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Chapter 3 — The Bit and Atom Disruption


In our interconnected world we are seeing increasing numbers of relationships and marriages between individuals from different cultural backgrounds. Today, it is easier than ever to go wherever you want in the world and to communicate remotely. Take two personas, let's say Bo-Bae and Alejandro. Bo-Bae comes from Korea and Alejandro from Spain. They met online and had a virtual relationship for a while until he decided to visit her. Before going there, Alejandro and Bo-Bae communicated via chat and Skype and didn't seem concerned about anything other than meeting each other in person. But, the day came and Alejandro set off on a journey of learning all sorts of new meanings. He just never thought that the things he already knew could have a totally different meaning in another environment. So, he learned to wait until the elderly had started to eat before starting his own meal, otherwise it would have been considered extremely disrespectful. He learned to take his shoes off before entering a house, to not talk back to the police officers, and to bow according to the status of the person he was greeting. Koreans and Spaniards, and so other cultures, have their own language, their own ways of doing things, and sometimes they assign different meanings to the same things around them. All this can produce difficulties in understanding each other. The same can happen with Meta Products.

Things that couldn't communicate before, now can. A table and a chair used to speak a different language to talk to you or to each other before they were able to talk through wireless sensors. Or your measuring scale used to just tell you your weight but not to provide you with an entire customized weight-loss programme, for instance. All these new languages and new interactions, such as the ones Alejandro experienced in Korea, have to be refined until the meaning is clear for the people engaged in these new ways of communicating.

It's always about 'relevance'. An experience can be very relevant at the moment it's happening, regardless of the technology used. Maybe it's not necessary to have all these technical gadgets at all. Nothing is really missing in that sense because technology is not really the point; it's about what you want to communicate or accomplish now. — SEBASTIAN KERSTEN

Think of a Meta Product as a conversation between physical things, information, people and spaces (and whatever else you can imagine) enabled by the web and other supporting technologies. In a simple conversation there will be a sender, a message and a receiver, and an exchange of information takes place in both directions. So, good communication depends not only on the sender but also on the receiver, it is a relational process of course. Now imagine there are multiple senders and receivers, imagine communities, imagine a network of communities with parallel levels of communication. Imagine on top of that there are all these new languages! Basically, what you have to do is use your most sophisticated empathetic skills as a designer to try to understand the relational process that takes place when people assign meaning to new interactions. You also have to be very alert to what sociologists, anthropologists, neuro-scientists, psychologists and all sorts of professionals that study people have to say.

It is a delusion that any designer can convey the “right” meaning or design for an experience to play out a particular way. What we know from studies of media and other kinds of consumption is that people bring their own desires, identities and purposes to their activities which no designer can foretell, however much research they think they have done. What designers can do is assemble things into temporal and spatial arrangements with an understanding of how things might perform — choreography and curating are useful concepts here — but with the modesty to understand that people bring their own meaning-making to their encounters with such assemblages in practice. — LUCY KIMBELL

Understanding the basics of meaning

Perception is the beginning of a human experience which may ultimately be meaningful to a person.In linguistics, 'meaning' is defined as associative links in our minds between words and objects and experiences, that result in the formation of concepts2Johnson-Laird, P.N., 1986. Conditionals and Mental Models. Conditionals, p.55–75.. Experiences are "intangible processes of interaction between people and the world that exist in humans' minds and are triggered by new interactions"3Davis, M., 2003. Theoretical Foundations for Experiential Systems Design. ETP’03 Proceedings of The 2003 ACM SIGMM Workshop on Experiential Telepresence, p.45–52.. Both definitions refer to the human mind as the place in which meaningful experiences exist.


Everything around us is translated into our own personal concepts or cognitive models. According to Norman4Gentner, D. & Stevens, A., 1983. Mental Models. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum., mental (or cognitive) models are "the internal representations that humans develop of themselves and the objects they interact with in the world." Building mental models is an important component in adapting to the world. Hence trying to understand mental models may help you to design interactions that are meaningful for people. It is also important to know a little bit about how mental models are created in the human mind. Human cognition is a natural information processing system that has many 'tools' with which it assigns meaning to the world, and behaves according to those meanings. But most importantly, all human processes change or evolve during time, even when the interactions remain the same. Because people learn and create different associations with the same things they have been interacting with, as a designer you have to be aware that the relationships in a network are perishable.

Blythe et al wrote in 2003: "It is essential to build design practices on wider analyzes of human nature, activities, and mentality. How such a holistic analysis can be realized is one of the major challenges for modern interaction-oriented, cognitive and information systems science."5Blythe, et al., 2003. Funology: From Usability to Enjoyment. Dordrecht: Kluwer. And it is still valid today.

Connecting with people requires empathy and vision. It is about the ability to inspire, educate and empower the end user for the purpose of enriching their quality of life. Understanding that people — whether they work for you, use your services or buy your products — have higher standards and more complex decision-making processes than ever before. They also expect more meaningful choices, so whatever your offer: present it an ethical and meaningful package. — ANNE LISE KJAER

The collective magic

Meta Products take the challenges of understanding human nature a step further. The technology of Meta Products is embracing the primeval need people have to connect to each other and to other things. Funnily enough, we do not know much about this need or the impact of it. Apparently, scientists have been more focused on the individual's behaviour, brain, psyche and emotions, but a few have recently started to explore the collective or social human nature as an entity. Is what is happening with the advances of the internet a reflection of the evolution of our collective-human nature? The notion of people having a feeling of belonging, to a country or a community or any sort of group is not new. The famous social neuroscientist Cacioppo and science writer William Patrick traced the evolution of this need, showing how for our primitive ancestors, survival depended not on greater brawn, but on greater mutual commitments6Cacioppo & Patrick, W., 2008. Loneliness: Human Nature and The Need for Social Connection. John T. Norton & Company.. So, people have had plenty of time to create bonds and form ways of connecting to each other. Throughout many generations until today, people have been learning to communicate their behaviours, creations, emotions and thoughts to each other. The same neuroscientist discovered that prolonged loneliness can be as harmful to health as smoking or obesity. His work also demonstrates that social connection has a therapeutic power of healing or preventing some diseases. What does this mean for Meta Products? Well, as Theiner expresses: "The web is simply one of the most recent and socially significant manifestations of people's perpetual drive to become more connected."7Theiner, G., 2008. From Extended Minds to Group Minds: Rethinking The Boundaries of The Mental. Doctoral dissertation, Department of Philosophy & Cognitive Science Program, Indiana University, Bloomington. Meta Products will exponentially multiply these manifestations through new ways of connecting. You as a designer can provide the right impulse to help people manifest their aspirations to connect in meaningful ways.

How the increased connectivity gives a true advantage to the user instead of adding stress and complexity is where the value of all this lies. — FEDERICO CASALEGNO

People are becoming part of many networks, usually driven by their personal interests or aspirations, but also because 'something magic' happens when a network is in action. We like to simply call it 'something magic' because we cannot really prove what happens or why. Back in the 60's, Peter Blau recognized that social structures have emergent properties not found in individual elements. Later, other scientists, like the same Theiner or Clark & Chalmers8Clark, A., & Chalmers, D., 1998. The Extended Mind. Analysis, 58, p.7–19., also recognized similar things in their studies, claiming that groups have the potential to 'think' in a way that no individual member can or might even be capable of. Opinions vary of course, and scientists have to make all sorts of validations on these claims. But we cannot deny that the collective magic is there! A sign of this magic is what's happening at the moment. Just look at the results of Wikipedia — the work based on the motivation of thousands of volunteers to create the world's largest encyclopaedia. The interesting aspect here is that information is now accessible for everybody, thereby making not only sharing accessible, but also revising and updating. A whole new concept of achieving reliability of information was born.

INNOCENTIVE'S GLOBAL SOLVER taken from www.innocentive.com

Today, innovation is more a human process than a technology process. Not that it wasn't human before, it's just that now there is an 'old way of doing things' that we may want to change, and where in our quest for progress we were stripped of our basic nature and forced to be standardized, efficient and isolated. Just think of any major technological innovation of the last century that has changed people's lives. The TV, the mobile phone, the personal computer… all of them great inventions that led to new behaviours under the banner of being progressive. However, today, with the advances of technology, mainly digital and information technologies — we are slowly realizing that it can be different and that our lives are much richer and better with diversity and uniqueness, with teamwork and crowdsourcing, with exploration and creativity. At least in some aspects of our modern society. We are also beginning to realize that the old way is not sustainable and it is not human-friendly. A simple example of this is what we have done to our food. We have standardized food production processes and made them efficient. It just seemed like a good idea at the time. We have applied the old way of doing things, in the field of economics and technology, to everything we eat, and the result is that you, a "progressive" citizen of the world, are rarely able to enjoy the luxury of consuming a natural-grown tomato without pesticides, chemicals or hormones. That might be then just the way it is, and people are getting used to it, but that doesn't mean we like it. In the past, we had no power to do anything about it, but now we can, and a sign of this is the application that IQ Advanced of San Diego, CA has developed.It is called iScan My Food, an app for scanning food ingredients and containing a database of information on harmful food additives, toxic ingredients in food and genetically modified foods. All you need to do is take a picture of the ingredients listed at the back of the packaging and the app tells you what you will be eating. Not only that, the app also allows consumers worldwide to submit additional additives or ingredients found in their food products to the database, which will be added to a following update, as new additives are constantly being developed. This is a sign of a new way of doing things.

CURRENT MEDIA taken from www.current.com

Coping with multi-user or collective interactions can become complex processes, and form quite a challenge for designers. We could call these 'collective Meta Products' and they can only exist thanks to the collective information, or the emergent knowledge we spoke about in chapter 2, generated by multiple users. The way these information streams flow and how exactly they become emergent knowledge is the subject of many unresolved issues (like privacy and security). But also the emergent knowledge that the interactions you design can create, adds an unpredictability layer on top of your design decisions. What kind of emergent knowledge would your interactions create?

ALBERT EINSTEIN courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Libraries

We love this quote by Albert Einstein: "A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest - a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty." This quote makes us reflect on whether the paths we've taken as humanity have taken us further apart from each other. Instead of embracing our nature and growing from it, we have slowly alienated it. We truly believe that you as a designer can help people to set new paths that create ways to a more natural and meaningful way of living. This may sound like way too big a task for you, in the end you're just a designer right? Indeed, it is a major task, but we really believe this is precisely the time for you to scale up and bring on the magic!