Crafting a Healthier Internet: People, Things and our Digital Society

Lead Research Organisation: Northumbria University
Department Name: Fac of Arts, Design and Social Sciences


The aim for this project is to explore how we can define and foster a healthy relationship between people, the internet and things using the ethos and practices of craft, informed by knowledge within the humanities, augmented with technical know-how and leveraging citizen engagement/collaboration.

The internet is a powerful force in society. Since the inception of the World Wide Web, the internet was held up as a place of wonder, creativity and opportunity. Yet it is currently in a very problematic position: fake news, centralisation of power, the dominant control of a select number of technology giants, disinformation, the weaponization of social media, the undermining of democratic processes, mass manipulation of citizens, cyber crimes and abuse of personal data are internationally recognised as areas of significant concern. As more and more everyday objects become internet-connected, become part of the Internet of Things (IoT), these questions of trust, privacy, security and abuse of data will become more pressing, as anxieties over the eavesdropping capabilities of smart speakers such as Alexa demonstrate. Furthermore, it is widely recognised, and even promoted, that industrial design has led to a step-change in the way that digital technology companies are able to significantly amplify the reach of their products (Apple being the most obvious example). Yet this has led to a wholly unsustainable, homogeneous, global culture of two-year life-cycle devices and an internet that is being 'colonised' by a handful of US and Chinese companies. These issues are not ones that can be addressed exclusively with technological innovation and instrumental solutions. They require initiatives that consider the social and ethical implications and consequences (intended or not) of the underlying ethos and structure on which internet businesses are founded.

We will be partnering with Mozilla, and inspired by their Internet Health Report, we are challenging existing 'unhealthy' ways in which the IoT is being conceptualised and implemented (i.e. privileging economic business models over user agency, lacking openness, transparency and legibility) and provide an alternative 'healthier' trajectory for IoT development.

While design often aspires to ubiquity and standardisation, craft thrives on specificity and bespokeness, which is often rooted in localism, and embodies the values of authenticity, provenance and care. Through working at a local level, in terms of both consideration and production, we seek to bring new perspectives and methods for conceptualizing and creating forms of IoT, embodying our craft ethos. As such we will create compelling examples of context specific, meaningful and trusted forms IoT in order to explore and understand the ways that we can change current trajectories across the sector.

Based in the North East of England, this project will work closely with local groups, businesses, organisations and individuals, alongside experts from design, craft and the Humanities to critique existing IoT offerings. Craft centred explorations will result in radical reimaginings of what an IoT artifact might be and do, falling outside established IoT tropes (E.g. Amazon Echo, Google Nest, LG's Alexa powered fridge). These will inform participatory co-design activities and the production of a series of new IoT devices that participants will live with over several months. The project will investigate four scales of relationship between individual people, the internet and things: Person + Body, Person + Home, Person + Neighbourhood, Person + Town/Rural region. These contexts of scale will enable the investigation of meaningful and sustainable forms of relationship between an individual and their wider environment at a number of levels, ultimately providing a resource of radical new exemplars of IoT and a roadmap to a healthier digital future (i.e. recommendations for new approaches to, and conceptualisations of IoT).


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