Tell us what you do and how you started doing it?
We are designers with backgrounds in engineering (James) and fine art (Jimmy). We use our design practice to ask questions about the role of technology and technological products in everyday life.
This takes the form of two approaches: Speculative futures – developing hypothetical future products made possible through the imagined domestication of emerging technologies, and alternative presents – these explore how the world today might be had different decisions been made in the past (for example digitisation never happened). We stumbled upon the approach during our first collaborative project, the Audio Tooth Implant and have been refining it ever since.
We realised quite early that working in industry imposes huge constraints on the potential of design so sought an approach that could operate outside of market demands.
What sparked your interest in craft?
Myself and Jimmy align ourselves with the basic philosophy of the arts and crafts movement, in particular the importance of making and a critique of mass-industrialisation – this is central to our approach. Soetsu Yanagi’s book ‘The Unknown Craftsman’ has been particularly inspirational in describing the virtues of more traditional approaches and ‘the cold monotony of the production line’. The challenge is to move beyond a nostalgic appreciation of craft to better address the complexity of modern products and the systems in which they operate.
Increasingly the ends (the function of a product) are divorced from its means, or to paraphrase Alfred Borgmann ‘things are increasingly becoming devices.’ It has become normal for people to worship shiny electronic products that become obsolete after one year; that connect us to massive systems that are invisible yet increasingly mediate many aspects of our lives; that make consumers spectators rather than participants. Craft, with its focus on making and the more authentic value of things, has the potential to bring a better balance into the human-object relationship making it visible again.
How did you and Jimmy meet?
We were both studying in Design Products at the Royal College of Art in 2000. When collaborating we share all areas of development and realisation equally, we’re a bit like Rolls-Royce but without the Rolls! (the one good at business).
Between 2002 and 2005 we were employed as research associates at Media Lab Europe where we explored the future of human communication as mediated by technology. The products we developed investigated how we could interact with technology in more qualitative or meaningful ways.
What inspires you and your work in general?
There are two main things that inspire our work. Firstly as designers who also teach, we would like to address the responsibility of design and expose some of the myths currently surrounding its role and purpose.
One of the key myths is that design makes people’s lives better – of course it can do this but it has become so intrinsically linked to the machinations of big business and corporate agendas that it has essentially become a novelty machine. Very inspirational is the Adam Curtis documentary The Century of the Self, which explains how public relations techniques in the 20th Century successfully transformed America from a needs to a desire based culture by training people to desire.
Design is currently very much part of this system through its role in creating desirable products. But this desire, for various reasons, has a short shelf-life. We hope to teach a more responsible and politically aware form of design.
Second, and closely linked to the first point, is to be more critical about how we use technology. We believe that it’s fundamental to challenge the myth that technological advances will lead to a better future. We accept that technology can do great things but it can also create huge problems. Design, through the approach described in the first question, can be used to explore not only what improvements technology might make in people’s lives but also what might go wrong.
Tell us about the Real Prediction Machines and why you started this project?
Through our design work we like to engage with emerging technologies and the scientists working on their development.
The Real Prediction Machines concept was developed for the Crafts Council’s Twelve Tall Tales exhibition in collaboration with Dr Subramanian Ramamoorthy who is based at the University of Edinburgh. His research focuses on the development of algorithms to predict when a professional athlete might become susceptible to injury through over-training.
We began by asking what kind of other events we could predict such as ‘Will I have a heart attack?’ or ‘Am I going to have a domestic argument?’ This helped to shift the context from professional sports to everyday life.
The key motivation for the Real Prediction Machines was to look at how this technology, that has already transformed numerous industries such as banking, insurance and commerce, could enter the home and become part of everyday life. Would such a product be useful?
How does it work?
The Real Prediction Machines uses both big and small data combined with predictive modelling to make predictions about specific future events. When things fail they rarely do so instantaneously but rather through a gradual process. Through the deployment of sensors in pertinent places and the use of historical data, these techniques can determine the when things such as a vehicle, bridge or in the case of Ram’s research, a human body begin to fail.
The Real Prediction Machine uses similar techniques but shifts the focus onto more emotive or personal subjects in the context of everyday life.
Our favourite example is the prediction of when a domestic argument might happen. For this we use a variety of data sets such as reviewing the general compatibility of the relationship to live audio feeds that analyse word tone to detect patterns that have historically led to an argument. The Real Prediction Machines then reviews all this data to provide feedback through the rotating disc.
Sounds a bit complicated! So am I going to be rich?
Give us your data we we’ll let you know!
What are you up to now?
Jimmy is currently a lecturer in Design at Goldsmiths University. I moved to the Madeira Interactive Technologies Institute last September and have a couple of things under development. We are re-thinking the notion of smart through as series of workshops and a bigger collaborative research project. The motivation is to challenge the banal and disappointing version of smart proposed by industry that simple automates basic functions.
I am also working on a live project to re-think energy on the Island of Madeira. More details can be found on our blog.
Why do you think people should come to see Twelve Tall Tales?
Twelve Tall Tales is an exceptional exhibition curated by our friend Onkar Kular, one of the most original and inspirational designers we know!
Twelve Tall Tales highlights the potential of a different form of design - a design that responds to the more complex aspects of human life through telling more relevant stories.