The convenience store is mostly empty. A few of the customers milling about are idly flipping through magazines or considering some of the beauty products on the shelves. Their wrists vibrate. They collectively look down at their smart watches, which are sending them a message: “Put down the magazines and chemicals. You’re beautiful as you are."
A billboard advertising a sugary beverage appears normal. It rests peacefully alongside a busy street. Drive by it, however, and your car radio scrambles before it suddenly broadcasts a message about the calorie count of the beverage advertised and the number of people — adults and children — who die from type-two diabetes every year.
You attend a conference and notice a sticker on another attendee’s laptop. You get closer. Your phone rings. A non-profit organization is calling you to ask whether you know where to find the latest information about wellness centers in your neighborhood. You come to find out the call is triggered by a radio dot in the attendees’ laptop sticker.
All of these vignettes are straight out of my imagination with heavy influences from science fiction, but they are the scenarios I am considering as I explore what I have come to call “stolen media spaces” and the ways in which they stand to change our behavior.
Does the unexpected smartwatch message lead one of the women in the convenience store to put down the fashion magazine and seek help for her eating disorder?
Does a parent prevent their kids from drinking a sugary soft drink with dinner because of the counter-advertising message beamed into their car?
Do you actually visit the wellness center you’re told about over the unexpected call beamed to your phone by a laptop sticker?
The term “stolen media space" isn’t perfect. The word “stolen” is relative. Ownership is not always undisputed. So, I am not using “stolen” to imply that the occupation or taking of a media space is always a criminal act. I only mean to imply that, for the purposes of my exploration, the ownership of that space is ambiguous or the message delivered is wholly unexpected by the recipient.
The term “media space” is a bit fuzzy too. It rests on the definition of “media”, which I am interpreting as broadly as possible. Media could be a radio signal, a culture in a petrie dish, a wall or even open land.
I'm not an expert when it comes to the complex dynamics under this topic's umbrella. I’m a writer, a producer and, now, thanks to nearly two years at the d.school, a pretty well-versed design thinker. I am also a goodie-two-shoes. Seriously, the only condition under which I would like to deal with law enforcement is …
Well, there is no condition under which I would like to deal with law enforcement frankly, except, perhaps, in the pursuit of legally understanding this topic. So...
"Why this and why now?”
My hunch is this: understanding how the use of stolen media space can change human behavior could help improve and/or grow access to important and needed information and services. How could we redesign world news coverage leveraging graffiti artists’ techniques to increase people's access to, interest in and understanding of world events? What could seizing of empty, unused public spaces mean for improving health and wellness in a community? What do wearable technologies mean for the discoverability of civic or public services? What are the latest methods being employed by protesters to keep awareness going after everyone has stopped marching in the street, and how can those methods be redesigned and applied elsewhere? How might the use of stolen media spaces help reverse inequality and directly address bigotry, both apparent and hidden.
This topic is relevant now for a variety of reasons, at least from where I sit. The number and variety of wearable technologies are growing. Virtual reality experiences are becoming more immersive and affordable. Available media space is growing and there are plenty of issues and problems individuals, groups and organizations may use those spaces to address -- whether those spaces belong to them or not.
Here’s my challenge. I am not an expert in graffiti art or social change movements. I know quite a bit about traditional media and design thinking. So, rather than spend the next six months holing up with dusty books, I am going to spend the next few weeks trying to find people who “steal” media space. Yes, this means artists, hackers (both analog and digital), protesters — anyone, really, who is using media spaces in ways they “shouldn’t” or in ways that others might find completely unexpected and disruptive. My users, for the time being, are those practitioners. I want to learn more about the challenges they are facing, the resources they feel they need and, in bringing them together, the new insights they might be able to realize and that others may apply in their own work.
Are you one of these people or do you know someone in this vein? Are they wrestling with a deep challenge? My goal is to enter into an invitation exchange -- one where I am extending an invitation and, in doing so, hope to have one extended to me. I also, ultimately, seek to explore this space and learn with people. Are you curious, interested, excited? Please message me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Photograph via Flickr user Daniel Lobo)