The Family Circuit
2014

What if you were required to produce all the energy you desire consume?

As the world endures and approaches a string of energy crises, both financially and environmentally, The Family Circuit: A New Narrative of American Domesticity aims to critique and challenge society’s relationship with energy by provoking individuals to examine their current habits of energy consumption, consider the future implications of these actions, and question their willingness to make sacrifices for a cleaner environment. This is accomplished through the development of a fictional society in the near future, in which individuals are required to produce all the electrical energy that they need or desire to consume.

Overview

Scientists in the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2013 annual report on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions attribute the changing composition of the earth’s climate to human activities. Research on American public attitudes and opinions towards climate change show the majority views climate change as real, human action as the problem, and personal energy conservation as part of the solution. Yet studies indicates that people have relatively little knowledge and understanding regarding energy consumption and the comparative use of energy in familiar activities. In conjunction with this research, my personal upbringing and interests has exposed me to very broad views on energy as well as polarity in practices. Within these observations, an important conclusion I have formed is that people are very quick to place blame while offering solutions that 1) do not require them to change their existing habits and 2) do not contain both local and global contextual considerations. From this, I believe there are universal gaps in knowledge regarding the full complexity – environmentally, economically, and socially – of the energy industry; but more importantly have found a strong interest in the tendency of people to expect someone or something else to change.

This has led me to ask, “What if you were required to produce all the energy you desire to consume?”

The Family Circuit: A New Narrative of American Domesticity, is a fictional near future in which the Power family lives in a society where they must produce all the energy they desire to consume. Set in 2018 in the energy self sufficient town of Newtown, government regulations and personal motivations in regards to energy production and consumption, result in cycles of events that cause tension, drama, and new peculiar behaviors. The narrative is composed of standard story components, including a setting that defines the world; characters that have strengths, weaknesses, and quirks; and a plot that unravels sequences of tension and drama.

Project Report (PDF)

design fiction thesis by karey helms at umeå interaction design

Designs

Within a daily narrative of the fictional Power family of five, the details and events of their everyday lives have been extrapolated to create a liminal world where mundane, yet peculiar diegetic prototypes create tense situations, uncomfortable behaviors, and unforeseen consequences.

The narrative is manifested through the physical creation of a room from the family’s home, featuring diegetic prototypes in the form of distributed government information. Designs include an energy harvesting product catalog, product infomercial, energy bill, and a home monitoring brochure. Within the setting are hints of the potential implications of this fully self-sustainable lifestyle, including photographs of energy harvesting products in (mis)use and a radio show detailing character backstories and interactions during a single day of their lives.

design fiction thesis by karey helms at umeå interaction design

The intent of the exhibition was to create an unobtrusive and nonthreatening opportunity for the viewer to place oneself in the shoes of a character. The narrative emphasis and human driven context aspired to foster a new lens of speculation, imagination, and discovery regarding the production and consumption of energy.

design fiction thesis by karey helms at umeå interaction design

[1] Energy Bill, distributed by shag. Power

The shag. Power energy bill displays information regarding energy production and consumption relative to the town of Newtown, its other inhabitants, and of individual household members. If more energy is being consumed rather than produced it communicates the consequences. By making every family’s production and consumptions habits conspicuous to the community at large and internally to each other, shame and competition can be fostered. All aspects serve as plot devices to didactic anchoring.

design fiction thesis by karey helms at umeå interaction design

[2] Brochure, distributed by shag. Home

The shag. Home brochure contains general information on shag., recommended energy harvesting products based on home activities and individual habits, and tips and tricks on a spotlighted product already owned by the receiving family. Akin to targeted advertisements, through smart home monitoring and behavioral analyzing, the shag. Home brochure knows more about each family than the members themselves might, and makes suggestions that indicate what else might be going on in your life.

design fiction thesis by karey helms at umeå interaction design

[3] Catalog, distributed by shag. IT

The shag. IT catalog, or The Energy of Things, is a platform for user submitted energy harvesting products to be sold through the government. The catalog is sent weekly and tailored to each family’s lifestyle patterns and activities.

design fiction thesis by karey helms at umeå interaction design

[4] Infomercial, distributed by shag. News

The shag. News infomercial advertises the energy harvesting dishwasher gloves, further emphasizing the peculiar transformation of the mundane but also suggests underlying government motives and potential misuse.

[5] Product(s), distributed by shag. IT

The selected product to highlight from shag. IT is the energy harvesting dishwasher gloves. They lay on the table and are also referenced in the catalog, infomercial and family freeze frames. The serve as a diegetic prototype and were chosen to more strongly profile in the story and scene because of their extreme normality and utter boringness.

design fiction thesis by karey helms at umeå interaction design

[6] Freeze Frames, photographs from the Power family

The family freeze frames, or snapshots serve as ‘photo captions’ from life with the Power family, providing insight into bizarre behaviors, strange habits, and object misuse that arise. The chosen moments to highlight are misuse situations of the dishwasher gloves (Mister Hands), the pacifier (Pacify Her), and the shag carpet (Carpet Footprint). These products were chosen to highlight because of their familiarity and mundane nature in addition to their role in the resulting plot and other props.

design fiction thesis by karey helms at umeå interaction design

[7] Radio Show, distributed by shag. News

The shag. News radio show provides a more detailed and specific insight into Newtown and the lives of the Power family, including backstories and personality traits of individual family members. The resulting narrative is composed of standard story components, including a setting that defines the world; characters that have strengths, weaknesses, and quirks; and a hyper local plot that unravels sequences of tension and drama. I consciously constructed the narrative with familiar story components both as a structure for myself and with the intent on making the project accessible to an audience.

The radio show is aimed specifically at exhibition and online viewers, providing a platform for people to listen to the narratives, rather than read them. The radio show reformats content from the written narratives into a podcast modeled off of NPR’s This American Life.

Result

Using the characters and plot devices, I suggest a potential narrative – or family circuit – with a clearly defined action, climax, and resolution; This potential sequences of events is a interdependent loop that might occur within the defined context. By presenting a chain of events, I invite the audience to imagine how they would conduct themselves within these situations, as well as witness the development of potentially odd rituals and curious behaviors. During the plots, the desires, strengths, and weaknesses of the characters serve as one form of plot device, or a MacGuffin, driving the plots forward to achieve a desired goal or object, typically related to energy consumption. Print and video information distributed by the government – such as a product catalog, energy bill, home monitoring brochure, energy harvesting products, and a television informercial – serves as both didactic anchorage and diegetic prototypes to enhance, explain, and progress the plot.

Below is the plot diagram, or ‘family circuit,’ as described in the radio show. For the full script please visit this blog post.

design fiction thesis by karey helms at umeå interaction design

Umeå Institute of Design
Niklas Andersson (thesis tutor)

Skills
Design Research, User Workshops, Concept Design, Creative Writing, Speculative Design