WRITTEN BY: HEBA MALEAB, AUSTIN MAGIN, & AFSHIN MEHIN
This article is adapted from a talk that our founder, Afshin Mehin, gave at the Interior Design Show Conference in Vancouver this October. The topic was “Natural Wonder”; Afshin spoke about humans as a part of nature, and the delicate line between natural and unnatural technologies when designing futuristic tech.
Because humankind often acts in opposition to the natural environment, and sometimes in ways that even violate it, we tend to think of nature as external to us; so we might forget that humans are, by necessity, a part of nature — and a significant one. At WOKE, our primary lens when designing new products is the human experience. Our main emphasis as a studio is future-oriented technology: autonomous vehicles, brain chips, fitness rings, wearables, to name a few. But first and foremost, we are a human-centered design studio, that uses empathy and an understanding of people’s wants and needs to inspire and guide our design process.
Yet technology has long been positioned or regarded as unnatural; so we asked ourselves: by designing futuristic tech that gets pretty intimate with humans in their everyday lives, are we actually intervening on something that should not be tampered with?
When you think of nature, one of the most obviously “natural” things that might come to mind is a forest, especially if we consider nature as that which is untouched by human technology. But a park, which is basically a simulacrum of a forest or meadow, is a manipulation of nature for our own satisfaction, designed to create leisure space for our own pleasure. So parks, which feel pretty natural to a lot of us, could actually be considered quite the opposite.
The fine line
As with parks, some common forms of modifying nature are normalized and accepted, like genetic engineering in the form of dog breeding; but with 1996 the cloning of Dolly the sheep, society as a whole quickly jumped to decry it as too unnatural. Thus when a modification to nature is too unknown or outlandish, the more obviously unnatural it seems.
Closer to us than parks and dog breeding, are the tools that humans have built for ourselves – like a bicycle that allows us to zoom through the wilderness, or a kayak in the ocean allowing us to float, or even just the miracle of shoes. Though technically an “unnatural” adaptation, they are integral parts of our everyday lives; ones we couldn’t imagine living without. This complicates our definition of nature, and highlights how blurry the distinction of natural vs. unnatural is. When have the tools we’ve created to augment ourselves “gone too far”?
Throughout history, there has been a prevalent fear of new technologies when they are first introduced. Books, the telephone, cinema, VHS – all had their detractors, critics, and dedicated paranoiacs. Even amongst inventors themselves, tensions ran high; in the late 1800s Thomas Edison, whose businesses utilized DC power, ran a brutal campaign in order to discredit his competitors in Alternating Current. This involved travelling around from city to city and publically electrocuting stray dogs and cats, to create fear and indignation about the dangers of new technology.
Fast forwarding to today, the same uproar occurred when wearable technology first came on the scene. Before the first smart watch even hit the shelves, there was fear that wearable tech would have negative impacts on our health. The New York Times published a 2015 article that suggested smart watches could cause health issues like cancer. Slate’s Phil Plait was quick to respond that there was still no reliable evidence that suggests wearable technology causes any form of cancer – nor any other illness. The NYT amended their article with multiple editor’s notes and a headline change, admitting that the original (“Could Wearable Computers Be as Harmful as Cigarettes?”) “went too far in suggesting any such comparison.”
Nature vs. …?
A lot of our own products, especially those that augment the human body, could also be looked at through this lens of natural vs. unnatural. As humans, it is in our nature to modify nature. And nature itself is constantly optimizing; a perfect system of push, pull, give, and take – it is nature’s own tendency to evolve.
Without the interdependence of the elements of nature, we humans work inside a collective consciousness led by market factors, technological possibilities, and our own human compassion. The trick is to balance the three to offer people a better quality of life.
Wiivv – For example, with Wiivv, we created sandals with highly individualized orthotic inserts created through 3D printing and scanning, to make a perfect fitting sandal that corrects a person’s specific foot shape shortcomings.
Kokoon – We worked with Kokoon to create a pair of headphones that are sculpted to be comfortable enough to sleep in. That meant we had to consider different profiles that would not create pressure points while people were tossing and turning in bed; we also incorporated technology that reads your brain waves in order to adjust the audio feedback to match up with the stage of sleep you’re in.
Mio – With Mio, we developed a wrist-worn tracker that would make it easier for people to track their heart health via a proprietary heart tracking algorithm. We worked on both the app and the device in order to create a unified experience for the user, and help them understand the status of their heart in real time. It’s easy to overlook the “unnaturalness” of having visibility into the most important organ known to keep you alive, in favor of the benefits of that ability.
Recon – We worked with the team at Recon to create a pair of cycling and running sunglasses that would place a tiny computer screen right at the corner of your eye for an accessible drip feed of your own body data while training. Though the idea of having a computer strapped to our heads feels scary and uncomfortable for some, it’s not that different from using a pair of headphones.
Our most boundary-pushing project, however, is the Neuralink N1, a wearable that would allow people to control devices with just their thoughts. We had to think both about the device unobtrusively fitting the anatomy of the skull, and about the surgical procedure that would install it. We designed the device to be as out of sight as possible, hidden behind the ear, to dispel users’ fears of looking different or “unnatural”.
Because the Neuralink process actually is placing electronics inside your brain, a pretty invasive process, it forced us to think about what is means to be natural. But when we zoomed out to consider the applications for this, it began to feel a lot more acceptable; the main initial user of Neuralink will be paralysis patients, who would use this technology for more independence in their daily tasks, without having to always rely on a caretaker.
Designing the robot that actually carries out the surgery gave us strong insight into the actual procedure of placing electronic threads inside the skull in order to read and write information. This also made us pause and think whether this was too unnatural. But we believe that creating something that empowers people by enabling them to do things they otherwise could not will always be a good thing. Another point of reassurance was hearing from Elon Musk that the process is reversible, allowing people to return to their “natural” selves if they wish it, or if Neuralink doesn’t exist in ten years’ time due to the improvement of Technology.
Designing (un)natural technologies
As designers of a lot of technology that interfaces with the body, we found that as soon as we design something that goes beneath the skin, we start to feel differently about it – possibly we don’t trust our own contraptions as much as we trust the inherent intelligence of nature. But we’ve also found that it has a lot to do with the faculty of our body that we’re designing for. Changing a limb feels very different to altering someone’s brain, where we assume human consciousness resides. The last thing we would want to do is create a device that will plug us into the matrix and strip us of our free will.
At the same time, this technology allowing you to send and receive data with your thoughts is creating an entirely new category of interface design. And as a studio that is designing both products and interfaces, there is nothing more exciting than being at the forefront of exploring a completely new discipline of design, which we are calling “thought-based user interfaces” for now.
Whether the technology has already been integrated into our lives, or will be in the next 10 years, we love being part of creating things that we have not yet lived with, or still can’t imagine. And we believe that because these new technologies are created by humans, they will become a natural part of our everyday lives.
The future is a human invention
What makes us unique as a species is not only our ability to imagine the future, but our ability to envision a reality that is better than the one we’re living in right now, and advance and innovate towards it. The future is not something we should fear, but something that we should be cautiously and optimistically approaching. Cautiously, because we have to constantly evaluate our near- and long-term impacts. And optimistically, because this is what makes us truly different from every other species: our ability to seek and shape new developments in the world around us.
Our job, then, is to leverage new technologies in respectful and intentional ways, in favor of beneficial, and humane, advancements that tread lightly on natural ground.