• Digital Life Initiative

DL Seminar | An Archive of Impossible Projects

Updated: 5 days ago

Individual reflections by Khaled Abughoush, Shubhankar Gaikwad, and Kreshna Rahmat (scroll below).

By Khaled Abughoush

Cornell Tech

On Thursday, April 21st, Professor Anthony Dunne, a Professor of Design and Social Inquiry and Co-Director of the Designed Realities Studio at The New School, gave a lecture describing his design work. In particular, he talked about alternative values, belief systems, and ideas that can be made tangible through everyday objects. Even if they are impossible to make, these objects can be a reflection of the kinds of world people would like to live in.

What are Impossible Objects?

Impossible objects are a form of optical illusion where a 2-dimensional figure represents a projection of a three-dimensional object. The retina naturally understands the 2-dimensional figure; therefore, our eyes can project it as a three-dimensional object. The objects take a couple of seconds before becoming apparent. Yet, the exciting part is that the initial impression associated with the impossible object remains long after the brain contradicts it. Below is attached a Penrose Triangle of a geometric 3D-impossible figure. The Penrose triangle is one of the most well-known impossible figures. In this example, the impossible object doesn't appear immediately to the viewer. It might require the person to examine the object's geometry to evaluate that it is impossible.

Credit: Penrose Triangle by Tobias R. – Metoc - Own work

Impossible Objects to Boost Imagination

Impossible Objects help researchers, like Dunne, to look around the world to find strange and unpredictable objects rather than fiction. It provides an alternative way of seeing the world expressed through the design of everyday ordinary objects. These objects aren't about blurring the boundaries between reality and unreality. Instead, they are about broadening reality to include ideas and realities that might be deemed as unreal - not fake. In the discussion, Professor Dunne stressed the uniqueness of these objects as they don't try to pass themselves

as something that they are not. They do not replace reality or convince the viewer to do so. Instead, the new reality allows for new ideas to stem from them or create a fresh thinking approach. Once they come into existence, they become part of reality, impacting it and making that reality larger and better than it was before. It's imperative to allow for new ideas and thoughts to progress.

Impact of the Metaverse

Towards the end of the discussion, Professor Dunne expressed his concerns about the impact that the metaverse has on the creativity of individuals to produce new objects that can add new reality. Professor Dunne focused on the aspect that realities might switch where wealthy individuals will be the only ones to create and own things in the metaverse. At the same time, ordinary people will struggle to make their way through. There needs to be a balance between the real world and creating objects and displaying them on the metaverse. The metaverse is a double-edged sword that impacts creativity and Imagination. There need to be more studies done around the effects of metaverse on creativity.

By Shubhankar Gaikwad

Cornell Tech

In his talk on 21st April 2022, Anthony Dunne (University Professor of Design and Social Inquiry and Co-Director of the Designed Realities Studio at The New School (Parsons)) enthusiastically spoke about the ideas about the work he and his colleague, Fiona Raby, are working on. Their aim is to use design as a means for emancipation, hoping for ways in which everyday objects can be seen as a medium for speculation and critique.

Quoting Mark Fischer, “.. the weird is a particular kind of perturbation. It involves a sensation of wrongness: a weird entity or object is so strange that it makes us feel that it should not exist, or at least it should not exist here. Yet if the entity or object is here, then the categories which we have up until now used to make sense of the world cannot be valid. The weird thing is not wrong, after all: it is our conceptions that must be inadequate”, Dunne’s work from ‘Hertzian Tale’ (which was in the late 90s during the Internet boom) to ‘An Archive of Impossible Things’, try to externalize imagination; using design to open materialization of alternate realities. There is always a gray zone between what is real and what is imaginary, it is not binary. And media like design, cinema, photographs provide us with ways and loose connections to realizing novel thoughts and realities. They provide tangible evidence and mobilities to perceive speculative things.

Dunne’s work on anamorphic models and designs is not a way of escapism, but rather a mode to understand a different kind of real- which has no close ties to current realities. I agree with his thoughts that ‘weird’ things are not wrong, it is just that we have inaccurate conceptions and we need to adapt to a growth mindset (as described by famous psychologist and author Carol S. Dweck) to foster innovation. Dunne states how the abstraction and subtle contradictions from reality in his work make it possible for his models to provoke thought. His design work is created with weird sizes, angles and shapes with everyday objects which lead to a nuanced reality shift, suitable for contemplation, igniting creative thought processes and reflections.

I liked how he touched on the idea of ‘Xenophilia’- the idea that we need to value differences in order to survive and grow, and how design thinking helps us reduce the boundaries with imaginations to go beyond delusions and binary choices to construct creatively a plethora of multiverses and realities that the digital economy has to offer. Dunne talked about how designs and their critiques help us understand different values and in the end help us comprehend partially the complex entanglement of ideas. Referencing his books -Design Noir and Speculative Everything- he points out how understanding of different values, like leftist, rightist, liberterian or authoritarian, and interacting with speculative objects impact and alter the implications of values that we perceive as a human.

He states succinctly that everyday objects can be used to extrapolate but not predict our comprehension about the future. These tangible objects are an instrument to help us think through weird actions, beliefs, worldviews and ontologies prevalent or upcoming in the world. Dunne discussed this with various weird objects for example like the Cube Earth, Vegetable Lamb, Ostrich Egg Globe and few of his design models and experiments from his lab to explain how weird impossible objects help us reimagine social values, open up reflections for the real vs fictional possibilities.

In the second half of his talk, Dunne discussed his work on using machine learning and AI to generate impossible objects and pondered upon how the algorithms appear to think in a human way. He later discussed the work of one of his students, Shashwath Santosh, which I found fascinating. He conversed about quantum computing and large scale materialization of different views and quantum ideas. He said that it is like Murukami’s idea of visualizing a circle that has many centers but no circumference. He discussed some quantum ideas which challenge the Newtonian thought processes, discussing terms like Manyworldian emotions - Manyworldian existentialism, quantum narcissism, Manyworldian envy and quantum hyper-optimism. Their work and experiments tested how the people in the streets of New York reacted to these weird objects (like Manyworldian Artifact Hunter) which seemed out of place, out of time, like from a split universe. The tests created sort of auxiliary reality zones which help a person think, ponder about alternate realities.

In the discussion that followed, we talked about how AI could help in creating more neuro diverse models to help us understand different realities distinct from our own. We also discussed alternate values that would be at stake. For instance loss of privacy just only to gain insights of a new world. Dunne suggested being less cautious, stepping out of the norms and ethical judgements to gain deeper insights to analyze parallel realities. There was an argument as to how to fight colonization of imagination, like how to fight browser suggestions. And I wonder how we as technocrats play a role in making the technologies less biased. How can we make tech more inclusive to imagination and not hinder creative exploration. How can we encompass the ontological pluralities and how can we understand the past with these novel understanding of the future?

The strangeness of speculating everyday objects, slowing down our interactions and thoughts, and making us more provocative to imagine alternate verses is indeed an integral idea that I agree with. And after chatting with Anthony Dunne, post the seminar, I believe that the metaverse holds many new possibilities for materializing thought and re-imagining various realities. Though Dunne suggested that it would be difficult to draw the line between real and imaginary, hindering creativity as people are not exploring ideas out of the box as before, in the metaverse and ocean of web3, I believe that there is an archive of impossible objects yet to be realized in this sphere and time would only be a good judge. And I hope web3 objects would be seen similarly as objects for speculation and materializing imagination.

By Kreshna Rahmat

Cornell Tech

Anthony Dunne from Dunne & Raby started with the framing that a thing is never a thing. It always has a nuance and depends on the context. He further explained the gist of his work in focusing on objects, and how they can take advantage of design. Doing design outside of the academy basically, taking ideas floating around, and have them exhibited. Sort of like science fictions, selling fantasies and dreams. Thinking of how to design interactions not just form, with deep underlying values and political ideologies

The idea is to think beyond convention, and design future possible objects. Designing a world that doesn’t exist yet. The purpose, among others, are:

1. Nourishing the world that we carry around inside us;

2. Thinking promptly about alternative ways of being in the present world;

3. Providing new vantage points that allow for a questioning of assumptions and values;

4. Expanding possibility;

5. Prompting rather than prescribing; and

6. Creating a new vantage point with fresh eyes that we can act upon in the world.

This is based on the notion of challenging the norm of what would be perceived as weird: something that should not exist, invoking a sensation of wrongness. This play is not new, there have been imaginary histories before as recollected by Darren Oldridge in his book “Strange Histories.” One of the examples is the vegetable lamb, which tries to challenge behavior and action as well as belief and values.

The contemporary version that was created was the archive of impossible objects, which showcased a couple of weird objects, including:

1. Hyperboloid (Dichronauts)

2. Toroidal world (Anders Sandberg)

3. Cuboid earth (Karen Masters)

4. Flat earth

It invites people to interpret reality in their own way, to think about alternative realities and thus ways of living. Other examples would be impossible objects that leveraged on optical illusions such as the Duckrabbit by Simon Cunningham. Objects are explored in a spectrum (e.g., real, have being, ideal, etc) and labeled as impossible objects (avoiding the term “weird”).

Some were made by machines, particularly quantum computing. It opens door for new concepts; challenging Newtonian mindset and affecting how students think about their practice. It’s also a way to bring quantum related ideas to a wider audience.

One interesting experiment that facilitates the exploration of possible alternate realities would be the Universe Splitter app and the trash-picking experiment in NYC; both gives a tangible example of how different things might be had things were decided differently.

The concept is intriguing and something that should be fostered. This is because our reality now is shaped predominantly by commercial pop culture projected by corporations, reinforcing conventions or narratives that are suitable for the power that be. Society needs to be exposed to all sorts of impossible objects so we could leapfrog into a future that is beyond our imagination and hopefully one that transcends our consciousness higher resulting to a better version of reality.