obsess over to melody and rhythm and this is what those mappings produced um so here i'm just gonna play a one-minute clip [Music] as i improved the code and it became more elegant the resulting music got better and better there were times i wanted to stop because the sound was so good but i had to trust that the mappings i chose would mean that the more beautiful the code the more beautiful the sound and that is what happened so this pit this piece was the pinnacle of my love affair for technology and it exemplified how i thought programming was just so beautiful and sometimes when i show this work computer scientists are so moved they come up to me and hug me and thank me because this is how they feel about their own code too but the good times didn't last and my relationship with technology went bad like many i hurt my wrists very badly by using the computer too much i could barely use a computer for two entire years this was during grad school so it was really quite horrible so i was unable to type at this time and i was forced to use dragon dictate a popular speech recognition program to interact with my computer so speech recognition is much improved now with things like siri and alexa but this was the best available at the time and the best was not good at all so working through this software interrupted the seamless nearly ecstatic relationship i had with computers and at one point i spent an hour attempting to type only a few sentences with this software and extremely frustrated i actually cried while the speech recognition software was still running this text is the result of dragon dictates interpretation of my crying i used the mac osx screen reader to read the text aloud resulting in this uncanny sadly funny poem in the event will will him him him him him him him him him him him him him him him and him and him and him and him and him and him will will will will will will will will will will will will will him and him and him and him and him system will you who are of will and the will and will thee the and endure it will go a little i will this was a turning point in my relationship to technology it was like i went from seeing the world through sparkly clean invisible glass to glass that was so filthy that all you can focus on is the dirt technology once seduced me into feelings of god-like super human empowerment but i became painfully aware of its controlling interfaces shaping my thoughts and behavior i wondered how interfaces could be designed more ethically and positively and this type of questioning has become central to both my creative work and teaching i use science fiction speculative design and futurist studies to promote an ethical and extrapolative design process for building a preferred future the deliberate exploration of what kind of futures are possible which ones are probable and most importantly which futures are preferred provides a framework to critique current technologies and to choose which possibilities we might want to prototype and test for several years at risd mit brown and now the university of michigan i have been teaching a class called sci-fi prototyping to encourage ethical thinking and technology and i've also facilitated numerous science fiction workshops all over the world specifically in my class students build functional prototypes inspired by science fiction novels short stories and films students learn to thoughtfully critique current technological and societal trends and how to extrapolate them into the future i'm going to show you a tiny sample of the projects that my students have done a human computer interaction designer an industrial designer and a jewelry designer collaborated to make sensory fiction a functional prototype inspired by the sci-fi short story the girl who was plugged in by james tiptree jr they created a book that knows where you are in the story the book communicates with a vest that creates physical sensations on your body to go along with the story so this could be heat cold vibration or compression this project demonstrates the possibility of a new creative medium where language is combined with physical sensations evan malouf one of my students here at stamps considered current trends in climate change and speculated about a future world where clean water is extremely scarce he built a functional prototype of platform shoes that filter puddle water as you walk [Music] [Music] so [Music] my sci-fi students aren't all from heavily technical backgrounds alex eason a book artist made a physical ebook using augmented reality this circular book has augmented reality markers on each page which are replaced with the pages from whatever ebook you are currently reading so you can read ebooks but still have the experience of a beautifully crafted physical book where you can turn physical pages endlessly my favorite sci-fi author ursula k le guin said that science fiction is not prescriptive it is descriptive because sci-fi stories most often speculate on what people are currently fascinated with or worried about science fiction authors examine current trends in technology in society and they imagine possible futures both good and bad if those trends continue unchecked another famous science fiction author frederick pohl said that a good sci-fi story predicts not just the automobile but also the traffic jam and maybe the car crash which reminds me of this notorious example when automotive companies first put cloud technologies into cars hackers immediately were able to take control of the car through the cloud and drive it off the road if you looked at trends in web security and just applied a little bit of extrapolative thinking you could have prevented this so this lack of consideration is dangerous for users and in this incident wasted company resources and undermined trust in their brand so if we can learn a little bit of the extrapolative way of thinking that sci-fi authors are so great at it can give us insight into the repercussions of what happens when our technologies scale so taking a moment to think about scale what happens when people go from checking social media a few times a day like when facebook was first created to hundreds of times a day which is where we are now how does life change when you're receiving hundreds of notifications per day from various online services do you become like a robot just responding to instructions coming at you from afar and is this really helping you be more efficient what you're seeing on the screen now is a still from the science fiction tv show black mirror this particular episode focused on a dystopian near future where everything is just consumed by star ratings and toxic social media the episode itself is horrifying but what was even more horrifying for me is that i have undergraduate students who watch this episode and genuinely believed that this future was inevitable like that we could not avoid this horrible dystopian future um i used to think that my undergraduates would be the naively optimistic ones but now i realize i must teach my students how to critique as well as give them a sense of hope and agency what happens with quantified self technologies which track your personal performance through sensors like the fitbit for example are no longer something that you choose to use but they are instead required of you by your work school or even the government this is something i've already started to see and it is especially relevant right now during the pandemic where we are considering different forms of contact tracing technologies what happens when one of your five senses like your site is completely mediated through the interface of one single technology this is the ultimate vision of augmented and mixed reality and what if what is driving all of these technologies is entirely profiting off of the collection of personal data in order to keep your attention on ads i'm part of a very interdisciplinary artist collective called the utopia swim club and we investigate black box algorithms that govern our lives as part of my work with utopia swim club i collected all of the advertising categories facebook has algorithmically assigned to me so i took these categories which are supposed to represent me and i reordered them into this strikingly gendered timeline that reads time woman infant child adolescence cohabitation career motherhood family flatline this is just a glimpse of the types of algorithmic categorizations being made about me by the many technologies that i cannot avoid imagine how all these technologies and their algorithms are assigning categories to you and curating your online experiences in ways that you cannot see or change these are the questions we must ask ourselves before we even start making an idea reality because as i said earlier once an underlying architecture of a technology is established it becomes extremely difficult expensive and risky for a company to change it the creators of science fiction are exceptionally good at imagining these possibilities and because of this i'd like i like to say that reading science fiction is like ethics class for inventors so we see the need to be able to speculate on what happens to technologies as they scale up but what kind of speculative thinking is required it is here that that people have this tendency to fall into two extremes just as i once did when i first could only see the good in technology and then once i got injured i could only see the bad it is true that all of these new advances in technology are incredibly exciting and inspire hope that we can make the world better but there's a tendency to forget that technology can go wrong or be used for evil or we might forget to ask if a new technology is needed at all this kind of blind optimism is sometimes called techno-solutionism which is the idea that all problems can be solved with technology to put that a little more simply if you have a hammer in your hand everything starts to look like a nail if you're a mobile app developer it starts to seem like every problem can be solved with a mobile app there's this prevailing attitude that the more technology the more data you collect and the smarter you make your objects that all of this will lead to more objective truths and a better and more efficient world and if you can't if you're not already thinking about how that could go wrong i beg you to read more science fiction on the other hand for many there's a real fear that we're going to be consumed by rapidly evolving technologies that are out of our control the danger in this is becoming so negative that you no longer can see the alternatives i see this other extreme often manifest itself as unconstructive cynicism or sometimes it can be a paralyzing sort of perfectionism so if a person knows they can't build something perfect they just don't do anything and sometimes people try to avoid technology altogether which is completely unrealistic because of my experiences i can see both sides i too am seduced i too am skeptical interacting with technology is a cultural necessity and our enmeshment with it is an inevitability looking towards the future are we focusing on the potential horrors or are we seeking the hopeful possibilities this is not an either or situation we need more people who can operate between these two extremes people who embody critical optimism we need people who have enough hope to envision the possibilities for what can be built but who also have a healthy dose of criticality such that they can see where their technologies might go wrong and attempt to either prevent or mitigate the negative consequences i sometimes say that instead of black and white thinking we need more medium to light grey thinking so where are you on the spectrum from black to white and are you where you want to be before she passed away ursula kayla gwen said we need leaders who can see alternatives to how we live now can see through our fierce stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being and even imagine real grounds for hope through my own projects i critique and prototype alternatives to the tech industry's limited visions for how we live with technology i ask who is in power and who is vulnerable who is in the know and who is in the dark how are our repeated interactions with technologies shaping our perceptions of ourselves and the people and the world around us and most importantly i ask can we do things differently i'm going to illustrate this with three of my projects the first of which is the embodysuit donna haraway the scholar who famously wrote the cyborg manifesto wrote that technology is not neutral where inside of what we make and it's inside of us we're living in a world of connections and it matters which ones get made and unmade technology has allowed us to connect anything with almost anything but many of these connections are arbitrary or even exploitative what constitutes a meaningful mapping if you could connect anything with almost anything thinking about this i collaborated with fashion designer rachel freyr to create the embodysuit the embodysuit maps streams of data from the cloud to custom circuit boards that snap into your clothing to create physical sensations on the skin this project is a reaction to the increasingly popular quantified self trend which includes things like the fitbit where these technologies track your personal information for self-improvement all of these technologies harvest data from the wearer and send it elsewhere an ads-driven business model skews the design of technology towards capturing your attention and collecting only certain types of data that can be used to improve the targeting of ads this is why we mostly see wearable technologies that collect data through sensors on the body in contrast the embodysuit allows the wearer to experience data through the skin instead one thing that shocks me when i show this project is how many times i have to assure people that there are no sensors on the garment when people see electronics on the body they only think of sensors and they have trouble wrapping their mind around anything else this demonstrates how powerful and important a single prototype can be to changing what people see is possible this diagram shows how the wearer programs the suit to map information from the cloud to the modules creating physical sensations on the skin these data streams can be related to people places things or other more abstract data it is entirely up to the where what information is valuable to them on the bottom of the modules are different haptic actuators so those are things that produce physical sensations to create a gentle buzz or heat or cold you can make other modules as long as they have the same shape an android app controls the modules via bluetooth these sensations can be constant or infrequent subtle or jarring singular or grouped and they are entirely configurable by the wearer for both practical and poetic purposes the embodysuit allows knowledge to be experienced ambiently without necessitating the interpretation of symbols by the conscious mind what i mean by that is that your mind doesn't consciously have to translate numbers into what they mean or icons or words into what they represent you feel a physical sensation on your skin and you your mind immediately understands what it means a practical example is that you might program the embodysuit to give you a gentle buzz on your wrist 15 minutes before it rains this gives you a gut feeling that it's about to rain much like how someone with an old injury might feel an ache when the pressure changes i think of this as using technology to program a particular intuition into your body a more poetic example imagine that the sun shines in a place important to you from your childhood and you feel the modules across your shoulders get warm the bodysuit ambiently connects you with a physical location that is meaningful to you the suit empowers the wearer to reconfigure their boundaries with the people places and things that are important to them i like to think of the body as an envelope and the embodysuit allows you to blur the edges of that envelope these kinds of wearable technologies should help augment your awareness not be aware for you human computer interaction researchers holland stornetta wrote a famous paper about telepresence technologies called beyond being there this paper argued that we need to build technologies that improve your performance like running shoes but that do not become a crutch in the quantify itself data is harvested from you via sensors and then sent to be processed and monetized elsewhere with the supposed goal of maximizing your efficiency the embodysuit challenge is this the embodysuit proposes a way to take back control of the configuration of our boundaries and the trajectory of our cyborg evolution there are so many other possibilities for how we might incorporate technology into our bodies other than the quantified self model can we imagine a different future than what industry is presenting us with are we going to build crutches or are we going to build running shoes if you could do anything how would you configure your future cyborg self the empathy box and empathy amulet are earlier projects that inspired much of my current research they are devices that connect many people anonymously through the shared experience of warmth they challenge how existing social networks are designed so try to imagine a social network that doesn't use any names numbers or pictures that's what i was trying to go for here these projects were inspired by do android's dream of electric sheep by philip k dick which is the by the way the book blade runner is loosely based on in philip k dick's world the majority of people on earth moved to colonies far away and there were very few people left the people remaining were extremely isolated and they had these devices called empathy boxes to cope with that isolation when a person grabbed the handles of their empathy box they would be connected with all the other people holding the handles of their empathy boxes through both physical sensations and emotions this project and a lot of my other work have become disturbingly relevant during the coronavirus crisis philip k dick wrote an empathy box is the most personal possession you have it's an extension of your body it's the way you touch other humans it's the way you stop being alone what was really unique to me about his story was that this device connected the user with thousands of anonymous people at the same time way before social media philip k dick in the late 60s actually imagined a social network that worked completely differently than the social networks we have today inspired by his vision i designed an empathy box that connects strangers through the shared experience of physical warmth when multiple people hold the handles of their empathy boxes at the same time the handles pulse with warmth into the palms of the hand i also built a wearable version the empathy amulet that works asynchronously and more unconsciously which also uses shared warmth with the amulet you feel the warmth on your chest and it is also shared with strangers the empathy box has handles that are made of bronze with heaters inside i wanted the devices to look a little bit sci-fi but in a timeless way so i used metal and wood along with the electronics i see these existing in people's homes as well as in public spaces like lobbies and counseling centers for example the fronts of the empathy boxes are made from a reflective surface because i wanted the user to see a reflection of their chest overlaid with leds that represent their connection with others when one person grabs the handle of their empathy box the blue lights go on signaling that it is active simultaneously all the other empathy boxes begin to pulse with a soft white light at about the rate of slow breathing this is like a call to action for other people when one or more people join by grabbing the handles of their devices all the handles of the empathy boxes pulse with warmth together the empathy amulet is similar it is made from bronze and wood and it has a heater on the back so you feel the pulse of warmth against your chest like grabbing the handles of the empathy boxes to activate the amulet the wearer holds the ends of the amulet for a few moments of stillness and reflection on the fact that they are connected with strangers five leds on the top of the device light up one by one to mark the passage of time after a few minutes the amulet pulses with warmth this warmth is shared simultaneously with one other person in the network through their amulet because warmth is not a disruptive signal the receiver can choose to continue what they were currently doing or they can stop and decide to reciprocate by sending another signal out if the receiver doesn't reciprocate immediately this non-intrusive ambient feeling of warmth may encourage them to do so later i wanted the amulets to be like ripples in water where one person taking the time to reflect makes it more likely that another will do so and then another both devices incorporate reciprocity such that comforting or helping oneself means helping someone else both devices take time to activate and are deliberately slower experiences that encourage reflection and focused attention both of these devices take advantage of how warmth is associated with human connection but they do so in an abstract way without attempting to simulate face-to-face interaction these devices are not meant to replace a person's interactions with people in real life but to enhance feelings of empathy and connectedness with strangers in a way that is possible only through technology interfaces shape our thoughts our perceptions and our behavior knowing this instead of just avoiding harmful designs i ask could we intentionally use the power of interfaces to help people feel more empowered socially connected and resilient currently as an artist in residence at nokia bell labs i am building on these projects very much like the empathy box i am working on the warming wall which will anonymously connect incarcerated youth with people outside the detention center where they live instead of a social network with countless features this project asks what is needed to communicate just presence and generosity only presence and generosity recently my research trajectory has evolved to larger scale and longer term projects often with multiple partners across many disciplines like engineering medicine and biology every one of these projects can be traced back to one of my sci-fi inspired prototypes or artworks that served as a proof of concept i've shown these devices in many exhibitions both interactive and not and while these types of devices can always be shared in exhibitions it is not the ideal environment for people to encounter them in exhibition settings the user often becomes part of the spectacle and their interaction with the device is brief and divorced from the context of the user's life instead these devices are meant to be encount encountered in the context of people's lives and experienced over longer periods of time i'm really interested in what it means to be an artist who deploys working devices how can an artist do a meaningful investigation of what happens when their devices are incorporated into the messy context of people's lives this is what i'm working on now it's very hard requiring a lot of different skills from different disciplines so just a simple example i recently built a functional prototype and i incorporated it into my own domestic life my internet kill switch is made with a huge 14 inch antique knife switch it turns off both my cell phone service and internet service using this switch requires significant effort not all interactions with technology should be frictionless which has been one of the recent goals of user experience design some decision some decisions should be very deliberate and friction full here is my prototype as it collides with the reality of my life as you can see despite my constant critique of technology i really love technology but knowing technology's power over me i like making deliberate considered choices about how i incorporate it into my life this project is possible because i live in a 19th century farmhouse in a rural area where there is no cell or internet service without using a signal booster while technology is central to my work living this way allows me to reflect on my relationship with it from a distance being surrounded by the physical evidence of how ordinary people lived for the last 150 years gives me a palpable sense of time when i think about the future so i've talked to you a lot about science fiction and prototyping but now i'm going to switch gears and i'm going to talk to you about romance novels so how did i go from science fiction to romance i actually kept this project a secret for a long time because it seemed so random but it turned out to not be random at all i've read a lot of science fiction from a young age and i still read a lot of science fiction for work this had the unintended result of all of my dreams taking place in terrifying science fiction dystopias i am not at all exaggerating and it makes it really hard to sleep um so i thought i might be able to undo the damage i did to my brain by reading some huge quantity of some other genre of books that is happier and less disturbing and after i thought about it a lot i concluded that only the romance genre is safe so i found all these top 100 romance novel lists on places like goodreads and npr and i read hundreds of romance novels um so i just start at the top of the list and go down the list so obviously this is kind of embarrassing so i read them on my kindle so because i didn't want people to know what i was doing i went into this with the same preconceptions about the romance genre that i'm sure many of you have i thought they were trashy cheesy shallow and so on but i was really surprised by what i discovered when i started to read these things in bulk in my case hundreds uh hundreds of them at a time if you have a kindle you probably have the kindle popular highlights feature turned on by default as you read you see the passages that most people highlighted underlined along with the number of people who highlighted them so as i worked my way through these top 100 lists of romance novels on my kindle i was very surprised by the highlights the trick was forgetting about what she had lost and learning to go on with what she had left so this was highlighted by 378 people readers were not highlighting shallow things they were not highlighting the sexy stuff i expected based on my preconceptions of this genre predominantly readers were highlighting passages that reflected their extreme grief loneliness and discontent with their lives i have been collecting these highlights for 10 years and when i look at them in aggregate it is both striking and heartbreaking for example 695 people highlighted loneliness could sometimes wrap itself around you so tightly you could barely breathe this was the number of highlighters at the time i saved it into my database and has gone up since then because people tend to re-highlight popular highlights in agreement the results of kindle's popular highlight algorithm are not permanent they change based on reader's interactions with the book and developers adjustments to the algorithm so i've seen some really beautiful highlights disappear since kindle was launched because amazon raised the threshold for what counts as a popular highlight in this work i memorialized these highlights onto porcelain commemorative plates the history of commemorative plates in the united states has parallels with the recent tech and housing booms and the subsequent great recession collecting plates was really popular in the 1970s and 80s in the united states a 1972 new york times article titled decorative plates not fine art but they're as good as gold featured people who amassed large collections of plates as a long-term investment the plate bubble burst in the 1980s and today these plates are worth a fraction of their original price the article also touches on the emotions involved in collecting these plates many of these plates feature sentimental imagery of america's past the article ends with a merchant saying what collecting does for people is to involve them in the process give them a connection to life there are a lot of lonely people in this country and collecting is one way out of their problems this wistfulness for an idealized past can also be seen in romance novels which are often not just about romantic love but also feature idyllic small towns close-knit communities and neighborly neighbors readers loneliness is readily discernible and romance novels kindle popular highlights and my commemorative plates capture singular moments in the evolution of amazon's kindle popular highlight algorithm i pair each highlight with a hybrid landscape which i create by running photoshop's photo merge algorithm on scanned romance novel covers photo merge is intended to stitch together photos into panoramas so here the algorithm is finding similarities in the covers and stitching them together there are currently 16 plates in the series and i'm just going to share a few of them with you today this plate says all she wanted was to matter to be more than an opportunity that's all joy was as fleeting as a shooting star that crossed the evening sky ready to blink out at any moment life continues to move forward and so have i her scars were not thistles they were velvet artwork on her heart defiant in the face of time fate death destiny is it truly so unfathomable that an imperfect girl might be perfectly loved she felt her aloneness all the way to the bone she was alone in a way she'd never before imagined as solitary as if she were an astronaut come untethered from the mothership drifting unnoticed in an emptiness so vast it was beyond comprehension so it amazes me with all of the social networks we have all of the social technologies that so many people still feel this intensely lonely though you may call me a dreamer or a fool or any other thing i believe that anything is possible one whisper added to a thousand others will become a roar of discontent when a reader highlights a kindle popular highlight they are saying yes i agree and they can take comfort in knowing that they are one of many feeling how they feel this multi-year ongoing project incorporates the content of hundreds of different romance novels and currently over 80 000 individual acts of highlighting i am always adding more so i realize that this project isn't random at all it's actually an existing example of an alternative social network that works completely differently than facebook or twitter so i'm very critical of the current state of social media but this glimpse of an unintentional positive anonymous social network emerging through this minor kindle feature gives me hope in this project i draw people's attention to an existing example of collective social support and sharing to change our vision for the future of social interfaces in addition to collecting popular highlights i have another weird collection for nearly 10 years i also have been downloading youtube's videos of the sky by using the words sky and clouds translated into many languages to date i have collected hundreds of these videos so all over the world people seem to be captivated by the sky they record it with their smartphones or they make time lapses and sometimes these videos are created to be used for meditation or during prayer or church sometimes i think people just want to share the beauty that they see in the world with others and then they add music often attempting to express how they feel when they look at the sky they upload these videos in this generous act of sharing youtube is a platform that is notorious for its toxic culture but when you look at these sky videos there are no mean comments they're all just giving each other compliments and saying thank you and making polite requests to use the videos themselves the original poster often says thank you for the compliments and thanks people for reaching out for permission and says yes and often the original poster also is eager to see what people make with their clouds there seems to be only kindness and generosity so during this pandemic it seems there's a real sense of hopelessness and isolation and so i decided that this was the right time to do something with this collection i wrote a c-plus plus program an opengl shader to combine these sky videos i actually just finished this yesterday so you are seeing a brand new work when this program runs it generates a collective sky synthesized from the skies captured by people all over the world the accompanying generative soundtrack is algorithmically composed from the original soundtracks of the videos that you were seeing blended on the screen so i'm just going to play a minute of [Music] this [Music] do [Music] [Music] ah this work can run forever never producing exactly the same visuals or sound the structure of the algorithmically generated visualization and soundtrack reflects the structure of the asynchronous online interaction between strangers engaged in this generous act of sky sharing this is another example of a simple and beautiful social network created through the sky and clouds noticing these glimpses where technology facilitates beautiful interactions that wouldn't happen otherwise is hopeful and optimistic during this unprecedented time of social distancing we nevertheless still live under one sky both together and apart so here are the questions i hope you ask yourself do i tend to be more utopian or more dystopian and why is that am i where i want to be on this spectrum how can i cultivate a more critically optimistic attitude when thinking about the future of technology can i be more sensitive to noticing both positive and negative technological trends when i am designing something no matter how small how can i consider what might happen when it scales up to avoid negative consequences should i choose one design over another can my design be changed slightly to mitigate possible bad effects and finally knowing that people tend to be very utopian or very dystopian with no in-between that they struggle to think about scale how can my work change what people believe is possible i want you to remember that there are many futures possible don't just think about what future is probable i want you to think beyond that and instead focus on which future is preferred thank you very much here uh

2021-03-05 04:56

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