The best minds of my generation have been destroyed by the madness of contriving ways to get people to click on ads, conforming to a conceptual framework of disruption in which ruptures take the form of optimizing commercial capitalism. As the hot air of “technology” and “social” fill up the bubble once more, food for Cacophony fills the streets, the airways and the wires of the Network. The time is ripe for more weird fun from The Cacophony Society.
The Cacophony Society is a randomly gathered network of free spirits united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society. We are the punctuation at the end of hypothetical sentences, words in the prose of technological satire, grammarians of absurdist syntax and our numbers are prominent in the flat edge of a curve. You may already be a member!
Dress like you always do. Do what you normally do.
Object of the event: See if you can pick out the other participants. This was a really big event last year. Let’s see if we can do it again!
Sponsored by: The Bureau of Objective Reality
Last Gasp of San Francisco has published “Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society.” This new instruction manual and historical document is cornucopia of cacophony and should prove to be an inspiration to a new generation about to be chained to the “promise” of Google Glass.
Saturday, Sept. 5 8:00 p.m.
Meet: At the N.E. corner of Judah and 7th Ave.
Bring: Recently or about-to-be deceased animal bodies or parts (please no “roadkill”)
Wear: Something you won’t mind getting indelible stains on
Dr. X and The Other One
For the scholars of Cacophony, and the future generation of pranksters, the holy historical documents (Rough Draft) and other ephemera are being housed in the virtual halls of the Cacophony Society Section of the Internet Archive. The youth of the world have an indispensable new resource in their pursuit of a renaissance of cacophony.
At first it just seemed to be missing. Missing in the way that you’d say a person or a thing isn’t really gone, but just misplaced for the moment. But I’m finally convinced it’s not coming back. The systems that furnish and replenish my local environment with objects have written this product out of the distribution algorithms.
When I first started shaving my face as a young man, I decided to use a shaving brush and a cake of shaving soap. I’m a fan of simple solutions. Shaving soap seemed to solve the problem of shaving lather. The product innovations in this area haven’t seemed much like real improvements. The exotic flavors, textures and delivery methods of lather and foam seem more like narratives of advertising than a solution to the problem of shaving one’s face.
Fancy shaving soaps are available in all the places you’d expect. But the one that’s gone missing is called “Williams Shaving Soap.” It’s a serviceable shave soap, you might even call it ordinary. But “Williams” was available everywhere, at all the local grocery and drug stores. It was the remaining shaving soap, it held down a humble spot on the store shelves. Its disappearance from the local stores marks a significant event in the arc of this product’s existence. The soap was created in 1840 by James B. Williams. It was the first shaving soap created for use in mugs.
It’s clearly the case that “Williams” is available for order on the Network, and it may still be available on store shelves in other parts of the country. But in San Francisco, it’s vanished. A young man today, about to make some decisions about how he might want to go about shaving his face, peering at the shelves of the supermarket, won’t notice what’s missing. If that young man were to come across a cake of “Williams”, it would be in the context of a nostalgic experience. Its circulation would have no currency, it would float on the alternate currents of wet shaving “traditionalism.” We tend to think that physical presence has become less important in the era of the Network, but if you’ve never seen something, how will you know to submit a query to look for it?
Once another generation passes and this object shifts just over the horizon, it’s only a brief distance to becoming time out of mind. Even now I only experience it as an absence on a store shelf. Wet shaving and getting up a lather has its adherents, but in the era of the shave gel and the five-blade razor, will we ever recognize how the shaving technology industry is over-serving our whiskers?
The elegies for Steven Paul Jobs come pouring forth. The traditional elements of an elegy correspond to the stages of loss. Grief and sorrow are expressed through a lament; the life of the departed is idealized through admiration and praise; and then comes solace and consolation. As we find ourselves more than midway on life’s journey, the poetic form of the elegy reveals itself as a palpable presence. It’s not a form whose outlines are traced from a recipe extracted from a book, there’s a direct physical encounter with its contours as we stop for a moment, and look across the grain of time.
Businessmen, technologists, and tech bloggers have focused on different aspects of the Jobs legacy. I’d like to turn the spotlight to some of the language used to talk about what made Jobs different: visionary, genius, magic, and of course, crazy. These are words we use to describe something on the other side of the line, something well beyond ordinary grasp. From the stance of the technologist, the business person or the engineer, these are not qualities that can be captured in an algorithm, a spreadsheet or a mechanical device. Jobs appears to be an anomaly, the impossible exception—we shake our heads and say, ” we won’t see his like again.”
Steven P. Jobs wasn’t a hardware engineer, he didn’t write software code, he wasn’t an industrial designer. He didn’t finish college, given his qualifications, he wouldn’t even be considered for the position he held. The common wisdom in the technology community is that great companies start with great engineers—then eventually the suits come in and ruin everything. The technology industry’s utopia is a world run by engineers. Yet, Jobs, who was not an engineer, is acknowledged as the industry’s great visionary.
If we were listening, Jobs told us what he was doing. He explicitly stated that “Apple’s goal is to stand at the intersection of technology and the humanities.” This maxim hasn’t been given due consideration. Jobs restated this idea many times and in different formulations. At the iPad2 launch, he said it this way:
“It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities that yields the results that makes our hearts sing.”
To the engineers in the crowd, this talk of “singing hearts” must seem like a lot of sentimental hogwash. It’s the nuts and bolts that really make the difference. Technology stands alone, it doesn’t need to marry anyone, or anything, to win the day. Talk of ‘singing hearts’ is just Jobs as salesman, some of that ‘reality distortion field’ stuff.
We strip rhetoric from logic, we limit design to the surface, we consider the humanities to be the frothy nonsense floating at the top of an education that should be devoted to hardcore business and science. It’s the ‘nice-to-have,’ but inessential item on the to-do list. As the center of thought moves further and further in that direction, we lose even the language to describe the kinds of things Jobs accomplished. And while we can’t articulate it, there’s no question that we hear its music.
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d;
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Ode on a Grecian Urn
Here’s Jobs talking about his approach in a Fortune magazine interview in 2000:
“We don’t have good language to talk about this kind of thing,” Mr. Jobs replied. “In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer. It’s interior decorating. It’s the fabric of the curtains and the sofa. But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service. The iMac is not just the color or translucence or the shape of the shell. The essence of the iMac is to be the finest possible consumer computer in which each element plays together. … That is the furthest thing from veneer. It was at the core of the product the day we started.”
Here the humanities aren’t the thin layer of frosting spread on top of the core of technology to make it look nice. In a sense, technology is medium through which a fundamentally humanistic vision is expressed. Where the common wisdom is to start with the engineering and the technology, Jobs and the team at Apple start with an act of poetic imagination. The slogan “think different” encapsulates this idea. The ‘difference’ in this kind of thinking is that it starts with the humanities and technology as equal partners in the eventual expression of the product or service. Or as Jobs eloquently describes it, the kernel of the idea “expressing itself in successive outer layers.”
Of all the commentary, it was James B. Stewart’s piece in the New York Times that captured some of the unheard melody, the poetic thinking emanating from the office of the CEO.
“Most people underestimate his grandeur and his greatness,” Gadi Amit, founder and principal designer of New Deal Design in San Francisco, told me. “They think it’s about design. It’s beyond design. It’s completely holistic, and it’s dogmatic. Things need to be high quality; they have to have poetry and culture in each step. Steve was cut from completely different cloth from most business leaders. He was not a number-crunching guy; he was not a technologist. He was a cultural leader, and he drove Apple from that perspective. He started with culture; then followed with technology and design. No one seems to get that.”
It’s hard to find parallels. Braun and Olivetti in Europe had beautiful designs, but never had Apple’s success. Mr. Amit mentioned Italy’s Enzo Ferrari, the racecar driver and founder of the Ferrari sports car manufacturer. “Apple has the status that Ferrari has in Italy,” Ms. Antonelli said. “It’s a source of national pride and of pride for every employee. You get to that stature only if you created something so fundamental that everyone loves.”
Mr. Amit says he believes Mr. Jobs’s legacy will be “the blending of technology and poetry. It’s not about design per se; it’s the poetic aspect of the entire enterprise. Compared to Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, he’s in a different class. I think this is a revolutionary shift. Jobs is a revolutionary character. He shifted the industry and changed our lives through this amalgamation of culture and technology. If you’re looking for C.E.O.’s of this caliber, you have to look outside the engineering and business schools. That is truly revolutionary.”
When we lament that we won’t see another like Steven P. Jobs again, we need to acknowledge the cold, hard facts of the situation. We aren’t looking for people like Jobs to lead our greatest companies. In fact, we’re probably doing everything in our power to make sure that people like him don’t get anywhere near a leadership role. We’ve de-valued and de-funded the humanities, we’ve relegated poetic thinking to third class status.
In 1821 Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote “A Defense of Poetry.” Although he never wrote one, the work of Steven P. Jobs was a modern defense of poetry.
The most unfailing herald, companion, and follower of the awakening of a great people to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution, is poetry. At such periods there is an accumulation of the power of communicating and receiving intense and impassioned conceptions respecting man and nature. The person in whom this power resides, may often, as far as regards many portions of their nature, have little apparent correspondence with that spirit of good of which they are the ministers. But even whilst they deny and abjure, they are yet compelled to serve, that power which is seated on the throne of their own soul. It is impossible to read the compositions of the most celebrated writers of the present day without being startled with the electric life which burns within their words. They measure the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit, and they are themselves perhaps the most sincerely astonished at its manifestations; for it is less their spirit than the spirit of the age. Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
Shop Windows And Tablets: Through The Looking Glass
In looking for lost house keys under the light of the street lamp, we put aside the fact that we lost them in the ditch at the other side of the road. It’s odd how we can move so swiftly in a particular direction without really knowing where we’re going. An incredible amount of ingenuity, resources and coordination has been applied to building tablet computers. There’s an unstated assumption that the post-pc era is defined by an evolution of the computer to a new human-computer interface model with a new form factor. And at a technical level, there’s some truth there; however at the level of the market for devices, there’s not enough truth.
To make sense of all this, let’s go back to a 1996 interview by Gary Wolf with Steve Jobs. Jobs was at NeXt and was gazing ahead at the future:
Wolf: What other opportunities are out there?
Jobs: Who do you think will be the main beneficiary of the Web? Who wins the most?
Wolf: People who have something -
Jobs: To sell!
Wolf: To share.
Jobs: To sell!
Wolf: You mean publishing?
Jobs: It’s more than publishing. It’s commerce. People are going to stop going to a lot of stores. And they’re going to buy stuff over the Web!
e-Commerce’s path to the Network was from the paper catalog to the electronic catalog. The Sears Catalog was one of the early prototypes for distance retailing. But what was the paper catalog? Why was it successful? The catalog was an evolution of the shop window in the arcade. And it was the shop window that enabled the romantic imagination of the consumer. Heather Marcelle Crickenberger talks about Walter Benjamin’s idea of the flâneur:
“Flâneur” is a word understood intuitively by the French to mean “stroller, idler, walker.” He has been portrayed in the past as a well-dressed man, strolling leisurely through the Parisian arcades of the nineteenth century–a shopper with no intention to buy, an intellectual parasite of the arcade. Traditionally the traits that mark the flâneur are wealth, education, and idleness. He strolls to pass the time that his wealth affords him, treating the people who pass and the objects he sees as texts for his own pleasure. An anonymous face in the multitude, the flâneur is free to probe his surroundings for clues and hints that may go unnoticed by the others.
Today we call it window shopping. It’s an exercise of the imagination in the role of the consumer. What might I look like in that outfit, listening to that music, with those kitchen appliances? A large plate of glass opened a window on to the possibilities contained within the shop. The flâneur could stroll the arcade moving from this window to that, searching for something that might catch his fancy.
Timothy Morton discusses this performance of the consumer imagination in his essay on “The Beautiful Soul.”
These performative styles are outlined by myself (Morton) and Colin Campbell. One style stands out, and that is a kind of meta-style that Campbell calls bohemianism and I call Romantic consumerism. This kind of consumerism is at one remove from regular consumerism. It is “consumerism-ism” as it were, that has realized that the true object of desire is desire as such. In brief, Romantic consumerism is window- shopping, which is hugely enabled by plate glass, or as we now do, browsing on the internet, not consuming anything but wondering what we would be like if we did. Now in the Romantic period this kind of reflexive consumerism was limited to a few avant-garde types: the Romantics themselves. To this extent Wordsworth and De Quincey are only superficially different. Wordsworth figured out that he could stroll forever in the mountains; De Quincey figured out that you didn’t need mountains, if you could consume a drug that gave you the feeling of strolling in the mountains (sublime contemplative calm, and so on). Nowadays we are all De Quinceys, all flaneurs in the shopping mall of life. This performative role, this attitude, is all the more pervasive, leading me to believe that we haven’t really exited from the Romantic period—another sense in which “prehistory” isn’t quite right for what I’m describing, but extremely right in another sense, namely that we’re still caught in an attitude that we don’t fully understand or become aware of.
When we talk about what’s assumed to be a tablet computer, we’re actually talking about a plate of glass, a shop window. In a discussion with Nick Bilton of the New York Times about why all these tablets look similar, Ryan Block hit on the key, although he may not have realized it:
“We are talking about a screen, where the screen is the entire experience and it can only really look and act one way, and that is to look similar to the iPad,” Mr. Block explained in a phone interview Thursday. “At the end of the day, they are all going to look similar, because a tablet is just a piece of glass.”
The innovations of the post-pc era aren’t to the computing device, they’re to the shop window. The ability to transact as part of the performance and the transformation of the goods from material to digital such that they can be played within the same window are the key additions to the “piece of glass.”
If you view the recent crop of tablet computers through this lens, you’ll see what separates the Apple and Amazon products from the rest. We pass the empty shop window of the deserted store as we move on down the block to see what we might find next. Of course, it’s simple to see how a technologist might confuse a shop window with a flat computing device.
Two sides of an equation, or perhaps mirror images. Narcissus bent over the glimmering pool of water trying to catch a glimpse. CRM and VRM attempt hyperrealist representations of humanity. There’s a reduced set of data about a person that describes their propensity to transact in a certain way. The vendor keeps this record in their own private, secure space; constantly sifting through the corpus of data looking for patterns that might change the probabilities. The vendor expends a measured amount of energy nudging the humans represented by each data record toward a configuration of traits that tumble over into a transaction.
Lanier is interested in the ways in which people ‘reduce themselves’ in order to make a computer’s description of them appear more accurate. ‘Information systems,’ he writes, ‘need to have information in order to run, but information underrepresents reality (Zadie’s italics).’ In Lanier’s view, there is no perfect computer analogue for what we call a ‘person.’ In life, we all profess to know this, but when we get online it becomes easy to forget.
Doc Searls’s Vendor Relationship Management project is to some extent a reaction to the phenomena and dominance of Customer Relationship Management. We look at the picture of ourselves coming out of the CRM process and find it unrecognizable. That’s not me, I don’t look like that. The vendor has a secured, private data picture of you with probabilities assigned to the possibility that you’ll become or remain a customer. The vendor’s data picture also outputs a list of nudges that can be deployed against you to move you over into the normalized happy customer data picture.
VRM attempts to reclaim the data picture and house it in the customer’s own private, secure data space. When the desire for a transaction emerges in the customer, she can choose to share some minimal amount of personal data with the vendors who might bid on her services. The result is a rational and efficient collaboration on a transaction.
The rational argument says that the nudges used by vendors, in the form of advertising, are off target. They’re out of context, they miss the mark. They think they know something about me, but constantly make inappropriate offers. This new rational approach does away with the inefficiency of advertising and limits the communication surrounding the transaction to willing partners and consenting adults.
But negotiating the terms of the transaction has always been a rational process. The exchange of capital for goods has been finely honed through the years in the marketplaces of the world. Advertising has both a rational and an irrational component. An exceptional advertisement produces the desire to own a product because of the image, dream or story it draws you into. Irrational desires may outnumber rational desires as a motive for commercial transactions. In the VRM model, you’ve already sold yourself based on some rational criteria you’ve set forth. The vendor, through its advertising, wants in to the conversation taking place before the decision is made, perhaps even before you know whether a desire is present.
This irrational element that draws desire from the shadows of the unconscious is difficult to encode in a customer database profile. We attempt to capture this with demographics, psychographics and behavior tracking. Correlating other personal/public data streams, geographic data in particular, with private vendor data pictures is the new method generating a groundswell of excitement. As Jeff Jonas puts it, the more pieces of the picture you have the less compute time it’ll take to create a legible image. Social CRM is another way of talking about this, Facebook becomes an extension of the vendor’s CRM record.
So, when we want to reclaim the data picture of ourselves from the CRM machines and move them from the vendor’s part of the cloud to our personal cloud data store, what is it that we have? Do the little shards of data (both present and represented through indirection) that we’ve collected, and release to the chosen few, really represent us any better? Don’t we simply become the CRM vendor who doesn’t understand how to properly represent ourselves. Are we mirror images, VRM and CRM, building representations out of the same materials? And what would it mean if we were actually able to ‘hit the mark?’
Once again here’s Zadie Smith, with an assist from Jaron Lanier:
For most users over 35, Facebook represents only their email accounts turned outward to face the world. A simple tool, not an avatar. We are not embedded in this software in the same way. 1.0 people still instinctively believe, as Lanier has it, that ‘what makes something fully real is that it is impossible to represent it to completion.’ But what if 2.0 people feel their socially networked selves genuinely represent them to completion?
I sense in VRM a desire to get right what is missing from CRM. There’s an idea that by combining the two systems in collaboration, the picture will be completed. We boldly use the Pareto Principle to bridge the gap to completion, 80% becomes 100%; and close to zero becomes zero. We spin up a world without shadows, complete and self contained.
Listening to Russ Roberts of EconTalk discuss his wardrobe and his relative cluelessness with regard to fashion, my thoughts turned to software engineers. I wondered if both economists and software engineers believe that there’s some kind of optimization algorithm for selecting clothing.
In an episode of EconTalk, Johanna Blakely talks with Roberts about how the lack of copyright protection in the fashion industry turns it into an economy of continuous innovation. There are some interesting lessons here regarding the relationship between originals and copies, remixing and the circulation of design motifs.
Download EconTalk: Johanna Blakely on Fashion and IP
Somehow it seems unlikely that the technology/media business will look to fashion as an inspiration for viable business models. But it’s clear they could learn a thing or two. As you look across the landscape of technology companies, only Apple (despite the fact that Jony Ive never changes his T-shirt), has managed to create a release cycle that in many ways mirrors the major fashion houses. They release new designs annually and then watch the knock-off shops go to work trying to replicate their products. And like the top fashion houses, Apple is driven to be creative, to set the next trend that puts them one step ahead.
The fashion world still honors and rewards the creators of fresh and original looks. Since there’s no regulatory friction hindering fast followers with good-enough copies, the market is filled with cheap knock-offs. Both seem to survive in the ecosystem. One reason for this is that the copies are not digital— they aren’t exact atom-for-atom copies of the originals. Generally, to lower the price of the knock-off, the materials have to be cheaper. In the world of bits, exact replication is just a matter of a few key strokes. There’s no such thing as cheaper or more expensive bits. One of the more interesting trends in fashion is the designer who copies herself. Rather than cede the low-end knock-off market, the designer executes low-end copies of her signature styles for mass distribution through the fast-fashion retailers.
You can learn a lot about the economics of the technology business by simply viewing each of the major vendors as a fashion house.
Nexus One, iPhone and Designing For Sustainability
The technology news streams have been filled with coverage of the new Google phone called the Nexus One. It’s impact will be significant. Now there are two “phones” in the new landscape of mobile computing. Two are required to accelerate both innovation and diffusion of the technology. The Nexus One will both spur, and be spurred on by, the iPhone.
Much of the coverage has focused on comparisons of the two devices with regard to feature set and approach to the carriers. On the product strategy side, the story of the early Macintosh vs. Windows battle is being replayed by the pundits with Google cast in the role of Microsoft, and Android as the new Windows. The conventional wisdom is that Apple lost to Microsoft in the battle of operating systems, and that history will repeat itself with the iPhone.
A quick look at the top five U.S. companies by market capitalization shows Microsoft, Google and Apple holding down three of those spots. Apple’s so-called losing strategy has resulted in a market cap of $190 Billion and a strong, vibrant business. If history repeating itself leads to this kind of financial performance, I’m sure Apple would find that more than acceptable.
Objectified is a feature-length documentary about our complex relationship with manufactured objects and, by extension, the people who design them. It’s a look at the creativity at work behind everything from toothbrushes to tech gadgets. It’s about the designers who re-examine, re-evaluate and re-invent our manufactured environment on a daily basis. It’s about personal expression, identity, consumerism, and sustainability.
Industrial design used to be about designing the look and feel of a product— the designer was brought in to make it pretty and usable. Now the whole lifecycle of the product is considered in the design process. I’ve found John Thackara’s book In The Bubble, and Bruce Sterling’s Shaping Things to be very eloquent on the subject. Looking beyond how the phone works for the user, there’s the environmental impact of the industrial manufacturing process and disposing of the phone at the end of its life.
It was Craig Burton’s Choix Vert Action Card that brought Apple’s policies on industrial design and the environment into view for me. While searching Google for something related to Apple, the Choix Vert card adds a thumbprint logo to socially responsible companies on the results page. Apple sports the Choix Vert mark, HTC, producer of the Nexus One, doesn’t. Currently Apple provides environmental impact reports for each of their products. Apple’s so-called ‘closed’ approach to their products results in a unique ability to control, not only the user experience, but how the product is manufactured, and what happens at the end of its life.
Google’s modular approach to their phone means they can claim they aren’t responsible for manufacturing or disposal. The Android phone run-time will be put on a variety of phones with manufactured by companies with varying degrees of social responsibility.
Early reports from users indicate that the Nexus One’s user interface could use a little more polish. I expect that will happen as the software is iterated and the user experience refined. But beyond feature sets and carrier costs, I hope Nexus One users will ask Google about the environmental impact of their phone.
Every year about 130 million cellphones are retired, for every Nexus One that’s purchased, it’s likely that another cell phone will go out of service. Google is now in the consumer hardware business, and that brings with it some responsibilities they aren’t used to considering. Given their corporate motto, I’m sure they’ll do the right thing.
It began with a discussion of ornamentation. As we look around us, the ornament seems to be disappearing. The things we use have been stripped of ornamentation in favor of pure functionality. Form, we are taught, must follow function. Decoration is an unnecessary expense, as it adds nothing to the function of a manufactured thing. Ornament has lost the battle of Return on Investment.
“The answer that eventually emerged was not really an answer; rather, it was an admonishment that it might be irrelevant and even indulgent to raise the question in the first place.
A prohibition against discussions of beauty in architecture was imposed by a new breed of men, engineers, who had achieved professional recognition only in the late eighteenth century, but had thereafter risen quickly to dominanace in the construction of the new buildings of the Industrial Revolution.”
These engineers were building the factories, bridges and railways that would provide the infrastructure for the industrial age. Style simply wasn’t a consideration.
“The philosophy of the engineers flew in the face of everything the architectural profession had ever stood for. ‘To turn something useful, practical, functional into something beautiful, that is architecture’s duty,’ insisted Karl Friedrich Schinkel. ‘Architecture, as distinguished from mere building, is the decoration of construction,’ echoed Sir George Gilbert Scott.
The essence of great architecture was understood to reside in what was functionally unnecessary.”
For Le Corbusier, true, great architecture — meaning, architecture movtivated by the quest for efficiency — was more likely to be found in a 40,000-kilowatt electricity turbine or a low-pressure ventilating fan. It was to these machines that his books accorded the reverential photographs which previous architectural writers had reserved for cathedrals and opera houses.
And with that prelude, we arrive at the web search engine and the use and meaning of ornament. There’s an interesting experiment currently being conducted called Blind Search. The creators of this test wonder what happens to a user’s perception of search results when all branding is removed. Google initially established itself by producing noticeably better search results. Now, established as a verb meaning “to search,” does Google still provide results that are visibly superior? The results indicate that Google still leads, but not by as much as you’d think: Google: 41%, Bing: 31%, Yahoo: 28%. And putting the Google brand on any search results increases satisfaction.
In looking at the design of the Google user interface, we see the influence of Le Corbusier. The typographic logo is the only design on the page, and occasionally it is playfully re-imagined to commemorate notable events. Here, form follows function.
In his book, De Botton tries to articulate how we find beauty— the mechanics of what attracts us:
“We can conclude from this that we are drawn to call something beautiful whenever we detect that it contains in a concentrated form those qualities in which we personally, or our societies more generally are deficient. We respect style which can move us away from what we fear and towards what we crave: a style which carries the correct dosage of our missing virtues.”
While we may perceive the Network as vast, complex and opaque— with its simplicity Google’s design provides us with the antidote. Now look at this image of Microsoft’s Bing home page:
Bing’s user interface is decorated with a background image that gives a sense of what it does. I’m fairly certain that the image has no effect on the quality of the search results. Bing is attempting to provide a usage model for the consumption of faceted search results. Queries return both potential facets along with the traditional list of links. Bing is designed with both facets and links in mind, while Google appends facets to the bottom of the link list.
As the facets and links that search engines return become more and more indistinguishable, what is the difference that will make a difference? One could assume that there will always be an engineering innovation right around the corner that will make a significant and visible difference. We like to believe that progress is always linear.
Corporate brand clearly makes a difference, users like a brand name search product. Microsoft’s brand has been held in the background and a new brand has been established. Images have also been used to distinguish Bing. Ornamentation has been exiled for so long, it’s hard to understand how to even value it.
Let’s return again to Alain De Botton:
The buildings we admire are ultimately those which, in a variety of ways, extol values we think worth wile — which refer, that is, whether through their materials, shapes or colours, to such legendarily positive qualities as friendliness, kindness, subtlety, strength and intelligence. Our sense of beauty and our understanding of the nature of the good life are intertwined. We seek associations of peace in our bedrooms, metaphors for generosity and harmony in our chairs, and an air of honesty and forthrightness in our taps. We can be moved by a column that meets a roof with grace, by worn steps that hint at wisdom and by a Georgian doorway that demonstrates playfulness and courtesy in its fanlight window.
Le Corbusier’s aesthetic demanded design be “ascetic and clean, disciplined and frugal.” He had a hatred of any kind of decoration. Google’s engineering aesthetic is a terminal design. Any competitor employing a purely functional design will unintentionally be referencing Google. There’s no way to get radically simpler than Google, and therefore no way to create enough space to allow for differentiation. The only alternative is to move back into ornament, into the decorative, into beauty.
While we may think of computerized search of the internet as a purely functional affair of ONEs and ZEROs, the simple lists of links are being pulled into organic forms by their facets. Human forms of life are surfacing in and through our search queries. Search results will begin to bloom into something that looks much more like a natural form than points and lines in a frictionless space. This moment may mark another turning point…
The boundary line separates this from that. National boundaries are called borders, they indicate the line of demarcation between this country and that. By crossing such a line, the set of laws, the cultural practices and often the spoken language will change. Of course, one imagines a flock of migrating birds crossing a border completely unaware of any significant change in the environment. We think of the line between countries as being stable, the power of a sovereign nation is used to defend its borders. But if we zoom out and select a larger increment of time, we would see that even national borders are fluid—they move with a specific viscosity, velocity and trajectory.
The line also connects this and that. Wittgenstein discussed thinking as a process of seeing connections, discovering connections and making connections. Lines can converge, cross or run in parallel. (and if we admit the visions of the string, super-string and M (membrane) theorists – each line may exist in parallel universes where all their permutations are expressed.)
The line of inquiry, tends, in its character, to gravitate toward the one or the many. We can think of these methods as the “either/or” and the “both/and.” The line of inquiry that models the one seeks to purify and clarify itself, it cuts off connections to things that it sees as outside of its concept. A boundary line is enforced, an outline of a shape is drawn, an ideal template is generated through which the world can be sorted and filtered in a binary action (fits, doesn’t fit). The ideas of internal coherence, self-consistency, and conceptual integrity emerge from this approach to thinking as the elimination and reduction of the multiplicity of meaning. This is the process of clarification and the removal of the non-germane. The power of this kind of inquiry is measured by its ability to defend its borders. Its sovereignty and its identity depend of the continued existence of a bright line of demarcation.
When this mode of the line of inquiry begins to unwind, its identity, the central image/concept begins to blur. The borders are breached, foreign connections are established and begin to gain purchase. The viscosity, trajectory and velocity of the line are now in play, the inquisitor has lost exclusivity of editorial control. Here we connect to another kind of line. As lines of inquiry unravel and are overcome, they disperse into a sedimentary layer making up part of the next line of inquiry.
If we take a step back, we can see that every line of inquiry is composed of layers of sediment. At the height of its power, it’s able to cover over these historical sources and present itself as a simple, coherent, consistent identity. Its origin is either proclaimed to be ex-nihilo or a new history of its birth is created.
In the opening section of Deleuze and Guattari’s essay “Rhizome,” it says:
We wrote ‘Anti-Oedipus’ together. As each of us was several, that already made quite a few people. Here we have used all that drew near to hand, both the closest and the furthest away.
Deleuze sees the starting point, not as identity, but as a set of lines. Although it should be noted that the boundaries of this set are fluid. A person, or a line of inquiry, is always already composed of many threads, at whatever moment we choose to call ‘the start.’ These threads are spun into a yarn, braided into rope, disassembled and remade over and over again. They are spread out like a spider’s web, or wound into a ball.
As individuals and groups we are made of lines, lines that are very diverse in nature. The first type of line (there are many of this type) that forms us is segmentary, or rigidly segmented: family/profession; work/vacation; family/then school/then army/then factory/then retirement.
What of the line of inquiry that begins as many and seeks to connect to many? Is there a thinking that asks after multiplicity from the first moment? This mode, from the perspective of its polar opposite, can only be described as disruptive, anarchic, incoherent, gibberish, illogical, unrealistic, unfocused. What can one say about a line of inquiry that doesn’t defend its borders? A line that exposes its mixed origin of birth— from sources both ‘closest and furthest away.’ What kind of line doesn’t drive toward clarity and sharp, bright lines; but rather makes connections as they emerge. How are we to find meaning in such a swirl of chaotic crossed lines. Can meaning emerge from such a maelstrom?
The task seems impossible if we remain ensnared in the logic of identity. If we believe that each intersection of lines must establish identity and dominance or be defeated and ground into a sedimentary layer of its betters. (The logic of identity is also tightly tied to the economics of value through scarcity.)
It’s inevitable that the whirl-pool of electronic information movement will toss us all about like corks on a stormy sea, but if we keep our cool during the descent into the maelstrom, studying the process as it happens… we can get through . (McLuhan 1995)
For a line of inquiry that consists of seeing, discovering and making connections, meaning and value emerge from the swarming and clustering of connections in the unfolding of real-time. Meaning and value have the potential to be very fluid. The sorts and filters aren’t permanent exclusions, they’re qualities of a view. What is important to us one day may seem unimportant the next. This is not to say that meaning a value must always move at a high velocity. These lines have different qualities of viscosity, some move very slowly, some quite quickly. Meaning emerges at the point at which we engage the interface.
The electronically induced technological extensions of our central nervous systems… are immersing us in a whirlpool of information… the aloof and dislocated role of the literate man of the Western world is succumbing to the new intense depth participation… decentralising – rather than enlarging – the family of man into a new state of multitudinous tribal existences. (McLuhan 1995)
These lines, these borders, are surfacing with more visibility in our everyday lives. The borderline between work, family and friends used to be a physical line defined by the boundaries of a workplace. The telephone began the disruption of that space, and thus, the personal phone call was prohibited or limited. This same policy has transferred to a personal connection to the Network. Control of a corporate image means that employees must be silent. The brand must speak with a clear and pure voice— all signal, noise absent.
The iPhone expanded the disruption by overlaying a powerful personal Network connection over the limited connection of the workplace. An inversion of the relative power of technologies has amplified the rupture. If the Network is the computer, the personal connection has access to the computer; while the corporate connection wears blinders. Access to multiplicity provides more access to power, value and meaning, than the narrow scope of the corporate machine.
Women were the first to have to deal with the reality of multiple (social) networks overlaying the workplace. They have the potential to be simultaneously workers, mothers, daughters, wives and more. Men were only too happy to leave their role as ‘father’ at home— and exist solely as a worker in the workplace. The ability of a worker to be all the people she can be may ultimately surface as a civil rights issue.
The boundaries of the Network and the Nation State begin to cross and struggle for power when the US State department asks Twitter to delay scheduled maintenance because of real-time events in the Middle East. This is the beginning of a moment where the Nation state will inscribe its sovereignty within the outlines of the Network. The borders of a territory are surfacing as both physical and virtual.
Borders will continue to try to control lines of connection; the question that emerges is whether the locus of power, meaning and value is moving toward the line of connection, and away from the boundary line that excludes.
The razor and the blade have taken on largely metaphorical meanings in the era of “Free.” Products and services are bundles of threads, some free, some advertising supported and others with a variable or fixed price. The razor itself is free or low cost, and the consumer pays for disposable blades which subsidizes the cost of the handle. Cellular phones use this pricing model. Chris Anderson posits that this model will become dominant, with a digital component naturally tending toward a price of zero.
If we take a moment, and look—not at the metaphor, but at actual razors and blades, we’ll learn a great deal about how the “Free” business model will develop. The Holy Grail of the shaving world is the “close shave.” And, of course, the close shave imbues the shaver with extraordinary attractiveness and social power. It becomes the almost unattainable object of desire. The companies that make shaving equipment have brought together the world’s best scientists and storytellers to create a compelling narrative. The road to a closer shave can only be achieved through multiple blades and high-level engineering. The five-blade razor has emerged as the pinnacle of shaving science.
The simple razor and blade have been transformed into a technology experience beyond the understanding of the average Joe looking to rid himself of five o’clock shadow. Along side the production of the physical product is the production of desire. The act of shaving requires ever greater efforts, continual progress— we’ll pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of the close shave.
The world of shavers has been tightly wrapped in the dream narrative of the progress of shaving and its technology. It turns out the “Free” part of the product is not the critical factor, it’s the production of desire. The essential ingredient is the creation of a strong narrative beyond which the consumer cannot see or imagine.
Every extreme engenders a backlash, and the five-bladed razor may have tipped the scales. Step outside the dream of the technology of the “close shave” for a moment and consider a double-edged single razor blade that performs better than the latest five-bladed technology. Could “one” be superior to “five?”
Of course, we need our dreams, our goals, our destinations— the humble razor and blade provide an excellent example not just of the economics of a business model, but of how the production of desire influences the engineering of the product. “Free” is the taste, the invitation to the dream.