Spaces for making, and making new spaces

Designers coopting pandemics for personal gain, co-presence beyond video and audio, and how we might reimagine urban spaces.

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Social distancing wearables by Michael Jantzen

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As if we needed more evidence, the events of the last week all over the United States shows our existing systems (health care, policing, services for the poor or homeless) are failing. Even as we continue to create virtual spaces to replace the physical ones we have lost under Covid lockdowns, we’re reminded of all the ways those physical spaces failed us and how they could be improved. Read on for examples of co-creation, collaboration, and community re-invention.

Alexis & Matt

1: Co-presence and creativity

Back in March, we wrote about FigmaTown, a virtual space co-created inside a Figma file, as well as Automattic Design’s virtual holiday party held inside Invision Freehand in 2018. This week, we wanted to share this wonderful, related piece from Marie Foulston about her experience hosting a party in a Google spreadsheet. Each tab served as a different room: an animated dance floor, the coatroom that accumulated a pile of virtual coats, a communal “paint by numbers” sheet, the front drive where the cops eventually show up, and more.

While we’ve obviously seen rapid growth in video and audio chat tools (which we discussed in our last issue), those innovations mostly try to emulate face-to-face interactions, with verisimilitude as the ultimate goal. What’s far more interesting is the exploration of co-presence through media like images, text, and yes, even spreadsheets. These media allow us to step beyond merely recreating in-person interactions and investigate what is uniquely possible through digital collaboration and co-creation. What kinds of strange mashups and exquisite corpses might be possible? How might we use the texture of different tools to influence how and what we make together?

2: Ethical tech for public media

Speaking of co-presence: Alexis recently wrote an essay for the Public Media Stack’s inaugural report, discussing the evolution of digital design software over the past decade, with a focus on the open access and co-presence that is afforded by newer tools like Figma. Real-time collaboration and the ability to share or remix have become foundational expectations for the way we work in design (and in many disciplines). The Public Media Stack is a project created by Matt Locke and Storythings to make it easier to choose more ethical and sustainable technologies for people working on public media projects. As we’ve seen from the events in the past few days (and months, and years), public media is more crucial than ever. There is a complex intersection between the public-interest goals of those media organizations and the ethics of the tech companies and software upon which they rely to function. The Public Media Stack is meant to act as a guide for understanding those implications and empowering media companies to make ethical choices that serve their missions.

3: Coronagrifting, or designing for the clicks

In the past month or so, you may have seen speculative designs pop up for things like protective suits for concerts and clubbing, social-distancing wearables, or plexiglass shields to surround the heads of restaurant diners. Kate Wagner, of the wonderful McMansion Hell blog, coined the term “coronagrifting” to describe these types of design projects. She situates coronagrifting as part of the history of paper architecture and “PR-chitecture”: “architecture and design content that has been dreamed up from scratch to look good on Instagram feeds or, more simply, for clicks.” Similarly, coronagrifting projects tend to be thin in substance or thoughtfulness, used primarily for self-promotion and the veneer of cleverness while offering little to no real benefit for those most at risk in this crisis.

Design ethics are often portrayed as black and white, good and evil — coronagrifting shows the danger of the grey areas where designers can perform social conscience without actually engaging in meaningful ways. Now more than ever, we need to utilize both design and technology to find the most useful ways to apply our skills, even if they’re not the flashiest.

4: Evolving cities in response to Covid

Many of the amenities of city life we take for granted today — reliable garbage collection, open green spaces, aqueducts and reservoirs — emerged in response to public health crises in our past. Pandemics have the power to shape our lives in both grand and subtle ways, as anyone with an overactive radiator now understands.

This article in Fast Company is a summary and teaser for research performed by Catherine Brinkley, an associate professor at UC Davis studying community and regional development. In the case of Covid-19, Brinkley directs our view away from the reactionary “density is bad” arguments put forth in response to New York City’s extreme Covid numbers, and focuses on the “unpaving” of our cities to include more space for pedestrians and cyclists, more services to house the homeless, and more local sources of fresh food. Unlike many of the “what comes after Covid” articles we’ve seen, this research directly addresses the underlying roles that poverty and inequality have played in this crisis. It’s an inspiring beginning to what will be a long and winding reimagining of our shared spaces.

5: Maybe this is sports now?

Last weekend as major sports leagues in the US began announcing their abbreviated, and yet deeply convoluted, plans to return to play, Matt sat and watched a nine-year-old boy play Fortnite for nearly an hour. The experience created a somewhat new framing of what “sports” might be: watching someone else do something fun.

Instagram is getting in on this trend with its filter-as-game features. Simple games like slicing fruit with your nose or a Dance Dance Revolution for your head are now available within Instagram Stories. If you do well enough (or poorly enough, if you like) you can choose to share a video of you playing the filter into your story for the day, making the game both performance and pasttime.

While this story posits that filters like these might be the future of casual gaming and lead to a broader adoption of augmented-reality applications (where the real world and a superimposed digital one interact with each other), it also points to the performance at the center of a compelling sport. Whether a major league baseball game or a League of Legends competition or even a skillful parkour video on TikTok, the draw for viewers seems to be the same: watching someone do something well and sharing in the joy of accomplishment.

6: “Worse is better” for connected devices

Often when we evaluate and critique new products or services, we come to the same conclusion: “I wish this did less, but did it better.”

Our spaces are increasingly populated with little plastic panopticons, as Matt Webb describes them. These “smart home” devices send recordings of our speech to centralized servers for storage and processing, creating both a poor user experience (latency between command and result, due to remote processing) and a fear of corporatized surveillance. Instead, what if “smart” devices were dumber? What if, instead of having to plan for a future of thousands of different speech interactions, these devices were tailored to the functions they serve in your home? A smart light bulb really just needs to know how to turn on or off; a smart speaker adds volume commands; a smart heating and cooling system needs just basic temperature gradients.

Despite their purported user-centered design, many smart devices function the way they do not to serve us, but to serve a company’s desire to exclusively dominate a market space or to collect user data for other purposes. Webb’s proposal here is an inspired one, where each device does what it needs to and nothing more. By doing less, but better, these devices appear smarter because they better serve their user.

One way forward

This weekend saw violent clashes between police and those protesting police brutality in the cases of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others. In many cases, documentation showed police targeting journalists, assaulting the unarmed and the uninvolved, and using their power in reckless and dangerous ways. In Flint, Michigan, however, we were heartened to see another way forward: engaging with the community police are there to protect, listening to grievances, and de-escalating a tense situation.

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

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