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.


Defining privacy

The spreading of personal information in the digital age and the loss of control over it is continually increasing. In it’s essence, it is nothing very new but we witness (or are part of) some major shifts right now: the rise of online social networks, high precision targeted advertising, and the level of surveillance as part of the anti-terrorism measures. The significance of privacy is currently being re-negotiated (details below).

At the same time, the technical possibilities to control and broker one’s personal data streams have increased just as much – unfortunately most of these possibilities are stuck in theory and decent tools are missing. We should expect (or build) a ground breaking solution here. I find this particularly striking as I had the priviledge to work on such a tool over a year ago and sadly enough it hasn’t really come to market as of today (I’ll go into details in a separate article).

Photo (slightly cropped) by ecoev on Flickr

Photo (slightly cropped) by ecoev on Flickr

A couple of days ago, I had the privilege to attend a conference on privacy from Germany’s internet industry association eco. By the mere count of participants (overwhelmingly in black suits) it was a small meeting, but as the participation of the German Minister of the Interior, Hans-Peter Friedrich, and the EU commissioner for “Justice and Fundamental Rights”, Viviane Reding, shows, it was of extremely high profile for our societies’ rule makers.
From a citizen’s point of view, the event was pretty interesting as you could witness the actors and debates that shape the laws of tomorrow. For designers, however, the lack of discussable solutions, or just adventurous experiments, was disappointing. I have the strong impression that some practical contributions will inspire the debate and could bring a more differentiated or “realistic” view to some legal considerations.

Defining terms – not just a question for law makers

While defining terms sounds like hairsplitting detail work, knowing about different aspects and concepts of privacy and data protection focuses the often superficial and emotional debates. I’ll look very briefly at two questions: protect data against whom or what? And what is the data to be protected?

During the eco meeting, Axel Spieß, an international expert in this (legal) domain, pointed out the very different meanings of “privacy” in the US and “Datenschutz” in Germany: in the US, privacy was mainly referring to the “right to be let alone”, as a citizen against the state (4th amendment). In contrast, acquiring and selling user data is a pure matter of private business and contracts. “Data protection” would usually refer to measures that prevent the theft or loss of data.
Under German jurisdiction, however, “Datenschutz”/data protection is affected by all transactions (or even just the collection) of “information that identifies a person” because it is considered to violate one’s “informational self-determination“. And this needs to be respected by governmental authorities as well as private companies.
(For the UK position, BBC News has a comprehensive article for you.)

There is also a fundamentally different perception of who owns the data (US (mostly): the company who collects (or buys) it. Germany: the person it refers to). Ownership of personal information is also an important point for a couple of service ideas around a transparent data trade (see the practicle article on that)

In his speech at the congress, Minister Friedrich implied that data collection by authorities was rather harmless since it couldn’t happen without laws and was under public control. But since the 9/11 attacks, we should be aware of how easily security (or anxiety) rules above freedom (and as part of it, privacy), and otherwise illegal activities and questionable surveillance pass through.
[end of sidetrack]

The other important definition is the term of “identifying personal information”: intuitively, one would think of more sensitive information, such as name, address, phone numbers (IP numbers? already a hot debate!). And indeed, some laws contain such lists. However, in the age of sophisticated data mining, “insensitive” data (such as items of a single purchase) is easily combined into “more sensitive” data (such as buying habits and all deviations, like job loss, illnesses, diets, or even pregnancies). As behaviour prediction is becoming reality, there is no insensitive data any more (as the German Constitutional Court stated already 1983).

Who defines the privacy of the future?

Inside the EU, the debate around privacy is active for quite a while now. Commissioner Reding claims that it is at the heart of the Digital Agenda (which has its own commissioner, Nellie Kroes). For the EU, a unified data protection and privacy legislation would not only facilitate trade inside the union, it would also be a strong signal towards other societies and markets. Companies with businesses in the EU would at least have to take the EU rules into account, if not completely follow them (what this could mean can be seen in discussions around facebook, Street View).

So far, the EU has been quite successful in setting the agenda and the terms of the discussion. They also convince/persuade more and more non-European countries to follow their model. Obviously, this upcoming normative power of the EU is at odds with US interests and US companies (who form, again, most of the internet as we know it). More or less recently (02/2012), the Obama administration came up with a regulation of its own, the much debated Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights. Given the US traditions as described above, this might appear as a strange thing (some of the differences are lined out here and here).

With the models currently debated on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, we negotiate nothting less than the fundamental privacy rules of the future digital society.


Out of the Order

versatile vehicle to fix all kinds of problems, in Switzerland

Ars Electronica 2010 takes a car repair shop point of view on society. Something is wrong with the world, we see it everyday: economy is causing more troubles than it solves, our ecosystem appears to be exploited beyond its limits, and a general felt lack of influence on political processes makes us feel helpless. We need to fix that.

Fix what?

Repairing something means that it is out of order, out of a state how it should be, how it was designed. It sounds like an engineer’s or expert’s perspective, starting out from a blueprint and a good plan.
While this makes pretty much sense for devices, it is leads to interesting consequences when applied to society and also myself (“Repair yourself” is part of ars electronica’s programme).

It starts already at the most prominent crossing of technology and society, the internet: The way it was originally designed and how it is used today are pretty far from each other. Now, various parties would like to “repair” the net – one extreme wants to have far less checks and control to enable a free flow of information. The other extreme wants to turn the web into a highly regulated marketplace where companies authorize any transaction to ensure their profit share. Both parties think there are some mechanisms out of order at the moment, but they think of different “orders”.

Fix how?

Ideally, one would think of society as a (big) assembly of people who negotiate how they want to arrange their social rules, their interactions with the environment, etc. (some copyright by Habermas here). Of course, this is not how it works because we all have very different capabilities to express ourselves and convince others (you can also think of money as a convincing factor), resulting in different powers to form society.

But also when leaving that problem unconsidered, the current state of society is something that has been negotiated in countless discussions and ballots. What we see today has never been planned for. There are some blueprints for the process itself, and people might come with blueprints into the discussions. But the result is usually far from these blueprints, it’s something most people can live with, a compromise.

So, the result is the opposite of a plan, and even more, it gets continually altered, rearranged, “improved”, like a garden. Like plants and herbs, people also act autonomously. Can you repair a garden?

Since this year’s motto raises a lot of questions, you could consider it a good one. I’m really excited and curious about the answers the speakers and artists will bring along.


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.


Inventing for the other 90%

Growing without design? housings in El Alto

Growing without design? housings in El Alto

The more I get to know the work in large corporations the more it strikes me how much money they spend (or waste) on generating new ideas. Thousands and millions are made available for new or not so new ideas and for exploring new fields of business in continually saturated markets. It comes by little surprise that a lot of the results are pretty poor. Granted, when dealing with “innovation processes” you never know what you’ll get for your investment which makes it hard to judge which money could be saved. But what could be sparked with these funds if applied elsewhere, outside of the business context?

A lot of “ideas” or development efforts are not focused on new technologies or services in the sense of making our lives better. They are just meant to produce new or refined business models so that the company can earn more money. Serving the user’s (let’s say: real) needs from a more holistic point of view is just not taken into account (literally!). In the end of inovation workshops, the single factor for decisions about the future “life” of an idea is profit and not user needs.

I don’t want to criticise companies (at least not here) for their single minded goals of making profits–in the system of capitalism it’s their only reason of existence (and even the companies can’t keep the money but have to pass it on to their shareholders. The contradiction between user needs and profits grows even more this way, as André Gorz describes very clearly). But if we allow us just for a little moment to think outside these business restrictions: Enormous resources are spent to make some bright minds comfortable and creative every day so that they struggle with those oversaturated markets and fight against the “no need barriers” of obviously happy customers.
What if a fraction of these efforts was directed on problems like child poverty, ecologic smartness, cultural diversity? What if oxfam, amnesty international or terre des hommes could be supplied with a comparable stream of brain work?
For sure the effects would be enormous. So many people are longing for a better life and don’t have to be convinced by (insanely) expensive marketing. And all those people are more than willing to contribute as much as they can (and often fail because of lack of influence).

Increadible amounts spent to get ideas on how to cram even more products into costumers in the one world and the destruction and the eradication of so many perspectives because of lacking funds and minds in the other one: That’s an insight that makes me really, really sad.
Of course, you could believe in the Trickle-Down-Effect and hope that the more profits large companies make the more they can invest in new ideas that finally will make the lives of all of us better; but noone is able to tell how long are we supposed to wait for some drips to reach the bottom.

On the contrary! It might be totally plausible that we can’t design within the usual innovation (business, distribution) system if we want to reach this bottom…


Autonomous Assistants reloaded

Here comes the all new and sparkling abstract of my Thesis (old stuff). You might want to have a look at it and give it some comments!

In my thesis I propose the idea of a socially aware computer. In order to get to know the user‘s circles of friends, it will mine and analyse the data that is left as traces by her communication, mainly phone call logs and email archives. As a result, a value for personal or subjective importance can be computed for each person in the user‘s network.

This allows for a new arrangement of the personal address book so that more relevant persons can be found more easily – an important feature regarding our ever expanding and globalized personal networks.
Moreover, tasks that require knowledge about the user‘s personal relations can be handled automatically: One is turning the user‘s attention towards old friends that tend to be neglected when he is burried in work or because he is always on the run due to our mobile and flexible times. Another one is managing access to her personal data that she stores online, like photos, travel plans or her activity stream that gets created by recent software like Jaiku or Twitter.

Handling friends and acquaintances in such an environment opens up new challenges that are explored by means of a visual prototype. Different types of displaying, managing, and enriching information about related persons are developped. Results from a user testing will be provided.
As a preliminary study, the data sets of several people have been analysed and plotted into an interactive diagramm in order to investigate the potentials of the communication data given. It also offers the possibility to look for the relevant parameters that determine different types of relations (e.g. best friend or old friend).

To provide a conceptual background, existing social network theories are explored and related to personal, ego-centric ones. I take a closer look onto the whole process of operationalisation, i.e. turning human behaviour into quantifiable data by statistical methods. Finally, implications and problematic consequences of both, the software itself and the concept of the „network society“ in general, are discussed. The felt need to turn our friendships into „social capital“ is one of the most remarkable shifts in the functioning of our societies. Others can make draw profits from this capital if they collect detailed data to establish profiles of us and our relationships. Thus, the whole field of privacy is entangled.
And across all these dynamics, computers become so inseparably intermingeld into our daily social life that borders between our (extended) self and the machine is often hard to determine.

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me and my network


Basically, I will look at how Computers can help us with managing our ever growing networks of friends.
I will try to make use of models from mathematical-sociologic network theories and apply them to subject-related, private areas (my network and I). The thesis of social objects will be part of this effort as alternative or addition.
Special attention will be given to the process of operationalisation which converts interpersonal interactions into machine readable numbers. Which actions have to be considered and which parameters are used in this process? At the end of such an automated analysis a computer will have an image of our social relationships available. These considerations will be worked out as applications in the practical part of my Master’s project.
The use of new technologies to organise inter-personal relationships will change them inevitably: But do we transfer the responsibility for our social lives to algorithmic machines in the end? Possible consequences and alternatives have to be taken into account.

In-depth description (german only so far)

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structure and questions

A hybrid version between an outline for my thesis and a collection of thoughts and questions in particular is now available as foldable structure (as it came out of FreeMind)


Social Wearable Displays

After some days of intense writing mostly done by Larissa, our first paper in our lives ever has been submitted! Yeah, yeah, yeah!

We are exploring the use of small displays as an instrument to enhance social communication. Our focus is on encouraging communication between strangers by revealing the existence of common friends. In the following we present the concept of the SocialButton, a wearable mobile device which displays aspects of friend-of-a-friend networks. A group study has provided us with an initial understanding regarding the potential of the SocialButton to influence our social environment.

More backgrounds on the paper can be found in the archive and on Larissa’s blog, of course.

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faster, better, smarter

Are Computer Games evolving as their own medium, a new form of art and even as tool? Strong arguments for the autonomy of games were deliverd by a class at FU Berlin, Computer Games and Media Theory, that introduced the emerging field of Game Studies to me.

Economically, the production of computer games generates a much larger impact than the production of film for several years already. But gaming itself was still regarded as a waste of time. This does change a lot nowadays, as games get a tool in business processes i.e. you can earn money with it i.e. it suddenly turns out to be something very sensible to do. (best example: SecondLife). Plus, serious gaming tries to make use of our desire to play.

Beside these purely economic interests there is more and more evidence that gaming makes you think and gives your brain a good training for your everyday life as well as for some specialised tasks: fine motor skills for surgeons, faster reactions for sports and military, knowledge of economic correlations, just to mention some ideas. While trying to master a game, looking for workarounds – yes, cheating – even amplyfies our creative efforts and must be regarded as an approach of its own to games. As Reto Wettach (one of my professors at FH Potsdam) and Ralf Grauel mention in their talk at Typo Berlin 2006, a game offers a unique combination of joy and mental activity, offering ideal possibilities for the growth of neurons in our brain. They even come to the conclusion that we are on the way from the achievment- towards a play-oriented society: Being not only faster and better in a playful competition, but finally winning by being smarter!

Moreover, it seems to me to be a small proof for my opinion that our society is judging about life-styles, activities and projects way to fast and with little regard for other than fast-paying economic factors. The importance of games was evident to Schiller already (in his Aesthetical Education of Man) and we are, however, still far form his ideas today

[Man] is only fully man where he plays