On-Off, Think-Do, Play-Build: the many paths to results in an world of open processes on digital matter

Last May, we were invited to the Arts Santa Mònica Center in Barcelona as participants in a very interesting series of meetings, organized, among others, by professor Gerard Vilar: Catmeeting III: First Workshop with Laboratoire Paragraphe “Digital art: myth or reality” (see the program here, pdf).

We met there very interesting researchers and practitioners of digital art, from literature to gastronomy. Our contribution was centered on the methodological side, putting in context some practices of participation in view of the different new possibilities opened by digitization.

Here you have the our presentation:

We tried to remark the different exchanges between the digital and the physical and what they might involve in terms of processes and methods of creation and curation. We just wanted to put the focus of several concurrent phenomena and their relevance to the creation of the “digital” in an open way. Perhaps under the spell of this year McLuhan celebration we used as our starting point the affordances of digital media: programmability and hyperconnectedness.

Programming and reprogramming hyperconnections

Because of digitization, media becomes more and more programmable. Programmable media are hyperconnected and, as many others have already remarked, the digital is open to the participatory reinterpretation of media. However, participation with reprogrammable media goes a bit beyond the concept of “remix”. “Reprogramming” is much more than just “remixing”.  This is all the more important when we take into account another factor: the blurring of physical and digital matter.

The digitization of matter and the materialization of software

The invasion of the digital goes way beyond electronic supports. Matter is becoming programmable because of the explosive use of the idea of “code” in genetics and materials. Our example of reprogramming matter and using live matter as “media” was exemplified by several references to Eduardo Kac well known “green rabbit” and other “real chimeras” (Pau Alsina, who also attended the meeting elaborated on the role of chimeras in BioArt and he also referred to Kac’s work). All this leads us to the methodological question of how to confront new processes around “the digital”. For us, programmability brings in design. Operating on hyperconnectedness introduces processes of participation and emergence.


The clash of the virtual and the material opens up a rich combinatorics of methods first tried in user-centric design and open source communities. We used a couple of our projects as examples to illustrate how several well-known methods from user-centric design could travel towards the digital and vice-versa and also which were the difficulties.

  • On-Off: online methods for triggering participation are similar to the ones used in face to face work with user groups in open product, and service design but to a point. Virtual dynamics of participation is very fast and can involve massive amounts of people, but open face to face methods tend to involve much smaller groups. How to use the best of the two worlds?.
  • Think-Do:  collective prototyping is central to the open design approach. Shared reflective practice explores the affordances of materials and prototypes to ideate,  learn together and finally build something new. Working online one loses part of the power of dialoguing with matter. On the other hand discussion can be explicitly documented and shared. Programming is a deep dialogue with virtual matter. The open documentation and processes of open programming methods, hint at interesting methods of sharing practical reflections about ongoing processes of design where design and realization are almost indistinguishable.
  • Play-Build: beyond a simple-minded embrace of “gamification” as the only way to create massive participatory experiences of shared work with digital matter, playfulness has been used extensively in innovation, creativity and design (see the very interesting Gamestorming book for an extensive catalogue of low-tech creativity and innovation games). As a result of playing, prototypes are created and evolve quite fast into products. Digital games as a metaphor and as a method sometimes end up with the creation of a digital product through a very accelerated dynamics. Is it useful  to connect the face to face, low-tech games with high-tech virtual ones?.

These are just three types of processes that can be used to spark the interaction between face to face open design methods with virtual design methods.  We see them just as catalyzers of emergent process building. They are just part of a toolbox for process designers.

The need for research in hybrid methods

In our view, the most convenient framework for understanding the interplay between participatory design methods created for the digital world with open design methods is complexity: the interaction between programmed and self-programmable media, people and media, people and people are the basis of new emergent processes in the creation of meaning and value. And of the aesthetic experience too. There is an aesthetics of participatory complex process in the making, we guess.

Theorizing about this aesthetics is well beyond our goals and abilities, so we just shared the need for a thorough research on what is there to be explored and used and we limited ourselves to the insights gained from the practical side in testing the applicability of methods coming from design and open source, in order to find new possibilities, misunderstandings, difficulties and opportunities. We ended by remarking how this complexity is tied of reflexivity of user and product in open participatory processes and systems based on digital matter: the users design systems where they are as much part of the process as of the final part. The key is connecting design with collective emergence processes.

Design and emergence are usually seen as opposing terms. Emergence goes against the idea of a designer.  However, the exploitation of the apparent dilemma can lead to the fruitful developments. Just follow the tags Metadesign, Design for Complexity and Design for Emergence.


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