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Questioning "Things"

Image: Flickr / Scott Beale, Laughing Squid

After a brief, work-induced blogging sabbatical, it's time to get back to it. If you've followed us on Twitter or subscribe to the quarterly newsletter we just sent out, you'll know we've been working on an internal lab project called Thingclash. This project, which is open and ongoing, is intended to shed needed critical light on how designers, product planners, engineers, strategists, developers, investors and users think about the Internet of Things (IoT), with particular focus on how design and technology mesh with—or clash with—existing cultures, behaviors, norms and desires.

The classic case of this is the phenomenon of card clash, a problem most well known from TfL, London's transport network, whereby contactless payment systems don't distinguish between the transport system's own Oyster contactless card and regular contactless bank cards. Simply put, a technology of convenience conflicts with the cultural construct of the wallet, in which many people carry a mix of cards. The solution offered by TfL is to retrain behavior rather than retrain the system in some way. Clearly, the problem is more complex, but the outcomes are simple, and the solution a potentially unnecessary social hack. 

I introduced the project at Thingscon in Berlin last month, and we launched a microsite to house the project as it unfolds. Our initial plan is to develop some basic tabletop tools that can be used to illustrate the various forms and modes of frictions that emerge between the IoT and people. WIRED recently discussed Thingclash in an article on the role of designers in improving how the IoT fits into our lives. 

Image: WIRED

Image: WIRED

We will be holding an internal workshop to push the design of these initial tools along in July, and will open it up to folks who have already expressed interest in contributing in the coming month as well. If you are interested in knowing more, or would like us to come and talk about Thingclash at an IoT event or internal session, get in touch. We'd love your own thoughts, feedback, or examples of thingclash you've observed in the world.

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Coming to a Future Near You

This is just a quick update as everybody's on the road, heading out, or finalizing work at the moment. It's been a busy Winter, becoming a busy Spring. I wing it to Amsterdam tomorrow for a round of upcoming talks and activities, including my third year keynoting the terrific Media Future Week in Hilversum, NL on 21 April, and getting to work with the brilliant young design and media students who gather each year for the event. I'm also hyped as one of my research role models, Genevieve Bell, is also there. Working from the theme of this year's event, I'll be talking about Designing (with) Society, discussing more inclusive ways to frame futures for everyone, not just the powerful. While there, I'll also be talking at the Cross Media Cafe later that day. 

Two days later, I'm speaking at Day 1 of The Next Web in Amsterdam, looking into possible futures of the algorithmic home, extending some themes I've been pursuing for the past year or more. Then, I head back to the US to gear up for the next round of talks in May. If you want to keep track, the Q2 newsletter is where I'll provide a more comprehensive roundup if you like that sort of thing.

Meanwhile, Natalie Kane has headed the opposite direction, to New York, where she's speaking about ghost stories and code at Theorizing the Web on Saturday the 18th. If you're there or thereabouts, or piping in the livestream, I commend you to also catch the Friday session on magic, machines and metaphors with Debbie Chachra. 

Lastly, just a quick mention that IED Barcelona is again hosting my two-week summer course on futures and innovation in late July. If you're interested to know more and would enjoy a bit of sun and foresight, registration is still open. 

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Education as a Hedge Against the Future

Image: algopop.tumblr.com

Image: algopop.tumblr.com

We like to worry about what we'll be doing decades from now. "Ten New Jobs of the Future!" or similar headline formulations constitute a familiar trope in foresight—imagining the strange new roles we might play, or familiar ones that may disappear and leave us with no means of support. Whatever the prognostication about tomorrow, most industrial societies do a poor job of preparing their young for those futures through educational choices. This problem is compounded when employment decisions are so closely tied to faulty educational options.

Susan Cox-Smith has just written about these education nightmares in a piece for Medium, "What is the Real Value of a College Degree?" In it, she asks a basic question, "Is the narrow binary of go to college/don’t go to college, really the best option we have to offer students of the twenty-first century?" Focusing on the US case, she points out that while a four-year degree has remained the primary way to signal a standard level of educational achievement, both what constitutes that achievement and what the world really needs from a young working person have shifted. As a result, a college degree is, in many cases, becoming a hollow signifier, reduced in an increasing number of cases to parsing of semantics on a CV by machine, a kind of expensive SEO for people:

Companies seeking “rock stars,” “unicorns,” and “purple squirrels” have become commonplace. The problem is, most entry- and mid-level positions do not call for a unique set of abilities, but HR departments thrive on creating endless, bullet-pointed lists of required skills and experience, with a college degree often topping the agenda.

More critically, however, continued focus on this signifier means educators, employers, and governments are failing to provide meaningful options for education that align with the need for a range of applied knowledge and skills, different interests and life paths, creating a dangerous delta between what people can or could do and how they are judged in the market. The risk we are running is that, as we can already see today, fewer and fewer people will be properly educated and trained for these "Jobs of the Future," while the both the stockpile of indebted graduates with vague degrees and a large sector of unemployed who hold valuable knowledge and applied skills continue to grow.  

Read on

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