MIT - Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Maggie Orth | Pervasive Computing in the Age of Environmental Crisis | Nov 6, 2013



For the last 25 years, technologists and designers have dreamt of integrating computing technology into the world around them. From Ubiquitous Computing to Tangible Media and Things-that-Think, this vision continues to capture researchers’ and designers’ imaginations; and in many ways, it has finally begun to bear fruit. Today’s world is full of smart parking meters, Google Glasses, Smart Watches, FitBits, and sensor networks.

But is a world of things infested with computer chips and electronic materials viable in the current environmental crisis? Electronic materials and products present unique environmental challenges. The manufacture of computer chips requires toxic processes and enormous amounts of energy, which is not recoverable through recycling. Smart objects and materials are composites made from many different types of materials- plastics, metals, textiles, carbons- and as such, are difficult if not impossible to recycle.

Given these challenges, should designers be espousing the indiscriminate migration of technology into the world around us? Or is there a more environmentally ethical and wise approach to technology and design? Equally important, can the needs of the environment dovetail with human centered design? Do people want their lives burdened with uncountable pieces of technology?

Today’s designers also find themselves in the service of the corporation. Industrial design has survived by morphing into product design and becoming a way to create new needs and new products that fill those needs. Given technology’s economic status, many of these products are electronic. Most designers sense that the continued creation of short-lived products is unsustainable- and short-lived electronic products especially so. But how can designers act? Is there a way to behave in an environmentally ethical fashion within the corporate economic framework, or must designers search outside it?

I have spent the last 15 years exploring the vision of smart objects and materials in electronic textiles. My work has included technology research, design, art and entrepreneurship. I have created electronic fashions, interactive and electronic artworks, patents and design products. My talk will present an overview of my work in electronic textiles, including early work at the MIT Media Lab, artworks, and products from my technology design company, International Fashion Machines. I will discuss the creative motivation that drove my work, and the technical and economic lessons learned from it. Finally, I will present my ideas for Technological Minimalism, which grew out of my electronic textile and wearable practice, and the questions that I believe young designers must address in the current environmental crisis.

Bio: Maggie Orth is an artist, writer, and technologist based in Seattle, WA. For the last 15 years her artistic practice has focused on electronic textiles and interactive technology. She has created textiles that change-color under computer control, interactive textile sensor and light artworks, and robotic public art. Orth is an interdisciplinary thinker with 15 years of experience in innovation, technology research, design, and entrepreneurship. Her areas of experience include: sustainability, technology, design-thinking, interface design, usability, product development and design, entrepreneurship, brainstorming, standards, intellectual property, wearable computing, and storytelling and verbal communication. Maggie holds patents, has developed her own innovative UL-listed products, conducted research for DARPA, and worked with companies to develop wearable and technology products.

Maggie developed her art and design in the context of her company, International Fashion Machines, Inc. (IFM), which she founded in 2002. At IFM, Maggie focused on the creative, technical, and commercial development of electronic textiles. She wrote patents, conducted research, and developed her own technology and design products, including the PomPom Dimmer. Maggie holds a PhD in Media Arts and Sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Media Lab. She also earned a Masters of Science from MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies, and a BFA from Rhode Island School of Design. She has completed two certificates in non-fiction and fiction writing at the University of Washington.

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