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.

The Week Ending 050310

Thursday March 04 09:47

Man..was *that a week. No one’s counting, or probably even noticing, but I missed my weeknote from the week before — there’s a gap — so this is really a weeks notes. ((Now I’m definitely talking to myself, I know that.)) But it was all a strange, hopped-up, late-night-then-squeeze-of-port sort of blurofatwoweeks. It was all around developing sound, evocative, provocative poke/prod/converse communication around this Trust project. And it all went splendidly. Only I noticed the holes, skips, bumps and false-starts, so that’s fine. It’s the *auteur’s eye — ((stated with all humility)), but when you get to the point of such profound intimacy with 3200 frames of a short video, you begin to notice as no one else ever will. And, it was also two weeks of an incredible design team hitting on all cylinders without trying. So..there’s that.

So, preparation, making small movies which is way more involved than I would’ve *ever thought, especially given that they ultimately end up being maybe a minute or at most 90 seconds long. Pitifully tedious compositing work that becomes more tedious because I didn’t think ahead to how tedious it could become if you don’t take care of, say — one super small detail ahead of time. &c.

Why little movies? Why small little films? Well — the rough thinking is to communicate differently to engage good folks who are perhaps optimized for being talked to via PowerPoint. *Death by PowerPoint, is what one might say. And *Death by CAD renderings. The death of the imagination. What we want are things that start conversations — a clever idea, something that compels a discussion and encourages a new way of doing what needs to be done. It’s also, despite the pain of production which presumably gets better with practice, quite a good way to think and design and not just a means of communication. The process of being forced to tell a small, momentary story about a thing or an experience — it gives you special language powers and new perspectives, and visual metaphors to help shape and smooth and refine the thinking. Clearly — it’s not just the film itself which is the outcome of all that work.
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The Week Ending 021910

Thursday February 18 19:59

Well, another week, another set of tardy week only seems like sheer anxiety about not being diligent propels me and that only when the subsequent week begins.


It was a week of production of things related to project Trust; completing, debating, refinishing, redesigning as these things go, which seems classic completionist dyslexia, seeing as the next, next *done-by that we set was, technically, the end of February and already the calls are coming in to see it to help with whatever-whatever other thing someone else is doing that they feel could use a burnish or a braze from Trust. We’re genuinely excited to have these conversations — almost a dozen such over the next two weeks according to this scrap of paper with names, dates and locations.

In the midst of this, at this point is the curious letting-of-things-go insofar as the *intelligence or the *ideas in the project have been assumed embedded directly enough in their exemplars that actually figuring out what the ideas are, or refining them and so forth — this has gained little attention with a pure, slightly unnerving emphasis on the communication of them through small films, and a focus on the means and mechanics by which the communication happens. I suppose this is as these things go — for the writer in me (I mean this quite modestly), this is like the polishing and editing of the thought, with the thought and story quite well completed and beyond the point where major revisions can happen. If I can keep on this track of pure production, pure editing, I’d be surprised, knowing my penchant for rethinking at the last minute.

There was a short, two day trip to San Francisco to visit the facilities there and participate in an in-depth technical review, which was 2 parts engaging, 2 parts intriguing and 1 part exhausting. Communicating the experience of interaction touchpoints and *user (bleech..) journeys in order to feedback into the circuits of design, technology, logistics and accounting is something quite new to me, but something I genuinely want to understand and participate in, *only to know how design can shape an influence and be instrumental to the work that (a) engineers do; (b) software programmers do; (c) middling, junior designers do; (d) people under tremendous pressures with financial incentives calibrated to meeting some date in a calendar,; (e) accountants and business people do..etc. ((This thinking calibrates with a talk Mike Kruzeniski gave at IxDA, which I hope to hear one day where he conveys this important, crucial notion that if you cannot make your design criteria, pattern, process, thinking — whatever — communicate to the sensibilities of the engineers making the stuff you draw in story boards, then you may as well take up horse shoeing.))

What also occurred to me during this workshop-y couple of days was the means and mechanisms by which one communicates *feedback. The spreadsheets and awkward photos seems positively medieval, which is not to register anything negative about the facilitators. I think we’re all meant to contribute to this new, new process of review and it got me thinking about another mechanism that is closely to small, short visual films (of’s all we’re doing these days) that may be more impactful if less didactic.

Finally, a lovely close to the week — I sprinted off of the bloated plane from SFO, jumped into my car (becoming the mayor of Parking Lot C on Foursquare, in the process, much to the ridicule of *friends) and headed over to the Gadget OK! exhibition, talk, dinner at UCLA’s D|MA. Sadly, I missed Maywa Denki perform, but I did get to see the exhibition and buttonhole Tosa-san for our obligatory weird photo. ((More photos of the exhibition and stuff are here:

Thursday February 18 21:27

The Week Ending 150110

Saturday January 16 15:51

From here, the next week begins. Sayulita, Mexico to repast, float, read, drink and celebrate with friends, a friend’s birthday.

The week began with the Microsoft Social Computing Symposium, 2010 edition. I’ve put my notes from the event here in the immediately preceding blog post.

Back in the studio on Thursday and Friday to tidy up a few loosened ends with the Trust project and coordinating some final assembly particulars with Tom, Simon and the fine folks at the prototyping family house Aeolab for the second clock. The industrial design is fantastic and lovely which only complements the provocation of new interaction rituals embodied in the object itself. Next Tuesday should be close to the last hand-off of hardware and I suspect we’ll begin machining next week, and finalize some decisions about stock and some workarounds to avoid a rather expensive block of acrylic.

I did a share on the project in-house on Friday, sort of slipping and sliding over the story and the communication — it’s been probably a month since I’ve been up in it, what with the holiday break and all. Soon, it’ll be back on the tip of my tongue.
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The Week Ending 080110

Sunday September 20, 12.53.26

Markings for repair or warnings to mitigate accidents? Seen in Seoul, South Korea.

Whilst technically still on holiday, there were some things done as usual and *holiday* is never entirely just not doing nuthin’.

There was a quick visit to the studio to begin to finish the second of two commissioned Trust devices, which is looking simultaneously quite insightful and lovely. I hope some day that this becomes a lever to torque the rudder if even ever so slightly.

Jennifer Leonard’s interviews in Good Magazine’s Slow Issue (*Perspectives on a smarter, better, and slower future*) with Esther Dyson, Jamais Cascio, Bruce Sterling, John Maeda, Alexander Rose and myself appeared online. The topic of the short discussions? “We asked some of the world’s most prominent futurists to explain why slowness might be as important to the future as speed.”

And, prompted by Rhys’ clever insights into a richer, smarter less ROI-driven vector into thinking about this whole, you know..augmented reality mishegoss, I’ve been reading a fascinating history of linear perspective that has been helping guide more meaningful thinking. (I have yet to see anything that leaps much further beyond flags showing where something is by holding up a device in front of my face, which just seems momentarily cool and ultimately not particularly consonant with all the hoopleheaded hoopla.

I’ve started The Renaissance Rediscovery of Linear Perspective, which has a number of curious insights right off the bat, particularly ones that remind us that linear perspective is only a possibility and not necessarily something to be thought of as “realistic” from a variety of perspectives. In fact, it merely makes renderings that remove experience and abstract points-of-view, something that I recently learned from Latour’s Visualisation and Cognition (which, not unsurprisingly, led me to this Edgerton book via a reference and footnote.)

Configuration A - Binocular Form Factor

A Laboratory experiment from 2006 — *Viewmaster of the Future* — using a binocular-style form factor. ((The lenses are removed in this photo.))

And, the follow-on, which I haven’t started yet is the enticingly titled The Mirror, the Window, and the Telescope: How Renaissance Linear Perspective Changed Our Vision of the Universe, which immediately caught my eye as I am drawn more to the history, imagery, rituals and *user experience* dimensions of telescopes and binoculars as affordances for, bleech..*augmented reality* than this stupid hold-a-screen-up-to-my-face crap. ((cf. this stuff below — the screen-up-to-my-face configuration — never felt as good as the second iteration of this *Viewmaster of the Future* experiments we did a few years ago.))

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The Week Ending Today 111209

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

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

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

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

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

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Design Fiction Chronicles: Urgency and Emergency, Notification and Warning

Saturday January 31 11:07

Tsunami Evacuation Route on Washington Boulevard at the border — basically 60 degrees North-North-East, directly opposite the coastline in the other direction, but essentially only a few meters above sea-level for a good couple of miles.

Last week, when there was that earthquake in Samoa, we happened to be talking about Tsunamis in the studio — thinking about the ways that the California coast could be gobbled up in an unfortunate, epic disaster. It’s a distinct possibility, and with the Pacific Ocean popping off earthquakes with increasing frequency (or so it seems..), it makes one think about what sort of early warning system could be put in place — and one that would not rely too much on quite fallible technology-based networks. These are the things that typically fail even without a disaster at hand. (For instance, at the Venice Beach Music Festival a few weeks ago, with a relatively smallish contingent of people occupying Abbot-Kinney Boulevard, me and those I was with were hard-pressed to get a cell signal. If you have all of Venice Beach panicking because of an approaching Tsunami, what are the chances AT&T will be able to handle the load? I’d rather not count on them, to be perfectly honest, to help me communicate with family in a disaster.) Perhaps mesh-y networks that do not rely on too much pre-built systems like cellular base stations.

Or, are there more esoteric warning systems, like these rattling cups? Hairs on the back of your neck? A forest of yammering, naddering wild life suddenly falling dead still and quiet? The color of the sky in the morning? Scattering insects all going in the same direction? A sudden feeling that comes from another array of sensors — ones not invented by scientists or technologists or relying on a functioning grid of power, communication and all that?

What are the other “weak signals” of impending disaster, besides the news?

These fictional moments in movie scenes popped into my head while thinking about early warning of impending disaster.

Why do I blog this? Place marks for ideas related to early warning systems and the stories around them. Signals that are not explicit, but suggestive, providing some clues and cues that force one to be more attentive and resilient and resourceful.
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Pogoplug and The Rise of Network Fog


Pogoplug in the wild. Some edition of Linux in there, stripped down to basically require zero configuration. Plug it in to your network via an RJ45, and plug in your USB drive(s) and they appear online.
BTW lying under the tech is a first edition (1973) of the brilliantly quirky and prescientThe Velvet Monkey Wrench by John Muir (yes..related) with hippy-days illustrations by the talented Peter Aschwanden, who also illustrated the repair manual for my very first beater VW Rabbit. It has been recently re-issued. Chapter 8: “In Which Money Becomes Electrified”, complete with “E-Sellers” and “E-Cards.” Great future-past stuff.

Along with Augmented Reality, Cloud Computing seems to be one of the more thorough-going technology memes these days. The concept is consistent with the logic of the network. As bandwidth speeds level-up, and bandwidth costs go down (not free, just less, despite what Chris Anderson hypes) the asymptotic extreme approaches a curious quandary: where should “processing” be placed in relation to “data”?

Imagine if data can move (or appear to move) fast enough between where it is consumed and created such that it doesn’t actually matter where it lives? That might mean that I don’t have to lug around lots of big portable computing power — I can use a svelte device with just a sliver of CPU and enough screen to see what I need to see. No hot, power-hungry hard drive. Etc.

I’m curious about this intersecting graph and so decided to introduce an experiment using this newly available Pogoplug device. Effectively it’s a condensed bit of pre-existing technology wonderfully packaged into simple oneness. Simple oneness — my half-assed way to describe the Pogoplug without referring to it as either “smart”, as an “appliance” or a “smart appliance.” It’s only smart in the degree to which it does not make me feel dumb.

I have to say, it certainly appears clever in a number of ways. First of all, it does something obvious, and I mean that this way: the bits of technical kit required to make ones data appear close to one no matter where one is, within the constraints of reasonable access to networks and so forth — this has been around for quite some time. I can remember — and I’m sure every geek with an itch to not just speculate but live a bit in the future — I can remember cobbling together this and that to get my screen, my data and my command prompt to appear and be accessible from other places. It was all there, all the little packages and so forth — it was just an unpleasant, distasteful peasants stew. Pogoplug adds some robust seasoning. I didn’t have to touch a thing except to plug everything together, copy a unique identifier found in the box into a web form — and the Pogoplug mothership found my unit, prompted me to pick a username and password and then I saw a web interface to all the drives I had plugged into the unit. Nice, simple, surprising.

There’s a bit of software for Windows and OS X to allow the drives to appear like ordinary desktop storage, making drag-and-drop and browsing quite familiar. I can assign files to be shared to specific people — there are no global permissions it appears, which is just fine with me. Although, one interesting aspect of this is a possible shift in the locality of served data. I’m curious about this — rather than data living in the more typical, canonical places like data centers, does it distribute in a fashion, so that your data is accessed at its place of origin, or where you decide to keep it and perhaps you like to keep it close by or even under your mattress or the equivalent in the networked age. And perhaps it is served up and processed more locally, such as at my home, in my car’s computer, directly from my mobile computer or mobile phone or even from my camera.

It’s just a speculation, but a more distributed network of nodes is a peculiar inversion of the typical run and hype of cloud-y things, which implores us to move everything into one or two or many clouds run by cloud service providers. What about an infinity of highly localized service points? What about my front doormat? Should it be a service provider? Can the guys who insist on bringing door hanger adverts for the local Thai restaurant just upload it to my door handle instead? Save the paper? Can I unsubscribe to the inevitable digital version of the crappy real estate newspaper that appears on the lawn in the morning?

I don’t know the specific advantages this might offer when measured against the usual metrics of the technology business — faster, cheaper, more profitable — but I enjoy the concept of keeping my stuff — data, touch points, access ways — close to me, nearby, on me, in my devices, etc. There are times when I feel like I am too trusting when I put it off somewhere I don’t even have physical access to. Perhaps my furniture secures my stuff, hidden in the overstuffed arm rest of my reading chair or something?
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Measuring the Immeasurable

Good, Fast & Cheap, a measure of things. Designed by Rhys Newman, modeled & machined by Simon James. A useful epistemological wrench — a conversation piece to discuss the measures of things and the things lost and gained when some things gain priority over others. It’s a wonderful, crucial instrument that shifts perspectives hopefully towards more habitable creations.

Everybody needs Money. That’s why they call it Money.
(From “Heist” by David Mamet. Danny DeVito playing Mickey Bergman.)

In the Laboratory’s Bureau of Instrumentation, Weights-and-Measures and Ways-and-Means, we’ve been curious for a time, and more so recently, about the history of quantification and, as well, why numbers as such have a kind of primacy over other things that are more qualitative. Most specifically, why do we measure the things we measure, and why do some things get to be measured while other things do not get measured, or are seen as immeasurable?

This question is a thorough-going one in the effort to find other measures that can be prioritized, perhaps even more so than the things we consider without even thinking about where these “natural” (they never are..) measures come from. For example, we measure things designed based on such things as their monetary cost, and how much profit can be obtained. With this measure, to simplify things, many principles that would be invested in a design get tossed out. The accountant or the engineer would sooner shrug in such a circumstance — this is the way it should be. I want to consider the “natural” way of such things, and consider how other sorts of measures can be prioritized that are not necessarily about money first, but always first about creating more habitable future worlds. What are the other measures of things that maybe previously have been thought of as “immeasurable” or incapable of being quantified? Thus, this interest in how things got to be the way they are. What are the measures of quantities and where did they come from? How could they be different? What things can be designed/made/prototyped the experiment with other measures?

There must be a variety of histories here, skirting up against the science of calculation and computation and close to the Laboratory’s interests in the history of things, such as sciences, design, technology and always deeply imbricated and layered and inextricably tied to all of these things — the histories of cultures.

Where to start?

Our Studio Library Day reading book last month was Alfred W. Crosby’s intriguing “The Measure of Reality: Quantification in Western Europe, 1250-1600” which I’m happy Manuel Lima mentioned at his talk during SHiFT 2008 in Lisbon. It took a holiday to actually finish the book, which lead me in a zillion other vectors and converged in a recent interest in the meaning and technology of money. It now takes me early mornings when fresh and not muddle-headed to re-read it for the over-arcing traces of Crosby’s perspective.

I’ll have my overdue book report on “The Measure of Reality”, but first a short trek down the footnote rabbit hole to Joel Kaye‘s essay “The impact of money on the development of fourteenth-century scientific thought” found in the Journal of Medieval History 14(1988), p. 251-270. (Wonderful these academic essays tucked away in journals nearly impossible for anyone except academics to get a hold of, truly. Sadly, the availability of this essay is quite limited unless you have an “in” at a university or such, or a particularly flush public library system somewhere. So much for the academician’s edict to create and circulate knowledge.)


No matter. Onward…

Continue reading Measuring the Immeasurable

Monuments of the Times

Sunday March 08, 09:35:02

Sunday March 08, 14:46:54

From the blog-all-curious-monuments desk, Sunday morning coming back from Lake Arrowhead California on a clear, crisp March morning, came across this on a pull-out along the bold mountain road. A monument. To one Donald S. Wieman, for his handiwork..I guess for contributing to the construction and design of this “rim on the world”. It’s quite a nice road, with a steep, boldly winding swerve up to some amazing views. This road was part of a large public works effort during the “Great Depression”. Lately we’ve been learning more about public works and their stimulus effects, with varying opinions on whether and to what degree they may work for this particular “crisis.”

Later that day, doing the hyperspace jump from the mountains to the beach with concomitant shifts in pretty much all parameters — altitude, weather, temperature, air quality.. — I found myself on a merry afternoon perambulation. I came across this bucolic portrait of modest living except — what’s that? A sporty roadster in the garage, clearly an owners favorite pet. There are racing stripe floorings and the clean, well-kept settings of a diligent mechanically-inclined individual. The contrast I saw, without any substantiation was to wonder the ratio of house value to car value. Given its location and other factors, (and personal insights from perusing the local listings) I thought it could in fact be the case that the car may in fact be worth more than the house. Probably not, but the factors are closing in on one another.

Why do I blog this? Are the goodies that many people debt-financed, or financed based on their speculation about tomorrow’s values of their house — their largest ever investment — now like a taunting by the proverbial Albatross-around-the-neck? How will people and their practices change in the coming years? The coming generations? Will their be a “Credit Crisis Generation” to go along with all the other generational monikers? This one defined by its reluctance to trust; its simple ways; its avoidance of credit financing?

Just some musing.
Continue reading Monuments of the Times