LF08 - Embodied Futures

Organic organizations and embodied experiences

Hi, Tom here. Welcome to Little Futures season 2 - a series of six emails alternating between myself and Brian. Last week: Seamful Futures. This week: Embodied Futures.

Bodies are center stage right now. In my world - my son is almost 9 months old and putting everything within reach in his mouth as his first teeth come in... His entire life has had the backdrop of a global pandemic - mediated by bodies and biology.

Corporations love to erase bodies from the equation. At best, they acknowledge users as having behaviors and motives, but rarely bodies.

Big Futures are disembodied futures - users played by actors, but no human bodies in sight.

Little futures are messier - real bodies are flesh, blood, grease and sweat. Real bodies grow, adapt, age and get sick.

The pandemic has been a wake up call that the future is increasingly embodied - our environment is physical, and our selves are as well. Our users have bodies, our employees have bodies.

Businesses are being forced to recognize the full reality of the human body. 

Looking outwards, organizations should acknowledge that users have embodied experiences, and looking inwards we should acknowledge that our organizations are organic.

Embodied Experiences

We think of digital experiences as mostly virtual, disembodied experiences. But technology is increasingly entwined with our biological systems. I’m not talking about neuralink, but rather the idea of cuddling with our smartphone in bed, while our apps change how we sleep.

Technology experiences are now inside our most intimate bodily OODA loops and can track our heartbeats, our periods, our illness, our emotions.

We should look for deeper understandings of our users embodied experiences.

How often do we observe embodied experiences from our users? What is happening to our users' bodies when they use our technology? How do our user’s bodies change over time?

Organic Organizations

Meanwhile, our corporations are full of bodies - our offices have become disembodied and mediated via Zoom screens but our teams are still embodied and grappling with new environments.

The body becomes a clearer extension of the organization now that we're playing in emergent territory - the home is now the office and companies are now in the business of managing the risk of people's health, mindset, focus, childcare and wellbeing in new and emerging ways.

All work is body work, even knowledge work.

We should look for stronger insights into the changing bodies of our teams and employees. What do we ask of our teams bodies? What responsibility do we have to our employees wellbeing? What is the development budget of the future where the home is the office?

Little futures are observed

We are collectively renegotiating our embodied experiences and our organic organizations. Little futures are easy to find if you allow yourself to see the bodies around us.

Big Futures are imagined, little futures are observed.


This week’s links - bodies.

The Magnificent Machinery of Hands

This lovely rant from Bret Victor on the lack of hands (and bodies) in our sterile future visions:

Hands do two things. They are two utterly amazing things, and you rely on them every moment of the day, and most Future Interaction Concepts completely ignore both of them.

Hands feel things, and hands manipulate things.

Related: I found this old photo essay in my Medium drafts and hit publish. The Magnificent Machinery of Hands.

Curious Rituals of Embodied Humans

This lovely research into curious rituals and embodied habits we have with technology - from blowing in the SNES cartridge and haunted interfaces to “clicker casting” the TV remote towards the TV:

What Can a Body Do?

Sara Hendren, has been writing, researching and teaching at the intersection of albleism and engineering for a long time - for example her lovely engineering at home showcase of DIY engineering with unlikely objects to extend bodies of all types.

And she just wrote a book: “What Can a Body Do? How We Meet the Built World

A manifesto for designs that do not know what bodies aren’t

This lovely essay (found via Christina Xu above) by Léopold Lambert and Minh-Ha T. Pham on bodies and design - Spinoza in a T-Shirt:

Floors and clothing are exemplary everyday built environments, so pervasive that we tend not to notice them. They structure our every intimate, mundane, and extraordinary encounters with our own and others’ bodies and environments.

Embodied Knowledge

Another book about what the body knows - this one from Simon Roberts, founder of Stripe Partners: The Power of Not Thinking: How Our Bodies Learn and Why We Should Trust Them.

For a good chat and background check out this episode: The Business of Body Intelligence with Simon Roberts:

Are You Scanning Me, or Am I Scanning You?

QR codes have been a part of everyday life in most of the world - but not in the US. But with COVID they’re seeing a resurgence. A good time to revisit this wonderful piece on the embodied use of QR codes from Christina Xu:

Like a handshake or the passing of a business card, the scanning of a QR code has become a ubiquitous gesture increasingly read as a social performance; a digital first impression. At its best, it’s a playful, suggestive interaction charged with the palpable potential energy of a new relationship.

A Subversive Approach To The Ideal Normatized Body

This lovely visual essay that catalogs the variety and range of designs, concepts and blueprints that have been made in various contexts to attempt to map the body, and what it’s capable of:

As a conclusion we can say that the elaboration of an architecture based on the consideration of an ideal normatized body is dangerous as this architecture will not only be discriminatory but will also force any body to physically tend towards this normatized body. Conceived this way, architecture becomes a machine engaging processes of normatization, both in its users’ imaginary and in an anatomical action -similarly to a garden stake for a plant- as the body always attempt to adapt to its direct environment.


Today’s artwork: David Hockney, “Joiner” Self Portrait.

Before the Big Future, endless little futures…

Tom