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Dead Fox: Breaking Glass

echo-narcissus

We do a lot of our thinking through glass and mirrors. We want our words to properly reflect the world. We insist that as we observe the world, our glasses should be free from any rose-colored tint. And when a glass knowingly distorts the world, we ask that it be properly labeled.

objects-in-mirror

Philosopher, Tim Morton, uses the passenger-side wing mirror of the America car to talk about the rift between an object and its aesthetic appearance. This is how he describes it in the introduction to his book, “Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality.”

Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

An ontological insight is engraved onto the passenger side wing mirrors of every American car: Objects in Mirror are Closer than They Appear. What we take to be the object “behind” its appearance is really a kind of perspective trick caused by habitual normalization of the object in question. It is my habitual casual relation with it that makes it seem to sink into the background. This background is nothing other than an aesthetic effect—it’s produced by the interaction of 1+n objects. The aesthetic dimension implies the existence of at least one withdrawn object.

Another way of talking about this “habitual normalization of the object” is to reverse the surface/depth binary. Traditionally, the real is deep underneath and the surface is the accident of a temporary condition. Objects behave normally when they occupy a clear place in one’s performance of habit. Weird distortions of appearance are surface phenomena that will clear out given enough time. Morton reverses these observations. Objects undergo a distorting normalization in our everyday lives. It’s when objects become unfamiliar and weird that their deeper reality clearly begins to show itself not as deeper, but as closer than their appearance.

clown-mirror

While traveling for his many speaking engagements, Morton finds himself in unfamiliar cities, displaced time zones and strange hotel rooms. The real intrudes, not as a comforting solidity, but rather as a “hallucinatory clown.”

Objects in mirror are closer than they appear. This is the real trouble. The real trouble is that my familiar light switches and plug sockets—or rather my familiar relations to these objects—is only an ontic prejudice, an illusion. The REALITY is what I see as the illusion-like, hallucinatory clowns that lurch towards me, gesturing and beckoning (but what are they saying?).

The incident that brought me back to glass and mirrors was listening to a song by Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett called “Dead Fox.” It has a chorus with the lyrics,

If you can’t see me, I can’t see you.

The lyric refers to the sign you’ll see on commercial trucks warning other drivers in the proximity that if you can’t see the truck driver’s wing mirror, then he can’t see you. And therefore, he will behave as though you don’t exist, after all, you’ve had fair warning.

cant-see-you

We imagine the possibility of a cyborg future and think of some strange grafting of machine to flesh. But perhaps it’s much simpler than that. Our first instantiation as a cyborg was with the broad distribution and ownership of the automobile. We’re never more human than when our access to the world is limited to the view through glass and mirrors. The car gives us all that and the ability to move much faster than an ordinary human.

Courtney Barnett’s “Dead Fox” presents a cartoon of the reality of our cyborg existence. We head down the highway splattering roadkill across the blacktop. Pollen floats into the car causing a sneeze resulting in a dangerous swerve. A truck driver checks his mirrors and then passes on the wrong side without signaling. Because if “you can’t see me, I can’t see you.” Esse est percipi.

Heading down the Highway Hume

Somewhere at the end of June

Taxidermied kangaroos are lifted on the shoulders

A possum Jackson Pollock is painted in the tar

Sometimes I think a single sneeze could be the end of us

My hay-fever is turning up, just swerved into a passing truck

Big business overtaking

Without indicating

He passes on the right, been driving through the night

To bring us the best price

Morton’s passenger wing mirror tells us something about objects outside of our habitual day-to-day life. We normalize objects into a background upon which a weird reality floats. Barnett’s mirror gives us a sense of the absurd tunnel vision we’ve forced upon ourselves—we barely even see the roadkill we’ve “jackson pollocked” across the tar. Big business tells us that unless we can see their mirror, we’re standing in the wrong place. And if we’re standing in the wrong place, we’d better give them a wide berth.

The temptation is to go around breaking glass as though it were to blame for the use we make of it. But Morton and Barnett show us that we only need to let the weirdness of glass come to the surface. Somehow we’ll need to forge a new alliance with glass – perhaps moving beyond perfect transparency and reflection to imperfection and distortion. If we turn this thought and look at it from a slightly different angle, we can talk about developing an appreciation for the beauty of translation.

Let Our Robots Fill Out Your Forms…

Bankers are making use of new technology to determine whether you’re creditworthy. According to the NY Times:

“…they may look to see if potential customers use only capital letters when filling out forms, or at the amount of time they spend online reading terms and conditions–and not so much at credit history.”

They say that “no single signal is definitive, but each is a piece in a mosaic, a predictive picture, compiled by collecting an array of information from diverse sources.”

Fortunately for you, our new firm, HONESTLY, has a whole cloud full of robots standing by to fill out your loan forms for you.

HONESTLY has hacked into all the major banks and new technology providers. When our robots fill out your forms for you, you’ll hit all the right notes for their algorithms. This kind of service has previously only been available to the very rich, but thanks to the marvels of modern cloud-based technology, we can offer robot-driven loan application filling for a low $9.95.

The banks and other loan providers have said that they’ll continually change their matrix of criteria to create better risk assessments. Since we’ve hacked into their systems, have paid off their programmers, and created strong predictive profiles of their key executives, we can anticipate their every move. In fact, sometimes their new criteria comes directly from us, which saves us programming time. That’s a saving we pass on directly to you.

HONESTLY, I can’t think of a reason not to have robots fill out your next loan application.

 

Architecture: Ruptures in the Standing Reserve

 
 
I first noticed it a couple of years ago. There had never been squirrels in our back garden, suddenly there were. We peacefully coexisted with them until our yearly planting of tulip bulbs. You probably know this, I didn't, squirrels are quite fond of tulip bulbs. Daffodils they'll leave alone, but tulips are too delicious to resist. In this inter-species conflict, the squirrels were victorious. We no longer plant tulips.
 

As drought conditions continue year after year in California, the humans who live here attempt to maximize their supply of water. We need more fresh water for the continually growing population of the state. Our intense focus tends to obscure the need other creatures and habitats have for water. We're continually surprised when the animals follow the water into the cities.

Those of us in urban areas tend to view nature as something over there. A place you get in your car and drive to; a series of beautiful scenic postcards viewed through the windshield as we wind our way through the nature reserve. When it comes to preserving nature, it's a question of leaving undeveloped what is currently undeveloped. From the point of view of our global industrial economy, “nature” is unfulfilled potential; a state we allow to persist as a form of charity. A gift we give to ourselves and our posterity.

Meanwhile, ravens and raccoons have become residents of the urban landscape. The garbage we generate on a daily basis provides sustenance for an ever growing population. Squirrels and deer seek food and water in our gardens. Mountain lions follow their prey into suburban neighborhoods. Coyotes establish a presence in Golden Gate Park and humans walking their dogs are warned of the potential danger.

When our perception of the order of things is ruptured by an animal that intrudes on human space, our impulse is to set things right. Our moral standard is a judgement on whether or not the intruder is a clear and present danger to humans. Mountain lions are killed or captured. For the time being, coyotes are are allowed to live in the park. Deer, ravens, raccoons and squirrels are all tolerated with the proviso that they really shouldn't be here. We do not contemplate a path to citizenship.

Our futurists tell us that big and bigger cities are the answer to the efficient use of our diminishing natural resources. Our search is for a solution that allows more and more humans to subsist on the earth. Optimization requires a concentration of resources; global supply chains will connect a small number of very large urban hubs with the requisite resources. Every inch of the globe will be assessed based on its contribution to maintaining the network of mega-urban hubs. Of course, this kind of concentration increases the risk of catastrophic events. They used to call this kind of thing, “putting all your eggs in one basket.”

As we think about the design and architecture of these mega-urban spaces, we may believe that we act ecologically merely by virtue of moving toward “concentrated urban” over “broadly distributed rural.” The clever reversal is that “getting back to nature” now means getting much more densely packed and urban.

While there's some truth in this approach, it's not fully ecological because it's vision is limited to human social space. Does it take the deer, raccoons and ravens into account? Do they have a place in this new urban environment? What about coyotes, will they be welcome in the mega-urban future? Whether we plan for them or not, they're already citizens of our urban landscape. And as global warming continues to materially change the zones we've designated as “nature,” more species will cross the border into the urban zone in search of relief and a new life.

Today we have an architecture that is unable to anticipate that its buildings will have to coexist with pigeons in the shared urban landscape. Tomorrow (or rather today) we'll need to learn to coexist with a growing and increasingly diverse population of urban wildlife. And our questions may have to go beyond how coyotes and humans will coexist to how red tailed hawks and ravens will interact within our built mega urban enclosure.

 

Dr. Dre versus the Big Bad Algorithm

We're seeing some new shapes among the feudal technology stacks. Apple has made a couple of moves that puts them on the human side of the ledger. Yahoo seems to be following in that direction. Google and Facebook remain fully automated, and they've placed their bet on male software engineers, big data and algorithms.

A few years ago, as the stacks were establishing their hold on networked computing, Nicholas Carr asked “Does IT Matter?” The question occupied the spot between home-grown corporate technical systems and the eventual outsourcing to professional cloud-based services. In most cases utility computing in central networked data centers turned out to be a better investment than a local IT team cobbling together a custom application. If the technology in question wasn't a company's core business, it didn't matter. Outsource everything possible to a vendor who counted that service as a core competency.

The networked computing platforms that have battled so fiercely to be among the few left standing have learned a bittersweet lesson. The platform is just a blank sheet of paper, a surface ready to be inscribed. Its worth is minimal, in fact, Apple has begun giving away its newest operating systems. There's no value in an individual installation of the platform, it's only the platform as a whole that has value.

When the technical press looked at Apple's acquisition of Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre they didn't understand. The music service didn't have enough subscribers, the head phones weren't even among the best, nothing matched up with the dollar figures that were being thrown around. Non-engineers aren't acqui-hired, non-engineers are replaceable worker parts that merit commodity pricing. Sure these guys have “taste”, but that's not really worth anything. An algorithm can be built to easily reproduce something like their taste. In a reversal of Nicholas Carr's thought, the algorithmists asked “Do Human Factors Matter?”

Jimmy Iovine's response to the machine was that something was missing from the algorithmic output. Here's how Iovine put it:

“The sequencing of an album was very important. Music is made in bite-sized pieces, but you need an hour's worth of music for certain activities. The other guys have an algorithm. For some reason, these young people aren't understanding why they aren't getting the feel they're supposed to get. We said no, no, you're supposed to have the right sequence.”

What's the value of being able to create “that feel” across a networked computing platform? There doesn't seem to be an acknowledged economic value that can be applied to in creative people working at the platform level. The technologist and the financial analysts ask “where's the game-changing technology?” That's what Apple did with the iPod, iPhone and iPad. Where's the iWatch? Where's that next big thing? No one creates a game changing technology. Steve Jobs said it best and very simply many years ago.

“Things happen fairly slowly, you know. They do. These waves of technology, you can see them way before they happen, and you just have to choose wisely which ones you’re going to surf. If you choose unwisely, then you can waste a lot of energy, but if you choose wisely it actually unfolds fairly slowly. It takes years.”

You choose the wave. You don't invent the wave. In this new era of feudal technology stacks, the technology should intrude less and less. The technology, if it's well designed, should start to recede into the background. If you're noticing it, generally that's because it's broken. Finding the feel, creating the feel of, and within, the platform, that's the thing a machine can't come up with on its own. Or at least that's what we're about to find out. Will creative people who can operate at the level of a large platform (Dre, Iovine, Ahrendts, Deneve) be more successful than an algorithm that crowd sources, sorts and filters?

 

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