Computational Arts Research & Theory Blog

Post 10 - Dec 16th, 2018
Some Things Are Hard To Say: An Exploration of
Critical Making, Speculative Design, and Reconfiguration.

Responsive Figure

The Effects of Technology on Interpersonal Relationships

Advances in technology such as the invention of computers, the internet, mobile devices, and fitness trackers have had a huge impact on the way we communicate, work, and care for ourselves. Technology has enabled automation of many interactions which used to involve people. Voice response systems are used in customer service, auto-checkout lanes are increasingly used in grocery stores, and robots deliver food. Virtual assistants make appointments, anticipate needs, and sometimes even banter in conversation. Interaction with technology is not new but advances in Artificial Intelligence are greatly accelerating the ways in which technology is incorporated into daily life (Allen).

New connective technologies have had unintended consequences on the meaningfulness of interpersonal communication. In her 2011 book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, professor Sherry Turkle discusses how current technology is undermining human connection. She proposes that convenience and control are prioritized while diminishing the expectations human beings have of each other (Turkle, p. 1).

In his 2010 Psychology Today article The Effect Of Technology On Relationships, Dr. Alex Lickerman writes that he has “observed people using electronic media to make confrontation easier and have seen more than one relationship falter as a result. People are often uncomfortable with face-to-face confrontation …. In-person interactions, though more difficult, are more likely to result in positive outcomes and provide opportunities for personal growth. Whenever I hear stories of romantic break-ups, firings, or even arguments going on electronically, I cringe. We find ourselves tempted to communicate that way because it feels easier—but the outcome is often worse.”

For this project, I imagined a future where machines are our voices and how those machines could be used to vocalize thoughts and emotions that are difficult to express. Since technology is presently utilized as an alternative to in-person communication and because research shows people tend to avoid difficult conversations, this artefact is an exploration of what it would be like to hear something like “I love you” from a convenient touch of a button. Although it is easier to press a button to express a difficult emotion, the intended recipient would not find the experience as meaningful as if the emotion had been expressed directly by the user. Our relationships with others define who we are. How would relationships be reconfigured by a device such as this? I wanted to explore the distributions between humans and non-humans - where the human ends and where a machine begins (Suchman).

This interactive communication artefact is simultaneously humorous and disconcerting and is intended to stimulate discussion and reflection about the ethical and social implications of existing and emerging technologies on interpersonal relationships.


In creating this artefact, I explored the space between creative physical and conceptual exploration which linked conceptual reflection with technical making - also known as Critical Making.

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The term "critical making" was coined and popularized by Matt Ratto in 2008, who is an Associate Professor at the University of Toronto. Critical making is a combination of two typically disconnected modes of engagement in the world — "critical thinking," which is abstract, internal and cognitively individualistic; and "making," which is embodied and external. The purpose of this type of making resides in the learning extracted from the process of making rather than the experience derived from the finished output. (Ratto)

I understand Critical Making to be a form of Design as Inquiry. Design as Inquiry refers to a type of design which produces artefacts for thought rather than for consumption or practical use. This form of design is more “design exploration”, as opposed to “design practice” as it is not driven by commercial interests or practical design problems (Franke). It is an exploration of ideas and possibilities. And as opposed to being focused on the relationship between designer and object, Design as Inquiry centers on creating experimental and hypothetical forms that facilitate the relationships among humans and between humans and artefacts.

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In his 2017 book Critical Design in Context: History, Theory, and Practices, Matt Malpass defines three distinct categories of critical practice. The first is associative design, “which takes a critical view of the design discipline itself by offering a criticism from within design the design practice.” The second is speculative design “which is concerned with the projection of sociotechnological trends and developing scenarios of product roles in new use contexts. It is linked to futures, scenario building, and technoscientific research.” The third category of critical practice that Malpass defines is critical design which “focuses on present social, cultural, and ethical implications of design objects and practice. Critical design challenges conventional approaches in designing human object interactions.” Malpass notes that humor is important in critical design and that satire is also a goal. I find the sense of humor in Critical Design appealing as humor disarms people and allows for lateral thinking.

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At the 2010 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Lancaster Professor Lucy Suchman delivered a lecture in which she stated that everything in our world is figurative - that nothing is literal. She pointed out that even the most technical mathematical language uses metaphor, tropes, and turns of phrases and we are always thinking metaphorically. Therefore, we need to think about how humans and animals and machines are configured. How do we think about the similarities and differences between humans and non-humans? Once we have an idea about the configurations, then we must think about what possible reconfigurations there might be available to us. How might humans and non-humans be figured together in different ways? And this, I think, is the fundamental premise behind Critical Making, Design as Inquiry, and Critical Design.

As an example of Reconfigurations, Suchman talks about the NRA slogan “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” The NRA would have us believe that it is people we should be worrying about. Suchman quotes Bruno LaTour’s book Pandora’s Hope in which he writes “you are different with a gun in your hand and the gun is different with you holding it …the gun is no longer the gun in the drawer and the human is no longer just a human.” Suchman says “when the two are articulated they become someone/something else.” She also states that the agencies - or capacities for action - have increased and have therefore been reconfigured.

There is an intriguing intersection of Critical Making, Critical Design, and Design as Inquiry in all design work. It was interesting to be keenly aware of the process of making while I was creating the device. I have a new respect for the importance of Ethnography and Ethnomethodology in the design process. I also have a greater understanding of Critical Making and by working with a materialized figuration, it is easier to think about reconfiguration - more so than in a solely conceptual practice. I intend to continue this research into next term and beyond.


Bare Conductive boards


Allen, Chris. “How the Digitalisation of Everything Is Making Us More Lonely.” The Conversation, 2 May 2018, Accessed 13 May 2018.

Dunne, Anthony. Hertzian Tales: Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience, and Critical Design. The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

Dunne, Anthony, and Fiona Raby. Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming. The MIT Press, 2013. Digital.

Franke, Björn. Design as a Medium for Inquiry. Fifth Swiss Design Network Symposium, Multiple Ways to Design Research – Research Cases that Reshape the Design Discipline (2009), pp. 225–232

Lickerman, Alex. “The Effect Of Technology On Relationships.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 8 June 2010,

Malpass, Matthew. Critical Design in Context: History, Theory, and Practices. Bloomsbury Academic, an Imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2017. Digital. Kindle Edition.

Ratto, Matt. “Critical Making: Conceptual and Material Studies in Technology and Social Life.” The Information Society, vol. 27, no. 4, 2011, pp. 252–260

Ratto, Matt, et al. “Introduction to the Special Forum on Critical Making as Research Program.” The Information Society, vol. 30, no. 2, 2014, pp. 85–95

SIGCHI, ACM, director. CHI 2010 Lifetime Research Award: Lucy Suchman. YouTube, YouTube, 18 Mar. 2016,

Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Basic Books, 2017.

Suchman, Lucy. Human-Machines Reconfigurations: Plans and Situated Actions. Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Wodiczko, Krzysztof. Critical Vehicles: Writings, Projects, Interviews. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1999.
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