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by Gabriel Schaffzin

the documentation of a design exploration of the theories elucidated in the accompanying volume, A Curriculum of Proper Knowledge Consumption

Copyright © 2013 by Gabriel Yuval Schaffzin

Utopia/Dystopia the documentation of a design exploration of the theories elucidated in the accompanying volume, A Curriculum of Proper Knowledge Consumption For works cited, please see accompanying volume All Rights Reserved

The captions in this book are set in Nudista and the body copy is set in Teimer, both from the Suitcase Type Foundry. The latter is a revived version of a typeface deigned originally in 1967 by the Czech type designer, Pavel Teimer. The influence which his countryman, Vilém Flusser, had on this and the accompanying volume inspired the search for a typeface with Czech roots.

9 Introduction 21 Longformers 55 A Brief Interlude 71 Shape, Inc. 97 Conclusion

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I NTRODUCT ION

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You may want to check out the accompanying volume, A Curriculum of Proper Knowledge Consumption. In it, I consider the dangers of brevity and speed — two values held in high regard by the forces guiding our day-to-day lives — on society. Eventually, I conclude that the best way to empower the students of the curriculum is through a set of speculative design exercises. While the teacher of the curriculum should customize any element of it to their goals or liking, the exercises documented here were ones I found myself going through. In essence, as both a writer and a designer, I felt like I needed to be making in order to accompany my thinking. This book is the documentation of my making process. I’ve got some designing, some coding, some fabricating and assembling, and even some magnetic levitation. Along the way, there were a few epiphanies and plenty of challenges.

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It all started with a new-found appreciation for dystopian fiction — an appreciation that escalated pretty quickly. After I read Gary Shtyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story (per a recommendation from a professor), I started filling my bookshelves with work just like it.

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tomorr
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It’s speculative. It doesn’t exist. But it could. It challenges. It examines today b

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row.

y depicting

You’re not convinced. That’s alright.

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I went to the South By Southwest Interactive conference in Austin in 2012 and heard a talk given by researcher danah boyd. The talk was called “The Power of Fear in Networked Publics” and focused on the culture of fear being perpetrated by actors in the attention economy in which we live today. Social media, boyd argued, is amping up the attention economy  —  particularly by heralding the same brevity and speed I mentioned earlier. At one point, boyd mentioned the use of dystopian and utopian rhetoric in the discourse relating to our networks. So I decided to raise my hand and ask about the role of designers in all of this. Specifically, I wanted to know about those designing our future. Her answer inspired me. I would try to design the future in order to inspire conversations about it. I would work towards something I’d eventually call a tangible criticality.

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“I do believe in fiction, particularly because it works through issues. And I think it is a really important task for us to image all of those possibilities. I also think that that’s what designers can do. I actually think that designers need to engage more with science-fiction methodologies. Not just thinking through what you want to come out to be, but all of the possible unintended consequences of it…I think thinking like that, not because you want to enact or create the dystopia, but because you want to actually have a conversation about it is extremely important.”

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Just as in dystopian fiction, it was important for me to plot today before projecting tomorrow. An excellent question that I began to tackle immediately with some brainstorming in my notebook. I was interested in the media’s role in discourse, so I started there. My page of scribbles included my bold, bold assertion that capital would have control of all media production, that there would be tiers of access to that media, that the poor would be locked out from it, and a consolidated media industry would fuel a consumerist society that begins to blur the line between what is public and what is private.

I looked up from my notebook and realized… I’m describing today.

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I decided to turn my focus back to today’s media and tracked down an actual newspaper. I tried to consider what our current state might look like as someone 20 or 30 years ago may have predicted it. So I made a template that allowed me to read just about 140 characters of the New York Times and put it over the paper. This was too cumbersome; today’s world is hand held. So I sliced the paper in columns and taped them all together. I curled them up into a single spool and built a containing box that allowed a user to “scroll” through the news as they would a Twitter stream. The news scroller allows for sequential consumption of longform narrative  —  but only at about 140 characters at a time.

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An old box from business cards and two shish-kebab skewers later, I created the first prototype of the News Scroller.

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I looked back at my notes and saw something about the slow news movement. Certainly, “slow movements” have been relatively trendy these days, but there was something about a “movement” that appealed to me. I had done some work on the Occupy movement that fall and wondered if maybe they would use the news scroller. It didn’t feel like an exact fit, but then again  —  I was talking about a movement that maybe didn’t even exist yet. That’s when the Longformers were born: a subversive movement. One that recruits for, trains, and promotes the consumption of long-form knowledge.

“Slow News” even showed up on my iPad once when I visited the Huffington Post  —  a news organization, I’d argue, which does not really conform to what I believe the slow news movement to represent.

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I began “branding” the Longformers, knowing full well what they would know, too: that it’s difficult to break through the public consciousness without a distinct visual persona. Going through multiple versions of their seal, I took inspiration from both familial crests and corporate marks. I tried to incorporate the artifacts of today’s society which they hold dear: writing implements, books, etc. I also tried to consider what tools they would use to produce the seal: something too “digital” would not be appropriate, so I worked on versions which appeared to be etched. Eventually, I landed on a book resting along the horizon — whether the sun is rising or setting depends on the viewer’s outlook.

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The Longformers seal includes the Latin translation of a quote from Aldous Huxley, godfather of modern dystopian fiction. (Thanks to my high school Latin teacher, Mrs. McMichael for the proper translation; early seals had a Google-Translate-butchered version of the phrase.)

in
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“For life is short and information endless.”

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The news scroller, it seemed, could be both a badge of honor  —  displayed proudly when carried on the train or bus  —  and, concurrently, their training wheels: when they exist, after all, long-form knowledge consumption will be all but completely forgotten. The piece eventually went through a few iterations and ended up as a slick, designed, hand-held device. With the news scroller, I felt like I had plotted my point: contemporary society’s high esteem for brevity and speed, and I had also begun to build that trajectory upon which we are traveling. Now it was time to build the world around the Longformers.

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The news scroller features a removable cartridge and dial driven scroll system. Its hand-held form factor fits nicely in a bag, to be carried as a badge of honor

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Through the feed, of course. Turning back to Huxley, I decided to present his work as it would be presented in the time of the Longformers, when all information is broken down and distributed in bite-sized, easily digested chunks.. I wrote a php script to parse the novel and tweet Brave New World, 140 characters at a time. The Longformers present this novel through the short-form stream   —  the lingua franca of the future, (if not the present). As soon as someone follows or retweets one of the tweeted Brave New World passages, they are identified as a possible Longformer recruit. They’re contacted and given a news scroller. If they can handle the eventual consumption of long-form, sequential narrative, they’re in.

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The stream posts to @__BraveNewWorld: the username @BraveNewWorld is, ironically, an entertainment production company.

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Around the same time that Longformers banded together, Google introduced SumUp, a plug-in that automatically summarizes any email you receive that is over 140 characters long. But this is Google and they have revenue to consider, so they insert a small contextualized ad into your email. My wife sends me a long email about the 5K she ran last week and I receive a significantly shorter note that also includes the line, “Thanks to Gatorade Thirst Quencher, I got my best time.” Of course, she had never mentioned Gatorade to begin with. The plug-in proved so popular, and the revenue opportunity so good, that Google made it the default and all of the other email services adopted it. The USpS — which by then was rarely used for letters anyway, mostly just packages — was desperate for some extra cash, so they eventually began running every letter through the algorithm, eliminating the final channel for long-form communication. What the Longformers are going to do about this is yet to be seen. They are trying reverse engineering and hacking the system. Progress is, not surprisingly, relatively slow.

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At first, I figured that 50 years sounded like a good buffer between what we have today and how severe the problems had become by the time Google SumUp is the default. After all, recalling 50 years showed how long it takes for our technology to make its way through society. But then I shared my work with M.T. Anderson, the author of one of my favorite dystopian novels, Feed. His reaction was, generally, positive. But while he found the work compelling, he felt I had set it too far in the future.

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“To imagine even 2062 is to stack transformation on top of transformation, each one creating its own bifurcating set of possibilities, each stage challenging us to imagine the new ways that information, intelligence, and commercial activity will interact. The causal network involved in any prediction is staggering. I long for the days when fifty years in the future just meant more jetpacks …”

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I then went to a book reading by Ray Kurzweil for his new book, How To Create A Mind. Kurzweil is certainly a champion of the latest and greatest technological advancements. But his predictions have, quite often, been spot on. He showed us graphs related to the increase in Internet bandwidth since its inception. I noticed that each one is a logarithmic scale. None of them are linear. As Mr. Anderson said, “Transformation on top of transformation.” So how did it make sense for me to adopt a linear scale for Longformers? It didn’t. If I was going to predict where our current trajectory is bringing us, I would have to compress my time-line.

Tracking Internet data traffic since 1996 and Internet backbone bandwidth since 1969 reveals that technological growth is not linear­  —  the scales of these graphs are both logarithmic.

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Throughout my three years at the Dynamic Media Institute, I’ve always considered what the tools we develop as designers mean to our public discourse — that is, our discourse related to public considerations. In my first year, I proposed a project called “My Political Shape” — a 3D visualization of one’s political beliefs. The idea was to embrace the nuance of the issues and move beyond the media’s generic “red state/blue state” dialectic.

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I built an animated prototype using 3D modeling software and Apple’s Xcode development environment. Determining the intricacies of shape metrics, the question set, and the database driving the tool was well beyond what I needed in order to react to the project.

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With Political Shape, if you had very high level views and didn't want to answer questions about the nitty gritty of, say, foreign policy, you'd have a relatively simple form. As you dug down into more nuanced content, though, your shape would break into these facets and shift accordingly.

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By the time I was ready to tackle the project again earlier this year, the amount of trust I was willing to put in the objectivity of information design  —  because that is, after all, what I was talking about (see: A Curriculum of Proper Knowledge Consumption, chapter three)  —  had diminished significantly. Rather, as I thought more and more about the shape project, I realized something I had discovered while writing a critique of social movement information design last spring: just because something looks scientific, or even uses the scientific method, does not mean it can accurately represent the nuanced and ever changing perspective that makes up what we call "meaning." In fact, the political shape inspired exactly the kind of thing that the Longformers are railing against: the brevity and speed of what philosopher Scott Lash calls an informationalized society. The kind of brevity and speed that take advantage of danah boyd’s attention economy. But all of that time I had spent on the political shape was based on my own utopian view  —  one that inspired me to believe a visualization of data would be the answer to the messiness of political discourse. Maybe I could harness that utopian belief in order to point out the absurdity of my original vision.

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It looks like Shape, Inc.: As I see it, Shape, Inc. started as a project at the MIT Institute for Universal Knowledge & Understanding. Founded by Stephen Overbrook, a former data journalist and Silicon Valley CEO, it was charged with the mission of giving humans the tools to better appreciate one another, specifically through the accurate dissemination of one’s values and belief systems. Some of the world’s finest data scientists paired with equally as talented information designers spent years figuring out how to communicate visually what would otherwise take countless hours to understand. Predictably, the project eventually spun off as a corporate entity.

Shape, Inc.’s transformation as an organization can be observed in its logo: originally, its close ties to its academic roots were conveyed via the typography choices. As the product evolved, an emphasis on the multidimensional nature of the shape was explored.

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SHAPE INC

SHAPE INC

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At first, the company began selling products that broadcast the Shape™ forms from the accessories people were already wearing: watch faces, earrings, brooches, and even cuff links. The ever-present Shape™ broadcasts were an immediate hit, providing for what the company claimed was a significantly more civic public discourse. After all, once we know what our friends, family members, and coworkers really believe, we should see a significant reduction in misunderstandings. But the original Shape’s patent is expiring. And there are a handful of American companies ready to take advantage of cheap Brazilian manufacturing to produce knock offs. So it’s time for a new version to stave off the competition. Plus, what would a successful American corporation be without a huge new product launch?

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So here's New Shape™ . It is a 3D object, completely independent from any broadcast medium or channel. You just need a small magnet implanted in each of your shoulders, and the form will float above your shoulder of choosing, ever morphing to the inputs and outputs that affect who you are. Along with New Shape™ comes a new logo: complete with a 3D form which sits on the shoulder of the company’s “S’ — itself made up of ever-changing polygons. With the proliferation of dynamic media screens, the Shape, Inc. logo never sits still, just like your New Shape™.

Shape, Inc.
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Shape, Inc. has put out a request for proposals for an advertising campaign to launch the new product. As is usually the case, a search consultant has been hired to produce a document outlining all campaign requirements. Interested agencies received a brief history of the company, a list of the new product’s benefits, a competitive analysis, and more. The company hopes that the campaign will properly introduce the public to the product and its strengths.

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S&S Search Consultants
345 East 56th St., New York, NY, 10012 Shape, Inc. Grown out of the strength of American academia, Shape, Inc. was a project conceptualized by MIT’s Institute for Universal Knowledge & Understanding. Spearheaded by its founder, Stephen Overbrook—a former data journalist and Silicon Valley CEO—the Institute was charged with the mission of giving humans the tools to better appreciate one another, specifically through the accurate dissemination of one’s values and belief systems. Central to the objectives of the Institute is the appreciation of the nuance of complex situations and the visualization of these intricacies. The Institute was fortunate enough to have some of the world’s fines data scientists paired with equally as talented information designers, forming an elite team, capable of communicating visually what would otherwise take countless hours to understand. By the time Shape, Inc. was spun off as a corporate entity in 2035, we were taking advantage of the latest in media surface technology, broadcasting Shape™ forms from the accessories our customers were already wearing: watch faces, earrings, brooches, and even cufflinks. These ever-present Shape™ broadcasts were an immediate hit, providing for a significantly more civic public discourse. After all, once we knew what our friends, family members, and coworkers really believed, we saw a significant reduction in misunderstandings.

S&S Search Consultants
345 East 56th St., New York, NY, 10012

Target Audience

Aged 30-65 HHI $425,000+ Career professionals with active social lives, engaged in community (PTO, attending town hall meetings, running the church bake sale) Primarily male, though working mothers certainly a strong contingent Current users of Shape™ are ripe for upgrades; new users fitting the above demographics are certainly a strong target as well.

Competition

While Shape, Inc. has held an exclusive patent to the research and development, code, design, materials, manufacturing, and distribution of Shape™ 1.0 for the past 20 years, the exclusivity of the patent expires at the end of this calendar year. This explains Shape, Inc.’s 93% penetration rate. We are in the process of securing exclusivity to all of the respective details surrounding New Shape™, but we expect Shape™ 1.0 copycats to enter the market by the end of 2056. Presumably, this competition will come from the plethora of USA based shell companies whose South American research, manufacturing, and distribution operations can be brought up to full availability in a number of weeks once the patent is released. As such, it is extremely important to dismiss the features of Shape™ 1.0, even at the expense of cannibalizing our own sales. Throughout other areas of the universal knowledge vertical there are products that can be considered competition. Among these inferior devices for universal knowledge transfer are: iconographic media surface signage (such as the system developed by NeuLook, Inc.); self-discovery ComStreamCast applications (see products developed by AppChimp, Ltd., ShortCutCircuit, Inc.); plus streamed and in-person workshops (as put on by Tuftetek LLC, etc.). One of the oft-overlooked threats to Shape Inc.’s market dominance is the collective action being organized against the organization in the name of “phenomenological reflectivity.” Organizations such as the “Longformers” dedicate much of their time and attention to working against the significant work Shape Inc. has done to bridge gaps of misunderstanding the world over. We consider these threats to be minor, at best, but feel it is necessary to bring them to the agency’s attention here.

HIGHLY CONFIDENTIAL • UNDER STRICT NDA

S&S Search Consultants
345 East 56th St., New York, NY, 10012 Campaign Expectations Shape, Inc. seeks an agency to lead the brand development and media strategy for the New Shape™ launch, occurring at the Shape, Inc. TruShape user conference in Boston, MA on May 18, 2056. We expect an initial written response to this RFP with the following: - A brief overview of agency history - A full capabilities list - An example of work about which the agency is most proud (and why) - Previous work in the universal knowledge vertical

New Shape™

Over the next few months, Shape, Inc. will be announcing New Shape™. New Shape™ will have the following features, not currently available on Shape™ 1.0: 3D form factor Shape™ is no longer relegated to two dimensional media surfaces. Enhanced nuance Uses more data from more sources to get to the heart of every issue on your mind (whether you know it or not), More detail Physical granularity never before seen in Shape™. More convenient Its ever-present form factor floats in the air above whichever shoulder you prefer, staying out of the way, but always present. Faster to update A stronger connection to your value-indicating organs (brain, heart, glands) means the development and adjustment of facets at an extremely fast rate.

- Media philosophy - What is one media channel we should know about that we don’t now? Please note: submit all responses via UpgradEDF. Keep all written (non-photographic or video based) responses to140 characters or fewer per question. Once Shape, Inc. reviews the written responses, it will select four agencies to present the following in person on Feb 15, 2056: - A high level brand concept to inform the rest of the campaign - A comprehensive media plan - Execution and media budgets for the following channels: - ComStreamCast [main stream]—keyframe boards acceptable - ComStreamCast [peripheral units] - Mobile - Out-of-home - Events - “Guerilla” Please note: presentations will be limited to eight (8) minutes each. No exceptions.

HIGHLY CONFIDENTIAL • UNDER STRICT NDA

S&S Search Consultants
345 East 56th St., New York, NY, 10012

Timeline

Nov 1, 2055: RFP distributed to select list of agencies Nov 15, 2055: Agencies declare intent to answer RFP Dec 15, 2055: Agencies submit written response to RFP Jan 15, 2056: Agencies chosen for in-person meetings notified; further questions/requests sent from client Feb 15, 2056: Agencies present to Shape, Inc. in-person Feb 18, 2056: Selected agency notified Mar 1, 2056: Campaign kick-off Apr 15, 2056: Final media plan submitted for implementation May 18, 2056: Campaign launch alongside New Shape™ launch at Shape, Inc. annual TruShape user conference in Boston, MA

HIGHLY CONFIDENTIAL • UNDER STRICT NDA

Available Funds

Cross-channel media & creative budget for FY2056 (Q3’56–Q2’57): $300MM

HIGHLY CONFIDENTIAL • UNDER STRICT NDA

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One of the responding agencies produced a brand essence video for the campaign, a short piece that conveys the high level direction for further work.

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Welcome to Youtopia.
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You. Understood.

What you want from the world around you.

™ This is your New Shape.

™ This is your New Shape.

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So that’s Shape, Inc.’s story. Throughout its development, I was able to explore the particulars of the ad campaign of the future thanks the application of the speculative design method here. Before I started at the DMI at MassArt, I spent seven years in the marketing and advertising industry. My undergraduate degree is in business. All this time, I was learning how to convince people that the product they saw in front of them  —  be it in a store, or magazine, online, or on TV  —  was going to make their lives better. Surely, I could do the same with the political shape. But in order to do so, I had to consider the media channels that the ad agencies of the future will be utilizing. I began to envision what TV and the Web would become. Using guidance from some patents I found online, I sketched out something called ComScreenCast, an amalgam of our current mobile, web, and television advertising channels.

Going through current patents is a great strategy to find some absurdly dystopian — though actually proposed — products and services. The Sony patent below, for example, proposes a method of allowing viewers to skip advertisements by standing up and yelling a product’s name.

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That’s a part of it, but deep down, the project is based on the belief that, as design theorists Jessica Helfand and William Drentell note, information design is "a false authority, particularly because we buy into the form so unquestioningly. Information design has become its own legitimizing force, regardless of its content or context.”

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“It’s modernism run amok: form masquerading as content."

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My hope is that Shape, Inc. — with its promises of universal knowledge and understanding — will appeal to observers at first. Eventually, however, the absurdity of the product promises should become apparent. My viewers should begin to question the value in seeking that goal to begin with. They should be inspired to look at the way the devices in their lives are being sold to them and wonder if there is, perhaps, a glimmer of absurdity in those campaigns, as well.

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Conclusion

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It’s about both. As speculative fiction author William Gibson writes in his essay, “Googling The Cyborg,” if you had been told about the possibility of an electronic brain in 1940, you probably would not have built a computer. He calls this “Steam Engine Time.” The ancient Greeks may have understood that steam exerted force when under pressure, but they never considered this would be used to drive a locomotive. It’s about plotting the points of today and projecting along that trajectory into tomorrow. And it’s about doing so using the artifacts from our daily lives. That said, when I propose the development of a curriculum based on the speculative design method, I do not mean that someone needs to design the objects I document in this book. Instead, I mean that the way I dealt with the challenges I observed in the world around me was by designing them into the future. I was using design as research. Along the way, I found myself turning to theory to help me ground that research in the language used in the academy — because I am an academic. But a curriculum based on the speculative design method can be implemented outside the scholastic institution.

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There are two engender the critical thinkin seeks to inspir in the maker &
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ways to kind of g this work e: in the viewer.
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For the maker, this works best in a learning setting, be it a classroom, workshop, or otherwise. I used M.T. Anderson’s Feed to lead a discussion among my Narcissism, Aggression, and Creativity students this spring at MassArt about the ramifications of our apparatus-driven society today. Specifically, I wanted them to consider the changes in the way our memory is aided or broken down by our devices. After they used terms like “not alert in the moment,” “dazed out,” “not full there,” “on auto-pilot,” “artificiality,” and “getting in the way” I asked them to design a product. I purposefully provided as vague a prompt as possible, instructing them only to consider the conversation we had just had and to invent something related to memory that would exist in the future. I also made sure to break them into groups where the majors represented in the group (illustration, painting, industrial design, graphic design, fashion design, etc.) were as diverse as possible.

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The products they presented varied significantly in their purpose. Some students wanted to aid memory by storing it outside of the brain. Another group wanted to help individuals remember dreams with a device that would replay them during consciousness. Two other groups tried to help individuals break their addictions to their mobile devices, one offering an app that would block most of the phone’s functionality, another offering a “jumbotron” that would publicly shame an individual who insisted on using his or her phone at the dinner table. While presenting, I posed more specific questions to the groups than what I had originally offered. I wanted to know who made the product, how much it would cost, who would be able to buy it, where it was sold, and so on. At first, students would offer simple answers: “Google…or Apple.” “A few hundred bucks.” “Anyone, I guess.” But then they would be forced to consider their answers further. Would Apple really want to sell an application that reduced device use? Would those living on lower income have to forgo memory enhancement? It was the frustration in the students’ faces as they tried to answer that indicated to me they started to contextualize their work in the grander scheme. They began to take hold of the tangible criticality that speculative design inspires.

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As for the viewer, I will be showing Longformers and Shape, Inc. at the MassArt MFA Thesis show this spring under the same title of this volume, “Utopia/Dystopia”. My challenge was presenting a narrative made up of a combination of various media in a setting more attuned to photographs or paintings. In order to add a level of physicality to the Longformers’ story, I opted to consider how they would document it. While they'd probably try to print the content  —  maybe in a pamphlet form, something portable  —  they'd know that they also have to show it online. And while, today, we criticize so many online executions that try too hard to mimic print, I figured by the time the Longformers come along, I think that anything still printed will strongly mimic the online experience.

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So I designed books that mirrored the site. Both are responsive: you can adjust the size of the "window" and the content adapts. You can also view source by turning the books over and you can carry both in a comfortable, hand-held form factor. The books even have a nice "click" when you open and close them thanks to a magnet.

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I also decided to add a printed element to @__BraveNewWorld, using a small computer, called a Raspberry Pi, and a thermal receipt printer. Every minute or so, the receipt printer ejects another short length of paper featuring the next 140-characters of Brave New World. As the paper grows, the absurdity of depending on a short-form medium to convey a long-form narrative becomes abundantly clear.

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Finally, to present New Shape™, my advisor, Professor Katherine Hughes suggested that I could show what it would look like in its charging station (after all, one cannot, nor need not, sleep with an active shape on one’s shoulder). I did some research about magnetic levitation and discovered that it is possible with the help of an electromagnet and a hall effect sensor  —  a device the senses magnetic fields. As the magnet below the sensor comes closer, the polarization of the electromagnet is flipped at a rapid rate, forcing the floating magnet away and attracting it in alternating milliseconds.

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For some of the pieces in the project, a single or multiple video screens are necessary to show some of the Shape, Inc. advertising collateral.

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In combining all of these “artifacts,” I’ve envisioned that the gallery is really a museum: one in which visitors of the future can look back on to the story I present in this volume. Placing the objects in glass cases, complete with museum-style description placards, I will be able to move the viewer through the various elements of both sides of the project: the utopian vision of Shape, Inc. and the dystopian struggles of the Longformers

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Absolutely. You can make your projects anywhere there is an opportunity for learning. It might be a workshop, or a conference, or even a one-on-one interaction. Recall, though, what danah boyd mentioned in her talk last year: this is not about trying to enact any sort of dystopia, it’s about discussing it. My hope here is that by literally building our future  —  no matter how absurd it may seem to us today  —  we can start a conversation, the product of the tangible criticality that seeing the objects of tomorrow can inspire.

I was given the opportunity to present my work at SXSW Interactive 2013 in Austin this past March.

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