Week 1: Introducing Spooky Technology

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Spooky Tech aims to survey cases for a digital inventory of ‘spooky technologies’. Over the next ten weeks, twelve students from across Carnegie Mellon will compile, curate and organize these examples.

This blog will share snippets of how we’re working. We’re using it to collect and share the stories, conversations, musings and reflections that reveal the process ‘behind the scenes’. Each week we’re inviting one of our students to take on the role of rapporteur: to record our discussions and share their point of view.

The blog will also track our progress over two main phases of activity:

  • Weeks 1-4: Inventory - we’ll gather, write up and prepare cases
  • Weeks 5-9: Book Sprint - we’ll organize our examples into a designed volume

It’ll also share perspectives on the conversations we’re having and questions we’re raising:

  • What is spooky tech?
  • How does spooky tech relate to historical examples?
  • What is the aesthetic for spooky technology?
  • What are the dimensions, categories or types of Spooky Tech?
  • What are the themes and how do they relate to public understanding?
  • What makes devices creepy, spooky, unsettling and uncomfortable?

In thinking about compendiums we’re drawing on a couple of past projects—two stand out. We’re using them as models for how we’ll produce and discuss ‘spooky tech’. Both model how to gather compelling examples of emerging work and practice to deliver speculations and provocation as a printed volume and designed to inspire their respective field towards new, alternative and creative approaches for future inquiry.

New Art/Science Affinities “New Art/Science Affinities” is a 190 page book written and designed in one week by four authors (Andrea Grover, Régine Debatty, Claire Evans, and Pablo Garcia) and two designers (Luke Bulman and Jessica Young of Thumb). As it was developed as part of a “book sprint” – the quick, collective writing of a topical book – it’s a great example of how lots of people can work together, as we will, on a shared printed outcome.

Curious Rituals Nicolas Nova, Katherine Miyake, Nancy Kwon, and Walton Chiu similarly produced a book—in this case a collection and reflection on 21st century gestures—but are very open to sharing the process of developing it too. Their blog posts capture everything from developing the book spreads and layouts, brainstorming, summaries of work sessions, quotes from conversations, and influential ideas. As you might guess from this blog post, we’d like to invite others into our process too.

We wanted to give both a hat tip - and share some praise for their inspirational formats.

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To complement this brief introduction, Daragh Byrne and Dan Lockton had a conversation via Zoom about some of their aims, and reflected on how the students’ initial thoughts and ideas are shaping the project:

Daragh: We have specific thoughts on what spooky technology is. But I’m wondering, in the conversation with students, what new or interesting perspectives came out for you?

Dan: I think I was I was impressed by how quickly the students seemed to understand what we’re talking about. I’m a little bit concerned that this seems such a strange subject—such a kind of esoteric perspective on technology—so I think I was impressed by how quickly they kind of took to it and how many different dimensions they suggested, different perspectives and so on that are quickly emerging.

Daragh: Yeah, I thought they did a really nice job in kind of making it their own very quickly and adding a lot of new dimensions to the conversation. They also kind of reframed and added some areas that we had developed less, like how Karen was thinking about the economics around spookiness — things that feel a little gimmicky. I thought that was a nice observation – some skepticism might be needed – And the conversations around technology as mediator. I also liked the idea of myths coming out a little bit more strongly. We’ve focused a lot on the projects, but ideas like Elizabeth and Meijie’s points on how 5G myths get interwoven into the narratives of everyday life, whether we relate to them or not, has been an interesting thread to pull out.

Dan: That makes sense. It was interesting to hear some of the examples of where the students are reflecting on how they themselves, and people they know are kind of constructing mental models in situ about how they think things might be working. So, if you’re seeing adverts appear that relate to something you were speaking about earlier, the example Anuprita suggested—do you see that as a coincidence? Do you assume that there must be some kind of ad tech behind it? Is it coincidence? Is it spooky? Is it both? The example Catherine gave of a friend trying to work out why his Apple Watch lit up every time he walked into a certain room, is that spooky? I mean, it’s a technological thing, but it’s still about developing a kind of understanding or mental model of something where you’re not sure how it’s actually doing it.

Karen’s example of the Alexa, the Amazon Echo playing music in the middle of night? You know, a group of very tech savvy students know it must be something to do with something it’s detecting. But what is it? Why is it doing it? I think it was quite interesting to see that some of that ‘real time theory building’ about what must be going on.

Daragh: One thing that came up for me is that we’ve been thinking about spookiness for a lot longer than students but how this has landed in the time that we’re in, it seems very kind of relevant and resonant… we’re looking at the world in changed ways, the way that we’re kind of mediating conversations and social routines through Zoom, and glitches and managing those, and increasingly, our life is just mediated through these platforms where lot of ‘spookiness’ could be introduced. And I kind of really like the idea that this is timely and I think because of that, the students can really organize around these ideas and participate in a way that maybe they couldn’t have a little while ago. I do also wonder how much that’s going on will frame the examples that we bring in. But I guess we’ll we’ll see how that unfolds.

Dan: There’s definitely something interesting around us getting a group of people, many of whom really have been in the same room or the same few spaces for months on end, and starting to think about hauntedness and the sort of things that maybe characterise spaces. Well, traditionally stories about hauntings have often been within houses or interiors. So it probably is quite a good time to consider these ideas in a new way.

Also, as Matthew mentioned, we’re becoming even more reliant on technology than we already were. The idea that one of our main ways of speaking to people, relating to people now is through this somewhat mysterious screen—what is that, other than a kind of scrying bowl of the contemporary?—sorry that sounds really pretentious! But, you know, in a way, it is. We’re speaking to distant people all over the place through a piece of glass. There’s something weird about seeing into other people’s lives throught that, rather than experiencing it ourselves.

Daragh: That question of presence, I think, was one of those words that really took on a new light when we think about Zoom and this course as an intersection, which was nice, but also a couple of students picked up on how this is a time that’s really affecting people’s lives. And they’re adopting new practices and searching for meaning in new ways. And so all of these elements come into alignment. And it’s certainly helping with the kind of the agenda for Spooky Tech as well, which is a good thing.

Dan: So Daragh, what are we looking to get from this? What sort of project is this?

Daragh: I think the one word that comes to mind is ‘exploratory’. At least for me in this, the field is open ended, and this is an area where, much as the projects are trying to find explainability, we’re trying to figure out and kind of draw a boundary around this space for ourselves. So working with the students is about surfacing some of the edges of this; starting to test out what are the potential avenues for inquiry, exploration or creativity around this? Also allowing us to kind of better communicate what this kind of avenue of exploration might be as well, through examples and case studies and stories and histories and the relationships between those. So I think our process, as much as the kind of the area that we’re in, is about sensemaking. We’re trying to gather as many resources as we can, and then in the second half, we’re going to try and synthesize and narrate the possibilities in a way that hopefully allows broad audiences to understand what this space is.

Dan: I’m intrigued by the way that very often introducing an idea like this or giving a name, giving it a frame is a way to enable other people to build on it. So, you know, there’s obviously loads of different ways you could think about these kinds of projects or the phenomena we’re talking about, but sometimes even just giving it a name, or well, hopefully the kind of collection we’re building together, can help other people do something with it, build on it, criticise it, or reinterpret it, or do lots of things. We’re not claiming these are necessarily good or bad examples; it’s more helping define something that didn’t previously have a name.

Daragh: There’s definitely something to be able to point to something and allow other people to guess what it might be, or how it relates to them. A lot of the models of similar efforts that we’re using in this project have been about field-making, capacity-building, but they’ve done it in a subtle way of just calling out the spaces and terrains. And, yeah, I think that that provides like fodder and groundwork for other people to start to do the work in this space. So hopefully that’s what it leads to.

Dan: That’s true. There’s also the point—and maybe this is not directly about spooky technology—but often in subjects like design, creative computing, anything that involves project based wok, there isn’t always a good model of precedent for students to follow. If you’re primarily writing papers, there’s whole systems around, “Well, let’s see what the literature says on that”. But often projects are not recorded or I guess curated in a way that makes them easy to compare, or reference, or find. I know there are loads of other people working on this in different ways about how to create that better form for describing or archiving design research. So I think these sorts of things, like we’re trying to do here, go some way towards doing that. You know, even bringing projects together whose creators didn’t know each other, were not aware of each other’s work, but nevertheless they work on similar lines or they’re addressing different sorts of things, but are related. But putting them together in a collection—the sort of curatorial role is something that I think is needed a lot more in design research.

You know, even if just to act as a set of precedents for students working on similar projects. If someone in future came to either of us, and said, “I’m thinking about doing something, hear me out, it sounds a bit strange, but something mystical or something to do with ghosts or something slightly supernatural in relation to technology…” For us, or anyone else to be able to say, well, here’s a starting point, a collection of stuff. I think we’ve found that useful with other topics slightly out of the mainstream. Most recently, particularly with Data Physicalisation—being able to use resources like the Data Physicalisation wiki with its gallery, that Yvonne Jansen and Pierre Dragicevic created—a collection that is taking a slice through things. That’s a way of thinking about projects, mostly by people who didn’t know each other, but nevertheless are about in some way turning data into physical forms in lots of different ways. Having that resource to be able to point students to and say, well, your project you’re proposing is a bit like some of these, is incredibly useful. I’d like to think that what we’re doing can be slightly similar to that, but for spooky technology, in the future.

Daragh: Yeah, I second all of that and I like the idea of taking something really disparate and drawing it together into something centralised; it’s a really, really useful thing to do. Not just for students in education, but just generally for people to talk about spaces that are a little untested and uncharted. Another reference I think of is Nick Felton’s work, like PhotoViz—just calling out this style, this kind of character of visualization, naming it and giving kind of a reference space has allowed a lot of other people to build on it, and to feel comfortable working in that way. That it’s a legitimate mode of practice.

I think that goes beyond just the space of education. It’s also the way that people can communicate out in the world. And I think I’m really interested in the conversations that this leads to, both in and out of the classroom, like what this allows people to think about in terms of their work and how they can label, name or organise it. We’ve talked a little today about the categories or structures that might emerge from this work, the way that we might be able to think of sub-areas. But also, how do we see this playing out in lots of different ways? I do like the idea of this becoming kind of a living resource, where the examples grow and gather over time. Our ‘book’ book will be a done thing, but maybe there’s an online version which can expand.

Dan: I’m interested in projects that could come from being partly inspired by some of what we and the students are collecting. Because I think there’s a lot of quite rich avenues to explore with them, which are quite different to the sort of things that would normally come into student projects. So I’m kind of excited about that—does this actually act as a provocation or an inspiration for other students and designers? And I don’t know what form they’ll take, but I’m excited for the possibilities of it.

Daragh: Yeah, I already have a bunch of projects in mind that we could build in this vein. But I always gravitate towards building systems, and thinking about the ways that we can speculate through technology building and making provocative or compelling experiences. But I’m not only curious about this as a resource for designers, but also how this meets people—like if we put this book down in front of people, how do they how do they engage with the experiences of technology in their own home and in their own lives as a result of seeing this kind of catalogue? And how does it maybe give some other language for explainability or conversations around the mystery of technology. So that’s another thing that I think would be lovely to investigate a bit more as well.

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