Slow Messenger Prototype (II)

Slow Messenger

This is the second prototype hardware for the Slow Messenger project we’ve been working on. It’s slow going, naturally enough, probably the result of too many design projects for peculiar mobile devices going at once.

This prototype is using a small 96 x 64 pixel OLED display by 4D Systems and the idea is that you’d have your “instant” messages displayed over relatively long periods of time, and the more you carried the messaging device with you — the more you held it — the more of the message you would see. If you left the device by itself — thereby not really showing much commitment or affinity to the message — the longer it would take for the message to reveal itself.

The conceit of the project is to create a kind of “durable affinity” amongst the messaging participants. By coupling the message’s slow unfolding to a tangible object that the recipient must hold and carry around, the communication has a kind of interaction ritual that might be more intimate than punching little plastic squares while staring at a screen. Turning time, touch into a condition of affinity and commitment is the interaction ritual we are exploring.

The project is a “theory object” — not necessarily a product in the sense of something that could have a deep impact on the quarterly results of a large public company. It is meant to be a way to critique an aspect of digital networked interaction through a provocative designed object. Going beyond speculation to specification, design, fabrication, prototype experiences, iteration is significant. It creates something that helps me think about the questions that were initially raised in a day dream much, much more than only spinning the thoughts in my head and as writing on paper could ever possibly do. Constructing the device – taking the idea and making it artifact and then giving them to people to experience and provide their thoughts – is a crucial way to think about the questions and the larger problem of having sensible things to say about the near future of these sorts of interaction rituals.

Efficient, quick communication is a product of power-politics. In order to exert one’s influence geographically, it’s necessary to communicate one’s will over distances and do so in as little time and with as much efficiency as possible. Slow messaging just doesn’t make sense in that context. And that simple necessity has soaked through most of our forms of communicating, even when we are not particularly powerful. It just becomes an assumption that communication happens quickly – not because it cannot be any other way, but because it has become part of the unquestioned “DNA” of communication as a social practice.

But, as in most of our projects, we want to work from unconventional assumptions in order to see what the experiences of communication in a different “anti-” universe might be like. What can we learn about our existing social practices of communication – instant messaging, SMS, always-available styles of presence online – if we do an experiment where the assumption is the opposite. In this case, if we make communication much slower, what do we learn about new ways of relating and sharing with our friends and loved ones? We’re not necessarily assuming that this is the best way to communicate, for example. We’re not making a new product or something of this sort. It is very much an experiment in design as a way to answer some perplexing questions about the relationships we maintain through all these peculiar and compelling messaging systems.

Conclusion: Interdisciplinarity is Dead


“In order to do interdisciplinary work, it is not enough to take a ‘subject’ (a theme) and to arrange two or three sciences around it. Interdisciplinary study consists of creating a new object, which belongs to no one.” Roland Barthes, “Research: The Young” in “The Rustle of Language”

Interdisciplinary is often taken to mean putting a scientist, an artist, and an engineer in the same room and having them produce something “unique” and special that neither could produce on their own.

Where I teach, the keyword has been interdisciplinarity, but it’s only lip service that often devolves into clumsy, politically fraught, contentious projects that maybe get completed..after a few years.

There are a handful of people who can transcend disciplines and create things that stretch the envelope of possibility, probably because they have the skills that the instrumental disciplines by themselves offer. They are the multiple, simultaneous, self-collaborating artist-designer-engineer-scientist-creatives — all in one. Hyphenated, like multiple simultaneous social identities. They are tricky to describe, or pin-down. Their bios are difficult to write in 25 words and still feel that you’ve got even a little bit of coverage. They have no particular “home”, but can occupy different communities, slip over to other communities, turn on a dime and talk the talk of different communities of practice with authority and fluidity. And their only illegitimacy comes from the fact that they often piss off the rock-headed, old-school disciplinarians who can’t see the virtue in multiple perspectives. Or who can’t get the fact that they can’t play by the disciplinary rules.

Anyone who has multiple simultaneous social identities of a different sort knows what I mean. You can’t fill out forms that ask you to say what your race is. Or your gender. Or you get in trouble because, once, you identified as white. And now you identify as black or “other.” There are similar “framework” problems with being multidisciplinary. Not at all the same social worlds problems, but the same issues associated with trying to find safe places to do what you do, or be who you’ve become.

My opinion is that that notion has always been compelling, but terribly naive and awkward. Getting everyone together in one room and able to spend enough time together to understand the perspective of the other’s discipline may be a start. But, honestly? I think it’s absolutely vital — a requirement — that you practice the other disciplines that contribute to the project. Which takes time. And will. Not to mention, well..discipline to become a designer, or chemist, or engineer, or cultural theorist, or whatever. And I think it’s more than just learning how to program a microcontroller or reading de Certeau or taking a workshop. It may not be popular to think this way, but it takes time. You have to invest that time if you expect to acquire “perspective” from the practices of other disciplines. And once you’ve done that, and transcended disciplines, you come to a unique, individual perspective from which unique, potentially fantastic things can be created. Even if just by yourself. It’s more than an artist learning to program a computer. Or a scientist learning to understand how knowledge circulates from a social science perspective. You have to “become” and spend time as a practitioner of the “practices” that you want to inform how you do what you do.

Merely teaching programming for writers may be a start, but you end up with a writer who can program, which is not quite someone transcending disciplines to create extra special things.

(Thanks to Simon Penny for the Barthes quote.)

DS32C35 Breakout Board



A bit of overt geekdom here, but we’ve been getting a few requests for designs that relate to time — a peculiar watch design for one, and an even more provocative sort of life time-piece. And time is one of the design idioms we’re interested in anyway, so I went ahead and constructed a break-out board for the DS32C35 real-time clock. It’s got a couple of handy features, including a rather large cache of nonvolatile FRAM for data storage (8kb on the “C” variant, 2kb on the “B” variant). That can be useful for applications where some sort of data needs to be stored, like in Flavonoid where we’re time-stamping activity measurements, or the Slow Messenger where potentially large messages need to be stored. The chip also has a built-in crystal for the actual time keeping part, which reduces the parts count. It communicates using the I2C protocol — convenient — and will keep time on a simple low-voltage battery backup or a “super capacitor”. (This design uses a small coin-cell, on the back there.)