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Features / July 12, 2016

Fight for your Data—And Other Ways to Design the Future

Gesche Joost, a designer and advisor to the EU, chats in Toronto about ways to fight the growing digital divide and create a more inclusive tech future.
In order to avoid deepening the world's digital divide, Gesche Joost says, training for youth and adults, as well as community building, is essential. This is a scene from one of the research projects Joost supervises as head of the Digital Research Lab at the Berlin University of the Arts. Photo: Facebook. In order to avoid deepening the world's digital divide, Gesche Joost says, training for youth and adults, as well as community building, is essential. This is a scene from one of the research projects Joost supervises as head of the Digital Research Lab at the Berlin University of the Arts. Photo: Facebook.

What does the future hold?

It’s a big question, and one that the editors of Canadian Art have been thinking about a lot as we prepare our next Winter issue, out in December 2016, that is themed on the Future.

In the meantime, we’ve been making contact with some of the many people and events in the arts who have already been engaged with attempting to see into the future.

One of these forward-looking events is “Open Minds: Adapting to the Future,” a Toronto talks series organized this summer by the Goethe-Institut.

Over the course of three evenings—with the final event happening tonight at Harbourfront Centre’s Music Garden—“Open Minds” has brought together futurists, inventors, musicians, activists and artists to discuss art as an early warning system, doing good in a digital world, and art’s role in cultural resilience.

Here, one of the “Open Minds” speakers, design professor Gesche Joost of Berlin’s University of the Arts—who is also, in her spare time, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “Digital Champion” and an EU Commission advisor—talks about the crucial turning point we are at digitally, the steps we need to take next around data, and some of the ways we help can create a more inclusive digital future.

Leah Sandals: I feel skeptical most of the time that art and design can do very much about the huge problems that loom in our present and in our future. What are you working on right now that might suggest otherwise?

Gesche Joost: Well, I’m a designer, and I’m work very much with what is called design fiction.

This practice—design fiction—was driven forward by Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby, who were at the Royal College of Art in London for many years. Another term they have used is “speculative design.” And their work has influenced many other designers.

Design fiction is based on the idea that what design can do is not just, you know, create beautiful objects—it can invent possible futures through objects.

So it’s something in between science and politics; it’s something in between technology and people.

With design fiction, we don’t have to just deal with [verbal or written] arguments about the future—we can put some evidence in front of our eyes.

LS: Can you given an example?

GJ: Yes. For example, there is a huge debate in Europe currently around how we relate to robots. There is a lot of concern they will take away jobs, a lot of fear.

And there is still a lot of fear about cyborgs, and arguments about humans as cyborgs—even though Donna Haraway wrote about this in the 1980s.

One artist-designer, Neil Harbisson, cannot see colours; he is colour-blind. Then he got a head-mounted antenna that will convert the colour he is facing into a tone or audio signal. He hears the colours.

Harbisson wanted to wear the antenna in his passport photo, and initially it was rejected. But he insisted that the antenna should be considered part of his body because he had become a cyborg. Eventually, the antenna was included.

These type of objects—like Harbisson’s specially designed antenna—make it much more concrete to talk about the relationship between robotics and the body. The argument becomes based [not on theory but] on something you can touch, on visual evidence.

LS: You advise policymakers in the EU about digital design and related issues. Can you tell me a bit more about that?

GJ: As a professor at the University of the Arts [in Berlin], I run a research lab, and I do all my political advice for the European Commission based on this research.

One thing I do when I talk to politicians about digitization is bring some of the objects we are working on in the lab. Because, as I mentioned before, ideas about technology can get very abstract otherwise.

So one example of this is when we are talking about data protection, privacy and e-health, I bring in a wearable computer we created in our lab—a beautiful jacket with an emergency alarm system inside.

The jacket has a microcontroller which is open-source, and it is connected to your smartphone. So if you are an elderly person living alone, and you have an emergency situation, you just have to trigger a textile button, and then it sends your GPS localization data, and it calls a family member.

This jacket an example of an object for an inclusive digital society—something that is usable and intuitive in interface, and something that is beautiful, not stigmatizing, but with data kept on your smartphone so that it is up to you what to do with the data.

And it’s examples like this that I bring to politicians and other lectures. I want any policy decisions to be from the bottom up, very evidence-based.

LS: So that’s policymakers. What do you think citizens can do to help make a better future through these kinds of projects?

GJ: Well, the aspect of community is a very big one—community engagement is very important.

So my vision of creating any kind of new tech is based on users and their insights and their everyday life experience. Citizen science is a big topic for us, or participatory design.

For example, we are creating a so-called “living lab” in a local neighbourhood. The aim is to engage with community members and get their ideas on how they want to shape this community.

One of the things we are working on in this community is called a Hybrid Letterbox. It was created because many elderly citizens said, “We don’t have a computer, so how are we to relate to all this digital stuff? Or provide feedback on our community?” But they knew how to use postcards.

So we created a little box, and people can put in postcards saying what do they want to change in the neighbourhood—it can be writing, or a drawing—and we take a picture of this postcard and put it online on a blog so that everyone can see this feedback.

It’s a very low-key interaction, and a low-key technology, but to me this is the starting point for being engaged in community, and for being a citizen.

LS: I get the sense that you are very optimistic about the future. What do you see for the next 30 years from now where you live in Germany? How do you see life being?

GJ: I think that we are now at a turning point, or a crossroads, and we have to decide whether it is going to be a kind of inclusive digital society in a positive sense, or whether we will mess up everything.

There are many decisions to be made for this positive vision that is inclusive, for this digital society in which everyone can take part.

For example, it’s about getting the right kind of data policy on track so that you are protecting privacy and having the right regulation framework for the use of data—but also opening up, for example, open-source and open-data options, and kind of freeing the data that’s kept by big companies. This would be a very positive future, I think.

Another important thing would be to have the right digital education from primary school on. This would help everyone to be part of society, and also be able to, in a way, also program society—not really down to the basic level of C++, but understanding how it is done, how a program runs, how an algorithm functions.

My hope is that in a positive future, people could work less, be more connected, and have a good life.

But the other path is like this: if we continue the way we are now, letting big companies and big international players decide what they want to do with the data, and they are messing around with it, and we don’t have any really solid skill training, and we don’t have data literacy, and this digital divide widens.

So if we continue doing what we have been doing, it’s going to be tough. There will be the digital winners, and others will be left behind. The big companies will make politics, and they will decide, in a way, this world we are living in.

And of course, those big companies have our identities already. They might decide you have to be in the club to take part in all the businesses of the future—and if you don’t, if you say, “No, I don’t want to,” you are just out. That’s going to be tough.

LS: So what can everyday people—someone reading this interview, say—do about this problem of heading down a dark digital road?

GJ: On the one side, fight for your data! Don’t be so easy with passing your data to everybody—really have a look at what’s happening.

And maybe also think about the good things you could do with data—for example, donating data for cancer research, or to open-data sources. Because it’s not just about data protection, but also about data liberation.

Train yourself and your children on how to live in a connected world and a digital society. There are so many wonderful offers like one hour of free code training, or there little data schools, even for really small children. And they make it fun to learn.

Then, once you train yourself, you can decide whether you want to continue, and decide how you relate to digital content or digital media.

So train yourself and your kids, and watch out with your data!

LS: One last question: This “Open Minds” talks series in Toronto is being held outdoors. And this reminds me that one thing I worry about in regards to digital is that I over-engage with digital, as opposed to the natural. Maybe, as with cyborg fear, that’s a false distinction I’m making between digital and natural. But is there a crisis, do you think, in regards to an over-engagement with the digital right now? Or is there no crisis?

GJ: Yes, I think there is a crisis.

I think what we are now starting to do is draw our own borders and boundaries around digital use. And I think that’s the right decision.

In Germany, there are some companies that try to make an artificial boundary. For example, at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, they switch down their main server. And that’s ridiculous, I’m sorry, because lots of people with young families might have to leave work early and they want to continue working in the evening, and that’s fine.

Some individuals are also starting to draw the line. For example, my PhD candidates, if they are writing, then they do email fasting and Facebook fasting: They check once in the morning and once in the evening, and that’s it. They make this digital detox of it.

All of this drawing of boundaries is just starting. I think we should have more debate on that; I think there should be a sensus communis and a code of contact. But that is evolving.

All in all, we should work on having a kind of common understanding on many digital things. Not understandings based on top-down decisions, but a common understanding.

To find out more about the “Open Minds: Adapting to the Future” talks series, including access to some of Joost’s presentation materials, visit the Goethe-Institut Canada website.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via