Future #51: This file cabinet contains multitudes

This week, we take a look at the physical world to see how our furniture reflects social change, how our workspace contains implicit choices, and how the products we own are increasingly not ours to use. Don’t miss the end, featuring the first extraterrestrial selfie. Cheers!

— Alexis & Matt

Zoom room or board room?

If you have any kind of office job, then you have almost certainly been bombarded with questions, surveys, and communications regarding your “return to the office” following the year-plus closures from Covid-19. You may also have very strong opinions about remote vs. in-person work, and you’re not alone — companies now find themselves in the midst of a passionate debate about how and where employees should be allowed (or required) to work.

But, as Charlie Warzel points out in this piece, this is more than a logistical discussion, it’s a structural one. Working in person at an office is a default that was once implicit, but has now become explicit, and is raising all kinds of interesting questions. Warzel points out that the people who thrive most in an office environment are extroverted, alpha types whose work largely consists of meetings and conversations — i.e. executives, often in a position of power and privilege. Whereas remote work levels the playing field for contributions and discussion from a broader set of personalities, it often makes space for “heads down” work, and gives flexibility to those who are caregivers, disabled, or have other needs. Neither of these approaches to work is right or wrong — they each have their advantages and disadvantages, and many workers actually want a hybrid approach. But we’re in a rare moment where an implicit default was upended, and we have the opportunity to examine it more explicitly to determine how we might rethink our work environments for the better.

Filing cabinets in the age of the skyscraper

Continuing the thread of “how the environment we build for work reflects our ideas about work”, this design history of the vertical filing cabinet provides a deep dive into a quotidian object. Verticality in the age of the skyscraper was representative of efficiency, modernity, and capitalism. Moreover, the filing cabinet was not designed in a vacuum, but was part of a larger rethinking of office furniture and space. For example, desks used to be covered and used as a space for personal storage, but the emergence of the “flat-top desk” positioned the desk as a workspace, and document storage moved from the personal to the communal; the act of organizing and storing paper became an essential function of any business. This evolution in design reflected a shift away from the needs of the industrial age and towards the foundations of the knowledge economy, where offices became spaces to facilitate the flow and storage of information.

Copyright bots are dumb

This week we saw two different examples of copyright protections run amok. First, a Scottish cosplayer — who looks an awful lot like Tom Hiddleston — had his products pulled from an e-commerce platform because, as he put it, he looks too much like Loki. Disney issued a statement saying they had no part in the takedown, and the platform RedBubble said their “proactive screening measures” mistakenly flagged the picture.

In a more complicated example, a TikTok video featured a cat being poked to make funny noises (stick with us, here). Those noises form the backbone of a musical composition with other tracks and remixed cat noises. The combined tune was then uploaded to iTunes for purchase.

Here’s where things get weird: TikTok generates user demand by tagging the music used in its videos and encouraging creators to upload their own versions of videos (viral dances, in particular) using the same song. Once this song was available for purchase, TikTok marked the original video with it. That song is not available for purchase in Canada, however, so the original video in which the song was first composed can’t be viewed in Canada due to copyright restrictions. These examples illustrate just how complex copyright can be in a remix-oriented culture, and how ill-equipped automated solutions are to enforcing these byzantine rules.

The slippery slope of ownership

What do you actually own when you purchase a product? That used to be a straightforward question. But now, networked software provides much of the core value for our physical products, and updates to that software are capable of changing the functionality of the object or in some cases, rendering it useless.

The most recent example of this comes from Peloton. Their “smart treadmill”, called Tread, was recalled after the device injured 72 people and killed a child. Peloton responded to the safety issue by pushing a software update that bricked the treadmills so that they couldn’t be used. OK, fine so far (sort of). But then they released a fix — a software update that required users to pay a $40 / month “subscription” to continue using the device. As one user tweeted: “So wait… You buy a $3,000 treadmill, then after you’ve purchased, with a ‘software update’ they stop it from working until you pay them $39.99/mo? Sounds like theft & ransomware to me.”

As more of the things we own run on software that is controlled over the network, consumers are increasingly vulnerable to the whims of the companies running that software. We’re certain to see more dark patterns emerge around this ecosystem until we can agree on a set of regulations that better define the rights of consumers when they purchase a product.

Twitter’s ethical AI dream team

From the “giving credit where it’s due” department comes this profile of Twitter’s META (Machine Learning, Ethics, Transparency and Accountability) team, and the stable of extremely smart, deeply qualified women running it.

To even have such a team is itself a huge win, but we were particularly intrigued by the appointment of Rumman Chowdhury, formerly the lead of Accenture’s Responsible AI initiative and an outspoken advocate of transparency in machine learning, as its head. Since her appointment other luminaries have joined her: Sarah Roberts, co-director of the Center for Critical Internet Inquiry at UCLA, and Kristian Lum, a U Penn professor focusing on the ethical implications of AI and criminal justice. The team has committed to publicly sharing how its algorithms make decisions, and in particular, how race and politics shape their machine learning models.

Beyond the star power of this team, it’s remarkable to see the level of commitment that Twitter is apparently supporting their work, and the openness with which META is tackling the hard problems. After the much-publicized collapse of Google’s ethical AI initiative and Facebook’s… well, continued existence, we can’t help but hope that this initiative will demonstrate real change in how Silicon Valley wrestles with the ethics of AI, and serve as a model for the rest of the tech industry on how to make AI work for everyone.

Below the water line

Systems thinking underlies so much of the work we do at EFL. It’s not only a critical skill for better understanding the world around us, but we believe it’s necessary for designers, engineers, and makers of all kinds. Without an understanding of the deeper systems we’re engaging with, we risk making products or tools that have unintended consequences when we release them into the world. Alexis wrote about this in-depth in her Camera Obscura essay, which discusses how systems thinking can be paired with user-centered design for better outcomes.

But systems thinking is equally important as an input into the stories we tell about what’s happening in the world around us. Our friend Heather Chaplin, who runs the Journalism + Design program at The New School, has recently launched a Systems Thinking for Journalists resource, including an overview of the concept as well as a set of tools and guides for journalists to integrate the practice into their reporting. The overview describes a system as an iceberg — above the surface are the events that are happening, but as you go deeper, you find trends and patterns, structural systems, and mental models that underlie those events. Journalists often report on stories “above the water line”, missing crucial opportunities for deeper framing and analysis. Tools and training like this can point the way to journalism that is more informative and has the potential for greater social impact.

One thirsty rover

Robot selfies on Mars is a whole new level of social media strategy.

Ethical design and weird machines. VP Product Design at Medium & co-founder Ethical Futures Lab. Previously @automattic , @axios , @nytimes R&D. She/her.