Dispatch 16 — Mar 01, 2021

Products, plots, and gaining agency

Jon Rogers explains how designers, smaller firms, and artists can create and re-orient products’ plots to provide citizens with more agency in their use of technology.

Topics → design, storytelling, speaking about the futures you want, design fiction, and agency.

As told to Peter Bihr in the course of an interview for his Getting Tech Right project. Thanks Peter for letting me use this part as a Dispatch!

Jon is Professor of Design at Northumbria University. His work explores the human intersection between digital technologies and the design of physical things. He balances playful technologies with cultural and societal needs to find new ways to connect people to each other and to their data in an approach that explores not just what is possible but also what is responsible. Jon was previously a Senior Research Fellow at Mozilla and has worked with organisations like BBC, Microsoft, NASA, and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Design is an exercise in storytelling

For a long time, designers have been proposing futures, whether that’s a future of a house, a car, or a lifestyle choice whether, that’s some utilitarian furniture to sit around a family table or a luxury good for someone super rich it’s always a narrative-based activity. Apply that to technology and you end up in this really interesting space where you can both talk to people, and reveal things about technology as well as the narrative. Take the case of Anatomy of an AI System by Vladan Joler and Kate Crawford, which reveals the true narrative behind an Amazon Alexa, or something that we did at Mozilla with Superflux, creating props to support a film telling a narrative around the future of voice assistants with Our Friends Electric (→ to video).

So you can see how it’s both directions. You can both understand existing technology, wrapping around a narrative in different forms, or you can hope to explore what the applications in the future might be, by providing narratives with props, where you build electronic things that help tell a story about what the future of that object might be.

Products and plots

You can push that further as well. It’s something I happened on around ten years ago at South by Southwest, where David Womack proposed that every product has a plot. Just as in more conventional storytelling, it can be anything. For example Apple often use cliffhangers, like when the iPhone was first introduced, or the iPod. They reveal a number of new products or features, present them with this real crescendo, and then usually a quick resolution: Bam! It’s in your hands. Another plot might be a much slower build, to discover in stages what this new thing can be used for.

If we assume every product has a plot, you have to ask yourself two things. One, what is the true plot of this product? And two, how much agency do we have as actors to take a place within it? Are we following a script that is already mapped out but also somewhat free form, a bit like an immersive theater show? Or is this some truly genuine, open narrative? Like you see with open world games like Grand Theft Auto and others.

If every product has a plot, things become super interesting, but it’s not how we usually see things, we often see ourselves as consumers simply buying the product, we don’t see ourselves as buying the plot. From a creator’s point of view, and this is what engineers do, you have to wonder “can we make the product?” So they’ll look at something like an Amazon Echo and think “Holy shit, I can’t make that.” Because it’s too hard to create an AI, workout voice recognition, put in 10,000 hours of training, build a huge dataset, a massive convoluted neural network to find the hidden features, map it to language, all those things that you need a team of, let’s say 500 experts to do. As a creator you might just think, “I can’t make this product,” so you don’t try.

However, If you separate the product and the plot, and you say, “Ah! I can’t make the actual product, but I can create a plot.” Then you’re in a new place, then you can start talking about where the power lies; does it lie in the product, or in the narrative? I would argue really strongly that, out of everyone who’s had an Amazon Echo, 90% of them get really bored of it very quickly. From Amazon’s perspective, they don’t care, they know the value of the plot, their plot is “we’re cracking AI, we’re putting AI in homes, we’re seen as having the lead in this technology. Stick with us, don’t even try to remake our products, we’re ahead of you, give up. We’ve got this, stick with Jeff.”

That’s when we’ve lost as consumers, but my argument as a creative technologist is: let’s take control of the plot. We don’t really need the product. Let’s have the plot, and then it will find its way to new people who can make products, and you enable them to take your plot and your story, and create new products that support it.


Going back to Our Friends Electric (→ to Superflux portfolio), we have this story that we co-created with the teams, which we worked hard to bring to life. What works is that we actually did make these products, and even though they weren’t fully functioning (the voice of the AI was a script played by an actor), the physical objects were built. So the plot was reinforced by having a product that was on the way to becoming a consumer product, presented as if it already existed. Suddenly, you’re back in control again, you can show this to people in museums and galleries and events online, and test it in people’s homes. You can start giving people some agency to write their own scripts replacing the narratives controlled by Amazon or Google or Facebook or Apple’s script writers.

As designers, the piece we’ve also got to think about is the journey bringing the audience to a state of suspended disbelief. If you just click on a YouTube link and see something like Our Friends Electric, it doesn’t work in the same way as if you’re in a museum or gallery, looking at a show around the future of the home in a design museum. In such a setting, you’ve already suspended your disbelief, you know what they are. In our project, the actual prototypes moved around various museums, were part of some shows, and I saw how people interacted with them even when they were not hooked-up, when you literally just had the object standing there and you showed the video next to it. That would still change something in the way people approached the devices and thought about them. You could see the wheels turning in people’s heads. “Oh, this really exists.” Of course, at that point it didn’t exist any more than the video, they still couldn’t do much except maybe look at them or touch them and watch the short movie. But you could see that this extra effort of having a physical manifestation did a huge service to that experience and to shifting those mindsets. Exactly the same way my seven-year-old self could walk into the science museum in London and see the Apollo capsule right there hanging on the ceiling. My parents got to see the live event, and I got to relive that 10 years later by being in a museum in London, very much on earth, but with my mind in space.

That same approach can tell us about events and activities that might happen in the future, where the makers get to control where the future might go, and shift perceptions of what happens. We have to know about the past to know about the future, and in exactly the same way, we have to know about the future to know about the present. We don’t talk about this enough as being an essential piece of what it takes to be human.

The trust gap

This is where storytelling with creative technology is powerful, separating the product from the plot, exploring the plot first. Big tech does this very well, but they hide that process from us until they have a very developed narrative, and you only come in as an actor with zero agency in orienting where the product is going. We don’t really fully understand technology, and it’s being controlled by a few.

If you look back at the early days of medicine, you could walk into a Victorian chemist and get things that looked like medicine, but what was in them was probably a mix of arsenic, lead, and cocaine. You would feel great taking these but not for very long before you got very sick, and I do wonder whether this is essentially where we’re at with Big Tech. It projects an illusion of being trusted and good for us in the way that radio has been perceived so strongly and reverently in the past. However, like in the “Fox news paradox,” where it looks like a regular old TV news channel but is something radically different, these devices look like something we know but sit over systems we don’t understand well enough.

The visibility gap

There’s currently a great gap in visibility and budget between the futures invented by Big Tech, and the ones created by small firms and critical artists. The latter need to be levelled-up, and the ways to accomplish this already exist. They’re called galleries, they’re called museums, they’re called curators. We need experts at curating stories from artists and independents, exactly what galleries and museums, as well as festivals and events do.

Funders and policy makers can step in here by curating to the public, by finding where the new stories of the future are, and we need them coming together to support the galleries, to support not just the acquisitions but the curation of stories, then work collaboratively for the development of those stories. Instead of having a show that is a retrospective, they could be working in a commissioning process, assembling the talents to create shows through co-design, to create these futures, then ensuring those projects get airplay, get on the news.

That’s the part we’re currently missing, getting out there, getting to the public in the same way that Big Tech can. We have an ecosystem through our large and small galleries, our local and national museums, let’s use it.

We have this incredible infrastructure that is already there, that has been hammered by COVID. And if we need to reboot this world, in a way that’s healthy, responsible, and people powered with agency, we rapidly need to reboot the funding that has been lost through visitors and ticket sales, café sales, etc. We can do that through our wonderful institutions that are not relics of the past but conduits to the future, a future that should not be controlled by Big Tech’s invisible players. These are places that could be doing this, we need to understand that learning from our future is as important as learning from our past and embed that in everything we do.