Is the New Aesthetic only about visual stuff?

The panel about New Aesthetic at SXSW last month left me with the impression that NA is all about visual representations:

One of the core themes of the New Aesthetic has been our collaboration with technology, whether that’s bots, digital cameras or satellites (and whether that collaboration is conscious or unconscious), and a useful visual shorthand for that collaboration has been glitchy and pixelated imagery, a way of seeing that seems to reveal a blurring between “the real” and “the digital”, the physical and the virtual, the human and the machine.

Reading Simon “Retromania” Reynold’s twitter feed the other day, I found this:

At first, I found it interesting, especially considering the follow-up blogpost by Reynolds which was basically a reaction to Bruce Sterling’s essay about NA. In this short post, the author describes what can be the equivalent of NA in the audio department of material culture:

what seems overtly, blatantly digital in today’s pop — to draw attention to its digital hyper-reality — are all those AutoTune treatments and various other vocal-science effects (stutters, glitches, drastic pitchshifts from high to low) etc that you get routinely in chartpop in recent years– that, and the general sheen of too-perfectness on both vocals (through AutoTune) and on the entire sonic-surface of songs — a digi-gloss – there seems to be an attempt there, semi-unconscious most likely, to make music keep up with the high-definition crispness of flat-screen TV, CGI in film, skin-tone even-ness and other digital touching-up effects as used in glossy magazine photography and (i believe) also in TV and films.

This all good and well but I think this is the surface of things. As a result (and I do not want to imply that Reynold’s wrong in there, I simply had the same thoughts), my impression is that this way of framing what is NA (regardless of the fact that NA is something *to be framed*) misses the point. As a matter of fact, what I find interesting with the New Aesthetic trope is not a focus on the way things look or sound, it’s way beyond that. As James has put it on his humble tumblr about NA (i wanted to make this assonance for a while): “Since May 2011 I have been collecting material which points towards new ways of seeing the world, an echo of the society, technology, politics and people that co-produce them”.

A good example, in the audio domain for once, of New Aesthetics as I find it interesting is the way the music experience is created, mediated and co-produced on a platform such as Soundcloud. Using it for some time, I am fascinated by the interface the user is provided with:

What strikes me as mesmerizing here, is the use of the spectrogram as the direct interface with musical content: not just an indicator on your screen to see the level of the sound… A machine-produced and machine-readable indicator is used to navigate in the track AND – and this is what I find intriguing – a mean to comment on specific part. Of course, that’s curious IMHO for one reason: the practices that were common on the web (commenting/tagging/starring/linking) have basically circulated to something as common as a playing a musical track and turning it into a social object that people can comment on! What’s next? Permalink for musical excerpt in a track? This example shows another category of NA that I find interesting. Perhaps the upcoming step is to find this kind of spectrogram with comments on concert poster or street graffiti but this is not the point. The main take-away is that the way we use things are changing and the things we are using too because of this co-production that Bridle described in the aforementioned quote.

Why do I blog this? This is maybe half-baked and confusing but I started accumulating material about creolization/recombination/hybridization, and I am curious to see if there a way to tie-in this with the NA meme. My impression is that there’s a hidden variable in there: something that my friend Basile Zimmermann calls the circulation of cultural elements. More to follow later on. And of course, this seems to be related to the object-oriented ontology that Julian blogged about the other day. Let’s read more about that.

Rotary dials as game controllers

Working on the book about game controllers, I did some research about the first game peripherals. This is actually chapter 1… and one of the most intriguing example is certainly the existence of rotary dials. Potentiometers and knobs were of course the first lineages in terms of game controllers; think about Tennis for Two or Pong. Rotary dials are one step beyond as it introduces a sort of discrete interactions in the use of knobs… and of course they were employed to use video games.

One of the earliest game (Noughts And Crosses) used a phone rotary dial but it was certainly more advanced later on in Japan with the rotary joysticks described on this website:

as fun as rotary joysticks might have been at the time, in the end they failed to become more than a novelty control gimmick. So when the ’90s kicked in with SNK dropping their trademark control scheme to go with their new multi-game NEO-GEO MVS system, and as better and more advanced shooting games were being released, rotary joysticks pretty much vanished into thin air from the arcade scene without anyone really noticing or caring.
The only real advantage of the rotary joysticks is that although they can only be pushed in the same 8 directions than the standard 8-WAY joysticks, they come with a special 12-WAY switch box that allows them to be rotated in 12 different positions, thus giving the player the ability to face and shoot in 4 additional directions not possible with the standard joysticks. Unfortunately, as great as this might sound on paper, in reality only very few games had actual 12-WAY support, and those that did, like it’s the case of「BATTLE FIELD」and「CAL. 50」, only showcased how unnecessary the additional directions were gameplay-wise.

Why do I blog this? Working on the book leads to curious discoveries. I’d be happy to play Super Mario with a phone dial, if possible, perhaps that can be an intriguing research avenue for the laboratory. Of course it’s more interesting to think about old school physical phone dials as opposed to the visual versions one can find on smartphones lately. On a different note, I am also fascinated by rotary dials and the way they subtly conveyed feedback to the users.

New Aesthetic // OOO // Future of Things

It’s very gratifying to see how the #newaesthetic discussions are popping and percolating across the networks. There’s something to it, I think. Specifically the observations that something here under the New Aesthetic rubric is worth considering, thinking-through, working-towards.

What is that *something? It is perhaps an aesthetic thing. Perhaps it is symptomatic of the whole algorithmic life thing. Perhaps quite a good bit of articulate insights and cleverly stated things by some smart fellas. Also, perhaps those fellas having the *gumption to get up and say some things in a highly entertaining way. Perhaps it’s the thing of a bit of well-deserved very vocal network meme pot-stirring. Certainly some combination of all of these and likely more, you know..things.

Giving a name to an observed phenomena to muster hunches and instincts and observations and focus the meaning-making of things helps to organize thinking around it. That’s the upside.

The downside is that the thing sort of reifies in a way that isn’t always helpful. Or, you know — when things get a bit too academic. Too yammery..less hammery.

Another downside? The art-tech wonks claiming they’ve been doing it all along — of course they have..of course they have..It’ll get worse when it gets theorized as an aesthetic. Then it’ll get all ruined. An aesthetic about the cultures we live in? How do you get to such a thing? Do you use a really tall ladder?

And there’s some linkage to the #OOO // Object-Oriented Ontology world. Ian’s book Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing points towards the inexplicable (as of yet) dark matter // God Particle // elusive ionized Bogoston particle behind it all, I suspect.

The questions that loosely link #OOO // New Aesthetic // Future of Things in my mind are still quite loose and inarticulate. THere’s something amongst them if only because they each point to “things” as having a sort of uncanny role in our networked world. They’re idiotic things, like Siri and algorithmic Cows. They’re the Long Follow Droid. They’re P.K. Dick style Dazzle Camouflage .

I’m trying to nail down the un-nail-downable. Clarity comes whilst in the middle of a night cycle when I’m utterly convinced of my lucid train of thought, which inevitably disappears into a “what? that makes *no sense” recollection after putting the bike away. But here goes..Questions that somehow wrangle these things:

* What are the ways our things of (presumably) our creation begin to express/articulate themselves in unexpected and weird ways? What is the catalyst for these differently animated, chatty things? Sensors? Networks? It’s been done before — talismans, tea leaves, idols, urns. We talk to thing and let them talk back to us, guide us from beyond. What different now? A bathroom scale that tweets your weight. Plants that yammer for water. I tried to figure this out a fistful of years ago when I wrote a short essay called Why Things Matter (The blog post was called A Manifesto for Networked Objects.) I’m not much further along in understanding why, but I think Alien Phenomenology is helping.

* What are these new things? They seem to be articulate enough to express themselves across the digital-physical barrier, in whatever way, with whatever assumptions one might make about the capabilities of the network+algorithms+human+imagination to produce collectively. When architecture expresses digital sensitivities in a physical way, should we be rolling our collective eyeballs at the irony? Or take it as a weak signal of systemic brake pads weeeing and screeching?

* Something is going on in the world of bespoke things, I think. Things made that capture sensibilities that are far away from what can be made en masse. What is that something-going-on? Is it an aesthetic? Is it new again? Is Kickstarter (uh..) equally #newaesthetic and #thefutureofthings an indicator that massively made is old fashioned and highly particular // nearly custom // curated is fun again?

* Things that live in the networked age and with the sensibilities and expectations we have now for what things are capable of, suggest something new is going on. Drones, wondering, autonomous, robotic vision (absent HAL-like autonomous / artificial intelligence), bots, droids, listening things. That’s weird. It’s uncanny. Unsettling and seductive all at once. Look at that droid following that dude. He can’t get away. I mean — if it’s lugging crap for me, cool, I guess. If it’s following me like a hungry, zealous, huge, disgustingly fast man-eating Possum..not so cool..

I think the #newaesthetic is best left as it is for the time being. A simmering stew of lightly curated matter scrolling by with a giant *shrug across James’ New Aesthetic Tumblr. Inexplicable, by definition. Lightly joked about. Sought out, hunted for, skinned and stuffed and mounted on the Tumblr by the rogue curious.

Please, don’t make me throw wet cabbage at you. It’s the symptom of the algorithm. It’s what comes out of the digital-political-economy of cultures that live by networks and the machinary (soft/hard/hashtag-y) that underpin it all. All this #newaesthtic #ooo #futureofproduction stuff is the excess. The unexpected, unplanned for result. It’s the things that happen without one self-consciously *going after* #newaesthetic / object-oriented ontological / future of network connected things sensibilities.

You can’t force this one. You can’t “do” New Aesthetic. It’s a Zizekian-Lacanian symptom of the networked world smushed up with overzealous design-technology and real aspirations to get things done. It’s horrifyingly beautifully unappeallingly seductive. It’s the nostril that must be picked. It’s the *shrug of bafflement upon seeing connected porn vending machines on a Lisbon Alto Barrio street corner with a screen built-in for watching right there. It’s what results from kooky, well-meaning stuff that gets connected, gets digital and gets inexplicable and comes out weird.

Weekending 08042012

Pfft. Turns out Nicolas is on some island in the Mediterranean “writing” the game controller book.

Well, here in Los Angeles it’s been mostly Project Audio. It was lots of time in the Model Shop, shaking the rafters in the Electronics Bay trying to get the EarFreshener awake and alive. More about the details of that in a subsequent post, but there was a little bit of thinking around: what is the design fiction conceit behind it? is it a prescriptive, medicinal thing? an alternative to the screen-y world, or the thing that helps cure us of screenlock? or some other medical sounding ailment?

And then also some conversations planning for a big design seminar-y getaway event perhaps in the fall. And, also in the meantime, it was a pleasure to host an afternoon with Kevin Slavin in the studio helping reflect upon and check upon some work going on and adding a little creative and conceptual seasoning, in particular to the Tracks project.

In Barcelona, we entered into the final days of work on Quadrigram polishing the list of pre-programmed modules that will be part of the Visual Programming Language. This last effort also consisted in defining the roadmap of periodic release of new modules that will complete the environment along these upcoming weeks.

Also, we are now plotting a follow-up investigation to the Streets of BBVA project. More on that later.

Anything news from SF?

Incongruous Connector // Audio Electronics

Upstairs in the electronics bay, where I’ve been happily spending more and more time, I decided that the thing to do to make it more studio-like, rather than submerged rabbit warren-like, was to put fun things in there, like music and a hidden bag of reward chips. Make it easy to plop down in a chair without fussing with — oh, forgot my power cable, network cables, or..oh..IT hasn’t put any network up here at all..that won’t do. How will I listen to my Rdio or check a specification sheet, or order some parts right as you realize you’ve run out.

Anyway — so..we went to the local crapshoot Fry’s shop down the road and I got a big box that looked like it had speakers in it, which it did. Happy to report that there is now music up here. And, shocked to find this enormously ridiculous cable/connector that tethers one of the left/right channel speakers to the woob-woob bass box speaker. It’s properly a VGA style connector, I’m pretty sure. And it’s big, heavy, reticent, snaky, uncharming and — even if all those signals are doing something — ridiculously much and ridiculously overengineered. I’m sure someone got a good deal on them in a bulk quantity of 150,000 for the run of yet *another quite mediocre PC/gaming audio speaker set. And it works fine.

Many things work fine without any attention to the details of the way they convey themselves in the world. This is like the wobbly-squeaky wheel on the hotel valets cart. The cart does it’s job without complaint and does a fine job, it does. But that squeaky-wobbly wheel sure is a distraction. Makes you wonder when someone will sort it out.

Why do I blog this? Seeing such an over-engineered bit makes me wonder how it even got approved. Or is it one of those things where the engineering (this looks like engineering in the instrumental sense) met the requirements of the specification with minimal cost, minimal finesse and the least amount of hassle. Looks like vendor work rather than someone committed to doing the best they can.
Continue reading Incongruous Connector // Audio Electronics

One Moment Please

A curious addendum to account for a UI/UX muck up at a nearby gasoline station. These moments reveal these hybrid displays — both purposeful, and one made to accomodate for failures in the machine. And this second one — how peculiar. My new laser printer to replace the 10 year old one what that I printed my dissertation on back in’s fine. A bit noisy. And it’s got a whole slew of LEDs to indicate status and all that. The one it replaced? It had a light that was either green (“all good”) or flashed amber (“something’s wrong..paper jam!”) In the last days of the old printer’s life — that light just stayed amber and never went back green. This new one? Well — it’s got lights for days and a sticker it came with so you can figure out what all the flashing codes mean.

Why do I blog this? Just trying to understand the complexities and vagaries of the interfaces to our devices. This complex of things that we need to know about when/where/how to operate them — how long to wait before doing something (slow machines? slow networks?), how to know what’s going on with the machine and the obscure ways they want to talk to us..flashing lights.

Continue reading One Moment Please

Weekending 03312012

For Nicolas, it was a week devoted to teaching with different lectures and workshops in Geneva (digital failures, Monday), Lausanne (creative approaches in design, Wednesday), Paris (open innovation and design ethnography, Thursday) and Annecy (Innovation and foresight, Friday)… and writing for the game controller project… and a quick trip to the accountant.

Well, Julian also went to the accountant and, for better or worse, it was a quick trip. Also, and more interestingly, there was lots of work getting back to the Ear Freshener hardware. It’s one of those things where you step away from something for a couple of months and then almost feel as though you are starting over — finding the source code for things and recollecting the toolchain and build process. And it’s spread across three platforms as well. Hardware CAD on OSX; software for the sound chip on the PC with its own toolchain; software for the AVR microcontrollers on the PC with the AVR Studio IDE for debugging. What a pain.

But..what else? More introductory planning for a possible design gathering in the fall and thinking about good, big questions to frame such a thing. I like the idea of the Venn Diagram of Design — the possible, profitable, desirable graph — as a framing provocation.

Vending machines and their cultural implications

Yesterday, in a very small village in the French Alps, I ran across this fascinating bread vending machine. It made me think about other encounters with not-so-common machines such as a book delivery system in Seoul:

Or this pr0n vending machine in Torino:

And the camera/umberall combo in Bergen, Norway:

Why do I blog this? Looking at what is sold in vending machine is an interesting cultural indicator that it’s always refreshening to observe. It says something about convenience and what is “acceptable” to be served by a non-humans.

In the French “bread” case, an naive observer would say that it’s the end of the world and no French people wants its bread to be delivered in such a mechanized way. To these, I would say that: (1) The French are definitely used to this sort of weird machinery: pizza making devices on parking lots started to appear here and there, (2) It’s not because it’s a machine that the bread is bad. You can’t see it in the picture above but the bread pieces are wrapped in typical french paper, and the presence of flour in the machine makes it certainly more baker-like.

In addition, the understanding of such devices is tightly related to contextual issues. You don’t find these machines anywhere. The camera/umbrella one in Norway is present in a touristic area (where rain is sadly common), the porn machine is located in a gloomy suburb in Torino (where other forms of newspaper shops are absent or much too difficult to visit with this kind of literature), the bread machine is located in a place where shops are totally absent and it can be used by people form the neighborhood (as a dropping point).

Now, why is this important in a blog about interaction design? Simply because these machines are designed by people… who certainly need to understand human needs, contextual issues, technological constraints and business model problems. They seem blank and not interesting but I actually find them intriguing.