Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Marcuse and Morozov: 'One-dimensionality' and 'Technological Solutionism'

Evgeny Morozov is an author who just published his new book "To Save Everything-- The Folly of Technological Solutionism". Morozov is highly opinionated, he pushes arguments to the extreme, and he is probably to many both offensive and plainly 'loud'. However, he makes the case that some of the questions he raises are not raised by anyone today. The longterm consequences of the technologically based 'solutions' that we develop are never examined and discussed in the way they deserve according to Morozov. He makes the argument that we are on a dangerous track when we believe that by quantifying, tracking, capturing, gamifying human behavior we can also solve our societal problems. However, the most serious problem is not that we are actually already doing this, but that there seems to be an overwhelming consensus that this is not really problematic.

I am drawn to Morozov's book partly because I am working on a chapter about the notion of the 'one-dimensional man' by Herbert Marcuse. Marcuse was a philosopher and one of the founders of critical theory, and a serious critique of the modern Western society. The notion of the 'one-dimensional man' refers to the situation when society provides everyone (or a majority) with all that is needed and desired. All critique is absorbed by the existing structure, new radical cultural movements become fashionable and harmless, and after some time, no one can even imagine a different society (except for small variations). We are all seeing everything in the same way, we are becoming 'one-dimensional'.

So, two extraordinary and different thinkers can be read as having something in common, that is, a belief that our society is shaping us to not see and understand what is good for us. We have designed a 'system' that makes us products of our own ignorance.

Read the two books, but please keep an open mind, they may upset you...

Friday, April 19, 2013

Critical Design Exhibition (ISTC event)

Last evening we had a great exhibition of six 'critical designs' called  "The Fragile Self in Anxious Times." The exhibition was part of our involvement in the Intel ISTC Social Computing project. The designs are by our PhD students Shad Gross and Youngsuk Lee who are working with Jeff Bardzell, Shaowen Bardzell and me.

The six designs are exciting examples of what happens when you design interactive devices that are not designed for a well defined purpose and functionality and without any well-defined intended user. The designs are meant to express some aspects of 'criticality'. (I should have some pictures here of course, maybe I can add that later.)

In relation to the concrete design work we are also developing a theoretical framework about  what 'criticality' stands for in design. The reason for this work is that we found ourselves quite frustrated with the way critical design has previously been defined. We are making good progress and will at some point present our theoretical framework.

Anyway, yesterday we had the exhibition and about 50 students and faculty were engaged with the designs, all documenting their immediate thoughts and reflections. We were also happy to have Melissa Gregg from Intel visiting us during the exhibition.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

New book: Mads Nygaard Folkmann's book "The aesthetics of Imagination in Design"

I have the pleasure working with Ken Friedman as Series Editors for a MIT Press book series called Design Thinking/Design Theory. Today I got the fourth book in the series which is  Mads Nygaard Folkmann's book "The aesthetics of Imagination in Design". Here is how the book is presented by MIT Press:

"In The Aesthetics of Imagination in Design, Mads Folkmann investigates design in both material and immaterial terms. Design objects, Folkmann argues, will always be dual phenomena—material and immaterial, sensual and conceptual, actual and possible. Drawing on formal theories of aesthetics and the phenomenology of imagination, he seeks to answer fundamental questions about what design is and how it works that are often ignored in academic research."

It is exciting to work with a book series and one of the perks is that you get to see so many book proposals usually a couple of years before they are books, so it is a way of looking into the future. Unfortunately the vast majority of the proposals we get are never written. It seems as if many feel the calling to write a book but few have the time and energy it takes (they definitely do not lack good ideas!).

Anyway, take a look at these books and remember that we are always looking for ideas and manuscripts. Just email me if you want to discuss your ideas. You do not have to have a finished proposal or draft, just some ideas are ok to start with.

Remember that books usually have much more impact on a field than any articles and they stay relevant for a long time and do not get old in the same way. 

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

The fear of 'big data'

In my early days of my undergraduate education we read a lot about the relation between the model in the computer and the part of reality that the model was supposed to represent. My most influential professor at that time, Kristo Ivanov, always warned us about the danger when data is seen as a 'resource' like a natural resource to be harvest. He always stressed that all data, and even more so information, is the result of a process that involves mechanisms, procedures, measuring, and choices that ultimately rests on values and are driven by intentions. He always claimed: "there is no "raw" data". It is fascinating to see the exact same discussion emerging today  in the wake of the enormous interest in 'big data'. The same topics that were heavily discussed in the late 70s are again examined. The content of a new book "Raw data is an oxymoron" edited by Lisa Gitelman (MIT Press, 2013) is an evidence of that (here is a good review).

The discussion in the 70s about data, information and knowledge and how (computerized) models form and shape our reality was maybe exaggerated and raised way too early. The consequences of the use of data at that time was rather minimal, the computational abilities and even more the lack of 'data' made the fear of data used wrongly quite 'academic'. However with the advent of 'big data' and with the computational powers of today, the consequences are now real and have to be addressed.

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