Design Fiction

A few weeks ago I attended a talk at OCAD with Scott Smith from the Changeist. It was very interesting. He was talking about design fiction as a new kind of design and I learned that my thesis project falls into this category. To do what I propose to do with the new zoo still doesn’t have the technology to support it. Well, most of it does, but the price of making the New Zoo as is, will be so extraordinarily costly that it is an undertaking for the future. A lot of resources will have to put into developing the software and technology needed. In two areas we are behind;

1 The scale of the project is enourmous. Screen technology to support this is still in the labs of the big screen giants. The same goes for projections, resolutions and performance is nowhere near what it needs to be to give a hyper realistic experience.  3D proposes a clear potential, but here we are even further away to achieve scale and resolution successfully.

2. Perceptive pixels; how you’d execute the myriads of customizable journeys through the structures is still a headache not solved sufficiently.

Nevertheless is this the new kind of zoo that I strongly feel we need to have. And as Scott Smith said: “It’s not about what the future will do to you, it’s what you will do to the future”

In my interaction design training at CIID, I was heavily exposed to technology and tinkering. I found this to be a great inspiration and it opened my eyes to a lot of new possibilities. In playing around with electronics and hacking toys, I discovered how you can get into intense detail with a simple function or action, and I was very inspired to see how my co-students could push the technology and come up with brilliant projects, some pure research some just downright silly and a lot of fun. In this environment of constant tech chat and mutual sharing of knowledge on the newest and latest stuff and ideas out there,  I learned that my approach was taking its starting point in the use, the value and the actual meaning of a concept and a design solution. As a kid I read all the sfi-fi books I could get my hands on and I was often preoccupied with writing and drawing my own future scenarios. At one point I actually thought I, myself, was from the future which then, in my mind, was in a different  dimension (to my excuse I was around 6 – and a very early reader. I remember I had to get the older kids to borrow books for me at the library since the librarian thought I was to young to digest the novels I wanted to read – and he was probably right since I thought what I did!!) ) To this day I have always loved to dream up the future and imagine “what if”  In both my bachelor project and master thesis, this is exactly what I did. I dreamt up a scenario based on a need and a wanted experience, and described what I wanted the technology to be able to do. In some cases it was possible, in other, not possible yet.

So, my point of view as an interaction designer dealing with technology on a daily basis, is that I’m interested in what technology can do for us and not the other way round. I respect my fellow geeks profusely in how they explore the technology and find projects and solutions through tinkering and hacking. It’s just very clear to me that my starting point is the experience, solution and/or emotion in that moment I want to design for, “what exactly will you experience, what do you do,what is around you, what do you see, touch, feel, hear, think, smell, learn” and how and why does that add value to your life and how does it solve a problem. Then the design builds up to that moment.

So I think there could be a lot more design fiction in my future. At least now I know what it’s called!

Thesis reflections

Doing the thesis certainly became a tour de force in the massive ethical dilemmas a designer can run into. Who do you stay more true to, your cause or your client?

If you really want to create change, do you then not have to go after your findings in your research and exploration and develop solutions based on the most valuable outcome?

In this case of making a thesis and still being a student, I of course had the luxury of idealism. The choice of moving away from being safe and instead taking a big chance felt necessary and obligatory. It complete disrupted any planning I had, but it was also far more interesting and challenging to go for the unknown.

I have now posted my thesis paper/project report, with a full process description and a design sketch for the New Zoo is included at the end.

Update

A year has passed since I did my thesis project and the project is still brewing in my mind, more relevant for every day that passes. I recently picked up a book called “Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat – Why It’s So Hard To Think Straight About Animals” by Hal Herzog. I saw it in my favorite cookbook store in Toronto of all places. Even if I’m only a few chapters into it, I’m learning new things for every page I’m turning, feeling inspired and very exited to see how Hal Herzog is taking on this massive subject of the human-animal relationship that I feel so passionate about. And he is doing it in such an approachable manner, still respecting how deeply complex this subject is. Great book so far, can’t wait to read the rest of it.

Making the Zoo Manifesto I took a strong stand against the zoo’s. I basically want them gone and replaced with awe-driven all-digital learning centers where you get to experience the animal in its real habitat without keeping the actual animal hostage.  Nothing I’ve read or learned since I made the project has changed my mind, it’s has only verified and solidified how imperative it is that we humans start understanding exactly how much out of whack the eco-balance is and how we desperately need to change it!

That said, I know the subject of the human animal relationship evokes a lot of feelings in a lot of people. And it is a relationship that affects us all everyday, whether we eat dogs or pet them, whether we look at the lion in the zoo or hunt her in the wild (well, actually in my book this would be the same..) Some are vegetarians because of animal welfare issues but buy leather shoes. Or won’t eat meat but they eat fish. Or myself who feel strongly about all things sustainable but still buy pepperoni pizza once in a while… It’s all full of contradictions and most people probably feel it’s a battle lost in advance which make them stop bothering and even trying to make active choices against the corporations and institutions that undermine a healthy globe.

I wish as a designer to take this challenge on. It’s massive and we need to work together to come up with solutions where we offer better choices to the public. It’s (almost) that simple. Let me make an example: Why is coke so big?  Certainly not because it taste good, it’s actually pretty horrible, try not to drink it for a while and then have some – I find it extremely sweet and just wrong tasting. It’s not because it’s cool to drink it either – we are no longer in the 80ies when people actually were susceptible to the cool factor in ad-campaigns. It’s because it’s there!! That’s the point. It’s available everywhere, even in the most remote regions of the world and this kind of massive distribution makes the intake of coke so massive.

But what if we were to present people with better choices? It is not that simple, I do know that, but we need to give people the opportunity to make informed choices in a manner that can compete with a visit to the zoo, with buying a 99cent breakfast, with throwing batteries in the trash….

How can we rally to participate in creating alternatives?

Digging deeper…

It is indeed very easy getting caught in time consuming research. One thread leads to another which again leads to another and suddenly you are alarmingly close to a deadline where you have to deliver some kind of digested output and a clear direction. I suppose this is the big challenge for any designer who wish to find the balance in a tight timeframe where you want to validate your project and get inspired from the best possible offset. Will there ever be enough time to dig deeper?

My context for this project is on top of that immensely rich on scientific research coming from many professions; sociologists, anthropologists, zoologists, business professor, biologist, philosophers and artists –  just to mention a few  who collect observations and metaphors and base work on the “human-animal narrative” The New Zealand Centre for Human-Animal Studies has even invented a new profession they call anthrozoology which, as a part of the Canterbury University, offers interdisciplinary studies and results about the human-animal relationship.

Giving myself a few days to intensely study this peculiar relationship between humans and animals have resulted in many thoughts, a lot of validation and some ideas to the directions I ought to take in my further work.

Going back to the Zoo to re-study and observe the interaction between visitors and the animals, re-raised some questions about watching the animals. As I have spoken about before, it is clear that something happens. Something emotional. But what is that? What is really going on? This was my research question that I felt the need to be able to answer in order to come op with a solution. If I can’t state the problem, I can’t give the solution.

Unfortunately my time only allows scraping the surface of this immense topic, so I’ll have to make due with a quick post-it like listing of inspirational articles I have found in books and online. I will not get into arguing the positions and claims, I will have to only state theirs at this point. My own interpretations will, however, be mixed in with writing about the quotes. At the end of it, I’ll try to summarize what I can take away from this research.

Berger
I’ll start with John Berger who in 1980 wrote Why Look At Animals. His work seems to spearhead a lot of research papers and projects. Bergers point of view is from a socio-cultural context and how we have used and interacted with animals in recent time. He is actually not answering his own question of why we look at animals, but what the animals loose from being reduced to a spectacle.

Berger doesn’t like the Zoo. So much is apparent. He sees the animals as marginalized beings who are held hostage for the sake of our post-imperialistic and capitalistic needs to show off power. He claims that a visit to the Zoo will always disappoint. Because of the marginalisation and artificial surroundings, the humans may enter with a wish to encounter the animal, but will be let down by the mechanical gazes by the animals who have become immunized to encounter. He writes;  “that look between animal and man, which may have played a crucial role in the development of human society, and with which, in any case, all men had always lived until less than a century ago, has been extinguished. Looking at each animal, the unaccompanied zoo visitor is alone”

Marvin
Garry Marvin (PhD in anthropology), describes how animals have become more and more remote to people in the western urban world, and we see the animals in the media more than real life. Yet we still posses the urge to encounter animals as “significant entertainment or leisure time activities” We go on safaris, bird watching, ecotourism trips, to the Zoo’s, to the aquariums more than ever, which proves that people want to see animals.

Acampora
Ralph R. Acampora,Ph.D., takes it even further and has a very interesting thought. He states that we react to the zoo as we would to a fetish. He goes back to the origin of the Zoo of being a powerful symbol of dominion: It projected an imperial image of man-the-monarch – ruler of nature, lord of the wild.

He builds his argument on the fact that we go to the Zoo to expect some kind of meeting with the wild but this can never be because we, the humans, are present.
The natural experience would require the animals to act natural in their natural habitat and our presence in proximity to the animals would cause some kind of participation. All this is changed in the Zoo since the animal is fixed to one location in an unnatural habitat where the humans can watch the animal from a close distance. This makes the animals immune and passive to our presence and the animals are then reduced to objects of our spectating. This is also what Berger talks about. Acampora quotes Hahn (1967): the wild animal in conditions of captivity… is bound to alter in nature and cease being the the creature we want to see. So, there is no ‘real’ animal in the zoo in his argument.

His main claim is that; Zoos are pornographic in that they make the nature of their subjects disappear precisely by overexposing them. Because of this overexposure that numbs the animals to our presence, any kind of interaction and natural encounter is wiped away. The animal simply cannot encounter us since they can’t do anything about our presence. So the only ones looking are the humans. And the animals cannot escape our vision. They are put on oppressive display and becomes objects of our desire; A fetish of the exotic, underlying fear of nature, fantasies of illicit or impossible encounter, and a powerful presumption of mastery and control. This is a problem because of the objectification of the animal. As well as women can be seen as a subject of objectification in the porn industry.

His critique continues in saying that the Zoo is not a place for education but purely a place for entertainment. The zoos are highly popular, they attract in the states more people than the attendance at all major sports events put together. But people don’t go to the zoo to become educated, they hardly glance at the information on display and tend to go for the animal babies and the more funny animals. So we have an illusion of being edified.

He has some solutions. Either strip the zoos of their exotic animals and remove the ground for fetishism on the cost of the animals, or change the way people look at the animals and make this benign.

Armstrong
Is how we relate to and treat the animals a barometer for humanity itself? Dr. Philip Armstrong speaks of a lack of sympathy for the animals in the western civilization as a result of colonialism in his article The Postcolonial Animal.  He tells us that we feel so guilty for the colonial slave trade that we act from an embedded bad conscience in the western collective when we no longer allow ourselves to the same agree to have an emotional response to the state of animals and tell ourselves: “it’s only an animal”

Descartes
Im sure all this wasn’t helped by Descartes declaring the animal for soulless, and reduced it to something mechanical. Which for instance meant that killing the animal before dissecting them was therefore not of high importance, since the reaction was that of a machine not really feeling the pain.

Berger states it very clearly: The Zoo is a demonstration of the relations between man and animals; nothing else (Why Look At Animals, 1980)

Randy Malamud says in an interview on CNN earlier this year that he believes the Zoos are teaching us all the wrong things about the animals:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HyDAjK2ASdQ

I find the quote from John Fraser a couple of minutes into the interview interesting: An encounter with a living being, on the other hand, is a catalyst for action. This is were the love starts. Having read all the theorists mentioned above, this statement suddenly seems very naive. Is there anything we can call an encounter? Isn’t it an illusion, a fabrication in the human mind?

References – also for further explorations:
Acampora, R.R. (1998) Extinction by Exhibition: Looking at and in the Zoo
Acampora, R.R. (2005) Zoos and Eyes: Contesting Captivity and Seeking. Successor Practices.
Armstrong, P. (2002)  The Postcolonial Animal
Baker, S. (2001) Picturing the Beast
Berger, J. (1977) Why Zoos Disappoint
Berger, J. (1980) Why Look at Animals
Franklin, A. (1999) Animals and Modern Cultures: A Sociology of Human-Animal Relations in Modernity
Frye, M. (1983) Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory
Hahn, E. (1991) Animal Gardens: Zoos around the World
Hancocks, D. (2001) A Different Nature: The Paradoxical World of Zoos and Their Uncertain Future”
Lippit, A.M. (2008) Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife
Malamud, R.  (1998) Reading Zoos: Representations of Animals and Captivity
Marvin, G. (2005) Guest Editor’s Introduction: Seeing, Looking, Watching, Observing Nonhuman Animals

Something is up…

Going back to the zoo re-set my focus to the emotional response to being at the zoo. It raised a lot of questions and I just have this weird feeling that there is something more to what is going on in the zoo than I know right now. Why does my stomach hurt when I see a lot of the animal enclosures? When I see the polar bear in a very fake and small enclosure? When I try to catch the eye of the tiger and don’t? When I go to the wolves and have to leave almost in tears to see the lethargic beings I know are incredible shy and have whole countries as their territory…

It hurts, something is up, and I feel like I have to dig into these emotions.

Update on Zoo observations.

Observations on June 17th

My main focus was to observe social interaction between the visitors and how people acted when they were alone. Also I wanted get a feeling about capturing moments.

Good weather, sunny and warm after an unusually cold June. A lot of the animals were hiding inside, probably because of the direct sun. Tons of kids, complete mayhem in the kids area, many school classes and kindergartens visiting.

an overview of the kids section

an overview of the kids section

Many kids had assignment papers with treasure like maps in their hands and talked about how they should fill in the paper and what they had to examine and find answers to next. (The zoo has a lot of activities and education programs for kids and schools, and I am sure the schools also add ideas to this.)

Remarks I heard:
“Oi, look at that crap it makes” “yeah, yikes!!” two boys, ca. 7 years old fascinated by  rhino dong.

A little girl was feeling all over a model of a rhinos head.

rhino head with disturbing context

rhino head with disturbing context

A lot of  parents / pedagogues told the kids all the time what the signs said.

The zoo is not only for kids. This was part of a conversation between a couple in their 60-ies “It is much nicer to sit down here” Yes, it it far more secluded”

a quiet corner in the shadows

a quiet corner in the shadows

A woman had found another quiet corner next to the caracal (an african cat), were she was reading a book.

A kid (ca 4 years old) asked, which ones are the giraffes, where are they?
the mum didn’t answer but asked: “how many giraffes can you see?”
no answer form the kid…

Some parents tried a humorous approach: “look at that one, do you think it just came from the hairdresser where it got gold spray in the hair?”

The kids didn’t reply at all…

the bird that apparently just came from the barber shop

the bird that apparently just came from the barber shop

The kid (around 7) “Can’t we leave from here, it is totally boring”
The grandmother: ” yes, it is very educational for kids here”
She was watching me spin a big wheel about the ibis bird. There didn’t seem to be any direct answer to the kid, they just slowly moved out.

isis with friends

ibis with friends

learn about the ibis

learn about the ibis

The best example by far the whole day of social interaction that I saw was between the kids themselves. Trying to find out stuff together seemed to be very engaging. One case in particular was a group of four girls, two at the age of approx. 11 and two at the age of 5-6. One girl was very active and lead the group to discover things about the giraffes. She even carried one of the other kids bags. They chatted away about everything, it was a joy to watch!

the girls are very busy exploring

the girls are very busy exploring

learn about the giraffe

learn about the giraffe

learning more stuff at the okapi exhibition

learning more stuff at the okapi exhibition

Also there was an example of two boys in the terrarium section of the tropical zoo where they were mutually engaged in finding the insects and animals in the glass displays and creeping out about them together. One was always a little braver than the other one.

find the snake

find the snake

more searching

more searching

Generally the “find waldo” effect in this section seemed to be very effectful. But the moment didn’t extent so much longer than spotting the animal, especially with the youngest visitors.

“I’ve seen one of those in real life” a kid stated in a very laconic voice. Was that having an idea of the zoo not being the “real thing”, or was he just trying to impress his friends? The other kids didn’t care, they had seen that the turtles were mating so they were more interested in that!

watching the turtles

watching the turtles

turtles mating

turtles mating

People seem to pass though the first part of the rain forest rather quickly. Why?

The butterfly section stops people more, the butterflies swarm all around you. A kid suddenly was very exited and explained happily to me that a big black butterfly just sat on my backpack and when it flew it almost hit his face and he demonstrated very lively how he had to move to let it pass him. He was very exited about this encounter. I loved his excitement:-)

from cocoon to butterfly display

from cocoon to butterfly display

cocoons

cocoons

butterfly

butterfly

butterfly

butterfly

Generally a lot of the kids wanted a reaction from the animals: they would roar as the lion, replicate the animals movement, knock on the window, wave their arms etc etc…

Capturing a moment.

On a personal note, I realized that when I leaned forward and towards the animal to get closer, I felt something. I smiled. When I took a picture, I got a little disappointed. It didn’t capture the experience as I felt it, it didn’t fill out my eyes in the same way, it didn’t touch my other senses or my mind in the same way at all.

lemurs... I think...

lemurs... I think...

I tried to take pictures of a very cute bunch of lemurs, resting in the shadows, but the picture didn’t do my experience any justice. On purpose I only brought my little pocket camera with me, because that is what people tend to have when they go to the zoo. Bringing proper photo gear could of course draw the animals closer to me through the lens, but that would not replicate the experience most people have. I wanted to try to walk in their shoes with the means a regular visitor typically has.

At the lion exhibition, I tried first to look at the lions over the hedge, then walked down to the windows where you can get a lot closer to where the lions are. The difference was big. Through the window, every sense of reality disappeared for me.  Even though it meant watching the lions from afar, I preferred to stand with nothing between me and the lions but air. The window acted like a screen, and it took a lot away from the emotional connection that you some what magically think you get towards the animal.

Design question so far

All of this thinking leads to my research/design question at this stage:


How can I enhance dialogue and interpersonal relationships by helping visitors observe, experience, relate to and learn about the animals in the Zoo?

If succesful on answering this question, I will create value for the visitors in the way that it could give them something to gather their mutual experience round. The Zoo will benefit from this because it can add an element that in my opinion is highly needed and thereby make a visit to the Zoo more attractive. And hopefully it could lead to a raised awareness on animals and their context.