Was interviewed recently by Anastasiia Mozghova for Google ATAP’s twitter feed, where it’s being published as a thread in two parts (part one here).
It centred around ambient computing and work I’ve been involved in around that subject in the past – particularly looking at notions of ‘social grace’ in computing.
This was a concept we discussed a lot in relation to Soli, the radar sensor that Google ATAP invented. I was involved in that project a little at Creative Lab, then more peripherally still (as kind of a cheerleader if anything) at Google Research.
That concept of social grace, for me, begins in the writing of Mark Weiser and continues amplified in Adam Greenfield‘s “Everywhere” – which still has some very relevant nuggets in it, IMHO, for a book on technology written in 2006 (16 years ago at time of writing!)
I also mention another classic – which is fast coming up on it’s 20th anniversary (next year?) – Bruce Sterling’s Shaping Things.
Its eco-centric vision of ‘spimes‘ rhymes (sorry) with the current hype around web3, tokenisation, etc etc – but while that is obsessed with financialisation, Shaping Things instead hints at using data sousveillance means toward resource responsibility, circularity and accountability ends in design and manufacture.
So let’s break our own silence. Let’s stop lying to ourselves and others by pretending that small measures deliver major change. Let’s abandon the timidity and tokenism. Let’s stop bringing buckets of water when only fire engines will do.
Called ‘Bottom-Up Grid’ or ‘BUG’ it aimed to make electricity infrastructure more like the internet – able to flexibly store, route and reroute power, making it far easier for renewables to scale.
I’m making it up as I go along (which is what design is, remember?), with an awesome gang of talented people: creating speculative designs, dynamic simulations and infoviz, physical models, science-fair-like exhibitions to convince important people in nondescript buildings in mountain view.
HOLYCRAPHOLYCRAP THAT’S LARRY PAGE. MAYBE WE *CAN* REMAKE THE ELECTRICITY GRID FOR THE 21stC!!!!!
He asks the very, very smart team we’re working with lots of questions including… how you might be able to cook pasta more quickly with high voltage.
But he gives it the nod.
The project continues for a while… until it gets a smaller focus, becomes a pilot internally, quietly sunsets. I went on with the wonderful Creative Lab teams to do many similar fantastic projects with Google Access & Energy which – sadly no longer exists now that we really need it…
Late 2021: I’ve been back in London for about 5 years, working in Google Research and having a lot of fun with a bunch of studios – imagining what an alternate decentralised Google might be in future with private, personal AI for everyone – but BUG still… bugs me…
I’d installed a solar & battery system to my home in 2018 from a UK startup called Moixa.
It was the nearest thing to BUG I could find on the market: harvesting what energy you can from the UK sunshine (!), then storing it in a battery and sharing using innovative networking software…
And then… I saw they were hiring for a Principal Designer.
So… I figured I needed to go for it.
At Moixa we make something that we hope is a building block of something like this – solar energy storage batteries that can be networked together with software to create virtual power plants, that can replace fossil fuels.
It’s one part of our mission to create 100% electric homes this decade.
The home is a place where design and desire become important for creating change and impact in the climate fight.
I hope we can make energy transition in the home something that is aspirational and accessible with good design.
Real-world RL: DeepMind controls a fusion reactor: …The era of the centaur scientist cometh… DeepMind researchers have trained a reinforcement learning agent to shape the distribution of plasma in a Tokamak fusion reactor. This requires training an agent that “can manipulate the magnetic field through a precise control of several coils that are magnetically coupled to the plasma to achieve the desired plasma current, position, and shape”. If that sounds complicated, that’s because it’s extremely complicated. The task is akin to being an octopus and needing to precisely shape a tube of clay that’s rotating at speeds faster than you can comprehend, and to never tear or destabilize the clay.
When trying to understand the interactions of non-human organisms, it is easy to flip between these two perspectives: that of the inanimate behaviour of pre-programmed robots on the one hand, and that of rich, lived, human experience on the other. Framed as brainless organisms, lacking the basic apparatus required to have even a simple kind of ‘experience’, fungal interactions are no more than automatic responses to a series of biochemical triggers. Yet the mycelium of truffle fungi, like that of most fungal species, actively senses and responds to its surroundings in unpredictable ways. Their hyphae are chemically irritable, responsive, excitable. It is this ability to interpret the chemical emissions of others that allows fungi to negotiate a series of complex trading relationships with trees; to knead away at stores of nutrients in the soil; to have sex; to hunt; or to fend off attackers. Anthropomorphism is usually thought of as an illusion that arises like a blister in soft human minds: untrained, undisciplined, unhardened. There are good reasons for this: when we humanise the world, we may prevent ourselves from understanding the lives of other organisms on their own terms. But are there things this stance might lead us to pass over – or forget to notice? The biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation of the Great Plains region of the United States, observes that the indigenous Potawatomi language is rich in verb forms that attribute aliveness to the more-than-human world. The word for hill, for example, is a verb: ‘to be a hill’. Hills are always in the process of hilling, they are actively being hills. Equipped with this ‘grammar of animacy’, it is possible to talk about the life of other organisms without either reducing them to an ‘it’, or borrowing concepts traditionally reserved for humans. By contrast, in English, writes Kimmerer, there is no way to recognise the ‘simple existence of another living being’. If you’re not a human subject, by default you’re an inanimate object: an ‘it’, a ‘mere thing’. If you repurpose a human concept to help make sense of the life of a non-human organism, you’ve tumbled into the trap of anthropomorphism. Use ‘it’, and you’ve objectified the organism, and fallen into a different kind of trap.
Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake
Hills are always in the process of hilling, they are actively being hills.
“It’s important to remember that utopia and dystopia aren’t the only terms here. You need to use the Greimas rectangle and see that utopia has an opposite, dystopia, and also a contrary, the anti-utopia. For every concept there is both a not-concept and an anti-concept. So utopia is the idea that the political order could be run better. Dystopia is the not, being the idea that the political order could get worse. Anti-utopias are the anti, saying that the idea of utopia itself is wrong and bad, and that any attempt to try to make things better is sure to wind up making things worse, creating an intended or unintended totalitarian state, or some other such political disaster. 1984 and Brave New World are frequently cited examples of these positions. In 1984 the government is actively trying to make citizens miserable; in Brave New World, the government was first trying to make its citizens happy, but this backfired. As Jameson points out, it is important to oppose political attacks on the idea of utopia, as these are usually reactionary statements on the behalf of the currently powerful, those who enjoy a poorly-hidden utopia-for-the-few alongside a dystopia-for-the-many. This observation provides the fourth term of the Greimas rectangle, often mysterious, but in this case perfectly clear:one must be anti-anti-utopian.”
“Dystopia is good for drama because you’re starting with a conflict: your villain is the world. Writers on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” found it very difficult to work within the confines of a world where everything was going right. They objected to it. But I think that audiences loved it. They liked to see people who got along, and who lived in a world that was a blueprint for what we might achieve, rather than a warning of what might happen to us.”
“An adequate life provided for all living beings is something the planet can still do; it has sufficient resources, and the sun provides enough energy. There is a sufficiency, in other words; adequacy for all is not physically impossible. It won’t be easy to arrange, obviously, because it would be a total civilizational project, involving technologies, systems, and power dynamics; but it is possible. This description of the situation may not remain true for too many more years, but while it does, since we can create a sustainable civilization, we should. If dystopia helps to scare us into working harder on that project, which maybe it does, then fine: dystopia. But always in service to the main project, which is utopia.”
It’s been enormously enjoyable – and great to learn a new tool / learn in general. Although as fun as making my final sketch above futzing about with skyboxes, particle systems and physics was – I certainly won’t be giving Tobias Revell anything to worry about any time soon!
If it is coming, and if it is a big deal, then surprisingly few have paused to carefully consider the actual source of the metaverse, an undertaking which seems like a good idea, especially because that source is a deeply dystopian novel about a collapsed America that is overrun by violence and poverty. The metaverse was born in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 Snow Crash, where it serves as entertainment and an economic underbelly to a poor, desperate nation that is literally governed by corporate franchises.
You will see no trace of the metaverse’s origins in these strategy announcements, which so far seem to hint mostly at creating and uniting more immersive digital environments in which entertainment might be consumed and work carried out—and advertising displayed, workers surveilled, and branded NFTs and loot boxes sold. No trace, that is, unless maybe you read about it on your Twitter feed, where a news item about a metaverse product is likely to be sandwiched between stories about crushing health care debt or anecdotes about rampant inequality.
You don’t really expect to see energy company CEOs interviewed in Dezeen, so it’s a nice to surprise to see one of the founders of Bulb (where afewfriends of mine work) quoted there this week.
The founders also felt that eventually, homes would become energy producers as well as consumers. By installing solar panels, anaerobic digesters, micro-CHP (combined heat and power) plants or any other small-scale clean-power generator, householders could sell surplus energy back to the grid, using home-storage batteries or electric cars to store the power until it’s needed.
“It wasn’t really happening at the time, but we thought that homes could become a source of energy,” Wood explained.
“If people had solar panels on their roof, or if they had a battery in their home or an electric vehicle and those batteries were plugged into the grid, the homes could at times be providing energy into the grid.”
“Also, the grid becomes more efficient when the electrons travel a shorter distance,” he added. “If you have generation embedded within the grid locally, then the whole system becomes more efficient.”
It has taken a while for this “two-way grid” to become a reality but Wood believes it is now poised to take off.
“That’s one of the things we’re quite excited about now that there are more options available to consumers for solar panels, electric vehicles, heat pumps and batteries.”
In the article he stresses that the architecture and design profession are central to making this happen in the next decade – connecting back to my post earlier this week featuring Saul Griffith’s exhortations to redesign and electrify our domestic lives. I’m hoping to write more about this soon.
But thinking about the home as a machine not just for living in, as Corbusier had it, but also a machine for generating, regenerating, recycling, re-using… That would have been a fantastic opportunity – that I’m sorry to say I missed. This time!
Owning a house is a position of huge privilege of course – as is being able to make alterations on your own terms to where you live.
Designers and architects must also look to provide for those who rent and share buildings – and give them innovative tools/services that increase their agency to save and generate energy.
Thinking about places in the pace layers to make design interventions that are practical, portable, affordable – and make some impact on our climate emergency.
Rounding off the week though with another approach to the urgent problem of decarbonising our way of life – and longer term heading toward a Kardashev Scale 1 civilisation.