Being in the informatized everyday
In the contemporary time in which we live, the grandest invention that is so dominantly and unknowingly designing the way we behave, see ourselves, relate to one another and perceive the world, is perhaps the smart devices we are all carrying at present. Nearly no posture is more identical and universal than the way we stare at the glowing screen of smartphone. Almost no behavior is more reflex, compulsory even, than checking the instantly incoming notification on our smart-gadgets at any given moment during the course of every single day. Just about no feeling is more perplexed than drowning in the ever-updating dissemination of information and disinformation on the internet.
Behind every single one of the smart-gadgets, is a nearly incomprehensible, complicated mesh of algorithms connected to networks of information infrastructures. In the process of many of us constantly gaining the “free” accesses to networked services by voluntarily giving the seeming irrelevant and fragmented — yet intimate and crucial — everyday information to the conglomerate of power corporations and institutions, the technological apparatuses seem to frictionlessly dissolve in various dimensions of the everyday, in which every bit of our everyday experiences including behaviors, habits, biological states, activities, relationships and even thoughts are being captured and archived in a 24-7 cycle. As such, it makes the capturing process inseparable from the everyday. In other words, everyday experiences seem to become the source and the vehicle of the capturing process. The hard-to-grasp and unprecedented speed of facilitating our longings and necessities of being digitally and remotely “connected” has been accelerating the process of quantifying ourselves, which seems to become a form of conformity and an instruction to live in order to be part of, and to be relevant to the world.
While we lack time to reflect and respond to such a progress, the global project of interconnected, algorithmic processes and decisions has been implimented in various spheres of everyday life. Banks already have our detailed behavioural profiles by harvesting the data about the angles of how we hold a smartphone, the pressures of tapping or swiping, and the duration of typing a password.1 Digital billboards in election campaigns are unknowingly capturing people’s facial expressions and emotional responses for algorithms to generate ads showing more gratifying versions of candidates that people are more likely to vote for.2 An AI-powered robot named Bina48, has co-taught two sessions of an ethics philosophy course for the cadets at the prominent military school West Point.3 How are we able to make sense of all the ongoing developments of quantifying every aspect of our everyday lives? How can design respond to the current progress that has been blurring the boundary between human and non-human? More broadly, how can design provoke critical reflection on what is being designed in the relationships among human, technology and inhabited surroundings?
1 Cowley, S. (2018) ‘Banks and Retailers Are Tracking How You Type, Swipe and Tap’, The New York Times, 3rd October [Online]. Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/13/business/ behavioral-biometrics-banks-security.html (Accessed 13 October 2018).
2 Randall, K. (2015) ‘Neuropolitics, Where Campaigns Try to Read Your Mind’, The New York Times, 3rd November [Online]. Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/04/world/ameri- cas/neuropolitics-where-campaigns-try-to-read-your-mind.html (Accessed 27 July 2017).
3 Uturism (2018) An AI-powered robot is teaching ethics to West Point students [Online]. Available at https://futurism.com/the- byte/humanoid-robot-philosophy-course (Accessed 7 November 2018).
Design as a critical inquiry and a methodology
As a practice-based artistic research project, Reflective Roaming — Design, ubiquitous fantasy, everyday reality is a critical inquiry into the conditions of our being in the relationship between what is designing and what is designed in the contemporary informatized everyday. Positioned as a critical practice, the act of designing is exercised as a questioning process, in which the design things made during the process could facilitate and further the questioning process towards a situation where new insights regarding the concerns in question could emerge. That is to say, as both an inquiry and a methodology, design’s sensibility, malleability and expressiveness give the concerns in question sensible forms for allowing different perspectives of looking into, and for enabling the processes of communicating the inquiry within and beyond context of the project.
Giving the concerns a sensible form: Human Conditions
Composed of a custom designed real-time processing system and a commercial gaming depth camera (Microsoft Kinect 2) which requires humans’ bodily presences to activate, the interactive installation Human Conditions4 is the project’s artistic outcome attempting to afford confrontation for provoking reflection upon our (un)willingness of being physically and emotionally informatized, the relationship between the mediated desires and the ones who drive them, and the contemporary conditions of our being in the ever-expanding, digitally networked everyday life.
4 The installation was exhibited at Gallery Rom 61 at the Faculty of Fine Art, Music and Design of the University of Bergen from 15 February to 24 February 2018.
In the dark space where the installation was situated, one could easily find a projection on the floor outside of active zone stating the Terms and Conditions asking for consent to engage with the installation. The installation only works on the condition of a “real” human condition being met, namely the biological and physical human presence in the scene. Once triggered, images of the visitors are mirrored in the main projection wall and are getting more blurred as they approach to the projection, while their every movement triggers a beep sound. On the semi-transparent and reflective frames covering the visitor’s image, videos from YouTube are randomly playing in real-time triggered by visitor’s physical bodily presence. The videos include power figures and the powerless in technological and political institutions ranging from Apple’s Tim Cook to Chinese labors in an electronic product factory, and from the World Economic Forum to Mark Zuckerberg. A slight delay of time between visitors and their images can be discovered during the course of interaction, which delivers a kind of spectacle: the visitors are following their own images while those images are in fact created and controlled by their bodies.The clearness of the mirrored images of visitors depends on the distances between their bodies and the projection, the constantly streamed video of power figures that overlaps your mirrored image, and the beep sounds emitted from the speakers hung from the ceiling triggered by their every moves, can all be seen as the sensible alibi of the “machine.” Perhaps what makes the alibi of the machine even more sensible is the design of slight delay in time. The three-second delay between visitors’ images and the reflective frames, in a way creates an illusion which appears to be the visitors who are following their own “creations” (the frames), as if they are consuming their own images. The three-second gap becomes a possible opening for reflecting upon their relationships to the “world” the invisible technologies presents. Projected on the other wall of the space, is a smaller projection showing the live-updating running numbers of captured visitors’ emotional and biological states ranging from happiness to thumb movement. It can be seen as a condensation of conversions from blood to digits, as if they were literally convertible, as if there was an equation and humans were a source of input. After all, in this “world” activated by human, everybody is a node, an interface, a net, a reactor, a web and a set of data points.
Within the scene, visitors are confronting the “world” triggered and created by themselves. Such a world would not exist without their “participation”. By designing such an encounter, the assembly of visual, sound, time and physical engagement creates a proximity to a contextual experience that one might feel familiar yet disorientated. During the course of being in the “worlds”, the processes of negotiating with the mixed experiences demands visitors’ engagements with their own thinking, which might destabilize the normalized way of seeing their relationships to technology and provoke possible thinking process that might lead to further reflection, if they (we) allow themselves (us) to do so.
Unpacking through the thinking of Hannah Arendt
As a process-driven work shaped by practice and theoretical exploration, the installation Human Conditions is designed as an experiential encounter attempting to materialize, visualize and, hence, unfold every moment of our engagements with contemporary information apparatus and their further implications. One of the significant theoretical inputs for providing perspectives of shaping the work is the political theorist Hannah Arendt, and particularly, her work The Human Condition. The engagement with her thinking was carried out by an intention to try to grasp the most essential concepts of her ideas from the perspectives of a designer and a human.
In her thinking of the human condition, there are three activities and corresponding temporalities namely labor, work and action. Labor is human body’s nature process of biologically sustaining ourselves and hence staying alive. Activities that support or fulfill such a process can all be seen as necessities to survive. The temporality that comes with it, is a recurring one bound to the inescapably biological, life and death, day-in and day-out circle. In other words, humans are laboring animal on this level. The activity of work, is the opposite to the naturalness of human beings, namely the capacity of creating artificial things through ideas, blueprints, plans and intentions. Work affords an “artificial world” consisting of countless things within the world, in which such a man-made world is meant to outlast the life cycle of us and natural surroundings. The corresponding temporality is one that features the durability of the outcome created by work, and has, to the longest length, a sense of permanence. Action is about being with others through freely exchanging ideas, sharing one’s perspective of the world and confronting disagreements in public realm. It is the plurality among humans no one is identical to another) that gives action agency that might initiate possibilities of bringing about change, and hence creating new history. In other words, action is a political activity, which has the potential for disconnecting a community from the past by creating a new direction, and a new meaning at some point in the progress of history.
The way Arendt conceptualizes the three conditions of being human inspires me to rethink design from an alternative perspective. What makes humans different from animals is our abilities to create things according to the projections of the to-be-made in our minds, which constructs the artificial world where people encounter each other, carrying plural viewpoints, and hence public realm are provided for potential actions to happen. The activity of work is an act of creating something material and immaterial out of existence (not yet created), and involving processes, procedures and transformation, which makes human construction on the planet possible. In this respect, the activity of work is to design. Designing things ranging from a chair to planetary telecommunication infrastructure that constructs a space, a territory or a world where actions that carry profound meaning could be happening. Reflecting upon the “world” we are inhabiting, however, what we have been making—and hence designing, does not seem to provide us with the possibilities of action. Rather, in a sense, design tends to alienate us from being able to take action so that we retreat to the condition of labor. In other words, all the daily activities we do (even entertainment) are bound to the individual necessity to survive and hence, one could say that the possibility of taking action is negated by design.
Being in the context of the contemporary paradigm in which capitalism and technology go hand-in-hand, we are—to a large extent—retreating to, and being locked in, the individualized, “one-of-a-kind worlds” created by ourselves and filled with things only about us. In the time where nearly everything is informatized and mediated through (particularly those of mobile devices), their physical boundaries limit, or create focus for, our visual experiences at any given moment. And within the physically defined surface, the provided contents end up performing on framing our perceptions of the things happening around us. They invisibly create pairs of opposite relations: relevance and irrelevance, presence and absence, subject and object. From this perspective, screens can be seen as limitations of thoughts and hence, as worldviews. As such, one could say that we are—through the nearly omnipresent engagements with screens and their capacities of disclosing or concealing—living in, and only having, a “cropped imagination” which reflects anything but us; yet deeply, it reflects nothing except us. Just as the visitors in the installation confronting the framed images created and controlled by their own bodies, the relationships among one’s image, one’s created frame and the streaming video randomly rendered on the frame have everything to do with each of the individual but have nothing to do with, and is not relevant to, the fellow humans next to him or her in the scene.
While reflecting upon a time where the patterns of our heartbeats could be converted into unique IDs as keys for being able to—or being rejected—enter workplaces, login computers or access everyday services, human labor5—the inescapable biological process that sustains us in the state of being alive—seemed no longer to be housed in our bodies and belong to us. The inevitable, and to some extent, forced, engagements with technology are beginning to turn our biological labors into non-biological resources, i.e. data, for making something artificial and immaterial yet outlasts us. To a larger extent, the biological circles, emotions and even thoughts brought by the inescapable human labor, seem to become not only new raw materials for technology, but the very sources that turns human into products of technology. In this respect, the human body could be seen as an interface of, and a node for, the gigantic network of information processing system, which let signals penetrate through our bodies and carry our biological states, emotions, relationships, desires, beliefs, identities and fantasies. That is to say, the availability of information inside of a human body is becoming a decisive factor that tells how relevant a person is to the work of a networked, artificial world. It could be said that the activities of labor (biological alive), and work (making of the artificial) seem to be merged into a situation: being alive is the way of making, and hence to be part of the contemporary information age. In other words, as long as our bodies’ biological cycles are functioning, we are making for the making of an incomprehensible, networked information world upon which we depend. Like the relationship between visitors and the processing system in the installation, in which human biological states and physical presence are the key to activate the work, sustain the running of installation, and hence make the imagery of the worlds available to consume, to cling to. An apathetic response regarding the embeddedness of digitized capitalism is also revealed by the fact that few recognized the various beeps triggered by every bodily movement was the sound of bar-code scanners in supermarkets.
5 “A wearable computing device Nymi developed by Bionym Inc., is a developer of biometric recognition systems. The Nymi bra- celet is equipped with a sensor that reads the electrocardiogram (ECG) of the person wearing it and uses a person’s own unique heartbeat signature to log on to computers and access other secu- re devices…The Nymi uses your unique electrocardiogram (ECG) to authenticate your identity through an embedded sensor and then uses Bluetooth to communicate your identity to all of your de- vices. Nymi also features motion sensing and proximity detection, so users can simply perform a gesture for access – for example, a twist of the wrist can be used as the command to unlock your car door).” Beal, V. (n.d.) What is Nymi Wearable Computing Device? Webopedia Definition [Online]. Available at https://www.webope- dia.com/TERM/N/nymi.html (Accessed 22 November 2018).
Through providing an immersive and participatory experience, the installation attempted to raise some fundamental, yet urgent, questions. Arendt tells us the importance of being with others in the crowd within the public realm in which human plurality can give action a collective agency that might be able to bring about change and create new history. In the status quo of contemporary domination of technocratic ideology and practices, how can we act while the already faint plurality among humans is being equalized, unified, quantified, categorized and even predicted? What is the condition of being able to biologically and socially survive in such a time? What does it mean to be a human living, surviving and acting in the technologically made world?
Aren’t we human?
The concluded research project and the installation have been an ongoing attempt to critically reflect upon the question of our being in the state of the world both through and for design practice. The naming of the installation is a homage to Arendt’s thinking, which has been a profound inspiration to revisit and to rethink the relationships among human, design and the man-made world. What is being unfolded through the attempt of reasoning Arend’s conception of the human condition, is perhaps the perspective of seeing design as part of what human is.
As mentioned earlier, if we see design from Arendt’s view, that the activity of work is humans’ ability to make material and immaterial things according to the blueprints and technical procedures in mind, which constitutes the artificial world where we use, share and encounter each other, one realizes that the act of making such world is the act of designing. And design is essentially technological, while technology is design-oriented. That is to say, the artificial world—hence the designed world—we created, has performatively consequential impacts on all dimensions of everyday lives ranging from human psyche to inhabited surroundings, and from personhood to politics. At the moment, the performativity of the design of technology—especially Artificial Intelligence—is becoming evident in the ongoing progress of deploying ubiquitous information apparatuses in all the corners of our everyday lives. Information technology provides us with almost unlimited virtual spaces to make our own worlds, which have no physical weight but psychological gravity. Drifting in a time in which the global technological agenda has been advancing from the so-called Internet of Things to Internet of Emotions, willingly or not, we are being molded by what we have been casting.
As the species that has the capacities to make the world and has been inevitably designed by such a world, we are on the critical edge of facing global economical, technological and socio-political consequences brought by the things we made. Seeing design as part of what human is is to reason what is designing and what is designed in the modern construction of the world, and what it is to be a human being. As Arendt’s call for us “to think what we are doing” in the beginning of The Human Condition, aren’t we supposed to think what we are designing?
- Arendt, H. & Canovan M. (1998) The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Colomina, B. & Wigley M. (2016) Are We Human?: Notes on an Archaeology of Design. Lars Müller Publishers.
- Fry, T. (2012) Becoming Human by Design. London: Berg, 2012.
- Tang, A. C. (2018) Critical Reflection: Reflective Roaming – Design, Ubiquitous Fantasy, Everyday Reality. 1st ed. Bergen, Norway.