Homo Reparans

In their preface, the curators of Ars Electronica 2010 sounded pretty alarmistic. Not to put too fine a point on the summary, you could phrase it with “the world is on fire, act now, there is no time for pessimism (or maybe even thinking)”. Before I went, I had my doubts whether a call for immediate action combined with an apparently clear goal to get the world “back on the right track” (i.e. repair it) would get us into a mode of “no alternative” (TINA). If there was no alternative, asking questions, reflecting, disagreeing would have to be regarded as a waste of time…

Tove Kjellmark's "Destruction of the Ego" Robot needs a repair

 

Technology and democracy

Of course, you can read the initial statement as a provocation, and the actual discussions were more balanced and aware of the two sides many measures to “save the world” have. The relations and tensions between technology and democracy formed a core topic on this festival around “Art, Technology, and Society”. Andreas Lehner of the CCC underlined the importance of hacker organisations for democracy with a quote of Albert Einstein: “Think also about the fact that it is the engineers who make true democracy possible. ” But while they (often) lay the foundations and enable communication and exchange, in a democracy, they should not be the ones to take decisions. As Amelia Andersdottir (MEP for the Piratpartiet) reported from her own experience, many decisions in today’s politics come prefabricated from expert organisations like the WTO. The European or national parliaments have little left to change – and often lack time and expertise to fully understand the concepts and even more to improve them. Additionally, more funding and experts form an advantage for large companies in the competition of opinions. This is not a conspiracy by “them” (a somewhat diffuse enemy Ralf Schmerberg wants to bash in his movie Problema), but a self-reinforcing process that needs to be changed.

216 prepared dc-motors/filler wire 1.0mm by Zimoun.

216 prepared dc-motors/filler wire 1.0mm by Zimoun.

Privacy

Today’s technology even enables a level of hypercommunication that goes further than most of its users want it, into the most private aspects of life. Google Streetview and Facebook were not in the center of discussions but a permanent subtext. (Maybe this is also because today’s developments in this area spread in realtime and solid critique is delayed, as Geert Lovink put it).The Austrian philosopher Andreas Hirsch even claimed that there is nothing left but an illusion of privacy. This brought up a fruitful debate with two remarkable statements:

Even this illusion is still valuable to Derrick de Kerckhove, because as long as we think of a private space, we can also think of a public space, reserved for arguments that are not meant personal. Joitchi Ito, who actually lives a pretty transparent life himself (deliberately), still was not convinced: Privacy is needed so that civil actions gain enough momentum before they are under public/governmental control (and possibly restrictions). If their is no private space anymore, there won’t be any strong impulses for the public space, the res publica. Privacy is an essential prerequisite to make “repair” possible for re(s)publics and democracies.

(You could also think of China as an extreme form of the expert society refered to by Andersdotter above, which might prescribe unacceptable standards for your way of life.)

Ars Electronica Courtyard

Courtyard of former Tabakfabrik, the venue of Ars Electronica

Open tools

A strong grassrootsmovement (at least at ars electronica) is dedicated to opensource technology. Open software is much more common and accepted today (just think of Mozilla’s Firefox), but it is not software alone anymore.

Unhappy with today’s versions of social networks, Maxwell Salzberg presented the Diaspora project that aims at making the flow of (user) data more transparent and thus giving users a better control of privacy (Gert Lovink added similiar projects like GNUsocial, AppleSeed, and status.net). I personally find this extremely important, not only because of the significance social networks have today, but also because the architecture of the new systems will have to offer solutions for some tricky problems (like interoperability, widespread acceptance, ease of use).

Head mounted eyetracking set

Head mounted open source eyetracker (hardware side)

When you hit the borders of opensource software, you will soon want additional hardware. The Free Art and Technology Lab, together with the Graffiti Research Lab, Open Frameworks, and the Ebeling Groupcreated a do-it-yourself eyetracking system (with claimed 50$ costs in hardware) called the Eyewriter. They initially created it for a friend who suffers of ALS/Lou Gehrig’s Desease and can’t moeve anything but his eyes. While eyetracking as an expensive technology is not new, this package of hardware instructions and powerful software puts it into the hands of everybody, to explore, adapt, and improve.

MakerBot

MakerBot in action

Material/3d printers used to be another high-tech, high-cost device. Now there is the makerbot to print out the 3d models of the general public. And from being the attraction itself it already tends to become a supporting part of other artworks, like in Daan van den Berg’s Merrick.

Oribots by Matthew Gardiner

The parts of Matthew Gardiner’s Oribotic project are also created with a 3d printer.

Even “bio technology” is now tinkered with. There are more speculative designs for debate, like Catherin Kramer’s Community Meat Lab. It combines the (future) in-vitro growing of meat with a community based form of production. While open sourcing biotec, she also tries to avoid the gap between food producers and consumers of today’s industrialised supply systems. Ready to build (it yourself) are the low tech/recycled The Windowfarms Project by Britta Riley.

Windowfarm

Britta Riley’s Windowfarms

Interestingly enough, considerable exhibition space was given to industrial companies in the Repair Fair – some of them surely a proof for former utiopias and brave enterpreneurship. Other big ones like Siemens or Linz AG apeared in a strange contrast to the rest of the exhibition, being as responsible for the often bemoaned state of the enviroment as well as potential contributors to “reparation”.

Repair for originals!

For many people who create opensource technolgy today, disassembling devices because they were broken has often been the first step into working with technology. This is contained in one of the statements in the platform 21 Repair Manifesto, (to me) one of the most important documents of the ars:

7. To repair is to discover.

[…]

10. Repairing is indiependence.
Don’t be a slave to technology – be its master. If it’s broken, fix it and make it better. And if you’re a master, empower others.

Woolfiller

straight forward repair by filting in situ: Woolfiller by Heleen Klopper

Additionally, they gave me a very enlightening explanation for “authenticity”, the feeling that certain things are somehow weaved into our personal history. We often tend to cling to old stuff, even when new products were easily available (a marketing department’s nightmare: happy people don’t buy new stuff, and authenticity is hard to synthesize). When you repair something after an accident or because it is worn out, you focus especially on the parts of a thing which make you aware of your “common experiences”. And repairing causes an self-reinforcing exchange with a thing: you dedicate time and effort and this makes it even more important and unique to you.

9. Repaired things are unique.
Even fakes become originals when you repair them.

Shoe Goo Repair

At the Shoe Goo repair station, Arne Hendriks applies “street knowledge” from skaters to make you shoes live longer.

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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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Grüner Gestalten

Alle reden über den Klimaschutz, aber keiner fängt an. Auch wenn unser Energieverbrauch mittlerweile allgemein als etwas überzogen erkannt wird (mit 11 t CO2 pro Kopf und Jahr WBGU), so spielt er doch in unseren alltäglichen Entscheidungen kaum eine Rolle. Das Klima, und erst recht seine langsame und graduelle Veränderung, ist einfach zu abstrakt und zu “weit weg”. Wir können uns sehr viel besser den Aufwand vorstellen, den es bedeutet einen neuen Kühlschrank anzuschaffen (auszusuchen, preiszuvergleichen, abzuholen, den alten loszuwerden, …), als die Vorteile, die das eines ferneren Tages im Geldbeutel oder gar global klimatisch ausmachen wird.

Sicherlich sind viele prinzipiell für mehr Energieeffizienz und würden sich im täglichen Leben auch umorientieren. Allein, wie verhindert man, dass die hehren Vorsätze im Alltag von anderen Aufgaben wieder ins Vergessen gedrängt werden? Energieverbrauch, wie Strom und Wärme, ist von sich aus ziemlich unsichtbar und unauffällig.

Das beste Beispiel dazu sind die Strom- und Gaszähler, die in der Regel in den verstecktesten Winkeln der Wohnung hängen (und wer hat schon einen schicken Stromzähler?). Wenige wissen, was der Zähler gestern oder letztes Jahr angezeigt hat, oder ob das nun vergleichsweise viel oder wenig ist. Bestenfalls die jährliche Abrechnung bringt den Verbrauch in unsere Aufmerksamkeit, und die öden Zahlentabellen laden gar nicht erst zum Lesen ein.

Unsichtbares sichtbar zu machen” ist die Aufgabe, die sich das Interaction Design gestellt hat. Üblicherweise geht es dabei um die Gestaltung der Bedienung von elektronischen Geräten. Eine der ganz grundlegenden Eigenschaften, nämlich der Stromverbrauch, hat dabei nur bisher keine Rolle gespielt (höchstens vielleicht beim Akkuladestand).

Wie Energieverbrauch unaufdringlich, aber beständig Teil unserer Alltagsumgebung werden kann, zeigte die Ausstellung Visual Voltage Anfang des Jahres. Organisiert vom Kulturinstitut Schwedens (Svenska Institutet) und dem Interactive Institute, einem Verband von Designforschungseinrichtungen, wollte Schweden damit den Schwerpunkt seiner EU-Ratspräsidentschaft unterstreichen.
Zu den prägnantesten Stücken gehört der Power Aware Cord, ein Mehrfachstecker, dessen Kabel mit leuchtenden Fäden animiert ist. Man kann den Strom förmlich fließen sehen. Je mehr angeschlossen ist, desto heller und hektischer leuchtet das Kabel, aber auch kleine Standby-Dauerverbraucher werden damit verraten.
Eine Installation von Stefan Stubbe nimmt sich des Wasserverbrauchs an: Nicht beim täglichen Zähneputzen verbrauchtes, sondern “virtuelles”, mit brasilianischem Kaffee und spanischen Tomanten importiertes. Auf einer Stele ist ein Wasserhahn über einer Tasse montiert. Drückt man daneben auf die Taste für eine Tasse Kaffee, rauschen 80 Liter Wasser in die Tasse (die freilich unten ein Loch hat); soviel wird für die Herstellung tatsächlich verbraucht, das meiste davon außerhalb Deutschlands.

Wie sehr eine gute Gestaltung zum Erfolg neuer Technologien beitragen kann, ist vermutlich mit dem schon ganz abgenudelten Beispiel des iPhones deutlich geworden. Natürlich hat Apples geölte Marketingmaschine einen bedeutenden Anteil daran. Aber wahrscheinlich kennt auch jeder eine Geschichte aus dem persönlichen Umfeld über eine Oma, die mit dem iPhone nicht nur den Mobilfunk, sondern auch gleich das mobile Internet für sich entdeckt hat.

Produktgestaltung kann also unseren Alltag sehr nachhaltig beeinflussen, ganz jenseits der bloßen Verschönerung, mit der es oft verwechselt wird (die Oma benutzt das Telefon ja nicht, weil es ihrem “Style” entspricht, sondern weil sie das Bedienkonzept versteht). Aber lenkt dieser Einfluss die Aufmerksamkeit auf die entscheidenen Punkte? Wer (auch welcher Designer) weiß schon, dass alte Umwälzpumpen von Heizungen zu den größten Stromverbrauchern im Haushalt gehören? Einigen wird gar nicht bewusst sein, dass so ein Gerät in ihrem Boiler sitzt.

Design kann unsere Umwelt informativer werden lassen, etwa wenn der Stromzähler einen Vergleich zum Vorjahresniveau anzeigt oder verrät, welches Gerät genau den größten Energiehunger an den Tag legt. Design kann außerdem Einfluss auf unser Verhalten nehmen, indem beispielsweise meine Energiezentrale anzeigt, wie gut ich mich beim Energiesparen im Vergleich zu meinem Nachbarn schlage (und mit einem Facebook-Anschluss kann ich mein grünes Herz sogar öffentlich zeigen). Aber wieviel ist gewonnen, wenn man dann gut-grünen Gewissens fünf Mal im Jahr Freunde in Australien und El Salvador anfliegt? Oder das Licht in seinem Altbau mit Vorkriegsisolierung öfter mal ausschaltet?

Angesichts der eindrucksvollen Möglichkeiten, mit den Mitteln der Gestalter die Menschen auf den Energiesparpfad zu lotsen, sollte man nicht vergessen, vorher über die Dringlichkeit der propagierten Maßnahmen nachzudenken. Sonst ist ganz schnell viel Aufmerksamkeit auf marginale Verbesserungen verschwendet. Um zum obigen Beispiel mit der 80l-Kaffeetasse zurückzukommen: Eine Menge Energie wird gar nicht innerhalb der eigenen vier Wände verbraucht, sondern in Form von verschiedenen Produkten und Dienstleistungen (z.B. dem Internet) importiert. Dieser Verbrauch ist oft erheblich, lässt sich aber gar nicht so einfach genau berechnen (z.B. weil man die Verarbeitungskette nicht genau kennt) – und noch weniger dem Endverbraucher auf die Schnelle erklären.

Design kann an vielen Stellen helfen, die Welt verständlicher zu machen. Es kann die Aufmerksamkeit aufs Energiesparen lenken und es gleichzeitig angenehm in den Alltag integrieren. Es braucht aber eine kritische Rückkoppelung mit anderen Disziplinen um die wirklich vielversprechendsten Maßnahmen im Blick zu behalten. Und schließlich: Es wird nur Anzreiz zur Veränderung geben. Handeln muss jeder selbst. Einfach wegstylen lässt sich das CO2 nicht.

[Anmerkung: Ich bin zwar nicht direkt in den Workshop involviert, arbeite aber für die Firma, die ihn mitorganisiert]

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