Last Writes

Made by Theo Mandin-Lee

Created: May 10th, 2022

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Last Writes

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Think Piece


E-waste is a growing problem with the planet producing over 50 million metric tons of it every year. At the global scale, this waste fills landfills and recycling centers, but in reality much of it lives in our homes, with an estimated 15% of the electronic devices in the home being broken or no longer used. These objects have clearly limited lifespans due to obsolescence by compatibility, supersession by superior technology, or limits to the materials of their physical form.

“Designing for the End of Life of IOT Objects” proposes that these objects can have value to their users beyond just their functional or performative values, such that users will keep around the broken and non-working devices as sentimental objects. Like many others, I have kept a few old phones, laptops, iPods, cables, usb sticks, memory cards, and other e-waste, traveling with me from apartment to apartment as I’ve moved over the past decade or so. Sometimes the more well-loved ones have an appreciable sentiment, or still have some usefulness to someone somewhere.

Furthermore, these devices contain data remnants about our past selves, old school assignments, texts with past crushes, and the albums and songs we loved as teenagers. What does this data say about ourselves back when these devices were cutting edge and new? How might we re-experience some of our past emotions through this data? In the way that the technological world moves so quickly, with only a quick glance to the past, maybe we can hope to learn about ourselves or remember ourselves by looking at the devices that hold the once precious data important to those experiences.

Design Friction’s Data Funerals provokes similar questions. The speculative project uses design fiction to explore rituals for data that is past its prime, invoking the ideas about funeral rites and requiems for the now defunct data and technological objects. Once we’ve reengaged this data, how can we give these devices a way to pass on to their next life as recycled materials, while still commemorating the place that they held in our lives? I’m interested in investigating a device for interacting with other devices–something that can help us give ceremony and ritual to divert these older, seldom-used technological relics from the wastestream and reenter the world as a new product.

Last Writes seeks to create a work of design fiction about a world where people care about and have attachment to their old devices, yet understand that it’s important for the resources within these devices to be used again. In the sense of Julian Bleecker, this machine is a “component parts for different kinds of near future worlds…They are complete specimens, but foreign in the sense that they represent a corner of some speculative world where things are different from how we might imagine the “future” to be. (p. 7)” This is a machine that exists in that alternate world or future where the passing on these old devices is ritualized. At the core of the functionality of the Last Writes machine is a language model that writes the obituary about the devices given meta-data and information collected about the device once connected. There is a heartwarming, almost overly tender quality to the extreme sentiment embodied by the words written by GPT3, injecting humor and liveliness to the world that this machine would inhabit.


Citations:


Data Funerals

Design Friction -Léa Lippera, Bastien Kerspern, Estelle Hary

http://www.datafunerals.com/about/


Design Fiction: A Short Essay on Design, Science, Fact and Fiction

Julian Bleecker

https://blog.nearfuturelaboratory.com/2009/03/17/design-fiction-a-short-essay-on-design-science-fact-and-fiction/


Susan Lechelt, Katerina Gorkovenko, Luis Lourenço Soares, Chris Speed, James K. Thorp, and Michael Stead. 2020. Designing for the End of Life of IoT Objects. In Companion Publication of the 2020 ACM Designing Interactive Systems Conference (DIS' 20 Companion). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 417–420. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1145/3393914.3395918

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Catalogue Description

Last Writes

Credit: Theo Mandin-Lee, CMU MHCI '22

In the cycle of planned obsolesce, we replace devices on an ever-shortening timeline, such that e-waste of old devices has become a growing global problem. These old devices can also collect within our homes, forgotten in the back of a drawer or cabinet and left to later be discovered. Last Writes is a counterfactual machine that exists in a world where we care deeply about our e-waste and our personal attachment to the devices that hold our old data. This device assists in a ritual of returning e-waste as raw material to complete the life cycle of the device. The e-waste device is commemorated by an obituary written by the Last Writes device and printed into physical form. Through recollecting our own memorable experiences and seeing a machine interpretation of the data, we allow our digital past to inhabit the present once again.

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RME last writes
Theo Mandin-Lee - https://youtu.be/My_oChZKY4I
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Process

I began with researching similar projects and mapping some of the themes and questions I was considering exploring within the final investigation. This took the form of a FigJam board that was refined to solve some of the questions and interactions present in the device. From the beginning there was a notion to use GPT3 to write some sort of text about an e-waste device, using information and meta-data collected about the device.

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An early concept was imagined as a few objects involved in the ritual including the Last Writes device itself, an urn for depositing a receipt received from the device, and a receptacle for recycling the e-waste. The urn and recycling receptacle were meant to be a part of the ritual in interacting with the device to solve some of the questions around what happens to the e-waste after receiving the receipt, and what the user might do with the receipt after processing the e-waste.

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To develop the housing of the Last Writes device, After searching for actual e-waste items that could be gutted to house a screen and Raspberry Pi, I settled on an odd shaped computer tower that had both familiar features but also a slightly unfamiliar form factor for a device. This suited the project as a work of design fiction, existing in a world where we have more care for our e-waste devices.

The technical implementation at this point was still quite rough as some of the original functionality that had been imagined proved to be difficult to implement. After struggling with the technical implementation, I made a few decisions to streamline the execution of the device, tailored to how it might be presented for the exhibition.

For the program, I made the decision to hard code the data to demonstrate what sort of information could be gathered from a connected e-waste device rather than having the program gather it automatically. Additionally, the interface for the device came together as a series of print functions controlled by a hardware button inherent to the housing, effectively using the terminal window as an interface rather than building another piece of code entirely. I wrote a brief, but light in tone script for the instructions printed through the program.

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E waste
Img 3361.thumb
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Last Writes Pseudocode / Script Outline

[launcher.py]Display "Push the Red button to start."
    Runs subprocess for [last_writes.py]
    Push button -> Run program (if press_count = 1, run)
        Runs [last_writes.py]

    [last_writes.py]
        [clear terminal]
        Print "loading..." + "." 
        [clear terminal]
        Print "Waiting for device to connect. Please connect a device."
        User connects a device
        [clear terminal]
        Print "USB connection detected...Please wait..."
        Print "." 
        [clear terminal]
        Print "USB device loaded. Press the blue button to continue."
            (if press_count = 2)
            [clear terminal]
        "Reading data..." "."
        "Generating response..."
        [clear terminal]
        [Send request to GPT3, receive response, parse, and generate]
        Print to terminal Usb Device name date
        Print "obit_print"
        Print "Press the blue button to print."
        User presses button (button press event if press_count = 3)
        [clear terminal]
        Printing "Printing" 
        [send obituary to thermal printer]
        [clear terminal]
        [print to thermal printer "Please recycle your device..."]
        Print "Thank you for using your Last Writes machine."
        [end subprocess and restart]
        [clear terminal]

[launcher.py] Display "Push the blue button to start. Push the Red button at anytime to exit."
Click to Expand
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To resolve the ritual the Last Writes device would be involved in, the receipt became a takeaway for the exhibition attendees interacting with the device and the recycling part of the usb was unnecessary as it needed to be able to be used multiple times for the demonstration of the device. This stripping away allowed a stronger focus on the experience of creating and printing an obituary for a device.

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The final cut of the investigation included the recycled housing, containing the screen, Raspberry Pi, and wiring. I made modifications to the housing to mount the screen and thermal printer. The simple interaction of the button and progressing screens directs the user’s focus on both the words on the screen and the physical receipt being printed that contains the AI generated obituary.

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Roadmap for future work

There are numerous pieces of implementation that could not be completed within the short 5-week time frame. A roadmap to a more complete prototype would include implementation that allows a wider range of devices to be plugged in and have the data read, i.e. iPods, old flip phones, hard drives, memory cards. This strengthens the concept to include all e-waste, and especially in an exhibition format, allows someone to plug in their own devices. Though the interface is rudimentary print() functions, the overall aesthetic fits the work as design fiction, so a second iteration on the interface implementation would follow this aesthetic but take a little more refinement in terms of interactivity. The flow is linear currently, running in an infinite loop, where the user doesn’t have any freedom within the program, so a second iteration would allow more flexibility and feel like a real application.

For the physical design of the device, I would spend the time to make refinement to the housing and casing, possibly to reduce the size and have a less ‘cobbled’ together feel. 3D modeling housing and 3D printing them would be ideal and reasonable in a 2-3 week frame.

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Critical Reflection

The prototype was well-received at the exhibition, and the core idea of creating an AI-generated obituary for a USB stick was compelling to the audience. Many found the aesthetic of the device to work well, and I would consider this successful diagesis for this work of design fiction. The interaction was simple enough that most understood how to use the device and the accompanying props. Giving the audience the receipt to take away from the exhibition made it possible to continue the purpose of questioning about our own e-waste, away from the exhibition. I think that the context & setting may have been less successful for this device and would like to consider this set of interactions and functions in a context like an e-waste recycling center, where someone has come to get rid of their old devices and they are given a receipt obituary in return for dropping the device off.

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