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PhD Defence Young Suk Lee | Expressive entitites - An Exploration and Critical Reflection on Poetic Engagements with Technology

Expressive entitites - An Exploration and Critical Reflection on Poetic Engagements with Technology

The PhD Defence of Young Suk Lee will take place in the Waaier building of the University of Twente and can be followed by a live stream.
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Young Suk Lee is a PhD student in the department Design Engineering. (Co)Supervisors are prof.dr.ir. M.C. van der Voort, prof.dr.ir. G.D.S. Ludden and dr. D. Ozkaramanli-Leerkes from the faculty of Engingeering Technology.

The overarching motivation of this thesis is to open new ideas on designing aesthetic interactions in everyday technology, moving beyond goal-directed utility to more nuanced, experimental, and even challenging interactions. My research endeavor is to impact human value by creating critical and imaginative technology-human relations. In particular, I design digital expressiveness to accommodate sensitive human sides before highlighting digital beings’ effective performances. In doing so, I strive for expressive yet thoughtful computational embodiments that empower humans to be expressive, reflective, explorative, and connected to each other. To bring these conceptual experimentations into tangible experiences in people’s lives, my research is based on designing interactive artifacts called “Expressive Entities”. In this account, the designed artifacts are neither solely creative pursuits of art nor inventions of practical tools. Instead, they are:

  • a creative resource for providing poetic experiences for daily space,
  • a provocative and active means to raise awareness and trigger reflection,
  • an expressive and explorative medium to introduce new roles for everyday artifacts by questioning the mainstream meanings and values that drive technological progress. 

With these “Expressive Entities”, I build a conceptual framework through a design research program called “Poetic Engagements with technology”. In this space, I aim to develop creative design values to enrich our everyday lives, by weaving artistic creation’s unique sensibilities into utilitarian products’ functional features. To create a theoretical grounding for designing “Poetic Engagements with Technology”, I reflect on four creative approaches (Speculative, Reflective, Slow, and Ludic Design) in Human-Computer Interaction and Design research. In connecting these theoretical discussions with design explorations, I identify the need to establish footholds that address how to materialize these logical tactics into a tangible medium. As a result, I open a new methodological approach to RtD that could contribute to bridging conceptual and design practices. In parallel, I also open a conceptual exploration to foster creative perspectives toward technology that constitutes a contextual background for this thesis. I reflect on how everyday technology addresses ‘usefulness’ by providing technological solutions for daily problems, extended technological roles. In doing so, I revisit common pervasive technology approaches (e.g., behavior change with calorie counting in smartphones) through persuasive and affective design. Subsequently, I raise critical questions that open alternative ways of engaging with technology towards embracing humanity's values in designing Human-Computer Interaction.

To carry on this research outline above, I pursue an integrated approach from 1) conceptual and 2) methodological sides to steer 24 design explorations that underpin this thesis. One stream creates “Four Poetic Interaction Possibilities”, representing alternative ways of bringing technology into life from a conceptual development. The other creates “Experimental Making”, cultivating new aesthetic possibilities in design practice from a methodological development. These two main research streams are correlated and complementary, aiming to expand the idea of poetic interactions and experimental design values.

First, I open conceptual experimentations on imagining what could represent “Poetic Engagements with Technology”. Essentially, Poetic Engagements seek to build intriguing bodily experiential possibilities on conceptual design narratives for everyday living spaces. Here, the main trajectory is unfolded by reflecting on how we engage with technology in daily life before embarking on imaginative explorations. As means of providing convenient and pleasant life, the dominant technology in the modern era tends to evolve with digital autonomy and smartness, and computational abilities heavily rely on measuring people by quantified data. As a result, technological results built upon numbers, words, and graphs define how people should work by providing an optimal fit. Simultaneously, a generalized design solution tells us the right way to act and live but leaves little room for reflecting individuals’ values, goals, and meanings of lives. This common approach has fewer considerations in communicating with sensitive human beings (e.g., authenticity, vulnerability, and complexity) or building intimate connections to digital entities. Therefore, “Poetic Engagements with Technology” redefine the idea of ‘human-centered’ by thoughtfully designing the expressiveness of digital entities to open a new relationship with technology.

Poetic Engagements allow humankind to be protagonists who feel, sense, perceive, choose, and appropriate the engagements with technology, and avoid defining human beings from a generalized and filtered result through a technological lens. Accordingly, Poetic interactions inevitably mediate and open human’s subjective sensations and perceptions to shape co-creative interactions with technology. These sensual experiences intend to stimulate rich emotions and self-reflection, opening many layers of connotations and multi-faceted perspectives on human beings rather than simply giving information. By designing these embodied interactions in ordinary artifacts, the poetic experiences create a channel that invites people to reconnect to their authentic selves, reopen social connections, and rediscover their humanity. Consequently, such poetic engagements create contexts of use built around acknowledging people’s vulnerable, complex, emotional, and imperfect sides, where it touches a deeper sense of authenticity and compassion.

The outcome of this conceptual framework, “Poetic Engagements with Technology”, is composed of Four Poetic Interaction Possibilities. These interactions are idiosyncratic and imaginative as they employ playful, mischievous, strange, and visceral characters rather than logical, well-behaved, or familiar ones. These characteristics are aggravating, irritating, and even uncomfortable as they intervene in humans' accustomed lifestyles to open evocative dialogues. In Particular, Poetic Engagements draw paradoxical connections and dualities in their expression to strive for thoughtful provocations. These characteristics make people pause, raise awareness, and reflect their surroundings, and their relationships with others. To open these meaningful roles and new aesthetic sensibilities in engaging with technology, I describe poetic interaction possibilities with 24 design explorations in the following four categories.

Expressive Tech provides expressive vehicles in which a human’s volitional action operates the expressiveness of technology in building the extended self. Expressive Tech enables people to choose technology to facilitate what they want to express rather than accept what technology can measure, detect, transmit, and express what the human body responds to. This approach reflects a broadened understanding of what could be an expression; a person's inner self can be transparently revealed to others, but the actual mind can be hidden, expressed in a more nuanced way, or even expressed in a contradictory manner. By six interactive wearables, Expressive Tech provides the use of expressiveness of technology in which the wearers can adorn personality, identity, and mood, allowing humans to open affective conversations towards the world.

Felt Tech provides reflective mediums to evoke awareness on people’s behavior. By developing aesthetic qualities with unique material explorations, Felt Tech emphasizes sensual embodiments in which people perceive their emotions and sensations. By situating visceral digital interactions where habitual activities or vices occur, Felt Tech strives for affective experiences to produce "tacit knowledge" of self. Using six interactive designs, the feltness of technology encourages people to connect personal emotions, reflect on their behavior, and define their own will, rather than being informed about what they need to do, what they are doing, and what the way of doing means in their life by numbers or words, and graphs.

Mediative Tech provides mediative triggers to draw people's attention to their surroundings and induce people to open conversations and work together. Mediative Tech is based on critical reflection on the daily design solutions optimized for individual needs to bring convenient life but does not allow people to understand how others experience or feel. Mediative Tech builds shared experiences to generate emotional bonds, consideration, and connection, which are the essential fuels for gaining joy, encouragement, and gratitude in life. Using six interactive designs, various human-technology relations are explored to define mediative characteristics. Such aesthetic explorations build paradoxical relations: stimulating unique intimacy through strenuous, unpleasant, unstable, and uncomfortable interactions.

Ludic Tech provides playful explorations in engaging with technology that promotes human rights of play, as well as secures the inherent nature of human beings. It opens functional estrangement in ordinary artifacts to induce people to engage in meaning-making exploration with playful activities. By embedding extraordinary aesthetics that are inspired by the playful relationship with pets and plants, Ludic Tech stimulates unique companionship by engaging with life-like digital creatures. Using seven designs, Ludic Tech introduces more idiosyncratic design roles that invite individuals’ creativity and respect their own unique discoveries, in contrast to serving a conventional function. In summary, these Four Poetic Interaction Possibilities facilitate people experiencing exploratory activities, creative energy, and playful spirits through everyday artifacts. They allow people to express, feel, play, and connect to the world (including self, others, and objects) through more organically interacting with technology.  

Second, I open methodological development that bridges the conceptual exploration to design practice by an integrated approach to “Experimental Making”. This approach introduces the key distinctions and connections that transform conceptual experimentations into tangible expressions. Creating tangible expressions in Expressive Entities is heavily grounded in practice-based research, which makes Experimental Making possible. Making here refers to an integrated process involving a series of actions and outcomes rather than a singular accomplishment. Making an artifact requires continuity with multifaceted connections in “Expressive Entities”: introducing new concepts, embedding metaphors, and developing sensual aesthetics to communicate the first two contents. This line of practice-driven approach is related to “Research through Design”. In particular, I propose a concept of “Experimental Making” by exclusively bringing art practice strategies and values in designing: It means opening the tacit knowledge I gained through the years of practice-based research between 1998-2023. I incorporate critical design perspective and imaginative ideas into material explorations and fluid assemblages for designing new aesthetic interactions. Here are the three essential components in the opening “Experimental Making”: Defamiliarization, Creativity, and Imagination.

The practice of Defamiliarization opens a conceptual exploration for an alternate way of seeing, thinking, and connecting by questioning the default settings in our society and culture. Defamiliarization is the first step of Experimental Making, re-visiting the way we interact with habitual practice, customary acceptance, and our general tendencies. Thus, this process helps to recognize what aspects of human value we have forgotten about in interacting with daily designs and invites creative design perspectives toward technology. In creating “Expressive Entities”, questioning how much digital interaction accommodates sensitive and various human beings and fulfills their needs is the essential groundwork.

The practice of Imagination creates new aesthetic interaction possibilities beyond how we can calculate, generalize or prove by a scientific design approach. Imagination is a mysterious ability in the human mind, picturing unexpected ways of artifacts becoming something and counterfactuals. In addition, Imagination leads to envisioning unique material properties in connecting a conceptual idea to a specific scene. Therefore, Imagination is an essential part of mental activity that leads to rich experiences and discoveries that connect all the necessary components to shape a design from a concept to a tangible thing: formulating how to unpack narrative, implying metaphors, and expressing them in creating interactions. Therefore, Fostering an inspirational design path through taking in Imagination as a core design element flourishes imaginative stories in designing.

Adopting the art-practice value to the practice of Creativity opens more fluid explorations and unique expressions in design practice rather than focusing on the structured tactics and iteration from a problem-solving approach. This approach focuses on pursuing an authentic creative endeavor and an epistemology of practice implicit in the artistic and intuitive processes, characterized as “Reflective Practice” by Donald Schön (Schön, 1983). This creative journey allows one to move beyond predominant paradigms and pre-conceptualized ideas about design and extend one’s expressive possibilities. The artistic strategies shaped by a generative making process reinforce creative design practices and extend experimental ideas and aesthetic sensibilities on diverse design characteristics. These include sophistication, delicacy, and even temporality, on top of the durability or slickness of designing.                          

The three components of the Experimental Making are intertwined in the working process or can develop in parallel. This methodological exploration has developed in cultivating creative design thinking and a new approach to formgiving in design research. Here, formgiving refers not only to creating intricate artifacts figuratively but also to picturing new aesthetics concerned with creating thoughtful human-technology relations, bringing poetic experiences into life.