Design Beyond Objects. Affordances for the 21st Century

One of the topics that currently dominates public information is the complexity of technology (in particular the one that learns) and the human capability to keep track of it. Since the origin of the word, technology has been developed in symbiosis with the human species. This is for the capacity to develop and create something capable of fulfilling a particular human need.  Nonetheless such relations is increasingly changing; society is growing fear of what technology can “think” and “do” without any advise from any human peer.  This is not a minor problem for the effects it channels; technological developments are hitting the very basic structure upon which society has been layered upon so far, which is the skills people can offer, learn and share to their communities.

In this complex relationship there is design, which role up to this point has been mediating the dynamics between human and technology through shapes and materials that facilitate/direct interaction and communication. Design is then the process of formal, sensorial and operational actions that mediate human decision-making with objects that deliver a particular technology. In the current scenario, where technology takes on independence from its users, this straightforward relationship has being broken. Objects “shell” tech of which the public has little idea; this tech designs invisible infrastructure that connects and shares information to other peers. Technology is no longer something that takes place locally, it is a networked structure of which objects are the gateways. Whether the public can still appreciate materiality and forms, there is little understanding of the purpose the object has been designed for that keeps people engaged. A kettle is not simply a kettle as well as a hover is not only a hover. As many others their functionality has been “augmented” of parameters that are little known to the majority of people. Even though these objects still perform familiar functions, like boiling water, they don’t provide the public of any knowledge regarding the technology they are designed for.

It then comes the question of what we are designing and what is design in the age of responsive technology. Can we still apply the parameters we used in the past or do we need to create new parameters that manage the relationship people have with today’s technology? What if user-centred design is something that no longer revolves around the object and the use people have of it, but thinks “at a top level” to help people help themselves. This piece of design is supposed to communicate that it is safe to trade cryptocurrency. Is it “safe” delivered through the materiality (steel like)? Does it communicate well what cryptocurrency is? What is the real safety that needs to be communicated? Is, perhaps, the public’s awareness of cryptocurrency? How can this object help people understand what they are facing when logging in? These are some of the questions I believe we should start to address to understand how design can support a new symbiotic relationship between human and technology. The question can be addressed through formal language, which directly engages people to develop a clear understanding of the object’s capabilities. Can design help people dialogue with complex systems to raise awareness and responsibility?

How that communication happens in terms of design, it is a matter research. An investigation in this area can perhaps include parameters designers and people are familiar with to develop a strategy that fosters a better understanding of the key infrastructure that runs our decisions and behaviours. The process of engaging materials, memories and the sensorial relationships people have with objects can be both strategy and form, as both mediate and deliver complexity through communication/experience. Design can foster a code of ethics; this is not for designers but for the extended community that use design.

Moving away from the cloud, design can open a new chapter where the cloud is back to planet Earth and people are more aware of the roles and personal responsibilities they have/play in a society structured upon increasingly complex systems.



Piazza 3.0

The brand new AmazonGo is a great metaphor of the state of our the real, digital and physical. The detail that Amazon caught quite well is that, indeed, the physical and the digital look as part of the same “whole”. When we describe our interactions with the digital we quite often make a distinction from the physical. AmazonGo represents that this is not true; our interactions with technology tell a different story. To be in the digital is equal to be in the physical; from social interactions, jobs, getting things done, etc. The Seattle based company found, and well combined together, the technological infrastructure to make this happen.

Amazon understands that humans are made of bones, and they like stuff; stuff you can show, share, touch. Even though you make your shopping online you do like the thing. There is not any VR that can generate the same satisfaction of buying a very cool brand new pair of trainers and show them to friends in (at) Instagram or at the pub. The bound we have with stuff is ontological. I don’t believe there is any technology capable of replacing such bound. Even though VR engages the body by simulating other senses – like smell and touch – our physical relationship with our stuff wins. Maurizia Boscagli’s book “Stuff Theory” frames quite well such relationship.

On the other hand the possibility that AmazonGo opens relates to the way we interact with people and space. What can the retail world learn from this? Is it only about retail or it can also extend to our house, place we work, exhibitions we visit, etc. ? What is the opportunity that our everyday space can take from it?

The reason why I used the word ontological to describe our relationship with stuff is because we associate a “human” value to the things we own. Once we get possess of our stuff, whether home or shoes, we assign a value. Value is not universal and it’s not about the stoke market. It is the literal human quality things have for us. It is related to the memories we associate to the object, the kind of experience the object represents to us. There is an embodied process of events encoded in the objects we own. I think it is not projected, as Walter Benjamin described in the Arcade’s Project. What does this mean for our everyday infrastructure? What does it mean for our experience of the physical/digital world? What can the AmazonGo model trigger and generate in terms of the physical experience we have with humans and things? Which consequences are related to the use of technology to smooth, and blur, our digital/physical interactions with humans and things? I believe these are questions to address in order to generate new forms of social opportunities. Where “people” should be?  Is it about a special meal you want to cook for a special occasion? Is it about joining a talk of a new book?

The over celebrated model of the Italian piazza was at the beginning a market. People met for a reason. There was an embodied system of exchange that called other factors, which over time became what we know as “piazza”. What is the piazza3.0?