The Tyranny of Assistive Technology

This entertaining film by Superflux explores the potential implications of decisions made now on our futures. Superflux uses speculative design to “explore the uncertainties of everyday life and emerging technology in a new light”(

Titled ‘Uninvited Guests’, this film shows a possible conflict between the good intentions behind assistive technologies and the emotional needs of the individual.

Incentives to Repair

Sweden incentivises repair This post covers proposals in Sweden to encourage repair.  Ironically, it can still be cheaper to replace a product with new than have it repaired. I wonder if this scheme could extend to maintenance contracts for domestic appliances or even vehicles.

Auger Loizeau: Sublime Gadgets

via Auger Loizeau: Sublime Gadgets

Further research into the work of Auger and Loizeau and also, I believe, my better understanding of the nature and purpose of Speculative or Critical Design has led me to appreciate this work. Initially I found aspects of the work of James Auger and Jimmy Loizeau impenetrable, however further research around the subject has allowed my understanding to develop. This shows how important time is in allowing an appreciation of complex work to form.

ripple counter
Sublime Gadget No.1, Auger & Loiseau (2012)

Auger and Loizeau write about the Sublime Gadgets project:

Gadgets are the most ephemeral of domestic objects. Their dazzling but fleeting existence is a consequence of two combined factors:

1: The value of a gadget is found in its novelty and ability to provide spectacle.
2: This novelty is provided by the latest technological innovations.

Arthur C. Clarke’s often quoted 3rd law describes the relationship between these points:

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

It is in this magical element that the spectacle resides but as a consequence it follows that just as the illusion dies when the magician reveals his slight of hand, so the technology becomes distinguishable from magic when it becomes familiar. This normalising of technology leads to the death of the gadget.
Sublime Gadgets aims expand the lifespan of these ephemeral objects through introducing notions of the romantic sublime. This shifts the focus away from technological fetishism towards objectifying ‘pleasures of the imagination’ (Addison), the infinity of time and space (Shaftesbury), agreeable kinds of horror (Addison), randomness found in nature and the management of life and death.

This work also illustrates the many layers of ideas and theory that are encapsulated in well developed critical or speculative design concepts.


I set out to investigate maintenance as an activity that can extend the useful life of a product. This remains, however my understanding of the breadth of this subject has deepened as I have begun to discover the many factors and theories that can impact upon this intention.

This start point and the research that followed have exposed a number of ideas and theories beyond the design discipline that are directly relevant to this subject. It has become apparent that, what I once considered a simple proposition of taking active care of an object is actually a complex issue with many avenues to explore. In this respect, the approach that I have taken so far seems to have been productive.

Initially this complexity and wealth of opportunity that it presents seemed overwhelming until I discovered the concept of speculative design as practiced by Dunne and Raby and The Agency of Design. This presents the opportunity to use the professional tools of a designer to present tangible, but challenging concepts through the design of familiar objects that embody alternate narratives. This approach is something that I wish to pursue as a means of communicating the many complexities of this subject.

The notion that design can have agency is not new, but to frame it in this way is exciting as I felt I needed to find a strong direction for my work that goes beyond notions of sustainability. For the first time I have read Social Science theory and found aspects of it to have great relevance to design. The evolution of the design discipline as described by the Bremen Scale, the notions of Human Agency that propose the capacity to imagine alternative possibilities and the ideas proposed by Matthew Crawford about Manual Competence all seem to tie together to provide a theoretical framework for my future design project work.

I feel that this research has taken my understanding of my discipline a good distance and has opened up some strong direction for speculative design response as a means of articulating the ideas that have developed from this work so far.

The Case for Working with your Hands

This is a great Ted Talk by Matthew Crawford, author of “The Case For Working With Your Hands”. In the film shown below, Crawford summarises a lot of the topics discussed in more depth in the book.

The notion of ‘Individual Agency‘ and the idea that if people are able to see the consequences of their actions on the world (agency), they may take better care of it is discussed. Also, Crawford talks about the connection between the person and the object that they ‘tinker’ with or take care of.

A lot of the ideas from the book are directly relevant to my maintenance project and support the idea that working on our own possessions builds a deeper relationship between consumer and product.

Maintenance, or taking care of things, can extend product lifespan in a pragmatic sense; it can extend the useful life of a product by maintaining it in peak working condition. It can also contribute in that the bond that is created through active caring can lead to the consumer wanting to keep products for longer.




IFIXIT is an online resource that provides information and access to parts the allow for non-expert repairs to a multitude of products. Originally focussed around the proliferation of electronic devices that suffer from battery degradation, damaged screens, broken buttons etc., it has grown to provide advice and instructions on how to repair all kinds of things.

The site is interesting in that it is has an open ‘community’ approach as stated:

iFixit is a wiki-based site that teaches people how to fix almost anything. Anyone can create a repair manual for a device, and anyone can also edit the existing set of manuals to improve them. Our site empowers individuals to share their technical knowledge with the rest of the world.

So what are you waiting for?

Start a new guide or improve an existing one!

 There is a wealth of information available on the site. The ‘Teardown’ section is where videos of new products being disassembled are posted. The aim is to examine the internal components and assess the product for repair. I watched an Apple Pencil ‘Teardown’ film and at the end the presenter gave a ‘repairability score’ for the product based on the ease of access to the internal parts. The Apple Pencil received a score of 1 out of 10 for this as there was no way to access the components without destroying the product in the process.
The repair guides that are produced by the IFIXIT team are excellent. The are clear, incredibly well illustrated and allow users to comment on each step making suggestions or offering advice.
ifixit iphone 6
part of iPhone 6 battery replacement tutorial

There is also a forum where users can discuss issues and ask for advice.

Below is an example of a user generated guide. The team at IFIXIT produce comprehensive guides to the most common repairs with mass market products. They also encourage the general public to contribute to the site and to produce repair guides themselves. There is comprehensive advice and instruction on how to create a good guide on the site and in interesting section that allows the community to ‘upgrade’ the quality of these user developed repair guides.

ifixit user cont

This is an incredible resource that is free at point of use as a repair guide, but also supports an organisation that aims to change the way in which companies design their products to make them repairable by the owners. Their manifesto can be accessed here.


This site is exciting in that it offers an alternative to the ‘no user serviceable parts’ attitude of many mass produced electronic/electrical products. The site is well structured, contains excellent instructional material and makes use of a crowd sourcing to help cover the almost infinite number of products.

The guides on the site are developed using open source software called omanual, the name is derived from the term ‘open format manual’, allowing for rich media content and non-linear linking of sections. They claim that this is great resource for creating any form of manual, not just for repair and may be worth exploring further.

This approach to sharing knowledge and advice, especially the crowd sourcing/community contributor model is potentially a very powerful concept. It may be that this approach could extend to caring and maintenance as a means of sharing good practice, tips and advice. Perhaps an alternative version called ILOOKAFTERIT could be a viable proposition. Whether the motivation to maintain a product in peak condition is as strong as of that  repair a damaged one is yet to be discovered.

How Sociologists Define Human Agency


Through the work of The Agency of Design I have become interested the the concept of agency as defined in social science. The definition below expresses this clearly in terms of Human Agency, as that is the concern of social scientists, The Agency of Design apply the same concept to the ability of design (as an agent) to impact on society.

Mustafa Emirbayer and Ann Mische write in the American Journal of Sociology:

Theoretically, our central contribution is to begin to reconceptualize human agency as a temporally embedded process of social engagement, informed by the past (in its habitual aspect), but also oriented toward the future (as a capacity to imagine alternative possibilities) and towards the present (as a capacity to contextualize past habits and future projects within the contingencies of the moment).

Aspects of this chime with one of the stated theories that rationalise the work  of Dunne and Raby who believe that speculative design can not only help society to imagine alternative futures, but by doing so, it becomes easier for these alternatives to become a reality.

Dunne and Raby contend that if we speculate more—about everything—reality will become more malleable. The ideas freed by speculative design increase the odds of achieving desirable futures. (Dunne & Raby, 2013)

The notion that Design can have agency is fairly straightforward and there are many examples through recent history of designers using there ideas and skills to effect positive change in the world. Beyond this, it is exciting to consider that design can have the agency to change society through speculative by broadening the perspective  of the audience to imagine alternative lives, rather than as a pragmatic problem solving tool.