H(ello).E.T. – Design for human enhancement

Posted on Thursday December 1st 2011 at 09:43

This year, the research project for the students of the third year and bridging program at MAD-faculty focuses on design in the context of human enhancement. The project H(ello).E.T.! aims to explore the field of human enhancement and its implications in order to develop design outputs that relate to the debate concerning human enhancement technologies.

To trigger reflection on the difficulties of this debate, the project started off with an immersion in the world of people with a physical disability. Student teams did interviews and observations with people with a physical disability and experts in prosthetics.

This all served as a kind of extreme user experience. The aim was to bring students closer to situations in which they were confronted with a desire or a moral debate concerning enhancing – or in this case, curing – human performances and abilities. The experiences and insights that the students gained via these observations and interviews will be interpreted and translated to the field of human enhancement in the next phases of the project.

Last week (November 25th), we invited Anab Jain and Jon Ardern from the design studio Superflux to introduce the students in the field of human enhancement. Superflux explores the potentials and implications of emerging technologies on society and the environment often using speculative design. They already did some projects in the field of human enhancement, e.g. the project “Song of the Machine”, exploring the possibilities of a new, modified – even enhanced – vision, where users can tune into streams of information and electromagnetic vistas currently outside of human vision. Since the work of Superflux takes on all kinds of forms – e.g. applications and products, but also stories, films, images and props – Anab and Jon were a perfect match with our students coming from Product design, Animation film, Film, Graphic design, Communication – and Media design and Photography.

Anab and Jon first gave a lecture on human enhancement. They showed a wide range of examples of speculative design concerning human enhancement, ranging from product design, photography to illustration. They emphasized how speculative design devices can help exploring a wide range of possibilities that might be desirable to know ahead of time. But also how they create a means by which people can place themselves into rich emotional scenarios. Anab and Jon explained how designers could play a role in the field between science or technology and humans or non-experts, which was illustrated by the short film “Song of the Machine”.

Song of the Machine from Superflux on Vimeo.

Speculative design then enfolds scripts to build a dialogue. As Anab explained during the lecture: “As scientists they are approaching from a data-driven perspective, assuming that people want to be able to see something, even if that might not be the case. As designers, what we often ask is what will our experiences of and with technology feel like… human-centricity over efficiency…. What does that mean in terms of our own bodies, our sense of being, our memories, our relationships, our environment, our values?”

In the afternoon, Anab and Jon did a workshop to trigger the students to develop speculative designs. For this, they provided four scenarios of which student teams could choose from. The scenarios described human enhancement in a wider context (e.g. societal, political, etcetera).

For instance, one scenario was: “Following a shift in approaches to the modification of embryonic DNA for ‘fixing’ inherited diseases, it becomes culturally acceptable for parents to ‘boost’ the strength and (more importantly) intelligence of their offspring. In the course of a single generation, base IQ jumps from 109 to 210, in what comes to be known as the ‘Generational Event Horizon’. Super-intelligence, however, comes with unexpected side-effects, often leaving parents and children struggling to communicate.”

Since this scenario included parent-children relationships, most student teams chose this scenario. Exploring these scenarios, the students had to develop a design, guided by questions on:

– unexpected outcomes and consequences of (the development of) these technologies;

– their impact upon the wider society and/or the economy;

– economic, social and individual reactions on these technologies;

– how students would fit these technologies into their own lives, or how they could change the ways in which the students feel about themselves and their lives.

The design output could be a product, a service, an installation, a film and so on.

We finished the day with short presentations of the designs the teams created. One team presented a scenario involving Google babies, one team designed a megaphone that translated the hyper-intellectual language of children into understandable language for their parents and another team discussed the changing timeline of a person’s life (given the fact that people with a higher IQ learn much faster). These scenarios were an interesting and imaginative first exploration of human enhancement. In the following weeks, the students will research them more in depth to develop their final design for this project. One thing Anab rightfully emphasized is the importance of in-depth research. She also pointed out that designers don’t always have to create solutions but can explore new roles for design, for instance, in stimulating dialogues between different groups of people.

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