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Towards a beautiful, broken future

Reflection on emergent themes at Cognitive Cities, and how the cracks and seams in between might actually be the thing to consider.

by Sami Niemelä Creative Director, Nordkapp

Categories Foresight, Urban Screens

Cognitive Cities was great. I had great fun presenting my view on urban information design and also enjoyed a great deal following all the other speakers as well. As usually happens at these conferences,a large part of the meaningful interaction went on in between the sessions, over a beer and so forth. This was definitely the case in Berlin. I wanted to carry on with something that emerged from a question after my talk, a discussion with Adam, Warren Ellis‘ wonderful whiskey-driven monologue and end then there was a wonderful Sunday evening with BenSam and Kharis in a completely different setting in Tacheles, one of the last remaining art squats in central Berlin. The talk I gave mentioned designing things just intelligent enough to be polite, riffing on Matt Jones’s BASAAP and BERG’s work with Dentsu London. A question was made as to whether I would agree or disagree with Adam on the need for personality amid the service avatars, interfaces behavioral qualities and people.

To answer this firstly - I do think that design should go beyond the utilitarian level and at least intend to talk back to us like humans. Having a sensible dialogue with an inanimate object such as a computer makes it seem just a little less rude, leads to user satisfaction and so forth. Us humans are extremely good at pattern recognitition, such as seeing faces everywhere. In design, we can use this in our advantage to help people empathize with services and interfaces just a bit better. There is a trick here – we should design for failure too; not doing so would be silly. There are also levels of appropriateness to take into consideration.

File under: potentially weird

Makerbot Completed

Come sunday evening, while in Tacheles, reflecting the weekend and talking away about from anything between connected city, 3D-printed sexware to robots and hacking internet printers through phone lines. Somewhere in between the chatter, in a beautiful, serendipitous moment it all actually made sense. The innate beauty lies in the cracks and seams of perceived decentness, and in order to flourish, any culture will breed weird subcultural oddities which echo the linear futures it might engage in. Sometimes, these oddities manifest themselves as giant penises drawn by 4chan in strange corners, sometimes as wonderful grassroots movements making the world a better place. These oddities can even be initiated by the very same people.

At the same time, future will be far from perfect. The world changes now at an incredible speed. Even a few years ago it would have been mental to think about a website being part of a real revolution— and look at Egypt now. At the same time, new technologies are being prototyped in public, the cities and objects will get “smart” (or at least connected to the internet), and the amount of raw data will grow exponentially, so things will get even more broken in places. Some people will get technology, some don’t. Some will re-interpret it as they go. As the world grows smaller through connectivity, the cracks will become exposed. Often, schemes with the best intentions will break. If even the highest tech can’t stay in sync, what do you think will happen when tech becomes physical environments and devices?

Connected objects will have seams, too


The thing is, in the near future there’s going to be a lot of weird around. The connected objects we’re preparing to design will themselves be full of weird for most of us, but where this gets really interesting is when these thing are broken, hacked or re-purposed intentionally or by accident. And trust me, when the shiny future things get out there, they will break. It’s part of human nature to tamper with new things. The bits and pieces that will start the revolutions will be the black swans amongst us. They will make us feel uncomfortable and wrong, but it’s okay. They’re here for us; they are here for a reason.

For a designer this is important in more ways than just one; giving playfulness and humanity to mechanical and computational processes makes them *feel* just a little more human and helps us to empathize them. This also helps people to tolerate the Weird a bit better.On the other hand, it is important to recognize that given the chance, misuse and repurposing will happen, and if it does happen, it’s a wonderful thing on our way to real read/write urbanism and cognitive, tolerant cities. There will be living, breathing techno-organisms which won’t be perfect, but instead they will be ours to use. The connected city will be a wonderful thing, despite sometimes being a bit broken, or gaping at the seams.

While writing this, I bumped into this clip by Cognitive Cities moderator, and Wired UK editor-at-large Ben Hammersley. He seems to agree, too:

“You can’t help bu realise, that the next 10-to-40 years are going to be really strange. Totally strange. And… that rate of strangeness seems is going to get exponentially more strange. And the problem we have right now is the people that are in charge of this stuff don’t understand a) how strange it’s going to be, or b) the form of the strangeness itself.”

Amen, brother. Looking forward on how it all unfolds.

3 Comments

  1. Interesting post, thanks for sharing. This is something I have been thinking about a lot recently, for one it forms a large part of my talk at UXLX later in the year. But also from the research for it, I’ve been considering the use of seam great for those that want to hack or pry open the data inside, but what about those who have no desire or ability to make use of seams, arguable the main stream, what will their broken future experience be like? endless queuing for a slot at the genius bar?
    I look forward to seeing how this unfolds, as a consumer and as a designer.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Oli. Would love to see your UX-Lx talk, hopefully they do video this year:)

    I think the idea of seams/cracks in the reality is a beautiful thing. For the underexposed / ignorant it actually *might* present a touch of sanity. The weird, new thing is broken after all. Which feels familiar, and is almost given. “It’s the computer, man”.

    For others, they might be freaky as hell. Computers are disappearing all around, and it’s the cracks which expose the underlying, occasionally broken technology.

  3. That’s lovely. I used to worry about the broken stuff, until I realised it isn’t really broken, it’s just cracked open. Sous les pavés la plage! http://wp.me/p1bV4-2c

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