The here and now of dystopian scenarios

Dr. Gaia Scagnetti

The ThingsCon report The State of Responsible IoT is a collection of essays by experts from the inter-disciplinary ThingsCon community of #IoT practitioners. It explores the challenges, opportunities and questions surrounding the creation of a responsible & human-centric Internet of Things (IoT). For your convenience you can read it on Medium or download a PDF.

The Internet of Things is a conversation about objects that discusses both the personification of things and the objectification of people.

Personification of things

The ecosystem of meanings we grow around objects is a map of our experiences; it can narrate of our disposition and personalities, desires and fears, past and future. Objects speak to us, as in his first novel Things. A story of the Sixties, where George Perec unfolds the characters stories by tracing the landscape of their possessions and the evolution of their taste. The way he describes those objects reveals their social significance and their symbolic value: “When on outings around Paris they stopped in villages to look at antiques, they no longer rushed straight towards the china plates, towards the church pews, towards the blown-glass demijohns and the brass candlesticks. (..) There was something forced in their liking for objects which only the taste of the day decreed to be beautiful: imitation Épinal pseudo-naive cartoons, English-style etchings, agates, spun-glass tumblers, neo-primitive paste jewelry, para-scientific apparatus. They still dreamt of possessing such things.”1

The bicycle is not only a mode of transportation. It played a physical and symbolic role in the emancipation of women and the quest for an equal society.

But objects do not describe the personal realm solely; they play a role in the definition of our larger culture. Western society classifies historical periods by the artifacts produced and technology employed: we talk about Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age for example. In Postwar America, the purchase of appliances, objects, furniture, accessories was considered a patriotic action, that would enable social equality through consumption. In the so-called Consumer Republic “mass consumption was not a personal indulgence. Rather, it was a civic responsibility designed to improve the living standards of all Americans, a critical part of a prosperity producing cycle of expanded consumer demand fueling greater production, thereby creating more well-paying jobs and in turn more affluent consumers capable of stoking the economy with their purchases.”2

The narrative around Design uses objects as the primary vehicle for imagination. A chair for an industrial designer is a form of particular significance, a venerated object that epitomizes the history of the discipline and embodies its challenges — designing the first chair is like a coming of age, a rite of passage for the young creative. It is a representation of the culture, ideologies, and technologies of the moment in which is designed and produced, and at the same time, a visualization of the designer’s voice.

Any object is co-mingling of internal and external reality3 for its maker and also, for its owner. We choose, purchase and display objects to talk about ourselves, to express our individuality and participation, to define and prove our intentions.

However, it is not a matter of personal branding. We tend to describe this phenomenon as an action directed toward others, an attempt to establish rank, to assert belonging to a tribe, to create distinctions. We use idioms as “status symbol,” “prized possession,” “must-have” that represent a simplistic view popularized by certain advertising tradition of the 50s. Consumption is more than just condensation of desire, it is not merely what Bauman describes as “the dominant identity-shaping sphere in society4” and it is not restricted to the mechanism of social distinction. Consumption is a formative aspect of modern society and culture5 and, as Polanyi suggests, economic concepts are not only distanced “descriptions of human behavior but also became, in modern times, structuring features of the social order.[6]”

Our society’s relationship with objects is a complex and fascinating topic: our material culture, as the word said is, in fact, a Culture. Studies in material culture show that objects we surround ourselves with are a reflection intended to understand who we are, more than communication to others: ‘the universe we want to grasp is the universe of ourselves.’ Objects are mediators of understanding and power. As Miller describes “goods were not representations of meaning or signs of social distinction but, in the first place, media of relationship.” When an object works as a mediator between distinct entities, it can connect or separate, it can be designed to admit or to exclude: objects exert control.

Free universal construction kit f.a.t. lab and sy-lab 2012 is a set of adapters for complete interoperability between 10 popular construction toys. It allows each of the different construction toys (Lego, Tinkertoy, Fischertechnik etc.) to interface with any of the other supported systems. Designed to challenge the control that panted object excerpt on thier user more at:

This is where the Internet of Things plays in. The Internet of Things’ aspiration is to mediate our relationships with the others, and it is pushed through an interesting rhetoric. Phrases like “Simply put, when the information of the internet is added to previously dumb objects, stuff gets useful” (from wareable.com6) implies that your refrigerator is not really useful until it is connected to a network and it communicates with it.

The fallacy of this rhetorical argument is evident. Objects are obviously not dumb as they absolutely do not need the internet to perform their assigned function — unless we expect their role to have changed. We were used to evaluating an object by its ability to communicate its assigned task to the user and to perform it. A dumb object is poorly designed, and consequently, we do not understand what to do with it — the door we push while it should be pulled, the button that sends a message when we want a line break. A smart object is the one that sharply makes a statement we can interpret: the fundamental issue of affordance. But the proponents of the Internet of Things are not questioning the primary function of our appliances or their affordances, they are advocating for a new feature. The most significant difference between the old refrigerator and the new one endorsed by IoT is the one between an object that talks to you and an object that talks about you. In the IoT arena, something smart is something that talks about you; and it speaks about you with other objects, with your boss, your insurance, your friends, your government, the police, the officer that approves your visa, the HR who makes employment decisions, etc. Talking about people, once perceived as a sign of lower intelligence — great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people7 — is today advertised as a sign of acumen. Data are becoming more and more important than ideas, events, and people.

At the core of the discourse on the IoT lies a conversation about data, a transdisciplinary effort to address ownership, privacy, sharing, representation, security, storage, standards, legality, liability, rights, and visibility (to ourselves and to others).

Objectification of people

As Benjamin says “Humanity which, beginning with Homer, once used to be the object of contemplation for the Gods, has now become the contemplation of itself.8” This is particularly relevant in the context of television “reality” shows, of our social media, of surveillance. Baudrillard describes it supremely in Telemorphosis “at a time when television and the media are less and less capable of accounting for the (unbearable) events of the world, they discover daily life, existential banality.9

Baudrillard points out very clearly that this is not just about being watched, but it is about making everything visible. Even more making everything transparent in what he calls a Voluntary servitude. “We are way beyond the Panopticon, of visibility as a source of power and control. It is no longer about rendering things visible to the external eye, but rendering them transparent to themselves, via a perfusion of control within the masses, and in erasing any trace of the operation.10

Inspired by these concepts in Telemorphosis, a team of designers11 and myself developed a speculative design project sponsored by Verizon. In September 2016 Verizon published the Connected Futures Research and Prototyping Challenge call for proposal; among other topics, they asked teams to imagine and design for a 10 years from now ‘Future Without Phone’.

Our team discussed and investigated the role of surveillance in the future: the present seems distinctly pointing at a future where physical surveillance will be ubiquitous, facial recognition and machine vision technologies will automatically identify anyone appearing in any footage. Furthermore, we were interested in exploring the dissonant responses of the general public to the issue of surveillance: a negative connotation when described in terms of CCTV and governmental data collection but a ludic and positive association with the data we voluntarily produce and share (locations, reviews, purchases, photos, etc). Again Baudrillard: “…not being seen and being perpetually visible. Everyone wants it both ways and no legislation or ethic can get to the bottom of this dilemma — the unconditional right of being able to view and at the same time to not be viewed in return.12

Some feature of this project were more like a design bet: we speculated on the disappearance of portable device interfaces, we imagined a world where some of the functions of a phone are delivered by the space we inhabit as a diffuse and distributed point of access to digital content. A place where architecture becomes an interface. The project was called Auteur.

Auteur was a service that allows accessing, deleting, saving or sharing the footage of a surveillance camera, in real time by hands gesturing to the camera itself. No need for a phone, no need for feedback: a hands gesture would tell a surveillance camera to save this moment’s exact frame. In addition to the gesture responsive camera system, we designed a web-based interface where the content could be accessed and modified; preferences could be customized and a scalable camera system responding to gestures could be programmed.

Auteur was not designed as desirable service but as a dystopian experiment in Speculative Design developed with Verizon sponsorship and under their supervision. Developing such a project in such a commercial context was itself a provocation. We wanted to continue the tradition of resistance movement and surveillance art; as a tribute to Reclaim The Street we offered a way to Reclaim Your Image, regain control over documentation of oneself and take advantage of existing systems. We created a ‘dystopian’ scenario where the objectification of ourselves was completed and accepted, and this gave us the opportunity to reflect on the idea of ‘dystopia.’

We usually refer and depict a dystopian society as a future alternative, an imaginary other world. The term was firstly used in a political speech by John Stuart Mill while discussing the government’s Irish land policy. Mill defines ‘utopia’ as something too good to be practicable, and ‘dystopia’ as a proposal that is too bad to be practicable. The original text recites: “Does the noble Lord really think it possible that the people of England will submit to this? I may be permitted, as one who, in common with many of my betters, have been subjected to the charge of being Utopian, to congratulate the Government on having joined that goodly company. It is, perhaps, too complimentary to call them Utopians, they ought rather to be called dystopians, or cacotopians. What is commonly called Utopian is something too good to be practicable; but what they appear to favour is too bad to be practicable. Not only would England and Scotland never submit to it, but the Roman Catholic clergy of Ireland refuse it. They will not take your bribe.13” The original text provides introduces the idea of ‘submission’: dystopia is a reality so impracticable that no one would submit to it. Since Mill, the idea of dystopia evolved through culture and now signifies an undesirable society, ‘a place where you do not want to be’.

In literature behind any dystopia, there is a utopia gone wrong, or degenerated good goals: The Road to Hell Is Paved with Good Intentions. Dystopian narratives can be classified into two main typologies: the totalitarianism and the post-apocalyptic. The former provides excellent insights in the context of IoT.

All totalitarianist dystopian societies present the same elements:

  • a hierarchical societal structure based on profound inequalities
  • a propaganda and educational apparatus teaching the best and only way of living
  • a culture with a solemn cult of the winner and generalization of their personality traits
  • an invisible and ubiquitous surveillance infrastructure
  • a brutal unequal penal system
  • a gated separation between an ‘outside’ and an ‘inside,’ usually defined by the presence of nature
  • a culture where individuality and diversity is discouraged
  • a public or individual dissent and an organized resistance

Using these examples from the literature to evaluate our current society is illuminating. We evidently live in a society with an established hierarchy based on deep inequalities as income, gender, race. We are bombarded by a media infrastructure that has all the interest in promoting the more appropriate and “acceptable” way of living and being.

We subscribe to a personality cult of the winners, be it the new millionaires, unicorns, or celebrities. Surveillance systems are ubiquitous and more present than we think, as Snowden proposed. Our penal system is brutal and unequal when it comes to race especially. Part of the population lives in gated community, separated by walls. Diversity is a further goal and uniqueness is discouraged; we are surrounded by voices of consent and reaffirmation, our safe echo chamber. Advocacy, dissent, and resistance are present and flourishing. We already live in a dystopian society. Which role can the IoT play in this scenario?

In the tradition of dystopian narratives, there are always four main characters: the establishment, the labor, the hero, and the resistance.

These characters play a fundamental role in the definition of what the IoT is and will be and which role each of us can play in its development. Would the IoT be a tool of the establishment, a way of exploiting the labor, an instrument of resistance, or a weapon for our heroes? How we want to design it and for who is up to us to decide. As Utopia is a place of perfection that never exists and Dystopia is already here, it is on the present stage where we can all play out our own story.

Dr. Gaia Scagnetti is program co-coordinator and full-time Assistant Professor at the Pratt Institute’s Graduate Communications Design department in New York. Her current research projects discuss new pedagogies, strategies, and approaches for Higher education in design.

In 2010 Gaia Scagnetti completed a Post Doctoral research at the Design Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 2009 she obtained a Ph.D. degree cum Meritus in Multimedia Communication at the Politecnico di Milano with a thesis on Visual Epistemology in Information Visualization and Mapping.

Her works have been featured in several conferences and exhibitions and publications and showcases. Her complete portfolio can be found at

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  1. Perec, Georges. Les Choses. Réimpr. ed. Blanche. Paris: Pocket, 1987. ↩︎
  2. Cohen, Lizabeth. 2004. A consumers’ republic: The politics of mass consumption in postwar America. Journal of Consumer Research 31(1): 236–239. ↩︎
  3. Ochsner, J. K. (2000), Behind the Mask: A Psychoanalytic Perspective on Interaction in the Design Studio. Journal of Architectural Education, 53: 194–206. ↩︎
  4. Bauman, Z. (2007) Consuming life, London: John Wiley & Sons. ↩︎
  5. See Krisis, Journal for contemporary philosophy, 2012, Issue 1 ↩︎
  6. What is the Internet of Things ↩︎
  7. Attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt. For more see ↩︎
  8. Walter Benjamin in Baudrillard, Jean. Telemorphosis : Preceeded by Dust Breeding. 1st Ed. ed. Pharmakon. Minneapolis, Minn.: Univocal, 2011. ↩︎
  9. Ibidem ↩︎
  10. Ibidem ↩︎
  11. Gaia Scagnetti, Jillian Barkley, Kiran Puri, Ryan Schoenherr, Jennifer Sclafani ↩︎
  12. Ibidem ↩︎
  13. John Stuart Mill in Chapters and Speeches on the Irish Land Question… Reprinted from “Principles of Political Economy” and Hansard’s Debates, 1870 ↩︎