bryn hastings / Reading Response Five

It is not uncommon for criticism of an art form to be made in the medium of that same art form. Just last semester, JJ Baker’s senior thesis was an institutional critique of DAAP’s Fine Arts program. Through a series of testimonials and paintings, he conveyed the lax standards which were far from unnoticed by driven artists in the program. Often, the best way to discuss any subject is from within that subject itself—be it university standards, newspaper editorials, or Speculative Design.

Cameron Tonkinwise’s vignettes depict a variety of reactions to Speculative Design, pointing out ironies and fallacies common in reactions to the field. Speculative Design is pointless; it genius and should be used to make money; it is harmful; it is sabotage. All of these things are both true and false, depending on your viewpoint.

“I was told about your work by some of our most dedicated and well-paying advertisers,” reads Vignette 71. This paragraph continues with the inclusion of words such as “expensive” and “exclusive,” “critical” and “disruptive.” The clear irony of this piece underscores the ridiculousness of commercial designers trying to utilize speculative design to their own ends, when speculative design by its nature defies the terms of commercial design. However, this made me wonder how speculative design is supposed to reach its intended audience. Can it be perpetuated simply by word of mouth or free zines? Is it a disservice to share ideas contrary to consumerism in the same channels that perpetuate it, or is that a necessary hypocrisy? How can the field grow outside of the vacuum of conceptual art? Often, the proponents of Speculative Design are highly educated and talented individuals—does this platform of privilege undermine the message of subverting the system?

Vignette 70 involves a phenomenon which runs rampant on the internet today: advice not meant to be taken seriously—such as microwaving your cellphone to charge it—but meant rather to prove a point. These two scenarios differ in their intent: the microwaved cell phone aims to destroy property and incite shame, while the DIY drones vignette aims to point out how easily the point of an art piece can be missed. While the content of the microwaved phone and the DIY drones may be different, the consequences are reacted to in the same way: blaming of the creator for her subversiveness or the victim for his idiocy. The creator should not have dreamed up such a mechanism for the conveyance of ideas, but considered the real repercussions of putting out conceptual design in a format associated with factual information. Is this argument credible? Should the world be safety proofed for my own convenience? Should I never have to apply critical thinking or engage in research before committing an act, and should rather trust everything at face value as beneficial to me personally?

This series of vignettes reminded me of one of my absolute favorite pieces of art: Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared. The series is contrarian and provocative, meant to probe the value and meaning of basic components of life. The first episode, Creativity, teaches the characters how to be creative and then chastises and horrifies them for their newfound creativity. The story begins as a celebration of exploration and creativity, then ends showing the worst case scenario. The point sarcastically made by the video is that creativity should not be pursued, because it leads to such horrors as guts and fear. Tonkinwise’s vignettes, with less sarcasm than Don’t Hug Me, point out some of the shortcomings of Speculative Design, and are right to bring up these questions—however, Speculative Design is still a useful and inspiring field, even if it comes with a unique set of potential repercussions.

bryn hastings / Speculative Vision


A retinal scan unlocks your phone. Optical geometry plus a unique blink code gives you access to your bank. Your standard gaze pattern creates a personalized consumer experience. There is a database holding all of your eye data— and that information defines your relationship to the world.

Surveillance technology has evolved to identify retinas from vast distances; widely perceived as an invasion of privacy, an abundance of anti-surveillance eyewear has evolved. Almost all citizens wear glasses which guard their retinal and gazing information— those who don’t wear anti-surveillance eyewear are at increased risk for retinal plagiarism. Naked eye contact has become a rare, intimate moment. The pivotal point of every wedding is when the bride and groom remove their anti-surveillance gear and share a long gaze before kissing. Other than rare moments of privacy and vulnerability, anti-surveillance technology is omnipresent.

The anti-surveillance technology ranges from eye contacts which distort the iris of the wearer to full glasses which can project different colors, patterns, and textures— even the eyes of people from the past. Retinal choices span from Shirley Temple to Paramahansa Yogananda, Jeffrey Dahmer to King Joffrey. These personas are used as much for fashion as they are for psychology, providing infinite options for eliciting both kindness and fear.

We predicted psychological complexity coming into this; what we didn’t predict was the marked drop in honesty and community. The obfuscation of eyes has changed the perception of relationships, as it has changed the perception of self. Identity can be changed with a simple shift of hue— it seems our morals have adopted this same transience. The eyes are the seat of knowledge, the most unique and telling parts of our faces. With those complex tools of expression and connection obscured, we have shed the skins of emotive, empathetic humans and become self-obsessed, mistrusting, isolated.

The city’s sense of community is splintering as its citizens obscure their true identities with greater and greater intensity. The economy thrives as consumers rush to update their anti-surveillance eyewear— hiding their identities, begging to be seen.

bryn hastings / Reading Response Four

No reality exists until it is recognized. Reality is just a mindset; speculative design creates mindsets.

The act of bringing a concept into the realm of recognized reality involves convincing the mind to shift from its standard view. As stated by Dunne & Raby, “change starts with the individual,” and the first individual to be changed by any given thought is the thinker herself. If a thought has the power to shift the mindset of the thinker, it has the power to shift the mindset of another individual— but this will take a bit more work. A thought that can easily shift your reality will not so easily permeate mine. It is the job of the speculative designer to translate any given mindset into an experience which can be shared with others.

These speculative mindsets are not just for viewing, but for exploring. Speculative design creates a headspace which is used to re-evaluate the reality an individual usually inhabits. In the Digitarians example from Dunne & Raby’s United Micro Kingdoms, the thinker is transported to a theoretical future defined by algorithms, precision, and speed. In examining the terms of this new world, the thinker is transported to a new mindset— a new reality. When the thinker returns from her little thought vacation, she has not returned empty-handed. She is armed with a new tint to her vision, calling out aspects of her previously inhabited reality which she would not usually have noticed. The dark matter of her understanding has been restructured. Just as the gun and the human holding the gun combine to make a third entity, the standard reality of the thinker and the speculative future combine to make a third mindset, which emerges upon the completion of the thought experiment.

Had United Micro Kingdoms been laid out as four realities which humanity is actively approaching, the observer of the concepts would naturally be questioning the validity of the claims, trying to pry apart the logic of such predictions. Framing the concepts as speculative possibilities and not futures which we must prepare to deal with changes the way the concepts are received: they are not a warning but a conceptual playground. Details of the project clue us in to its intent, such as Dunne & Raby’s choice to define their societies as “micro-kingdoms” instead of “micro-states” or “micro-nations.” This simple semantic decision preps the mind for a more fantasy-based journey, which is especially interesting as England—a very specific and factual setting— was used as the template. The choice to cherrypick elements of reality and imagination to form a hybrid fact-fantasy world is the perfect playground for speculative thinking. I find it interesting how language contributes to the thinker’s relationship to the concepts presented. By changing the language used to define the thought experiment, an internal shift happens allowing the brain to relinquish its grasp on feasibility. I saw this in the Bruno Latour reading as well; a line that grabbed my attention from that piece was “the chimp plus the sharp stick reach (and not reaches) the banana.” This linguistic unity is a simple articulation of Latour’s thoughts on interdependence; I love this example of semantically catering to the brain’s need to categorize. Such a simple articulation— reach and not reaches!— preps the mind for viewing Latour’s complex concept more directly, by defining the language which will shape the thoughts themselves.

The power of language defines our reality in unimaginable ways. For instance: the color blue was not recognized by human eyes until it was defined by human language. Homer described to his readers the “wine-dark sea,” a description marred by the ancient world’s perception of color. Blue was not common in the ancient world, so there was no need to have a word for it— no need for human eyes to perceive it. Blue did not become recognized until the synthesis and subsequent trading of blue dyes and pigments. I applaud Dunne & Raby’s and Latour’s use of language as a tool to shape mindset; it is such sensitivities that ensnare the brain into exploring speculative conversations more fully.

While Latour’s semantic decision is bridging a gap, combining two entities into one, Dunne & Raby are doing the opposite— working to create a division between fact and fantasy. This is an example of sidestepping reality, allowing the channels of creativity to widen by not looking a future directly in the eyes, but looking behind the eyes of reality to the mind within. Speculative design finds its power in its cutting ambiguity. There is no correct answer, but there is a correct outcome: a shift of mindset. Herman Kahn brought nuclear war into the realm of possibility by examining the realities which would spring from it. By imagining the tangible repercussions of nuclear war, Americans were forced to imagine nuclear war itself. Kahn drew Americans into his mindset, and they emerged as new and admittedly more fearful people. Was this his desired outcome? Did he have a desired outcome? Or was he simply trying to broaden the scope of individuals working to avoid that future, by cluing them in to the existence of such a reality? Without Kahn’s observations about cost and infrastructure, the mindset surrounding nuclear war could have been completely different.

No reality exists until it is recognized. Reality is just a mindset; speculative design creates mindsets.

bryn hastings / Reading Response Three

On Technical Mediation is best summarized by Latour’s line “humans are no longer by themselves.” This line should be expanded, however, to include objects, processes, and techniques— nonhumans. Really, the line should read, “nonhumans are no longer by themselves.” With observance comes interconnectedness; humans and nonhumans, through their relationship with one another, have entered a complex web of dependence, balance, and creation. Because nonhumans are integral to human society (should we even call it human society?), Latour advocates for those voiceless entities upon which we so completely depend, and with which we grow.

It is through these numerous nonhumans that Latour works to describe the complexity and structure of the dark matter of existence itself. “Even primitive and pure forms,” Latour says, “are belated and mixed ones.” The society of objects, of machines, though lacking in the human dramas, is a society nonetheless. Where there is collaboration, productivity, there is society. This discussion of the megamachine (within the discussion of the meaning of sociotechnical) was at first contrary to my definition of society, because I generally think of society as being defined by its unpredictability, in its capacity to subvert itself. Machines don’t fit into this worldview, because by nature they are subservient, bound to their inherent purpose. However, my view shifted when Latour made the point that the mechanical organization of humans existed for hundreds of years, producing work, and only recently did we begin to replace human workers with machines. The idea of machines standing in for human work is fascinating, because we really are companions to mechanized coworkers. Does the self, or lack of self, define the value of work produced, or does that work stand on its own, once released from the tethers of its creators?

This concept reminded me of algorithmic art— indistinguishable from human-made art, but born of nonhuman means. Discussion of the process illuminates the work in a totally new and fascinating way— but the end result remains the same. A painting by a human may be interesting, or substandard, or boring, or beautiful, and that same painting but created by an algorithm completely redefines the viewer’s experience of the piece. This is a case of the dark matter defining the intrigue of the object. Do we do this with all objects? Are we more, or less, impressed when we learn that a piece of technology was made by human hands instead of mechanical means? This is an interesting dichotomy, highlighting the belief that precision is for machines, and creativity is for humans. In making this distinction, we forget that machines were made by humans— the dark matter surrounding mechanical precision is humanity itself! Much like Latour’s discussion of the gun and the hand holding the gun, it is necessary to look at the union born of two things, not just at the two things. Society is not humans and nonhumans. It is the third entity— the coalescence of creator and creation— into a thing redefining creating.

On the last page, Latour bridges a gap prior untouched. He posits that the whole planet, humans and nonhumans alike, engages “in the making of politics, law, and soon, I suspect, morality.” I’m very curious as to his thoughts on nonhuman engagement in the field of morality. Morality is, by nature, a human field— because it is either an answered question already, or a complete gray area. In other words, morality either states that there is an objective right and wrong, or that the issue is so complex that it evades morality and enters emotional logic. I wonder if nonhumans could have a hand in the field of morality, and if so, what their contribution would be. Being that nonhumans already participate in the dark matter of our existence, they are already involved in morality— but I wonder what Latour has in mind for their future involvement.

bryn hastings / New Tech Research

What is the relationship between memory augmentation and information overload?

Through a variety of methods, news sources can be customized to show articles and videos that are tailored to your taste in content. This solution is a symptom of an overabundance of information. There are simply too many things to know, so we choose to eliminate some topics—or viewpoints—completely. What sort of people are born from a society that blocks out all news that is contrary to a given worldview? Or conversely, what sort of people are born from a society that gives equal credibility to all viewpoints?

A wide spectrum of viewpoints are represented on every issue. You’re just one specifically-worded Google search away from a wealth of opinions which mirror your own. An interestingly segmented population emerges from a society that values personal truth over objective truth; however, it is the opposite of the personal-worldview news stream that I am interested in. What happens when all information, all contrasting viewpoints, all factual and baseless arguments, are synthesized simultaneously?

Additionally, what happens to these million points of information when memory becomes faultless? When all of these facts, falsehoods, and emotionally charged rants become impossible to repress into the void of lost memory? According to a 2014 article, “brain implants today are where laser eye surgery was several decades ago.” In fact, 2015 marked the first human tests of a memory enhancing implant, as noted in the article in the opening sentence. While this technology promises life-changing results for individuals with brain injuries, Alzheimers disease, and a variety of cognitive impairments, the existence of such technology invites a future where every single person is fitted with a memory enhancing implant.

Unlike the Black Mirror episode,  I wonder if sheer information overload will grow to suppress the emotive quality of first-hand experience. When your worldview is just a drop in the bucket of literally unforgettable human experience, what does the self look like? Can we blur the line between the individual and the hive-mind of every opinion the internet has to offer?

I wonder upon the omnipresence of memory, information, and the inherent cognitive dissonance born of ingesting so many conflicting viewpoints. What is to become of meditation? Of critical thinking? Of empathy? Information overload is already an issue for all internet users. What happens when the respite of forgetfulness is taken away from us?

bryn hastings / Reading Response Two

Dark matter is the indefinable building block of the universe we inhabit. Its constitution is mysterious, fundamental, the subject of fantasy and study— however, the value of scrutinizing this strange stuff is not in defining its mechanics, but in understanding the reality which it produces. Dark matter is the discrepancy between reality and ideal execution, that indefinable human-stuff impeding the smoothness of an impossibly perfect form. The trick of dark matter is working with it while not trying to grab hold of it. Much like how an electron observed acts like a particle—while an electron left alone acts like a wave—creativity observed often wriggles free and changes shape. Attempted attainment changes the nature of the ineffable; and dark matter by nature is ineffable. It is the context, while matter is the creation. I found that the most tangible example of dark matter, for me, is the wall of ego impeding my ability to step into my ideal self. I see constant flaws, avenues of change I could wander down indefinitely, but this stubborn selfhood of mine resists refinement. This is because I am full of dark matter. I have to be callous because the kind are exploited, and I have to be kind because the callous are never hugged. It is impossible to surmount the world’s maddening circumstances, and it is precisely these circumstances that make us individuals. Wanting perfection is wanting absence of personality. But I digress;

Why are all books rectangular? Circular books could be stored in a tube, showing art along the spines; triangular books could be laid together in a polygon, showing one complete image built from all of the covers combined; books on one long, long, page rolled forever would change how we perceive pacing… the method of deliverance could so easily change the perception of the reader. However: impediments abound, more to list than I have effort to transcribe. The cost of printing on such uncommon paper sizes, the reaction of consumers to such a reviling abnormality, the issue of storage, the problem of binding… But creativity unbound surely would produce books of all shapes. What is it that stops the hexagonal book, the trapezoid, the sphere, the double helix? This too is dark matter. The greater circumstances, the details, of the universe—the binding, the storage—stops terms from being redefined. This problem is brought up at the very beginning of the article, through the lens of calling it “re-engagement”.

“If you really want to change the city, or want a real struggle, a real fight,” says Wouter Vanstiphout, “then it would require re-engaging with things like public planning for example, or re-engaging with government, or re-engaging with a large-scale institutionalised developers.” It’s interesting that we must “re-engage” with these things, because generally speaking I would hope that they are constantly engaged. All of these branches of humanity must absolutely be confronted with eyes ablaze. Terms must be redefined. Jobs must be lost, then found anew. The world must be re-engaged, because somehow we have lost that initial engagement.

This is precisely why Renew Newcastle is a project of note; it was a complete redefinition of standard rules and practices, and a therefore redefinition of the essence of the town. For this to take place, however, the stakes had to be very low; in other words, engagement had to be lost. It is the fear of tearing down that saves broken systems from well-deserved toppling. If we rise above this fear, a broken system has the potential to become a phoenix sans ashes. Were Newcastle to be injected with this same idea before its fall—in other words, if it were a matter of invigorating instead of redefining—the absurdity of the concept would not have been pushed to such a successful degree. It is easier to be absurd when that absurdity is a private joke between the creator and the work, each egging the other to go further down the path of possibility. It is difficult to be absurd when something valuable hangs in the balance.

Perhaps we should change the conversation surrounding what is valuable to exclude permanence as a cornerstone. Design decisions often have permanent repercussions, because of the immutable nature of progress. However, just because a design has come to feel stagnant or ill-conceived doesn’t mean that it began as thus. A design that was once relevant and innovative can grow to be cumbersome as the technology surrounding the idea develops. Thought, society, and obstacles are constantly in flux, so why must the built world be held to a different standard? Dark matter creates these permanent structures, just as it creates the need for impermanence.