The Best Intentions: above average results

For the “With best intentions” section of our final theory course we are reading an article on international development by Michael Hobbes,  an article on the role of private corporations in alleviating poverty by Aneel Karnani, and an article about the focus of creative energy in corporations by Jon Kolko.  Each author uses the same basic structure for his argument: Here is what is being done now, here is what we should be doing. The issue of the scale vs. measurability of results and the amount of choice assigned to the recipient (whether of design or aid) also surfaces in each argument. But although all of the authors seem to be coming from a similar world-view, as they move from problem to solution they do not move in same direction on these axes. In fact, at the points of disagreement, where the vector of each author’s problem to solution cross, are key tensions. Tensions, I believe, we must keep in mind and use as a method of course correction, if we want not just to be the people with the best intentions, but also, to achieve above average results.

These tensions plus each author’s position relative to measurability vs. scale and amount of choice given to the user are summarized and diagramed in the attached document.

Best Intentions Position Diagram

Is the Design Movement Commoditizing Engineers?

Just about every news outlet has written about the importance of Science, Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) education recently. Businesses report that they cannot find enough engineers domestically and advocate for greater STEM education in middle and high schools. Many believe that the US is losing its competitive edge and cite the lack of skilled engineers and scientists. Even President Obama has said that improving STEM education is one of his top priorities.

Beginning a half century ago, scientists and engineers were credited for doing amazing things at the time. They put a man on the moon, invented the pacemaker, and put a calculator in our pockets. Society regarded engineering as a highly respected profession. They were truly changing the world through their own research, hypotheses, and personal competitive motivation. Engineers in a corporation were responsible making products and discovering new applications for technology.

In high school, I enjoyed and excelled in my science and math classes. No one was surprised in 2005 that I graduated college with an engineering degree, much like about 60,000 others in the US. I believe I represented the ideal STEM graduate: I enjoyed math and science at a young age, pushed myself in high school, studied electrical engineering and graduated with an employment offer. On paper, I am part of the solution, but realistically I’m part of the problem. 8 years later I’m not an engineer, and never want to be again. Roughly one half of Americans with engineering degrees do not work as an engineer. If there is such a shortage of engineers, why aren’t these seemingly qualified people taking those jobs?

My short engineering career was spent creating circuits and software to meet the specifications in a product requirement document. I was lucky enough to work in an industry I love, and for an employer which gave me some freedom to visit customers and make product decisions outside of my job description. Unfortunately such freedoms are rare in many companies. Now days, most engineers are kept in offices far away from customers, they work to build the product which the marketers and designers define. I realized this after two years as an engineer, and re-enrolled in school so I could have more influence over product creation and definition.

Marketing departments increasingly carry much of the responsibility to define new products. R&D or more specifically the engineers, who were once the competitive edge and pulse of a company are now just an expense line item on the income statement. (It’s interesting to notice that R&D, Research and Design now refers to technical personnel and expenses, while actual product research and design increasingly happens in the marketing department.)

Design is becoming the new competitive advantage which companies are investing in. My experience here at AC4D has been life changing, and I’m excited to rejoin the workforce as a designer. I’ll get the opportunities to drive change in society, create new products, and apply technology in new way. Oddly, that was the same reason I wanted to be an engineer.

For the past 9 months at AC4D, we learned how to ‘create’ new products and services through generative research, ideation, synthesis and prototyping. But since every designer is not also an electrical, software, industrial and mechanical engineer at the same time, we create product requirement documents, we draft wireframes, and sketch mockups.  We use these artifacts to communicate our intent to someone else with the skills to build make our idea into a reality. (e.g. engineers.)  At AC4D, faculty and a students alike (myself included) will say things like “just find a developer” or “we need a mechanical engineer” in the same way a farmer may say “I need someone to pick these berries” or Apple wants to find the cheapest labor to “just assemble this iPhone.”  Has engineering become a commodity resource?

Within the past few decades America began to outsource labor for textiles, electronics and internal processes among many other things. That’s not surprising as America’s economy is increasingly service based.  Labor and knowledge processes which were once important part of a company became line items on an income statement, just like engineering is now. It’s no surprise that some American companies now either outsource engineering labor, or hire engineers abroad to lower their expenses. If an engineer in the US can follow a specification document or make a webpage look like the wireframe, why can’t an engineer in China or India? Why should a college student in America study a field which is treated as a commodity resource by companies?

To recruit America’s most creative and intelligent students into engineering, we need to redefine engineering as a profession, not push middle school children in to math and science classes. Universities and employers should work together to incorporate design into curriculum and job responsibilities.

Students like myself are attracted to engineering to define and make things, not execute some else’s designs. Let’s add generative research and ideation courses to engineering curriculum and teach engineers how to approach ill-defined problems and service design. Companies should break down the cultural barriers between marketing and engineering. They should include engineers on customer visits, and co-mingle the designers and engineers at the beginning of the new product development cycle. The cultural shift needed to redefine the field of engineering is itself a wicked problem, and I look forward to chipping away at it wherever I may end up next.

Rejecting The Relentless Spread of Technology

At the Web International Festival (WIF), Nicolas Leduc’s presentation included an image of the Doubtful Guest. The Doubtful Guest is a character by Edward Gorey; he invites himself into your house and causes all sorts of mischief, because he is stubborn and unexpected. The Doubtful Guest is a metaphor for technology. Technology has crept into our homes, and it is causing increasing mischief in the way we consider ourselves, our families, and our relationships with the world around us. Consider the expanse of technological infrastructure in the average American home; we have a massive digital presence at the center of the home – the living room – in the form of digital entertainment (the average home in the US spends $1000 per year on AV equipment). We have digital tools for our music and books. We have cellphones, lots and lots of cellphones (Eli Blevis, in a talk at the same conference, described a 2006 study he conducted that showed 65% of 19 year olds have had 6 or more cellphones in their short lives). And we have digital microwaves, and digital alarm clocks, and digital thermostats, and digital washers and dryers and fridges. We’re introducing digital technology into schools in the forms of iPads, laptops, and distributed and remote and online learning tools.

The implications of our digital choices are increasingly obvious. We know and consistently talk of the problems presented by dependency on Facebook, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon. We’re concerned, loudly and publicly, about the potential for overly biased legislation on digital rights ownership. We bemoan our children’s inability to focus and learn, and we debate the obvious solutions of peer learning and individualized teaching. We’re worried for our digital privacy. We lament the demise of analog print media, and the businesses that have historically supported them. And we collectively and relentlessly critique this culture, this digital world we’ve created. Steven Johnson offered a critique of just his form of overload in Interface Culture, Malcolm McCullough extended these ideas in Digital Ground, and Neil Postman dedicated his entire literary career to a warning of a digital overthrow. Eli Pariser has offered an indictment of the overly personalized Filter Bubble in which we find ourselves. Nicholas Carr described how our large-scale and unquestioning embrace of technology is having neurological and likely generationally lasting effects on our way of thinking. Jaron Lanier described the problem of lock-in in You Are Not a Gadget.

We are at a unique point of cultural clarity, and what’s more, we are in the midst of a design and creative renaissance. The ironic clarity is in our ability to have a “meta-moment”, reflecting on the culture we are building, and sharing these reflections with each other through digital technology. The same digitization of which we show concern for above has allowed us to share cultural introspection in a nearly real-time manner, which means that we are live-blogging our digital addiction. We don’t like our digital culture, and we’re letting everyone know, 140 characters at a time.

And it’s worth repeating that we are building this culture. It doesn’t simply happen. It hasn’t emerged by accident. It’s designed, purposefully and with a great deal of care and thought. The digital renaissance of design implies an almost unprecedented level of power for designers. I’m traveling around the world urging designers to quit their jobs and start their own companies, because I truly believe that a designer can go it alone and drive large-scale and influential impact. I have no doubt in my mind that we can manipulate people on a large scale, get them to buy things, do things, act a certain way, think a certain way. Design is manipulative, and when combined with digital technology, it’s pervasive, and when entrenched in a culture laser focused on the pursuit of scale, gratuitous profit, and technology for technology sake, it’s downright dangerous. Design has consequences. It sounds overly grandiose or dramatic to claim that an icon designer is shaping culture by changing the color of a few pixels, but it’s true, and what’s more, this power is becoming increasingly apparent. Facebook’s acquisition of design firm after design firm helps elevate design to a position of respect. But their commitment to design simultaneously signals what we can expect in the future: a more pervasive digital culture, and more consequences.

It’s conflicting and confusing because the potential and opportunity is so rich while the precedent so shallow. A digital future is offered as a future of opportunity. Digital is clean, precise. There are no moving parts to break off, no gears to catch. The promise of a connected future is a rich promise of convenience and community and seamlessness. The sense of progress is unmistakable, mostly due to miniaturization, and made even more obvious when small-scale digital interactions appear in magical ways. Gillian Crampton-Smith displayed some of her student work at the aforementioned conference; one piece, Liaison, offered a particularly poetic view of connection through a mix of analog and digital. A digital future is rich with new artistic opportunity; it’s a new medium to exploit and explore and manipulate.

Design is a new liberal art of technological culture. It’s about the humanization of technology. A humanist is, historically, one who rejects the dogma of religion, and who celebrates and advocates for people. Design is a discipline that advocates for humans: traditionally, by arguing for usability, simplicity, aesthetics, and functionality. These are tangible qualities and so they are the easiest to teach, and the easiest to pursue, and the easiest to judge. But there is a new religion in digital, and this must be the new target of our design renaissance. As large, complex, and confusing as it may be in practice, the broad role of design is becoming increasingly clear: to become the advocate for people on a cultural level, in the face of digital progress, and to argue within our organizations against the relentless drive for the spread of all things digital. This is a contentious position, as was usability in the 70s or aesthetics in the 30s. It is a multi-faceted position, one that is highly contextual (and therefore not objective or easy to boil down to rules or guidelines), and one that is dependent on values (and therefore requires an understanding and articulation of ethics). It may mean arguing a minority and difficult perspective, over and over again. You may already be pursuing this agenda; it may mean pursuing it with more passion, effort, and vehemence.

It seems like, historically, the humanists always lose. We’re certainly losing right now. The platform that was to empower, connect, educate and delight is largely about advertising, tracking, and quarterly profits. It can be reclaimed, and it probably must be, lest we turn the world into the dystopic caricatures presented in science fiction.

Understanding And Infusing Product Character Through Stance

There’s a strange and highly subjective quality to digital products, one that floats between brand and utility. It’s the idea of stance: the attitude the product takes, the personality it has. Stance is manufactured and designed, and from a particular product stance flows features, functions, language, imagery, and other formal design qualities. Stance is similar to, but different from, market fit, usability, or usefulness.  Stance can be applied purposefully, or haphazardly; it can evolve from an existing brand language, or it can be created from scratch. Product stance can evolve from an understanding of users, from understanding of market, or from the attitude and approach of an individual designer.

First, Identify the aspirational emotional traits you would like your product to present to the world. There are lots of ways to identify these traits, and how you go about identifying them will depend heavily on the style and culture of your product team. Is this a team that embraces an analytical, engineering approach to design? Is this a team that looks to the market for guidance? Is this a team of one – you – where your vision is driving product development? Or, do you have an existing brand that comes loaded with existing attitude? The culture of your product team will indicate the spark of stance: it explains how to start.


If you work for a large, well established company… … your brand language already exists… … and this existing brand language will directly lead you to the aspirational emotional traits.
If you work in an engineering culture… … the team will expect and respect an analytical approach to process… … and you will need to rationalize the aspirational emotional traits you select  based on data
If you work in a marketing-driven culture… … the team will look to the competition and overall market landscape… … and you will need to visualize opportunistic whitespace as a way to justify the aspirational emotional traits you select
If you work in a tiny team… … you’ll have a lot of freedom to make decisions on your own… … and so you’ll need to have a strong opinion about the type of emotion you want your product to exude


I’ve found that identifying four or five extremely specific traits works well, and the more specific they are (and the more of them you have), the more useful they will be.

Consider an easy set of examples: compare the aspirational emotional traits for a Lexus and a Mini Cooper. Lexus is a luxury brand, but “luxury” only gets us to a vague emotional feeling. Consider that the Lexus wants to be luxurious, sensual, coy, aloof, elegant, smooth, romantic, and slightly out of reach. The Mini Cooper, by comparison, exhibits childlike wonder, carelessness, and lightness; it wants to be spirited, light-hearted, playful, and free.

Next, use the aspirational emotional traits to establish emotional requirements. Like functional requirements, these describe aspects of the product or service that will be built, and like functional requirements, you can test to see if these requirements have been fulfilled after a product is complete. These emotional requirements take the form of sentences of fact – “Our product will” – and you can introduce these requirements into the same story, point, or defect tracking systems you already use. The difference between these emotional requirements and functional requirements, however, is that emotional requirements are omnipresent. They exist across every use case, in every facet of the product, and dictate, describe, and artificially contain every other product, quality, usability, marketing, and design decision that follow. Simply, they trump everything. Mike Kruzeniski has described these as the “soul” of a product – no matter what gets cut due to timing, budget, or market constraints, these things cannot be eliminated, or you have no product.

Here are some examples of emotional requirements that might follow from the traits described for Lexus, above:

Our product will always be revered in a crowd.

Our product will be highly tactile, almost erotic.

Our product will always tempt users to do slightly illogical things.

Our product will always let users feel in control, but will always actually be controlling the users.

These statements act as if the product was a person: they create a sense of identity for an inanimate object. They become the structure of personality.

Then, use the emotional requirements as a set of constraints to determine product features, pricing decisions, content strategy, launch priorities, and so on.

These requirements become the way you argue for and select product features. Should the product come in high-saturation, day-glow colors, or – given the above requirements – would a more sensual, rich, subdued color palette make more sense? Should the speedometer stop at a standard setting, or should it go up to 220mph? Should the sun-roof be an option, or should it come standard?

Additionally, the requirements become ways you argue for and select product interactions. Touch-screens don’t seem appropriate in the vehicle described above, but subtle dimpling, extremely detailed textures, and smooth transitions with recessed details make sense.

These emotional requirements become the arbiter of arguments, the way product teams move forward. The product comes alive, because it now has personality: it is no longer inanimate, and it has opinions about how it should be shaped and formed. Major inconsistencies act as they would in a human: they seem surprising and difficult to rationalize.

A strong product stance capitalizes on two of the most important qualities of product development: framing and play. A frame is an active perspective about a situation, person, or product. We frame experiences all the time. This is how we get through life – by actively considering what’s happening in front of us, and implicitly applying our own lens or filter on top of a given situation. Framing is a part of being human, and while there’s a constant demand in western civilization to “be objective”, objectivity is probably an unattainable goal, at least in the midst experiencing something.  Play is the idea of exploration for exploration-sake: examining and considering different results, simply to see what happens. When you consider framing and play together in the context of product development, you arrive at a place of opportunity – opportunity to reframe a situation from a new perspective, just to see what happens. And when you assign that new frame to your product, you implore it to act in a consistent manner, as a form of personality. If the personality has consistency, and the emotional richness of the stance seems credible, the user will experience a rich interaction with your product. And if the user experiences a product stance with resonance, the aspirational emotional traits will be transferred to the user. A playful, provocative, unexpected frame will resonate with a user who wishes to be playful, provocative, and unexpected; or, a user will become playful, provocative, and unexpected by using the product with this stance.

I selected a non-digital product – a vehicle – for an example on purpose; the aesthetics of a car are obvious, and so the personality decisions are overt, amplified, and obvious. A digital product is much more subtle, and the opportunities for this stance to have a lasting and deep impact are much greater.

Consider these examples.

Several years ago, Burger King teamed up with Crispen Porter to create the “Whopper Sacrifice”: a campaign that asked users of facebook to sacrifice their friends in exchange for free hamburgers. If you sacrificed a friend – say, Joe – the message would show up on your facebook wall: you thought a free hamburger was worth more than your friendship with Joe. As much as Whopper Sacrifice was a product, the product exhibited a highly irreverent product stance. And that irreverence was transferred to the hundreds of thousands of users who elected to sacrifice friends for burgers.

When Clippy would dumbly ask you, over and over, if you were writing a letter, it was exhibiting emotional traits that most people find abusive in real people. Its repetitive, dumb, questions, and its  poorly animated qualities were familiar human signals of a person most of us wouldn’t want to spend time with, much less become.

When you use MailChimp – a tool used to send mass mail to a mailing list, the product acts as a playful friend. Consider that, when you elect to preview your mail, if you stretch the screen too large, the robot’s arms fall off.

Tumblr doesn’t allow comments from people that you don’t know. And when you ask the design team at tumblr why that is, they describe a response based on aspirational emotional qualities: comments on the internet are poisonous and seem to entice vitriolic response. Tumblr is about sharing things in a positive environment. Open comments don’t fit with the aspirations of the product. The people that use Tumblr aren’t looking for deep, meaningful rhetorical debates; they are looking to delight in sharing.

Sometimes, you see misaligned glimpses of these aspirational product traits through product features and functions that don’t reflect the whole, the gestalt of the personality. error pages commonly have a sense of attitude, even for the most benign product; my experience tells me this is a product team begging to introduce life into their tools, at the expense of a larger conservative or analytical culture. I collect these, here are a few:



I don’t collect these just because I think they’re fun. They actually indicate a strong desire by product teams to infuse more character, more personality, and more soul into the things they make, and an increased prevalence of this type of attitude would indicate a sea-change in product development. As innovation is one way of avoiding the trap of “commodity hell”, to quote Jeff Immelt, so too is product stance. I don’t think stance can be faked or copied, because it’s largely institutional and organizational. It’s in subtleties like language choice, and it manifests (or doesn’t) in consistent ways over time, building a larger personality for a product and, ultimately, a brand. I don’t see stance coming through rapid development practices, from the grip it and rip it of agile, or from the “throw it to the market as fast as possible” of lean. Stance takes time, and care, and is probably at odds with approaches that emphasize time to market and the overzealous optimization of SEO or A/B testing. Stance is a designerly way of thinking about products.



Thoughts on Participatory Design, Adversarial Design, and Consumerism

Design, like any other topic, has movements and approaches, trends and styles. A student of design history can see muddy relationships between the socio-political temperament of citizens and countries, and the nature of designed artifacts and systems. It’s been relatively easy to understand aesthetic changes, because they are perceptual: they are visually obvious. Mies’ buildings and chairs were simple and emphasized the structural qualities of their materials. This, depending on your perspective, is boring, elegant, or institutional, and it serves to reflect a society embracing engineering and the power of production. Raymond Loewy’s streamlined bullet train, boat, Avanti, and pencil sharpener all characterize the development of American temperament: fast, and proud.

The development of Jonathan Ives’ form language for Apple has characterized a company shift from space-age to professional, while Apple’s UI has constantly wavered between cute and kitsch, saying more about consumers than about Apple.

But there are larger design movements afoot that are more subtle and more difficult to see, and therefore, more difficult to understand. The names overlap and conflict, but they generally speak to the role of the designer: while the aesthetic movements can be seen as a description of society, these new ways of thinking about design speak more to the increasing power of the designer in shaping that society.

I want to speak about two of these, which are simultaneously juxtaposed and interlinked.

The first is the idea of collaborative design: designing with users, or empowering users to design for themselves. This has taken many names: Cooperative Design, Scandinavian Design, Co-Design, and Participatory Design, and it has roots in the rejection of authoritative, top-down decision making. In non-US countries, and particularly in Scandinavian countries, the roots of this come from union empowerment for workers to decide on and help shape the working environment in which they spend their time. When I visited Malmö University, Pelle Ehn gave me a copy of his book Work-Oriented Design of Computer Artifacts. It was published in 1988, and describes retrospectively many of the projects Ehn worked on to formalize a truly bottom-up approach to the design of systems.

As Ehn describes, a practice of design by and for the users is a form of “emancipatory practice”, which, “as epistemology is identification with oppressed groups and support of their transcendence in action and reflection.” It’s likely hard for a reader in the US to value and understand a statement like that because it’s so far afield of our political conversation. But taken in the context of a menial un-empowered worker, consider that the policies a worker must follow, the software she has to use, the “service design touchpoints” that have been created for her to have positive interaction with her customers are all indications of oppression, at least in the context of a job. If it sounds Marxist, it’s because it is: Marx calls for a resistance and rejection from workers against anonymous decision makers, and the modern-day equivalent might be an uprising of call-center employees against the Accenture PMO.

This is a dramatic rejection of the rationalistic approach towards design of Herb Simon, or the method-driving approach of Alexander that I spoke of a few days ago, and Ehn goes on to explain that “participative and creative approaches to design are championed as candidates to replace systematic or rationalistic design… How is it possible that in computer science the early rationalist systems engineering approach and the program of Herbert Simon is still alive?”

Adversarial Discursion
The other major theme that I want to describe is the push towards adversarial discursion: of simultaneous digression from a norm, and embracement of a controversial and purposefully provocative view. This has been called, in various forms, design as authorship, critical design, design for conflict, discursive design, and adversarial design. While most modern design is intended to blend into the background (“Good design is as little design as possible”), these forms of design purposefully elevate a strong and often controversial viewpoint to the forefront. They are intended to provoke – to provoke thought, discourse, reaction, and controversy.

Carl DiSalvo (Professor at Georgia Tech, and on our AC4D advisory board) describes Adversarial Design as a label for “works that express or enable a particular political perspective known as agonism… Agonism is a condition of disagreement and confrontation – a condition of contestation and dissensus.” He goes on to state that “Bias is required to do the work of agonism. A visualization that is agonistic cannot just present the facts. An artifact of information design is made agonistic by the extent to which it identifies and represents contestable positions or practices.” Adversarial Design is biased, and purposefully attempts to provoke. It walks the line of art, which is acknowledged by DiSalvo. It means that a product, system, or service takes on a role that’s larger than utility, aesthetics, and usability – “usable, useful, and desirable” is definitively not adversarial, at least not against a backdrop of consumerism. In many ways, the acceptance of Adversarial Design as a legitimate course of study and action helps separate the discipline of design from the artificial confines of business, identifying that it has a larger role to play in shaping the language and conversation of technology in society.


I don’t mean to position Adversarial Design and Participatory Design as opposites. They aren’t, and in many ways, they compliment one another in their focus on empowerment. That they both exist, and are gaining significant traction in design spheres of influence, helps to describe the socio-political backdrop, in much the same way that Loewy’s streamlining acts as a prompt for understanding the Roaring 50s. A third idea, not described here, is design for impact: the entire purpose of our school. And when taken together, these three themes speak to the fundamental shift in design intent that is occurring. It might be premature to call consumerism dead, but these ideas in total certainly point in that direction.

Discursive Design Fiction

When I posted yesterday, I included a mockup of a potential future of Facebook. This is an example of a design fiction. The phrasing is Bruce Sterling’s play on science fiction, one that I like very much. As a culture, we’ve gotten used to technological visions of the future, usually played out in a post-apocalyptic robotic dystopia. The normal fair includes holograms, eye tracking, heads-up displays, cyborgs, responsive environments, voice interfaces, and gestural dance-like interactions. Think Star Trek, Bladerunner, the Matrix, and Snow Crash: cyberpunk culture.

But these science fictions have a way of finding their way into technological reality, albeit often only in aspiration. Google, and their this-is-so-ridiculous-it-can’t-possibly-be-true glasses project is just the latest example of a large, primarily male, primarily engineering community embracing a mainstay of science  fiction and trying to make it real, because, man, that would be really cool. But the only thing new about Google’s vision of the future is that it isn’t Microsoft’s vision of the future. Microsoft has, for the last twenty years, been cranking out videos that show the Matrix coming to life in our living rooms. Never mind the fact that they continue to be wrong; the most interesting part of these videos, in my opinion, is that they continue to be aspirations. The engineers that make these, or the marketing teams that rally around them, really seem to want the world to be this way!

There’s another form of fiction that’s being used to describe how the world might be. Design fiction is using the powers of design to envision a future. It’s something designers typically do in the context of their work; they create new world visions, draw storyboards, and begin to visualize how things can and should be. You may not have seen many of these design fictions, because they are usually used as an interim step towards a more substantial whole: they are a throw-away part of the process of getting to innovations and new product and service ideas. But I’ll describe what I’ve found to be the prototypical style of the narrative, used to present an idealized design vision of the future: a design fiction.

It’s 8am, and Bob’s phone is beeping. Bob smiles as he wakes up. It’s going to be a big day: he’s pitching a new client! He jumps out of bed, and turns his alarm off, which causes the coffee maker to start brewing his favorite brew. He jumps in the shower, and his phone serenades him with his favorite songs. As he gets out of the shower and starts brushing his teeth, his phone begins to orate the sports scores of his favorite teams. Bob likes to hear them in a thick, sensual Swedish accent.

Bob heads to the kitchen and grabs a cup of coffee. He opens the newspaper, and sees that the Yankees won again. He taps his phone on the score, and a video highlight of the game begins playing on his phone. Suddenly, he realizes he’s lost track of time – he better get going! He jumps in his car, and his phone transfers the video to the large, heads-up display projected on the road in front of him. He drives to work, watching the baseball highlights, and hitting all the green lights.

This design fiction is a romanticized story of ubiquitous computing, where everything is great and we can all spend the majority of our time basking in a naïve and unobstructed mindless form of entertainment consumption. This is what Steven Johnson describes as “banal reveries of sending faxes from the beach.”: it points to a poverty of imagination, as the author has made no effort to truly understand what a life of technological continuity might actually feel like. While I would hope this “beautiful day” would be obtusely tongue-in-cheek enough, I may need to make it clear that I think this would be an awful, awful series of interactions, and god help me if my coffee maker ever makes coffee without my explicit permission.

These idealized design fictions have the same problem as the science fiction scenes of Google and Microsoft. They aren’t probable; they aren’t even possible. I’ll leave the lecture on suitability for another time; the point here is that a vision of the future that relies on constant, edge-free, smooth and malleable technological end to end interactions is just plain impossible, and we all know it. Our infrastructure is a patchwork quilt of platforms and quasi-standards, human behavior is fuzzy and often unpredictable, and the system ubiquity required to make any of these visions true is simply not happening any time soon. Our poster child for walled-garden cross-device end-to-end interactions, Apple, can’t even figure out how to harmonize Home Sharing, iTunes Match, Ping, Genius, and the iTunes Store; their best-in-class music solution is just a mess of disparate functions that map to the organizational hierarchy of the company. It’s almost like these damn people and their damn social structures keep messing up the simplicity of the technology.

And so creating visions of the future – be it the dystopia of science fiction or the utopia of design fiction – may be a great artistic endeavor, but is definitely a waste of practical effort.

But there is a third form of vision of the future that might be worthwhile in an age where a congress that doesn’t understand the first thing about technology is just itching to legislate it. This alternative vision of the future takes the form of discursive design: a design that is intended to provoke thought, and is never intended to actually be built. I’ll repeat that, in case it gets lost somewhere along the way: the goal of a discursive design is to illustrate a future and provoke thought, but not to actually be built. You might call that art. Discursive sounds cooler. Allan Chochinov tells a story of a great example from one of his classes, where a student produced this wonderful lollypop holder:

And the class instantly wanted to know how to go about making it real. Real, as in manufactured out of plastic by the millions, and sold at every Wal-Mart in the country. His response to the class is simple, subtle, and powerful: it’s already real, as a discursive design, and that’s all it needs to be. Further, that’s all it should be, because it’s sufficient as a probe of culture. The image delights the senses in all the ways it would if real, and it simultaneously calls us out on our ridiculous culture of plastic excess. It’s a vision of the future, it’s discursive, and it’s design. (You owe it to yourself to watch the whole video of Allan, here.)

Design is about bringing things to life. Most of us can’t envision things that don’t yet exist, and so we need help: we need a visual crutch. And sometimes, or frequently, as it would appear, we need a visual crutch of the worst case scenario. It’s starting to become more and more apparent that a worst-case scenario for our present day is not robots shooting lasers at each other over a dark abyss of spaceships. There’s nothing post-apocalyptic about it, and it’s not even nefarious. But it’s right around the corner, and it’s driven by all of the usual marketing, advertising, float valuation, post-IPO investor value best practices. It’s what unites Google, Facebook, Viacom, News Corp, and any other digital player that relies on advertising as a core business model. It’s the worst case scenario of targeted, profile-driven, faceted and algorithmic advertising.

I showed an example yesterday; I’ll show another here.

Sometimes, we can’t see things until we literally see them. Here’s a challenge to anyone reading who has not yet actually created a Google Adwords campaign, or initiated a Facebook ad campaign. Do it, do it now. And when you’re done – now that you understand how the internet really works – think about a discursive future. It’s a design fiction, and it’s a hell of a lot more likely than any science fiction you’ve seen recently.