Designing for technological context

The growing complexity of design and architecture will require a new definition of design foundations, practice, and theory.

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt by Matt Nish-Lapidus from our recent book Designing for Emerging Technologies, a collection of works by several authors and edited by Jon Follett. This excerpt is included in our curated collection of chapters from the O’Reilly Design library. Download a free copy of the Designing for the Internet of Things ebook here.

Bruce Sterling wrote in Shaping Things that the world is becoming increasingly connected, and the devices by which we are connecting are becoming smarter and more self aware. When every object in our environment contains data collection, communication, and interactive technology, how do we as human beings learn how to navigate all of this new information? We need new tools as designers — and humans — to work with all of this information and the new devices that create, consume, and store it.

Today, there’s a good chance that your car can park itself. Your phone likely knows where you are. You can walk through the interiors of famous buildings on the web. Everything around us is constantly collecting data, running algorithms, calculating outcomes, and accumulating more raw data than we can handle.

We all carry minicomputers in our pockets, often more than one; public and private infrastructure collects terabytes of data every minute; and personal analytics has become so commonplace that it’s more conspicuous to not collect data about yourself than to record every waking moment. In many ways, we’ve moved beyond Malcolm McCullough’s ideas of ubiquitous computing put forth in Digital Ground and into a world in which computing isn’t only ubiquitous and invisible, but pervasive, constant, and deeply embedded in our everyday lives.

Augmented reality (AR) is here, already engrained in our understanding of the world. The screen-based AR espoused by apps such as Layar is primitive compared to the augmentations that we all use on a daily basis. Google Maps, Twitter, Facebook, Nike FuelBand, and more are prime examples of how we are already augmenting our reality in fundamental ways that are less obvious and intrusive than digital overlays (which will see their day eventually, I’m sure). We have been augmenting our reality since the invention of clothing allowed us to live in harsher climates, and now we are augmenting it with networked technology, giving us not just a sixth sense, but a seventh, eighth, and ninth as well.

We have been augmenting our reality since the invention of clothing allowed us to live in harsher climates, and now we are augmenting it with networked technology.

As augmentation and networks change our understanding of reality, we begin to understand old technology through our lens of new media. A chair is no longer solely a physical object that exists in our environment; it is now an interactive object by which specific behavior and person-to-person relationships can emerge from its use. A building is no longer only a collection of materials that defines a place; it is also understood through its interactions with people, the interactions it facilitates, and how it interacts or interferes with our networked augmentations. We are McLuhan-esque cyborgs, with media devices that extend our bodies and minds from the outside. Objects that exist as part of this network become more than their discrete pieces; we internalize their behavior, and it changes the way we understand our world and ourselves.

We can see shifts in common language that allude to these changes. We talk about “downloading” knowledge from one person to another and “interfacing” with organizations. Words like “interface,” “download,” and “stream,” once not commonly used outside of technological circles, are now part of our daily lexicon, used in reference to their technological meaning as well as applied to much older concepts in the physical world.

A 2007 study on mobile phone usage conducted by Nokia concluded that the mobile phone is now one of the most essential items for daily use around the world, putting it in the same social category as wallets and keys. They identified that it wasn’t only the object itself that is important to people; it is the social identity it provides that people value. The phone is more than an object — it is a lifeline, a gateway through which people connect with their families, friends, livelihood, and communities. This is even truer now with the prevalence of smartphones with always-on Internet access. The smartphone has become one of the current embodiments of the networked world; more than its function, more than its form, it is a social safety net that allows people to travel or live farther away from their homes and still feel connected.

The smartphone is still a tangible object, one that we can understand through our hands and eyes, and it has connections to the network that we can see and feel. A greater shift is occurring now through objects that connect in less visible ways — objects that act on our behalf, or against us, without our explicit knowledge. The ethical implications and choices made by algorithms that determine the flow of traffic, our food supply chain, market pricing, and how you measure your fitness are present in our lives but are largely below the surface.

As connected systems spring up around the world, often bypassing the more outdated infrastructures we are dealing with here in North America, we need to begin considering the biases and implications of our choices when designing these systems, objects, and networks. For example, the current sensors used to trigger traffic lights often rely on induction pads embedded in the road. These sensors only detect cars and other large vehicles, and are unable to sense bicycles and pedestrians. There’s an implicit decision made about the relative importance of different modes of transportation. A traffic system built on an inductive sensor network will always prioritize car and truck traffic over cyclists, for example, making the city a less hospitable place to ride a bike. This can, in turn, impact population density, pollution, congestion, parking, employment, injury rates, and more.

We don’t need to begin again, but we do need to continue to evolve our practice.

As we move even further into a networked world, we as designers of these new devices and services need to understand all aspects of our new environment. The complexity of design and architecture will only continue to grow and require a new definition of design foundations, practice, and theory.

This might seem daunting, but no more so than the nature of mass manufacturing and new materials seemed to the early industrial designers and architects of the 20th century. We must look to new media art practice, design history, and new research in order to apply our craft to our current context. Designers make things that reflect their environments, but also shape those same environments through the objects they create, laying the foundation for the future.

We have strong foundations stretching back more than a century of art, architecture, and industrial design. We don’t need to begin again, but we do need to continue to evolve our practice to incorporate new techniques, tools, and capabilities that help us understand the potential of today’s technology.

What are the aesthetics of feedback, immersion, and communication? How can we apply foundations of interaction, such as time and metaphor, to the exchange of data between machines that facilitates an athlete learning how to perform better? What is a beautiful network, and how do we recognize and critique it? These are the questions we now face, ones that we will continue to explore through our work and try to answer with objects, systems, places, and conversations.

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