From hammer to smartphone – How are we affected by our digital things?


A new research project has been launched at UID, aimed at investingating how digital things are designed and connected - and what they do to us. 

How many everyday things around us are digital? The obvious example is the smart phone and the apps on it that we use to work, play, communicate, create, shop and manage our finances. But digital things also now include cars, watches, speakers, climate control systems and so much more. Since we can't exactly 'look under the hood' anymore, how do we know what these things are actually doing? And why do they seem to know so much about us anyway? A recent Wallenberg Foundation grant of 4,5M SEK has been awarded to Umeå Institute of Design's Heather Wiltse and Johan Redström to try to answer some of these questions.

"As more 'traditional' objects become digital, we see that digital things such as smartphone or computer applications are indeed also quite thing-like, showing up for us as things we use to get stuff done. So, what is actually going on with things in this new digital landscape of data-driven, interconnected products and systems? What do these changes mean for how we design and use the things around us? In this project we hope to develop concepts that allow us to discuss and understand these things, in order to help designers, researchers, and ordinary users better understand and care for their consequences and guide toward positive change", says Heather Wiltse, Assistant Professor at Umeå Institute of Design.

What is the difference between a hammer and an app on your smartphone? Just about everything. What they do have in common is that both are designed things. However, the hammer stays the same while the app on your phone might collect data, change and adapt based on your interactions with it. The way we engage with an app, whether monitoring our health or getting updates on our favourite bands' tour dates, produces valuable data that is sold to advertisers. In the case of Facebook and other social media platforms, more elaborate patterns of data collection steer interactions among users, perhaps even altering behaviour on a more significant scale.

The enormous amounts of personal data that are generated help create personalized and refined solutions that can be delightful. But in a world in which data is the new oil - the basic resource and lifeblood of socioeconomic processes - these things that get to know us so well are also producing data about us that flow to other "hidden" actors. This kind of data can then also be used for profiling, targeting, monitoring, and even surveillance and control.

So, things have changed, and are continually changing as the new norm. But our ways of thinking about them in use and design have not kept up. Heather Wiltse and Johan Redström believe that responsibly designing these connected things and systems requires better understanding of their increasing complexity - what they are, what they do, and whom they really serve. 

"Digital things today have connections and do things that you can't even see. There are worries here of course, about growing data trails and surveillance and so on. But I believe it's important to not just be pessimistic about it. We need to be critical, but we also need to learn to talk about what these things actually are and all of the things they are doing in a more nuanced way. To be able to make these things more transparent, we first need to understand what transparency could even look like in such complex computational processes", says Heather Wiltse.


About the grant?
Project Title: Design Philosophy for Things that Change
Funded by: Marianne och Marcus Wallenberg's Foundation
Grant: 4.5M SEK
Period: 2018-07-01 - 2021-12-31

For more information, please contact:
Heather Wiltse, Umeå Institute of Design
Phone: +46 (0)76 115 0303