Beyond phones and drones: critical design and digital technology


A small, but dedicated, constellation of designers and artists, who have long been surfing the outer reaches of speculative design and digital technology, are increasingly being courted by the mainstream. We investigate the distinctions and overlaps between critical, tech-infused design and art, the problems in securing funding for such projects, and ask what impact they might have on the wider world.


Blueprint

By Veronica Simpson

As we slip inexorably into a world that will soon become un-navigable without multiple digital interfaces, there is a real and vital role for designers and artists whose work deepens the interrogation of how, when and why we use technology and -- more to the point -- how, when and why it uses us.

A surveillance 'hand grenade' that 'explodes' all the covert and overt information within a local radius; an app that monitors the internal bacterial landscape of sheep to help farmers keep their flock healthy; 'Amphibious Architecture' that allows you to communicate with fish while monitoring water pollution. All of these objects fall within the field of critical design, design fiction and speculative design. And never has the world of technological interactivity and data-mining needed this investigation as much as now.

In March, Anab Jain, the charismatic co-founder of collaborative design practice Superflux, gave a chilling presentation at the Future Everything festival on the 'valley of the meatpuppets'. A 'meatpuppet' is someone who is invited to an internet discussion solely to influence it. She said: 'I would like to use this word to think about ways in which we are all being co-opted into becoming meatpuppets in our everyday life, as we farm data like livestock on Facebook or walk around wearing awkward gadgets. We sit alongside thingbots, actors, agents and advertising zombies, helping create and propagate memes, spreading and reinforcing the reality bubble.'

Jain is a graduate of the RCA's Interactions Design MA -- the course, along with its more recent broader-spectrum version, Design Interactions, that has kick-started the careers of many of our brightest and best critical-design-tech practices. Jain burst onto the lecture circuit in 2012 with her Design for the New Normal talk at the Global Design Forum. A rapid-fire journey through the ways in which digital technology is changing the design landscape for ever, it seemed to be espousing the joys of limitless digital potential, including the printing of 3D guns.

'These days,' she says, 'I'm more excited about people who build things that previously would have required the help of large corporations. This year I'm talking about how things influence design, looking at some of the innovators who create this technology, asking what are their connections with the ways we make choices and the way we view the world.'

Superflux’s 5th Dimensional Camera is a fictional device capable of capturing glimpses of parallel universes
Superflux's 5th Dimensional Camera is a fictional device capable of capturing glimpses of parallel universes

You would think her meatpuppet monologue would make commercial clients run a mile, but Superflux has never been so much in demand. Jain says she has turned down at least 35 speaking engagements in the last six months. What's more, Jain and her Superflux co-creators have been approached by a curious range of would-be collaborators and sponsors, including children's charities and financial companies. Says Jain: 'We were recently approached by Suncorp Insurance in Australia. What they are interested in is learning how people use new technology. How people perceive risk.'

Jeremijenko’s 16 tall buoys on route to the East River.
Jeremijenko's 16 tall buoys on route to the East River

Conflicts can arise, however, when Superflux's criticaldesign agenda clashes with a client's desire for self-promotion. Take, for example, the recently shelved Drones Aviary project with Swarovski. Superflux had been commissioned by the London Design Festival (LDF) to create some drones that would fly above the courtyard at the V&A during the September festival this year, observing people and revealing their own footage, in turn. Swarovski, sensing the potential publicity to be gained by teaming up with such a radical and hip, young, design and digital-technology consultancy, wanted to get on board. Though Jain is tactful about their eventual disagreement, reading between the lines it seems like Swarovski was determined that the project would be about crystal and its properties, pushing the original aims and ambitions for the drones to one side. Superflux walked away -- an admirably principled step for a small design practice.

Julian Oliver’s The Transparency Grenade, equipped with a tiny computer, can capture all the network traffic and voice recordings around the device at any one time
Julian Oliver's The Transparency Grenade, equipped with a tiny computer, can capture all the network traffic and voice recordings around the device at any one time

Jain admits there has to be a balance of pragmatism with ambition: 'The bottom line for us is we are in a practice to do interesting work that pushes everyone's creative thinking, whether that's a road map or a story or product.'

United Micro Kingdoms by Dunne & Raby imagined a fictional future for the UK Photo Credit: Luke Hayes: Design Museum
United Micro Kingdoms by Dunne & Raby imagined a fictional future for the UK Photo Credit: Luke Hayes: Design Museum

For those who wish to push a more unashamedly radical agenda, it's easier perhaps if you call yourself an artist. But even then, digitally inspired art ventures that question our interactive environments can all too easily become glittering PR baubles for the money-men, as New York artist Natalie Jeremijenko recently discovered. In 2009 her Amphibious Architecture project, devised with architect David Benjamin, comprised a temporary installation of 16 tall buoys dropped into the East River just north of the Manhattan Bridge. A miniature skyline bobbing in the water, the buoys contained submersible sensors which monitored water quality, as well as LEDs that flashed when fish swam past. Viewers on land could 'communicate' with the fish via an SMS number, and the fish then 'responded' with their own messages, discussing what kind of aquatic company they were keeping along with the dissolved oxygen levels. Her aim?

The exhibition proposed a continually moving, nuclear-powered mobile landscape. Photo Credit: Luke Hayes: Design Museum
The exhibition proposed a continually moving, nuclear-powered mobile landscape. Photo Credit: Luke Hayes: Design Museum

To highlight 'what's under this pretty, reflective surface that enhances real-estate value, but is actually a diverse, teeming habitat.' In 2013, Amphibious Architecture returned to the East River as a permanent installation with 100 buoys, effectively endorsing a megabucks development with the glamour of an interactive artwork.

Is this a sell out? Or, is it a pragmatic way of embracing an even bigger platform for the debate about water quality, environmental degradation and development? There's little danger of Berlin-based Julian Oliver being thus compromised. Calling himself a 'critical engineer and artist', Oliver's work is about producing beautifully designed objects or interfaces that highlight or subvert the effects of secrecy, surveillance and the propagation of agendas via online media (hence the Transparency Grenade, mentioned earlier, which explodes all the available online and ambient information in a space, though Oliver is keen to emphasise that this is a 'conversation starter', rather than an actual product). He recently told RhiZome magazine: 'If there's ever a time to be doing this, it's now, especially with opaque and hidden infrastructure in the telecommunications space deeply impacting on diplomatic relations and civil liberties worldwide.'

Metahaven’s forthcoming book is Black Transparency: The Right to Know in The Age of Mass Surveillance, which sets out on a starry night journey with transparency activists and legal scholars
Metahaven's forthcoming book is Black Transparency: The Right to Know in The Age of Mass Surveillance, which sets out on a starry night journey with transparency activists and legal scholars

Anthony Dunne, founder of both the original Interaction Design and now Design Interaction MA at the Royal College of Art, however has made it very clear in the past that the kind of critical tech and science-infused design he espouses is not art.

An enlightening Q&A hosted on the website for his own practice Dunne & Raby (run together with fellow critical designer and RCA collleague Fiona Raby), states: 'It might borrow heavily from art in terms of methods and approaches, but that's it. We expect art to be shocking and extreme. Critical design needs to be closer to the everyday, that's where its power to disturb comes from. Too weird and it will be dismissed as art, too normal and it will be effortlessly assimilated. If it is regarded as art it is easier to deal with, but if it remains as design it is more disturbing. It suggests that the everyday as we know it could be different, that things could change.'

Metahaven’s forthcoming book is Black Transparency: The Right to Know in The Age of Mass Surveillance, which sets out on a starry night journey with transparency activists and legal scholars
Metahaven's forthcoming book is Black Transparency: The Right to Know in The Age of Mass Surveillance, which sets out on a starry night journey with transparency activists and legal scholars

Nowadays, he feels the boundaries between design and art in this discipline have become fuzzier. 'I think design is broadening its remit,' he says. 'In the past we might have focused on coming up with new product ideas. As we have got more involved, we have realised there are much deeper issues at stake. Speaking from Fiona's and my perspective you naturally want to question those. That's a role that many artists would take on quite naturally. The subject now is so specialised... there's a lot of overlap.'

Metahaven’s forthcoming book is Black Transparency: The Right to Know in The Age of Mass Surveillance, which sets out on a starry night journey with transparency activists and legal scholars
Metahaven's forthcoming book is Black Transparency: The Right to Know in The Age of Mass Surveillance, which sets out on a starry night journey with transparency activists and legal scholars

Certainly, the role of artist gives practitioners more freedom -- not to mention a different source of funding. Notwithstanding strange queries from insurance companies and charities, how do these critical-digital designers make a living? I put the question to Dunne: 'Funding is a big issue. That's because it's a very new role for design. The kind of funding mechanisms aren't really in place yet. There's a wide range of possibilities, such as research council funding. But that falls more within the research context and has to be discussed and framed in those terms. The Wellcome Trust funds very interesting work that crosses over to that space. There are festivals which commission this kind of work. Also industry, and the more enlightened people within research labs, commission work to push forward their thinking rather than as a PR-type relationship.'

Superflux designed a wearable badge that flags up potentially ‘alarming’ words in emails and internet pages
Superflux designed a wearable badge that flags up potentially 'alarming' words in emails and internet pages

He agrees that interest in, and possible applications for, critical tech-focused design are expanding: 'Ten years ago, it was extremely hard to see how people could fund this work. I'm amazed every year at the graduates flowing out of our course and into the world and finding ways to generate funds, find commissions. It's definitely an upward trend. But there's a long way to go before it's mainstream.'And what of the impact that any of these mad, bad and sometimes dangerous (in a good way) projects might have on the wider world? Says Dunne: 'For me it's more about opening designers' minds to a broader range of possiblities about design.'

Transparency Grenade is a cure for anyone frustrated by the lack of corporate and governmental transparency
Transparency Grenade is a cure for anyone frustrated by the lack of corporate and governmental transparency

But maybe all of this is a giant, meaningless distraction, as Benjamin H Bratton suggested in his provocative TEDx talk in December 2013. Bratton, Professor of Visual Arts at MFA San Diego, suggests that endless tech-design fictions and speculations are a way of avoiding doing anything constructive with the incredibly complex issues facing society as the pace of technological change accelerates.

United Micro Kingdoms, commissioned by London’s Design Museum, sees England devolved into four self-contained counties, each free to experiment with governance, economy and lifestyle. Digiland, for example, depends on digital technology. Photo Credit: Luke Hayes: Design Museum
United Micro Kingdoms, commissioned by London's Design Museum, sees England devolved into four self-contained counties, each free to experiment with governance, economy and lifestyle. Digiland, for example, depends on digital technology. Photo Credit: Luke Hayes: Design Museum

He stated: 'Phones, drones and genomes -- that's what we do here in San Diego... The potential of these technologies is both wonderful and horrifying at the same time. To guide them towards a good future, design as innovation isn't strong enough as an idea in itself. We need to talk about design as immunisation. Design as a way of preventing things we don't want from happening.'

Dunne would beg to differ. As his course also covers the increasingly fertile interface between design and science, he sees an alarmingly cavalier attitude among the technocracy, compared to scientists. 'With the digital, there is a view that society is a laboratory and companies can release these technologies through the market and adjust them and tweak them, almost as a live experiment. With biotech, the issues are so serious and profound that it's hard to imagine them using similar mechanisms... to move things out of the laboratory to market.

United Micro Kingdoms, commissioned by London's Design Museum, sees England devolved into four self-contained counties, each free to experiment with governance, economy and lifestyle. Digiland, for example, depends on digital technology. Photo Credit: Luke Hayes: Design Museum
United Micro Kingdoms, commissioned by London's Design Museum, sees England devolved into four self-contained counties, each free to experiment with governance, economy and lifestyle. Digiland, for example, depends on digital technology. Photo Credit: Crystell Vu

'I think that, because the issues are so complex and intangible, talking about them, visualising them, are the first steps towards making them apparent so we can see the issues we are faced with and develop strategies for addressing them. We need imaginative speculation, activism, hacking, science-fiction writing. The richer the landscape becomes, and the more ways we have of tackling these issues, the better for everyone.'

The practitioners

Metahaven
Metahaven is an Amsterdam-based practice, established in 2007, which interrogates technology and culture through 'strategic' graphic design. Founders Daniel van der Velden and Vinca Kruk operate as a self-styled design think-tank. 'We make anything between a conference, a publication, an interview, a product, a visual identity, a policy document or a set of floating appearances on the internet,' declares its website.

Julian Oliver’s The Network Jammer activates a blanket ban of mobile telephony within a 6m—15m diameter of the object. Photo Credit: Tomasso Lanza
Julian Oliver's The Network Jammer activates a blanket ban of mobile telephony within a 6m -- 15m diameter of the object. Photo Credit: Tomasso Lanza

Metahaven may not tinker with actual devices, but its rigorous investigations and graphic clarifications pack a serious punch. A 2009 profile in Eye magazine declared it: 'one of the most theoretically informed, strategically adept and articulate group of thinkers operating in graphic design'. Metahaven's Uncorporate Identity (2010), a book about dismantling the 'brand state' was heralded by Abitare, as 'a strong contender for either the sexiest thing in your library carrel or the smartest thing in your beach bag'. This year sees the publication of Black Transparency: The Right to Know in The Age of Mass Surveillance.

Metahaven's recent work includes a collaboration with Iceland-based think-tank IMMI, creating a set of images and messages to support a truly progressive and participative legal, energy and social framework being created for Iceland's internet services and cloud-hosting.

Superflux
Superflux is a small, multidisciplinary practice based in Bermondsey, south London, but with roots in the Gujarati city of Ahmedabad. It punches well above its weight, thanks in part to the public-speaking powers of Anab Jain, who founded the practice four years ago along with Jon Ardern. Jain has been much in demand over the last two years, as speaker and futuristic brainstormer, however, Jain says: 'We very much see ourselves as designers and practitioners.' The benefit of developing a keynote presentation is that 'it forces us to rethink our practice in this new context. And vice versa, we get a chance to do work that comes out of this thinking.'

Boneknitter creates high-tensile wool casts for broken bones
Boneknitter creates high-tensile wool casts for broken bones

Superflux past clients include Sony, with which it launched the Internet of Things project -- a series of futurescaping workshops that Sony supported for two iterations. Superflux has now taken it in-house, creating the Internet of Things Academy (IoTA) as a way of using data-harvesting tools to monitor the things that matter -- pollution, for example.

Boneknitter creates high-tensile wool casts for broken bones
Boneknitter creates high-tensile wool casts for broken bones

Superflux is now looking to increase the scale of its projects. Says Jain: 'We are interested in how we can get this thinking to move beyond the echo chamber of people who know and understand... We are not activists in that sense, but we do feel we have a responsibility as designers to make this more public.'

Julian Oliver
A New Zealander who describes himself as a 'critical engineer and artist', Oliver is based in Berlin. He lectures extensively around the globe and gives workshops at galleries, museums, electronic-art events and conferences. Oliver was awarded the Golden Nica prize at Prix Ars Electronica in 2011, for Newstweek (with Danja Vasiliev), a seemingly innocuous device which allows writers to remotely edit news being read on wireless devices, without alerting the readers.

Viewers of Amphibious Architecture can ‘communicate’ with fish in the Easr River via text
Viewers of Amphibious Architecture can 'communicate' with fish in the Easr River via text

An advocate of free and open source software he describes the products or pieces he designs as 'fully functional, poetic manifestations of cyber warfare and cyber weapons'. The Transparency Grenade, for example, looks like a Soviet F1 hand grenade but, when the pin is pulled, it collects all the network traffic, voice conversations and HTML pages within its immediate environment and streams them to a dedicated server for analysis... Imagine releasing one of these during a high-level government meeting. In 2012, Oliver published a Critical Engineering Manifesto with Gordan Savicic and Danja Vasiliev. Its intention was to highlight the degree to which engineering has become the 'transformative language of our time -- informing the way we love, trade and even think'.

It is an attempt to define and interrogate the terms on which our 'built and automated environment' are given. Says Oliver: 'The manifesto has been particularly successful as a frame for thinking and talking about engineering outside of its assumed service to science and industry... The enthusiasm it was met with soon resulted in it being translated into 14 languages and popping up in university curricula and on the walls of hack-labs and art studios alike.'

Dunne & raby
Fiona Raby and Anthony Dunne use the tools of teaching, publications, workshops and exhibitions to spark debates and discussions with industry, students and the public about the social, cultural and ethical implications of existing and emerging technologies. Dunne is professor and head of the Design Interactions programme at the RCA. Raby is reader in Design Interactions at the RCA, as well as professor of Industrial Design at the University of the Applied Arts in Vienna.

Last year, they published Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction and Social Dreaming, through MIT Press. Following that, says Dunne, they've been re-examining what kind of research they want to do. They will be participating in the Biennale in Turkey in October, and undertaking a small commission for Z33 on the subject of Future Fictions. Says Dunne: 'We are questioning ideas of how future visions take shape, and the very limited visual language that is used.' Both projects will be building on the United Microkingdoms exhibition they developed for London's Design Museum, for 2013, presenting perspectives on a fictional future where England is devolved into four self-contained counties, each free to experiment with governance, economy and lifestyle.

Their work has been collected and exhibited by many leading museums and cultural organizations both in the UK and abroad. They have noticed an increase in approaches from 'the kinds of companies we wouldn't expect to be approaching us'. But none has been acted on as yet.

Design Culture lab
Dr Anne Galloway describes her work as 'speculative design ethnography'. She is one of the founders of New Zealand's Design Culture Lab at Victoria University of Wellington, School of Design, where she is lecturer and Principal Investigator, working with a heady cocktail of social science, anthropology, technology, cultural studies and design 'to explore and model relations between humans and non-humans'.

Her work typically involves deep anthropological immersion. Counting Sheep: NZ Merino in an Internet of Things is a three-year project involving travelling around the country, observing and working with traditional New Zealand Merino sheep breeders, to see how external and internal sensor technologies could reconfigure relations between farm animals and people. Among the emerging ideas is Creaturely, a mobile app that gives access to the living ecosystem present in every sheep -- monitoring the microorganisms that support or threaten the animal -- and Boneknitter, a handknitted and high-tensile Merino wool cast for broken bones. During their travels, Galloway and her product designer colleague, Dani Clode, had noted the exceptional shearing skills of the Maori sheep farmers and listened to their concerns about modern-day demands to work at greater speed, with the possible future loss of traditional skills. Boneknitter poetically transcribes hand-skills and time-intensive craft labour into a state-of-the-art, efficient piece of medical equipment.

Natalie Jeremijenko
Australian-born 'artist and engineer' Jeremijenko has spent the last two decades exploring the question: How can technology be used for social and environmental change?

A professor of Visual Art at New York University, her background encompasses biochemistry, physics, neuroscience and precision engineering. One of the pioneers of technology in public art, she was artist in residence at Xerox PARC in Palo Alto, California, in 1995, and hit the headlines with her Internet Traffic project (LED cables lit up according to how much internet traffic they sensed). A couple of years later she may well have sparked the Google Maps big idea, with her stunt of launching a radiocontrolled model airplane fitted with a micro-video camera and transmitter over Silicon Valley to capture forbidden aerial footage of one of the largest concentrations of venture capital in the world.

Robot Dogs was a 2003 project, a collaboration with highschool students in the Bronx to install chemical sensors in toy robot dogs, then set them loose to sniff out pollutants near an old Con Edison chemical plant near the Bronx River.

Jeremijenko's concerns include the sociological and environmental implications of consumer lifestyles -- Consumables: How Stuff is Made is her visual encyclopaedia which highlights environmental costs in the creation of consumer products. Her work has appeared at the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim and her own New York gallery, Postmasters





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