“Over the last ten years, technology has transformed almost every aspect of our lives before we’ve had time to stop and question it. In every home; on every desk; in every palm – a plasma screen; a monitor; a smartphone – a black mirror of our 21st Century existence. Our grip on reality is shifting. We worship at the altars of Google and Apple. Facebook algorithms know us more intimately than our own parents. We have access to all the information in the world, but no brain space left to absorb anything longer than a 140-character tweet.”

The text is extracted from the official description of Black Mirror, the enigmatic British TV series created and produced by Charlie Brooker in 2011, that shows dystopian contexts of deep collective malaise by using biting effectiveness. Though enriched by cinematographic elements, the picture that emerges is quite grotesque image (but partially faithful) of our society, driven toward a relational drift due to reckless use of digital technologies which permeate almost all areas of human social and emotional life.

The digital revolution, already been running for years, is radically changing the rules of communication and this change carries with it a deep alteration of the relations that govern the social fabric. The advent of new media, in particular, is causing several changes in the management of collective life and in relations between people,who are increasingly using new networking spaces to interact with friends and acquaintances or to build new relationships (Romeo,2011).

As Alberto Marinelli suggests in the preface of the Italian edition of the book “Networked: The New Social Operating System” written by Rainie Lee e Wellman Barry, “the dissemination of the network communications technology seems to allow the expansion of the opportunities for participation and sharing of resources, of the pooling of passions and of the emotional contexts, both in the sphere of interpersonal relationships both in the context of labor or study relations and in cultural, social and political contexts”.

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We are in fact the spectators of an incremental transition that is leading the community to set up more and more atopic[1] and intangible relationships, in which the technological apparatus acts as a mediator between people. They are now persons who do not relate to each other through the physical body but through digital devices and virtual worlds which fill time/space distance as well as the emotional gap. What clearly emerges is a real deconstruction of space and time, which reduces the first and speeds up the second.

McLuhan, well known for its forward-looking interpretations of the communication effects on society and individuals, a few decades ago said: “During the mechanical ages we had extended our bodies in space. Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned”.

According to McLuhan’s thought about the concept of prosthetic extension, if technology has always been considered as a means to offset physical and mental deficiencies and therefore a kind of social and psychological extension of body and senses, with the technology ubiquity, the super-connectivity of the technological supports, made possible by miniaturization of electronics, and the ever growing biocompatibility of the interfaces, it is easy to notice how a new vision of humanity is taking shape, well expressed in the post-human scenario (Marchesini, 2002).

It looks like a real processing of the species into an evolved unit totally new, an unparalleled organic, mental, corporeal, psychological, social and cultural entity: homo technologicus (Longo, 2001). Not a simple overlapping of the human body and technology but a synchronic coexistence between biological being and technological being, in which the performance characteristics are highly optimized at the expense of social and relational aspects, deeply modified and (de) coded.

Energy Addicts is a project that fully underlies the approaches of technological hybridism and post-humanism. The speculative work of the designer Naomi Kizhner meets a possible future in which resources will be gradually reduced. It carries us in a post-apocalyptic scenario, in which the energy will be significant declined and the humanity will be forced to look for alternative ways to store energy. The result is a collection of jewelry that are embedded into the surface of the skin, able to convert the kinetic energy of the  body’s involuntary movements into electricity.

Made of gold and 3D-printed biopolymer, each piece is designed to be wear on different parts of the body to harvest energy from specific physiological functions.

But, as Maldonado explain, the risks of implications of technology on our everyday life and culture, go beyond the implementation of the body and they also occur in the denaturation of the environmental conditions in which we are moving. Artificial virtual worlds,  manipulated copies of real three-dimensional environments that, through a faked simulation process, pull us into whole new and unlimited scenarios, poor substitute of our realities. In “Reale e Virtuale” he says: “There is no doubt that today we are approaching the critical threshold beyond which the “perfection of the illusion” is denied. […]In this view it is taken for granted that the virtual realities has already colonized most of our daily lives. Namely, our world is already (or is about to be) totally virtualized. We know that this is not the case. But the risk we could live in a constructed world , sooner or later, is not to be excluded. For example, the fact that wearing eye-phone, slipping on a data-glove, and a data-suit we are able to access an illusionary reality and live it as if it was real (or almost real), represents a concrete step in favour of what is explained”. (Maldonado, 2007, pp 49-51)

In this scenario, deeply permeated by the technological element, the role of the designer is to create solutions capable to exceed the limits of formal and functional stereotypes, creating new forms of hybrid projectuality and new interaction scenarios. Or, by contrast, it is to critically emphasize the extemporaneity of relationships, trying to preserve the human side which still belongs to us.

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Hyper-connected Relations
Enza Migliore

The above mentioned relation between the symbyotic concepts of bìos and téchne carries us in a new social dimension, where the technologies are not only enabling physical appendices but invisible extensions of the human mind, able to get into everyday objects, in the environment in which we live, even in our bodies.

They are portable, wearable, even pluggable technologies capable to change the way we live, work and socialize; used to improve the physical and mental wellbeing; able to leverage emotional, empathetic and relational dynamics. They are solutions that produce atopic connections through digital bodily experiences which connect distant people and places or artifacts which can themselves be emotional prosthesis, carriers of intimate and hidden messages. They are interactions that go beyond the physical presence thanks to mediated media exchanges and that create full time and anywhere communication environment able to precede, accompany, extend or even replace the face to face encounters. (Mascheroni, 2010)

An example of how digital technologies can be used to facilitate the exchange of emotional attitudes between physically far away people is Tactilu by PanGenerator. The bracelets are the result of a multidisciplinary research and they are able to transmit and receive tactile sensations through haptic/tactile communication. Equipped with a touch sensor that converts the touch in a tactile feedback to be sent to the paired device, the bracelets use smartphones Bluetooth technology and Internet connections to simplify the sensory interaction between people far away.

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Another project that addresses the problem of long-distance relationships and of disadvantages generated by computer-mediated communication is Presence in Absence by Colm Keller. Halfway between technological device and analog artifact with a strong material style, the kit comprises a pendent made from one piece of beech, at the end of which are the two USB outputs. Using a knife contained within the felt and leather case, the couple can freely carve the wood thus obtaining two different pendants to wear separately and to be used as a shared digital album when they meet.

The result is a very personal and custom element, able to make more tangible the digital communications which are often transitory and vacuous; a sort of digital heirloom able to act as a physical anchor to sharing mutual experiences. As the designer himself says: “I wanted to include the reflective, relaxing qualities of crafts as way to build an emotional bond between users and the object. It also hopes to open a dialogue about how we will value our digital artifacts in the future – our digital heirlooms”.

Other design experimentations, working on the same digital proximity concept, are from the research project Family Rituals 2.0, which is a collaboration between Royal College of Art, Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design and Newcastle University Digital Interaction Group. With Ritual Machines project, we tried to look at evolving nature of domestic life in the digital age in which the concept of family is deeply enlarged and modified, crossing over the classical “nuclear” conception in favor of a more complex and varied social structure. By observing rituals that families carry out during periods in which work activities disrupt the their bonds, the result is a series of design speculations that wonder about the possible role technology can play in mediating these complex family life systems.

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One of the most significant works is Drinking Together Whilst Apart; which comprises a beer bottle opener internet connected, a domestic wine dispenser and an app that orchestrates the interaction operations. When the bottle opener is used anywhere in the world, the home machine receives the signal and delivers a glass of wine simulating a sort of shared break. The project takes shape from some ethnographic investigations showing the importance of having some shared pleasures during the day is crucial in maintaining domestic rituals, basic requirements of the functional and emotional domestic landscape.

“The modern and technological maze is complex and rhizomatic, […] and for its exploring and understanding, it takes long time, great willingness to research and study, sophisticated knowledge and interpretive skills. The adventure of the technological maze is also the symbol of research that characterizes the modern homo technologicus to stay human. It’s a trip , often symbolic and cognitive, into not real labyrinthine spaces. It involves, in some cases, the descent into hell (technophobia, nomophobia and other diseases related to technology), the encounter with monsters and nightmares of mind, fears and concerns for their own safety or survival; it could be a downward descent with no return. Paths to choose are many and intertwined, the doors can be fake, the corridors can be parallel or inextricably interlaced, the exit can be hidden to untrained eye and impossible to cross. But to find it means to come out of the dark and, like Theseus, to become the founder king of the city.” (Mazzucchelli, 2014. pp 18-19)

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Hypo-connected Relations
Ivo Caruso

In the (sometimes) dystopian scenario just described, resulting of the constant presence of technological connections in the relational fabric, the human being increasingly feels the need to take refuge in his deepest intimacy, isolating themselves from hypermedia and hyper-connected environment around him. The value of this detachment often highlights the man’s reactionary nature that leads him to strongly oppose the hyper-media exposure in an attempt to preserve his independence and uniqueness.

And that’s how design speculations born, which hybridize the concept of clothing as a form of protection and the “technological privacy”. With Anti-NIS Accessories (NIS stands for Neuro-Imaging Surveillance), Fabrica researchers Lisa Kori Chung and Caitlin Morris have shaped a series of wearable accessories that protect not only the body, but also the emotions, the mind and the personal intentions against possible brain interceptions or external biometric identifications. Through a sensory camouflage, every piece of the collection, when a suspect surveillance system is detected, provokes a temporary cognitive diversion modifying the brain activity of the person who wears it.

In a world where we are constantly inundated with unnecessary informations, where the sense of priority fades because of the precarious swing of leisure and work, real and virtual, Balance Lamp is the attempt, by Chinese designer Weng Xinyu, to recover a proper balance between on-line and off-line dimension. Semantically inspired by a scale, the table lamp turns on and off by inserting or removing the counterweight, which is a smartphone. This involves a decision-making crossroad and leads users to choose whether to use the lamp, giving up the phone, or vice versa.

The Italian designer Giorgio Laboratore, with Faraday, realizes a set of alluminium cloche which has the capacity to isolate common devices allowing us to be connected every moment of every day. The voluntary action to place the smartphone within the insulating bell, determines the user’s need to get a pause of disconnection, time to dedicate to physical relationships with other people or just to themselves.

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Offline Chair, by polish designer Agata Nowak , has the same conceptual framework of previous project; a seat specifically designed to break smartphone addiction. The main feature is a large pocket on the inner side of the arms able to screen any kind cellular network and WiFi signal. Covered with soft felt and realized following an elongated silhouette, the seat seems to offer an intimate space, comfortable and cozy.

There is a critical approach also in the objects that aim to restore the body intimate dimension completely ignoring , however, the virtual and technological factor in favour of a behavior that pushes the human being into a larval state of complete physical isolation. The same goes for Embody, by French designer Shani Ha; inanimate cocoons that protect, hide, transform the body, imagining new proximity contexts. They are a sort of enigmatic “Body sculptures” that turn into (a)social prosthesis by using formal extensibility metaphor, calling into question the value of today’s social interactions.

Nutshell, by Eden Lew, is a huge portable case, used to cover the upper part of the person isolating the body (and senses) from stressful working contexts and reclaiming what the designer herself defines as “social loneliness.” A loneliness, different from isolation, which is rather an authentic and positive stop; an inner contemplation and then to open up to others with renewed energies. The concept of isolation has, however, a negative connotation when there are features of complete social alienation where the technological element acts purely as relational surrogate.

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Examples are the hikikomori; a sort of contemporary hermits, victims of both social and psychological disorders, who decide to completely give up the authentic sociability, isolating themselves in enclosed places where they “look out” by using only the “window” of the screen.

The risk in these cases is to create fictional worlds, shallow and illusory relationships able to convert our loneliness, whichis made of meditation and conscious separation, into a real emotional and social detachment in which digital media and technology are not just channels but they became the only elements of interaction.

Funktionide, by German designer Stefan Ulrich, is a clear example of this view we can define almost techno-fetishist. It is a robotic element, high-tech in the content and extremely fine in appearance, able to create the illusion of physical contact and to satisfy the emotional need alleviating feelings of loneliness. A shapeless object that aims to give a sense of living presence through artificial muscle technology.

The research carried out by the designer Stefan Ulrich is twofold: on one hand there is a detailed technical study on electroactive polymers and their possible applications, on the other there is the provocative intention to fuel the debate on technology products as carriers for emotional experiences. Ulrich himself says “In the visions, future people are lonely and with all the new dimensions products offer, they eventually turn to ‘robots’ for emotional satisfaction”.

As Area Magazine suggests: “This gives rise to a number of questions: What happens if products that were proposed as a relief against social isolation begin to become the solution? How will it affect human interactions if people become more and more focused on their products? What will these products look like, or more important how will they behave?  To ask these questions will become part of the responsibility of future product design.” [3]

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Conclusions

There can be no doubt that  we are living in a transitional era where it is difficult to fully understand what are and what will be the impact of technological advancement on our society.

In the preface of the book Critica della ragione informatica, Maldonado is convinced that:“if we want to preserve the innovative character of technologies, they need to remain open to the debate of ideas. They need to be willing to examine (and re-examine) not only their formative assumptions, but also, maybe more importantly, the relationships and dynamics within society.” (p. 7)

As Arthur Kroker wrote: “We are the first citizens of a society that has been eaten by technology, a culture that has actually vanished into the dark vortex of the electronic frontier […] we are all members now of the “vague generation”, […]floating between a fused participation in digital reality […]and our attempts at withdrawal …”.

An endless dichotomy that presents us with the debate between the growing technophile enthusiasm and thevisceral human need to take back the private sphere as a clear expression of the fight against hypertechnological and hypermediatic world.

In this relational chaos the role of the designer can be read not only as a critical and speculative act, but also as an emotional safety net able to consciously guide the téchne instead of rejectingit, in order to make it a communicative and relational facilitator instead of a dehumanizing surrogate.

In this fast evolving of the relational structures it is important, therefore, to design tools that allow people to consciously choose spaces and times for their relationships and wellbeing, artifacts capable of being communicative enhancers, antidotes and not palliatives against the global epidemic loneliness.

“The future puts new demands on our designs […]. We will inhabit virtual worlds, where we travel effortlessly through artificially created environments […]. We are in for confusing times and exciting times, dangerous times and enjoyable times, for viscerally exciting interactions, behaviorally satisfying ones, and reflectively pleasurable ones. Or perhaps, we are not. How well these will succeed will depend on the design of future things. (Norman, 2007. pp 168-169)

Note:

[1] http://www.channel4.com/info/press/programme-information/black-mirror/allpi

[2] A. Giambattista (2014), La atopicità delle relazioni digitali (The atopy of digital relations), in Caruso I., Giambattista A., Migliore E., Distopie digitali. Scenari progettuali di atopicità tecnologica (Digital dystopias. Design scenarios of technological atopy). Journal Planning Design Technology, vol. 03, ISSN: 2282-7773.

[3] In http://www.area-arch.it/it/funktionide/

Reference:

Marchesini, R. (2002). Post-human. Verso nuovi modelli di esistenza, Torino, Bollati Boringhieri.

Longo, G.O. (2001). Homo technologicus, Meltemi, Roma.

Galimberti, U. (2009). I miti del nostro tempo, Feltrinelli, Milano.

Norman, D.A. (2007). The Design of Future Things, Basic Books, New York.

Maldonado, T (2007). Reale e virtuale. Milano, Feltrinelli

Maldonado, T (1997). Critica della ragione informatica. Milano, Feltrinelli

Kroker, A (1996). Data Trash. Edizioni URRA

Mascheroni, Giovanna (2010), “Reti sociali e connettività ubiqua”, in: Pasquali Francesca, Scifo Barbara, Vittadini Nicoletta, a cura di, Crossmedia cultures. Giovani e pratiche di consumo digitali,. Milano: Vita e Pensiero

Mazzucchelli, C (2014). Nei labirinti della tecnologia. Delos Digital srl

L. Rainie, B. Wellman, (2012). Networked: The New Social Operating System, MIT, 2012; tr. it. F. Comunello,A. Marinelli (a cura di), Networked. Il nuovo sistema operativo sociale, Guerini, Milano.

 

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