Current exhibition at MoMA. I don`t even need to comment…
The digital divide is today discussed as the divide between those who have access to The Net and those who do not (the “developed” world vs. the “developing” world). Projects like the Negroponti $100 laptop (also see “Poor People Need The $100 Laptop Because..) is applauded because it seeks to include yet more ‘technologically challenged’ (copyright..?) people into our information revolution. This is no doubt a pressing and interesting issue, and projects like this should obviously be recognized as a good initiative because of their motivation and good intentions. However, looking toward the future, when being online is no longer a option in the terms we think of it today, and unplugging or shielding oneself from visibility becomes a task in itself, being offline will be seen as a benefit, and a freedom.
I was very relieved to hear today in a Youtube clip from the Politics Online 2008, from Adam Greenfield who was on the panel, that this is exactly what a digital divide discussion will be about in our near future; to be able to exclude oneself from the ever present visibility on the network and to have the freedom to shut down, unplug and just be..
Adam Greenfield has admitted to be not a hundred percent optimistic about our future, and is concerned with how we design our ubiquitous future, giving much weight during his seminars on privacy issues, and the invasiveness of a pervasive technology environment. Also, listening to people like him as well as top researchers and technocrats worry about the same issues, leaves me only more secure in my hypothesis that our ubicomp future will come as a strange, scary and alienating experience particularly for elderly citizens (I have stopped thinking about them as “users” in this particular context, as they surely will become subject rather than active users of many types of coming technology).
This means for me, now walking several paralell concept paths, that the one regarding the freedom of being on the offline side of the divide is more interesting and urgent, while the one concerning bridging it, or rather ignoring it, could also render an elderly user somewhat more comfortable with being on the net, but it could also exclude itself precisely because it ignores this divide. Whether or not you will have people of the same age group and demographic on both sides of the divide is obvious, but as I see it, the more relevant issue for all of us, is the privacy issue. So now, working on different concepts very late in the project period, should I finalize the one adressing this very important and interesting issue, should I try to work around it, or should I choose to look on the bright side of it, and utilize the net for the possible rewards it could give elderly people? Certanly the latter would include them in a ubicomp society in a different way, perhaps balancing out the feeling of being unwillingly visible 24/7, or maybe making it worth while somehow, but would you be able to shake that feeling..?
Visuals of the concepts coming very soon.
I`ve had several meetings lately with design professors and researchers at AHO, where I discussed my hypothesis and subject matter for my thesis. Apparently, the issue of personal information security in a ubicomp society is an important one and a possible fruitful area for design intervention. The feedback from these meetings was concrete and to the point, and I feel I got some ground to stand on with my hypothesis. However, even though a solution for the elderly letting them stay in control of their interactions with ubiquitous technology is interesting, it was pointed out that I should continue to work on different types of concepts further, to increase my solution space. I very much agree with this, and I will try and develop several concepts side by side, utilizing a common scenario, but playing on different strings.
The project has changed a lot since my initial project brief; it contained a desire to create a fun, positive and motivating service for the elderly in a future ubicomp setting. However, reading about this coming technological society, several problems has come into consideration; and the issue of visibility and a sense of personal control I believe is very central to a future scenario of this kind, and a particularly interesting one for the future old. However, an issue like personal control (a psychological issue as much as an actual one) and new technology (about which an elderly person will possibly have little knowledge of, or interest in) is possible to adress i different ways. The product designerly way would be to produce a device, object or service rendering the elderly in actual control of their transactions and interactions with ubicomp. Another way, which I find very interesting, is the critical design approach, which through a more artistic installation or object explains and puts the finger on a specific issue, through which the technology itself is explained to the “user” or beholder.
The third way is of course to device a service or product utilizing the coming technology in a constructive manner, working out a way for people, the new old, to enjoy it. In my “ideabank” there still isn`t a convincing idea as I see it; but I will continue to work on it in paralell for a little while longer, to see if something comes out. Our AHO design theorist is right; we should not lock into a single concept to early! Diversity is gold..
This post is long overdue, as I`ve seen and read much about the very certain things that are about to come in terms of ubiquitous computing and our technological future, and some documentation that I`m aware of them could be useful.
The fact that more and more everyday objects are becoming wirelessly connected and able to communicate with each other, sending and transmitting content, personal information etc., is now almost an accepted reality before it`s even here. One of those technologies is the MultiTouch interface. I first heard about this when scanning web resources for coming technologies, and saw Jeff Han`s presentation at TED. Microsoft`s Surface computer is also much viewed on Youtube. Basic scenarios like using your breakfast table as an interface to read the news, control the TV, send an email etc, and being able to walk in to a cafe somewhere and get access to the internet on the tabletop there are being projected right now. Already certain restaurants have their menus on a surface screen on the table, and you can browse not only the food being served, but also its origin, the history of the country it`s from etc. It`s the natural heir to the touch screen from our train stations and drawing pads. The multi touch surface interface will soon become a more normal interface to use in homes and in public spaces, and it obviously opens up for a much more intuitive and hands on interaction with a computer. Whether it will include more people in using a computer is also outside any doubt.
When we think about new services and products for the future, linked to, or using mainstream technology to come, we have to be able to envision an everyday use of it; put ourselves in the context of the culture, age, workplace or home, and the actual application. The way to think about it could almost be taking the technology for granted and using it as a stepping stone to see beyond it, to the people using it, and in which way. This is not always an easy task, when the technology never stops evolving. However, inventions are always done on the basis of something already in existance. The Multitouch interface is almost here now, in 2008. So what will happen in the following years? Will we go from firm surfaces to projected, lucid ones? Plastic paper surfaces? Glasses? Will the screen disappear completely by 2020? Will our own bodies be used as conductors for visible information?
Some things we are sure of today we will have tomorrow:
– MultiTouch screen interface
– Flexible Silicone Screens
– Wireless network access everywhere
– Intelligent Clothes
– Nanotech Medical Robots
– Everyday products built by Nanotechnology
– Several new virtual worlds (virtual business, stockmarkets, real estate, schools, universities, relationships will grow)
– Intelligent Robots
– Quantum computing
– Cheap space travel
..and a lot more which already are “mainstream concepts”. The interesting part for me is the way we will react to the development of these technologies, and how the generation of the new old will react to it and to which degree they will use it. Will they be pioneers the ubicomp future or will they be the excluded class citizens?
Food for thought. Take a look at phycisist Michio Kaku`s documentary giving a vision of the future :
I found this set of questions related to the sense of personal control interesting. They are related to persons living with cancer, an insecure state of living, where the people involved are asked to identify what gives them a sense of control. Under the link you can see what they answered. Note that Knowledge – Information is on first place. Perhaps drawing a paralell between living with a serious illness and living as an elder in a ubicomp society is stretching it far, but sometimes people who are in such an insecure situation give very honest answers, and can give an indication on what is relevant for all of us.
In today`s online society and communication framework we use interfaces and services which allow for some degree of control of ourselves by ourselves, but we still relinquish a lot to chance, thinking that nobody will probably bother looking at MY information. This is nowhere as evident as in Facebook, where alot of possibilities for control is embedded in the service, but very few people use them. Another trait is that all the “fun” applications on Facebook requires you to give the service provider access to your personal information and your consent to use it.
Facebook users have shown that we are moving the limits for what we consider privacy online, not just through giving consent to access personal information(more or less conscious), but also sharing pictures and messages online. An important trait of Facebook is that it`s usually Your identity shown online, not a manufactured one, like you would do in online games or in SecondLife, building an avatar to act as an agent for you in the virtual world. This avatar can look like you or be something completely different; an alien or a different species. These are two different directions of exposing oneself online, that in my opinion are converging as we become more of an online based society, having the possibility to have many different identities online. This is one way to stay in control of your online prescence, and a way to stay free. The feeling of staying in control, and not be controlled by technological services can be a blurred line, and not easy to understand, especially for older people. I believe that when we move toward a type of society where we are constantly online, and most of our transactions are done online, our information and communication exchange happens online, we will have to redefine our concept of freedom; in a society where you are visible all the time, the concept of freedom becomes dependant on a concept of control. Your control over our own online presentation of self.
Throughout my research period, which is still ongoing, I`ve come across alot of evidence and future visions about our society; an all-connected, all wireless, all including one. But will the future old feel that way? The reality for today`s elderly, and for many adults today is the notion that technological development; “progress”, is running at top speed, and it`s just too much to even think about keeping up with, let alone take a stand on. In short; many simply do not care. Is that the reason why we accept yet more invading tech solutions and less privacy? Or do we willingly pay the price to get more and easier communication channels, yet more accessibility to content and apparently useful services? Then of course there is the fear of the unknown; every system put into place that has a farther reach than that which you can oversee in the moment you use it implants insecurity and fear of the further use of it. Will my personal information be scrutinized by unauthorized others? Could I become robbed by a sweep of an RFID reader? Could I lose face being observed when I don`t want to be?
The upbringing of the boomers had little or nothing to do with technology in the way we now think about technology; it wasn`t even lo-tech as much as no-tech. Toys and games were tangible, natural and exploration was done through physically interacting with the world. And as much as this generation has been pioneers of our ongoing technological advancement, as users they are as diverse as any demographic, and they also need time to adjust to new developments. I still talk to people in their 50`s who rarely use the internet, always prefer a newpaper to an online one, and lead their lives as unplugged as possible. Others are pure technology buffs, taking joy and pride in having the latest cell phone and using the internet every day to communicate and work. So, designing for a future ubicomp scenario could have two obvious directions; either finding a solution utilizing the technology, or looking at the flip side of it; rooted in a growing concern for the misuse of it, the fearful notion of being locked to a grid, of being under surveillance.
Which is more probable to hit home with an elderly of tomorrow? Hard to say. Especially in America, where the Patriot Act was passed after 9/11, personal freedom is a very sensitive issue. The idea that phone calls, emails and internet chat logs could be viewed by the government under a pretext of fighting terrorist activity, created extreme controversy. This feeling is not limited to America. The fear of a Big Brother society runs deep in most cultures. Japan, traditionally having a very welcoming and open attitude toward technology, has already implemented RFID tags in many services beyond logistics, but some of the most vivid depictions of the downsides of a supertechnological society also comes from Japan; Ghost in the Shell, Akira and the manga version of the classic Metropolis are films showing futuristic scenarios where humanity lives under the foot of a single controlling political entity.
Which take on the future scenario would make the more interesting concept, or an interesting discussion? The latter offers a view on many possible dangers of technology, and can raise a needed discussion on how to include elders when designing for the future. It can also say much about the different cultures you design for. Many of the new products and services to come will be online based, which means a great deal of development of new software will be made to accompany them.
Our cultural values are all the time influencing, and being influenced by, technological development, and the way we interact with technology will also strongly affect the way we interact across cultural borders.
Cultural values can be explained as our attitudes toward other attitudes, and in particular; general and commonly accepted attitudes within a population. To try and describe these attitudes in countries like Norway, Italy and Japan, is difficult, and the definitions become dependant on the comparison itself (comparing Norway to the USA, for instance, brings out a different perspective). I also want to avoid stereotypes, but probably some aspects will reflect them, even though I rely on research and my own experience from having lived in these cultures over a longer period of time.
Without going too much in depth on cultural psychology or anthropology, I would just like to outline some clear differences between the three cultures I`ve chosen as inspiration; Norway, Italy and Japan.
To condense in a few words what defines a style or a cultural identity in design and product development is difficult and dangerous, with the risk of stereotyping. It is obvious that today we have the possibility to find inspiration from everywhere, and this means that the concept of universal design perhaps does not only apply to objects designed for the optimal ease of use, it also applies to a universal sense of aesthetics somehow. Norwegian design has traditionally foucsed on being practical and solid, with a very clean cut look to objects; I interpret it as leaving a lot to the remaining space, the context of the object, like you would se a boat on the sea, or a tree on a snowclad field. Simple beauty. Minimalism became a mantra in the 90`s, strangely enough with the explosion of the internet, and when a new way of doing international trade got foothold. It gave the possibility to many smaller manufacturers and companies to do business across borders. Perhaps this context let people wanting to find that universally common aesthetic, in order to expand commercial reach. Japan on the other side of the world, has traditionally had geometric perfection and minimalistic shapes as the epitome of aesthetics, but because of it the japanese have been a lot more experimental and playful in designing and developing products in order to let it evolve. Great examples are the works of Naoto Fukasawa, who has designed many of Japan`s landmark objects of today, for japanese IDEO, Muji and manufacturers worldwide, including many italian. This is also curious, since Italy has a very strong tradition in designing classically beautiful objects, a serious type of beauty, that comes from a lot more maximalist and exponential aesthetic value. Now, Italy`s great designers aren`t young designers anymore; Sotsass, Castiglioni and Mendini for instance still are the names that tie italian design to great quality and innovation.
The tendency today, as I see it, is that the traditional national identity in design is no longer that; we do have a different approach because of our ways of communication and because so many have been open to different points of view, including them in their design. It`s much more important to make good stuff than it is to follow cultural dogma. (Yet, this is what we are told is necessary to understand the user and the user context. Ref. ZIBA`s Lenovo project in China.) Still, the values that define our cultural identity are very visible. Italian designers, having adopted much from both scandinavian and japanese design, still make classical beauty standards, and norwegian designers still think in a very practical way. Japan pays western designers a great deal more than their native ones, in order to get more western values incorporated in their products.
So what does this mean? We seem to have one eye on the world and another on culture. The future, it seems, is the global culture, where our cultural roots serve as inspiration and are visible only through bits and screens; the one in Japan the same as here. In Japan, the playful approach to design is visible in other cultural phenomena; movies, TV shows, karaoke, videogames and personalization of cell phones, fashion and street subcultures. In Italy, the street is culture, but the idea of classical idea of quality is the value that perforates everything. Norwegian behavior reflects much of the old, traditional values; the strong individual, high moral standards, and a sense of quality through nature. Quality is the key factor here. What defines quality in different cultural contexts? In Norway, it seems like quality is an untouchable value; there is only one way that is the best way, and there can be no discussion about it. Quality is quality. It is hard to pinpoint which value drives innovation in different cultures when what is being made is made for mass consumption on a global scale. I mentioned Lenovo`s project in China, where a year was spent doing cultural research to get a clear picture of the user context for a product innovation strategy specifically designed for chinese youth. The result of a research phase like that can spawn many project ideas and has value for Lenovo far beyond China.
It is well known that what is designed specifically for one user can be desirable for many others, especially when we talk about technology. Here, the cultural issue can be left out; we have almost a common technological culture throughout the world. What we are accustomed to in the developed world, is just as applicable elsewhere. Many products specifically designed for japanese consumers, like HD viedo cameras, MP3 players and cars work fantasticly in the west. A product designed specifically for a japanese context, like the keitai (cell phone w/internet connection/RFID), would be very interesting to western users had we had the same type of services connected to it. Here in the west the services connected to mobile phones aren`t that well developed yet; costs are different and subscriptions favor other solutions. Also, the software is developed for different use. Vodafone Europe, Nokia and Sony Ericsson make software for their phones based on models intended for various users, according to the research done on the european users. But do we know that, if mobile phone software were developed here for Nokia or Sony Ericsson that allowed you to send emails from your phone as easily as an sms, mobile internet wouldn`t be used as much as there? Would we not use our phones to pay our groceries at the supermarket instead of a creditcard? And would we not use a phone to pay our bills? And what happens when video communication becomes the norm? Will we make solutions based on global cultural standards or our traditional ones?