Weekending 10232011

Okay. Maybe we will get back into the swing of the weekending note. This one won’t be comprehensive, but a note nonetheless to note a few things.

First, something I found while flipping through the Internet that got me thinking about using creative tension and inversion in the design fiction process and also connected to this Anthem Group, which has curious dispatches related to object-oriented ontology (which I barely understand) and Bruno Latour: this was an interesting post on the reason for having “intellectual fiends”. It helps me understand why, when I was studying Science and Technology Studies and just, you know…academic-y “theory” broadly, there was always this impulse to set ideas or discussions in opposition. To find ways to be critical of anything. Which gets annoying and I’m sure is the reason for general pissy-ness in the academic world.

It turns out it has its usefulness, if you stay optimistic and hopeful. It can be a way to move discussions always in some direction rather than allowing them to sit still and suffer the tyranny of undisputed acceptance. Of course, these things would always get quite squirrely — debates and the perpetual state of “crisis” over some theoretical position. That all becomes quite tiresome and you wind up with folks who are never, ever satisfied and always finding an argument to be had.

But, related to present work, it provides a logic for designing by inversion — taking the initial instinct or common assumption and then turning it on its head. I guess things like making physical, “embedded”, full-electronic prototypes rather than “apps” is one way of seeing this. Or doing the creative-opposite of something to really get into the *why of the natural, assumed, expected thing.

For example, when we made the social/trust alarm clock it was a way to invert commonly held assumptions about about the rituals of waking up in the morning. They don’t get inverted because we think the world should be hung upside down by its shoes — at least not routinely. But one can put “the normal” in relief by looking at things from the downside looking back up. Looking sideways. And it’s not until you actually *look at things through an unusual lens and make the assumption that the abnormal is actually “normal” — then you start seeing new curious opportunities and stories to explore that can then evolve and cause creative — rather than typical — disruptions that hopefully make the normal more engaging, fun, creative and curious.

Continue reading Weekending 10232011

Design Fiction + Advanced Designing + Trust in Volume Quarterly

The most recent — now a month or two old — issue of Volume Quarterly was on the topic of The Internet of Things. And within that was a small sub-volume of essays and articles on Trust compiled by Scott Burnham who has been running a project called Trust Design for Premsela which I understand to be The Netherlands Institute for Design and Fashion.

((The Laboratory seems to be a recurring guest in Volume Quarterly. We were in one a couple of issues back — their issue on The Moon.))

Scott started his project on Trust just as we in the Advanced Projects (then Design Strategic Projects) Studio at Nokia were beginning a project with the same name and some of the same questions. One of our questions was to understand what Trust is and how Design can somehow illuminate where Trust exists and its paths and relationships. When I say “illuminate” the image that comes to mind is one of a special detective’s forensic UV light illuminating something under specific conditions that would otherwise not be seen. Or, in those weird 1950s era medical treatments in which a subject drinks some wretched fluid or is injected with something that shows the paths of digestion or the networks of arteries when shown under X-Rays or something. (Maybe it isn’t wretched, but the thought gives me the willies for some reason.)

In any case there were many facets of the Design work we did in the studio, one of which was this Alarm Clock which was meant to operate precisely in this fashion — to focus our attention on a simple interaction ritual in which we were forced to consider characteristics of Trust.

The essay far below below was my contribution to the Volume Quarterly issue.

But first..

There’s a thing or two to add as well, that have more to do with this particular way of doing Design — or Design Fiction. The process of *making these clocks — which were made out of plastic and aluminum and electronics and solder and all that — was only partially about the specifications that determined how those things would be configured. Beyond those pragmatic, specified things were the ideas we sought to force to the surface — the concepts that we wanted to make ourselves address and consider directly. The preposterousness of the interaction ritual that the alarm mechanism forces was a deliberate way of compelling us to think and talk and design for this ephemeral social bargain called Trust. There was no way around it. We couldn’t lose ourselves in the geekery of circuit design; or choosing a color for the LED numerical displays; of obsessing over compound curves in the industrial design of the thing; or fetishizing any aspect of the “Design” as it is traditionally understood — a material instantiation of an already-accepted and well-understood object. There’s not much movement these days in Alarm Clocks. They are what they are and the variations come in things like…size. Like…color. Like…brand. Like…AM/FM or longwave. Like…number of alarms. Like…style. Like…box-y or round-y. Etc. You get it.

You’ll get stuck with those sorts of boring variations if you think about Alarm Clocks traditionally. Rather, thinking *not about Alarm Clocks but about waking up, and the rituals around it changes one’s approach. All of a sudden, you’re mucking with tradition. You’re getting people upset. You’re not responding to the client’s brief the way they expected. You’re not just doing color and materials variations.

Pfft. So what? Well — looking at things a little sideways is, for lack of a better moniker, advancing design. Advancing it beyond the expected. Doing the Fosbury Flop for Alarm Clocks.

The other thing to say about the project is that the making of the thing — all that plastic prototyping; all that circuit design; all that figuring-out-of-colors-and-materials; all that CNC machining; all that figuring out of tool paths; all that figuring out of firmware and interaction algorithms..why was all that done? Yes, of course — to make the thing *work, in the plainest sense. But, more than that — it was all done to do the Design. The making of the thing is *also a way of doing the Design of the thing. We didn’t figure everything out and then said, “right. now we can make it!” The making was the designing. Assumptions and questions are raised. We interrogate our own ideas and create new ones, whilst making and building and handling material and trying out little scenarios. The peculiar nature of the clock was such that we had debates, one in particular was about what the display should do when the little keyfob alarm-buzzer part was removed to be given to a friend. I felt quite strongly that the display on the main clock should go off, so that you’d have to Trust completely the person who was meant to be your human alarm. Otherwise, you can wake up and check the time, which is an implicit way of not really trusting that human alarm person.

This was the bit of fiction insofar as a clock like this would be quite otherworldly. There would be a very different set of assumptions about how relationships work; about what waking up entails and what it is for (getting to a meeting on time; making sure the kids are ready for school; not missing a flight and all the weight and significance of what happens if you *don’t do these things when and what time they need to be done.)

It would be a very different world if we just *woke up when we woke up, rather than waking up to the same time nearly every day. It’s a slightly skewed universe that this clock came from, but it’s crucial to do this kind of design. Why? Well — it advances the realm of possibilities and begins one considering quite directly about creating new, more curious and sensible interaction rituals. It is also a way of advancing design — doing design differently; questioning and challenging assumptions not only of materials and colors and forms and such, which is good. But questioning the actions and rituals and behaviors of the humans, even to the point of something so seemingly absurd as waking up in different ways. This isn’t to say that people will want to wake up to other people knocking on their doors or shaking their pillows, but it forces a number of unexpected considerations and questions and new ideas that plainly wouldn’t come about if one just focused on different colors for clock displays or snooze button styles. Its a kind of advanced design that is able to engage in its topic by throwing out all base assumptions and free-fall a bit into a weird world and then *not allow the usual questions to arise. Sink into the discomfort zone and do some advanced designing.

How does the underpinnings of social relationships become a design principle? How does one design for trust? Can an intangible like trust become embedded in an object?

The principle that “theory” can be expressed in an object plays a part in this question. Substitute “Trust”, a kind of philosophical principle that is perhaps, in my mind, best expressed through exemplars that represent it, rather than the abstractions of philosophical discourse.

The topic of “Trust” presented itself in October 2008 with a tremendous force. The world rattled as global networks of “Trust” institutions collapsed on a scale that sent apcoloyptics scurrying for Old Testament passages consistent with the sequence of events witnessed across the globe. “Trust” became a keyword for these events as macro social institutions that were once “too big to fail” failed despite their size. These institutions that were once the bedrock of society cracked and dissipated and in their failure, revealed what Trust is, at its core. It is, of course – people and the networks of relationships that define what it is to be a social being.

In the Advanced Design studio at Nokia, we were curious about Trust and what it means. Trust is recognized as a core values of the Nokia brand. The worldwide events brought the topic to the fore and provided an impetus for a design-based experiment. Our question was — what is Trust and how could one design with Trust as a guiding principle? How do you embed Trust in the material of a designed object?

The project walked around the topic, building up the studio’s expertise on the topic through the Design equivalent of a “literature review”, both in the sense of readings as well as a more tangible equivalent. We collected essays and books and made things — objects. We brought in both internal to Nokia and external experts on the topic. A social psychologist talked to us about how ordinary people become extraordinary liars. We followed closely the daily events of the macro level systemic failures of insurance companies, banks, economies and entire governments.

Our goals were deceptively simple — to develop a set of principles that could become “actionable” and be “designed-to” in order that Trust could be embedded in the material of an object.

Amongst a dozen principles, one is worth highlighting and is best paraphrased and represented in one of our tangible exemplars. The principle goes something like this: facilitate the trust network — allow people to trust the people they already trust.

Our tangible prototype was, of all things — an alarm clock. We called it the Trust Alarm Clock. The design brief was simply to make an alarm clock that embodied the principle — an alarm clock that highlighted the idea that trust is a relationship between people. At the same time, it was a platform that allowed us to experiment with this simple principle. As you will see, it is an almost absurd object. But it was the response to the brief that we made, without questioning our motivations, but rather following our curiosity on the topic of Trust.

The clock is best described directly. It consists of two components. The main component is not unlike a conventional bedside alarm clock. The second sits nearly where one would expect the canonical “snooze” button of a conventional alarm clock. This second piece is a small, removable “fob”. When one sets the desired time to wake up, the fob is programmed with a digital count down timer. The alarm setting ritual starts when one sets the wake-up time using a dial on the back of the clock. While doing this, the fob timer is configured so that its count down would expire and the fob would “alarm” when the alarm clock setter would like to wake up. The ritual is completed when the fob is removed from the main component and given to a most trusted friend. In that ritual of handing over the fob, the network of trust is established and embodied. The “handshake” of the passing represents the creation, or the invigoration of trust in its most elemental form. Handing over the fob signals that there is Trust amongst this small, two-person social network. If one wants to wake up — or be woken up — one must first consider a number of things. Primarily — who do I trust to wake me up? Who would I want to be woken up by? To whom do I want to convey that I do indeed trust them?

Short animation of an interaction ritual.

We did not suppose that a bedside alarm clock like this has mass-market appeal. It’s a theory object — a way of questioning and probing and exploring the idea of Trust as made into this provocative material exemplar. In a way it is a bit of fiction, only not written, rather made as a physical object that compels one to think of the stories and “user experiences” that may surround it. The fiction is established through a provocation created through design practices.

Theory objects are like material instantiations of ideas — perhaps even our hopes and our imagination. Theory objects refract some social practice in a peculiar and hopefully thought-provoking way. They are “theory objects” in this sense, ways of shaping refining, refracting and altering social practice hopefully in a way that creates more habitable worlds.

The theory object is a way to think about “technology” as something that does more than utilitarian or instrumental. It is an embodiment of some sort of practice that is not outside of the realm of social action. In other words, the theory object is a social object — one that can shape and mutate social practice. Technologies are mutable. They can be what we need them to be, and shape how we experience the world and in that way, are social. What we are doing here is over-emphasizing this point by skirting around the usual assumptions about technology in order to make this point about their social nature more evident and obvious and provocative.

Why should we care enough to make this point that technologies are embodiments of social practice? Because we need to reveal the human hand in their creation and their possibility. Once we can see that people put these things together (and show this process plainly, through images and descriptions without secrets) it becomes possible to talk about how they could be different, or obey different laws and assumptions — possibly become more environmentally conscientious, or help us find playful ways to be more compassionate to mean people, or find ways to be kind to strangers (whatever..need some concrete examples, perhaps anticipating the projects.)

In the case of the Trust Alarm Clock, we were confronted with a rather exciting and unconventional direction for ways of waking up, which everyone does, with the regrettable exceptions, of course. The question evolves beyond *who do I want to wake me up, and who do I trust the most to, say — make sure I get up to make an unusually early meeting or airplane departure. Rather, through this theory object we were drawn into thinking about other *things one may wake up to besides the time of day. What sort of alarm clock might the near future bring that represents a trusted evolution of the waking-up ritual. Perhaps an alarm clock that allows someone in my networked social graph to wake me up. Or — are there things that I trust more than people in these circumstances? Somethings that are beyond the rather mechanistic and mundane ritual of waking to the time, which, after all — is not particularly exciting. Might the things that are more relevant or consistent with our connected age be what wakes us in the near future? In the near future, might we trust more an alarm clock that wakes us up when other people start waking up in order to facilitate that sense of being amongst a larger group of people who are also starting their day. Who are we to say that the now common ritual of waking to a specific time become as antique as luggage without wheels.

Pneu. Ma. Tique.

Thus uttered Antoine Doinel in Truffaut’s film “Stolen Kisses” as a farewell letter to Madame Tabard is shussh-ered off through the Parisian pneumatic tube postal system..

Just enjoyed a coffee and reading Molly Steenson‘s article called Interfacing with the Subterranean on pneumatic tubes infrastructures in Issue 41 of the lovely, always diversely curious Cabinet Magazine. A nice little read on a system we’d now look on as antique, baroque and not just a little bit steampunk-y. That’s her up top sharing with me some of the very intriguing primary research she’s unearthed as she drops-gear and toe-and-heels the turn into the final lap of her dissertation Grand Prix race.

Aside from being still perplexed at how this proto-type internetwork of connected *tubes actually was able to route things hither-and-yon over cities and all such — I find it fascinating that versions of the hardware stack continue to exist in various ways. There are intranets within buildings still. The intriguing aspect of this is the material form that is rhymed (not perhaps on purpose or by design) by the networks electronic of today. Those guys standing around in the rooms receiving and continuing the little chariots of messages are little routers and TCP/IP compliant protocol handlers, one could think.

Why do I blog this? To capture a small historical scrapnote on the always constantly prototyping mechanics of communication that humans perform. This was likely perceived as wondrous, high-technology in its day. I’m surrounded this week by the hubris of high-technology prototyping, creation and thinking. Not all of it wondrous. Some of it down-right silly. Words like “engine” and context and gobble-dee-gook engineerig-y semantics make a hash of what the utterer may think of as perfectly reasonable sentence structure and syntax. I can’t tell verbs from nouns when I hear about context engines deciding that I’m in a meeting and little “agents” squirreled away on the chipset in my hand decide to book lunch but not before my chipmunk agent grabs an auctioneers gavel and let my local restaurants bid for he pleasure of my ordering a sandwich. I don’t believe this is an interesting future. There are others. More whimsical. More fun. More pneumatic.
Continue reading Pneu. Ma. Tique.

Design Advances

General Designs Delivery. Remnant of some sort found on the wall beyond the model shop.

I’m going to paraphrase something I read in a recent issue of The New Yorker that immediately made me think of things we bunch of folk in the studio are thinking long and hard about — doing advanced design, but even before the “doing”, understanding what it is to be an advanced design studio and what the heck is “advanced design.”

The article was about Quantum Physics called Dream Machine by Rivka Galchen on David Deutsch and efforts to create a Quantum Computer. It’s a fascinating article and I recommend it. Good science fact-fiction stuff. These guys in laboratories with elaborate support apparati to make a four bit computer. Awesome. I can easily imagine the wisps of dry ice-like condensation puffing out of copper-clad plumbing and fittings.

Okay, back to the article. Now — this is just a word substitution not meant to equate what brainiac quantum physicists do with what a bunch of (pepper this with humility) clever creatives do in a little design studio. Just word substitution. In the article, as Galchen is trying to frame the sensibilities of Quantum Physicists and describes it thus:

Physics advances by accepting absurdities. Its history is one of unbelievable ideas proving to be true..

That simple statement stopped me in my reading tracks. There was something deceptively simple in that — an expectation that, or almost rule in a way that in order to move the field along, in order to advance physics, or do advanced physics, or to determine whether or not one was advancing physics — well, one had to be prepared or make sure that you were accepting absurdities.

The word substitution will be obvious to you by now: doing advanced design requires a bit of accepting things that, on the face of it, are absurd — at least at first.

Accepting absurdities, or designing things that are absurd, or realizing that what you’re doing seems a bit absurd are various measures of advancing the state of a practice idiom, like design.

Design advances ..by accepting absurdities

There’s a bit of facing adversity built into that sort of discipline. It means that people are going to look at what you do as absurd — as disconnected from the state of the world right now; as idle experimentation; as just a bunch of weird stuff.

I think the challenge is around the degree of “advance.” Sometimes rather than making “big disruption” sorts of advances, small, simple, low-hanging-fruit sorts of things are more tractable and, potentially — more disruptive for their simplicity. This is where the phrase “wheels on luggage” comes from. Just doing something that, in hindsight seems so obvious, yet is exceptionally, blindly simple to accomplish (again, in hindsight.) Often these “little things done much better” sorts of disruptions effect human behavior in an unexpectedly profound way. Sadly, the hubris of the main players in constructing the future — engineers and technologists — consider a disruption to be wholesale system change of some sort rather than making little things better than they already are. It’s also a battle between complex programs or teams, versus relatively simple ideas with small teams executing a clearly stated vision.

Why do I blog this? There was something about that quote that has stuck with me. I’m not sure I’ve teased it all out — but its resonant and I need to figure out how best to describe what it is that “advanced design” is so I know it when I see it; and what activities “advancing design” consists of so I can tell myself what to do. Accepting absurdities and finding the way to get others who perhaps are less inclined to is a small, fitful start towards this goal.

Continue reading Design Advances

Quiet But Not Quiescent

Judge not the less yammer-y state of the studio blog to indicate that there is nothing worth yammering about. It’s just that the clang of steel caressing code has been going on and that in great measure, too. Some of you may have glimpsed and grinned at the fantastic electronified edition of the paper Drift Deck that we developed a couple of years ago. That’s right. We’ve added *batteries to the Drift Deck and it’s fallen into the *app well..it’s an app which is fantastic because it means the last remaining physical card editions can become properly *artisinal and the electronic battery editions can spread the sensibility of the Drift Deck concept to the rest of the world.

Release is imminent. Prepare ye iPhones. Hop expectantly from foot-to-foot. More news in a short while, including linkages to downloadables. In the meantime, check out the new Drift Deck webified “page” and the fantastic roster of hammererers that batteryified the ‘deck.

..And then — onto the next thing here. It’ll be quiet a little, but good things are baking in the kiln, rest assured.

*Willow next. The superlative friendregator for the discerning social being.
Continue reading Quiet But Not Quiescent

You'd Be Right To Wonder

Wednesday January 12 00:17

You’d be right to wonder why there has not been much here for a couple-few weeks. Contrary to a vicious rumor, we neither adopted a needy office pet nor did we father-seed a dead pop star’s child.

It’s Annual Planning Month here in the Laboratory, when we assess what will be our near future priorities, goals, strategic themes and projects. It’s weeks of mulling, muttering, hemming, hawing, pausing, sputtering, drinking and brow-furrowing. After all the strategery comes the planning. We’re deploying a rigorous phalanx of unforgiving planning-to-do tools, reacquainting ourselves with our old avuncular friend — Mr. Gantt and his fabulous chart. Along with this is Mr. Gantt’s trusty Sancho Panza, Mr. Miles Stone.

That’s right. Planning, charting, back-filling objectives and sticking to our guns. This way, at the end of each “Q” (that’s Quarter to you non-accomplishers-of-things) we can re-assess and re-target. In fact, we might even be working at the level of the “P” (sorry, “Period” or one of your Earth “Months” to you terrestrials) and perhaps even the microscopic time element — the Week.

Where has this sudden bit of planning gluttony come from?

*Shrug. Who the fuck knows.

But, it feels right and it will help the Laboratory to say “no” because it’ll all be right there, in Mr. Gantt’s chart and resource managers can point and wag a finger and say “Uhn uhn uhhhnnn..that’s not going to happen. Back to your computation terminal!”

The ring of the ball-peen hitting the work piece on the anvil. The smell of the coke smelting the ore. Lustful, material things. Things getting done and made.

So — what’s on the plate?

Well, I can give you the *general theme, but nothing super specific, and that’s only because of the deeply sensitive nature of our work and the fact that it might have deep political affect on the ways the needle-heads upstairs in Finance & Control’s (mis)understand what exactly it is we do and how it brings incalculable value to the efficiency of the Laboratory — unlike the Bridges and Thoroughfare Systems Group which never, by the way, ever did a damn thing to contribute to our bottom line, least as best as I can tell.

Wednesday December 29 17:00

Here it is. This year’s theme: Less Yammering. More Hammering.

Let me explain. In the recently deceased year, we spent the bulk of our informal projects time talking about things that were *more than interesting to us.

It was more than interesting. Supra-interesting. Boundless interestingness. I’m talking mostly about, well — talking about #designfiction. And this will continue as a theme within whatever theme happens to be the theme-of-the-day.

At the same time, the yammering meant there was less time (despite having it on the list of the Professional Development Plan) actually making things. Now — I love to talk and have conversations around engaging, new, whacky-but-intriguing ideas. That’s the guano of innovation. It’s how things change, grow, evolve. Ideas come to life in the conversations. The conversations are that which promote and propagate; they contain the narrative logics that poke and prod and stretch and materialize those thoughts, making them more tangible and more legible. So — I love to yammer. As you may know — I also really love to hammer: to make things that are distillations and materializations of those conversations. Little props and provocative objects that help think-through and evolve those conversations.

Years ago the Laboratory wrote a tremendously short essay called Why Things Matter in which I ham-fistedly explained my thinking about the importance of “social objects” and the ways that these can become as yammer-y as normal human beings and, thereby, bring about material change to the world. It was most an interest in how things like Pigeons or Salmon suddenly connected to the *network in oftentimes simple ways could alter the terms of conversations about things like environmental issues, pollution or fishing legislation.

What I learned through that was the importance of making things — but it’s not just the made-thing but the making-of-the-thing, if you follow. In the *making you’re also doing a kind of thinking. Making is part of the “conversation” — it’s part of the yammering, but with a good dose of hammering. If you’re not also making — you’re sort of, well..basically you’re not doing much at all. You’ve only done a *rough sketch of an idea if you’ve only talked about it and didn’t do the iteration through making, then back to thinking and through again to talking and discussing and sharing all the degrees of *material — idea, discussions, conversations, make some props, bring those to the discussion, *repeat.

Friday January 14 12:04

So — we’re not done here with the #designfiction theme, but it is an idea that needs some material-making, at least here, and lots of people are doing this as well. But, generally thinking — it’s time to get back to making stuff, building little probes and provocateurs and trouble-makers. That means booting up the old software-making toolkits, breaking a few of Simon’s milling tools (sorry, again..), learning how to CNC myself so I can make my own mistakes, getting a CAD package in that old PC in the Laboratory, etc.

There’ll be posts here and status updates and of course — yammering. It’ll just be tempered with and by and through the making as it once was oh a couple-few years ago when we were making hellzalot of electronics.

This’ll be the year of trouble-making apps of various sorts, I think. The first one is the digital edition of the previous Drift Deck, analog edition which has had a sort of silver-year’d renaissance thanks to @bldgblog writing a nice, thoughtful little post about it. That’s being done by Jon Bell and Dawn Lozzi with myself being the design project equivalent of the annoying sot who wants to have “just one more.” Allegedly, so long as I *don’t have “just one more” this should be done by the new networked age’s equivalent of the finish line — South by Southwest, which’d be March 11. (Here is a printable PDF of the Drift Deck, analog edition for those who have had trouble downloading it from Slide Share.)

There are other things, of course. The completion of the Laboratory’s re-make of 2001: A Space Odyssey, finally doing the animated Death Match between Apollo LEM and Space POD, a *book project with more images than words, revisiting two old location-based software toys, and a crackapp that may hopefully get us in good trouble with parents.

Thursday January 13 17:56

Finally — this is it, really: the sub-genre of this year’s theme “Less Yammering. More Hammering.” is — “Low Brow.” In fact “Low Brow” was the original theme, but it didn’t test too well in the experts’ reviews. But, if I think about it, it lives on in a way. It provided the transposition algorithm, turning the wonderfully optimistic “Get Excited. Make Things.” that our friend Matt Jones (@moleitau) of Berg meme-seeded into a sort of by-the-scruff, morning drunkard, roughneck-ificiation — “shut up and just do it, you moron” — only I made to rhyme so that I can sing it — should things come to that.
Continue reading You'd Be Right To Wonder

Primer: Inexplicable Ideas In Design Fiction

Something that the almost inscrutable science-fiction film Primer does quite well is to paint enough of the contours of its science and technology to give the viewer the sense that *something is going on that should make perfectly good sense..if I was only a bit more techo-literate in the arcane minutia of quantum mechanics, time travel and so on.

Early on we see the DIY garage tinkerers/hackers/engineers working on a proof-of-concept of…something. They’re in their *garage, and that’s where weird, misunderstood, works-of-passion happen, at least in the American suburbs _ like garage bands, garage science is populated in the cultural imaginary as where real, dyed-in-the-wool innovation happens. (Much like the time-travel science/design-fiction in How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe, as it turns out.)

The scene above is a favorite. We watch a device of some sort — small, exposed printed-circuit board, with a LCD numerical display that changes on a little bit. Car batteries for power; roughly hewn bread boards. Shaking assemblies; slight bits of panic and confusion. Something is happening here, and you can only watch the visual story as it unfolds to fill in the gaps. The setting makes it all seem much more possible — garage, a couple of guys discussing their work in the vernacular of…whatever they’re working on. And somehow this makes it seem honest — it’s not didactic like some techoscience-based science-fiction — or even documentaries. We’re not meant to completely understand the quantum physics here, even if it were understandable. When the story telling becomes too didactic, it loses something. It should be as complex as it would be, and possibly completely impossible for anyone to understand but the six people in the world who are working on it, like String Theory or some such.

In an interview with the director:

From the start, he wanted his dialogue to sound absolutely authentic. The only way to accomplish this goal was to immerse himself in the study of physics — the shared fixation of his characters — until he became “conversant” in it. “I had never taken a physics course,” recalls [screenwriter/director/co-star] Carruth. “but I read a lot about it and consulted graduate student research projects I had found online.” In the movie, conversations among the characters are extremely realistic: they talk to each other using the kind of techno-speak that would come naturally to work-obsessed scientists.

The film itself is intriguing for its story and how its told on the screen, but also for the production. Shane Carruth — writer, director, film score, co-star, &c. — is an engineer who wanted to tell a story and so learned how to do so by teaching himself filmmaking. Done on the cheap — $7000 according to IMDB — it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2004 and a $20,000 prize from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for films dealing with science and technology. (That’s cool.)

Further in the interview, he describes an insight on the aesthetic of new ideas and innovation, which is of course much more rough-hewn then was typical for the canon of science-fiction. It’s all about the DIY finish — things bought at the local hard-goods store, or McMaster and cobbled together as best as one can with, oftentimes, low-budgets. Perhaps something like what Google’s first server looks like.

The inspiration for PRIMER came to Carruth at a time when he was reading books about discoveries. He observed that “whether it involved the history of the number zero or the invention of the transistor, two things stood out. First, the discovery that turns out to be the most valuable is usually dismissed as a side-effect. Second, prototypes almost never include neon lights and chrome. I wanted to see a story that was more in line with the way real innovation takes place.”

Why do I blog this? To add some additional notes to the design fiction chronicles and their attendant style conventions.

Late Edition: Nicolas Nova has pointed us to a Time Line!


Continue reading Primer: Inexplicable Ideas In Design Fiction

The Paradox of Intellectual Property

Sunday August 29 19:06

Mine, not yours, buster.

This might be an old one, but I just recently heard about it while catching up on my favorite economy and finance Podcast — the brilliantly home-spun Planet Money. In it they are talking about their project to tell the story of how a t-shirt is being made..by making a t-shirt, from buying the bales of cotton to getting it yarned and spun and made into fabric and cut and printed and sold. You can hear all about it in this short podcast which explains how they got this idea from The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy by Pietra Rivoli.

This is an intriguing story by itself, but I was particularly impressed with the mention and short discussion of a paper called The Piracy Paradox: Innovation and Intellectual Property in Fashion Design by Kal Raustiala and Christopher Jon Sprigman. Here is the abstract of the paper:

The orthodox justification for intellectual property is utilitarian. Advocates for strong IP rights argue that absent such rights copyists will free-ride on the efforts of creators and stifle innovation. This orthodox justification is logically straightforward and well reflected in the law. Yet a significant empirical anomaly exists: the global fashion industry, which produces a huge variety of creative goods without strong IP protection. Copying is rampant as the orthodox account would predict. Yet innovation and investment remain vibrant. Few commentators have considered the status of fashion design in IP law. Those who have almost uniformly criticize the current legal regime for failing to protect apparel designs. But the fashion industry itself is surprisingly quiescent about copying. Firms take steps to protect the value of trademarks, but appear to accept appropriation of designs as a fact of life. This diffidence about copying stands in striking contrast to the heated condemnation of piracy and associated legislative and litigation campaigns in other creative industries.

Why, when other major content industries have obtained increasingly powerful IP protections for their products, does fashion design remain mostly unprotected – and economically successful? The fashion industry is a puzzle for the orthodox justification for IP rights. This paper explores this puzzle. We argue that the fashion industry counter-intuitively operates within a low-IP equilibrium in which copying does not deter innovation and may actually promote it. We call this the piracy paradox. This paper offers a model explaining how the fashion industry’s piracy paradox works, and how copying functions as an important element of and perhaps even a necessary predicate to the industry’s swift cycle of innovation. In so doing, we aim to shed light on the creative dynamics of the apparel industry. But we also hope to spark further exploration of a fundamental question of IP policy: to what degree are IP rights necessary to induce innovation? Are stable low-IP equilibria imaginable in other industries as well? Part I describes the fashion industry and its dynamics and illustrates the prevalence of copying in the industry. Part II advances an explanation for the piracy paradox that rests on two features: induced obsolescence and anchoring. Both phenomena reflect the status-conferring power of fashion, and both suggest that copying, rather than impeding innovation and investment, promotes them. Part II also considers, and rejects, alternative explanations of the endurance of the low-IP status quo. Part III considers extensions of our arguments to other fields. By examining copyright’s negative space – those creative endeavors that copyright does not address – we argue can we can better understand the relationship between copyright and innovation.

Why do I blog this? I think this gets to the substance of many issues related to intellectual property rights and the arguments on both sides. It’s also suspicious the ways that the anomolies to the “orthodox” and rather instrumental consideration of new ideas are largely ignored, according to the authors. Of course there are going to be outlier complexities to the perceived canonical position that ideas can become property that can be protected in these ways — but the fact that they are not looked at closely as revealing new approaches is very suspicious to me. I don’t believe IP is a solid, like nature — it mutates as a concept. Gobbling it all up and protecting it — or measuring people’s performance based on their ability to create and protect IP — that’s just frustrating nonsense. People often put IP on their CVs as if it were war trophies or something like this. In many ways it reveals a lack of foresight and aspiration for their ideas to say they are protected and proprietary. G’ahhh.. It drives me nuts sometimes.

Oh, on a more happy note at the end of this podcast you’ll hear that our friends at Tinker Studios in London are going to have their t-shirt idea implemented in this Planet Money t-shirt — a QR Code on the t-shirt that links to, presumably, the story about how the t-shirt was made, which is the story that Planet Money is working on.

Here’s a link to the Planet Money Podcast.

Continue reading The Paradox of Intellectual Property