About Spooky Technology

We often hear that the technologies in our everyday lives would appear to be ‘magic’ and potentially terrifying to people in the past—instantaneous communication with people all over the world, access to a vast, ever-growing resource of human knowledge right there in the palm of our hand, objects with ‘intelligence’ that can sense and talk to us (and each other). But rarely are these ‘otherworldly’ dimensions of technologies explored in more detail. There is an often unspoken presumption that the march of progress will inevitably mean we all adopt new practices, and incorporate new products and new ways of doing things into our lives—all cities will become smart cities; all homes will become smart homes. But these systems have become omnipresent without our necessarily understanding them.

They are not just black boxes, but invisible: entities in our homes and everyday lives which work through hidden flows of data, unknown agendas, imaginary clouds, mysterious sets of rules which we perhaps dismiss as ‘algorithms’ or even ‘AI’ without really understanding what that means. On some level, the superstitions and sense of wonder, and ways of relating to the unknown and the supernatural (deities, spirits, ghosts) which humanity has felt in every culture throughout history have not gone away, but started to become transferred and transmuted into new forms.

What creative research opportunities are there at this intersection? This ongoing design research project aims to investigate these opportunities, in the process enabling students to gain familiarity with an under-explored dimension of our relationship with technology.

Project Leads

  • Daragh Byrne (School of Architecture, CMU)

    Daragh Byrne is an Associate Teaching Professor with the School of Architecture, Carnegie Mellon University. He has a courtesy appointment in the School of Design. too.

  • Dan Lockton (Industrial Design, TU Eindhoven)

    Dan Lockton is Assistant Professor at Carnegie Mellon University School of Design, and founder and director of the Imaginaries Lab.

The full list of contributors can be found on our team page

Work to date

Summer & Fall 2020: Preparing an Inventory

The project began by focusing on creating an inventory of spooky technologies. This took place during the ‘COVID summer’ of 2020. The project leads, along with a group of students from Carnegie Mellon collected and reviewed work across art, design, HCI, psychology, human factors research, and other fields, both historically and more recently. This was coupled with forays into writing on the supernatural, gathering and surveying first-person experiences, and interviewing multidisciplinary experts. Our aim was to produce, collaboratively, a set of examples, from which we can extract possibilities, insights, and opportunities.

The result of our work is a 282-page book and this companion website.

The volume is intended to offer a metaphorical mechanism to reflect on and negotiate our collective frictions with contemporary technology and the beliefs and practices that emerge as a result. These effects — from small-to-large, subtle-to-overt, existent-to-speculative — are charted through six sections of this book: Glitches, hacking and hoaxes; mysticism, rituals and practices; hauntings, presence, and ubiquitous computing; explainability, black boxes and creative AI; uncanny valley, robotics, avatars and deep fakes; digital legacy and post-humanism.

Spring 2021: Educational Experiment

The book shows “spookiness” as metaphorical or interpretive lens for of complex everyday systems and the myths and explanations that emerge around them. But it also seems to have many affordances for research-through-design and inquiry-driven production of new designs, and functioning systems.

To explore it’s potential in enacting new technologies, we deployed a ‘spooky’ lens of technology within a CMU course last Spring. We worked with a group of five interdisciplinary students to explore it is opportunities in critical reflection through making. The course introduces students to skills in hardware prototyping as well as methods in critical, speculative and discursive design. Students learned about spookiness through excerpts from the book, lectures, supplementary readings, and guest talks. They were then invited to imagine and prototype new and alternative systems that reflect the strange and unsettling present of the smart assistants and devices through a series of thought-exercises, experiments, and technical enactments.

The outcomes of this work will be made available shortly.

Future Directions

Spookiness is a compelling, evocative, and timely way to organize and synthesize diverse work around belief, explainability, and frictions in everyday technological contexts, and that it is a fertile field for other explorations and expansions, via research-through-design and other approaches.

Our future explorations will be documented on this site.

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