Future #62: Invention & reinvention

Alexis Lloyd
Ethical Futures Lab


Happy New Year, readers! We’ve missed you and are quite excited to get back to writing about all the weird and wonderful. In this issue we go deep on why web3 will probably become web2 redux, interactions with information beyond the infinite list, and the latest gadgets that may someday adorn your home. Read all the way through for a disturbing, yet oddly comforting, electronic pet.

— Alexis & Matt

1: The (de)center will not hold

We’ve been happy to see a healthy debate and interesting critiques emerging recently around the web3 hype. Just last week, Moxie Marlinspike (cryptography expert and creator of Signal) wrote an incredibly thoughtful and well-informed analyses of the issues endemic to web3. While some of the critiques we’ve shared here have focused more on the motivations, culture, and ethics in the space, Marlinspike dives into the technical side of things to uncover the possibilities and pitfalls of crypto applications.

You may remember a few months ago, we linked to Josh Kramer’s “visual guide to decentralization”, in which he points out that “even highly distributed networks have a tendency toward reorganization”. In other words, centralization of some kind is usually necessary to make things efficient, user-friendly, or consistent. Marlinspike reiterates this idea, pointing out that centralization on the web often happens because (a) “people don’t want to run their own servers” and (b) “a protocol moves much more slowly than a platform”. He goes on to describe the various ways in which web3 apps are already centralizing, with companies like Infura and Alchemy providing enhanced APIs that make it easier to interact with the blockchain when building web3 apps (or dApps). As he puts it: “So much work, energy, and time has gone into creating a trustless distributed consensus mechanism, but virtually all clients that wish to access it do so by simply trusting the outputs from these two companies without any further verification.”

Because the centralization that’s happening is occurring at the API layer — and because that centralization is being glossed over in service of the hype around web3 being a decentralized solution — it is happening in a way that is invisible to most people. What’s especially dangerous about this, as Marlinspike points out, is that these points of centralization are less private, less secure, and less trustworthy than the centralized Web 2.0 services they’re ostensibly meant to improve upon. As a result, many web3 apps aren’t actually very decentralized, and would likely be faster, cheaper, more secure, and more private if built on Web 2.0 tech, but they are being created nevertheless because of the gold rush that is currently happening in the crypto space.

My first impressions of web3 | Moxie Marlinspike

2: A room of one’s own

Designing a space for people to inhabit is a practice that can easily go wrong. Anyone who’s ever used a kitchen in which opening the refrigerator blocks access to other cupboards, or one in which the outlets are in all the wrong places, can attest to the frustrations that arise when space and its features are poorly considered.

A new movement among designers, stemming from a 2018 essay by Shannon Mattern, considers “care” as a key component to building long-lasting and adaptable systems for living. Care here can mean two related things: first, how do a space and its features maintain themselves and allow inhabitants to maintain and adapt them? Much like the Right to Repair movement does for our devices, this concept of maintenance allows a space to be changed for better use by its users, whether by repairing damage and wear, or making changes that help it work better.

Hand in hand with this definition of “care” is the other: how a space can promote care for the people within it. Examples include play spaces near other living space in homes, so that children can be passively supervised; building with accessibility to support disabled, elderly, or injured residents; and devising aurally-private yet visible spaces for teenagers to feel secluded in while still being a part of a vibrant collective experience.

We love these principles for architecture, and want to further consider how we might apply principles of care when designing for digital spaces as well as physical ones. How might we design online social spaces that better enable us to care for and support others? What does a digital environment that empowers its users to maintain and adapt it look like? These questions seem not only inspiring but particularly relevant in our current digital, political, and societal contexts.

What it means to design a space for care | Bloomberg CityLab

3: Everything new is new again

Despite dozens of exhibitors canceling at the last minute due to Omicron concerns, CES 2022 did, in fact, take place in person in Las Vegas last week. An annual showcase of the cutting edge of what’s possible (and often, the not-quite-possible-but-we’ll-try-anyway), this year’s batch of gadgets was just as exciting and bizarre as previous years. The two rundowns posted here give a good overview, but some of our favorites included:

  • Picoo, a “game console to play outdoors.” Consisting of two or more handheld wands (think chunky, ruggedized Wii controllers) Picoo gives kids simple games to play in real space with each other. Scan a card to start up a given game, then use the wands as swords, sensors, or whatever the game calls for.
  • 32°N Reading Sunglasses. Granted, we are solidly in the target demographic for such a device, but the idea of a pair of glasses that can adapt from readers to sunglasses with a single swipe is pretty cool. Using tech similar to e-ink, tiny crystals within the lenses rotate to change the prescription of the lens, then stay in place with no additional power required. Soon they’ll include distance prescriptions as well, which (we hope) could mean the end of progressive lenses altogether.
  • Imuzak 3D steering wheel display. While a big blue turn arrow popping into view while driving may not be the best application of tiny personal hologram technology, we can see a straight line between these innovations and the kinds of interactions you see on The Expanse: 3D displays that project right in front of you and can be manipulated with simple gestures.

The best of CES 2022 | WIRED

Best of CES 2022 | The Wall Street Journal

4: Frameworks beyond the feed

As technologists who have worked extensively on content and media products, we have been part of many conversations over the years about the tension between consumption and completability. On the one hand, people want to be able to understand the salient points about topics of interest and have a sense of being “done”. On the other, there is a desire to read more, watch more, go deeper. Most of our social and content platforms have skewed towards the latter set of desires — not least because corporate profit models often rely on users consuming as much as possible. As a result, the feed is a ubiquitous interface — an infinite stream of content, a list that goes on forever.

The feed has become so universal that it may seem inevitable. But Sara Hendren, along with two of her students, shared an exploration of the question “what else?”:

“Where are the commonplace or brand-new platforms that resist the low-effort incentive to the infinite scroll of a visual list? And might there be clues in lots of places for the future of digital social communities?”

There are spatial models for interaction, like those seen in Figma or Miro; an app called Kialo that provides a number of models for visualizing debates or arguments; the open-ended collection and connection provided by Are.na; and even the repurposing of productivity apps like Google Docs for chat amongst teenagers. While the piece stops short of deep analysis, it provides a handful of examples that are useful food for thought for any designer working on social or content experiences.

What comes after the social feed? | New Public

5: Old gadgets become avant garde

Vintage tech — whether a lovingly restored 60’s roadster, a vintage typewriter, or an 8-bit game console — is often treated with care and awe by a certain niche of super fan. Sometimes waves of consumerism resurrect a specific device or concept; vinyl record sales, for example, had their biggest two weeks of sales since 1991 in the last year. Recently, however, Gen-Z folks have been repurposing old tech for a variety of uses, most of which have little to do with their functionality.

From using iPod Shuffles as barrettes to crafting bucket hats from old Ethernet cable, these adaptations of old tech are about embracing a certain 2000s-era aesthetic more than a nostalgia for the devices themselves. What’s most interesting here is that this may be the first nostalgia wave where the sensibility being revived is largely embodied by technological objects. While the signature fluorescent angularity of the 80s or the flannel and grunge of the 90s were expressed in both fashion and media, it’s fascinating to see the lasting aesthetic of the 2000s coming not from popular culture but from the industrial design of consumer products.

Millennials brought back vinyl. Gen-Z is reviving the iPod Shuffle and ethernet cables | The Information 🔒

6: NOPE of the week: Don’t gamify the judicial system

We could easily fill every issue of this newsletter with hand-wringing about all the misguided, unethical, and poorly-considered shit that is constantly being released in the tech space. But we like to have interesting conversations here, and most of the time, those stories elicit more of a loud “WTF?” than a nuanced discussion.

However, sometimes ideas arise that are so utterly insane or horrifying that we feel the need to share. From now on, we’ll just call these the “NOPE of the week”. So, without further ado, this week’s award goes to a libertarian tech boy named Kyle and his startup Ryval, which wants to let people bet on the outcome of lawsuits using crypto tokens in order to become “the stock market of litigation financing”. I don’t think we need to explain why this is a terrible, terrible idea.

Tech startup wants to gamify suing people using crypto tokens | VICE

One fun HAM HAM 😻

Truly, the best part of CES each year isn’t the actually useful, futuristic technology, but the parade of downright weird products that make it on to the convention floor. Our favorite of these for 2022 is the Amagami Ham Ham, a plush cat that nibbles on your finger in three patterns, named Tasting Ham, Suction Ham, and Massaging Ham. From their website:

“The charming gesture where
pets and babies gently nibble your finger
with their small teeth.
Sadly, you need to harden your heart
and scold them for this act.
frees all humanity from such dilemmas.”

These suckling robotic plushies are freaking me the hell out. And yet… | Input Mag

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