Critical Engineering

* The Critical Engineer considers Engineering to be the most transformative language of our time, shaping the way we move, communicate and think. It is the work of the Critical Engineer to study and exploit this language, exposing its influence.

* The Critical Engineer considers any technology depended upon to be both a challenge and a threat. The greater the dependence on a technology the greater the need to study and expose its inner workings, regardless of ownership or legal provision.

* The Critical Engineer raises awareness that with each technological advance our techno-political literacy is challenged.

* The Critical Engineer deconstructs and incites suspicion of rich user experiences.

* The Critical Engineer looks beyond the ‘awe of implementation’ to determine methods of influence and their specific effects.

* The Critical Engineer recognises that each work of engineering engineers its user, proportional to that user’s dependency upon it.

* The Critical Engineer expands ‘machine’ to describe interrelationships encompassing devices, bodies, agents, forces and networks.

* The Critical Engineer observes the space between the production and consumption of technology. Acting rapidly to changes in this space, the Critical Engineer serves to expose moments of imbalance and deception.

* The Critical Engineer looks to the history of art, architecture, activism, philosophy and invention and finds exemplary works of Critical Engineering. Strategies, ideas and agendas from these disciplines will be adopted, re-purposed and deployed.

* The Critical Engineer notes that written code expands into social and psychological realms, regulating behaviour between people and the machines they interact with. By understanding this, the Critical Engineer seeks to reconstruct user-constraints and social action through means of digital excavation.

* The Critical Engineer considers the exploit to be the most desirable form of exposure.

Came across this Critical Engineering Manifesto by J. Oliver, G. Savičić, D. Vasiliev and available (as Manifestos seemingly must) in eleven languages, just in case anyone may be left out and not know what to do.

A couple of reads through, I want to endear myself to the sensibilities here. I think I am endeared, and maybe a bit anxious by the vagueness of the Manifesto. Maybe more prose or exemplars in material — made things that represent what is to be engineered or how the engineering practice of the critical engineer proceeds.

But, it *is a Manifesto and so therefor more about the spirit and aspiration of turning the instrumentality of engineering into a critical function that can effect change in a larger systemic way — a way larger than the service of Capital and the mindless making of things for the sake of making more things that can be sold, or making more things (platforms) that can sell more things (content.)

The Critical Engineer Manifesto raised more questions than it intended, I think. It’s not actionable. I’m not sure what to do if I want to be a Critical Engineer. Some of it I get — like, engineering is a form of social work; engineers “engineer”, manipulate, provide frames within which people who use engineered things are able to think/operate/behave. That much is clear — and perhaps that’s the start of it. That engineers have an exceptional power to create frameworks of possibility.

The difficult bit to overcome if there is to be any sort of social-political critical mode to engineering is that the sensibility and spirit of engineering is to serve the technology and the instrument and, more often than not — the engineers own sense of what is good, right, correct, suitable, satisfying, best-for-the-user, best-for-me-the-engineer, wizard-y-hack-that-will-make-other-engineers-stand-up-and-nod-knowingly, etc. That’s ingrained. It’s systemic and a cornerstone of the pedagogy of the engineer.

But..more questions.

* Who *are these Critical Engineers, anyway? Or who are they now that they become Critical Engineers? Are they filling the ranks of Lab126? Hanging out in the world’s Hacker Spaces? Are they black hat and subversive?

* If the Critical Engineer considers the most desirable form of exposure to be the exploit — who/what are they exposing? Why are they exposing it/them?

* Why are rich user experiences (whatever those are — I wonder myself) to be suspected?

* Is the ‘awe of implementation’ the ingenious hack? What are those methods of influence that need to be determined?

* Does a Critical Engineer really believe that there is a thing called the ‘user’?

It’ll require more sub-parts, stories, and prose to make this Manifesto more than a statement that has the potential, as all Manifestos do, to enforce its own tyranny.

Another little alarm bell that goes off in my admittedly hard head — it’s quite Academic. I think if you put this in front of one of those guys who is actually in a position to effect material change at Lab126, for example — they’d shrug and wonder “..the fuck?” If you put this out as a little art pamphlet that a few hundred people see at Transmediale or Ars Electronica — you’ll probably win a prize. No one’s going to make more clever, critically engineered, mass-market e-book readers though.

I understand Manifestos to be about effecting material change. Doing so in a world of Consumer Electronics (to extend the CE imagery here, which I think is on purpose) is millions-of times more difficult than in the really teeny-tiny world of one-off clever academic-art-technology-design thesis/research/festival projects.

((I had a meeting a week ago. We’re design-engineering with a twinge of design-fiction-ing a new lovely Consumer Electronic. The number of people who were candidates for the dealio worldwide? About 7 million. Sounds like a lot, dudn’t it? Well — turns out arguing that that is a market for a clever new thing is challenging in the least.))

Art-design-tech will always be critical and marginal. It’s the legacy of institutions at the margins to be critical and to manifest their critical stance in Manifestos. Those institutions and critics and artists and so forth — they are where new ideas are supposed to come from — where change comes about. Research, thought, theorizing, publishing, being independent and being different and thereby always, perpetually stuck in a position where you have to challenge.

Personally — I decided that academia is not the place to affect material change for all sorts of reasons. It may have been in the romantic old political days. Nowadays? It’s as complicit in creating crappy stuff as “them”. The political, economic, legal, property & ownership motivations are nastier than anything in a “normal” Corporation. ((Don’t forget — University is a Corporation, too.))

Why do I blog this? I like the spirit and aspiration here, even if I don’t know how to turn these statements into something I can do to bring about the sort of change in sensibility that I think is at the heart of this here. There’s a practical side to doing engineering and doing design that brings about change. That’s the heart of the Design Fiction ‘movement’. It’s partly critique, but the shortcoming of critique or critical positions is that they often don’t tell you what to do. Nowadays I’m more intrigued by how you can effect change from inside the industrial machines so you have scale and you have influence. I’m not convinced it’s possible, but if you can whisper the right incantations in the ears of people who can sign-off on good new less crappy stuff, there’s an opportunity. I’ve been told, and once recently accidentally overheard — it’s a long shot, doubt it’ll happen. It’s fun to try anyway, and learn along the way.
Continue reading Critical Engineering

What Innovation

Up and to the Right


Just a super short set of notes from Steven Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. I don’t have anything too much in-depth mostly because it’s a fast read, when I found time to read it, and it made me squirm uncomfortably. There was not much that made me stop and smile although I did quite a bit of exasperated sighing along the way.

I think this is because Johnson chose to muddle the study and insights of biology and evolution with the activities of humans following their curiosity, their inspiration to make things, their will to create enterprises, their greed to overwhelm their competitors and make fortunes by whatever means necessary, their hubris, their social-political ambitions, their desire to leave a statue of themselves behind — whatever it is that drives individuals to build and create. Using the study of organisms, biology, the ocean reefs, species evolutions, ecosystems — all of these things as metaphors for creativity, innovation, good ideas in the making — well, that’s just problematic in my mind. You exhaust the really interesting work right out the tailpipe of your story and you’re left only with this pre-existing framework of biology and ocean science and these things to explain how Marconi’s innovations with radio. At some point the analogy becomes the story itself — it’s not like the innovation work *is like* ocean reefs accreting new material. The innovation work is a reef, with new ideas building upon old ones like so. At some points in Johnson’s story human endeavor to make new things and come up with new ideas lose out to the simplicity of the science analogy. Human ingenuity becomes the same thing as the study of species, reefs and other “up and to the right” style evolutionary stories. This makes for a good children’s allegory or grammar school analogy — or a good cocktail party explanation of the irreducibly complex activity of “innovating.” But, it makes a book-length treatment of the complexity of creativity fairly gaunt at best.

Somewhere muddled up in there is an argument that Cities breed innovation because people are so packed in together (like an ocean reef?) and ideas propagate more efficiently in density, which may be the case — but it feels like a vague generalization. It’s easy to get into an argument about whether NYC is more creative than Los Angeles, for example — and things quickly spiral out of control.

Perhaps the best part of the book is the last sentence which might be the argument and even the framework for how the book works — forget all the biology analogies. Just this tweetable little nugget.

Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent. Build a tangled bank.

Had Johnson followed the walks of those innovators he was curious about, followed them along their mistakes and noted the ways they borrowed, recycled, reinvented he could have done away with the silly biology analogies. It’s all right there in the hands-on work that’s going on — there’s no need for a big, grand, one-size-fits-all theory about how ideas come to be and how they circulate, or don’t circulate and how they inflect and influence and change the way we understand and act and behave in the world. That’s the “innovation” story — or the way that *change-in-the-way-we-understand-the-world* comes about story.

What I think Johnson is trying to do is in fact deliver some material for that cocktail party conversation — to instill in readers’ minds the idea that good ideas don’t just happen in isolation. They happen because of this idea of the “adjacent possible” — Stuart Kauffman’s idiom describing the multiple possibilities for what can happen because things (science-objects in Kauffman’s notion, like molecules or elements that lead to new science-objects; idea-objects in Steven Johnson’s notion, like steam engines and wine presses that lead to new idea objects like locomotives and printing presses) are proximate. Here’s how Johnson introduces it to us — and he’s not really reminding us that he’s taking a scientific thesis by a guy and using it to describe how innovation works.

“The scientist Stuart Kauffman has a suggestive name for the set of all those first-order combinations [molecules becoming DNA, e.g.]: “the adjacent possible.” The phrase captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation. In the case of prebiotic chemistry, the adjacent possible defines all those molecular reactions that were directly achievable in the primordial soup. Sunflowers and mosquitoes and brains exist outside that circle of possibility. The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself. Yet it is not an infinite space, or a totally open playing field. The number of potential first-order reactions is vast, but it is a finite number and it excludes most of the formst that now populate the biosphere. What the adjacent possible tells us is that at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary change, but only certain changes can happen.”

What could come to be in the world of combinations of molecules and atoms and so forth that happen to be swirling in the same goo — is the basis for Johnson’s thesis about what could be in the world of accreting and “exaption” of ideas. The adjacent possible is meant to describe the what could come to be based on the coexistence and proximity of materials. Things bump into other things and come to form new things under certain conditions. There’s not one possible outcome, but multiple possibilities.

What Johnson does is confuse this for the way that ideas — which are not molecules or atoms swirling in a primordial goo — evolve into possible “shadow futures.” Will and cunning and gile and ambition and money and access to money — these and many other non-biological factors shape how good ideas come to be. ((As well as horrible, wretched, resource-wasting ideas.)) I mean — this is a troubling way to make an argument from the get-go. I don’t think you can just willy-nilly take a thesis from biology (or hypothesis, or lens, or view of how things work) and then use it to describe something that is never as pure as what we understand “nature” to be or “natural history” — he is not creating a story that describes what happens in the world of ideas, spun and spurned by people with bodies, situated in time, space, culture and society and struggling for credibility and authority. And that’s just a problem. The coordinates and biases and ways-of-knowing are all wrong at some level. The units are way off. It’s an allegory at best that misses 99% of the mishegoss of creating knowledge and meaning; an analogy that basically filters out all the work of humans interacting in a different way than the way that molecules and atoms interact. It’s another one of those kinda annoying uses of science to explain society which starts you down the path of immediately assuming that science isn’t society by other means, or that science isn’t already a social enterprise or — worse — that science has it all figured out.

Anyway — I got suckered in because the book has the word “innovation” in it. These sorts of books with titles that are didactic are suckers bait. Its got this funny title about being a “natural history” of innovation and that seemed polite and humble, rather than prescriptive like a lot of business books tend to be. (“10 Steps to Improving Your Organizations Innovation Prospects!” — or things like that.) But then it’s less humble when you realize that this is The natural history of innovation that’s been written. N’ah — I know he’s probably being provocative with this title. But, still — I found it a bit bold. Because inside is not a natural history at all, but rather an argument made through a number of examples. The argument is to dispel the notion that good ideas — ideas that make incremental changes in the graph, making things move up and to the right to a greater or lesser degree — come from a guy sitting around by himself in a lab or basement. Rather, good ideas come about because of their proximity to other, perhaps disparate activities — other intriguing things happening nearby. Johnson’s prop is the ocean reef — and perhaps this is the joke in the title because the reef is understood to be something natural (as if) and therein lies the natural character of innovation.

Couple of notes, so long as they were jotted down while I was reading this:

He has a curiously muddled appendix of good ideas at the end, with the electric battery (1800) — every good idea has a date — sitting alongside of sunspots (1610), as if sunspots were a good idea as opposed to an observation that becomes relevant and topical. I can only imagine that these are intractably complex things that are as dense a knot of activities both purposeful, willful and incidental as one can imagine. Yet here they are rather cavalierly given a sentence or two and a date stamp as if they appeared as a good idea suddenly.

He diverts detractors to his approach of going broad and shallow by saying that there is value in surveying and drawing conclusions from many short case studies and drawing four quadrant graphs that even further simplify the points. The alternative is to be deep and thick, or to go into the laboratory — talking to people to suss out the meaning and history and all that of technology. The broad and shallow perspective is not as thorough. It’s a gloss, but even worse — it’s not substantive and opinion at best. This is fine, but the reader never really knows what they’re losing in the trade.

The argument is an engaging story — a good story. It’s an argument insisting on a POV and a thesis about an intractably complicated social/cultural/political/economic entanglement that cannot possibly be distilled to a core, to an essential character and way-of-being except in the most simple ways which never can possibly be much more than a fairy tale useful only for the most basic of explanations you might use to tell a child why the sky is blue, or as an allegory — it’s certainly not a history, natural or otherwise.

If you want to hear a really irksome panel discussion with Kevin Kelly and Johnson, check out this Radiolab podcast: What Does Technology Want?. It’s curious to me that Johnson and Kelly seem to jump on Robert Krulwich to the point of basically saying — “what’s wrong with you? don’t you believe in technology’s autonomy?”
Continue reading What Innovation

Weekending 12122010: Clarity via Complexity

Thursday December 09 17:50

A week spent last in the Nordic EU discovering the knots and twists and snarls and kinks of the imbroglio that goes along with executing on damn good design. On the one hand there was the work of workshops meant to work *upon the work; on the other hand, there are the traces that appear as — if illuminated by forensic investigators UV light — the trails of interconnected relationships, goals, aspirations, roadblocks, paths of hope, begrudging words, encouraging words, optimistic personalities and personality disorders, cues and clues as to how things work, or how they do not; who talks to who, and who does not; where things can get done, and where they will not, despite everything. Very intriguing. Certainly not unusual activities; just the analysis and awareness that comes with trying to understand, and that from the perspective of a science-technology-studies kind of person. It’s like being inside a Latourian analysis of the making of things. I should draw a map.
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Representations of the Future with Graphs

Graphs of the Future

I collected some graphs that attempt to represent how the future comes to be while I was preparing for a talk at the University of Michigan’s “Future of Technology” conference, from which I’ve just returned. The graphs are simple ways to represent the path from now into the future and what makes “then” the future and different from “now.” I drew what I had in mind as you see above while I was teasing out something interesting to say for the talk. All along the way I was hoping to be able to show some film clips that I’ve been gathering — film clips of speculative futures and science-based fictions. The talk — it was only 15 minutes exactly — was called 9 Ways of Seeing the Future.

Here they are.

Idea, Prototype, Product

One. The future starts with an idea, and you try it out and test it, and then when it works that means you’ve accomplished something new and then you’re in the future. James Dyson is the exemplar of this kind of future-making because he prototypes his stuff insanely. ((How else do you make vacuum cleaners that suck so much?))

Up and to the Right

Two. The future starts at the origin and then goes up, and to the right, which is better/brighter/smaller/bigger/longer/faster than the origin, so it’s in the future.

Exponentially Better

Three.I got the scale on the left wrong, but this is the Moore’s Law future which goes up and to the right like Two, but it does so exponentially faster, so you get an intensely better future when compared to the normal up-and-to-the-right future.

Gartner Hype Curve

Four. The Gartner Hype Curve, where whatever the future is, it is sure to be oversold and overpromised, leading to the *trough of disillusionment and despair, after which the future sort of becomes more reasonable than the hype and slowly productizes itself. ((I’m still waiting for the Jet Pack future.))

Future Is Distributed

Five. The future that distributes over space and time — William Gibson’s *sandwich spread truism that says the future is here already, but it’s just not evenly distributed. Presumably it starts in places like Silicon Valley, although he might argue that it also starts in the back alley bar in Mogadishu or some other shit hole, seeing as how things are going these days.

Auger Possible Product Futures

Six. James Auger‘s drawing of the product future where there are many possible *technologies that will anchor themselves into a future present, as well as alternative futures that may lie off-axis somewhere. I’m still trying to figure this one out. Maybe I’ll get the chance at the Design Fiction conference.


Seven. From A Survey of Human-Computer Interaction Design in Science Fiction Movies which describes the future as a collaboration/circulation of ideas between engineers/scientists and film makers. It’s a curious, provocative paper, thin on synthesis (it’s a survey, after all). I like the diagram most of all. Even in its simplicity it provides a nice appetizer for capturing some of the rich stew of David A. Kirby’s diegetic prototypes.

Eight. Colin Milburn’s Modifiable Futures: Science Fiction at the Bench is perhaps graphed dynamically in which he describes the future as particular kinds of “mods” or modifications to things that exist in the here and now. You know you’re in the future when the normal, plain thing has become kitted-out and enhanced, perhaps on the street. (link to video)

And so then I noticed that these are representations of the future that are rather flat instrumental and parametricized visions of the future and the route to it. And I’m wondering — rather than parametric and numerical and quantified representations of the futures — don’t use graphs — what about stories that avoid the problematic time-goes-from-left-to-right, or that there is only one coordinate for a specific future. An easier way of acknowledging multiple simultaneous futures, and multiple possible futures and that the future is a lived, embodied situation rather than the result of miniaturization or optimization. The future is for us and we live in experiences and stories — not in aspirations for technologies themselves.

Seeing as representations prescribe what we consider possible and even reasonable, having a richer, thicker, more lived representation to help imagine other sorts of futures — and not just bigger/brighter/smaller/lighter ones with new products that we buy to replace the old, perfectly good ones we bought six months ago — we might look toward stories about the future that you can’t graph on a piece of paper.

This is where the Ninth representation comes in — science fiction film. This of course does not exclude other strong representations of the future like science fiction writing, science and technology journalism, and all other kinds of literature I’m sure you’re thinking about. Just happens that right now I’m excited by science fiction film (err..have been for quite some time) and I’m focusing on that.

So, to close out my 15 minute talk and my 1000 word blog post, I shared a short excerpt from Volume 7 of a collection of annotated DVDs the Laboratory’s Media Theory department is creating based on representations of the near future in science fiction film. In this one I look at some of the signs and signals about The Future that are represented in some favorite films.

Why do I blog this? The main point of the talk was, for me, to think through another reason why I see design fiction as a useful idiom for doing design. What I concluded is that choosing how we imagine and represent the future is crucial — and not peripheral — to our ability to solve problems. Graphs are good, but I wanted to establish that there are other ways of productively and fruitfully representing what can be in order to materialize ones ideas. So — science fiction as much more than a distraction from the hassles of figuring out where your idea is on the productization scale, or determining when transistor counts will go up to the next order of magnitude and then never really wondering why that might be useful in a save-the-planet sort of way.

We seem to be pattern recognizers and so the templates and processes and frameworks in which our imaginations live determine to a large extent the possible things we can think of and the measures by which we judge them. ((Which, parenthetically, may be that the best thing one can learn to do is learn see the world through different lenses and from different perspectives — but maybe even more importantly is to know how and when to establish those different perspectives and then help others see — and then think — differently.))

Thanks to everyone at the Taubman College of Architecture and University of Michigan for the invitation and for enduring my hand drawn slides in a sea of luscious, expertly and painstakingly rendered 3D models of parametric architectures.
Continue reading Representations of the Future with Graphs

The Future is a Mod


From 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School. In the epoch of the $23 paperback and self-help books disguised as design and camouflaged by Bruce Mau’s palid wisdom, this is the best $9 you’ll ever spend. EVER.

Friday January 01 16:38

A mod.

<a href=""?@bruces pointed out this curious paper called Modifiable Futures: Science Fiction at the Bench from Colin Milburn, who sits in the Program in Science and Technology Studies that our old UCSC History of Consciousness school chumJoe Dumit heads. The paper takes a go at describing the entangled, multivalent, contentious and complex relationship between science, fact, fiction and the future. The interplay between all of these — and throw in fan cultures, society at large, politics, money, power, knowledge and authority..heck, lets just say “technoscience” and be done with the litanies — is a tricky thing to describe and always seems to make people hot under the collar lest capital-s Science feel it looses its authority as the canonical, go-to guy for where knowledge about the world comes from.

What Milburn might say — what many who appreciate the fun to be found in the rich layer cake of knowledge production — is that the interplay between fiction and fact is actually a good thing. He would say that the assumption that scientist, their ideas and their divinations in the form of science facts about the natural world is not only wrong, but it does a disservice by discounting the productive contributions that other idea-generating mechanisms can bring to the game of knowledge-production. And for Milburn, curiously — games provides a fruitful framework for his way of describing the interplay between science fact and science fiction. He uses the game “mod” — or modification — as a metaphor for the way that science fact and science fiction produce knowledge and materialize ideas.

“In many ways, the day-to-day activities of laboratory science resemble some of these fan practices: sampling from and building on the work of others, taking what was successful in one experiment and applying it elsewhere, proceeding through imitation, eclectic opportunism, bricolage, and so forth. So with such fan practices in mind, I would like to suggest that our understanding of how science fiction works at the bench would be greatly improved by seeing scientists as cultural consumers like any culture consumers, perhaps even in some cases as science fiction fans like any science fiction fans, but having at their disposal the tools and the resources for making science fiction and other cultural materials actually usable for science — and vice versa.”


A rough circulation model for the movement and influence of ideas between and amongst science fact and science fiction in entertainment. From A Survey of Human-Computer Interaction Design in Science Fiction Movies by Schmitz, Endres and Butz.

This is an intriguing perspective for its simplicity, which is good. The simplicity should be contrasted with the oftentimes baroque offerings of explanation delivered by critical theory (and worse..philosophy) when brought to bear on the world of science, or epistemology of science. By drawing from more contemporary ideas about fan culture and then saying — hey..scientists can be science fiction fans, too, Milburn is stating what would seem obvious. (Obvious, but breeching the perimeter of scientists’ secret lair can be dangerous — cf the “Science Wars
” — and “The Science Wars” that waged in the 90’s amongst about 300 got down-right nasty! could write a movie script from the back-biting, the misrepresentations, the gaffs and punk’ngs — the whole FBI thing interviewing historians of science at their annual conference about the where-for of the Unabomer? But..only 300 people would go see the movie..still, exciting for a clutch of Ph.D.s.)


Milburn is stating that scientists should not be exempt from fandom and the larger influences of the ideas that are heavily circulated in various forms of science fiction cultures, entertainment even as they are distilled and decanted through various means that themselves may not be categorized as “science fiction.” It’s not like they ignore their imaginations, which might have caught wind of — or even been inspired by — say..Star Wars or Minority Report or Raumpatrouille Orion or Space 1999.

Milburn then goes on to say that the idea of the “mod” — the modification like the game mod, or the music mash-up, “fanfic” style grassroot storytelling that responds to the desires of fans and so on — all of these *ways of circulating and generating new music/stories/conversations should perhaps suggest that the same can happen with science when fact and fiction engage each other. Milburn describes three kinds of mods for science fiction that make it fruitfully usable by technoscience (in other words — he’s not dissing science but rather seems to be suggesting that science fact becomes better for being able to push itself beyond its own institutional limits by engaging science fiction productively): blueprint mods, supplementary mods and speculative mods.

Blueprint mods translate a specific, discrete element of science fiction and attempt to materialize it as a technical reality. The relevant example he gives is of Linden Labs using Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash as a model for their Second Life as described in the book Making Virtual Worlds: Linden Lab and Second Life. The blueprint mod goes beyond using the science fiction as an influence or inspiration — it wants to make something that is quite specific in the text, “extrapolating and inventing a distinct technical dimension..disregarding any necessary integrity or organicity of the fiction.” Milburn mentions the seemingly endless fascination of this form of “mod” with entire book series and Wiki pages devoted to “The Science of..” show/movie/book.

Supplementary mods attempt to approximate a science fiction concept. This means that what sounds cool but is taken to be technically impossible will be worked on to create a scientifically viable alternative. There has been work on invisibility shields that fall into this category of supplementary mods. For example, this invisibility cloak that is evocative of the cloak that P.K. Dick’s Agent Fred wears in A Scanner Darkly. I saw this device at Ars Electronica in 2008 — it is definitely an approximation but tips into this sort of supplementary mod. It seems to say — this is a very cool idea. We know it is technically intractable, but we’re going to push forward anyway with this project that begins to activate the imagination and inspire further modding.

Speculative mods is where science fiction is used in science writing and technical papers as a way of describing possible futures and the extrapolation of today into tomorrow. This is a form I find quite often — the “it’s like the ray gun in Lost In Space” sort of thing. Milburn acknowledges that that historians and cultural theorists of technoscience appreciate how science speculation, “forecasting”, futurological narratives, road mapping and so on play a role as “scripts” in the laboratory and R&D agendas. But, he says —

“..we have yet fully to take on the manifold ways these practices interrelate with the predominant mode of speculative narration in the modern era — namely, science fiction. Its generic traces can often be discerned where scientific probabilities or expectations for the future are rendered as discourse, as a now quotidian way of speaking about the consequences of scientific or technological change: the everydayness in postindustrial societies of what..has been called ‘science fiction thinking’..”

Why do I blog this? This is a great short essay that captures some of the themes of the design fiction conversations that are swirling about here and there. There’s some useful reinforcement of things that David A. Kirby has described as the “diegetic prototype” — which I think is kin to Milburn’s idea of the mod, insofar as it allows for the circulation of ideas and does not explicitly prioritize either fact or fiction.

What I find interesting is the use of the idea of the mod — a form of circulating and layering cultural forms to create something that builds upon some underlying stories and characters and worlds that are ostensibly fiction to make something material and tangible that is ostensibly fact. And then when you understand the rich ways in which ideas blur together and you stop prioritizing the fact/fiction binary — you begin to see new possibilities for imagining and creating and materializing ideas that avoids those silly cat fights over who done what first or who was the originator or an idea.
Continue reading The Future is a Mod

Weekending 07112010

Destroy The Future

Good lord. What happened just then?

Well — I missed a weeknote last week, but I’m not going to do penance. It happens.

I’ve been working — mostly in my head, with a swirl of notes — on two casual commissions for writing, both on the topic of Design Fiction. One is for a forthcoming volume for this journal called, like…Volume. It looks quite curious — reminds me of a cerebral Cabinet Magazine. I think that’ll be a trimmed-of-excess version of the already existing essay, but perhaps without out the Meringue. Along those lines, I continue to catalog these *genre conventions. I’m not entirely sure why, except that they are like the stylings and contours of what makes — in my mind — good Design Fiction, leastways as represented in visual stories.

The second commission is from the Swiss Design Network for their annual proceedings. I’ll be going to their conference in the Fall.

So..those things need to be tied up in short order.

I’ve also spent idle moments pondering a response to the Six Questions posed by the fine friends at Kicker Studios for their forthcoming Device Design Day next month. I think I’ll share some thoughts on the industrial design of Star Trek as a way to talk about the explication/explicitation actions of objects. How objects “speak” or incite/compel/describe actions and social-actions. And as to the Six Questions — I mean..I’m not sure how deliberate I should be in answering them, or thinking of them as some kind historic remarks or anything like that. But they are good ones and they get me thinking — Jack’s are my favorite, still. Criminy his a thoughtfully-funny guy.

Crimminy — and unless the activity of true southern california skateboarding suddenly vanishes without a trace, the going-will-be-slow on the Man Lodge in the back, which is meant to be the Laboratory’s studio. ((The ladder and table saw have spent more time staring at each other and less time being climbed on and/or rip-sawing timbers.))

Sunday July 11 16:16

Daniel Cuervo, Frontside Japan Air. Me? Underneath paying close attention to where he might land.

Why do I blog this? A few notes to remind myself of what I have done but, this week — more to remind myself of what I should perhaps be doing more, or things I should be doing just a little bit less.

Continue reading Weekending 07112010

Five Advantages of The Concept of "Design"

((Via Unhappy Hipsters. The photo caption is: It was far more satisfying to relive their romance via iPhoto slideshow.))

The Unhappy Hipster site has the tag line “It’s Lonely In The Modern World” dryly shifting design toward self-mocking irony. Perhaps a kind of denaturing of the sublime intoxication home/interior/architectural design was once able to effect. Seasoning this with Latour, we might wonder if there ever was a modern world and if there were not — have we ever been lonely?))

I read — closely, but not obsessively — this essay by Bruno Latour that was delivered as a keynote at the Networks of Design meeting of the Design History Society in 2008. I pretty much read whatever Latour writes, and listen to whatever he discusses in lectures where available. Mostly because he can be insightful while also being funny, and there aren’t too many philosophers who can make that claim. But also because I find his work mostly relevant, or I make it relevant to this ongoing project of understanding design and comprehend how design is a way to circulate and create knowledge through the materialization of ideas. ((The bedrock of this project is a bit of science-technology studies, which is how I came across Latour some decade or so ago, a hobbled appreciation of actor-network theory, and my infantile understanding of the questions surrounding this “object-oriented ontology” thing.))

So, when Latour has an essay that proposes *a few steps toward a philosophy of design, I figure I should give it a look-see.

Continue reading Five Advantages of The Concept of "Design"

The Week Ending 04092010

Search My World

It was an insane week on the side of things happening between homes..a move. Number 3 on the list of the most traumatic things that can happen in life, I’ve been told. ((I may’ve misheard, but it made sense at the time, so I’ve assimilated that as a part of the life’s-trauma-list.))

On the side of things happening in and around the Nokia Studio and the Home Laboratory there were some fun, curious things.

Continue reading The Week Ending 04092010

Really the Fake: Derived, Diacritic'd, Differenced Things

Thursday February 04, 07.00.26

A Wii Mote and a Wii ‘KLIK-on’ Candy Dispenser which uses the ‘B’ trigger control to dispense little candy pills.

Wednesday February 03 13:42

Something Tom Clancy — the guy who writes worlds he wishes he inhabited, which is always a good motivation for a riveting tale — and something written by someone who can write like Tom Clancy, but doesn’t have the surname value share but can participate in the *Branded story world owned/possessed by Tom Clancy…all signaled by the diacritic there — the apostrophe.

Thursday February 04, 06.57.14

The enormously popular video game Call of Duty 4…and a DVD about the *real-world sticky situations the kinds of people — Delta, SEALS, mercenaries, Blackwater/Xe, Rangers, Special Ops guys — Call of Duty 4 simulates, all done up in a DVD case that clearly signals in its visual design the simulation game.

A trio of things found over time that came together in their pattern of derived associations. I’m sure these were done in a pragmatic fit of trying to get some uptake by resonating with existing things/objects/markets and so on. Pretty standard stuff, with the Wii and the Call of Duty thing being the more dodgy instances. The apostrophe’d Tom Clancy business was certainly a planned business franchising effort, along with all the other *Tom Clancy Presents sort of derivatives, like video games and bomber pilot jackets and aviator style sunglasses, all designed to inhabit the personas and worlds authored by Tom Clancy’s genre of mil-intel-tech fiction. (And probably inhabited by those least likely to actually have the extra bit of *umph to *actually participate in such worlds.)

Why do I blog this? These patterns of reproduction, derivation and so on are intriguing. Perhaps less so from the pragmatic, business perspective — like, the cringe I sometimes feel when one thing is clearly done so as to participate in the swirl of interest that a canonical, market-making product/idea/service/new-interaction-ritual. Which comes first, what does this kind of priority really matter or even mean? When does *doing it right trump *doing it first? And, anyway — what are the measures of *doing it right? Most sales? Most uptake? Beautiful to use? I’m thinking of things other than candy dispensers, story franchises and FPS’s, of course.

You know, like — *touch quite clearly forced everyone to talk/make/market *touch devices in such a knee-jerk way it was embarrassing to watch (and participate in, I suppose) quite frankly. The same thing is happening with *Moleskine-sized pad/slate/tablet things. There will be lots of things that signal a new kind of computing (*casual, *livingroom, *sofa) and we’ll call them (with a rueful, dubious look in the direction of the naming guys) *Pad’s, which will be like calling a box of generic brand tissues you buy from your corner drugstore — Kleenex.

The point here but the ways in which variants, originals, mix-matched and mismatched continuations of *something circulate, imbricate, overlap and so on — this I find intriguing. I guess it’s less about what is real, original, fake or a morph — more about these physical, material metaphor of continuity and perpetuation and derivation.

At the end of the end of the day, does it matter *who put the wheels on luggage? Or does it matter, in a make-the-world-a-more-habitable-place kind of way — that someone mustered the resources/people/alliances to put the damn wheels on there and save us all from having crooked backs and Popeye-big forearms? Mixed opinions here at the Laboratory on how and in what way the *original matters.
Continue reading Really the Fake: Derived, Diacritic'd, Differenced Things

Fake for Real

Saturday September 19, 13.24.47

Found in a small toy/novelty store in Jeju, South Korea.

Two forms of fakery. On the left, a faux Lego set using all the cues and clues of the real, Danish deal for a Lego build set of the Space Shuttle complete with astronaut. On the right, a *toy* Glock pistol. Both kids toys (n’aach on the gun), but each with its own degree of imitation. The Lego bit is a fake of a toy. The gun — well, to the best of my knowledge that’s a real imitation of a Glock, making it a legitimate toy.

Saturday September 19, 13.08.58

Why do I blog this? A curious mish-mash of really fake stuff that outlines the boundaries amongst imitation, flattering imitation, and arguably nasty real fake toys taht don’t seem particularly playful. Is it even worth fussing over the clear delineations between real/fake; virtual/digital; really me/avatar me? What are the stakes that make these lines of distinction things to fuss and argue over?

But wait..there’s more!

Saturday September 19, 13.19.40

More in the category of the *trinket*, as opposed to the refined, detailed and thoughtfully sculpted imitation of a real really dangerous thing that might fool someone who is handling the real, real thing — a gumball machine with a miniature arsenal, for those who just can’t do without the seductive power of things that go boom and blam.
Continue reading Fake for Real