The End of the World as We Know It
(And I Feel Fine)
Jönköping University : WUD MILANO 2019
The End of the World as We Know It
(And I Feel Fine)
Jönköping University : WUD MILANO 2019
Good evening everyone. It’s been a long, lovely day: let me add a little salt to it and be
your resident Dutch uncle for these last thirty-plus minutes.
V. Viganò, School of Architecture, Polytechnic of Milan (Image: http://www.ordinearchitetti.mi.it)
I hail from Parma, but spent quite a lot of time in Milan between the late 80s and the late
90s. I was pursuing my master’s at the School of Architecture of the Politecnico, in Città
Studi. We didn’t have any fancy Bovisa campus at the time and graduates came in just
two flavors: architects from the School of Architecture, and engineers from the School of
Engineering. My evident incapability of wearing any color but black or gray clearly gives
me away as belonging to the former group.
Image courtesy T. Baldovino. https://www.flickr.com/photos/tomstardust/Milan Metro, Porta Genova (Image: Aktron, Attribution ShareAlike 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Geocoded_images_of_User:Aktron)
I lived in the Porta Genova neighborhood for a while.
Image courtesy T. Baldovino. https://www.flickr.com/photos/tomstardust/ Milan, Central Station
Then I took up a job as a sysadmin on big iron in Bologna and started commuting
between my workplace and my classes, the whole 200 something kilometers three-four
times a week. This was 1989, we had no internet and no smartphones. The Intel i486
processor had just hit the market and “retro gaming” was going strong, only we called it
1989 - 2019
It’s now 2019, so we got ourselves a perfectly neat 30 years in between my time in Milan
as a student and this keynote address. If I had to fit all of the different bits and pieces,
plastic and paper mostly, required to live my life as a commuting working student, this
cardboard box here would be an approximate good fit (points to moving box on stage). It
was books, booklets, notebooks, maps, blueprints, a camera, pens and drawing
implements, monthly tickets for the train, the subway, and lunch at the university
canteen, my university records, notes from classes, more drawings, and the odd telephone
tokens to call home if I missed a train.
In 2019, all of that necessary information, tools and implements would probably be
contained within this thin black slab of glass plastics and metal (shows smartphone), my
laptop, and my Kindle. I live in a small city in Sweden now, I flew in taking much of my
work with me, including tons of stuff I have to read and probably won’t, and I could
hardly fill a fourth of that box.
This is wondrous and terrible, and also the new normal, the way things have always been
to most of you. Is this then all we did? We made things smaller, immaterial, and got rid of
the cardboard box?
We certainly shrunk things down, and moved from thinking Walkmans are the epitome of
cool to thinking that iPhones are. And thanks to convergence, your smartphones are like
immensely reconfigurable Swiss Army knives. They can do lots the Walkman didn’t do.
By replacing Walkmans with smartphones we sure got rid of a billion cassettes, didn’t we,
and of the need to carry a pencil with you should you need to manually rewind them. But
is that it? The shrinking? I don’t think so. There’s something more to it: let me give you a
practical demonstration, with a bit of help from all of you.
grab your phone
I guess you all have at least one smartphone with you, right? Can you please take it out of
your pocket, bag or purse and hold it up? Great. Please hold it up. (audience members
hold their phones up) Great, thanks.
Now, can you please unlock it? (audience members unlock their phones) Done? Fantastic.
pass it left
Now, pass your phone to the person on your left.
(some audience members do that, others look around to see what everyone is doing,
there’s some nervous laughter)
Yes. The silence, lost glances and nervous giggling is precisely the demonstration I wanted
to provide. A part from a few naive souls who just did that right away, bless their heart
(few laughs), most of you are thinking “Is he serious? He can’t be”. Thanks, put them
away, you don’t need to actually do that. And those of you who received one, give it
back, don’t delete and don’t peek.
All I wanted was to make you uncomfortable, and I could only do that because yes, we
did much more than dematerialize objects. You would generally feel much more ok with
sharing your wallet than your phone. Your phone is a part of you: we’re all cyborgs with
detachable and rechargeable parts. There’s an elegant way to explain in three simple,
systemic steps that what we did wasn’t simply making a box full of paper fit into a smaller
At the beginning, we digitized. We turned analog artifacts into digital artifacts. Letters
for example, or ledgers.
And music, of course. This of course created a need for different “walkmans”, like this
MP3 player here.
Then we “digit-al-ized”. We applied the approach to the larger processes. In 1989,
digitalization was already underway in a number of industries but, as usual, the future
was not evenly distributed.
If we stick to music, this transformative moment came with the iTunes Store, part of the
push towards a digital marketplace for music that Apple started with iTunes, the
“World’s Best and Easiest To Use Jukebox Software”, and the original iPod in 2001.
Record store in Toronto (Image: blogto.com)
Gone, at least conceptually, was the physical record store and the need to organize
physical artifacts, the records, in a physical space.
A fraction of control went away with it, as now the same song or LP could be living under
Ripple after ripple, digitalization produced systemic transformation. Or, as the European
Union loves to call it, digital transformation. This is the world of ...
Spotify (Image: quartz.com)
… Spotify and all other streaming services. It is a world where entire industries, the music
industry kicking and screaming I’d venture, have been thoroughly transformed into
something different, and act as reinforcing loops: digitally transformed ecosystems create
the business conditions and the social and cultural space for introducing more digital
transformation in more processes.
We’re now at a point where these three steps co-exist and sometimes overlap, as
transformation happens at different speeds. Digitization and digitalization are still with us,
of course. Using WhatsApp is just more efficient than placing a phone call so we can
connect specialists in cardiology and patients suffering from heart failure symptoms in
rural India. So digitize.
As heart-warming or appalling as these cases are, and you’ll find plenty of both if you
only look, they are a shallower reflection of deeper, systemic transformations.
Self checkouts at a grocery store
Self check-outs in supermarkets are more and more the norm. They are all over the place
in Sweden, where we prefer to avoid interactions with other human beings whenever
possible, but I saw plenty of them here in Milan as well. And around the world, of
Tesco Homeplus Virtual Store, Seoul :: https://blogs.ubc.ca/sunghunlee/too-busy-and-tired-for-grocery-shopping/
A few years ago Tesco introduced an on-the-go, scan-and-shop system in the subway in
Seoul, South Korea. You phone-scan what you need while waiting, and then pick up your
grocery or your soda on your way out.
Wheelys 247 unmanned store, Shanghai (https://techcrunch.com/2017/03/07/wheelys-unmanned-convenience-store/)
The next step is 24/7, 100% unmanned stores. Robert Ilijason, a Swedish engineer who
created and implemented what we’d call a prototype in the small village of Viken,
Sweden, because the local supermarket closed too early for his family’s needs. Wheelys, an
international company, bought the concept from him and in 2017 opened its first such
store in Shanghai. You use your smartphone and an app to access the premises and
register your purchase. Digital transformation. These three examples, introducing a string
of what can be read as plain common sense, consecutive steps, introduce systemic
implications, socio-technical ripples, that we do not have in the previous examples. They
impact multiple industries, consolidated logistics and supply chains, and the day-to-day
behavior of millions of people.
Digital transformation is bringing in even more significant consequences. After all, “we
make our tools and then our tools make us”. Research tells us that online dating is having
an impact on interracial relationships and it is changing our understanding of what
marriage means. If Tinder can influence the way we get to produce the next generation,
I’d be inclined to say that we’re way past the “paperless office”, aren’t we? This brings
me to the core of my conversation with you today.
“Design for the future we want” is this year’s theme. And it’s a lovely theme.
But who’s this “we” so prominently mentioned? Us?
The organizers and volunteers? The many separate design communities that share some
interest in the event? Is it all those thousands who are part of World Usability Day
around the world?
This is the map at worldusabilityday.org. It is immediately apparent that even
geopolitically not everyone is accounted for. That might imply one of two things: that
there are people out there who are not “we”, or that “we” haven’t thought about this as
much as “we” should have.
And before someone gets defensive: I get it. I understand how the theme has to be
powerful, inspiring, and aspirational in nature. And I understand it is practically hard to
live up to such high expectations. Still, we should do better than just unquestioningly
believe in our own stone soup-making.
Hans Rosling (1948-2017)
Meet another Swede, Hans Rosling. He was a physician who later in his life made
understanding his mission, as R. S. Wurman would say. Rosling thought everyone ends
up a prisoner of their own prejudices, and these lead to skewed, and often negative,
visions of the world. Facts, as bad as they are, tell a different story, a story of possibilities.
So he worked with visualization and infographics to have as many people as he could to
see and understand the difference. Rosling, the possibilist, never the optimist, passed in
2017, but you might have encountered him nonetheless if you are into TED talks: his
most famous one is called “The magic washing machine” and has been seen millions of
In that talk, Rosling argues that the washing machine was a mighty important invention,
possibly one of the most important inventions of the 20th century.
Hans Rosling and the magic washing machine (https://www.gapminder.org/videos/hans-rosling-and-the-magic-washing-machine/)
POWER LINE AIR LINEWASH LINE
He showed a neat infographics in which he divided the 7 billion people alive in 2012,
according to their consumption of fossil fuels. What you see here is my interpretation, as
the quality of the video did not allow for some good screen capture.
Each individual little human represents one billion people, and each red square represents
one fuel unit consumed, for comparison. First observation: the rightmost one billion
people consumes as much as the remaining six.
Rosling and his team also looked at income, and drew lines, calling them the power, wash,
and air line. If you are in the leftmost bracket, before the power line, you have no access
to an electric grid. That’s two billion people. If you are the next group, you do have access
to electricity, but so inconsistently or frailly that you can only cover the bare necessities.
To enjoy luxuries such as a washing machine you need to cross the next line, and be one
of the remaining two billion people. Of these two billions, one gets to enjoy travel, and
flies around the world. That’s all of us in this room.
Let’s make this breakdown even more concrete. The following images are all taken from
Rosling’s book “Factfulness”, but see that you pay a visit to Dollar Street, an amazing
project started by Anna Rosling Rönnlund, a designer and Rosling’s daughter-in-law, to
“show how people really live” and that uses “photos as data so people can see for
themselves what life looks like on different income levels. There’s more there.
Rosling, H., Rosling Rönnlund, A. and Rosling, O. (2018), Factfulness. Flatiron Books. (Dollar Street: www.gapminder.org/dollar-street/matrix)
If you’re part of that first group, those two billions below the power line, you probably
don’t have a toothbrush at all. If you are part of the second group, you have one
toothbrush, that is, one for the entire extended family to share. If you are in the third
group, congratulations, you don’t have to worry about sharing with grandpa. Those of us
in the fourth group, we can have an electric toothbrush if we want.
Rosling, H., Rosling Rönnlund, A. and Rosling, O. (2018), Factfulness. Flatiron Books.
When it comes to preparing food, if you are group one you cook on open fires. Your meals
will be prepared in very similar ways regardless of whether you live in Nigeria or China.
Rosling, H., Rosling Rönnlund, A. and Rosling, O. (2018), Factfulness. Flatiron Books.
You also have a patchy roof over your head, locally sourced, sure, but not particularly
waterproof or even safe, and ...
Rosling, H., Rosling Rönnlund, A. and Rosling, O. (2018), Factfulness. Flatiron Books.
… this is what your toilet looks like. A hole in the ground, a pit, with four “walls” around
Now there’s an interesting observation to be made for us who design for a living: Rosling
comments that when we see pictures of everyday life, we see pictures from lives lived
above the air line. If you google “toilet, bed, or stove”, you get served images from that
rightmost one billion demographics. Google will not help you if you want to see what
everyday life is like for the other six billions. Sobering, isn’t it?
Washing machines in a laundromat
That’s why Rosling devoted his TED time to the washing machine. These five billions
below the wash line, how do they wash? Or better, as Rosling himself says, “how do
most of the women in the world wash?”
Rakoto Kely, Madagascar 2017 (Image: Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)
The answer is by hand. Where there’s water. Spending long hours. And of course “they
want the washing machine”. And why shouldn’t they? You’re free to dissent, but I agree
with Rosling that it’d be incredibly arrogant to just say “sorry, you can’t have what we
have, because reasons”. I also believe it’d be absolutely inconsequential. But we cannot, I
hear some say: it’s not sustainable. It’s bad. For us, for them, for the Earth.
Here the systemic nature of “making” that propels digital transformation forward comes
into play again, albeit in a different way. When I hear practitioners discussing that they
want to do “good”, I’m torn between wanting to compliment them for their good heart,
and wanting to slap them silly since they are either dangerously naive or, at worst, plain
“I do not believe in things.
I believe only in their relationships.”
Georges Braque, Fruit dish, 1908-09
Ontologically, things, products, services, they only become meaningful when they serve a
purpose. A knife is not good or bad per se. Information is not good or bad per se. We
listened to an incredibly good talk about inclusion and accessibility best practices from a
person working for one of the worst offenders gracing the internet today. Nothing is good
or bad per se, not even oxygen. In case you don’t know, oxygen is slowly killing you, so
you might want to breath conservatively. Good or bad are human constructs: what they
imply is presence, some form of “we”, even if it’s “them”, as we can only have a “them” if
we have an “us”. We cannot ignore or escape this conundrum: whatever we bring into
being through design, it could save someone from a heart attack, or used to perpetrate
violence. What we cannot do is pretend this will not happen. That it’ll be “good”. We’ll
be good. We’ll be fine. The washing machine is no different. It’s just a matter of who’s
“we”. Listen to Rosling: “My mother explained the magic with this machine the very,
very first day. She said, “Now Hans, we have loaded the laundry. The machine will make
the work. And now we can go to the library.
Stockholm Stadsbiblioteket, Stockholm
Because this is the magic: you load the laundry, and what do you get out of the machine?
You get books out of the machine.”
So that “we” in the conference theme worries me. For a community that claims to be this
human-centered, I consider this untenable naivety. We have a duty not to eat the stone
soup, we have a responsibility to see and fix what’s broken without pretending that
solving that one problem will never ever create a new one. Because it will. Today’s smart
and right is invariably tomorrow’s unbelievably stupid and wrong.
So, please, ask yourselves who is this “we”, because even in Europe, today, that might
also include people below the air line, and the wash line.
Naniso Tswai, The Truth at the Bottom of the Sea, https://wsimag.com/economy-and-politics/16256-the-truth-at-the-bottom-of-the-sea
People looking for a better, different future for themselves and their children.
Syria’s Civil War, https://www.bloomberg.com/quicktake/syrias-civil-war
People who have lost everything because of a war and are seeking refuge somewhere
safer. Uprooted, scattered.
the futures we want
Or it might not. You are always designing for one of the possible futures someone wants.
That “we” is really many different “we’s”, some of them conflicting. It’s plain common
sense, yes, but at times I doubt common sense is common currency in our conversations,
drowned by the constant drone of “what’s next”, “disrupt this” and “disrupt that”, and
(of course) “this is the end of the world as we know it”. Well, I feel fine, and I think you
Just slow down and embrace continuity instead of disruption. Humans haven’t changed
much in the past two hundred thousand years, and that’s good foundations. You can
count on it. Technology doesn’t just mean “digital”: everything around you and on you,
from your shoes to your hairdo, is a product of technology (and read some Krippendorff
to figure out why this “tech v nature” thing is another “good v bad” false equation. The
very idea of the existence of a “natural world” is a human construct).
Acquaint yourselves with the history of design. It is not something we invented after we
came up with computers. John Knight today mentioned William Morris. By all means,
become familiar with his work and writings. And with those of Peter Beherens,
Marianne Brandt, Marcel Breuer, Ray and Charles Eames. I could go on forever, but we
need some structure. How do we bring continuity into the practice? Turns out it’s the
other way around and Stuart Brand and his pace layers can give us a hand.
Derived from Brand’s practice as an architect and his observation that the different layers
in a buildings, from the site to the structure to the interiors, change at different speeds,
pace layer theory provides a general model that explains how socio-technical systems
move at different speeds. Fashion is fastest. Infrastructures, think roads or power grids,
change slower. Culture changes over even longer periods of time, and nature is slowest.
As I said, we’re not that different from our Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal ancestors.
Lacerda, F., Lima-Marques, M. Information Architecture as an Academic Discipline. In Resmini, A. (2014). Reframing Information Architecture. Springer.
Pace layers also allows us to introduce another very important model, called the M3,
which is something every student of design should be told on the very first day of design
school. Van Gigch and Pipino’s Meta-Modeling Methodology looks at any field of
knowledge as a layered system in which epistemology, science, and practice represent
three distinct types of inquiry that mutually influence each other. Epistemology, the meta
level, concerns itself with the conceptual framework of a scientific community, the big
questions, and it’s the locus of paradigm shifts. Science, the object level, presents the
theories and models that are used to describe, explain and predict problems and their
solutions. Practice, the application level, is where practitioners apply their tools to solve
everyday problems. Epistemological questions frame what the field is about, scientific
theories and methods are used by the practice to provide concrete solutions to day-to-day
issues. These in turn constitute a source of evidence that slowly trickles up to support or
confute theories and methods and, ultimately, produce paradigm shifts and so on.
The M3 represents an inverted pace layer model: the practice moves fastest, and the
epistemology slowest. When design conversations flatten everything down to the
practice, as they usually and unfortunately do, they end up misinterpreting and
misrepresenting the field greatly, to everyone’s loss.
If we on the other hand understand the practice of design as being one part of a larger
whole that includes the science and the philosophy of design and that comprises,
conceptually and practically, a series of layers moving at different paces, we can recognize
that rapid transformations, say from skeumorphic to flat to metro, belong mostly to the
fashion layer of Stuart’s model and to the practice layer of the M3. Only time will tell if
they’ll seep down to the slower layers, producing more long-lasting change, or if new
methods or theories will come out of them. Armed with that knowledge, we can now
decide to engage with fashion, or dig deeper.
Paradigmatic change involves the bottom layers: infrastructure, governance, culture. But
it does happen, it’s just much slower. Like you might repaint your walls anew every two
years but only build a new house once in a lifetime. The ripples paradigmatic change
creates have a vastly larger impact than anything happening in the small pond of design.
the mechanical 1700s
We’ve been through the mechanical 1700s, with its clockwork ducks and automatas, and
everything, including the human body, being a machine.
the electrical late 1800s
The electrical late 1800s, when everything could be fixed with a little jolt from the
friendly electrodes, from hysteria to that embarrassing dandruff problem.
the atomic 1950s
The atomic 1940s and 1950s, with their “nuclear” family and commonplace faith in an
orderly universe illuminated by science and expertise.
We loved the atom so much we gave kids the “Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Laboratory”
kit, which came with a warning that one should “not take ore samples out of their jars,
for they tend to flake and crumble and (one) would run the risk of having radioactive ore
spread out in (one’s) laboratory”. You can still find a few originals on EBay if you’re
interested in making your house pet glow in the dark.
the digital 2010s
And now here we are, in the digital 2010s.
You just heard Marco Tagliavacche before me telling you all about Juicero. I won’t add
more as it seems unfair. Just remember they’re most definitely not the only company
which came up with some extravagant “digital” concept. It’s that paradigm thing.
Nothing digital can be “wrong”, just like everything that was mechanical, electrical, or
atomic couldn’t at a certain point in time.
Now, let us apply the M3 to conceptually map out our understanding of design in these
past thirty years that led us from digitization to digital and systemic transformation. It’s a
rough, imprecise sketch, but bear with me. Imagine we can have an “initial” phase, left,
that somehow ends around the time of the iTunes Store, and a “mature” phase, right,
starting with the mass commercialization of smartphones, our transformation into
cyborgs, and the blending of digital and physical.
Where the initial phase is paradigmatically “digital, disembodied, and postmodernist” in
nature, the mature phase is “postdigital, embodied, and post-postmodernist”. The science
and practice layers are also different: different disciplines come center stage, and the object
of design, what the professional designer works on, also changes. Let us take a look at
what the three elements in the epistemological layer really mean and what they do imply,
starting with the cultural dominants and postmodernism.
Postmodernism was the zeitgeist of the second part of the 20th century. It is something
you all immediately recognize as familiar, as you grew up immersed in it. It was a reaction
to modernism, rejecting the modernist ideas of progress and Truth (capital “t”), and
advocating instead for irony, pastiche, multiple points of view, the interlacing of
highbrow and lowbrow, and a sense of detachment. Think Quentin Tarantino’s movies,
or Eco’s “The Name of the Rose”, all the way to “Shrek”. In design you have Memphis,
in architecture Charles Moore, or Paolo Portoghesi.
Quentin Tarantino, Kill Bill: Volume I (2003)
Still, postmodernism is profoundly rooted in auteur culture and in an idea of “product”.
“Kill Bill” is a finished movie, we get to appreciate passively when complete. This new
post-postmodernist culture that has emerged in the wake of everyday pervasive
computing celebrates the death of the author and expertise. Alan Kirby, who calls it
“digimodernism”, describes it as “anonymous, mass-produced culture” that thrives on
constant change, evanescence, and loss of control.
Where postmodernism is ironic, intellectual, detached, this new culture, a culture bred
and raised on new media and that requires interaction, is raw and visceral. Twitter rage is
not a bug, it’s a feature.
It is also a post-digital, not a digital culture. It implies digital just like we imply electricity.
Nobody in their right mind would try to sell you something listing “it’s electric” as a
premium feature unless you’re part of that “we” which includes the remaining six billions.
So why should we do it with digital? Digital is here, it’s not going away. It’s
commonplace. Just an hour ago, you didn’t even blink at the idea you had someone having
a conversation with you via digital all the way from the US of A. You all went
“awwwww” when the connection broke down. You expected that to work. Seamlessly.
Invisibly. Similarly, the internet is not a “virtual” world existing in some alternate reality,
separate from our dimension.
Uber, the company we love to hate, provides you with cab rides. In the real world.
Google Maps tells you where the restaurant is and how to get there. Even if I were to
kidnap you and ship you to some remote city in Uruguay, chances are that as long as I
didn’t take your phone away and your batteries last, you’ll just go “Right, where’s the
closest bus stop?”.
When I started working on mainframes in 1989, my workplace was a datacenter. Big
rooms, low temperatures, computers the size of a small truck. Computing happened
through screens and keyboards, and it was disembodied. The only physical interactions
happened through the big on/off button that we needed to press every once in a while
when a reboot (scary!) was necessary.
Disney’s Magic Band
Today, we have wearables, body augmentation, sensors that register your presence in the
environment, actuators that change the environment accordingly, or the Disney Magic
Band. But the best example of how embodied your relationship with digital has become is
probably how you can tell that the person dm’ing you (not calling, that’s so previous
generation) is a friend, family or your significant other and not some telemarketer by that
warm, heartbeat-like buzz right on your butt.
Voice interfaces, gestural interfaces, conversational interfaces, artificial intelligence, are
part of this shift (a shift I believe to be on the verge of becoming paradigmatic, but this
will have to wait for another talk). American kids are adding to the canonical three first
words, “mum, dad, cat”, a fourth one: “alexa”. Is it good or bad? It’s neither, or both. On
one hand, this is Amazon. They want to sell you stuff. They’re not doing it because they
are interested in your kid’s wellbeing. On the other hand, kids who talk to Alexa seem to
have a larger vocabulary and more precise diction, a requirement to be understood by the
That’s not really up to me to say. That’s up to whatever combination of “we” is being
considered, what futures we want to design. But I know design is not technology. It’s not
even digital, as it isn’t mechanical or atomic. The future we are already living in is a
blended landscape where physical and digital come together. Embodied, postdigital,
systemic. I know we need to strive for continuity, and escape our own, human timescale
where everything is now and approaching escape velocity. Go back to the basics, learn
from the past. Make your designs work with the physical world, because that’s all we
have. Make systems that are clearly a product of a postdigital world, but not necessarily
digital themselves digital. Not everything needs to be electric, or atomic.
Like the Hipporoller, so that collecting water is simpler, safer, less demanding, more
Massoud Hassani, Mine Kafon Ball. http://minekafon.org
Like the Mine Kafon, so that we can use a scaled-up wind toy made of low cost
biodegrable plastic and bamboo to safely detonate landmines in war-ravaged zone
where leftover mines continue to pose a threat to human life.
Be postdigital, be embodied, be systemic, be aware.