Stealth & Styling



Some saran-wrapped pre-market cars convoy up the PCH. They’re all heavily instrumented — you can see instrument fittings and computers inside. Each has a driver and some kind of tech dude in the passenger seat.

This is interesting to me mostly because of what’s being cloaked. It’s not the broad lines — it might be Porsche in there — but the more subtle style and accents. Overhead at the studio amongst those with automobile design chops are stories about the high-point styling practices that go on in that airy community. This plastic wrap is so blobby that you can’t see any of the curves that the designers probably fussed over forever. And this is the kind of thing that these designers puzzle over — how to get a contour to roll sunlight along the hood, or a unique join between the rear lights and the fender. Whatever. That kind of fetish object styling.

The plastic wrap gives it all away. What they’re protecting is their over-attention to style and fashion and the seduction that lines can create in the appearance of a car. This says a lot about this particular design practice, where style trumps other design principles.
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Video Game Makers Favor Diversion over Depth


Ian Bogost is featured in this NPR story on video games — entertaining diversions or substantial implication-rich forms of creativity? There’s no one answer, only conversations around this topic. With the video game industry proclaiming that it is all grown up (110%+ growth in the last year, etc), the “industry” will decide for itself what video games become, what their role will be as cultural artifacts, and what the larger public considers them to be.

Cobbling together a few choice bites from Bogost, I get this:

Artists have a long tradition of pushing the status quo, but not game designers, despite being important culture makers of the 21st century…I’m not sure the game industry wants to see games as an art form. I think they want to see games as a primary form of entertainment..Art is about changing the world. Entertainment is about leisure.

About sums it up. Reflecting on this, it helps me understand my confusion over teaching in an MFA program for video games. The fine print clarifies things — it’s actually an interactive entertainment program that happens to give out an Master of Fine Arts. I think the entertainment meme wins out, swaying the “changing the world” aspect of art and swapping in the creation of fine leisure products.
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Designed Implications

Anthony Dunne // Dunne & Raby from Innovationsforum on Vimeo.

Anthony Dunne of Dunne & Raby, holds forth in characteristic modesty about design not for applications of technology, but for implications — creating a basis for dialogue and debate, rather than creating new, faster, shinier things. In this talk he discusses approaches to designing implications through his experiences and work that students in the RCA’s Design Interactions program have done through a course called “Complicated Needs”, approaching design not for “users” but people, with complicated emotions and desires and imperfections that are beyond the generic “user” we often consider when designing interactions.
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Where To Next? Design..


Time for the next chapter. Shortly, I’ll be officially joining a fantastic little studio within Nokia Design called Design Strategic Projects. It’s a studio of very clever, insightful and thoughtful designers and researchers. It’s a playground of big ideas, and plenty of support to work them through. There are some big questions and even bigger opportunities to continue the work I’ve been doing in the gaps between creative practices, technology and critical analytic thinking.

(To give you a sense of what I mean, check out this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, which features the work of Jan Chipchase and Duncan Burns, two new colleagues in the studio.)

Everything I’ve been doing for the last 15 years has brought me here. Last 15 years? There was the engineering chapter, the computer-human interaction chapter, the critical theory chapter and then the dot-com chapter. Academia was like an inverse sabbatical. It was a great opportunity to think how to bring all of these things together into one un-hyphenated undisciplinary craft. Sadly, academia turns out to be way too conservative and, despite quotidian wisdom, a thin veneer of intellectual and creative freedom behind a very conventional and super risk averse for-profit business, full of the usual political rough-housing.

The question of relevance also comes to mind with regard to academia, which was arguably the one thing you might guess I was preparing for. I mean, why else get a PhD in an area of inquiry that’s as close to Philosophy and Critical Theory as anything. I’m not hating too hard, but there are challenges ahead for academia if it wants to participate in the idea/knowlege/insight/culture circulation networks beyond the greenways of its campuses. There’s the insularity of its publishing practices. Who really reads the swirl of endlessly regurgitated write-ups that sluice through the ACM and Springer-Verlag presses every year. They’re locked away behind password protected and over-priced journals, have citation practices that have no qualms with incest and, let’s face it, peer-review? P’lease.

Where I’ve been, and its only one place, there’s a shortage of emphasis on critical thinking and fundamentals like analytic writing. Across the board there should be some context for “studios” where students put into practice the ideas developed and discussed so that “practice-theory” allows students to develop the trans/inter/undisciplinary skillsets that will allow them to understand how to shape the worlds they occupy in analytically-focused material ways. By “across the board” I mean in most disciplines where people are expected to practice what they’re been theorizing and reading and writing about. Which is, basically, everyone. I could go on, and I will — I think there’s good work to be done there, and I will continue to do that work. It’s more a systemic problem. The context for discussing these issues and addressing them has to be from a position that is protected from political and institutional vulnerability, and where there’s real, honest support. That is not the case now.

The next bit of kit to add to my practice is Design. As soon as the opportunity presented itself to become a part of a design studio and learn how design fits in with this larger goal of being able to do work through multiple-simultaneous practices, and to focus on problems and how to approach them, rather than disciplines and their nutty boundary maintenance politics.

With engineering I can make things. I’ve learned how “art-technology” is a great kind of practice idiom for exploring strange new near future ideas, the kind of research & development that you just can’t get away with as a disciplinary engineer. Design is the right addition to the engineering, my modest art-technology practice, and my predilection towards critical thinking as an approach to making and understanding new near future things. On top of that, there are some new things to be done in the area of prototyping and sketching new ideas relying on engineering fundamentals together with design principles.

This is a continuation of present interests, questions and areas of activity. The Near Future Laboratory remains the home for bright ideas and their playful execution. The decision to become a part of the Design Strategic Projects studio was largely based on a clear indication that I am expected to continue and expand upon the themes and approaches and insights we’ve been excavating at the Near Future Laboratory. A perfect expansion and continuation of what Nicolas and I started a couple of years ago, with the resources of Nokia. It’s time for some serious play.

Parenthetically, in and around the time I was contemplating this next chapter, Adam Greenfield was too, as it turns out. He’ll be joining as the head of Nokia’s Design Direction, working in the service and user interface domain. Adam and I are friends, and have been IM’ng over these moves over these last months. It was a nice affirmation to hear him considering this. Adam’s someone who I trust, and I’m looking forward to the chance to ponder big things and play around with some new ideas over at Nokia House.

More about Design Strategic Projects. The studio was formerly called Insight and Innovation. The work they did in that guise is pretty much exactly the sort of work I should be involved in. It combines analysis, visual storytelling, probes about new interaction paradigms, and speculative near future inquiries into new interaction rituals. One project that recently bubbled up to the public spotlight is called Remade, a phone made entirely from upcycled and recycled materials. It’s actually one central theme in a larger network of principled design projects that are incredibly exciting. What’s more, we’re going beyond talking the talk — appearance models and styling are well and good, but this is a design studio that will be making objects that function, turning their design principles and theory and coupling it tightly to everyday practice. There’s been some recent press about the studio and its people if you want some more insight. In the near future, there’ll be more of a public voice to the studio’s work. This was one of my central discussion points when we started late last summer chatting about my joining the studio, and every rung of the ladder up the leadership, across several international borders has indicated that this is indeed part of the mission.

Some Design Strategic Projects Stuff that explains a bit more about what I’ll be getting into.

NYT article on the studio, focusing on approaches to innovation, human fundamentals and how to design can make garbage beautiful. It features Rhys Newman, Raphael Grignani, Andrew Gartrell and Jan Chipchase.

Over hearing the raw interview while in the studio, I became increasingly convinced that I needed to be a part of this team. I couldn’t help smiling at the smart replies, like Jan’s response when asked if the studio felt pressure to design new phones quickly in an increasingly competitive market —

"Mr. Chipchase responded with a quizzical stare. “Why do you want to innovate faster?” he asked. “Are you innovating something gimmicky just to sell a product? Or is it saving the planet you are after?”"

(By the by, the studio doesn’t design phones in a fashion you might think. It’s an innovation studio, with no mandates to create market products in the way other design groups might. We use design to clarify broader, strategic concerns and themes, rather than tactical responses to 6-9 month product pressures.)

Jan and Duncan Burns were recently featured in a New York Times Magazine profile.

Raphael Grignani is an interaction designer who brings a great humor and fantastically Franco-critical eyeball to all the work around him.

Jan Chipchase is the brilliantly visual insight excavator. I’m particularly excited to be now officially a colleague with Jan. I have much to learn from this character.

Francesco Cara presentation at Lift08. Francesco leads the two DSP teams, one here in Los Angeles, the other in Helsinki.

Jan Chipchase — Digital Nomad

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Counter Intuitive


How do you find the spirit and play of exploration in an optimized geography?

In the idiom of maps and cartography, the tendency is to thoroughly identify as many attributes of the physical world and coordinate them to geographic, you know…coordinates, typically using latitude and longitude. Those attributes are usually other instrumental and worldly markers, like street addresses, nearly immovable physical markers like, you know…landmarks, buildings, franchise stores, and so on. The database tables fill in with this information, sorted, sifted, refined. Some deletes and updates.

In between the record sets are the most interesting possibilities for new services, new ways of experiencing the physical world and new kinds of adventures. What I’m thinking about are ways to creatively explore within a fully instrumented, surveilled and mapped world, with counter intuitive uses of this data. There are some excellent examples within the art-technology and design-technology communities, such as GPS Drawing, as shown above. This practice is intriguing because it couples measurement with expression and finds an alternative use for the devices involved — a GPS and a mapping application like GoogleEarth.


Surveillance Camera Players using CCTV cameras as a site for performance opportunities

Younghee wonders, in this context, what are the ways of minimizing “digital traces” — those indications of where you are, and where you have been, in a surveillance world. She says,

That leaves another interesting question: How would people drop out of, or at least minimize their digital traces and minimize contributing to create others’? We are probably not expecting stickers and badges showing “this person does NOT have cameras” or “this person will NOT use cameras”. One of the memorable Ubicomp conference talks was on the interesting concept of creating capture-resistant environment, preventing camera phones to take photos by overexposing photos attempted in the region covered by this technology. While I am sure there are certain types of places this technology would be very useful, I do have my doubts if there would ever be any technology successfully controlling people’s digital behaviors.

Similarly, in a reverse mode, Life: A User’s Manual by Michelle Teran captures the signals leaked into public space by RF-based video cameras and reveals intimate spaces in a very DIY and performative fashion.

Minimzing traces is one possible perspective. I think, perhaps in this era where digital kids do not reflect so much on how much of a trace they leave behind, and indeed have entirely different perspectives on the meaning of surveillance and its implications. How many digital kids (the next “us”) have read “1984” for example?


In contrast to the Surveillance Camera Players and their performances — where they are maximizing their imact and traces for counter-intuitive purpsoes, and counter-systemic purposes — groups like the Institute for Applied Autonomy have constructed — years ago, pre-Google Maps — a digital map system called iSee of surveillance cameras that would allow one to plot a course that does precisely what Younghee wonders about — minimzing one’s impact. In other words, the mapping system plots routes that avoids surveillance cameras.

It may be that the question is no to much avoiding “capture” but how to turn that space into something where your voice can be heard. I’m not convinced, but it seems that we (a bit older people) think of surveillance in one way that digital kids (the next “us”) will see as an opportunity for a new form of living.

Beyond this, I am interested in a kind of Personal Positioning System that points out the absences in my experiences in the world. For example, showing me where I have not been rather than showing the entire world from above, as if its fully prepared for my exploration. I’m interested in finding things like longer route between two points, rather than the minimal route. Or routes that are deliberately constructed based on streets or regions I have not been. Purely as a form of creative, digital-era perambulation or motoring. Exploration in a world that is pretty much completely mapped, indexed, databased and optimized. What is exploration in an optimized, instrumented world?

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Post-Optimal Design


John Marshall over at Designed Objects has ben teaching a studio design course he titles “Post-Optimal Objects” with the convenient acronym POO. These are projects that are exploratory and self-critical in a sense. They skirt between what Marshall says is fine art and design so as to address approaches for developing the aesthetic and critical possibilities of objects outside a commercial context.

Some of the projects are fascinating probes that are by mandate critical and playful and skirt away from, as the title of the studio suggests, post-optimal contexts. This is resonant for me because it can be a challenge to steer away from expected rational and conservative forms of design. That is, things that are already commercially viable because they resonate with existing consumer expectations. But, as François has recently described, consumerism is only a small and very intriguing step away from cannibalism.

I often get flustered and frustrated with questions about ideas or project concepts that are not “products” in the sense of the commercial marketplace. People will ask — “well..why do you do this? No one would buy this!”

Of course, this is maybe true, but likely not the case at all. (Strictly speaking, someone would, odds say.) In any case, what Marshall is doing around this notion of post-optimal is teasing what is at the core of my frustration which is that any new, innovative idea is a bad idea because the world is already optimized for itself. The marketplace of ideas and their expression in standard form (as products to be sold, or services to be offered and profit to be found in a margin between price and cost) defines the constraints and requirements of what can play in that ecosystem, and it does so with such effectivity and narrowness that it is perfectly optimized. Things cannot enter into that ecosystem without having met these constraints and requirements. And, moreover, even conversations that skirt outside of the idioms of this self-optimal system are looked at oddly. People ask — why would you do this, as pertains a completely post-optimal idea, and they really mean it. They can find no answer because they search for the answer within the framework of the self-optimal system.

When Nicolas and I discussed the Near Future Laboratory’s motivation and premise a couple of years ago, it was also, among other things, to be a place that explored possibilities that were outside of existing self-optimal frameworks. This is why I sometimes refer to it as a kind of science-fiction authoring practice, but with forms expressed in materialized ideas as well as writing. A different kind of authoring practice. The reason for this was to have a way of justifying “why” such odd things (such as this “(Air) Guitar Hero” device in the image above) are constructed. Science-fiction offers a safe haven for probing other possible ideas that are entirely speculative and imaginative. They are probes into other possible “systems” of social practice. Things beyond convention, beyond conservative, business-centric notions of what ideas are good for.


From John Marshall’s studio course (ArtDes 300.015) Post-Optimal Objects (POO) Beard Guards to prevent messes whilst eating

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Design As Consumption and Cannibalism


Yesterday François Bar came by the design studio to chat. He offered a perspective on a technology that made it impossible to believe the instrumentalists perspective. What we off-handedly refer to as “technology” is always about social institutions and cultural practices and never any less. It is no more “neutral” and outside of their participation in sometimes fierce institutional politics and debates than the spotted owl. Or, more recently, the Pacific Salmon just off the coast here on the west coast who have had a temporary reprieve in the form of a ban on their being fished in order to conserve their dwindling population. (I counted four government organizations, a couple of professional associations, a few concerned fishermen and three state’s governors who have taken the time to make the Pacific Salmon a political partner.)

I came away from the talk thinking about design as a “conversation” — one amongst the sanctioned designers, often trying to articulate an immaterial idea and make it material. Designers who have consumed this materialization and refashion it — sometimes subtly, other times, as shown in the IED detonator above, with mortal consequences. And this refashioning — what François describes as appropriation/cannabilism — can often be “re-claimed” by the sanctioned, professional designers and iterated upon again. This final iteration may take into account the appropriation and adapt it. It may also co-opt it, or block it entirely. And the cycle continues in this way.

This image was presented in François’ talk and has been around it seems for a couple of years. For me, it stood in for a couple of things. First, is what is most direct. The re-use / appropriation to create a bomb. And that is what most people will see, and the reaction quickly moves to one that says — see? all technologies are just neutral and it is only in their use that we can discuss them, which can be good (call mom to wish her a happy birthday) or evil (use it to detonate an IED.) (This, just to be pedantic, is nonsense. Technologies are only ever used in a social practice and so never neutral in this sense.) What is less directly captured in this image is the notion of cannibalism. Not the physical tearing apart of the device to turn it into a trigger, but the consumption of power that the bomb maker undertakes materially and metaphorically. This power or capability to do “something” is what is already in the device and is the reason why consumers “consume” mobile phones. Things to be consumed are aspirational in that they present a new sort of power — a new super power, that is beyond what one has already. It may be consumption to create status for oneself, as François described. The Brazilian Tupi consumed their enemies — sometimes Bishops arriving to colonize, sometimes Tupi enemies from other tribes.

Cannibalism is an exemplary mode of consumerism adopted by under-developed peoples. In particular, the Brazilian Indians, immediately after having been “discovered” by the first colonizers, had the rare opportunity of selecting their Portuguese-supplied bishop, Dom Pedro Fernandes Sardinha, whom they devoured in a memorable meal.

From (“Brazil in the Making: Facets of National Identity (Latin American Silhouettes)” (Ludwig Lauerhass Jr.)

(Cf Cannibal Manifesto by Oswald De Andrade, 1930.)

François’ talk was titled Mobile technology appropriation in a distant mirror: baroque infiltration, creolization and cannibalism. It was a fascinating perspective on the ways in which Brazilian culture is one of appropriation and what, today, we’d call remix. Historically this was in a form that we’d grotesquely call cannibalism but which, I have to believe, was not so much a savage activity as it was a complex ritual of consuming the power and spirit of those who were eaten.

François outlined three appropriation modes: baroquization, creolization and cannibalism. Baroquization refers to the cooperative way in which churches were adorned with hybrid sculptures and engravings that were a mix of traditional colonial styles of christianity and local symbols, such as tropical fruits or tropical bird feathers. Creolization refers to mixes of European (colonizer) and black cultures that was what derived from colonization. He gave the example of musical styles that mix creole rhythms with classical European melodies. Cannibalism refers to the practice of eating the bodies of others to assume their power.

This to me gave a direct explication of appropriation in this particular context. It was much more sophisticated and sensible than vague descriptions — because it gave particular instances in a specific cultural context. (Which is hard work, and which takes time because you have to look at local contexts and not make broad assumptions from your easy chair.)

He gave examples from Brazilian and some larger South American contexts about such things as m-banking and how it starts in a simple fashion (roll-out), becomes appropriated to meet the specific needs of some communities and then is “re-claimed” as he refers to it and re-deployed as a commercial entity.


1. Roll-Out / 2. Appropriate / 3. Re-Claim

The “reclamation” modes he described are: co-opt, adapt and block. These are the typical modes by which an owner (corporation) might look at how their technological-practice framework (a device or a service instrumented by devices, for example) has been “consumed” or, in a more indelicate description, cannibalized, by people who have decided that the framework is desirable — its power to effect some kind of material or ephemeral change in their lives, however simple or complex, is something useful or perhaps necessary for them. So — they “buy in.” They consume it.

Sometimes, it gets cannibalized. Sometimes it tips over and becomes something else.

This cycle was the most intriguing part of the discussion. It got me thinking about the cycle as a kind of conversation (to sound polite and open to discussion) amongst designers — both those who sanction themselves as designers (industrial designers, product designers, business strategists in some sense, etc.) within companies, and people — “consumers” who designers, effectively, colonize with their wares. Sometimes that “conversation” is quite terse — EUA’s explicitly circumscribe what sort of consumption a consumer may engage in. Cannibalism is almost strictly forbidden as a matter of law.

What are the implications this perspective has on design in the first instance? It’s more than open technical systems, I think. Only a small group of people find the gumption to tackle hardware and software systems — it’s quite sophisticated work, generally speaking. There’s a middle ground somewhere to be explored. One that makes technology-practice frameworks amenable to appropriation/cannibalism without “killing” the designer in the first place.

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Alex Galloway's "Kriegspiel"

Alex Galloway

Alex Galloway came by to do a short talk discussing his new game “Kriegspiel” based on Guy Debord’s “The Game of War” This is a curious strategy game that Debord created while in the midst of a bit of a creative flat-spin. It was created in an artisinal mode, with 5 hand crafted editions constructed with a collaborator. Evidently one of the sets — made with metal pieces — was recently on display in NYC on loan from Debord’s widow. Galloway has some interesting archival style insights into the historical context of the game’s development and Debord as a cultural figure of some importance, and I recommend finding whatever he has written on the topic. (It seemed as though he was reading from working-notes for a longer bit of work on this.)

What I find most interesting in this context is the articulation that Galloway has performed between historical archival work and the expression of these “findings” through this game. The game is, by Galloway’s own description, based entirely on the original rules of Debord’s game design. Alex describes himself as fascinated by games, but not at all a game designer. Thus, finding a cultural hero of academics and scholars world-wide who also happens to have designed a game makes for an excellent scholarly project. It skirts the boundary between an activity some critical scholars might poo-poo (game design) and an activity the most conservative scholars could at least chomp on (a proper archival inquiry into the life, history and ideology of a curious figure of some importance.)

Once (and quite a bit “still”) a critical scholar might excavate material from “the archives” (dusty library basements, personal notes moldering in a widow’s attic, interviews with aging contemporaries of the subject, etc.) and then construct a series of insights and anecdotes based on those findings, find a publisher and then stitch together a book on the matter. What Galloway is doing is expressing these insights and anecdotes into a hybrid expression of his findings — a digital, networked game as well as more traditional scholarly essays on the topic. This is significant and important for all the reasons I state over and over here. It’s no longer a viable means for scholarly inquiry to create and circulate ideas and culture solely through dusty old forms like ink on paper. This is a hybrid forms that express both a theory (in this case, Debord’s projection of what strategy is in a rhizomatic, networked era, even though it was constructed many decades before the internet) as well as providing a point-of-entry for someone who has never had a reason to look into this Guy Debord character. For that, Alex’s work is super important.

Parenthetically, I first met Alex back around 2000 when he was doing a residency at Eyebeam (an art-technology center in New York City) while I was preparing to do my residency there. He was working on Carnivore, another important “theory object” instance. I learned a lot about what it was to construct engineering objects that wore culture on their sleeves quite noticeably. It was then that I started understanding how this important hyphenated form called art-technology could offer an opportunity to create and learn about ways to create technological instruments that were more properly and obviously “culture.” Whereas that is always the case — that technology is not outside of culture — it is often hard to find frameworks and communities and mechanisms that allow one to experiment with the mixture. The goals therein are to understand that technology, as culture, is “made” and not “given.” As such, it can be done “otherwise” and need not be the mass-manufactured, extant forms we have today. It can be hand-made properly, even hand-made and massively multiple, but with new entirely preposterous forms that create new ways of seeing, understanding and being in the world.

Alex alluded to some legal hassles with creating the game — a cease-and-desist notice from Dubord’s widow. Liz Losh describes this further in her post on Kriegspiel that she wrote after Alex visited UC Irvine the day after he was at USC.

Unfortunately, as Galloway explained to the audience, he had recently received a lawyer’s letter regarding possible infringement of the rightful owner’s intellectual property. Despite Galloway’s insistence that an “idea for a game” or its “rules” are “not subject to copyright,” those pursuing cease-and-desist orders against the makers of the Scrabulous application for Facebook might disagree.

This point is intriguing for me, particularly in the context of, broadly “fair use” in an academic context. I see this game, generously, as a kind of analytic conversation and engagement with the material. Taking the instructions of the game and creating an “object” that is the game, but in this different, networked, screen-based instantiation is seen by the widow and her lawyers as not at all like writing a paper-and-words-based essay, which is what academics more traditionally do. Here are instances where analytic engagement and the materialization of Alex’s insights and thoughts crosses some boundary into the realm of “unfair” use.

Some parenthetical notes. As I mentioned, Alex and the R-S-G make their own theory objects, as I would call them. Here, with Kriegspiel, they’re using the Java Monkey Engine. — "A 3D game engine written in and for Java. Many features including collisions, particle systems, shaders, terrain system, renderer abstraction."

Ian Bogost has some remarks on Kriegspiel as well.

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