The Decay of Digital Things started life as a series of essays exploring the role that time and decay play in networked objects. What happens when the networks and businesses that support connected devices shut their doors? How do we design for both our users’ death, and the death of the system? It was a plea for designers and developers of digital things to take responsibility for the role their creations have in time. I set out to explore this space through essays and some artistic explorations, but wanted to find an opportunity to bring more people into the conversation around the topic. Being (incredibly) new to San Francisco though, I was at a bit of a loss as to how.
While exploring this project, it was suggested to me by a colleague at IDEO that perhaps this topic could be explored at Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, also known as the d.school. The d.school was founded in 2004 by IDEO’s founder, David Kelly, and has since become a major port of calling for students of many disciplines at Stanford (and elsewhere) who are looking to approach cross-disciplinary problems using the tools and framing of design practice.
The d.school offers a “popup” class format that allows faculty and d.school fellows to propose new class designs outside of the standard curriculum offered by the d.school and other faculties, but instead explore new topics in non-traditional formats. A call for these popups goes out to the d.school fellow/faculty community every few months, and range from highly structured, credit-based courses that factor into existing curriculum, to somewhat gonzo uncredited classes, to somewhere in-between. Popup classes are presented to the student body during the “Popup Fair,” which sees the different popup classes vying for student attention and signup. The quality of the pitch and the survival of the classes dependent on how many students you can pull in. It was pretty exciting, so upon learning all this, I jumped at the chance.
Overall, the creation of the Decay of Digital Things popup class at Stanford took three broad arcs: Negotiating the d.school as an outsider, Collaboration with my co-teachers to design the curriculum, and working with the students to create outcomes.
In pitching the class to the d.school, I was given a fairly key constraint: I was required to find a co-teacher from the d.school itself. For the d.school, this serves as a layer of defence against mismatches in subject matter and method. Admittedly, I had an easier time gaining access to the d.school as an IDEO employee, but lacking that layer of connection with a d.school faculty member, the class would have likely fallen short.
After a few cold calls from the faculty site, I was eventually introduced to Maryanna Rogers, a graduate of Stanford herself and a teacher at the d.school who was interested in speculative design angle of the class. Once Maryanna was brought into the thesis of the class and was interested in moving forward, she was able to help me navigate the approval process for the class, and we got it on the roster for the coming semester.
The next step was to start designing the class itself. What did we want out of it? How did we want our students to grow? What kind of outcomes fit both the theme, and the frame of speculative design?
While thinking this through, we decided to reach out to a third co-teacher, Liz Goodman, who’s a thinker on design practice and connected objects. One of the first things we explored was wanting some form of tangible outcome: something fitting to the design backgrounds of the teachers, as well as the need to push folk towards translating idea or provocation into tangible object.
We started looking for a gallery space where we could host the students, and eventually found one in Workshop Residence, a gallery and craft space in San Francisco. Despite not knowing how many students we might get, what their skillsets might be, and how they might engage with the class, we had resolved at least to ask them to create something tangible and physical to articulate an otherwise abstract idea about time and digital materialism. This desire on our part to challenge the students became a strong asset for the class going into it.
Going into the course, we had designed the class time to be focused around co-creation and fast prototyping of concepts as a route to understanding. We had created a small digital card game (playable at http://cards.decay.io) to help students brainstorm scenarios for their final project, which would be displayed in the gallery. By playing the card game, we found the students were able to much more quickly connect the abstractions underpinning the class to events or situations in their own life, and in turn helped them rapidly come up with ideas for the final work for the gallery show. The added benefit was that the students helped challenge our understanding of the class and subject matter as well. While we had initially been very focused around IoT enabled objects, for example, several of the students focused heavily on the notion of “decay” within social networks, and how to celebrate or cope in situations of lost love or death. On an opposite vein, one of our students (who now teaches at the d.school) explored the role that ritual might play around objects with “intelligence,” and how we might be emotionally affected by the death of an object that was also our companion.
The class ended on a very strong note, with the students rising to the challenge of creating a series of individual and team-based installation pieces that were showcased at the Workshop Residence gallery. The popup format at the d.school gave me an incredible opportunity to glimpse inside, learn from, and contribute to an institution that otherwise can be pretty difficult to parse. Popup classes are a fascinating and accessible form of low-risk experimentation for schools. Especially in design programs where prototyping is the word of the day, having an accessible way to prototype new subjects and teaching methods goes a long way.