Status update

This is not exactly a now page, but I thought I would write up what I am doing at the moment since last reporting on my status in my end-of-year report.

The majority of my workdays are spent doing freelance design consulting. My primary gig has been through Eend at the Dutch Victim Support Foundation, where until very recently I was part of a team building online services. I helped out with product strategy, setting up a lean UX design process, and getting an integrated agile design and development team up and running. The first services are now shipping so it is time for me to move on, after 10 months of very gratifying work. I really enjoy working in the public sector and I hope to be doing more of it in future.

So yes, this means I am available and you can hire me to do strategy and design for software products and services. Just send me an email.

Shortly before the Dutch national elections of this year, Iskander and I gathered a group of fellow tech workers under the banner of “Tech Solidarity NL” to discuss the concerning lurch to the right in national politics and what our field can do about it. This has developed into a small but active community who gather monthly to educate ourselves and develop plans for collective action. I am getting a huge boost out of this. Figuring out how to be a leftist in this day and age is not easy. The only way to do it is to practice and for that reflection with peers is invaluable. Building and facilitating a group like this is hugely educational too. I have learned a lot about how a community is boot-strapped and nurtured.

If you are in the Netherlands, your politics are left of center, and you work in technology, consider yourself invited to join.

And finally, the last major thing on my plate is a continuing effort to secure a PhD position for myself. I am getting great support from people at Delft University of Technology, in particular Gerd Kortuem. I am focusing on internet of things products that have features driven by machine learning. My ultimate aim is to develop prototyping tools for design and development teams that will help them create more innovative and more ethical solutions. The first step for this will be to conduct field research inside companies who are creating such products right now. So I am reaching out to people to see if I can secure a reasonable amount of potential collaborators for this, which will go a long way in proving the feasibility of my whole plan.

If you know of any companies that develop consumer-facing products that have a connected hardware component and make use of machine learning to drive features, do let me know.

That’s about it. Freelance UX consulting, leftist tech-worker organising and design-for-machine-learning research. Quite happy with that mix, really.

Zona Incerta and using ARGs for activism

(Following some recent overly long posts, here’s an attempt to stay under 500 words.)

For a while now, I have been lurking on the mailing list of the Alternate Reality Games IGDA SIG. ARGs are games that use the real world as their platform. They usually revolve around a mystery to be unraveled. I find ARGs interesting for the way they clash with the game design notion of the magic circle. The magic circle can be defined as the time and space within which a game is played. With traditional games, players are aware of the magic circle and enter it willingly. Not so with ARGs, as the following example I found on the list shows:1

The producers of Zona Incerta, a Brazilian ARG, published a video on YouTube. In it the ‘senior marketing director’ of Arkhos Biotechnology asks viewers to help them buy the Amazon rainforest and reminds them “the Amazon belongs to no country, it belongs to the world”:

The video was mistaken by many as real–including two senators and one governor. On the list, André Sirangelo, the game’s writer, says:

“It wasn’t long until some journalists connected the dots and found out the company didn’t exist. That’s when it really exploded – after all, there are lots of companies that actually do want to buy the rainforest, but it’s not every day a powerful senator makes a speech about one that doesn’t really exist.”

Because the game was sponsored, they had to come out and offer a public apology. Some people took it in a good way, others were less amused:

“They wanted to sue and maybe even arrest us for making a video that was against the nation’s sovereignty and all that. It was all BS though, because there wasn’t really a crime. We never published fake news, we just put the video on YouTube and some people tought it was real. Not our fault! :)”

Clearly, the ambiguous nature of ARGs is key to what makes them fun. Knowing that people might mistake things for real is thrilling to ARG developers. Players are challenged to recognize the content that is part of an ARG—rewarding them with the feeling that they are part of a secret society.

So far, the genre remains a niche.2 But what if ARGs take off in a big way? What if the mediascape is flooded by ARG content?

Will we, similar to what is now being proposed for ubicomp, need recognizable iconography that tells people: “warning, alternate reality content”?

Proposed icon for objects that have invisible qualities by the Touch research project

I wonder what would make a good image. Perhaps the March Hare?

Illustration of the March Hare by John Tenniel

Zona Incerta‘s aim was to entertain. Despite this, they raised awareness for the Amazon’s plight. Would the format of ARGs be useful to people with another agenda? What if activists start using them to make the future they want to avert—or desire to bring about—tangible to the public?

Image credits: Icon by Touch research project, March Hare by John Tenniel taken from WikiFur.

Updated with a YouTube embed that validates.

  1. For more about ARGs and the magic circle also see my Reboot 9.0 presentation Mobile Social Play. []
  2. Here are statistics of some prominent past ARGs. []