IEEE Blockchain Podcast Series: Episode 13
A Conversation with Dr. Chris Elsden
Chancellor’s Fellow in Service Design, Institute for Design Informatics, University of Edinburgh
Listen to Episode 13 (MP3, 32 MB)
Part of the IEEE Blockchain Podcast Series
Brian Walker: Welcome to the IEEE Blockchain Podcast Series, an IEEE Digital Studio Production. This podcast series entitled Research Notes in Blockchain is hosted by Quinn DuPont, former assistant professor at the University College Dublin School of Business and founder of Alumni, a Web3 startup with a mission of putting university diplomas on blockchain. Quinn is also the author of “Cryptocurrencies and Blockchains”. In this episode Quinn speaks with Dr. Chris Elsden, Chancellor's Fellow in Service Design in the Institute for Design Informatics at the University of Edinburgh. Dr. Elsden discusses the role of design as it relates to blockchain and how it can shed light on utilizing decentralized technologies in tangible, safe, and ethical ways.
Quinn DuPont: Well, Chris, thanks for joining us today. I'm really excited to be speaking with you in particular today, because you come from the HCI or human computer interaction world, which thinks a lot about design and the sort of questions that every person who wants to think about approaching a blockchain from a research or development perspective needs to sort of start to grapple with. So, I'd like to open up the conversation really broad from the beginning here and just ask you a little bit more about the role, or what you see is the role, for designers when they start to think about cryptocurrencies and blockchains. As I see it, I think there's a bit of a new role for designers here. And, particularly, there's new role, but there's also new risks. There are risks around tokenization, value exchange. These are really important things. And, specifically, I'm interested in seeing how value-centered design can be an essential part of the design and development process, when we think about cryptocurrencies and blockchains. So, maybe you could just start there, tell me a little bit more about what you see the designer's role in this interesting new world is.
Chris Elsden: Yeah. So, it’s a really good question. I think it challenges designers and design quite a bit. So, I mean, from a traditional human computer interaction point of view, or we could say, like, “Well, it's quite hard to use and, hey, there's a lot of concerns about people falling for scams, and how they might identify, or what's a good project to be involved in, and how to use something safely.” And those things are all-- will be important. And there's a fair bit of research about how people use things like cryptocurrency exchanges. And, in some respects, that's the kind of bread and butter of UX design that we might see with any new technology. What I think is really interesting and challenging for designers when it comes to something like blockchain, and cryptocurrencies is it's asking designers to step into some kind of new spaces. And we touched on some of it there around value and economics and, particularly, thinking about how do we design for sort of networks of stuff and network infrastructure, so we're not just focusing on one interface or one particular product or a graphic, but, actually, we're trying to design whole systems. And there's quite a bit of work out there on system design. And I think it’s the fact that it's looking at kind of taking things like are human relationships and trying to formalize them somewhere in computer code or thinking about how can we improve this particular relationship by producing a token of some kind. So, I think there's a real threat there that is challenging and sometimes quite difficult for designers to engage with. And what I think designers bring is a real sort of sensitivity to how things really work and the real context of use and the challenges that you inevitably run up against when you might figure something out on the back of an envelope or figure something out on paper, but then you actually, say, put this in the hands of people who are not completely immersed in Web3 and Discord servers and MetaMask and say, “Hey, what do you think of this thing?” And that's a lot of the work that we've been doing is sort of trying to confront blockchain technologies with real-world applications and needs and figuring out where's the gap and how do we bridge that.
Quinn DuPont: Yeah, let's talk a little more about some of these-- what I see as sort of these fundamental design tensions. What I'm trying to understand is most-- a lot-- the predominant view of design in HCI seems to come out of human-centered design, right? Speaking about things, about the value-centered design. But I see there's a kind of tension here, right? With blockchains we're talking about this massive scale, where, basically, big data types of problems-- we have these highly functional or high functionality systems that can be used for multiple things that are heterogeneously distributed, typically they're formally leaderless. They often have very little strategic design. Governance is very loose. So, as a researcher, are you able to approach these with this idea of a centered identity for a human realistically? Or do we have to now start to maybe open up and think a little bit more about transhumanism or some various kinds of post-cognitive design methodologies? I've spoken on the podcast before with people like Michael Zargham (MP3, 61 MB), who takes this complex systems approach and wants to see that there are these emergent properties. So, where do you put that design intervention?
Chris Elsden: Yes, it's a good question. I mean. I think in general it’s one of the most interesting and challenging things, is the way that human agency is decentered by some of these technologies. It can be quite scary in some respects, but I think actually produces some of the most interesting topics and contexts for the use of these things. So, thinking about some of the work we've been thinking about what happens when you give a thing via a coffee machine or a piece of art, when you give it a wallet and realizing that that gives it some level of autonomy that might go beyond simple programming it to act in a certain way. And I should say in terms of a lot of the work that we do is we see using design as a way to maybe pick on a particular aspect of blockchain technologies, whether that's decentralization, whether it's automation, whether it's about tokenomics, and thinking how can we, in a human space-- maybe in a gallery space, at an event-- how can we create interactions or some form of event where people can experience, and what kind of dialogue am I now having with this coffee machine that's also making some economic decisions on my behalf, or with this box which is running on a smart contract and is recording everything I do to blockchain. So, from my side, we're very interested in confronting people with that non-human actor and thinking about where does that position them in relation to an object or perhaps an organization as well. So, we try to make these kinds of cuts, which expose-- or how do we feel about where power might be moving around or what's that doing to shift the values that we assumed that were held. So, that's kind of the way that we try to work to try to expose these things and then question what the challenges or the opportunities with that might be.
Quinn DuPont: Yeah. Let's talk a little more about these. You used this term “cuts”. I think this is from your research. Karen Barad's work around the gentle cuts and kind of looking at some of the semantic challenges that are here. So, maybe if we could be just a little bit more concrete, you mentioned a couple of examples I saw in your research. You know, there's a coffee maker, and there's a variety of these sort of art and design interventions. Could you tell me a little bit more about-- maybe even just tell me a little more about those examples and how-- give me a flavor for the kinds of issues that these interventions bring to the fore?
Chris Elsden: Yeah, so, I should say to start with, we kind of have a couple of different starting points. So, sometimes we have organizations that come to us and are just really interested. They've heard about this blockchain thing, this cryptocurrency stuff, and they're interested in what it means for their context. So, we've had charities coming to us thinking, “What does that mean for the future of the way that we donate?” And, other times, there are particular facets of these technologies that we’re interested in, and often an object that's very mundane and everyday, like a coffee machine, can be a really good way to kind of crystallize some of the philosophy or the pragmatics of how these things work. So, in design informatics where I work over almost the past decade, we've done a number of these types of projects, and our aim is almost always to kind of get people in a room with something and with each other around one of these devices that they're often at varying levels of fidelity. So, sometimes, they are fully working, functioning machine. So, the BitBarista was a coffee machine that had a Bitcoin wallet, and it rewarded the user for doing things like cleaning up and changing the changing the coffee. And it also would present the user with choices about where do you want your next bag of coffee to come from? And the users could prioritize the cheapest coffee or the most sustainable coffee or the best-tasting coffee. And then the implication was that the votes of those users would go towards the next bag of coffee that would be bought. In a sense, the coffee machine was ordering for itself. And we've deployed this in office environments, and you realize that there are all sorts of subtle rules and implications about the way we use coffee machines in everyday life that lots of people's offices, if they still remember them, we rely upon. And, actually, even changing really small facets of this interaction can really change the social interactions around that type of space. And, so, that was a very high-fidelity kind of interaction where it was all working at-- Bitcoin at the time was fluctuating quite a bit. So, if we'd held on to some of that-- and this was back in 2015-- it would be worth quite a bit more now. In other cases, we've done things which are kind of more resembling workshops. We've used things like Lego blocks. We ran a whole workshop around self-solving identity that was based on a fictional pizza-making company, and it needed to train a lot of people in skills about how to make pizzas, and then have other people certify those skills. And we end up using a washing line and various things to try and very tangibly visualize, “Well, here’s what a distributed ledger looks like. Here's how you can check independently whether someone has this or that skill. So, kind of depending on the context and, I guess, depending on what we're trying to understand from the people we work with, we kind of vary these levels of fidelity in that that kind of work. And I guess as well it's worth saying is that what we're trying to do here is, thinking more on this longer term, like, what are the implications from living and being with these technologies. It's not necessarily about sort of validating a particular blockchain or a particular technology or application, because they're always changing and, in an academic side, we'll never quite keep up. And, instead, just thinking longer term about what do these technologies have to say about ownership. Or what do these technologies have to say about how we manage our identities or how we present ourselves? And, so, in that respect, what we found is that these-- even though these are projects we did several years ago, they keep resonating. And there might be a new application, or a new sort of hot topic in the blockchain space, that they're relevant to, but they give us a way, really, to talk to all sorts of different audiences about these technologies, even if they don't entirely understand all the mechanics of proof of work, or how blockchain actually functions, we can still present to them, “Well, here's the kind of idea behind this technology. Here's why people are excited about it. What would that mean for you or for your organization?” So, that's the kind of idea of what we're trying to achieve.
Quinn DuPont: Sure, that makes sense. And, so, you know, in your research, you make use of design fictions and a lot of imaginaries. And these kinds of discourse-based approaches I see a lot in the literature. And I think they're really valuable, just as you just described them, but one of the interesting things I think that design in particular offers is-- you already touched on it-- this notion of tangibility. A lot of what you looked at were, as you said, objects of varying kinds of fidelity. You were looking at process. So, I'm just wondering if you have some thoughts on that designerly-tangibility feature? Like, what is it about getting a person in front of an artifact that they can interact with that is so revealing?
Chris Elsden: I mean, one thing is it's just a comfort level, right? So, people know how to use a coffee machine. So, if you put this crazy Bitcoin thing in a coffee machine then there's suddenly-- we open up some sort of practice that they can draw on and that they can use to understand what this blockchain might be doing. So, there’s a sort of familiarity that’s there. I think there is just a thing about occupying space and being-- whether that's-- we've done things and the different coffee cup system that we've used at events and conferences and that, you know, there's an opportunity then to intervene in spaces or in a way that is playful. And, so, I think people can have fun with these things without feeling like it's too serious. And I'm certainly-- from the research side as well, we're really concerned about how do we-- there's a lot of ethical challenges with these technologies and, so, how do we introduce them to people in a way that is critical and safe, but also open-minded and sort of points to what's the broader future for these kinds of things. So, using sort of different tangible objects can be a way to do that. I think the other thing I'd say is it helps simplify. And I would say in a lot of our projects we tend to try and focus on maybe just one or two particular features of blockchain or decentralized technologies that are interesting, whether that's about, okay, well, let's think about what a smart contract is, and let's focus on the idea of self-executing code, or let’s think about your identity record. And we might be kind of hiding lots of other parts of the technology, because it's just too overwhelming for someone to engage with. So, the tangibility can give you a way to kind of draw focus on particular aspects of what technology is doing. And I think also it highlights that most of the things you might be doing blockchains are not necessarily new. Like, we've had talking systems for a long time, and we've had different ways of recording things. So, often, we're kind of-- there’s a sort of resonance there as well, which is saying, well, hey, this thing is not maybe quite as new as it's claiming to be. And you don't need to be quite so worried or presume that, oh, hey I don't know anything about that, so I can't have an opinion or something. So, it's often about just giving people kind of confidence to put it into practice and then to be able to kind of, we hope, relate that when they go back to their colleagues and say, “I was in this workshop and we were doing this thing, and, actually, it made me think of this other thing that we're doing.” So, we kind of hope that it's a way of building connections that I think often can be quite difficult to do when you're confronted with a white paper or with a Twitter thread or something like that.
Quinn DuPont: And described that way, it sounds very much like the sort of process that designers and user experience designers and user testers, these kinds of things they've done for years. As you mentioned, some of this might not necessarily be new. With that in mind I would love to hear your thoughts a little bit on some of the more traditional processes that user experience designers are going to be thinking about, human-centered designers. So, you know, I'm thinking of things like testing and evaluation, or task definition. What about risk management? Disaster planning? Do you have any thoughts on some of those activities, what they would need to transform into to be relevant for these massively decentralized systems?
Chris Elsden: Yeah, I mean, that's-- yeah, that's a really good question. I'd say, like, one thing is it's just that surprising how much of that fundamental -- at least in the academic literature, how much of that kind of fundamental work is still to be done, sort of broad challenges that there’s lots of sort of contemporary features of UX and sort of what we've just described as user-friendly design. So, take something like password recovery where we just rely on the back-- if I forget my password, I can click a link, and I get an e-mail, and then I put it in. And there's lots of things like that, when you remove a centralized actor, that actually become just a lot more difficult. And, so, I think there's a whole sort of set of work there about what are the kind of tenants of good UX, we might say, that we just, oh, no, beat into all sorts of interfaces, that suddenly become a bit trickier to do if you're asking-- if you're using a decentralized system. Equally, I think, alongside that, certainly wallet management again feels quite under-researched and, suddenly, while it's got, I'd say, easier to use than they have been in the past there’s an awful lot of faith and trust there that the user has to go through in order to actually just start experiencing and using the thing and just kind of backs the tangibility thing as well. Often what we've been trying to do is get people a way to engage with the kind of tenants of these technologies without having to go through some of the challenges of things like managing a wallet. And we just did an exhibition recently where people could mint NFTs in relation to a generative artwork they created; very much about giving people the experience and the opportunity to understand what NFTs are and form an opinion of them. And it was the first time we actually had people engaged directly with setting up their own cryptocurrency wallet. And, in some respects, it was quite successful in terms of, like, many people were able to do this. But it still felt like we were making a huge ask of our participants to be able to do that independently. So, I think there's some sort of basics there and that will be really interesting to see how, for example, design patterns and sort of even just like the dialogue around these things, like, how do we-- again, in terms of research point of view, we're very concerned about people having informed consent, but understanding what they're taking part in. And just trying to write down, like, “This is what's happening to your data. Here's where it's going. Here's-- and here's why it's really important that you don't lose this seed phrase. And here's what the implications are of you sharing your wallet address with someone.” So, if you understand the technology, those things are those things are relatively clear, but a lot of users are coming new to the technology, won't necessarily pick that up right away, even if it's kind of sort of spelled out in T's and C's. And, so, I think there's still quite a lot of fundamentals there and that, obviously, as well are part of the reason why a lot of people fall victim to scams and things in this space as well.
Quinn DuPont: So, we've got a lot of design work to do, everything from usability to safety and assurance, and all these kinds of things. I know that you're still actively working in HCI and informatics. Maybe just to conclude here I've got a kind of a two-prong question for you. One, tell me a little more about what you're working on coming up. And two, if you could work on anything, if you all of a sudden got a huge grant, where do you think the next steps would need to be? What's next for HCI and blockchain?
Chris Elsden: Yeah, so, that's a big question. And, so, I guess in terms of stuff that we're doing, like I said, we've just done this exhibition called “A Token Gesture,” where people were able to create non-transferable NFTs as it were. So, essentially, they create an artwork and they-- that artwork is then registered and included in the next exhibition, and they got their-- potentially their first NFT. And, so, what we found-- it took us a long time to decide about how we would and whether we would engage and do an NFT project, but the thing that I find really interesting there is not even NFTs themselves per se, but what that whole space says about ownership, and how we want to engage with digital possessions. And if you look back in the literature about ten years or so, there's a whole wave of work around digital possessions around the time that cloud computing becomes really sort of wide context, of use. And it sort of reflects the anxiety that we had. I have-- my things are no longer physical. I've got all this digital stuff; how's it going to be managed on the cloud? And in some ways, I feel we're at kind of a similar moment where people are really starting to question ownership of digital things and actually questioning the cloud as a legitimate space for that. So, I think that whole space of digital ownership, what we consider as mine and ours, and how I make claims of ownership over things-- I think that's really, really interesting and, you know, what that ranges from, things like tickets to, obviously, cryptocurrency to social media profiles to address books, all these sorts of things. So, I think that's a really big space that is interesting. I suppose the other thing that we're working on is thinking about the application of these in the context of the creative industries. So, what does this all mean for someone who's a freelance photographer, or what does this mean for someone who's a musician, say? And sort of situating these things as well in the context of not just on their own, but in this whole space around the sort of what's called the creative economy. So, how are people getting paid in the creative industries in five- ten years as they’re increasingly working in a kind of freelance gig and fashion. And, also, you know, they're a really interesting community of people to work with, because they already have a sort of real sensitivity to multiple streams of income and multiple-- and sort of precarity and engaging in lots of different audiences to understand what they value. So, I might say those two-- for me, those two things are-- a big piece around digital possession and ownership, and thinking about what this means in the context of different creative industries, whether that's music or art or journalism. I think there’s a huge amount there.
Quinn DuPont: I think that's a great place to end it. I think that we're still only seeing-- we've only seen the beginnings of the creative industries get ahold of these technologies. So, more to be had there. Thank you very much, Chris, for this conversation.
Chris Elsden: Thank you.
Quinn DuPont: It's been super illuminating. And I hope listeners will check out your work and continue to engage with HCI from informatics and design. So, have yourself a lovely afternoon. Thank you.
Chris Elsden: You, too. Thanks very much.
Brian Walker: Thank you for listening to our interview with Chris Elsden. To learn more about the IEEE Blockchain Initiative, please visit our web portal at blockchain.ieee.org.