We’re Sunsetting Thingclash

But, the critical technology discussion must go on.

Image: jnxyz.education

After almost three years as a lab project of Changeist, Thingclash is coming to an end as an actively maintained research effort. Unlike NASA and its Cassini probe, we don’t intend to disintegrate Thingclash in the atmosphere of Saturn. Instead, we’re quietly winding it down, but leaving bits of it available for public access for a time.

Throughout the project, we’ve enjoyed the opportunities to run workshops, speak and debate online and in person the value of taking a critical design approach to something as potentially far-reaching and powerful as the Internet of Things. However, as an internally-initiated project, the time has come to dim the lights and make room for new lab projects to make their way onto our production calendar.

For now, a few closing reflections:

Thingclash emerged from realizations and conversations between myself and Natalie Kane following some deep dive work on the IoT and future of personal data in late 2014 (the actual concept sprang from a Boxing Day US-UK Skype, with added Christmas cheer, to be fully honest). With all of the hype around the IoT, and the growing industry around collecting and monetizing data, we felt a conversational framework, more precisely a tool of some kind, was missing — something that would help make legible potential problems that emerge from over-focusing on basic, static, optimistic use cases: What happens when a user you don’t expect uses a data-collecting/reporting technology in ways you didn’t anticipate? What about when they shift contexts, data collection or protection regimes by just walking down the street? What happens when more than one person or entity is involved? How could we better envision and interrogate the unanticipated issues that emerge when new categories of connected devices and services meet the real world?

At the time, there weren’t that many voices critiquing these topics in mainstream technology discussions, mostly forecasts of how big the IoT might grow. There wasn’t yet the snarky ‘Internet of Shit’ Twitter account, but instead a general wave of excitement fueled by optimistic tech press and advocacy futurists. Ecosystems and platforms were the rage, and anyone could bring a concept to Kickstarter for the cost of a short video and some sensors.

Along with Thingclash, though, a number of voices began more prominently asking questions about the wisdom and practice of ubiquitous data collection and the cost/benefit of connecting all the things (some of which we’ve tried to catalog in the Critical IoT Reading List). As part of the Thingscon community, where we first publicly launched the project in 2015, we’d like to think we helped build momentum around a broader, human-centered philosophy of the IoT that looks after the needs of its adopters, not just its creators and venture funders. Look at this great work being done to develop an IoT trustmark (pdf), for example of how far the IoT discussion has shifted.

Yet, things are moving on. In the time since we started sketching Thingclash in 2014, the IoT has been bumped aside by more ambitious technologies sprinting their way along the hype cycle: artificial intelligence, for one, has moved to the forefront of concerns around black box technology and social friction—and few can truly agree on what constitutes real AI. Connected cups and tweeting lightbulbs seem only slightly mischievous by comparison. And somewhere just down the road, synthetic biology and CRISPR await to generate as-yet-unseen design and interaction issues, perhaps of a stickier variety. The combinatorial framework we used for Thingclash, building combinations of ‘moments’ from mixing archetypal users, things and contexts may be useful for exploring these as well. As a technological culture, we don’t lack for future *clashes.

As we pack the project up, my colleagues Natalie, Susan Cox-Smith, Sjef Van Gaalen have shared a few takeaways from the experience:

“Thingclash opened up frank discussion about how the IoT is — and isn’t — working. Our workshop participants found that being prompted to think about users and location contexts which were obviously not considered in product design briefs, could create disappointing, or even disastrous results for non-typical users. We found that designers, developers, marketers and stakeholders all found this level of engagement around products they did not have a direct hand in creating, allowed them to reassess their own future design metrics as they work on newer IoT-type products and services. The biggest shift I saw in the workshops though, was a deeper level of discussion and consideration around security and privacy issues for users, which has risen to become a primary concern for consumers about IoT products today.” — Susan Cox-Smith
“Participants often came into the workshop with a mindset of wanting to find solutions to ‘fix’ the problems they encounter in the form of products or services. Throughout the various iterations of the workshop we found ways to be able to mitigate this by tweaking the specificity in our contexts and personas to have people create more open-ended narratives for their Thingclash scenarios.
Taking the time to critically interrogate the consequences of design choices within the broader IoT ecosystem when designing/developing products, and doing so in a way that doesn’t restrict thinking to the specificity of marketing-driven personas would be a valuable trend to see take hold in the IoT space.” — Sjef Van Gaalen
“Thingclash was never about creating new solutions or new products, but focusing on encouraging teams and participants to talk to others on how they saw the world with all manner of connected objects running through it. The process by which to see all the moving, people-centered parts is so important when so many of us are learning, often too quickly to consider all that’s needed to interrogate what we’re really doing properly. Thingclash was a step towards giving people the tools to do that.
Pulling apart assumptions in gentle, constructive ways that (hopefully) left our participants curious to explore and interrogate them further. Allowing those conversations to feel supported, to get things wrong, and to learn from the others round the table. To see the Internet of Things from many different positions at once. To see people eager to take that critical interrogation back out into the world with them. Those are the parts that I enjoyed the most.” — Natalie Kane

Even though we are stepping back, Thingclash will hopefully carry on as a loose community. Earlier this year, we released the workshop materials for Thingclash online under Creative Commons, and we have been pleased to see and hear of it being used — in some cases repurposed — for activities in design lectures as far afield as Australia (not that far really). We will leave the thingclash.com website up for a while, but the Twitter feed will go quiet from our side. We’re happy to discuss the project or ways to make it useful for individual situations.

To close, we owe a big thanks to those who supported the project in various ways: the aforementioned Thingscon crew, Bruce Sterling for his public support of the concept, WIRED magazine for writing about us, Peter VanderAuwera for bringing us to Sibos (with very big, very pretty digital walls), Greg Lindsay and A/D/O for bringing Thingclash to Brooklyn, Emma Charleston for providing the design for our cards, Rachel Sender for creating the Next Thing You Know project along with Sjef at Thingscon Amsterdam 2016, VPRO and Future Flux Festival for hosting workshops in Eindhoven and Rotterdam respectively, Clearleft and UX London for inviting us to run a workshop at their event, and anyone who has taken the time to come to a workshop, email or the 700-odd folks who have engaged with us on Twitter. And of course, our own Thingclash team.

Keep watching for our next project, keep flying the critical technology flag, and stay in touch.