Friday, February 24, 2006

Where things come from and where they go

When I consider ideal applications of mobile technologies, one of the things I consistently return to is the potential for rfids and such to inform and educate consumers, and ideally, to facilitate greater interaction and accountability between regulators, producers, distributors and consumers in the process.

I think that art projects like MILK and How Stuff is Made are totally brilliant. I also love Christien Meindertsma's FLOCKS project that Regine blogged the other day. (Actually, when reading an article about it, I learned that rfids are also being deployed in archaeological excavation and artefact reconstruction. Cool.)

But what's it going to take to get ideas like these out of the lab/museum/festival circuit and into my local stores and services? I mean I love these sort of story-telling and mapping projects, but what about putting that sort of creativity to use in mundane but nonetheless politically-charged activities like buying food? And I don't just mean for well-to-do hipsters who invest substantial energy in establishing organic, fair-trade identities - I'm talking about good and useful stuff for tired single-mums buying groceries on the way home from work, or temporary labourers stopping at the Food Bank when money is short.


Anonymous nick knouf said...

Interesting thoughts.

I agree that the art projects you mentioned are great means for educating people about the histories of commodities; yet (and I worry that this comes dangerously close to falling towards nostalgia) I wonder what happens when everything has a story that can come via a tag. How will we integrate all of these narratives together; that is, given the sheer number of stories that can be told about every object, every idea, every person, what ways will we use to choose the stories that interest us? Objects will no longer merely exist in our environment; they will come with additional baggage (or enhancements, depending on your frame of mind) that we can access, rather than making up own own histories based on speculation or fantasies. I wonder about this not from a technical point of view, but rather from a conceptual one.

About your last point, asking when these projects will make it to people outside of the standard circuits, I have been thinking about this in terms of technological augmentation of clothing, something I've been involved with off an on over the last year through the production of a couple of fashion shows. While so much of the work in this melding of technology and fashion tends towards the fanciful and luminous (ooh! blinky LEDs!), I've been thinking that in fact, the real killer app (I hate that phrasing, but have nothing better; suggestions?) is in precisely the areas that you mentioned in your post. Specifically, what ways could we design clothing for the migrant worker that improves his or her ability to communicate with distant family; to gather energy (via solar power) for home while toiling outside all day; to surreptitiously record acts of workplace intimidation. The list can go on. These types of situations seem to me to be the places where technologies such as you describe might make the greatest impact.

Unfortunately, I don't have a solution as to how one can transport these ideas outside of the bubble.

(Somewhat long for a comment; my apologies.)

Anonymous Paul said...

I believe it's safe to assume that any technology will be evaluated by the market to determine its profit potential. I can well imagine that grocery stores are anxious to have rfids in everything they sell solely for their ability to enable cost savings. Everyone right up the food chain (pun intended) is looking for rfid enabled technologies to reduce labor costs.

If we assume this savings potential is enough to get the market to fund the required R&D to implement this technology then it seems also safe to assume that it will happen. Once developed, of course, the technology is now available for a whole host of uses including helping "single-mums" and "temporary labourers."

I think that this is about as far as most will get thinking about "what this all means." The market, though, will as always be looking for what else can be done. The technology is enabling? Great, forget what it was designed for and forget what it's being used for. What else can it do? If it's enabling then it is connecting things. Something in the system has gotten more complex and that complexity will do things other than what was originally intended. What?

Well, for one, it enables connecting an enormous amount of shopping behavior data to individual shoppers. How? The grocery stores have been saving and processing purchase data for years. Like Amazon, they're able to say, "Other people who've bought what's in your basket were also interested in ..." The only problem they have is that they don't get to see what's in the basket until it's in the check out line when it's too late.

Rfids fix that, though, so we can now look forward to personalized, contextual ads like, "Say! I bet you'd really like some cookies to go with that milk you have there. They're right up ahead on the left." Is that so bad? I can think of many times when a little help remembering what else goes with something I've just put in the basket would have been appreciated.

But what if you find out that the suggestion wasn't based on the milk? Instead, it was the diet food you put in the basket 2 aisles back and the 45 seconds you stood in front of the candy section in the previous aisle coupled with years of data all enabling "the system" to predict with 87% confidence that you, in fact, really do want some cookies ...

How do you get the good things out of technology without enabling all the rest?

Blogger Anne said...

Nick - thanks for the comments. BTW, I think your aetherspace project is quite interesting, and I would have loved to see the seamless show in person (the video looks good!)

But back to your comments...I also hesistate along these lines. Certainly, every-thing has its story, but does that mean it should be tagged? I think we do get a little over-enthusiastic with the whole tagging enterprise--the world has not been waiting for us to deploy these new technologies in order to give our spaces meaning. (In fact, my initial attraction to electronic textiles and soft computing was precisely because they work so well within already culturally-rich contexts.)

But you're right - surely we can do better than blinking lights?! What about actually improving the lives of actual people who don't go to fashion shows or universities? I don't mean to be patronising, and I have no illusions of 'saving' the masses from their 'oblivion'. But I think that Judi Werthein's Brinco project is an intriguing step in the right direction.

Anonymous anne said...

Paul - thanks too for your continued insights. I especially like this characterisation of market forces "The technology is enabling? Great, forget what it was designed for and forget what it's being used for. What else can it do?" :-)

But what about thinking outside the market? (I have a question I hope you can help me with.) I find ThingLinks to be really interesting, but it completely unsettles me that that the *assumed* playing field is the 'global market' and the *assumed* medium is advertising. (I do this too, and it troubles me.)

Last night I was reading Süskind's Perfume and it said something about everything casting both light and shadow. The discourse around 'unintended consequences' is really interesting, not least because we see repetitive efforts on the parts of designers and technologists to take responsibility without ever becoming accountable. So I wonder, do they *work* in shadow or light?

(sorry for the rambling)

Anonymous Paul said...

Anne: Dan Dennett makes an interesting comment in his book Brainchildren about the philosopher's take on technology and ethics. He begins by stating, philosophically, that ought assumes can - we don't say someone ought to do something if they can't do that thing. The interesting part of his comment comes when he, in a sense, flips this around and concludes that this means the more things technology enables the more oughts there are likely to be and that trying to keep up with all that we now ought to do pretty much cancels out any ROI the technology was supposed to deliver. [I've probably grossly misrepresented his actual statement, and should note that there was a characteristic touch of humor in his statement that may have been lost here in the retelling.]

One may, by extension, also conclude that things which ought not be done are also created by technology. The automobile, for example, enables one to run over people in crosswalks, the web enables one to sell child pornography, RFID tags enable someone to invade another's privacy, ...

Are these the lights and shadows cast by technology you are speaking of? If so, my answer to your question is that designers and technologists work in both. I don't believe this satisfies what you were really asking, though. Looking back at your posts over the past week or two it would seem to me you are looking for the degree to which they are in either, and the degree to which they are aware.

There is far more shadow than light. It is simply the nature of things that there are more ways to do wrong than right - we're in a pitch black room with only a laser pointer. And awareness? Well not just awareness, there's getting it, there's keeping it and then there's doing something with it. We have little established with which to support it. In academia and industry it's not only a pitch black room and a laser pointer you're dealing with but an almost religious adherence to the idea that all things should be viewed through microscopes. [I may have slightly overstated things here ... ]

As for ThingLinks, I would say that's pretty much DOA. It's "design" is seriously flawed, for one thing, but it amounts to one of those "if everything were perfect, wouldn't it be cool if we could ..." ideas that leaves you wondering why, if everything were perfect, one would want to ruin it that way. Also, were you being facetious in your reply to Nick when talking about the Brinco project? If so, I've obviously missed something. Judi Werthein's project isn't intended to help the masses so much as awaken them as far as I can tell. She's making fun of business and global markets, isn't she?


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