Phone calls and Big Promises

"So what are you up to today?" asks curious fellow designer person. "Oh, you know, a little genocide in the morning, a lot of emailing people that probably don't care, and then I have to do expenses," I respond.

The curious fellow designer person usually responds with an uneasy silence and a quick change of the subject.

So this is pretty much how things go with a project that has been nothing but an uphill battle emotionally, mentally and even morally for very little reward since 2006 when it was just a school project. That's also when I swore to someone on his deathbed that I would do it. That's it plain and simple - I'm doing what I can to make this project real, not only because its the right thing to do, but because I swore to a dying man that I would.

Design is a lot of times an unkept promise. Nine times out of ten you don't make it real, because, well, real to a lot of people isn't very exciting. The company has too much to lose, or the managers just need to make HQ happy, so they say a lot of stuff that will never happen and then call it design. To make something real, to keep that promise that this thing that looks like this will be a reality for you, you have to make compromises. Often times, you have to make it less fancy, less awesome high-tech, and it really does pain me to use this word, less sexy. For Spomenik, what was initially thought of as some high-fallutin', ubiquitous computing spectacle seems to have become something pretty damn simple. This is not only okay, this is pretty damn good, because we get to keep our promise. We're figuring out that you can really make something that works everywhere. You can basically recreate these tragic events in the woods extremely cheaply and effectively by just giving a mass grave site a phone number.

Calling the Dead

By calling our project Pervasive Monuments we're making a promise. We're making a promise that this thing will work as good or better than a bunch of concrete and steel plopped down on a hunk of land. Spomenik has to work with 80 year old ex-guerrillas, diaspora communities scattered across four continents with truckloads and decades of resent, school kids as well as in the remote forests of a small central European country. Working is something that this thing has to do. That's the promise that a monument makes - that you can take part in history, in remembrance, and in commemoration. A monument makes a promise it will be there, and that it will work.

Fuzziness, Data and Truth

At one of our meetings at the National Holocaust Centre with whom we're working on the Pervasive Monuments project, Adam Moore, our resident information scientist and geo-spatial guy said something that I've been thinking about for quite a while. Here's the summation to the best of my recollection: "In 'hard' sciences, like physics and maths, there are absolute truths — in biology there isn't. Things are fuzzy. Things are probable or improbable." History falls into the same grey cloud that biology does.

"In 'hard' sciences, like physics and maths, there are absolute truths — in biology there isn't. Things are fuzzy. Things are probable or improbable."

This is something that's pretty fascinating to think about in terms of design. With interaction design its almost a given though, you design an experience or a sequence of events or actions and in the end of the day you don't really know how things are going to turn out or what people will do. Systems are loose, there is give and take and there is some leg room for things to stretch out a bit. There is no absolutes, but parameters. You create the playing field, but can't really control so much what's going to happen on it.

With history though, things get a little murkier. For instance, most (hopefully) would say that killing a person because of their race, politics, or religion is wrong. This is an absolute then. So wouldn't the experience then also have to be absolute? How can the experience be relative or dynamic when the context isn't? The numbers and the morals are there, and seemingly indisputable, but if you want to get to the point of understanding how that person got to be the Cain who killed Abel, maybe you should walk a mile in their shoes as well.

The old notion of walking a mile in another man's shoes, which in our case is trying to relay experiences of killing on a mass scale, could really go either way. One's first thought is to empathise with the victim. This is one of the ideas we're playing with in regards to Spomenik or the output end of the pervasive monument. The idea is to create a sense of empathy, of trying to make this person someone who you could have known, or even could have been you. The obvious effect would be sympathy. You would understand the what of the situation, but not necessarily the why.

Reflecting on Adam's statement though, and thinking of experience and design in general got me thinking the other way. What if you were looking instead through a killer's eyes? At the risk of sounding like some sort of psychic police profiler TV show, this would be how you could start to understand how things got to be the way they got to be. How do you prevent genocide? Maybe its not just empathising with the victim, maybe its understanding what the killer thought so next time around someone won't turn into that person.

The Hunt

The Pervasive Monuments project is in full, almost incomprehensible swing, and the swirling mass of ideas, issues and things to consider seems to multiply by the second. We've been looking at is the notion of a monument, or rather, a digital or "pervasive" monument as not just a static thing or even a static experience, but as a system of inputs and outputs. These inputs and outputs would feed in and out of a middleware infrastructural layer that would pull all of the data, geospatial, archival, media and otherwise from various sources and collate it.

The output bit is now called Spomenik ("memorial" or "monument" in Slovenia/Croatian/Serbian) as the original mobile monument project was named, and the input bit is called Urwibutso ("memorial" in Kinyarwanda). The middleware we're calling 1948 after the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

One of the hardest things to try and design for, well on top of designing for mass human extermination in general, is to try and design a considered experience around places that people may not necessarily want to experience. We're covering very difficult issues and that have literally been buried right under people's noses.

We're calling this strand of design thinking "The Hunt" because of the, for lack of a better metaphor, treasure hunt experience it would entail.

Slovenia (like Rwanda in many ways) is a small and semi-dense country and basically these graves are more or less everywhere, a lot of times literally in a lot of people's backyards. The desktop/web app would be a visualisation of this and then drive the user to actually see that spot in the woods right behind their house. The mobile app would then serve almost as a metal detector, with the heads down experience of using it to home into the site(s). Also, the vibrate or even speaker could be used (heartbeats, vibrations, etc.) to create an experience of getting closer and closer, creating some sort of almost heart in your hand, getting more and more excited/nervous. There could also be the idea that maybe as you had it over the ground it would act as an x-ray, showing as you scanned over the site items or pictures buried beneath you.

The idea is one of uncovering and discovery, and trying to get people to explore real places. Its also the idea of using this idea of the handset as a lens, not around you to buildings in crowded places, but in solitary places, looking at the ground and imagining what lies buried beneath.