Opt-in Radio

Opt-In Radio being assembled. Unfortunately I have lost my photos of the completed unit.

In his Design Fundamentals course, Prof. Felix Hardmood Beck tasked students with designing a “Bricolage” radio that occupies an intermediate space between mass market product and one-of-a-kind artifact.

The Opt-in Radio was my entry. The philosophy behind the concept was inspired by Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head, which I had just read then.

The first thing that stood out to me from observing and interviewing radio users around me was how few people actually consistently listen to FM broadcasts anymore. The second realization was that many of those who do use it as a sort of constant auditory backdrop. As the always-open music streaming clients and on-by-default television suggest, many of us who don’t listen to radio regularly also engage in this sort of mindless exposure to stimuli. We seem to have lost the ability to be comfortable with silence.

The Opt-in Radio turns itself off every 10 minutes and can only be turned back on by the explicit (and hopefully conscious) act of pushing a button. The radio periodically reorients itself to face the closest person, its sole eye-like speaker evoking a sensation of being contemplated by another. It was intended as a reminder to start thinking more closely about how we apportion our finite attention, to extricate ourselves from constant distraction, and to engage more deeply with the world.

On a more technical level, the “life form” detection/tracking was based on an array of passive infrared (PIR) sensors that monitored the IR signature of people (and presumably similar bags of flesh).

Early functional cardboard prototype of Opt-in Radio

Finally, some slightly more philosophical musings about the project: 

This is an era where digital entrepreneurs and marketers speak of the “attention economy”. We often find constant and unrelenting demands placed on our attention by multi-sensorial stimuli designed to capture and hold our attention, primarily in service of commercial and corporate interests. This is particularly true of public, and increasingly, shared spaces. In World Beyond Your Head, Matthew Crawford presents an eloquent case for seeing this increasingly widespread appropriation of our attention as a threat to our capacity to engage in the experience of joint attention. In our daily lives, we find ourselves confronted with stimuli ranging from the piped-in background music that fills elevators to advertisements that permeate taxi seatbacks and napkins on commercial airliners.

Crawford argues that this results in a diminished sense of awareness of others’ presence and a growing sense of alienation, even as we live in ever-closer proximity to each other in cities. My personal experience living in big cities has been consistent with this.

I think we as individuals should try to be more cognizant of the finitude of our attention and carefully select the stimuli to which we expose ourselves and that we impose on others.

Opt-in Radio is the outcome of my explorations of how we may move towards a more considerate treatment of the attentional commons. By defaulting to an ‘off’ state every 10 minutes, it forces the user to (re)make the conscious decision to (force those around him/her to) listen to the program. Opt-in Radio also constantly reorients itself in response to nearby human movement – an act of resistance against fading into the back of people’s minds as yet another source of generic auditory distraction.