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Relating to Things in the Digital Age

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In the new book Relating to Things - edited by Heather Wiltse, Associate Professor at UID - the authors explore the current nature of the artificial networked products around us, and the possibilities for how things might be different.

Our digital devices - smartphones, digital wearables and virtual home assistants - are getting increasingly intertwined with all facets of life. While these connected digital things are rapidly becoming technically more complex, they are also getting more intuitive and effortless to operate. In Relating to Things - Design, Technology and the Artificial leading design researchers and philosophers probe the consequences of the inaccessible and often invisible elements of these networked products.

In a nutshell, what is the book about?

"The key issue we're trying to tackle is how we relate to the things in our world and how they are part of our lives, especially now that digital everyday things around us are becoming more active and assertive as they are imbued with networked computational capabilities", says Heather Wiltse. 

"These things are not simply inanimate objects waiting for us to pick them up and use them, the way we've known things in the past, but rather in many cases active agents that are able to adapt to contexts and do things on their own. And much of what they actually do is not present to our awareness, and may even conceal ways in which they use us". 

Amazon's Alexa and Pokemon Go under the microscope 

The book includes case studies on Amazon's Alexa and Pokemon Go, what did the authors find? 

"The chapter addressing Alexa is by philosopher Diane P. Michelfelder, and she was interested in how we might care for things that care for us (such as digital assistants). Care has ethical significance here, in the sense that caring for Alexa caring for us (for example, rephrasing a misunderstood query, as one might do for a child who doesn't understand something) might provide an opportunity to develop our own caring capacities". 

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"Seeing care as deeply embodied, she goes on to look at how the Echo (the tabletop device that houses the assistant called Alexa) might be redesigned to care for users through being a 'privacy ally'. For example, the Echo might turn a particular color and speak in a more anxious way to reflect the apparent sensitivity of information involved in a user request".

"Pokemon Go is a case study by philosopher Galit Wellner. She is concerned with how augmented reality (AR), such as Pokemon Go, mediates our relation to the world. She looks at how the relations between AR technologies, their users, and the world is shaped, and how the world is mediated for us through these technologies. She arrives finally at a consideration of what it would mean to live in an environment where "human intentionality 'withdraws' and technological intentionality 'takes over'".

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"This is illustrated with reference to a short film clip called "Hyper Reality" that portrays an information-rich future reality that is entirely dominated by technological systems-and those behind them. This is in fact also the logic of Pokemon Go, which was designed as an experiment in large-scale, real-time behavior modification (i.e., getting users to go to particular real-world locations through positioning of in-game characters and assets). This raises questions about where we as humans are in this picture, how we relate to the world through things-and what kind of world they reveal". 

Designing for the user in the world of big data 

How come this subject is so close to your heart?

"Digital networked technologies can bring so many amazing opportunities into our lives. We are able to connect with people all over the world, to find and share information and other media, and to powerfully engage with the world around us and even ourselves through the mediation of these things". 

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"And now, connected things have in a way been hijacked by new business models based on the pursuit of massive profits that can be gained through prediction and control of behavior through production of behavioral data, in service of interests other than our own as users. This behavioral data is produced in large part through digital things that we use as part of carrying out our normal everyday activities, and increasingly must use for various reasons".

"But it doesn't have to be this way. It is possible to envision other ways of designing things, to return to basic ideas of caring for users through design rather than treating them as resources to be exploited. But in order to do that well we need not only non-toxic business models, but also ways of thinking about how we relate to these kinds of things that also relate to us, and what positive roles they might play in our lives".

Just how might we design digital things differently?

"Currently, connected digital things (anything described as "smart," part of the internet of things, smart cities, or any app on a smartphone) are designed within industry primarily as supply routes for behavioral data. The goal is to maximize the scope and scale of data production, in order to enable more finely tuned predictions and nudges for others' benefit (whether companies or governments). This model is fundamentally anti-democratic and challenges basic values of autonomy and the freedom to make one's own choices".

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"Industrial interaction design as a practice can now be seen crafting the user-facing interfaces for these data-producing things, but it is no longer at the center of the action in terms of crafting what things really are and do. What we need is a design practice that is able to work with these new kinds of things that mediate multiple relations and interests, to provide reasonable value for all stakeholders, but also, especially, to explore what these kinds of things could do and be if they were not so thoroughly driven by these current models of profit generation. There is still a lot of work to be done here", concludes Heather Wiltse.