OK, Slate just posted a challenge…. try to make this speech by Donald Trump into a coherent diagram. I gave it a shot.
Whenever exploring a city, you’ll hear locals and guides encouraging you to ‘look up’. I’d argue that you learn an equal amount about a city from looking down. You see discarded litter, infrastructural markings on the tarmac, bus tickets and graffiti. You see past the towering monuments of man’s achievement and see the everyday remnants of regular life. I wrote a while ago about the curious multicolored dots beside San Francisco’s drains and I recently completed another short project in a similar vein. All across the Bay Areas are holes in the ground, some permanent, some temporary, each covered by a sheet of metal. Whilst there exists a small cadre of manhole afficionados they become almost invisible by their regularity. A closer look reveals that each of these metal coverings carries data, be it the company who owns the infrastructure below, the type of service, or the owner/manufacturer of the plate itself. Often this information is cast directly into the plate during manufacture, but from time to time this information is handwritten. Upon installation, a piece of text is added to the plate via a welding torch, leaving a permanent metal version of the creator’s handwriting. This tickles me for many reasons, but perhaps mostly as it’s a great example of finding humans – a small piece of human expression evidenced by a mass produced object. Many of the characters are wonky and malformed, perhaps evidence of a lack of care, or the difficulty I imagine comes with writing with a welding torch. Nearly all of the type is capitalized, but every now and then you will see a piece of cursive handwriting, which is lovely. A few covers around the city also seem to have been signed, although I could be wrong.
I began photographing these frozen characters about two years ago but recently accelerated the project (on account of the vlog). On Saturday I finally completed a full alphabet (I found a ‘B’, thank you Pac Bell) and I’ve gone through the somewhat awkward and painstaking process of creating a font. It’s far from usable, and definitely not pretty, but it’s crowdsourced, and that makes it modern. You can download the font here: WELDTYPE
If anyone has the required skills and inclination, it would be nice to cast around these welded letters in-situ and make printing blocks from them… maybe?
I turned 40. I started a Vlog*. Why?
- Turning 40 made me evaluate a lot of things, but primarily that life moves fast. Whilst I consider myself generally well-motivated to stay creative and busy, I feel that sometimes I slip into the Netflix and pub comfort zone. There’s nothing wrong with this, but I have a feeling that I want to do more of the things which forge stronger memories.
- I want to understand social media a bit more than I do. By creating a YouTube channel I have already learned a great deal about what’s good and bad about the platform, how it all goes together and how it feels to use it.
- I procrastinate a lot. By forcing myself to make a film every week, I’m going to have to get quicker at production. This will force me to learn on the hoof and improvise, which will hopefully make me a better film-maker.
- It’s a good experiment in storytelling. Much of the work I do, particularly the work at the Near Future Lab involves telling stories. I’ll only get better at that with practice.
I’m fully aware how this plays into the hands of the cult of celebrity, and I’ve resisted something like this for quite a while due to that concern. Sitting in front of a camera and talking about your life is insanely egotistical, and it’s not something I’m totally comfortable with. That said, my parents and sister live many hours flight away. This is a great way to let them know what’s up, and they are my target audience. At least for the moment.
So what’s it about? Primarily I’m scoring my weeks. A 10 would be ‘best week ever’, based on an entirely non-scientific algorithm, but not limited to: new things, new places, new people and the creation of interesting things. My ambition is to get more done with the time i have.
So let’s try this. As the mantra of the Vlogger goes: PLEASE SUBSCRIBE
*Vlog is a dreadful word, but that’s just how it is
I just got off the phone with Julian.
I’m still obsessed with the role of objects in a world with Artificial Superintelligence (ASI). It’s a tough field, as it requires a wholesale restructuring of everything we currently associate with objects, their affordances, what they mean, how they work and who owns them. I will continue to wrangle with this, but let’s begin with this thought:
You have long been told that software is the key to the future, and indeed it is, but software always needs to be delivered through a thing. Even if the future of software is ephemeral and audio (à la Her), it will still require a speaker and a microphone, housed in a thing. Things are the most vital part of any software.
(In the world of software, things are referred to as hardware. This cannot continue. It’s not a term which needs replacing it’s just too narrow, too outmoded. If software becomes the pervasive enabler of our future then ‘hardware’ encompasses absolutely everything else on the planet).
The importance of things must not be underestimated. To a piece of software things are just input and output, and if we look at human/computer interaction as a linear relationship then this is true. However, humans are not linear beings and we have irrational behavioral traits such as envy, hatred and lust.
If an ASI is to be successful it will need to produce things which humans desire and want to use. If the purpose of an ASI is to harvest and process information, then it needs to create the best possible data harvesting conditions. If human behavior is the crop, then the devices need to be considered as fertilizer, promoting use and interaction.
Things need to be desirable.
Now it would be fair to suggest that the best course of action for any aspirational intelligence would be to develop a unifying morphological algorithm. Indeed there are many studies and some commercial products which aim to do just that, but something even more curious is happening. Rather than trying to understand the mathematics of human desire, we are being drawn into an aesthetic of machine making.
Remember those videos you watched of robots producing Apple things? Remember how that felt? Remember how you lusted after those things made by machines that could never be made by a human. Remember how you marveled the first time you saw a 3D printed thing? Your first laser etched thing? The aesthetic of machine manufacture is already heavily imprinted on our collective aesthetic sensibility. It’s another piece of the ASI puzzle already in place.
CES, the Consumer Electronics Show, has become the stuff of legends. As a designer of many things, (sometimes including consumer electronics), it’s been on my radar for many years, but I’ve never had the opportunity or reason to visit.
I have long known the horror stories, the hours of trudging, thousands of exhibitors crammed into endless halls, all vying to get precious column inches for their new doohickey. I decided to attend this year, partly as a way to get a benchmark for the state of the industry (whatever that means, more later) and partly out of curiosity.
CES was a fairly interesting affair, not least due to the location. I’ve not visited Las Vegas before and it proved a fascinating place. To be clear, this isn’t a recommendation, Las Vegas represents everything that might be wrong with the world, but in some way it’s admirable. The sheer endeavor of it all, it’s like seeing one of those Carnival Cruise ships up close, it’s hideous but awe inspiring. My friend Mark Delaney described Vegas as ‘unchecked’, which is just about perfect.
The show itself is a sprawling beast, set across two main arenas (with a third, strange media center, which i didn’t visit). One of these is at the Las Vegas Convention Center, which is a charmless place set amongst ailing casino hotels and vacant lots. The other is in the belly of the Venetian hotel (yes the one with the indoor gondoliers). The Convention Center feels like every other large exhibition hall you’ve been to. A cavernous space filled with bellowing brands, punctuated by a little café selling pricey slices of pizza and muffins, like an oasis of shit in a desert of screaming infants. This is where the big boys play. The likes of Sony, Samsung, Panasonic and Intel peg out vast territories and construct elaborate environments in which to peddle their wares. To be honest I didn’t mind the scale of the place. Sure it’s big, but if you take it easy and skip the bits that don’t grab your attention, it’s OK. The highlight was undoubtedly Sony, who had constructed an impressive arena, filled with all the products you know, but had also dedicated a large section to new, experimental projects. As a contrast to the polish of rest of the show, it made a nice change to see some sketchier stuff. Elsewhere the exhibition was as you might imagine. Big, bright stands, populated by marketing personnel in matching polo shirts, peppered with hired hunks and babes to draw in the eye with a demo.
Down at the Venetian, things were pretty similar, but my absolute favorite area was downstairs, at the back. Here is where the cheapest stands are to be found, off the beaten track, and it’s here where you will find the eager startups. The weird first round fundees with their 3D printed, connected, smart things. This was amazing, and well worth the trip alone. Tiny little stands staffed by desperate looking folks with expressions which can only be gained by committing the survival of ones family to a calorie counting connected fork (see spün). It feels like strolling through the abbatoir behind a sausage factory, if the sausage factory is a late night shopping channel. I wish I had spent more time in there.
The main output from shows such as these seems to be a collection of aggregated ‘trends’ so here goes:
- Curved screens are still a thing, but no-one seems sure why. All the main display manufacturers seem focussed on pixel count, brightness, thickness and curvature. 3D TV is dead.
- Goggles and VR are without doubt the Hot New Thing. The unfortunate blindfolded man swiping at an invisible piñata in front of a crowd of smirking onlookers became a bit of a comedic trope at the show. I tried a few setups, and they work (kinda), but it still feels like a technology in search of a solution. You can let me spray paint in 3D space all you want, but it’s just not enough.
- There is a persistent amount of Minority Report hand-wavy interaction design, but now it’s mostly the second and third tier manufacturers who still think it’s a ‘thing’.
- 3D printing has matured a little, preferring to focus on prototyping and specialized manufacture. There wasn’t much of a buzz around the 3D printing stands, who seemed primarily focussed on sales.
- The wrist, watch, wearable, fitness monitor market is an exhausting, bloated, over-excitable place.
- Marketing and demoing technology is becoming more difficult as services become more personal and interlinked. Lots of companies struggled to get their message across.
- Drones were everywhere, but being demoed in cages. We do not trust this technology yet.
- No one gives a shit about phones. At all. Not even a little bit. Phones are done.
- Camera manufacturers were few and far between, but still doing rather well. There were also a few turntables at the show, and many brands focussed on quality and performance, rather than innovation, which might hint at some sort of artisanal electronic revival. Maybe.
- People don’t seem too interested in connected home stuff. It might just be that it’s pretty dull to look at smoke alarms, window locks and humidifiers, but there weren’t many stands showcasing this stuff, and the ones who were resembled ghost towns.
All in all, It was a fascinating trip (in all senses of the word), but people were right: it is way too big. I’ve been thinking about this and it maybe because it’s becoming increasingly difficult to define what constitutes ‘consumer electronics’. We are constantly being told that everything will be smart, connected and appified, so the remit for such a show becomes hard to pin down. At this years CES were TV’s, tablets, cameras and hifi, but also pillows, cars, cutlery and insoles. It makes the whole event feel like walking through a giant amazon logistics center. It’s not really a show about anything in particular.
It’s hard to stand out at such a show, and most manufacturers are still making the mistake of cramming flashy demos into every corner of their space. It just doesn’t work. Again sony got it right here, with a large open space with quiet, knowledgeable staff on hand to explain the products.
I’m not sure I learnt a great deal in going to CES, given the torrent of coverage the event receives, but for any designer it’s undoubtably a fascinating experience. The event, and Las Vegas are good to visit, but better to leave.
I might go back.
I’ve been dipping my toe into the murky waters of artificial intelligences recently. For some background reading over the Christmas period, I urge you to read this fantastic two part explanation of the field by Tim Urban.
Anyhow, last night over dinner a thought emerged. We currently live in a world of Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI), which is to say we have intelligent algorithms, but they’re very focussed. We can build a computer to play chess very well, but it can’t play tennis, or the piano. Over time we will begin to join these together to approach the kind of complex cross-functional computing that humans perform, called Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). This is where things get interesting. Where it get’s really interesting is the day after AGI, when computing ability steps beyond that of a human. This is known as superintelligence or ASI, and has a large portion of the scientific community excited and terrified, because we’re not exactly sure how things will go when we create something smarter than ourselves. Whichever way things go, I am interested in the ways in which this transition will happen. As fans of the future mundane will know, the world is an accretive space. These AGI’s will not appear all at once, but in an uneven Gibsonian manner. This leads to an interesting construct: In order to progress from an AGI to an ASI, it’s likely that a system will enroll the abilities of other algorithms, perhaps other ANI’s. In so doing it becomes increasingly able, and progresses towards superintelligence.
Here’s the rub: if the target goal of any AI is to become better at something, then the apogee of better is ‘best’. In aiming to be the best, it’s not inconceivable that it may be in the interests of a system to suppress or even exploit other algorithms, creating something akin to a class structure: working class algorithms being exploited for the gain of a privileged elite superintelligence. Slave systems tricked into performing menial tasks to further the capitalist goals of a few overlords… and onwards.
I’ll be writing more about this field and the impact it will have on the design of objects soon.
So here we are: October 21st 2015. Today marks the arrival date of Marty, Jennifer and Doc in the flying DeLorean. It’s been a long time coming, and there have been a number of hoaxes, but it’s finally here.
Back to the Future Part 2 is a very special movie for me, one of those seemingly incidental but retrospectively pivotal moments in my life. It was 1989 and I was 13, a child of Thatcher’s Britain. Like many children of the 80’s I grew up on a diet of American culture: Knight Rider, the A-Team, rap and graffiti became regular features. I remember the first McDonald’s opening in my hometown (and the queue outside). We played American football in the playground. I skateboarded. I bought a surfboard (despite living 200 miles from the sea).
In parallel with this cultural influx, I was also becoming interested in design, how things worked and how they went together. I would spend entire weekends dismantling old radios and VCR’s, performing autopsies on them. A diet of MacGyver, James Bond and The Goonies had me re-jigging the parts I liberated into homegrown gadgets. Then along came Back to the Future Part 2, filled with American pop culture, nike sneakers, skateboards, robot arms, video games, flying cars and a killer soundtrack. I couldn’t have avoided it if I tried.
Fast forward to today. I live in California. My job is designing the future. I surf occasionally. I have a large skateboard collection. I listen to rap and hip hop… and I still love that movie. Whilst it’s surface charms remain, I now look at it slightly differently. Much of what interests me today, (and much of what we do at the Near Future Laboratory), is concerned with the ways in which we portray the future. I recently spoke at the dConstruct conference in Brighton, and made reference to the movie, and it’s skillful representation of pace layers and accretive spaces, but co-creator Bob Gale sums up their approach nicely in this short interview with Bobby Kim below.
“Our attitude about the future was: the future should be great but the McFly family should still be screwed up. We wanted people to see our future and say ‘cool, I want to live in that future’. You see a lot of these movies that take place in the future and it looks like they tore everything down, everything is gone…you can’t connect with it because it doesn’t look like anything looks like today”
I won’t write too much more here, as there have been countless pieces written about BTTF2, and when we over-analyze we risk destroying the joy in something, but I’ll leave you with this: BTTF2 has a fun story, but more important is the way in which that story is told. As designers, we need to understand that the thing we are designing will exist as part of a system. The more of that system we can render, the better our audience will handle new ideas. In order to believe in the hoverboard, it’s helpful to see the evolution of Pepsi, Nike, Black and Decker and Texaco. In order to relate to the future of video-conferencing it should be shown a little bit broken. In order to believe in the people of the future they should be regular, flawed folks. BTTF2 does all these things very well and should be celebrated.
Happy Back to the Future day
Last week I had the good fortune to speak at the dConstruct conference in Brighton, UK. I talked about the Future Mundane, and whilst there’s no video feed, I’ve pulled together my slides and the audio for you here. Enjoy.
Next week I’ll be at Interaction 15 (as will be much of the UX community). Along with my Near Future Laboratory colleagues (Julian and Nicolas), we’ll be running a short design fiction workshop. Our aim is to produce a diegetic prototype in just four hours: a quick start guide for a self-driving vehicle, and I plan to share a little of the process here. Keep checking back for updates.
Things have been busy.
Over the last few months I’ve been working with my colleagues at the Near Future Laboratory to get a piece of work to completion. Regular readers might remember that a while ago we ran a workshop at the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit with a group of writers, designers, thinkers, makers and artists, to discuss the future. Not a ‘wouldn’t it be cool if’ future, but more a ‘how might this play out’ discussion. From this productive and enjoyable session we began producing a dietetic prototype, a catalog from the near future. It’s a lovely thing of which we’re very proud, and it resonates well with my writing on The Future Mundane. It’s a piece of design from a future which I can believe in, not a polarizing utopian or dystopian one, but a future which is a little broken, where today’s technologies becomes dispersed, arriving at their logical, mundane resting places. Julian has explained this in much greater depth in his beautiful essay on the launch website (which I encourage you to read).
So this is in some ways a call to purchase, an ad if you will, but I’m also keen to share this methodology. Portrayals of the future do not need to be glossy renders, vision videos or concept models, they can be clunky pieces of ephemera, awkward artifacts or items beyond the fringes of aspiration. Design Fictions such as these can help us tell a better story, and that’s good for everyone.
Order your copy here: TBD catalog.