Uprooting Products of the Networked City

By Knutsen, Jørn | International Journal of Design, April 2014 | Go to article overview

Uprooting Products of the Networked City


Knutsen, Jørn, International Journal of Design


Introduction

Culturally Connected Devices

Today an increasing number of everyday domestic products are being fitted with WiFi connections and are becoming a part of the so-called Internet of Things (IoT). Used by research initiatives, industry and design communities, the IoT describes near-future scenarios in which physical structures and objects communicate through and with the Internet (e.g. Kopetz, 2011). Consequently, interaction and product designers are faced with new forms of material realities, relationships and conditions when designing Internet-connected products. All of these aspects are hard to discuss, reflect on and relate to because of their inherent invisibility and obfuscation by cultural practices. This poses challenges for interaction design and research.

Alongside the traditional physical and infrastructural approaches to the IoT, we see the emergence of approaches that consider cultural and communicative concerns and contexts. This is a matter of unpacking the IoT and, along with it, interaction design and related research that is characterised by more scientistic orientations within human-computer interaction (HCI). This is significant for design and design research because, although networked products are hybrids of technology and cultural articulation, thus far our design-based inquiries into them have not often been located very thoroughly in human sciences. We may argue that this is largely a result of the legacies of both product design and computer science. However, in this article, I put forth the idea that these complex hybrid products, as a complement, also may be understood through their discursive production as much as through their technological mappings.

In order to investigate this further, I use a heuristic essay, which is a commonly used format in the field of humanities as a mode of argumentation and critical reflection. The essay is peppered with small illustrations that visualise the various components involved in investigating the construction and connection of a networked product, designed by me. I have done this to highlight the rhetorical nature of my design inquiry and writing, which aim to clarify the relationship between complex technologies and their materialisation through the design of hybrid products. They also indicate the knowledge required by designers to better understand such interconnections. The investigation and argumentation is conducted through the design, making, and analysis of a deceptively simple, hybrid product for homes: an Internet-connected wooden figure called Tre (Figure 1).

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[Figure omitted, see PDF]

Figure 1. From the making of an Internet-connected wooden tree, Tre.

Overall, this work makes up a form of 'discursive design' that employs processes, tools and languages of product and interaction design combined with rhetoric and visual means to reveal new relationships and materials for design. This extends the notions and practices of critical design (Dunne 2001; Dunne & Raby, 2007) from their disruptive and art-centred contexts to emphasise the communicative and rhetorical abilities inhabited by objects and the processes that go into shaping them.

This article aims to move towards ways for design to engage in unpacking, revealing and discussing some of the realities of designing within a technological orientation that introduces new materials, relationships and legacies into the field. In general, the article argues for a more critical and material understanding, within a cultural and communicative perspective, about the field of interaction design when designing for and with a networked city.

Outline

In order to advance this argument, the article is structured as follows. The next section presents a number of contextual concerns that relate to the networked city and networked products. Subsequently, the article discusses a set of tropes--immateriality, infrastructures and medium--through which such networked artefacts and their situated uses may be understood. …

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