2016Nine essential GDA perspectives on design trends
Dominique Chen
Director’s message

Cybernetic loop of human and technology in the information society


In my field of cybernetics, within information studies, we consider evaluation and design of feedback loops among system elements. Applying this perspective to the products and services in society leads us to consider the aspect of how much positive feedback they provide in response to user behavior. Thus, to discuss the focal issue of technology and information, I will evaluate not only the design and technology behind products and services but also these cybernetic loops established by products.

What sort of positive feedback can be provided? The value of a system that merely presents information resides solely in the information it presents to users. However, if a broader perspective is taken in design, the system might hint at the latent value of that information, help users derive something meaningful from it, or suggest how it is related to other information. In other words, it is important to consider how system design responds to the question of whether the system's existence effects change that is qualitative, not quantitative, and whether it expands the user's perception or understanding.

Moreover, as observers note that we may be transitioning from the Information Age to an Experience Age, people expect more of IT. The essence of IT is viewed as not being limited to isolated user experiences. Instead, we consider how much IT creates ripples of excitement in the lives of people around the user and affects their behavior.

In this sense, the winning entry this year that impressed me the most was COGY wheelchair. COGY imparts confidence and vitality by amplifying the limited leg power of disabled users to turn the wheels, making them feel as if they were pedaling freely. Wheelchairs are usually expected to provide unimpeded mobility, but instead, COGY provides meaningful feedback to users and those close to them, showing how the user has moved, physically, in ways they thought impossible. In this way, the product directly embodies this ideal of positive feedback. Although the arrangement does not resemble using a computer, it demonstrates how technology can stimulate users physically and mentally. In this, the design sets a fine example for products of all kinds.

Another product brimming with similar value is Ontenna. Worn like a hairpin, this device conveys ambient sound in the form of vibration and light to hearing-impaired users. The thinking behind this product turns the tables on an unfair but common bias that those with disabilities trail healthy people in perception and cognition. This thinking - combined with years of R&D with target users, a compelling developer description likening Ontenna to sensitive cat whiskers, and encouraging results such as users sensing seasonal sounds for the first time - even makes one optimistic that new fields of communication may arise for information still beyond the reach and expression of those without disabilities.

Also on this topic, one award-winning the Barrierfree Variety Show is produced by and for people with disabilities. We might fear that a show mainly featuring disabled cast members and guests runs a risk of being misconstrued, due to viewer ignorance About disabilities. Fortunately, the strikingly sophisticated, substantial, and diverse perspectives presented in talks among participants with various physical conditions soon dispels this fear. We get the impression that the worlds of the so-called disabled individuals introduced on the show are actually broader and deeper than the world of healthy people (my own included), so stiffened by prejudices and notions of common sense. In this golden age of online media, the program serves as an excellent source of information on TV that shows new potential for mass media, not to mention an expanded vision of the potential of human beings themselves.

Disabilities of all kinds exist, and we should not generalize, but surely I am not the only one who senses that in the future, instead of viewing disabled individuals as people who are less capable, we will see them as advanced individuals dealing with impairments through the assistance of advances in IT. It seems inevitable that, as some have already discussed in the context of sporting events, disabled individuals will be the first to venture into the realm of cybernetic existence as cyborgs, or cybernetic organisms. As the reality of physical and mental issues faced routinely by many with disabilities becomes more openly revealed, as shared knowledge in society, it will be easier to dismantle the binary division between healthy and disabled. Such openness shows the possibility of a middle ground in a dichotomy that has remained unequal, encouraging us to redefine the social image of reality and join a social movement not yet seen.

Another award-winning product - a male fertility test kit called Seem - gives men a chance to participate more proactively in considering the issue of infertility treatment, which currently causes much more physical and psychological stress for women. In this way, it promises to alleviate an inequality faced by women. By altering men's awareness of fertility issues, the very existence of this product may make waves in society that restore balance to common perceptions of men's and women's roles.

In investment, Hifumi Fund offers a form of long-term investment that reduces trust fees the longer money is invested. The first service of its kind in Japan, it has earned acclaim for a solid record. The movement to promote this kind of long-term investment seems to respond to current needs, perhaps as seen in the interest in the U.S. in public-benefit corporations - a designation between corporations and NPOs - and discussion of stock markets with incentives for this kind of investment. The main financial paradigm at present, in which many seek short-term profit, is under strain as traders take a meta-view of the value of listed companies' products and stock markets rely on systems such as high-frequency trading that are so complex that even algorithm engineers cannot trace the cause-and-effect relationships. However, in conjunction with smaller investment systems such as crowdfunding, if growth of this long-term investment scheme can lead to a return to investing by applying our own judgment, based on trust and support, it may enable more stable innovation in society.

In information distributed by Japanese government offices, inadequate graphic design has led to a common expectation that key information may not be understood well. Defying this expectation, TOKYO BOUSAI publications prove that important emergency information can be conveyed effectively and hold people's interest through expert graphic design and editing. We can also appreciate the city's open stance in distributing the booklets to Tokyo residents at no cost and publishing versions online that are freely accessible. Although the information is also available in several languages, there have been problems with online access, and because the manuals are in the proprietary PDF format, there is some room for improvement from an open-format perspective. We look forward to even better publications in the future.

A successful example of positive feedback in neighborhood clean-up are the Trash bags at Halloween, which put a festive face - specifically, a jack-o'-lantern - on the otherwise unpleasant task of trash collection. Even seeing places where several of the bags have been collected is a positive experience, like seeing what was produced by some enjoyable event, instead of seeing a pile of trash bags. It also enlivens trash collecting for those who clean the streets, which makes us guess that more people participated. An outstanding instance of design that benefits neighborhood organizations.

Although it was disappointing that few entries this year represented pure IT (a field I find fascinating), I believe a time will soon come when we will be evaluating entries such as algorithms that are still like mysterious black boxes to society - entries including computer logic that may have a profound impact on the heart of the information society.

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