Back from the no-Email future: Gesche Joost

Gesche Joost, a (in her field) well known design researcher from the University of the Arts Berlin, just reported from the world in 2040. Luckily, the ZEIT newspaper still exists, at least online, and they recorded her statement. It’s also pleasing to see that Gesche didn’t get that much older…

Back to reality: Of course, the future is used as a mirror to reflect our times. In her talk, she diagnoses three major problems of our times:

  1. The need to carry around digital devices to stay in touch with people
  2. Information and communication overload, mostly due to email
  3. A focus on technology rather than needs (she uses the very nice—and broader— term: “Dimensionen der Gesellschaft”, dimensions of society)

From mobile devices to the cyborg (kind of)

The dependency on mobile, in particular: smart phones, surely is striking. Just think about the careful watch on your (phone’s) battery life that you keep throughout the day. Or think about the rave that the iPhone creates as a status symbol and the surveys that tell us that phones become more important than cars as representative objects. But her imagination, that devices disappear into our clothing and our bodies, sounds a little bit like the “old” vision of ubiquitous computing, mixed with some cyborg elements.

Info overload or the nature of the email

The point that struck me more was the email overload. In her diagnosis, she says it was because it was bound to emails (let’s say: text) and emails were bound to computers with keyboards “in front of them”. I would rather argue that the Blackberry, i.e. a portable, in a sense ubiquitous device, gave the email flood a tremendous rise—right because people were no longer bound to their PCs.

And I doubt that the emails that arrive in an important person’s mailbox (I count Gesche among them) can be perceived in an “ambient manner”, in a “flow”, as she describes it. One of the problems with most of these emails is that it’s unclear–before you read it–whether you need to take a decission, or just get information. If you need to decide something, you might need to sit and think about it, with or without flow. Sure, many questions might have been decided already elsewhere, the sender didn’t have that information and bothers you again. That’s a true issue with emails, they are not good at making knowledge accessible. Luis Suarez tries to live a highly interesting vision of a life without emails, he tries to answer as much publicly (or company publicly) on a sort of Facebook stream which is fully searchable.

Text based systems, such as email, even have the advantage that we can easily “speed read” through them, and based on the bits we catch can decide whether it’s worth more attention or not. It’s rather complicated to speed read through video or sound recordings (such as voice mail) because time is part of that medium.

In my mind, “communication” won’t be a catch-all phrase in the future. For some facts and e.g. legally important stuff, we will still rely on text (email, streams). Probably, the biggest part of professional communication, still. But the part of story telling will become more important, something we do on a social level already very much when we have a coffee together (having a coffee is a synchronous activity, however, i.e. both people need to spend time at the same time). Listening to a story is a very pleasant way to learn. Of course, our current voice recording systems don’t quite support that (there is visual voicemail (Apple, again!), and there are efforts to speech recognize voice mail and make it (text) searchable by Google (of course)).

Design for the diverse Dimensions of Society

And her third point: too much male engineers, too much focus on technology instead of relevant “dimensions of society”:  I’ve little to add there since Gesche is a leading figure in the world of Co-Creation that aims precisely at bringing all relevant people (“stakeholders”, which can be potential users, vendors, help desk people, …) to the table in order to look for their needs and expectations first and then set the agenda for technological endeavours.

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Design for Green: EcoViz and Persuasive Design

Go here for the older, German version

Everyone keeps talking about climate protection, but noone gets going. Even though our energy consumption is known to be a little over budget (with 11t per capita and year, 2008), it does influence our day to day decisions in prominent ways. The climate, and even more its slow and gradual change, is just too abstract and “far away”. It’s much easier for us to imagine the efforts of getting a new fridge (choose, check prices, pick it up, getting rid of the old one, …), than imagining the advantages which will pay off one day in the future in our purse or even globally climatically.

Sure, a lot of us are for more energy efficency in principle and would change their daily lives. But, how do you know where start best with these changes? And how do you avoid that your good intentions are not pushed back by other everyday tasks? Energy consumption in forms like electricity and heat is a pretty invisible and unremarkable thing by itself.

A good example are energy and gas meters which are located in the most obscure niches of our flats (who owns a chique meter, anyways?). Few will know what their meter showed yesterday or last year and whether that is considered comparatively high or low. The yearly bill at bet makes us focus on our consumption and the dull tables and numbers don’t even try to invite for contemplation.

Part 1: Interaction Design to the rescue!

Making the invisible visible” is the mission interaction design is on. Usually, this means designing the handling of electronic devices. One of the most basic features, energy consumption, didn’t play any major role here (except maybe showing the battery life).

The Visual Voltage exhibition from the beginning of this year showed how energy consumption can be an unobstrusive but persistent part of our everyday environment. Organized by the Swedish cultural institute (Svenska Institutet) and the Interactive Institute, a combination of several design research institutions, Sweden wanted to underline the focus of its EU council presidency. (IxDS, my employer, organized the Visual Voltage Workshop for designers from all over the world during the exhibition in Berlin).

One of the most prominent pieces is the Power Aware Cord, a power strip with a cord that is animated by glowing strings. You can literally see flow through the energy. The more is plugged in, the brighter and more hectic the cord glows but also small stand-by suckers get denunciated.

Another example is the Flower Lamp, a huge hanging lamp in the form of a blossom, which closes its face whn the power consumption in the houshold is high. That is, the light and spacial atmosphere change and make the energy consumption experiencealbe indirectly.

There are also really pragmatic solutions available, like the light switch and sockets that show how much electricity flowed through them � once you have seen them, these ideas appear just straight forward (Piotr Szpryngwald (2007): Strom visualisieren).

Part 2: Risks for EcoViz as Persuasive Design

The design of products can influence our everyday life pretty thoroughly, far beyond plain beautification that it often gets confused with (the granny of my colleague isn’t using her iPhone because it suits her “style” but because she understands the interaction concept).We can weave information into our surroundings, like having the power meter show a last-year value or denounce the most energy hungry device in the household. Design can also influence our behaviour (Persuasive Technolgy), e.g. when my energy control station shows me how much better I perform in saving energy compared to my neighbour (and with the link to facebook, I can even present my green heart to the public.)

But does this influence and power direct our attention to the critical points? Who (also who among the designers) would know that old circulation pumps for the heating is the biggest engery consumers in a household? Some might not even know of the existence of these devices inside their heater. Maybe the “eco switches” from above become the new status symbols that make you feel good when you switch off the light. But how much is gained if you switch off the light, leaving your appartement with a green conscience to fly to your friends in Australia and El Salvador five times a year? There are also some inconsistencies bringing your organic grocery home into your atmospheric, old building with pre-war insulation.

Regarding the impressive possibilities for designers to pilot people onto the path of energy efficency, one should not forget to think about the immediacy of each propagated method. Otherwise, a lot of attention is wasted quickly on marginal improvements. Huge amounts of energy are consumed inside your own four walls but you import it in various forms of products and services (starting with the internet transfering this article). This consumption is often considerable, but is pretty hard to determine (e.g. because you don’t know the process exactly) � and even harder to explain it to customers (there are related projects about “virtual water by Stefan Stubbe and Timm Kekeritz).

Design can help in many situations to make the world more understandable. It can direct attention on energy efficency while at the same time integrating it nicely into our everyday life. But it needs a critical feedback from other disciplines find and stay focused on the really promising measures. And finally: The CO2 disappear by styling. You need to get going yourself.

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Social Button Device: Sputnik?

Some days ago I had the pleasure to celebrate my friend Remmelt’s birthday with him. I met some interesting people there and I also got to know the Sputnik that Sascha brought from this(last) year’s 23C3:

sputnik as seen on openbeacon.org

It’s an RFID transponder, i.e. it will work both as a sender and receiver, has a touch sensor already implemented and a tiny but programmable microcontroler onboard. So it looks like the perfect solution – unfortunately programming it is not within my range, at least for this moment (RS232 serial protocol and unfamiliar MicroChip PIC16F684 microcontroller) . Let’s see what ideas we will develop to build our prototypes…

[update]

Larissa found a very nice site that explains everything about the PIC and about RF communication as well. It’s the web page of Tom Igoe (surprise, surprise)

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ambient displays overview

ambient orb

A more general overview over things happening and that happend in the field of ambient displays. The more mobile aspects will be further explored.

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