Tom Klinkowstein & Irene Pereyra: designers 2030 AD

irene & tom 1A while ago, we highlighted Tom Klinkowstein and Irene Pereyra‘s fascinating project depicting a day in the life of a networked designer’s smart things or a day in a designer’s networked smart things, 2030. The future, design, technology, a fascinating approach … more than enough good ingredients for an even better interview with both designers.


N(ik – Pantopicon): Writing ‘a day in the life of’ a fictional somebody’ is like undertaking a journey during which you crawl into the skin of somebody else and force yourself to sense what-the-future-world-might-be-like from their perspective, through their senses, walking in their footsteps etc. How did you embark on this journey? How did you go about it? What was it like?

I(rene) P(ereyra): The initial thought was to blend Tom’s personality and my personality into a single person. She became a woman, with a young daughter (as Tom has). There are hints of Tom and I throughout the story, from the people she twitch-mails with (which is like a 2030 version of twitter), to the places she frequents, to the job she has, to the interests she has that show through her blog-cons. People who know Tom and I well, can tell she’s a bit of an extension of us, or our ideal selves perhaps.

T(om) K(linkowstein):
There was a previous project, A Networked Designer’s Critical Path, 1990-2090, that I created with others, showing an entire life of a designer and the networks she becomes involved with over that life. I wanted this new diagram to be the same person, but just one day when she is forty years old in 2030, with lots more detail, lots more intimacy, as if tapping into the dense cross-talk between her and her smart things.

N: If I did not miss anything, the designer whose life you describe 2030AD remains nameless. Through the description of her day, we get to know a lot about her actions and technological interactions, but – although we know she has a little daughter – rather little about who she is as a person, her inner, emotional world. How do you see this dimension of her life with respect to the context she lives in, the day and surrounding world you describe?

smartthings-2IP: This is an interesting question, and something that has come up from other people as well. The ambiguity of the project (the title alone says it all, is it about her, or is it about her smart things?) allowed us to not focus overtly on her personality. “A designer” could be anyone. You find out she has a daughter, and her partner/boyfriend/daughter’s father is in India for the Bollywood film festival that day, but other than that, who she is, or what her motivations are, remain open.

TK: We actually considered a large part of the content of her day to be highly emotional, but the (deliberately selected) engineering-like aesthetic of the graphics means the reader has to work hard to get at those details.

In our imagined future, the character’s desires are turned into action with the help of smart things. Her Bizzcard tells her the probability of seeing the next door neighbor’s new puppies, it arranges for her to meet new people on the hypersonic flight to Honduras, and helps her exchange personal information during a late night flirty encounter through a sensor augmented handshake.

N: When you mention ‘her desires are realized with the help of smart things’, I cannot help but remember the many discussions I used to have about the notion ‘smart’. ‘Smart’ from an engineering stance (‘I made a cool thing that can do a lot of cool, useful things’) is not necessarily ‘smart’ from a socio-cultural, economic, ecological etc. point of view. e.g. taking away desires or fulfilling them instantly, making battery-driven toys, … All media, especially of the information and communication-related kind, they all have effects beyond their immediate context of ‘utility/usefulness’, patterns of life are changed, economies, politics, etc. There are positive but also negative impacts. For example, many people wonder about the robustness of our world, its resilience (one driver for more nature-inspired systems) as we become ever more dependent on technologies, others worry about societal change, social cohesion etc. How do you look at this? Did it influence your work? After all, as extensions of man, new technologies also mean new responsibilities.

IP: Depending on technologies is fine with me, providing it’s the right kind of technology, and it supports a sustainable lifestyle/cycle. It’s just a matter of re-thinking what technology means. A lot of designers today are moving in the right direction, asking the right questions. Green design for example is incredibly popular right now, and it feels like designers finally understand the responsibilities they have to society.

For me one of the most interesting ideas/developments is the idea that something can be made to be up-gradable, rather than discarded. If I look at my lifetime for example, the amount of gadgets (cell-phones, walk-man’s, disc-mans etc.) I have discarded is astronomical. Unfortunately, today’s economy relies heavily on this “buy-buy-buy, new-new-new” attitude, so the more interesting question to me is, if we actually do manage to move into a cradle-to-cradle society, where things are re-used, or upgraded, how will it be supported politically, and economically? We have the technology available, the idea is there, designers are working around the clock, but the powers that be haven’t figured out how to shape society’s needs and desires around a sustainable economy. Technology is miles ahead of politics right now, but then again, it usually is.

TomTK: I agree with Irene: technology, commerce and social constructs have all evolved at a breathtaking pace. Politics is still waiting for its Vinton Cerf.

Design and engineering inventions like smart things will not bring heaven on earth but we work in a profession of endless iteration and eventually will get rather close.

N: Being designers, I cannot imagine you have not wondered about possible or interesting breakdowns, errors, not so ‘smart’ things that could happen, surprises … I’m curious to hear what popped up in your minds in this respect. Is there a blooper or critical version of the map ahead perhaps?

TK: The sheer kick of introducing oneself to an intriguing stranger encountered by chance or facilitated by predictive technology as in our diagram, will always outweigh the nuisance of lost luggage on a hypersonic flight to Honduras.

smartthings-1IP: No, no blooper version. But we did discuss what some of the problems might be. The main ones being: privacy, and the breakdown of technology. Our lives today are already controlled a lot more by technology, than let’s say 30 years ago. People used to be afraid to buy stuff off the Internet, and reluctant to give out any type of personal information.

These days however, Google has your whole life on their servers, and social networking sites allow total strangers an intimate look into your life. Your pictures, your correspondence, your likes, your dislikes, it’s all out there for everyone to see, and it’s all stored on some company’s giant server. We seem to be okay with it because what you get in return is worth giving out some personal information for. It seems like the question of what privacy really is, or would be in the future, is an interesting one.

N: The future is filled with uncertainties, which allow it to pan out in different directions. As a matter of fact, you mention ‘what-if’ scenarios as an output of one of the gadgets in your designer’s world (and other occasions). Did you consider multiple futures yourselves? If so, which approach did you take in order to develop your future scenario, which forms the basis of your day in the life of a designer anno 2030AD? In case you developed more than one scenario, on which points did they differ and how did you make your eventual choice/selection?

IP: First we thought about how things had changed in our own lifetimes. The fact that we are from 2 different generations (Tom being born in the 50’s, me being born in the 80’s), gave us an additional perspective. Tom and I spoke a lot about some of the things/technologies that have changed in the past 23 years, but also about what had remained the same. Email and the Internet came, the phone stayed but also morphed into cell-phones. Television remained, but Tivo revolutionized it, things like this. It allowed us to project what might happen if current technology trends continue.

TK: I actually started the process by doing something I’ve always wanted to do: I took a zero gravity flight (really!). Having appropriately sampled a life with what may become a common occurrence in the future, Irene and I met several times to sync up our ideas. I spent the next six months stealing an hour here and there at cafes and such, writing the definitions of the 84 imagined technologies, the specifics of the designer’s goings-on in the USA, Honduras and virtually with comrades in 119 countries and the moon. There was also the buzzy back and forth between her and her smart things, informed by readings on the Kurzweil AI site, Bruce Sterling’s Shaping Things, and others. Once the personalities of the people and the purposes of the smart things were set, the project seemed to write itself as if assisted by our auto-assembling storyteller.

N: The ways in which the technologies alter or enhance your designer’s life are mostly left open. They are not ‘explained’, which I believe helps to keep the experiential distance between the reader and the designer in your ‘story’ small, enhancing believability and immersion. It is left up to the reader whether to look at technology-enhanced life in terms of threats or opportunities. Was that a conscious decision? If you reason through some of the socio-cultural, economic, ecological, political/institutional consequences of developments that you describe, interesting questions pop up. I am sure they did also for you: which were some of the questions they raised for you that got your head spinning?

irene & tom 2IP: We tried to imagine a hopeful future both in the large socio-cultural sense and in a personal sense. Maybe it’s because Tom and I are both incurable optimists, but we imagined a future where sustainability becomes a part of everyday life (her smart house closely monitors energy consumption for example), a future where chefs are collaborating with Foodex (a future version of Fedex), for the “everyone eats well program”, a future where fabrics are created from crops, things like this.

We thought it would be nice if your house woke you up with a coffee smell, or if you could travel from Maine to New York City on a hydrogen electric train in 30 minutes, or if your Bizzcard (organizer) would alert you if there are people in the vicinity you know, or people you have something in common with and would be interesting to meet.

Someone did however leave a comment on my blog that they loved the project but that it scared them a little… haha… It’s understandable, but this was never our intention.

TK: As the complexity of her day evolved, in the back of my mind was whether such an intense, experience-packed, frenetic life, with so much travel, people, stimulation and technology could be sustainable? (I sincerely hope so.)

N: You opted for a very schematic, map-like form factor to represent a day in the life of your designer, almost like a ‘report’ printout of one the technologies supporting her. What was the reasoning behind this choice? Were there alternatives you considered, like for example a more diary-like approach or a storyboard in which gadgets or their ways of usage are visualized in context?

TK: In the early 1990’s, I acquired from an aerospace company, a dense, poster-sized, CAD-created flow chart, containing hundreds of lines and circles. It speculated on the next hundred years of space travel. Whomever I showed this to became absolutely mesmerized in a way I had never seen with slicker work done by professional designers. That’s how a poster done by an engineer on a CAD system became our model.

In our diagram, the reader gets a gut impression with a quick glance at 20 large circles containing her major activities on this particular day. Spending more time (it takes 75-90 minutes to read the whole thing–about the same as to watch a full-length film), is rewarded with a peek into a highly detailed record of her hundreds of encounters during this 18.5 hour period with colleagues, students, clients, serendipitous strangers and smart things.

All the text is in capital letters, so the price of admission is high; you have to really want to read it to get through it all.

IP: We never really considered illustrations or images because it could very easily take on the appearance of a current design fashion, and we wanted it to appear timeless.

Since I was the one (physically) designing it, and I am obsessed with order and detail, my greatest concern was that all the connections should make sense. Tom has a more ethereal design sensibility, and I’m much more of a nuts and bolts type of a designer, so in the end we compromised and met somewhere in the middle.

designers 2030 ADN: How did people respond to the prospective of living a day as a designer like that in 2030 AD? How did people behave around your map and what were the fascinating comments your received?

TK: They giggled at the young daughter’s 100-Languages-Barbie. They pointed to the large “call-outs” intended as a guide to good living in 2030 (“I Practice Creative Simultaneity”). They traced over the connecting lines and text with their fingers as if it really was a message from the future that somehow landed in their inbox.

IP: The people who took the time to read it and understand it were really amazed by the amount of detail, and the organization of the information. One person contacted me to ask if they could have a printout to hang in their office to inspire the young designers to think outside the “trendy-design-box”. Some people were baffled and maybe a little intimidated by the content, and some people misunderstood it and were left unimpressed by the design sci-fi aspect of it. We really got a mixed bag of reviews.

N: At Pantopicon, we use ‘a day in the life of’ as a technique in order to lower the level of abstraction of the future, to force people to change perspective and feel their way around a possible new context, to make the future tangible, to fleshen it out from the inside out. It is a technique which is explorative as much as it is communicative in nature. As such it can serve as an output as well as an input for futures exploration and envisioning exercises. Do you see your work as something you would like to build upon further or do you consider it a finished ‘artifact’ of the future? Suppose you would see it as a stage in a larger process, what would you see as possible follow-up steps?

IP: We never spoke about “what’s next” while we were working on it, but now that it’s finished and we’ve received such positive feedback, we’re going to discuss what might be an interesting follow-up to this project :-). Her story, or any story on the future of design, naturally lends itself to many visual explorations.

TK: I’m not certain what other media would work better at this point (I’ve become leery about slick visuals), but I’m pretty certain we will hear more from this character. Perhaps a closer look into one of her projects, maybe more on the way her inner and outer life converse, connect, support (and conflict?) with her smart things.

N: In which way did ‘spelling out’ a future day in the life of a designer, change your views on the profession of a designer or the role of design in society in the future?

TK: Having it all there in front of me, seeing a whole day at one glance, albeit with the exaggeration of an imagined future, made sharper something I’ve already noticed beginning to happen: a move away from specialization towards orchestration.

IP: We spent a lot of time reading and researching smart thing technologies, which neither of us knew too much about before we started this project. Bruce Sterling offered some insights and advice, and to me, one of the most interesting things about smart environments is that they have the potential to radically change consumer-culture as we know it.

If we can access the totality of a product’s information (like the road it has traveled, whether it was made by child labor, if it’s sustainable, etc.), marketing and advertising, as we know it today, will become obsolete.

Through smart-thing technologies, a product’s information has the potential to be more whole, honest, real and complete than some slick ad slogan ever could be. This will radically change the role of a designer. Getting to the truth about products, rather than distracting the consumer with shiny colors and slogans will be inevitable then.

exhibitN: Technology changes notions of human, social and personal identity. As human-centered design – or life-centered design since we increasingly also include the natural world – addresses humans in ever more inclusive ways, taking into account an ever broader range of human characteristics (e.g. genes, movement, emotion, relationships, health/ biology, spirituality, etc.) technology changes face, leading to new modes of interaction, new ways to experience products and services, new ways to experience the world. If you close your eyes and project yourselves way ahead, beyond 2030, what do you see?

IP: For me it’s really hard to look beyond 2030, and make assumptions of what might be, since everything we thought of for the diagram were projections, or continuations of current technologies. We both agreed that 23 years is just the right amount of time to imagine a possibly realistic future without getting too sci-fi-ish, or unrealistic. The project was not so much about a Jules Verne type of imagination of the future, but more of an idea generator for actual future technologies.

TK: Hideous? Hypnotic? Pious? Voluptuous? The choices of the future will be more choices. Cosmopolitanism to the power of 10. If we lived as long as the stars, what would we look like?

N: You were in two to write a day in the life of one person. I can imagine you did not always agree about the ways in which the day in your character’s life would progress or unfold. Did you experience this to be a schizophrenic experience or how did it influence the result?

IP: Tom and I both trust each other’s opinions, so there was never really a battle going on about content. Once we had set the initial story direction, everything that followed was a combination of our ideas for the future. Tom for example is interested in Space exploration, and I’m interested in sustainability, and both those things made it in her day. Since the day is made up of units, it was easy to have an equal say in the content without having to agree on every single word.

TK: In the beginning, we had different tastes (Irene: more tech; Tom: more concept) and rhythms (Irene: short meetings; Tom: long gab sessions). Our invented designer mediated away our differences.

N: Were there dimensions in your project you would have liked to explore further?

IP: It would be interesting to try to actually make one of these technologies happen. I think there are many great ideas for the future in this diagram that would be a great addition to everyday life. Since you have to imagine/envision something before you can actually create it, the hardest part is already done… I would love to move into the actual production of some of the less farfetched ideas.

TK: What would Shakespeare create for this world?