Design Fiction: Harmony
Transforming unpleasant sounds in your environment to pleasant ones
Harmony is a hypothetical prototype that imagines the technological ability to immediately translate negative sound input to a positive output. Hereby allowing a user to go about life without any interruptions of negative sounds.
The idea developed from the considerations of a playful experience manipulated by sound. These two components were the basis and start when considering various futures. In order to get a grasp on the wide array of possibilities, I first considered probable, or the most likely futures (Bowles, 2018). Audio is already available on the go, and easy to access in the form of earbuds. It seems probable that this type of audio will continue to be in use. When considering a less likely but still foreseeable future, or a plausible future (Bowles, 2018), it became about even greater integration of this technology. Whereby perhaps in an ideal, preferable future, curated audio becomes synonymous with our lives.
To create a better idea around audio in the future, I employed the Artefactgroup’s Tarot Cards of Tech (2020). These cards prompt various questions to direct attention towards possible unintended consequences, or potential positive changes. For example, the siren card asks, “What would using your product “too much” look like?”, in regards to constant audio it led to ideas such as people constantly listening to something, detachment from the real world, effects on attention, and boundaries being blurred. This theme of perpetual use was further pushed by considering if a product related to this were to be a “smash-hit”, and millions of people used it. If everyone is constantly using some sort of audio device, what would it be used for? This started a train of thought along daily tasks, could sound indicate when a certain task needed to be done, where it becomes an immediate cue that people follow? Could specific tasks be streamlined through sound, or made more enjoyable? How does it work socially? The future here seemed to rely on audio as a method to ease daily life, perhaps this is a type of product users would be interested in and could explain reasons for constant use.
From here the futuring became less about the actual task, but the environment in which people perform tasks. A task can be any number of things and can be done in any number of places. One thing most places do have in common is some sort of sound. A lot of sounds can detract from a task or an enjoyable experience, for example, a loud siren passing by or the drilling involved in construction. So what if, we could have a device that recognizes these sounds and immediately replaces them with pleasant ones? Satisfying sounds can create a more positive and playful experience (Shneiderman, 2004), which in turn can add to a state of flow when completing a task (Woszczynski, Roth, & Segars, 2002). Therefore having a device that emphasizes playful sounds could prove to be beneficial in day-to-day tasks.
Furthermore, a greater future scenario was considered to situate this type of audio integration. In this close future, a company seeks to rule out and replace all negative impacts in their users’ lives. Stemming from an overarching amount of adverse news and event they create tools to block incoming signals of negativity, whether it be visuals, news stories, and in this particular case audio.
Harmony starts from this notion of creating a future where negative sounds were no longer heard, instead playful, pleasant ones. Design fictions succeed when there is a sense of familiarity but engages the user with new and perhaps ‘uncanny’ designs (Auger, 2013). Therefore, the prototype consists of earbuds most of us are familiar with, but functions in a novel way. The capabilities of these earbuds are informed by the futuring exercise and the design manipulations of a group project. These manipulations worked around the idea of how sounds can create more playful experiences. Here the earbuds function to play pleasant or playful sounds in the place of negative ones. The idea is that when the earbuds are activated and worn, it senses any negative sounds and immediately replaces these with pleasant ones, making negative sounds irrelevant. The negative sounds are recognized based on previously gathered sounds through trials, and the idea is that as people use it they can identify negative sounds. These identifications can be used by AI in order to spot new negative sounds or closely related sounds as they appear. Similarly, the positive sounds are chosen, mostly those found in nature. Quickly the product itself would have a set database of which sounds to replace and what to replace it with.
To showcase this prototype I decided to create a video advertisement that would introduce harmony. Originally I was going to highlight the company that produced this product to create a larger narrative. Here, Harmony would be just one of the products within a line dedicated to creating positive replacements. Ultimately it seemed more effective to just have the one product and put the focus on that. It does so by playing a cumulation of typical sounds that may be perceived as negative and persuading the user they can choose to no longer hear these. Showing them instead of the images of birds and the ocean which can provide a more positive emotion. The simple activation of the earbuds turns the sounds of a lawnmower to a cheerful bird. The exact ways in which the technology works is purposely not shown to try and create a sort of utopic scenario.
The peachy world this company illustrates requires ethical thinking. This can be done by examining the three main pillars of ethics, as described by Bowles (2018), deontology, utilitarianism, and virtue ethics. On the surface, the integration of pleasant audio may pass ethical concerns. For instance, virtue ethics focuses on the intention of the design, where positive virtues are used in decision making. It may be that a company hoping to eliminate negative sounds we experience in our everyday lives comes from a virtuous place. A common way to test this ethic is to imagine how it would read on the front of a big newspaper (Bowels, 2018). A headline reading, Never hear your neighbors’ construction again, can seem quite positive. If the intention is to simply bring some peace of mind to a user, and increase their capabilities of performing tasks morality does not strike as an issue. If however, this type of technology landed in the wrong hands, intentions could shift. Audio could then be used for more cynical purposes such as influencing emotions (Ekman, 2008). This begins to bridge into deontology where Kant’s standard of universalism starts to play a role (Bowles, 2018).
Deontology is the view that ethics are bound to rules and principles. These rules and principles should also be considered in a larger scope where others also have access to the same technology. Although there are no rigid rules discouraging avoidance of negative sounds, and preferring pleasant ones, as noted earlier different people may use it for different means. Beyond universalism, we can consider the platinum rule (an alteration of the ‘golden rule’) whereby Bowles (2018) proposes we consider what individuals want and what lies in their own best interest. A line could be crossed for the users’ best interest when considering the amount of control they have over what they hear. Autonomy is a vital component of any technology or product, it refers to agency and self-regulation users seek (Calvo, Peters, Johnson,& Rogers, 2014). If this device regulates what a person hearing, their independence could be compromised. Not only should we look at how an individual wants to be treated, but whether this product is fair amongst all populations, known as John Rawls’s theory of justice (Bowles,2018). A prototype such as harmony may only be accessible to a fraction of the population, due to technological advantages or cost. Beyond these factors, harmony relies on audio which excludes any individual who has hearing difficulties. If a large number of people can not use this, they may feel alienated and the product has not addressed these members of society. Both autonomy and equal opportunity can also signify negative ethics in utilitarianism standards.
Utilitarianism is often associated with the results of design and whether it maximizes the greatest gain for the most amount of people (Bowles, 2018). Here design is morally right if it yields pleasure. Social determination theory regards autonomy as one of three main contributors to well-being (Calvo et. al.,2014). Therefore a lack thereof impedes with utilitarianism ethics. If the product worked as intended and the majority of the people only gained positive outcomes, it would have a better stance ethically, but would still disregard those within the deaf community.
Overall, this prototype may be set out with good intentions, and satisfy virtue ethics, but as it is reviewed further, there are elements that cause issues from a deontology and utilitarianism viewpoint. Personally, as much as I despise hearing construction next door, I would not feel comfortable with technology dictating the sounds I hear. Autonomy here is taken away, and when considering morals and rules within ethics, the importance lies within the ability to have control over your own decisions. Also, a technology that is immediately useless to a whole set of people, should consider ways it can address this. There could be further ethical implications with products similar to this, such as over-exposure to pleasant stimuli, whether there needs to a balance or if it then becomes obsolete. As a topic to explore these speculations it would be interesting to see what other types of prototypes could be created to minimize negative influences by replacing them with positive ones.
Artefact. (2020). The Tarot Cards of Tech | The power of predicting impact. Retrieved May 3, 2020, from https://www.artefactgroup.com/case-studies/the-tarot-cards-of-tech/
Auger, J. (2013). Speculative design: crafting the speculation. Digital Creativity, 24(1), 11-35.
Bowles, C. (2018). Future Ethics. NowNext press.
Calvo, R. A., Peters, D., Johnson, D., & Rogers, Y. (2014). Autonomy in technology design. In CHI’14 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 37-40).
Ekman, I. (2008). Psychologically motivated techniques for emotional sound in computer games. Proceedings of AudioMostly, 20-26.
Shneiderman, B. (2004). Designing for fun: how can we design user interfaces to be more fun?. interactions, 11(5), 48-50.
Woszczynski, A. B., Roth, P. L., & Segars, A. H. (2002). Exploring the theoretical foundations of playfulness in computer interactions. Computers in Human Behavior, 18(4), 369-388