Is technology cooking us?

Article for The Guardian (UK) in 2000 based on my CHI lecture.

What happens to society when there are hundreds of microchips for every man, woman and child on the planet? What cultural consequences follow when every object around us is ‘smart’, and connected? And what happens psychologically when you step into the garden to look at the flowers – and the flowers look at you?

You might think that such questions would preoccupy anyone involved with computers –  namely, all of us. But you’d be wrong. We think about technology in the same way that a frog thinks about boiling water.

You remember the story: if you drop a frog into the pan when the water is boiling, it will leap out; but if you put the frog into a pan of cold water, and then heat it steadily towards boiling point, the frog – unaware that any dramatic change is taking place – will just sit there, and slowly cook.

Is technology cooking us?

Many hard things are certainly beginning to soften. Take products and buildings, for example, once described as ‘frozen software’: Pervasive computing begins to melt them.

Almost everything man-made, and quite a lot made by nature, will soon combine hardware and software: intelligence and connectivity are suffusing ships, aircraft, cars, bridges, tunnels, machines, refrigerators, door handles, lighting fixtures, shoes, hats, packaging.

The world is already filled with eight, twelve, or thirty computer chips for every man, woman and child on the planet. (The number depends on who you ask). Within a few years – say, the amount of time a child who is four years old today will spend in junior school – that number will rise to thousands of chips per person.

A majority of these chips will have the capacity to communicate with each other. Increasingly, many of the chips around us will sense their environment in rudimentary but effective ways. The way things are going, as writer Bruce Sterling so memorably put it, “you will look at the garden, and the garden will look at you” .

But pervasive computing is not just about flowers. Pervasive means everywhere, and that includes our bodies. Bio-mechatronics, and medical telematics, are spreading at tremendous speed. So much so, that the space where ‘human’ ends, and machine begins, is becoming blurred.

British Telecom, which spends $1 million an hour on R&D (or is a million dollars a minute, I forget) are working on an interactive corneal implant. BT are confident that by 2005 its lens will have a screen on it so video projections can be beamed straight onto your retina.

In the words of BT’s top tecchie, Sir Peter Cochrane, “you won’t even have to open your eyes to go to the office in the morning”. Thank you very much, Sir Peter, for that leap forward!

By 2010, BT expect to be making direct links to the nervous system. Links to the nervous system- – -links from it. What’­s the difference? Presumably BT’s objective is that you won’teven have to wake up to go to the office…..

I call this passive acceptance of technology into our bodies Borg drift. It features a million small, specialised acts. It’s what happens when knowledge from many branches of science and design converge – without us noticing.

We are designing a world in which every object, every building, – and every body – become part of a network service, even though we did not set out to design such an outcome.

I am no Canute: railing against technology, per se, is pointless. But we do need to reflect on the bigger picture if we are to have any influence over what it looks like. This is why, to provoke a discussion inside the industry, I recently circulated some “Articles of Association Between Design, Technology and The People Formerly Known As Users”.

They go like this:

Article 1
We cherish the fact that people are innately curious, playful, and creative. We therefore suspect that technology is not going to go away: it’s too much fun.

Article 2
We will deliver value to people – not deliver people to systems. We will give priority to human agency, and will not treat humans as a ‘factor’ in some bigger picture.

Article 3
We will not presume to design your experiences for you – but we will do so with you, if asked.

Article 4
We do not believe in ‘idiot-proof’ technology – because we are not idiots, and neither are you. We will use language with care, and will search for less patronising words than ‘user’ and ‘consumer’

Article 5
We will focus on services, not on things. We will not flood the world with pointless devices.

Article 6
We believe that ‘content’ is something you do – not something you are given.

Article 7
We will consider material end energy flows in all the systems we design, and we will think about the consequences of technology before we act, not after.

Article 8
We will not pretend things are simple, when they are complex. We value the fact that by acting inside a system, you will probably improve it.

Article 9
We believe that place matters, and we will look after it.

Article 10
We believe that speed and time matter, too – but that sometimes you need more, and sometimes you need less. We will not fill up all time with content.

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Designing the space of flows

(This is a chapter for a book published in 2000 (by 010) on Benthem|Crouwel – the wonderful architects of the -now gone – Netherlands Design Institute and, in their spare time, of Schiphol Airport)

Are buildings a liability?

The eminent Spanish economist Manuel Castells, whose first speech in Amsterdam was by invitation of the Design Institute, has written about the networked economy as “the space of flows” – a brilliant metaphor that helps us understand the changing nature of the workplace. Castells observes that while connections between people can indeed be multiplied by information and communication technologies, understanding still requires space, place and time. It is on that relationship – between connectivity, and meaning – that I focus in this text.
Management of the work environment as a combination of space, place, time and interaction, is moving centre-stage in discussions about innovation, learning, and the knowledge economy. This new focus on work environment raises tricky questions for anyone involved with the building industry. Hard questions are being asked about all the physical assets owned by business – with buildings being singled out as an albatross hanging around their necks. In the extreme view, which is gaining ground, ownership of any kind of asset other than information is becoming a liability. You gain flexibility by not owning physical assets, the argument goes; by concentrating on ownership of intellectual property and moving that around, organisations will do better in the new economy; there is growing pressure on all kinds of organisations to invest more in immaterial than in material assets.
But even albatrosses – and buildings – have their uses.

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Interview with W magazine

Q] Do you believe a new century will spur different thinking in terms of architecture and design? Why or why not?
A] A new century, with 100 or 1,000 years stretching ahead, will prompt us to focus with dramatic new intensity on the consequences of design for the environment. Expect to hear much more about “Factor 4” or “Factor 10” – the number of times by which the environmental impact of a product or building needs to be reduced to be sustainable. The good news is that Factor10 projects will be fun, and will bring designers a vast amount of new work.
Q] There seem to be two strong camps emerging in the two fields – one aggressively modernist and the other looking to reinterpret the past for the modern era. In your view, will one prevail? Is one necessarily better than the other?

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On design awards

Domus Magazine asked me about design competitions and awards.
Question 1 – the idea of “good design”
Your question reminds me that years ago, the British Design Council used to proclaim that “good design is good business” . But it was always hard to define good design, let alone to demonstrate a link between good design and business performance. A better question for design now is not, “is it good?” but is it connected ?- connected with interesting questions, connected with social or environmental issues, and connecting people and organisations in novel combinations.
Question 2 – what design awards can tell us
Most but not all design awards are useless. There is no evidence that awards have the slightest impact on consumer attitudes. Any award that goes to an existing product celebrates old knowledge, embodied in an artefact, and is therefore a waste of everybody’s time. Awards to an individual designer are also a waste of time – but they make people feel good, and can be interesting, which is why I still get involved in them! The best ten per cent of design award schemes generate new projects, deliver a snapshot-in-time of current trends, and alert us to new ideas. The next best ten per cent are well-funded, and use expert juries to select winners who may not nominate themselves. The other 80 per cent are a money-making racket which exploit the hunger of designers for fame and recognition.
Question 3 – which innovation should be backed
Any intervention which raises new questions, connects new parties together, and thereby generates new knowledge, is worthwhile. The best existing scheme I know is the Student Design Awards organised by the Royal Society of Arts in London: these pro-active projects are based on current issues, and bring young designers and companies together for the first time. Some of the students work in teams. What happens during the projects is more interesting and valuable than who wins.
Question 4 – to whom are design prizes useful now?
Quite are few design awards are profitable to their organisers; a much smaller number is interesting; and to the designers who win them they are sometimes comforting; most of them are harmless; but hardly any are useful.
The kind of award I would like to organise, but which does not exist, would involve designers and companies working together on some future issue such as biomimicry , or social computing, or knowledge maps, or lightness.

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Nine surprising new job titles for facilities managers

Summary of a lecture to an international meeting of Facility Managers in 1999.
How are we to design modern space? saturated with information and systems; complex but incomprehensible; an exhilarating human achievement, and a terrifying prospect, at the same time.
Management of work environments, in particular, is moving centre-stage in discussions about innovation, learning, and the knowledge economy.
We are beginning to understand that innovation is a social process that involves complex interactions between individuals, communities of practice, and customers.
Fostering these complex interactions – designing the context of innovation and learning – brings ‘soft’ aspects of workplace design to the fore.

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Experimental school environments

Slides used in my lecture to an expert meeting at the European Commission in Brussels in 1999.
* ICT is not content – it is a tool
* teachers are extremely suspicious of machines
* they are right to be so (radio, film, tv, VCRs, PCs)
* not to mention, “teacher-proof technology”
* our legacy: “ecstasy, disappointment, blame”
* delivering content is not teaching
* teaching does not lead, per se, to learning
* connecitivity does not always foster collaboration
* schools resist – but schools also deliver
= helping to teach,helping to learn:
– basic skills: numeracy, literacy
– abstract concepts
– systems thinking
– social skills (collaboration)
– enhance personal experience
– connect “school” with real world
* “interaction” vs learning
* sustained engagement
* self-initiated
* self-sustaining
* self-structuring
* telephone
* television
* camcorders & VCR s
* fax
* two tin cans and a piece of string
They are also:
– spaces
– places
– communities
– experiences
– processes
* when did technology add value?
* what exactly did it add?
* under what circumstances?
* what was the teacher / student’s role?
* how many of them were there?
* what resources were used?
* how much time was needed?
* being told
* being shown
* seeking
* finding
* evaluating
* organising
* communicating, explaining
* memory
* curiosity
* imagination
* collaboration
* space (for reflection)
* time (for reflection)
* Teachers are isolated, so….
* Foster communication with other teachers
* Not just about tools, but also curriculum, pedagogy
* Enable informal techniques to be visualised
* Enable “lessons learned” to be shared
* taste
* touch
* smell
* sound
* sight

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Design and elders: The Presence project

Imagine a world where every second European adult is over fifty years old. And where two-thirds of disposable consumer income is held by this age-group. By 2020 this will be a reality. There will be huge demand for services that enable older people to live independently in their own communities as they age. But although it is potentially huge – health care alone represents nearly eight per cent of Europe’s GDP – few people or companies understand this emerging market. There is no category in the DOW index for services in which elderly people communicate and care for each other using new information tools and services; investors and entrepreneurs seem blind to the potential of new markets fuelled by the changing lifestyles and considerable financial resources of many elderly people. (I wrote this chapter for an American Centre for Design book, but I do not recall ever seeing a copy).

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Lost In Space: A Traveller’s Tale

This is the text of the Lumiance Lecture that I gave in Amsterdam, in 1994, at the invitation of Harry Swaak, the founder and (then) CEO of Lumiance. Harry was also also chairman of the board of the Netherlands Design Institute where I had started work as its first Director 12 months earlier. (This text is 6,800 words).

As well as being thresholds between land and air, modern airports are gateways to complexity. Through them, we enter the operating environment of global aviation, surely mankind’s most complicated creation. But in airports, although we are isolated from the rythms of the natural world, we remain ignorant of how this artificial one works. The result is to reinforce what philosophers call our ontological alienation: a sense of rootlessness and anxiety; of not quite being real; of being… lost in space.

Aviation is typical in many respects of the way the whole world is going: saturated with information and systems; complex but incomprehensible; an exhilarating human achievement, and a terrifying prospect, at the same time. It’s time design got to grips with these ambiguous features of our technological society. But I’ll return to these broader issues at the end.

Right now, I want to focus on three design questions: why does air travel makes you feel strange ? what can design do to improve the experience? and why go in person, when you can call?

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Tokyo: Begin The Next

In 1990, Japan was at the height of its ‘bubble economy’. It popped, spectacularly, two years later. 

In Tokyo, cement trucks sport the slogan, ‘Begin The Next’. Buy sellotape at the cornershop, and the bag carries a slogan: ‘Perhaps We Are At The Beginning Of A New Renaissance’. Ride Honda’s new Dio motorcycle and an entire text on the faring declares ‘Movement. The City is a 24 our stage where we act out a life. Be it day or night, we go out anytime looking for something new’.

Hardly surprising that they call Tokyo: the Sea of Desires: its citizenry revel in continuous change and innovation. In the West, we whinge about our insecurity and the ephemerality of all we hold dear; in Tokyo, they exhilarate in the perceptual white noise of an information-rich environment.

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