Thesis | Updates & Pivots

A summary of my progress, research, and journey towards my MFA Design + Technology thesis project for Spring 2017.

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Catching Up

So it’s been a long time since I’ve actually gotten to sit down and check in about my Thesis, but there has been a lot of progress made, ideas redirected, and pivots made – but always with one foot placed firmly in my core design and research values.

The last time I checked in, I described some prototypes I was making to explore speculative design practice – how to craft speculation and scenarios, and how objects, systems, and artifacts can be designed to embody the ideas, hopes, fears and desires of potential futures.

These prototypes reflected extensive research I was doing into Speculative Design as a domain, both academic research and precedents from  artists and designers in this field. I was very interested in understanding how designing for speculative futures can be used as a tool to put today’s ideas and challenges into focus.

Instead of just trying to solve the immediate problem in front of us, what would it be like to instead reimagine how the systems causing and perpetuating the issues could look in the future to explore potential solutions? Or perhaps to imagine how the problem could get worse and how we would have to adapt to a new normal that takes its existence into account.

Coming to Some Realizations

While my research was fascinating and the prototypes were informative from a technical standpoint, I was still not focusing enough and was creating things without a real hard inquiry for the making. This actually became more clear as I tried to build prototypes. When trying to explore scenario-building exercises with small groups, I felt stumped when creating the “What If” question.

I knew I was interested in the idea of accelerating technological progress and an inability to imagine our future collectively as a result. I felt that this leads to disappointingly uneven and uninformed progress. Those creating the technology and making the technical decisions as to how it’s organized (the coders, the silicon valley and silicon alley companies, the new payments startup, or addictive click-your-life-away apps) seem to have more of a say over our future because they are the ones imagining it and bringing it to life faster and faster. Yet many of our world’s biggest problems remain unaddressed at scale, wealth remains undistributed, in the hands of an elite few, and the earth continues to be treated as an auto-refresh resource to power every new and connection.

Speculative Design felt like a way to address these questions, to more diversely and critically discuss the implications of emerging technology and create a more diverse steering committee for progress. But if Speculative Design was a way to imagine the future through objects, scenarios, ecosystems and artistic practice, what was the future I wanted to start imagining?

Revisiting Decentralized Systems

Another course of research I had been pursuing throughout this process was looking at Jeremy Rifkin’s Third Industrial Revolution and Zero Marginal Cost Society, positing that industrial revolutions occur when technology disrupts and changes an intimately interconnected system of energy, communications, and logistics. The relationships between these three systems are closely linked and a technological revolution in any one of the three usually heralds a corresponding revolution in the other two (think steam engines + printing press + trains, or electricity + radio/TV + cars/trucks).  These sorts of shifts remake society and he believes we are on the edge of another one.

Part of this shift entails a new “multipurpose platform” for transacting energy, communication, and logistics in a decentralized manner. In fact, the communication shift, through the Internet revolution, had already occurred and the other two were slowly catching up. Rifkin thinks that a big part of this will involve the Internet of Things and sensor technology, allowing us to access real-time data about more and more of our world and the things in it.

This twining of emerging technologies across a platform of things, energy, and logistics (think automated cars and drones) is also echoed in Benjamin Bratton’s idea of the “stack” where he explores how planetary-scale computation is shaping geopolitical realities. His stack “…takes different forms at different scales—from energy and mineral sourcing and subterranean cloud infrastructure to urban software and massive universal addressing systems; from interfaces drawn by the augmentation of the hand and eye to users identified by self—quantification and the arrival of legions of sensors, algorithms, and robots.” (Stack Overview)

Bratton proposes that different genres of computation like  smart grids, cloud platforms, the Internet of Things or automation – are forming an accidental megastructure called The Stack, both a real, physical computer system and a new governing architecture for the world.

Where is the revolution?

But even if Rifkin’s “Third Industrial Revolution” or Bratton’s accidental Stack megastructure are in motion, most people have lost their ability to concretely imagine what our future will look like as a result. It is as Bratton says, an accident from so many strands of asynchronous innovation and tech disruption. If these revolutions are in fact happening, if systems are going the way of the Internet and becoming decentralized, whether finance, governance, market exchanges, education, or even art and design, why is it that we can’t imagine how these changes will shape our future?

I like Frederic Jameson’s answer to this question:

“It has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

It is because our current paradigm, our all-encompassing worldview that informs how we think things do and should work is still stuck in the 20th century. Like the past Capitalist derived system of large-scale fossil fuel extraction, top-down and one-way communication and creation through cable TV providers, phone companies, radio communication, and massive logistics networks and economies of scale built upon automobile shipping and car culture, our mindsets fundamentally can’t imagine how things will be different.

While the Internet was kind of a wake-up call – after all people were writing “Declarations of Independence” upon its wide scale adoption in the nineties – companies quickly found new service delivery platforms and business models by taxing content creators, distributors, and consumers by mediating transactions through elegantly designed and curated user experience interfaces that tax users for free services through data collection and corresponding ad sales.

So how can we turn people on to the potential of emerging technology to create more lateral, bottom-up, collaborative and member-driven communities and networks? What will our new socioeconomic paradigm be as these technologies become more and more mainstream, transforming every sector in their wake. Who will decide what it is and will past maneuvers towards re-centralization or new ways to capture data and value repeat themselves and reinforce control?

The impetus behind all of my research is to help educate and empower more people to be engaged in shaping these answers.

As these thoughts came together I realized that I was so focused on Speculative Design as an answer because is a process for engaging with ideas about technology and systems design that don’t fit within the current paradigm of commercial design, user experience or interface design. Decentralization is embraced for technical reasons – look at the success of the so-called “sharing economy” – but hard to explore in many of its forms because commercially motivated endeavors rely on solving real-time problems and pain points through reasonably innovative methods.

Reaching Out for Insight, The Blockchain Protocol

I decided to speak to my teacher David Carroll about the concerns I was having and he pointed me in the direction of exploring new frameworks and methodologies for decentralized services. To begin with, he asked me to look into the blockchain protocol and how some artists and designers are working to explores its potential.

In short, a blockchain is a business network, in which members exchange items of value through a ledger, which each member possesses and whose content is always in sync with the others. (IBM) Bitcoin was the first application built using this protocol in 2009 and has since exploded in popularity.

While many focus on its financial aspects, namely the creation and management of a decentralized and borderless cryptocurrency, the blockchain protocol has several other implications in areas as diverse as property, internet of things, energy and climate, identity and governance, smart contracts and autonomous contracts and organizations. It sounds fantastic at first, but there has been a lot of activity in this area in the last few years and new ideas and applications are being made every day.

However, like the Internet (HTTP/IP/TCP protocols), the blockchain protocol can evolve several ways depending on how it is used.

If left fully decentralized and anonymous in implementation, it can create access to financial transactions for billions of unbanked citizens, provide new methods for business organization and investment that cut-out the need for formal corporate organization, and even allow for autonomous contracts between people and machines (think a self-driving car that automatically can be hailed by passengers, paid for with bitcoin, and that is programmed to refuel and repair itself – owned by no one).

It can also be implemented in private, partially decentralized fashions, such as those proposed by banks to enable rapid transactions around the world. Whatever the implementation, blockchain and emerging technologies like it are projected to have huge implications for shaping our future socioeconomic and governance methods.

I decided that this new (yet not quite unexpected) intersection of my research domains was worth further exploration and making.

As for Speculative Design, I realized it was the lens or position for my work, not the topic. It was a process for exploring how a technology like the blockchain protocol could reshape our future.  

A New Concept Statement

Building on David’s suggestions and new research I did as a result, I recreated my concept statement and gave my project a working title, “Transfiction” (Transitional Fictions).

TransFiction explores how artistic practice and speculative design can educate and empower people to get involved with blockchain technology and discuss how it should be used in the future.

I will experiment with different speculative and artistic applications built on the blockchain to explore its potential for new forms of economies and social coordination.
Use speculative design as a creative way to explain how it works, its potential, and people can get involved.

Impetus (Why is this Important?)
By helping people engage with the potential benefits and consequences of blockchain technology now, I hope to inspire them to imagine and experiment with new paradigms for our economic and social future.

Next Steps

For my next steps, I need to explore the issues and implications of the blockchain protocol in depth through a combination of academic and sector-based research, learning how to use the technologies in various fashions, making prototypes that seek to explain and embody its values and potential new interactions it creates, and getting involved with communities and experts exploring decentralized networks, technologies, platforms, and systems design, especially those working with the blockchain.

To begin with, I plan to take tutorials on Ethereum and, creating my first blockchain decentralized-applications (D’Apps) and smart contracts.

I also plan to make an interactive prototype that explores how to educate people about the fundamental values and capabilities of the blockchain protocol to open up space for discussion and imagination of its uses.

Finally, I will be attending two conferences, Radical Networks and Platform Cooperativism as well as arranging interviews with experts in Speculative Design, bitcoin, blockchain protocol, and decentralized systems design.

In my next posts, I will provide updates on all of these fronts, so stay tuned!

Midterm Presentation

You can check out the slides from my midterm presentation describing the evolution of my thoughts and progress below.

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