Data Economy: A Design Fiction of a Data Obsessed Future

by Trieuvy Luu and Martijn van den Broeck.

The goal of the project “Faceless Interaction” was to speculate on the role of the home in 2036 through a design fiction.

We recreate ourselves every day, in accordance with an ideology based on property — where we are defined by our relationship to things, rather than to each other. Consumption provides us with the tools to develop and express our identity, and confirm and exhibit our status. Consumption comes with a price however, both to ourselves and to our planet, which we often ignore.

Data Economy explores how far people are willing to go to satisfy their individualistic hunger to consume by creating a tension between consumerism and data collection.

Today we often criticize companies for collecting and selling our personal data, but simultaneously we keep feeding the beast. In our design fiction, data collection for commercial purposes has been illegalized. However, to keep the high standard of living that society expects, people actively collect and sell their data to companies instead. Information has become the currency valued by the intimacy of the data and the buying power of the person.

Data collection for commercial purposes has been illegalized, but people actively collect and sell their data to companies instead.
Story of Jesse Rooijakkers, a character living in Amsterdam of 2036.

In our design fiction, the home has become the last place that is totally safe and private, isolated from data stealers. It has become the shelter from the chaotic and dangerous outside world.

A product representing this is Ohm’s biometric data collector which is used exclusively within the safety and comfort of the house. Ohm’s is a small device that connects to the user’s biometric sensors through his or her mouth. Through this connection, the data from all biometric sensors is transferred externally, enabling the user to either keep or sell the data.

Performing this action has become a daily ritual, similar to brushing teeth, for two main reasons. Firstly because keeping your most private data inside the sensors isn’t safe and secondly because people are constantly looking for sellable data.

The Design Process behind Data Economy

In short, our process was characterized by exploring and communicating design fictions through physical artifacts, ranging from a series of newspapers and a personal journal to a short film.

We recognized that because of the complex nature of the project there was a risk of drowning into ideas and thoughts. Physicalizing our thoughts helped us to prevent this. It provided material to build upon.

Early in the process we created a series of newspapers, as if published in a possible design fiction. We focused on how AI might impact the relations between people in the Netherlands of 2036. This artifact made us reflect on what other forms, apart from anthropomorphic, AI might take in the future. It also helped us to bring external people into our fictional world.

A concept building on this role of A.I. was called SuperData. In this concept we imagined the role of an A.I. to scan to web for all data shared online and to connect all the dots to create realistic simulations of past events. Through a social media experiment, in which we manually scanned the web for a random person’s social media information we were able to recreate a day in the life of Brenda surprisingly accurately.

Inspired by our newspaper format we saw a potential of using SuperData in news reporting. Through ethnography with journalists from the Netherlands we learned how information overload has impacted journalism.

Being interested in data sharing and data collection we constructed a world in which people are wearing masks to stay anonymous. We prototyped this using Snapchat filters and eventually described this fiction through a tangible artifact, this time in the form of a personal journal written by a Dutch boy called Jesse. Again, we used storytelling to make our design fiction effectively come alive.

The story of Jesse made us construct our final design fiction, taking place two years after people started to wear masks. People aren’t literally wearing masks anymore, just metaphorically to hide themselves from other people who might steal their personal data. We wondered how this might impact the relations between people and described this through a series of stories called “Jesse’s Memoires”.

Creating a short film

Once we had settled on our design fiction, we carefully considered how to tell it. Popular series like Black Mirror and Westworld made us see the power of film to communicate a possible future. Instead of creating a concept video to describe our concept, we had the ambition to create a short film, utilizing the power of visual storytelling.

Instead of creating a concept video to describe our concept, we had the ambition to create a short film, utilizing the power of visual storytelling.

We realized that if the viewer empathizes with a character and looks at the world through his eyes, they have a fantastic opportunity to learn about themselves. A story can make the viewer reflect on the present. This goes hand in hand with the goal of speculative design.

In our final video, we aimed to create empathy with our main protagonist by letting the viewer see the motives behind his actions. When Jesse unintentionally gets his hands on some highly valued data, we understand why he sells it. Empathy allows us to partially displace moral judgment. We don’t necessary approve, but we are still involved in the story.

Empathy allows us to partially displace moral judgment. We don’t necessary approve, but we are still involved in the story.

Our film itself doesn’t aim to pass judgment on the protagonist. After all, Jesse didn’t create this highly individualistic consumeristic society. He just stumbled on to it and is doing what he’s told. We wanted the viewer to realize that the real problem isn’t Jesse, but the society that creates and rewards a character like this.

Designing the wallet’s UI

One important element in our story was the wallet, that informs the viewer how much balance Jesse has. Initially our goal was to create a futuristic UI that could live in 2036. However, the more we explored, the more we realized that to serve the story, the UI had to be understood in a split second.

Our initial UI explorations were too polished and futuristic, distracting from the screen’s purpose.

Eventually we decided to communicate the futuristic element through the transparency of the screen, instead of through the UI. This enabled the UI to be understood faster, adding to the understandability of our story.

Our final UI relied quite heavily on post production work. This was quite a risk because neither of us had experience with After Effects.

Because this was the first time we used After Effects, I did many small try outs to optimize my workflow before starting the final production.

For example, we tried tracking and masking the screen before the shooting days. Even then, using a transparent screen turned out to be a time consuming decision in the end.

Designing the biometric data collector

The final puzzle piece of our fiction was the biometric data collector.

To consider how to visually position our biometric data collector we made a bunch of mood boards, mapping out the spectrum of household appliances and self monitoring devices. Based on these, we decided to go for a clean and slightly futuristic looking device that could be imagined in the bathroom of the future.

Imagining a fictional brand behind our product helped us to make our product more convincing. We decided to create a fictional company called “Ohm’s” which both designed the wallet and the data collector. Wondering what the company behind our brand would design enabled us to stay consistent with the wallet’s UI.

We explored with different laser cutting and painting techniques to get a highly polished and realistically looking device that we ended up using in our film.

If you enjoyed this article, perhaps you want to follow me through my Interaction Design Master’s thesis journey, starting in January 2017. Follow this publication or subscribe here if you want to receive weekly updates and reflections. ❤