Changing Things: Back story and future directions

Today is the day that Changing Things: The Future of Objects in a Digital World is published! This seems like a good moment to reflect on the (long) path to get to this point, as well as to look ahead toward future directions.CT cover

As a graduate student I became fascinated with philosophy of technology because of the way it dove straight to the heart of why and how technologies matter—the ways they are implicated in forms of life, mediate interaction and engagement, shape the character of everyday activities and social practices, and can enact and sustain certain power relations. I read Langdon Winner, Andrew Feenberg, Don Ihde, Peter-Paul Verbeek, Albert Borgmann, and others, and attempted to read Martin Heidegger (10 years or so later, I like to think that my attempts are now slightly more successful). But something I noticed due to my focus on digital, networked, computational things (coming from the field of human-computer interaction), was that there seemed to be something important about these things that was different from classic examples such as hammers, bridges, hydroelectric plants, solar and nuclear power, telescopes, eyeglasses, and so on. Moreover, it seemed that these important differences and their consequences were not brought into focus well by existing critical perspectives.

In a first attempt to articulate some of these differences in a presentation for SPT 2011 (the conference of the Society for Philosophy and Technology), I described these digital networked technologies as “wicked technologies,” playing on the conception of wicked problems in design. While ‘older’ technologies can often be characterized as single-function, isolated, stable, and material, and used in relatively limited contexts by relatively homogeneous users, these ‘newer’ technologies (such as smart phones) are multi-function, networked, fluid, and digital, and used in a variety of contexts by diverse users. And these kinds of technologies have come to be key mediators of everyday interactions and engagement with the world. They are also, like wicked problems, impossible to define conclusively, are interconnected, involve multiple levels of infrastructure, are fluid, and so on. What is needed is not a way to define these things conclusively, but rather a way to frame a particular aspect for analysis. As I said in that presentation, “A philosophy for wicked technologies must embrace complexity, and recognize the fluidity and interconnectedness of wicked technologies and the systems in which they are embedded.”

I continued this general trajectory in my work on architectures of interaction and my dissertation and later article on digital material mediation. And I also wrestled for quite a while with trying to turn my ‘wicked technologies’ stuff into a paper, along with my PhD advisor Erik Stolterman. When I moved to Umeå Institute of Design as a postdoc after graduating in 2013, I managed to rope Johan Redström into the effort as well. He helped to shift the focus to wicked interactions (rather than technologies), and the resulting article was published in Techné. It was in this article that we first introduced the concept of fluid assemblages to characterize digital networked technologies and the interactions that unfold across them.

From here, Johan and I continued our investigation through looking closely at concrete case studies, using the theme of music players and their evolution over time into increasingly computational forms. This work became our paper “Press Play: Acts of Defining (in) Fluid Assemblages,” published at Nordes 2015. Writing this paper gave us the sense that there was quite a lot more to explore and say here—an entire book’s worth, in fact.

We signed a book contract with Bloomsbury in summer 2016, and there followed a year and a half or so of pouring (mostly metaphorical) blood, sweat, and tears into this project. Another project along the way was the chapter I wrote for the book Postphenomenology and Media called “Mediating (infra)structures: Technology, media, environment.” This chapter, published in 2017, was a sort of pre-study in which I explored the implications of using different lenses when considering technological things, and possibilities for combining them in innovative and productive ways.

Although the exact structure and angle that we took went through a number of iterations (and some painful cuts to thousands of quite nice words in order to get down to the word limit), the main intention and contribution remains the same. The book investigates and articulates what happens when dynamic networks, contextual customization, and computational processes become as important as form, function, and material were for designing, using, and understanding objects in the industrial age. It is a book of sense-making, weaving together a number of different perspectives in order to develop an account that is more capable of doing justice to what these things are—and what is at stake.

One thing that is at stake is the practice of industrial, and especially interaction, design. Things that are fluid assemblages are now often developed through progressive optimization, A/B testing of different alternatives against particular metrics more than crafting of meaningful wholes. Design practices that would work with these in the tradition of human-centered design must now, rather paradoxically, temporarily background human experience in order to address other users and types of use. Because these things are now key sites for the production of data, that now most valuable resource and driver of cybernetic platform capitalism. At stake here are the roles that the things we use play in our lives and for other actors who can use them to mediate access to us, as well as their roles in larger socioeconomic processes. Fluid assemblages are composed of a variety of components, and they also assemble their users as component parts in other types of formations.

Indeed, the fact that the things permeating everyday life are now serving these different roles—both a thing for use, and a thing for producing data—is opening up entirely new kinds of problems that call out for better design solutions than are now prevalent. Interfaces have a long tradition of concealing complexity; extensive and opaque terms of service hardly provide meaningful transparency and choice regarding the various actors and relations in play; and the now frequently-noted “dark patterns” in interface design steer users toward the least privacy-preserving configurations. This is hardly surprising. The prime directive of fluid assemblages, at least in their now most prevalent instantiation as products of marketing logic and cybernetic platform capitalism, is to collect data and target advertising or otherwise steer behavior. This collected data can provide useful and even enchanting personalization and contextual customization, but it is also extremely valuable for other actors that relate to the same assemblages in different ways and for different purposes. Data is the basic resource that fluid assemblages metabolize, and without it they would not be able to serve their multiple functions and users.

One of the concepts we propose at the end of the book is tuning formations. This refers to the fact that fluid assemblages require design practices that are not about crafting individual objects, but rather about assembling things through establishing relations among multiple components and their mechanisms of customization across contexts and evolution over time. It also refers to the roles that things that are fluid assemblages (and their users) play in the larger networks of which they are part, and the ways in which these relations are configured. Another concept we develop, and associated design challenge, is aesthetics of immanence. What would an aesthetic appropriate for things that are immanent in a particular moment, but not existing in a more durable fashion as typical for physical objects, be like?

These are some of the issues that Johan and I will be continuing to explore in our project Design Philosophy for Things That Change, running for the next three years with funding from the Marianne and Marcus Wallenberg Foundation in Sweden. While we continue to develop this work, the overall focus and goal remains the same: changing things.








Interdisciplinarity and what it will take to address postindustrial challenges

At the recent Critical Alternatives 2015, the 5th decennial Aarhus conference, I participated in two excellent full-day workshops: “Shifting Borderlands of Technoscience: Tracing Trajectories of Critical Practice” and  “I’ve Had It! Group Therapy for Interdisciplinary Researchers.” Both engaged with the challenges and opportunities of interdisciplinary work, but in somewhat different ways. Prompted by experiences writing for and participating in these workshops and the conference, and also thinking about future foundations of industrial design and how we can address the massive challenges of our postindustrial world, I’ve been reflecting on different levels of inter/transdisciplinarity in relation to the scale and character of issues addressed.
It seems it might be reasonable to identify different ‘levels’ of inter/transdisciplinary orientations and modes of working and the particular logics, challenges, and benefits they entail. At the basic level, people from different disciplines are brought together to work on a common problem space. These are often areas in which there seems to be a need to combine ‘hard’ specialist knowledge in science/technology/engineering with ‘soft’ knowledge about people/society/culture in a given application domain or context. Representatives from the respective disciplines are expected to contribute specialist knowledge about the variables of the situation at hand such that, when put together, they can generate appropriate solutions. The logic is basically one of addition, where different types of knowledge are (ideally) put together like puzzle pieces to reach the sum total needed for a complete picture. But what even counts as a ‘problem’ and valid ways of addressing it looks different from each discipline. This can lead to difficulties communicating across disciplinary frameworks that have their own philosophies of knowledge, terms and concepts, commitments, etc.—things that came up a lot in the ‘group therapy for interdisciplinary researchers’ workshop.
At the intermediate level we might place critical practice. This approach follows Agre’s seminal and highly influential piece on critical technical practice in which he reflected on his experiences of critiquing foundational assumptions in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) while working within it, which he did by utilizing perspectives from philosophy and social theory. He described himself as a resident of the borderlands, a theme that the workshop organisers picked up in order to point to the shifting borderlands in which critical sociotechnical research and design is done today. In this approach, researchers inhabit a borderland in which they are in some ways working within and relating to a discipline, but also critiquing and trying to reform it.  The logic here is often one of reframing problems and ways of approaching solutions, shifting perspectives by looking at matters from alternate theoretical/ontological/epistemological vantage points. Big challenges of working in this way include the fact that one may always be an outsider, not quite fitting neatly in any particular area; and it can be difficult to articulate one’s expertise, which may lie in the innovative tying together, reframing, and pushing of boundaries that working in the critical borderlands entails.
While the intermediate level begins to push past interdisciplinarity to something less straightforward and more transgressive, we might also at least imagine modes of working that are more thoroughly transdisciplinary and fundamentally oriented toward a logic of transformation. In fact, I would suggest that design at its core is—or should be—the ultimate transdiscipline. In effectively building the artificial world it deals with the material, semiotic, social, political, cultural, economic, and more; and it does this in relation to history—past, present, and (possible) future(s) (Fry, Dilnot and Stewart 2015).

That is, to put it mildly, a tall order. At the same time, the objects of design are becoming less traditionally thing-like and rather connected, dynamic, ‘smart’ pieces of entire product and service ecosystems. Companies developing products now need to consider entire systems and work with the contextual dynamics of specific places (Neese 2015). This necessary shift toward more systemic, postindustrial perspectives is a development that Cameron Tonkinwise suggests can be a highly positive thing in that it can make it “possible, perhaps even necessary, to find alignments between a manufacturer’s value propositions, the practices of everyday life and more equitably sustainable ways of resourcing our societies” (Tonkinwise 2015).


The need to urgently grapple with what we have made, in both material and social terms, is for me poignantly evoked by Banksy’s Dismaland project. (Image from The Guardian,

We need, then, to find ways to grapple with (eco)systems, contextual specificities, and societal needs in a rapidly changing world where we have yet to even begin to adequately come to grips with the implications of our dwindling resources and impending climate collapse. So while inter- and trans-disciplinary research has already aimed at bringing diverse perspectives into a productive synthesis in service of real outcomes, it seems that what is now required is something more. I am reminded of Jamer Hunt’s (2014) argument that as scale changes, the problem changes. The complex systems in which we live are in many ways outstripping our usual sense-making capabilities, particularly when it comes to matters of scale. But Hunt also suggests that identifying and working with the potentially catalytic agents capable of having systemic effects might be the avenue by which designers can intervene in these systems.
This points toward both a new postindustrial style of design practice and, I think, toward a more meta-level consideration of the types of (other) practices that will be required in order to address the challenges at hand. There will always be a need for deep specialist knowledge and associated disciplinary introspection (or, less generously, navel gazing) that can lead to necessary advances or even reforms. But it might be said that there is also a need for new types of specialist knowledge and skill that consist precisely of making connections across perspectives, scales, interests, etc. This is needed in order to enable bottom-up social innovation (Manzini 2015) that can effect real change, and to make futures that are at once local (Ehn, Nilsson, and Topgaard 2014) and conducive to the collective thriving of life on our planet. We need to understand both the concrete details of the local as well as the more abstract dynamics of global systems and—perhaps more importantly—the interrelations between them. There is a need for a new kind of aesthetic sensibility for these interwoven part-whole relations and interdependencies, and for working with the dynamics of constantly changing complex systems at varying scales.
Design has to some extent always been concerned with systems and relations of designed things within them. But it seems that in many ways the scale and the problem have changed. Perhaps our ways of working, thinking, teaching, and evaluating—both within design and other disciplines—need to change too.


Ehn, Pelle, Elisabet M Nilsson, and Richard Topgaard, Eds. 2014. Making futures: Marginal notes on innovation, design, and democracy. Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: The MIT Press.
Fry, Tony, Clive Dilnot, and Susan C Stewart. 2015. Design and the Question of History. Design, Histories, Futures. London: Bloomsbury.
Hunt, Jamer. 2014. “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.” Systemic complexity and the irregularities of scale. In Design As Future-Making. Ed. Susan Yelavich and Barbara Adams. London and New York: Bloomsbury.
Manzini, Ezio. Design, When Everybody Designs: An Introduction to Design for Social Innovation. 2015. Translated by Rachel Coad. Design Thinking, Design Theory. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The MIT Press.
Neese, Megan. 2015. What is a product? How a new definition is leading us toward a place-based design process. EPIC: Advancing the Value of Ethnography in Industry. (accessed September 3, 2015).
Tonkinwise, Cameron. 2015. What things to teach designers in post-industrial times? EPIC: Advancing the Value of Ethnography in Industry. (accessed September 3, 2015).

DRS 2014

DRS 2014, the conference of the Design Research Society which is this year hosted by my current institutional home of the Umeå Institute of Design, begins in just a few days now on the Arts Campus of Umeå University. Since I have ended up as local organisation chair for the conference I have been heavily involved in planning and preparations for the last several months, so it’s exciting (and a little stressful!) that it is almost here. I think it’s going to be a great conference, both in terms of the content and the overall conference experience.

The new formats of ‘Debates’ and ‘Conversations’ are particularly exciting. The chairs of those tracks, Carl DiSalvo and Jamer Hunt, have curated some provocative and intriguing sessions, which promise a much more interactive experience than traditional paper and (particularly) keynote presentations and center around ‘big debates’ in design.

The full program is posted at There should also be live streaming of the debates, which begin at 9.30 Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday (June 16-18) and at 11.30 on Thursday (June 19). The official hashtag is #drs14, and hopefully there will be a lively and interactive conversation going on there as well!

Seeing real-time link clicks in the Bitly Media Map

I just happened on the Bitly Media Map when researching their link shortening service to use as an example for thinking through some issues for my research. It is a map of the US that shows by location and in real time the media sources for links that people click on. The effect of the dots lighting up on the map is quite mesmerizing, kind of like a field full of fireflies on a summer evening. It also shows the US waking up. As I type this it is around 9am on the east coast and around 6am on the west coast; most of the activity is happening in the eastern part of the country, with a few early birds up and reading the news on the west coast (mostly around the Bay area).

Of course the preferred news sources by location are interesting too. So lots of interesting things in this little visualization that provides an interesting perspective on the world.



Graham Harman and object-oriented philosophy

Graham Harman and object-oriented philosophy

I’ve been seeing intriguing references to Graham Harman for a while now, and today after investigating him further I think I’ve become a fan after reading about a handful of blog posts and a book review. He has all kinds of interesting things on his blog, and I particularly enjoyed the ‘advice’ posts. His writing, even in published academic pieces, seems to be simultaneously fresh, playful, ambitious, and intellectually weighty—a rare feat. I can’t wait to dig into more of his writing, both to learn from his style and to start getting into object-oriented philosophy (which seems pretty interesting and relevant for my own intellectual project). So now I’m just trying to figure out which of his gazillion or so books to start with—advice welcome!

Buses and wifi-mediated experience

Since my move to Umeå, Sweden at the beginning of the month I have developed a close relationship with the city’s bus system. Although I have used public transportation many times before, especially when traveling, relying on it exclusively for getting around in my daily life is a new experience for me as I am also getting used to living in a new city and country.

wifi networksOne of the nice things about the bus system in Umeå is that the buses have free wifi. This was especially nice during my first few days here when I did not yet have internet access at home; I got used to pulling out my iPhone or iPad as soon as I sat down, and using the few minutes of internet access I had during the trip to catch up on email and Facebook activity. My iDevices now often automatically begin to join the bus wifi networks, because I have been on them before. As my usual bus route has started to feel familiar (I now know where I need to get off to go to work or home even when the ‘next stop’ display isn’t working!), my iDevices also recognize these wifi networks as familiar. I have begun to recognize the bus numbers by which the networks are identified, and in noticing these different numbers I have also noticed the small differences between the physical buses and their configurations. The bus is not just a generic one of many in the city’s fleet, but Ultra 6942, one I have been on before. My experience of the physical environment has been mediated by my experience of the digital one.

When I took the screen shot for this blog post today I was in the main student area in town (Ålidhem), where there were also several other cleverly-named networks available (“Pretty fly for a WiFi” might be the best wifi name ever). These network names are performative as well as functional, and they make visible something about the people who live in a place and contribute to its character.

So my iDevices and I are settling in, and getting to know Umeå in part through its hybrid digital/physical infrastructures.