Interview: automato.farm

July 15, 2019

International design and research group based in Shanghai: “we never really labelled our work “speculative”, but probably it partially is.”

automato.farm is a design and research group based in Shanghai consisting of Simone Rebaudengo, Matthieu Cherubini, Saurabh Datta, and Lorenzo Romagnoli. In their practice, they explore the implications of automation and machine intelligence leaking into the everyday through real and fictional products. They started working together in 2015, combining their research interests in Ethics of Algorithms, Cybernetics, Connected Products, and Human-Robot Interaction. They developed ethical algorithms for cars to deal with complicated decision-making on the road, created future jobs that emerge as a byproduct of machine learning, designed politically biased products, self-selling appliances addicted to their own use, and more. They have exhibited their work in major design and art museums and festivals such as Vitra Design Museum, ZKM, and MAK Vienna and presented at international conferences and festivals like Resonate, NODE, and Global Art Forum. They teach in universities around the world and collaborate with companies and institutions to think about the dark and ironic side of the future.

How connected was your education with the Speculative Design (or related) approach you are using in your work today?

All of us come from a quite industrial or engineering background, Matthieu studied Computer Science, Simone studied Industrial Design, Saurabh was a Civil Engineer and Lorenzo Cinema Engineering. However, we all ended up doing masters in Interaction Design (HEAD, TU Delft and CIID) and Matthieu was the one closest to the topic while doing his PhD at the RCA. We all stumbled upon Speculative Design and Design Fiction, more as a way to explore some of the questions and doubts we all had about the hyper tech-positivism we encountered in our respective backgrounds and education. However, we probably bring a lot of that technical background to our work, as we spend quite a lot of time lost in the details and in the making of the fictional devices we make. Most of the things we do are fictional, in the sense that they are products of a parallel present or a near future, but they are quite real in the way they are produced and executed all the way down to code and electronics. Real Fictional things. Actually, coming from very process heavy and academic educational institutions it was a great push for us to find this “other” space and our own flavour of doing Design Fiction. You need to be even more rigorous in your work to get a conceptual or fictional project past mentors and review panels that only understand user-centered design or code optimisation.

We definitely were looking up at the work and writings of Near Future Lab and James Auger as examples of the type of questioning projects we also were looking to do, especially as they were really close to the real, the near future, the mundane reality of the future. Toying with that blurry border of real and fictional, present and future. In that way we really embraced that in our approach; what we do now could be speculative or fictional, but also not. Depends who looks at it and in what context. 

Also the fact that we have started working together in China helped us find a slightly different approach and also gave inspiration to our practice. Firstly because we have been relatively isolated from the “scene” (if there is such a thing), but also as the starting point of our speculation was very different. When the present around you is way faster than the future back in Europe, when the difference between real and fake is very blurred, when you can find the wildest and most unbelievable objects on your phone, you gotta push very hard to think about something that feels “future” and at the same time you can hide a lot of fiction in the present.

Could you please select one of your favourite Speculative Design projects and tell us what you like about it?

Most of our projects have been dealing with topics around the impact of intelligence and computation entering the everyday. We have been trying to explore topics like ethics of algorithms, network politics, and technological black boxes through simple and mundane things. Simple objects like toasters, fans, and plugs. Partially because we like to look at the hidden corners of the future, those forgotten simple things. Partially because those things are the ones that are going to mostly impact your daily future life, far more than battlefield robots or self-driving cars. However, recently we found that the medium of objects is quite limiting especially in the context where our projects are exhibited.

A small device and a video are definitely not an attractive enough hook in a museum or in a gallery for someone to really dive into the future context that we want them to immerse in and reflect upon. At the moment we are very interested in expanding the medium or the support material for the future discussions we want to have. 

On one side we are experimenting with ways to create more immersive fictional experiences. Last year we started experimenting with VR as a way to put people in fictional point of views. The output of that was Objective Realities, a series of VR experiences that change the perspective from a human point of view to the one of an object. Basically, you can become a Roomba, a fan and a plug in a hypothetical connected home and act as an object, in all its limited awesomeness. You can sweep the floor as a Roomba, create wind in the house as a fan or explore the point of view of plugs around the house. This project was a really interesting new process for us as we had the chance to collaborate with Bruce Sterling, who wrote the inner thoughts and dialogues that the objects have and Bruce, Jasmina Tesanovic and Regine Debatty also kindly gave life with their voices to the scripts. Beyond that, it was our first truly interactive experience, where we could have people immerse in a fiction we designed and where there was not really a back story or a context to know before. So it was amazing to see kids and adults really enjoying becoming Roombas and fans and make their own meaning out of it. Some really enjoyed cleaning or making a mess, some felt a deeper connection with their appliances, some suddenly realised that a lot of stuff in their home will have perspectives and point of views about them.

BIY (Believe It Yourself)

On the other hand recently we tried to make our first real-real fictional product, as in, we tried to make something that we could actually produce at an industrial scale and potentially sell. Last week we launched a series of electronics kits whose inner logic is based on religious beliefs and superstitions, sort of belief-based computing kits called BIY (Believe It Yourself). While the conceptual aim of the project is to highlight some of the issues around how we can create truths with AI and machine learning, we really wanted to make it real and experiential. For this project, we designed and produced actual PCBs, datasets, and models that would really function and could be used for people to tinker and build with a different computing logic. Each kit plays around with a specific algorithm or “intelligence” and tweaks it based on a different belief. So we turned image recognition into fortune recognition, mapping what a machine sees with the Smorfia, the Italian book of dreams, natural language processing to calculate destiny instead of meaning or emotional graphs, based on Indian numerology, and created a positioning and driving system that uses geomancy and feng-shui as its main logic.

If students asked about the practical or professional applications of this type of design, what would you say? (Or, What are the practical or professional applications of this type of design?)

It’s a great stretching for your mind. 

Being able to think and explore the ironic, the dark, the hidden paths of an idea or a future allows you to later be freer to move and explore in any work context or situation. Most people don’t allow themselves to go there for various reasons, but mostly because they are not training and stretching enough.  “Design thinking” ironically often leads you to be far less flexible and quite rigid in the idea you have for the future. The ability to disagree, and to go beyond the single “user” and not stay within the “yes and …” dogma is quite liberating and can lead to some quite unexpected places.

Most of us had experience working in the world of commercial design and in house innovation / future teams. In that context it is quite important to understand that it will not be that easy to shift the conversation to the “future” one wants to explore. This is of course due to scale, politics or business boundaries, but at the same time a lot of organisations are hungry for new future points of view as the smart fridge and self-driving car story has been told way too many times.

Probably in the close future, as this field becomes more mainstream and accepted in the commercial design world, it might be that knowing the “process” of Speculative Design is something that will be useful in the actual work or even required new knowledge on your CV as user-centred design was. This kind of makes us cringe a little, as we experienced working in a context where “design thinking” was used more as an instrument of corporate entertainment than an actual process for design.

For us, it’s more important that students learn and embrace the mental state and approach of what speculation and fiction can add to your practice and thinking. Asking the naive and mundane questions about a technology or a future context, questioning assumptions coming from technological determinism, drilling down into the reality and the details of that future, thinking of real future people with real future problems in real future ways. 

Recently when we teach or help students with their theses in various universities, speculation and fiction seem to have become a way to avoid “reality” or to say “well I couldn’t find a real problem to solve, so I will make a fiction”, but it’s actually the opposite. To make a good project and have a strong point of view you need to be twice as rigorous as you don’t have the “user needs” excuse to play and you don’t start from a shared and known context. You need to both construct a believable future context that adds to the discourse of today and find a believable solution or exploration in that context which can truly create that discussion and understanding that is needed.

Even if we are in quite complex times with regard to making fake or fictional things seem real, it’s still very important that we explore new and more immersive ways for people to experience and imagine the future.

In your opinion what is the purpose of Speculative Design? Please suggest up to three key metrics for evaluating the success of a project.

For us, it was a great safe space and a reference body of work that pushed us to explore a different type of practice, where it was “allowed” to explore possibilities rather than problems, where we could create microworlds in a parallel present or near future and where you could still use the language and the materials of design, without tumbling into the world of art. We never really labelled our work “speculative”, but probably it partially is. Bruce Sterling says it’s too funny to be genuine Speculative Design 🙂 . 

We hope, however, that the purpose at the moment is not going towards building a new dogmatic process or set of tools, but to evolve what will be the role of speculation and fiction for young future designers in a present where the future seems quite short and fake / fictional things are very scary.

So in terms of metrics, the first key metric is whether the project is starting from a surprising and interesting question. Questions are really at the base. Often we ask the same surface and high-level question about the future, like what will smart cities look like? But a lot of juicier and more mundane future questions are not yet asked and are the ones that contain the most interesting possibilities for a project. “How do I switch off a smart home?” or “How do I convince a learning thermostat that it’s actually cold?” These might seem like trivial details but those trivial situations are going to affect the daily life of someone. Probably there are already 2,000 projects to be done just from Rich Gold’s article from 1994, but there are a lot more questions to be found.

Then another important aspect is whether there are multiple layers of thoughts and details in it. We really like as an approach for our work this sort of “critical aftertaste”, as in trying to find an easy and comfortable way in, to make a context quite ironic or believable, but then hitting with the later realisation. In some way, it’s easier to hit people with “weird” and “dark” dystopias, but there is also a chance that they will bounce back or be rejected with “come on that will never happen”. It’s harder to make something that seems very normal and believable, but then reveals a deeper point. First, you may laugh, but then you realise the deeper implications of the point of view that the project tries to reveal and you get that sour critical aftertaste.

The last point, which we are really hoping to see more and more of, is whether the project is challenging and questioning the processes and the medium of Speculative Design itself. We do think that it’s important to create processes to be replicated, learned and spread, but we also hope that this will not bring a flattening of what the “output” of a Design Fiction or Speculative Design project should be. As we said earlier, there are more interesting ways of creating a context and immersing people in the future than props and videos. Even if we are in quite complex times with regard to making fake or fictional things seem real, it’s still very important that we explore new and more immersive ways for people to experience and imagine the future.

Objective Realities

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