Opinions!

Written by Einar Sneve Martinussen on February 1, 2013

We recently won a opinion-article competition! The competition was organised by Norsk Form and Dagbladet, and centred around design and society. We wrote a text about technology, politics and the wonders of the Norwegian public services. We argue for using design as a lens for examining the opportunities and problematics brought forward by the rapid digitalisation of society.

The Norwegian welfare system is the legacy of a hundred years of  progressive socialist movements and powerful unions. It is something we should be genuinely proud off, but today our experience of this monumental societal system is being undermined by badly managed digitalisation-processes and hopelessly annoying digital public services. For example, we have an incredible system for parental leave. Yet, the web-services you have to use to apply for this generous benefit is so confusing that you more often than not end up being annoyed at the system itself. The digital future of our collective society is too important to be left to consultants and technocrats, and we argue that design could make a contribution.
Here is the full text:

Å formgi en digital framtid

Vi lever tettere på teknologien enn noen gang. Digitale produkter og nett-teknologi har blitt en del av hverdagslivet og former hvordan vi kommuniserer, hvordan vi omgås og hvordan vi opplever samfunnet rundt oss. Nettet har blitt så hverdagslig at det ikke nødvendigvis er noe vi tenker over. Vi bruker nettet til å finne fram, lese nyheter, leverer selvangivelsen, finner ut når bussen går, og til å kjøpe alt fra sjampo til hus.

Det siste tiåret har internettet spredt seg fra skrivebordet til noe vi putter i lomma og bærer med oss til enhver tid. Vi «går ikke på Internett» lenger, vi er der hele tiden. Samtidig har digital teknologi blitt et av samfunnets sentrale rammeverk og påvirker alt fra politisk meningsutveksling til hvordan velferdsstaten fungerer. Hva vil dette egentlig si? Hvordan har det blitt sånn? Og hvilken retning vil vi at denne utviklingen skal ta?

For å kunne diskutere vår digitale samfunnsutviklingen må vi ta tak i hvordan vi opplever og forstår teknologien. De digitale produktene og tjenestene vi bruker hver dag er muliggjort av undersjøiske kabler, trådløse nettverk, satellitter og utvikling av stadig mer sofistikert infrastruktur. Men vi opplever ikke disse teknologiske nyvinningene som komplekse systemer og infrastruktur, men gjennom hverdagslig bruk av smarttelefoner, sosiale medier, automatiske bomstasjoner og nett-tjenester.

Nettet er globalt, men oppleves lokalt, for eksempel gjennom gode norske tjenester som Yr eller reiseplanleggeren RuterReise som begge blir brukt av tusenvis av nordmenn hver eneste dag. Disse tilsynelatende enkle tjenestene er eksempler på hvordan kompleks data fra den virkelig verden har blitt samlet, prosessert og presentert tilbake til oss brukere på en forståelig og relevant måte. Men de også med på forme hvordan vi oppfører oss, for eksempel om vi tar med oss en paraply når vi går ut eller hvordan vi reiser gjennom byen.

Vi tar del i det digitale samfunnet gjennom våre interaksjoner med produkter og tjenester. Disse interaksjonene er ikke bare et resultat av teknologisk utvikling, men et resultat av design. De er gitt form gjennom en prosess hvor teknologiens muligheter mer eller mindre vellykket er omgjort til noe vi kan håndtere. For at teknologi skal gi mening for folk må den formgis – den må designes. Hvordan nye digitale billettsystemer, velferdstjenester og sosiale medier er formgitt bestemmer ikke bare hvordan de oppleves, men også hvilke muligheter de gir oss og hvordan de påvirker oss. Derfor mener vi at teknologi i større grad også må diskuteres og forstås som et resultat av en aktiv designprosess. /formgivningsprosess

Dagens teknologidebatter er ikke tilstrekkelig for å ta inn over seg de mulighetene og utfordringene det digitale samfunnet bringer med seg. Teknologien en riktignok en viktig del av mediebildet, men overlates altfor ofte til gadgetjournalistikk og teknologi-evangelister. Teknologijournalistikken begrenser seg dessverre oftest til tester av nettbrett, reportasjer om Facebook-grupper og debatter om papiravisas framtid. Dette er overflatisk og lite nyttig. Det hjelper oss ikke å utvikle en helhetlig forståelse av hvordan digitale teknologi faktisk påvirker både hverdagslivet og samfunnsutviklingen. Det gir oss i beste fall et bilde av konsekvensene av det digitale samfunnets framvekst, men altfor sjelden en kritisk debatt om mulighetene det åpner for.

I politikken er teknologiforståelsen også utilstrekkelig. Digital teknologi ses på som et nøytralt verktøy for effektivisering og administrasjon, tilsynelatende uten evaluering av bruk og muligheter. Det holder ikke å vedta at offentlige tjenester skal være tilgjengelig på Internett, dersom de ikke formgis med hensyn til kvalitet, funksjon og opplevelse. Samtidig er det kanskje på tide å heller spørre hvordan digital teknologi kan gjøre selve velferdsstaten enda bedre. Vi har et velferdstilbud i verdensklasse, men likevel blir folk frustrert av håpløse nettsider og kronglete søknadsprosesser.

Offentlige nett-tjenester har potensial til å være noe vi er stolte av, ikke noe vi irriterer oss over. Hvordan ville Yr eller RuterReise for velferdsstaten sett ut, oppført seg og fungert? Og hvordan ville en slik tjeneste forandret forholdet vårt til den? Dersom vi skal kunne ha en debatt om hvordan retning denne utviklingen skal ta, trenger vi bredere perspektiver og en rikere forståelse av hva teknologien kan brukes til.

Designfaget lar oss se digital teknologi som et materiale på lik linje med tre, metal og plast, altså noe som kan formes. I dag ser vi framveksten av nye designfelt som jobber spesielt med hvordan vi omgås teknologiske systemer og tjenester. Digitale produkter og tjenester har vokst sammen og oppleves ikke lenger bare på et sted, men på tvers av plattformer som smarttelefoner eller sosiale medier. Dermed handler det ikke bare om det rent estetiske, hvordan grensesnitt og nettsider ser ut, men også i økende grad om hvordan de formes til noe som oppleves og blir til en del av hverdagen. Design bringer fram perspektiver som vi mener er verdifulle for hvordan teknologien kan forstås, som brukerfokus, nyvinning og kommunikasjon. Design forhandler mellom mulighetene i teknologien og folks hverdagsliv.

Fordi design er sentralt for hvordan teknologi brukes og forstås, bør det også være viktig for hvilke verdier og premisser vi legger til grunn når teknologien diskuteres. Skal vi kunne diskutere hvordan vi ønsker at vår digitale framtid skal bli, må vi ta tak i måten teknologi diskuteres, forstås og formes på. Derfor mener vi at designperspektiver i større grad bør tas inn i strategier og politikk som handler om vår teknologiske hverdag. Dette handler både om praktiske utfordringer som kvaliteten på digitale offentlige tjenester i dag, òg om hvordan vi planlegger for en digital framtid.

Vår digitale framtid vokser fram gjennom stillferdige omveltninger som på stort og smått forandrer hvordan vi opplever og forstår samfunnet. Den bringer med seg både droneangrep og sosiale medier. Den skaper nye muligheter og utfordringer som vi i dag bare ser konturene av. Design kan gjøre komplekse systemer håndgripelige og forme tekniske prosesser til noe vi ønsker å bruke og som kan gjøre hverdagen litt bedre. Det er på tide å se forbi teknologiens premisser og spørre oss hvordan vår ønsker at vår digitale framtid skal formgis.

(And we got a giant check)

 

Means of production

Written by Einar Sneve Martinussen on October 26, 2012

Last week I talked at Playful at Conway Hall in London. Playful is a conference about design, games and technology organized by Greg Povey and Mudlark. This year it covered a wide range of topics; from market research, to digital craft, to clapping. It was an interesting and well-curated event that offered both insights, critique and entertaining examples from different disciplines. Mudlark had put together a purposefully varied group of speakers from design, art, research etc. Common threads was playful approaches to creating interactions with technology, and reflections around practice, concepts and methods, and a shared emphasis on understanding technology from the perspective of human activity and experience.

My talk was called ‘Means of production’ and examined relationships between technology, design and everyday life. I showed some of the work we have done with YOUrban and our explorations of hybrid products as approaches to re-imagining technology through design. Here are the slides and notes from my talk:

Hei, I’m Einar Sneve Martinussen. (more…)

Geospire

Written by Einar Sneve Martinussen on July 3, 2012

Last year we designed and built an interactive exhibition called Geospire for the Oslo Geological Museum. Geospire was developed in collaboration with the Oslo Natural History Museum and Intermedia at the University of Oslo. The exhibition is aimed at schoolchildren and is about typical rocks and landscapes in Oslo.

Activities, objects and films
The Geological Museum is filled with wonderful objects and their collection consists of over 2 million fossils, rock specimens, models and minerals. However, visitors are not allowed to touch any of these as displayed items typically are kept behind glass.

Our brief for the Geospire exhibition was to create educational activities for groups of schoolchildren and we wanted to make an exhibition where kids could learn about geology through touching, studying and discussing physical objects such as landscape models and rock specimens.

We designed a series of objects and work tables where groups of pupils can play a game where they solve tasks by studying models and rocks and placing the correct one in a bowl embedded in the table. A typical task would be to look at an image of a landscape-form on the screen and recognizing it as a fjord or a hill, and then finding the object with the right shape for this form of landscape.
After a task is solved the kids are shown a short film about the landscape or rock in question. Together with the geologist and educator Anne Birkeland we made 8 short films about fjords, hills, slopes, granite, forests, rivers etc. The films take place in the field and Anne shows and explains how for example fjords are created and how they take place in Oslo. The idea here was to bring glimpses of the geologist’s fieldwork back into the museum.

School-classes are usually shown around the museum as one big group that listens to a guide or teacher. We wanted to allow everyone to participate in focused activities where they could discuss and collaborate in small groups. To solve this we made five identical work tables with the same objects and the same tasks. In the future it might be fruitful to extend or change the exhibition to cover other themes or age-groups. This could be done easily by simply changing the objects and the content, allowing the tables to work as generic platforms for media in the museum.

Form and materials
The Oslo Geological Museum is a fantastic building from the 1910s and the interior have changed very little since then. High ceiling, large windows, beautiful backlit glass cabinets and dark wood everywhere. The ground floor is dominated by a Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Geospire exhibition is set up just behind its impressive tail. For the new exhibition to find its place within these surroundings we have worked carefully with materials, colour and detailing.

The furniture are simple and robust. The tablestops are made out of durable oiled oak, while the shelves at the back are in a clear, soft blue that stands out against the wooden cabinets from the 1910s. The stations are fitted with iMacs and the screens display sharp, crisp animations, beautiful 3d renderings of landscape models and films. The interface sounds are lovely little vibraphone melodies created and played by Todd Terje.

We wanted the landscape models to be characterful and inviting objects that acted as playful icons for the exhibition. We commissioned Lars Marcus Vedeler and Theo Tveterås from Skrekkøgle to design and make both the physical landscape objects and the 3d renderings used on the screens. The models are moulded in tough plastic and mounted on a base of oak.
Technicalities
Our brief for the Geospire exhibition was to based it around our object-driven media player Skål. We designed and developed Skål in 2007 as a part of the research-project Touch where we explored interactions with RFID technologies. Skål is a wooden bowl that reads RFID tags embedded in objects. When an object is placed in the bowl, a connected media-clip is played on a TV.
The technical platform from Skål was developed further for Geospire as a robust RFID solution for museum exhibitions. We are surprised at, and a little proud of, how stabile and efficient our platform have turned out to be. Since the exhibition opened in September 2011 it have had thousands of visitors, but neither failed nor needed maintenance at any point. This shows that well developed RFID systems can be incredibly resilient and withstand a lot of use and wear, especially when combined with oak and industrial plastics. But more importantly, we hope Geospire shows that interactive museum installations can benefit from a careful focus on materials and design rather than on technological spectacle.
Finally, we really wish more of our work was surrounded by geologists, meteorites and dinosaurs.

More photos here and here.

Vimeo Awards 2012!

Written by Einar Sneve Martinussen on May 22, 2012

Today Vimeo have announced that our film ‘Immaterials: WiFi light painiting’ has made it into the finals for the Vimeo Awards 2012. We made the film in 2011 together with Timo Arnall as a part of the research project YOUrban at AHO. The film have been nominated in the Captured category alongside three other fine films. The winner will be announced at an award cermony in New York on June 7 as a part of the Vimeo Festival. We are excited!

Hoot hoot! – a new Ugle film

Written by Einar Sneve Martinussen on May 7, 2012

Ugle is a wooden owl that can be controlled over the internet with an iPhone application. It let’s you send colour-messages from your phone to your home. When you change the position of the colors on the owl on the screen, the physical owl turns it’s head to the chosen color. It is a decorative personal message system where the household has to decide what the colours mean. We have just made a film that shows the owl in use.Ugle is a part of an ongoing project where we explore new forms for networked products in homes. Investigating materials, production quality, colours and pace as a way of bringing technology into domestic contexts. Ugle illustrates this approach by being a simple connection between an ornament and a phone application. It might be slightly nonsensical to use a wooden owl to send messages like this, but it is quite charming.

London and network friction

Written by Einar Sneve Martinussen on March 2, 2012

I’ve just spent a week in London. Sitting at borrowed desks in nice studios (thanks!), lecturing at Goldsmiths’ Department of Design, and actually seeing the London sun for the first time in 10 years. Brilliant, but my phone doesn’t like it. Busses are so big that they disturb its compass’ sense of magnetic orientation. ‘Move away from any interference’ the phone says while I’m stuck inside several tons of double-decker-shaped metal that might very well be heading in the wrong direction.Underground stations and trains without network coverage is another oddity it can’t quite phantom, and having it’s data-roaming turned off makes it really annoyed (using 3G data abroad is still incomprehensibly expensive). It will passive-aggressively remind me that ‘Cellular Data is Turned Off’ whenever it get’s a chance and obscure any interface with crudely overlaid error-messages.

So how did a London visit accompanied by a needy piece of consumer electronics shape how I experienced the city? First, in a very small way it changed the way I moved about. Most notably through repeatedly choosing to walk down Great Eastern Street instead of Curtain Road to get within reach of my hotel’s WiFi. And then pausing for a few minutes on the pavement to download mails and tweets and adjusting the day’s plans according to these.Secondly, visiting London brought forward some of the peculiar frictions and seams of this particular networked city. This reminded me of Bell and Dourish paper ‘Getting Out of the City’ (2004) where they argue for a cultural understanding of networked cities:

‘The spaces into which new technologies are deployed are not stable, not uniform, and not given. Technology can destabilise and transform these interactions, but will only ever be one part of the mix’

Importantly then, the mix is always different. The way GPS signals bounce of the architecture or get obstructed by railway-archers. Naming-tropes of domestic WiFi networks and the password-policies and condiments of cafes. Street-culture, pick-pockets, public transport, weather, subscription-models and data-plans are just as crucial for how a networked city is experienced and understood as the overarching infrastructures of the ‘smart city’.A few weeks ago I got to be on a panel about imaginary cities with the writer China Miéville at a scifi/fantasy-convention in Oslo. Here Miéville mentioned a wonderful phrase from Algernon Blackwood about ‘being bewildered in the way a man is when he’s looking for a post box in a foreign city’. The technical opaqueness of networked cities are akin to the invisibility of quotidian urban life. The cultural grain of everyday life also includes the minuta of the networked city, and can be just as mildly confusing and/or exotic for a visitor.

[YOUrban cross-post]

Norcon and imaginary cities

Written by Einar Sneve Martinussen on February 9, 2012

This weekend I’ll be participating in Norcon at Chateau Neuf in Oslo (10-12 Feb). Norcon is a fantasy and sci-fi convention, and this year the program includes the mandatory zombies, dragons, steampunk and space-travel, as well as urban zoology, biomechanics, particle physics, dear old  Lovecraft and a bit of mythical Norse human sacrifice. Cities is one of the thematic threads  that runs through this year’s Norcon. And on Sunday I’ll be joining Ragnar Tørnquist from Funcom and the brilliant city-breeder and novelist China Miéville on a panel about imaginary cities. I’m really looking forward to this! Voy-Fhtang!

 

Sherlock and WiFi

Written by Einar Sneve Martinussen on January 18, 2012

I watched the latest episode of BBC’s excellent Sherlock last night. I really like how the modern day Sherlock makes clever use of mundane networked city life. At its best the series weaves bits of everyday technologies into scenes as hints to what Sherlock is up to. For example iPhone message-sounds going of and the blue glow on Sherlock’s pale face when he dramatically writes and reads his SMSs (that Watson crucially often don’t get to see, but that we do).What I found specifically intriguing in this episode (‘The Reichenbach Fall’) was a brief scene where Sherlock uses nearby WiFi-networks to figure out what is going on in Baker street.Using names of nearby networks from his MacBook’s WiFi scanner, Sherlock locates the group of transeuropean assassins that have moved into his neighborhood (A Russian, an Italian, an Albanian, a Czech and an Estonian). Clever Sherlock then concludes: “There is a surveillance web closing in on us right now“.I think this interestingly plays on the common experience of WiFi networks as something that pops up on your computer, but understood as something that tells you what is going on beyond your walls. Or a way of reading ‘the electromagnetic terrain of the networked city’ as William Mitchell might have described it. I also find it amusing that someone have had to set up and name five WiFi networks as props for this scene (and have had to figure out what ‘world of the internet‘ is in Albanian). When we worked on our WiFi visualisations in Oslo we also came across patters of multilingual network names. This could be indicators of diversity in inner-city neighborhoods, but most of the time we just found lots of institutions and default router names.Sherlock’s WiFi-scene could be seen as just another element in modernising the character and the context. And maybe it is, but it could also be read as an example of a popular-cultural understanding of wireless networks. If this is the case, then it represents a grounded and sensible approach to technology. Here, technology isn’t imagined as the typical futuristic science so common in current entertainment (e.g CSI), but is about ordinary consumer electronics in daily life. And crucially, Sherlock shows how spectacular this networked world already is.

The Wind Speaker

Written by Einar Sneve Martinussen on January 11, 2012

We have made a (kind of) music video for the musician Espen Sommer Eide / Phonophani. In this film Espen plays his new instrument the ‘Wind Speaker’. We helped Espen construct this peculiar instrument, and contributed with designing and woodworking. The Wind Speaker is a digital electro-acoustic  harmonica made of birch that turns blowing into computerised singing. The sound emerges from the speakers at the front of the instrument when Espen blows into the holes in the wooden mouthpiece at the back. Through the pneumatic pressure from his own lungs Espen makes the computer-chip sing with the wonderful howl of a wooden machine.We have also had the opportunity of working with Espen in the past. He provided the brilliant soundtrack to the film ‘Immaterials: Light painting WiFi’, and in 2008 we made some very tricky outdoors electronics for his installation Karusell at Henie Onstad Art Centre. And by the way, Espen’s band Alog have a new quadruple LP out on the Rune Grammofon label these days. It is all kinds of wonderful.

The Playlist Club / Svartsyn

Written by Jørn Knutsen on

Einar has made a playlist for our friends at Playlist Club. It’s called Svartsyn (black-sight) and is a collection that explores an peculiar undercurrent of darkness running through Norwegian musical history from gloomy folk music from the dark middle ages, to contemporary black metal. Best enjoyed with the company of some cold dark weather.