Thickly Imbricated

Knot Thatch Structure

I just finished Richard Powers’ intriguing industrial historical novel Gain, which was brought to my attention by a couple of passages in Bruno Latour’s Reassembling the Social, which was brought to my attention by..&c.

One of the passages in the Latour is a sidebar in which he deploys an extended quotation from Powers in order to capture the multivalent prismatic network of associations that invigorate what a corporation is. There are no singular definitions — there are associations of the firm from a legal perspective, from the perspective of the guy working on a loading dock, from the point of view of shareholders who own lots of a company, and those who only own enough to have a modest retirement (they hope), from the perspective of environmental activists, from a historical point of view in the sense of corporate history, or a historical point of view from the perspective of labor history — and so on. The multivalent identity of a corporation is a complex thing, and even more complex to represent.

In this quotation, Powers’ captures the complexity of the corporation in a wonderfully succinct fictional historical moment. We’re in the denouement of the novel. The Clare company has come from a rich history of family enterprise in the American colonial days to today. Starting as an intrepid candle making trio (two Claire brothers and an Irish widower who is a candle craftsman) to a multinational, multiproduct conglomerate. As the CEO prepares for an interview on public television about this storied company, he ponders a question the producer has asked him to consider, jotting notes on a legal pad.

To make a profit. To make a consistent profit. To make a profit in the long run. To make a living. To make things. To make things in the most economical way. To make things for the longest possible time. To make things that people need. To make things that people desire. To make people desire things. To give meaningful employment. To give reliable employment. To give people something to do. To do something. To provide the greatest food to the greatest number. To promote the general welfare. To provide for the common defense. To increase the value of the common stock. To pay a regular dividend. To maximize the net worth of the firm. To advance the lot of all the stakeholders. To grow. To progress. To expand. To increase knowhow. To increase revenues and to decrease costs. To get the job done more cheaply . To compete efficiently. To buy low and sell hight. To improve the hand that humankind has been dealt. To produce the next round of technological innovations. To rationalize nature. To improve the landscape. To shatter space and arrest time. To see what the human race can do. To amass the country’s retirement pension. To amass the capital required to do anything we want to do. To discover what we want to do. To vacate the premises before the sun dies out. To make life a little easier. To make people a little wealthier. To make people a little happier. To build a better tomorrow. To kick something back into the kitty. To facilitate the flow of capital. To preserve the corporation. To do business. To stay in business. To figure out the purpose of business.

Kennibar thinks of adding: “To beat death,” but he’s afraid he’ll forget what he meant when the cameras roll this afternoon.

Richard Powers. Gain: A Novel. p. 398

What is the relevance of this? In part, reflecting upon the capability of a good story teller to capture a richness that escapes even the most well-researched corporate histories. In this sense, the power and force of the well-written word resonates with the sensibilities of “design fiction” to convey an idea, a concept, a *new thing* or even an *old thing* in a more compelling way than wireframes and storyboards.

Latour makes this point in an earlier passage — the wonderful dialogue chapter between the student and his professor — when the persistently baffled and obstinate student fights the losing fight for *objectivity*, not realizing that this moves him so far away from his material, from his site of curiosity that he conveys nothing but clichés. And in part the dialogue encouraged me to find this book, Gain.

S: But certainly nothing is objectively beautiful — beauty has to be subjective…taste and color, relative…I am lost again. Why would we spend so much time in this school fighting objectivism then? What you say can’t be right.

P: Because the things people call ‘objective’ are most of the time the clichés of matters of fact. We don’t have a very good description of anything: of what a computer, a piece of software, a formal system, a theorem, a company, a market is. We know next to nothing of what this thing you’re studying, an organization, is. How would we be able to distinguish it from human emotions? So, there are two ways to criticize objectivity: one is by going away from the object to the subjective human viewpoint. But the other direction is the one I am talking about: back to the object. Positivists don’t own objectivity. A computer described by Alan Turing is quite a bit richer and more interesting than the ones described by Wired magazine, no? As we saw in class yesterday, a soap factory described by Richard Powers in Gain is much livelier than what you read in Harvard case studies. *The name of the game is to get back to empiricism.*

Why do I blog this? A question of the the how and why of conveying material and ideas and histories in a way that is both empirical and with the powerful disbelief-suspension mechanics of a good story. Using fiction to do the work of designing as well using fiction in the work of communicating design that moves away from silly knee-jerk assumptions about what is “good” or what will make a profit. What is conceptual and innovative beyond the borders of ho-hum least-common denominator kruft?
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The Week Ending Today 111209

In the spirit of the curious weekly updates I’ve begun paying attention to, and within the practicalities of this laboratory log, I think we’ll give a try to remind myself what the heck has been going on in and around the laboratory nervous center mostly for our own record, and for those who are curious.

This week was spent mostly in Helsinki, mostly in Espoo, mostly in Nokia House. In the weeks preceding (is this a violation? can i talk about the weeks preceding this one if it provides context?), most attention and energy was focused on pulling into a focus a most extraordinary design project for sharing here. The project has been running for most of the year. Truly fascinating materialized conclusions from an extraordinarily intangible design brief that I had given myself as a bit of a challenge, but it was also considered to be a good design project with benefits to the larger organization.

The substance of the project will have to wait for another day — and it almost doesn’t matter, although the conclusions are fascinating designed embodiments of the insights+principles — but the form of the conclusions are worth mentioning — effectively the translation of an intangible core social element into a guiding principle for design practices. Through the project we learned quite a bit more about what it is to lead a design project with a team of peers and supeeriors; what it feels like to be part of a well-functioning, supportive, generously creative design studio; and, what it is to share design insights, and tangible prototypes containing “dialed-to-11” peculiar interaction rituals (of the sort the laboratory uses to provoke/prod/probe possible weird near future worlds) with both whiplash smart, kung-fu smooth designers and minders of brand-marketing cubicle lands.

We also evolved a style of communication that bucks the PowerPoint/Keynote trend so as to force a conversation when someone asks us to “just send the deck” cause, like..the project has no “deck” to send. This style has been called, in a positive way, “disarming” — which we’ll take as a vote of confidence. Effectively, “designed fictions”, visual stories, and ritual moments. The goal originally was stories, and the practicalities of the moment forced the moments. Stories were story boarded, time + tool-chain learning forced the fall-back, which were still quite entrancing to watch. Or maybe I was just tired and zoning out in front of the screen. We’ll compose more on the practical aspects of some corners of the technical production of design fictions in the near future.

The week ends today, with a return to Los Angeles. Then, a nice bike ride down the coast, to be followed by a couple of days in the desert to watch a meteor shower.

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Beyond Public Toilet Maps — Prehistoric Augmented Reality Devices

Saturday November 28 12:35

Saturday November 28 12:55

Saturday November 28 12:52

Saturday November 28 12:55

A small collection of historic augmented reality devices, found during a rake through a flea market in Paris with fellow Urban Scout Nicolas Nova last Saturday. Mostly bashed up, broken things — but evocative devices that, when run up against all the excitement surrounding “Augmented Reality”, suggest more to me than the more typical, canonical — hold-my-flat-screen-mobile-device-up-in-front-of-me mode of operation.

Tactically, the evolution of mobile practices like this might learn from the everyday pre-historic rituals, such as gazing through a telescope which, in its infancy, was probably quite close to a kind of augmented reality. It allowed merchants to gaze to the horizon while sitting at port to see what ships were coming in, with what loads. The more speculating merchants could foresee shifts in the local markets because cotton was coming in and eek out their profits with the foresight brought to them courtesy of their expensive, privileged optical devices. A kind of future-seeing device used to their advantage.

Today’s augmented reality has none of that sparkle and magic. The visions of the AR future as best as I can tell is overturned by the fetish of the technology. This truly is a bad approach to making new kinds of worlds. The instrument comes first — a display, compact electronics, embedded compass and network connectivity — are what guide the vision and the “scenarios” (if you can call them that) entail something that basically is an expensive way to ask someone standing right next to you, who probably speaks a language you speak anyway — where the nearest public toilet is. Or where the metro stop is. Or in what direction the museum is. All of these things are problems that have been well-solved and need no tax imposed upon them like data roaming fees, or the inconvenience of a [[bad network/crap GPS signal/annoyance of dropping your $500 toy//&c]].

Augmented Reality in this mode of “design” is a bit like finding a nice door knob…and then looking for the house that looks good around it. Starting with the door knob — the instrumental technical stuff — is a really bad way to design a house, I think.

Why do I blog this? Poking and prodding at a more satisfying set of metaphors, language, histories for what a looking glass / viewmaster / binocular of the near future might be and what lessons it might learn from its prehistoric kin. I’m curious about the possibility of learning from the evolution and development and cultural valance of these earlier devices — considering them in the mode of a magical, exciting bit of technical kit from their time. But what did they do and how were they used? How much of the device and technical characteristics guided what they became, like today? Was someone walking around with some carefully, expensively constructed optics, not entirely sure what to do with them? Or not sure how to sell them to people? How were they to be assembled, technically speaking? What was the level of knowledge of combined optics — was it similar in its sophistication and arcane incantations like programming embedded devices and mobile phones today? What did it take for someone to use the telescope as something other than a device for starring at the moon or constellations? And other questions like this…what can be learned from shifting contexts, moving to historic moments, fictionalizing alternative possibilities for those histories, or fictionalizing the near future of these weird “augmented reality” speculations.

What might “augmented reality” augment besides directions to a public toilet?
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