Who are you?

 

There have been a few articles in the recent datasphere have centered around the pervasive tracking of our online activity from the benign to those bordering on unethical. One was from FastCompany that highlighted some practices that web marketers use to track the folks that visit their sites. The article by Steve Melendez lists a handful of these. They include the basics like first party cookies, and A/B testing, to more invasive methods such as psychological testing (thanks, Facebook) third-party tracking cookies, and differential pricing. The cookie is, of course, the most basic. I use them on this site and on The Lightstream Chronicles to see if anyone is visiting, where they’re coming from and a bunch of other minutiae. Using Google Analytics, I can, for example, see what city or country my readers are coming from, age and sex, whether they are regulars or new visitors, whether they visit via mobile or desktop, Apple or Windows, and if they came to my site by way of referral, where did they originate. Then I know if my ads for the graphic novel are working. I find this harmless. I have no interest in knowing your sexual preference, where you shop, and above all, I’m not selling anything (at least not yet). I’m just looking for more eyeballs. More viewers mean that I’m not wasting my time and that somebody is paying attention. It’s interesting that a couple of months ago the EU internet authorities sent me a snippet of code that I was “required” to post on the LSC site alerting my visitors that I use cookies. Aside from they U.S., my highest viewership is from the UK. It’s interesting that they are aware that their citizens are visiting. Hmm.

I have software that allows me to A/B test which means I could change up something on the graphic novel homepage and see if it gets more reaction than a previous version. But, I barely have the time to publish a new blog or episode much less create different versions and test them. A one-man-show has its limitations.

The rest of the tracking methods highlighted in the above article require a lot of devious programming. Since I have my hands full with the basics, this stuff is way above my pay grade. Even if it wasn’t, I think it all goes a bit too far.

Personally, I deplore most internet advertising. I know that makes me a hypocrite since I use it from time to time to drive traffic to my site. I also realize that it is probably a necessary evil. Sites need revenue, or they can’t pump out the content on which we have come to rely. Unfortunately, the landscape often turns into a melee. Tumblr is a good example. Initially, they integrated their ads into the format of their posts. So as you are scrolling through the content, you see an ad within their signature brand presentation. Cool. Then they started doing separate in-line ads. These looked entirely different from their brand content, and the ads were those annoying things like “Grandma discovers the fountain of youth.” Not cool. Then they introduced this floating ad box that tracks you all the way down the page as you scroll through content. You get no break from it. It’s distracting, and based on the content, it can be horrifying, like Hillary Clinton staring at you for seven minutes. How much can a person take?

And it won't go away.

And it won’t go away.

Since my blog is future oriented, the question arises, what does this have to do with the future? It does. These marketing techniques will only become more sophisticated. Many of them already incorporate artificial intelligence to map your activity and predict your every want and need—maybe even the ones you didn’t think anyone knew you had. Is this an invasion of privacy? If it is, it’s going to get more invasive. And as I’m fond of saying, we need to pay attention to these technologies and practices, now or we won’t have a say in where they end up. As a society, we have to do better than just adapt to whatever comes along. We need to help point them in the right direction from the beginning.

 

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Thought leaders and followers.

 

Next week, the World Future Society is having its annual conference. As a member, I really should be going, but I can’t make it this year. The future is a dicey place. There are people convinced that we can create a utopia, some are warning of dystopia, and the rest are settled somewhere in between. Based on promotional emails that I have received, one of the topics is “The Future of Evolution and Human Nature.” According to the promo,

“The mixed emotions and cognitive dissonance that occur inside each of us also scale upward into our social fabric: implicit bias against new perspectives, disdain for people who represent “other”, the fear of a new world that is not the same as it has always been, and the hopelessness that we cannot solve our problems. We know from experience that this negativity, hatred, fear, and hopelessness is not what it seems like on the surface: it is a reaction to change. And indeed we are experiencing a period of profound change.” There is a larger story of our evolution that extends well beyond the negativity and despair that feels so real to us today. It’s a story of redefining and building infrastructure around trust, hope and empathy. It’s a story of accelerating human imagination and leveraging it to create new and wondrous things.

It is a story of technological magic that will free us from scarcity and ensure a prosperous lifestyle for everyone, regardless of where they come from.”

Woah. I have to admit, this kind of talk that makes me uncomfortable. Are fear of a new world, negativity, hatred, and fear reactions to change? Will technosocial magic solve all our problems? This type of rhetoric sounds more like a movement than a conference that examines differing views on an important topic. It would seem to frame caution as fear and negativity, and then we throw in that hyperbole hatred. Does it sound like the beginning of an agenda with a framework that characterizes those who disagree as haters? I think it does. It’s a popular tactic.

These views do not by any means reflect the opinions of the entire WFS membership, but there is a significant contingent, such as the folks from Humanity+, which hold the belief that we can fix human evolution—even human nature—with technology. For me, this is treading into thorny territory.

What is human nature? Merriam-Webster online provides this definition:

“[…]the nature of humans; especially: the fundamental dispositions and traits of humans.” Presumably, we include good traits and bad traits. Will our discussions center on which features to fix and which to keep or enhance? Who will decide?

What about the human condition? Can we change this? Should we? According to Wikipedia,

“The human condition is “the characteristics, key events, and situations which compose the essentials of human existence, such as birth, growth, emotionality, aspiration, conflict, and mortality.” This is a very broad topic which has been and continues to be pondered and analyzed from many perspectives, including those of religion, philosophy, history, art, literature, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and biology.”

Clearly, there are a lot of different perspectives to be represented here. Do we honestly believe that technology will answer them all sufficiently? The theme of the upcoming WFS conference is “A Brighter Future IS Possible.” No doubt there will be a flurry of technosocial proposals presented there, and we should not put them aside as a bunch of fringe futurists. These voices are thought-leaders. They lead thinking. Are we thinking? Are we paying attention? If so, then it’s time to discuss and debate these issues, or others will decides without us.

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Future Shock

 

As you no doubt have heard, Alvin Toffler died on June 27, 2016, at the age of 87. Mr. Toffler was a futurist. The book for which he is best known, Future Shock was a best seller in 1970 and was considered required college reading at the time. In essence, Mr. Toffler said that the future would be a disorienting place if we just let it happen. He said we need to pay attention.

Credit: Susan Wood/Getty Images from The New York Times 2016

Credit: Susan Wood/Getty Images from The New York Times 2016

This week, The New York Times published an article entitled Why We Need to Pick Up Alvin Toffler’s Torch by Farhad Manjoo. As Manjoo observes, at one time (the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s), the study of foresight and forecasting was important stuff that governments and corporations took seriously. Though I’m not sure I agree with Manjoo’s assessment of why that is no longer the case, I do agree that it is no longer the case.

“In many large ways, it’s almost as if we have collectively stopped planning for the future. Instead, we all just sort of bounce along in the present, caught in the headlights of a tomorrow pushed by a few large corporations and shaped by the inescapable logic of hyper-efficiency — a future heading straight for us. It’s not just future shock; we now have future blindness.”

At one time, this was required reading.

At one time, this was required reading.

When I attended the First International Conference on Anticipation in 2015, I was pleased to discover that the blindness was not everywhere. In fact, many of the people deeply rooted in the latest innovations in science and technology, architecture, social science, medicine, and a hundred other fields are very interested in the future. They see an urgency. But most governments don’t and I fear that most corporations, even the tech giants are more interested in being first with the next zillion-dollar technology than asking if that technology is the right thing to do. Even less they are asking what repercussions might flow from these advancements and what are the ramifications of today’s decision making. We just don’t think that way.

I don’t believe that has to be the case. The World Future Society for example at their upcoming conference in Washington, DC will be addressing the idea of futures studies as a requirement for high school education. They ask,

“Isn’t it surprising that mainstream education offers so little teaching on foresight? Were you exposed to futures thinking when you were in high school or college? Are your children or grandchildren taught how decisions can be made using scenario planning, for example? Or take part in discussions about what alternative futures might look like? In a complex, uncertain world, what more might higher education do to promote a Futurist Mindset?”

It certainly needs to be part of design education, and it is one of the things I vigorously promote at my university.

As Manjoo sums up in his NYT article,

“Of course, the future doesn’t stop coming just because you stop planning for it. Technological change has only sped up since the 1990s. Notwithstanding questions about its impact on the economy, there seems no debate that advances in hardware, software and biomedicine have led to seismic changes in how most of the world lives and works — and will continue to do so.

Yet, without soliciting advice from a class of professionals charged with thinking systematically about the future, we risk rushing into tomorrow headlong, without a plan.”

And if that isn’t just crazy, at the very least it’s dangerous.

 

 

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Vision comes from looking to the future.

 

I was away last week, but I left off with a post about proving that some of the things that we current think of as sci-fi or fantasy are not only plausible, but some may even be on their way to reality. In the last post, I was providing the logical succession toward implantable technology or biohacking.

The latest is a robot toy from a company called Anki. Once again, WIRED provided the background on this product, and it is an excellent example of technological convergence which I have discussed many times before. Essentially, “technovergence” is when multiple cutting-edge technologies come together in unexpected and sometimes unpredictable ways. In this case, the toy brings together AI, machine learning, computer vision science, robotics, deep character development, facial recognition, and a few more. According to the video below,

“There have been very few applications where a robot has felt like a character that connects with humans around it. For that, you really need artificial intelligence and robotics. That’s been the missing key.”

According to David Pierce, with WIRED,

“Cozmo is a cheeky gamer; the little scamp tried to fake me into tapping my block when they didn’t match, and stormed off when I won. And it’s those little tics, the banging of its lift-like arm and spinning in circles and squawking in its Wall-E voice, that really makes you want to refer to the little guy as ‘he’ rather than ‘it.’”

What strikes me as especially interesting is that my students designed their own version of this last semester. (I’m pretty sure that they knew nothing about this particular toy.) The semester was a rigorous design fiction class that took a hard look at what was possible in the next five to ten years. For some, the class was something like hell, but the similarities and possibilities that my students put together for their robot are amazingly like Cozmo.

I think this is proof of more than what is possible; it’s evidence that vision comes from looking to the future.

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Future proof.

 

There is no such thing as future proof anything, of course, so I use the term to refer to evidence that a current idea is becoming more and more probable of something we will see in the future. The evidence I am talking about surfaced in a FastCo article this week about biohacking and the new frontier of digital implants. Biohacking has a loose definition and can reference using genetic material without regard to ethical procedures, to DIY biology, to pseudo-bioluminescent tattoos, to body modification for functional enhancement—see transhumanism. Last year, my students investigated this and determined that a society willing to accept internal implants was not a near-future scenario. Nevertheless, according to FastCo author Steven Melendez,

“a survey released by Visa last year that found that 25% of Australians are ‘at least slightly interested’ in paying for purchases through a chip implanted in their bodies.”

Melendez goes on to describe a wide variety of implants already in use for medical, artistic and personal efficiency and interviews Tim Shank, president of a futurist group called TwinCities+. Shank says,

“[For] people with Android phones, I can just tap their phone with my hand, right over the chip, and it will send that information to their phone..”

implants

Amal Graafstra’s Hands [Photo: courtesy of Amal Graafstra] c/o WIRED

The popularity of body piercings and tattoos— also once considered as invasive procedures—has skyrocketed. Implantable technology, especially as it becomes more functionally relevant could follow a similar curve.

I saw this coming some years ago when writing The Lightstream Chronicles. The story, as many of you know, takes place in the far future where implantable technology is mundane and part of everyday life. People regulate their body chemistry access the Lightstream (the evolved Internet) and make “calls” using their fingertips embedded with Luminous Implants. These future implants talk directly to implants in the brain, and other systemic body centers to make adjustments or provide information.

An ad for Luminous Implants, and the "tap" numbers for local attractions.

An ad for Luminous Implants, and the “tap” numbers for local attractions.

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When the stakes are low, mistakes are beneficial. In more weighty pursuits, not so much.

 

I’m from the old school. I suppose, that sentence alone makes me seem like a codger. Let’s call it the eighties. Part of the art of problem solving was to work toward a solution and get it as tight as we possibly could before we committed to implementation. It was called the design process and today it’s called “design thinking.” So it was heresy to me when I found myself, some years ago now, in a high-tech corporation where this was a doctrine ignored. I recall a top-secret, new product meeting in which the owner and chief technology officer said, “We’re going to make some mistakes on this, so let’s hurry up and make them.” He was not speaking about iterative design, which is part and parcel of the design process, he was talking about going to market with the product and letting the users illuminate what we should fix. Of course, the product was safe and met all the legal standards, but it was far from polished. The idea was that mass consumer trial-by-fire would provide us with an exponentially higher data return than if we tested all the possible permutations in a lab at headquarters. He was, apparently, ahead of his time.

In a recent FastCo article on Facebook’s race to be the leader in AI, author Daniel Terdiman cites some of Mark Zuckerberg’s mantras: “‘Move fast and break things,’ or ‘Done is better than perfect.’” We can debate this philosophically or maybe even ethically, but it is clearly today’s standard procedure for new technologies, new science and the incessant race to be first. Here is a quote from that article:

“Artificial intelligence has become a vital part of scaling Facebook. It’s already being used to recognize the faces of your friends in photographs, and curate your newsfeed. DeepText, an engine for reading text that was unveiled last week, can understand “with near-human accuracy” the content in thousands of posts per second, in more than 20 different languages. Soon, the text will be translated into a dozen different languages, automatically. Facebook is working on recognizing your voice and identifying people inside of videos so that you can fast forward to the moment when your friend walks into view.”

The story goes on to say that Facebook, though it is pouring tons of money into AI, is behind the curve, having begun only three or so years ago. Aside from the fact that FB’s accomplishments seem fairly impressive (at least to me), people like Google and Microsoft are apparently way ahead. In the case of Microsoft, the effort began more than twenty years ago.

Today, the hurry up is accelerated by open sourcingWikipedia explains the benefits of open sourcing as:

“The open-source model, or collaborative development from multiple independent sources, generates an increasingly more diverse scope of design perspective than any one company is capable of developing and sustaining long term.”

The idea behind open sourcing is that the mistakes will happen even faster along with the advancements. It is becoming the de facto approach to breakthrough technologies. If fast is the primary, maybe even the only goal, it is a smart strategy. Or is it a touch short sighted? As we know, not everyone who can play with the code that a company has given them has that company’s best interests in mind. As for the best interests of society, I’m not sure those are even on the list.

To examine our motivations and the ripples that emanate from them, of course, is my mission with design fiction and speculative futures. Whether we like it or not, a by-product of technological development—aside from utopia—is human behavior. There are repercussions from the things we make and the systems that evolve from them. When your mantra is “Move fast and break things,” that’s what you’ll get. But there is certainly no time the move-fast loop to consider the repercussions of your actions, or the unexpected consequences. Consequences will appear all by themselves.

The technologists tell us that when we reach the holy grail of AI (whatever that is), we will be better people and solve the world’s most challenging problems. But in reality, it’s not that simple. With the nuances of AI, there are potential problems, or mistakes, that could be difficult to fix; new predicaments that humans might not be able to solve and AI may not be inclined to resolve on our behalf.

In the rush to make mistakes, how grave will they be? And, who is responsible?

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“At a certain point…”

 

A few weeks ago Brian Barrett of WIRED magazine reported on an “NEW SURVEILLANCE SYSTEM MAY LET COPS USE ALL OF THE CAMERAS.” According to the article,

“Computer scientists have created a way of letting law enforcement tap any camera that isn’t password protected so they can determine where to send help or how to respond to a crime.”

Barrett suggests that America has 30 million surveillance cameras out there. The above sentence, for me, is loaded. First of all, as with most technological advancements, they are always couched in the most benevolent form. These scientists are going to help law enforcement send help or respond to crimes. This is also the argument that the FBI used to try to force Apple to provide a backdoor to the iPhone. It was for the common good.

If you are like me, you immediately see a giant red flag waving to warn us of the gaping possibility for abuse. However, we can take heart to some extent. The sentence mentioned above also limits law enforcement access to, “any camera that isn’t password protected.” Now the question is: What percentage of the 30 million cameras are password protected? Does it include, for example, more than kennel cams or random weather cams? Does it include the local ATM, traffic, and other security cameras? The system is called CAM2.

“…CAM2 reveals the location and orientation of public network cameras, like the one outside your apartment.”

It can aggregate the cameras in a given area and allow law enforcement to access them. Hmm.

Last week I teased that some of the developments that I reserved for 25, 50 or even further into the future, through my graphic novel The Lightstream Chronicles, are showing signs of life in the next two or three years. A universal “cam” system like this is one of them; the idea of ubiquitous surveillance or the mesh only gets stronger with more cameras. Hence the idea behind my ubiquitous surveillance blog. If there is a system that can identify all of the “public network” cams, how far are we from identifying all of the “private network” cams? How long before these systems are hacked? Or, in the name of national security, how might these systems be appropriated? You may think this is the stuff of sci-fi, but it is also the stuff of design-fi, and design-fi, as I explained last week, is intended to make us think; about how these things play out.

In closing, WIRED’s Barrett raised the issue of the potential for abusing systems such as CAM2 with Gautam Hans, policy counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology. And, of course, we got the standard response:

“It’s not the best use of our time to rail against its existence. At a certain point, we need to figure out how to use it effectively, or at least with extensive oversight.”

Unfortunately, history has shown that that certain point usually arrives after something goes egregiously wrong. Then someone asks, “How could something like this happen?”

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It’s all happening too fast.

 

Since design fiction is my area of research and focus, I have covered the difference between it and science fiction in previous blogs. But the two are quite closely related. Let me start with science fiction. There are a plethora of definitions for SF. Here are two of my favorites.

The first is from Isaac Asimov:

“[Social] science fiction is that branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance on human beings.” — Isaac Asimov, Science Fiction Writers of America Bulletin, 1951 1

The second is from Robert Heinlein:

“…realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the scientific method.” 2

I especially like the first because it emphasizes people at the heart of the storytelling. The second definition speaks to real-world knowledge, and understanding of the scientific method. Here, there is a clear distinction between science fiction and fantasy. Star Wars is not science fiction. Even George Lucas admits this. In a conversation at the Sundance Film Festival last year he is quoted as saying, “Star Wars really isn’t a science-fiction film, it’s a fantasy film and a space opera.”3 While Star Wars involves space travel (which is technically science based), the story has no connection to the real world; it may as well be Lord of the Rings.

I bring up these distinctions because design fiction is a hybrid of science fiction, but there is a difference. Sterling defines design fiction as, “The deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change.” Though even Sterling agrees that his definition is “heavy-laden” the operative word in his definition is “deliberate.” In other words, a primary operand of design fiction is the designers intent. There is a purpose for design fiction and it is to provoke discussion about the future. While it may entertain, that is not it’s purpose. It needs to be a provocation. For me, the more provocative, the better. The idea that we would go quietly into whatever future unfolds based upon whatever corporate or scientific manifesto is most profitable or most manageable makes me crazy.

The urgency arises in the fact that the future is moving way to fast. In The Lightstream Chronicles, some of the developments that I reserved for 25, 50 or even further into the future are showing signs of life in the next two or three years. Next week I will introduce you to a couple of these technologies.

 

1. http://io9.com/5622186/how-many-defintions-of-science-fiction-are-there
2. Heinlein, R., 1983. The SF book of lists. In: Jakubowski, M., Edwards, M. (Eds.), The SF Book of Lists. Berkley Books, New York, p. 257.
3. http://www.esquire.com/entertainment/movies/a32507/george-lucas-sundance-quotes/
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The end of code.

 

This week WIRED Magazine released their June issue announcing the end of code. That would mean that the ability to write code, as is so cherished in the job world right now, is on the way out. They attribute this tectonic shift to Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, neural networks and the like. In the future (which is taking place now) we won’t have to write code to tell computers what to do, we will just have to teach them. I have been over this before through a number of previous writings. An example: Facebook uses a form of machine learning by collecting data from millions of pictures that are posted on the social network. When someone loads a group photo and identifies the people in the shot, Facebook’s AI remembers it by logging the prime coordinates on a human face and attributing them to that name (aka facial recognition). If the same coordinates show up again in another post, Facebook identifies it as you. People load the data (on a massive scale), and the machine learns. By naming the person or persons in the photo, you have taught the machine.

The WIRED article makes some interesting connections about the evolution of our thinking concerning the mind, about learning, and how we have taken a circular route in our reasoning. In essence, the mind was once considered a black box; there was no way to figure it out, but you could condition responses, a la Pavlov’s Dog. That logic changes with cognitive science which is the idea that the brain is more like a computer. The computing analogy caught on, and researchers began to see the whole idea of thought, memory, and thinking as stuff you could code, or hack, just like a computer. Indeed, it is this reasoning that has led to the notion that DNA is, in fact, codable, hence splicing through Crispr. If it’s all just code, we can make anything. That was the thinking. Now there is machine learning and neural networks. You still code, but only to set up the structure by which the “thing” learns, but after that, it’s on its own. The result is fractal and not always predictable. You can’t go back in and hack the way it is learning because it has started to generate a private math—and we can’t make sense of it. In other words, it is a black box. We have, in effect, stymied ourselves.

There is an upside. To train a computer you used to have to learn how to code. Now you just teach it by showing or giving it repetitive information, something anyone can do, though, at this point, some do it better than others.

Always the troubleshooter, I wonder what happens when we—mystified at a “conclusion” or decision arrived at by the machine—can’t figure out how to make it stop arriving at that conclusion. You can do the math.

Do we just turn it off?

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Adapt or plan? Where do we go from here?

I just returned from Nottingham, UK where I presented a paper for Cumulus 16, In This Place. The paper was entitled Design Fiction: A Countermeasure For Technology Surprise. An Undergraduate Proposal. My argument hinged on the idea that students needed to start thinking about our technosocial future. Design fiction is my area of research, but if you were inclined to do so, you could probably choose a variant methodology to provoke discussion and debate about the future of design, what designers do, and their responsibility as creators of culture. In January, I had the opportunity to take an initial pass at such a class. The experiment was a different twist on a collaborative studio where students from the three traditional design specialties worked together on a defined problem. The emphasis was on collaboration rather than the outcome. Some students embraced this while others pushed back. The push-back came from students fixated on building a portfolio of “things” or “spaces” or “visual communications“ so that they could impress prospective employers. I can’t blame them for that. As educators, we have hammered the old paradigm of getting a job at Apple or Google, or (fill in the blank) as the ultimate goal of undergraduate education. But the paradigm is changing and the model of a designer as the maker of “stuff” is wearing thin.

A great little polemic from Cameron Tonkinwise recently appeared that helped to articulate this issue. He points the finger at interaction design scholars and asks why they are not writing about or critiquing “the current developments in the world of tech.” He wonders whether anyone is paying attention. As designers and computer scientists we are feeding a pipeline of more apps with minimal viability, with seemingly no regard for the consequences on social systems, and (one of my personal favorites) the behaviors we engender through our designs.

I tell my students that it is important to think about the future. The usual response is, “We do!” When I drill deeper, I find that their thoughts revolve around getting a job, making a living, finding a home, and a partner. They rarely include global warming, economic upheavals, feeding the world, natural disasters, etc. Why? These issues they view as beyond their control. We do not choose these things; they happen to us. Nevertheless, these are precisely the predicaments that need designers. I would argue these concerns are far more important than another app to count my calories or select the location for my next sandwich.

There is a host of others like Tonkinwise that see that design needs to refocus, but often it seems like there are are a greater number that blindly plod forward unaware of the futures they are creating. I’m not talking about refocusing designers to be better at business or programming languages; I’m talking about making designers more responsible for what they design. And like Tonkinwise, I agree that it needs to start with design educators.

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About the Envisionist

Scott Denison is an accomplished visual, brand, interior, and set designer. He is currently Assistant Professor and Foundations Coordinator for the Department of Design at The Ohio State University. He continues his research in design fiction that examines the design-culture relationship within future narratives and interventions. You can read his online graphic novel in weekly updates at http://thelightstreamchronicles.com. This blog contains commentary on all things future and often includes artist commentary on comic pages. You can find the author's professional portfolio at http://scottdenison(dot)com