Thesis | Pivots & New ‘Beginnings’

Last time I checked in here, I submitted an updated design brief, production plan, and user test for D’Art, a project that explored how speculative design and artistic practice can help people reimagine value and new economies, given emerging technology like the blockchain.

Reflection

I first started this project because deep down I believe that technology has the power to disrupt the establishment. Not “the establishment” as in “the man”, rather the established, core ideas we have as a society about how the world can work, should work, and does work. Technology can open up new ways of thinking and being, new futures that have radically different socio-economic, political and cultural paradigms for how we live and work and play.

But change always has to start from somewhere and I wanted to understand how emerging technologies, ones that were new enough to have unknown potential and scale, could shape these futures and more importantly, what kind of futures they would shape.

Why Decentralization?

After witnessing the Internet enact a similar change in my own life, radically transforming communication and information exchange throughout the years, I wanted to understand what else could be disrupted, what else could change, and what theoretical frameworks could be employed to understand and measure this change. Finally, I started to gather up my thoughts and research around the theme of ‘decentralization’ meaning any technology that ‘redistributes or disperses functions, powers, people, or things away from a central location or authority’ (Wikipedia, Decentralization). Looking at the potential for technology to decentralize communication/information, I started looking into emerging technologies that continued this process across new domains. It was here I found the blockchain protocol, one technology intimately embedded in a larger ecosystem of alternative currencies (local currencies, barters), new understandings of collaboration and contribution (time banks, gift economy), and most importantly radically different views on decentralization (from anarcho-syndicalism to alt-right homesteads).

Enter the Blockchain

Finally, I started to gather up my thoughts and research around the theme of ‘decentralization’ meaning any technology that ‘redistributes or disperses functions, powers, people, or things away from a central location or authority’ (Wikipedia, Decentralization). Looking at the potential for technology to decentralize communication/information, I started looking into emerging technologies that continued this process across new domains. It was here I found the blockchain protocol, one technology intimately embedded in a larger ecosystem of alternative currencies (local currencies, barters), new understandings of collaboration and contribution (time banks, gift economy), and most importantly radically different views on decentralization (from anarcho-syndicalism to alt-right homesteads).

Narrowing my focus, I dove deep into the blockchain and became super excited at its possibilities, its potential – if only more people could use it and see for themselves! I mean, self-owned autonomous cars, collaborative business models that paid out in new and bizarre networks of work, value, investment, use-cases that went far far deeper than ‘digital cash’ and ‘cryptocurrencies’ and really focused on what exactly value, currency, and contribution mean in a mixed digital/physical world.

ReSettlers | Teaching the Blockchain Protocol

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First I thought that I could teach people how the blockchain worked. Through this process, I hypothesized that they would come to understand value in a new way, as had done, when undergoing a similar learning experience. I created ReSettlers through several iterations to explore this idea. At the end of the day, it did a really great job teaching how the blockchain technically worked, but a very poor job at opening peoples understandings of value in the same way as my own. I realized that I was also looking at several practical use-cases (usually just proposed given how new the tech is) and connecting these ideas to new imaginings. Without a similar grounding in the research and ecosystem, people playing my game came away with a better understanding, but not a fundamental shift in their thinking.

D’Art | Collaborative Artwork on the Blockchain

I moved on to thinking about artistic practice and how collaborative art could potentially showcase the magic and wonder I felt the blockchain opened up, the new capabilities it gave people to collectively invest in and co-create artworks and signage – especially given how much of our world is devoted to screens.

 

I created a few basic prototypes in this direction, and while I got great feedback that collaborative LED sculptures over web ecosystem were super cool, no one really understood why the blockchain should be involved, except as a way to pay bitcoins for access. Still, the idea of value wasn’t being redefined or explored, just recapitulated in a digital form. aldkjflsjd;aksd!!!

Pivots | It started with a conversation…

At the beginning of this semester, I started moving forward with the collaborative artwork idea, convinced I could make it happen, or at least beautiful and started my work.

Then a funny thing happened. A good friend of mine, and roommate all throughout my trip around China last Spring came up to me outside the building with a proposition. She had been looking at the blockchain as well, partially because of me talking about it all the time, partially because she is super smart and likes to learn a variety of things. She said she had an idea for a business use case or at least a proof of concept.

Listening to her, I realized that she and I had very similar ideas about how the blockchain could be used. Ironically, her idea fit perfectly with a very similar idea (although from a different angle) I had explored last spring, in my speculative fiction, What’s Your Contribution? A love Story. Without saying too much, we are both very interested in the future of digital manufacturing and how it might open up new abundances and work arrangements between individuals. Throughout the fall, my Thesis research also touched a lot on this subject, through the decentralizing potential of modern technology to disrupt traditional systems and infrastructures in new sectors, specifically Jeremy Rifkin’s ‘Third Industrial Revolution’ and David Rushkoff’s ideas about the ‘velocity of money. Rifkin’s thesis was that a combination of new technologies in manufacturing, energy, and communication would soon create a new industrial revolution of digital manufacturing and mass customization where traditional economies of scale and massive resource-extraction based manufacturing and consumption would topple as new, distributed, local systems emerged.

The Idea

I don’t want to go too deep into it here, that is for a further post, but suffice it to say that we had been discussing this and talking about it for months beforehand, without quite realizing where we were getting to. Last week we finally got there. It was so exciting, so exhilarating to speak it out loud, to start intellectually shaping it into something we really thought had potential to change how people perceived value, but more importantly how they actually exchanged it and used it every day. In fact, it reminded me of the theme of Bucky Fuller’s Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Science approach, if you build a sufficiently usable and timely artifact that can solve for a problematic behavior, people will adopt it and leave off that behavior.

We had to go for it. 

So D’Art has been put on the backburner for now, and Project X has begun – project X being a neutral name until it has a real one. 🙂 It has been a crazy week of re-organizing research, creating organization and communication systems between us, lists of stakeholder interviews that must be accomplished, design precedent Pinterest, whiteboards full of systems mapping and more, but I can finally say that Thesis just feels right. After a 3 sentence explanation of our idea, I can visibly see the cogs in people’s heads turning. The idea isn’t quite polished and will certainly morph and change as we continue to grow in our knowledge of the problem we are trying to solve and how exactly we are accomplishing it, but the framework is there and it is beautiful. I’m so excited to continue working and to get this idea out there, regardless of it becomes a Proof of Concept or a full-fledged business.

Moving Forward

Over the next few days, I will play a little bit of catch up on this idea (since I needed to redo all the work this semester so far) and will catch up this blog on where we are now, having completed a round of user testing, some interviews, and already making awesome progress shaping the idea!

Stay tuned. ❤

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