The Future Mundane

Originally posted on Core77

Broadly speaking, design projects may be split into three categories: now, next and future. Most of our time as designers is concerned with the now or next, but occasionally we are called upon to embrace projects which are overtly future facing in nature. These projects are typically used as a platform to tell a story, be that a business projection, a socio-cultural exploration, or an illustration of new materials or technologies, so it comes as no surprise that one of the more significant inputs for many designers is science fiction cinema.

Science fiction works in the space between people and technology in much the same way as industrial design, and the two have an influential effect upon each other. If you have visited any design tumblr in the last six months you will no doubt have seen countless sketches and production stills from Oblivion, and design's (sometimes literal) impact on science fiction cinema is well documented. In some respects, it's difficult to divorce the two industries, but there is a key difference which often gets missed: For the sake of brevity, I need to be reductive, so if there is a line to be drawn between industrial design futurism and science fiction cinema, then that's the line between narrative, story and plot.

Industrial design futures require a story, a sequence of events that happen. In some cases they require a narrative—a way in which the story is told—but they almost never need a plot. Science fiction cinema, which has an implicit role as entertainment, requires a plot. Plots are difficult, complex and involved. Plots require significant development of character and space, leading to an aesthetic that drives the narrative forward. When creating future visions, industrial designers have a habit of grabbing at cinematic aesthetics without a plot, leading to images, products and movies such as this:

Videos and presentations of this sort are plentiful indeed, and in some respects they have a place, yet they invariably seem banal, twee and idealistic to the point of fantasy. For this reason, it's often easy to scoff at such work and dismiss it out of hand. In 2002, at the Clarion writing workshop, science fiction novelist Geoff Ryman expressed similar concerns about the prevalence of fantasy elements in his genre. Warp drives, invisibility and interstellar travel were becoming the norm in science fiction writing, distracting readers from critical subjects closer to home. He introduced the concept of 'Mundane Science Fiction,' which aimed to generate literature based on or near earth with a believable use of technology as it exists in the time the story is written.

As a counter to the fantasy-laden future worlds generated by our industry, I'd like to propose a design approach which I call 'The Future Mundane.' The approach consists of three major elements, which I will outline below.

1. The Future Mundane is filled with background talent.

Science fiction cinema needs to be entertaining in order to keep the attention of the audience. For a movie to be entertaining, it needs a narrative arc—a story of hope, despair, triumph or love. It needs a protagonist, hero or anti-hero. It typically needs something unusual to happen, an extraordinary event, something which drives the plot forward. As such, Hollywood typically pushes the narrative towards character extremes which provide clear roles: the hero, the villain, the femme fatale etc. The uncomfortable truth is that the vast majority of people don't come close to these caricatures, and it's fair to expect that they never will. Your customer won't need to save the world, they won't see a real gunfight, they won't win the lottery or fight a bad guy on the roof of a runaway train.

When designing for the future, designers regularly design for the hero, a trickle-down aspirational super-user intended to give us all something to hope for. But perhaps we could, for once, design for those innumerable, un-named characters of Hollywood, the extras or 'background talent.' Perhaps we should look past Bruce Willis and design for the 'man at bus stop', 'girl at bar' or 'taxi driver.' While this approach is less aspirational or sexy, these characters are much closer to the humans to whom you are telling your story. When your goal isn't entertainment, you don't need a hero.

So those are our characters, but what about the design itself? Spaceships, weapons and computers are plentiful in science fiction cinema, but what about corkscrews, soccer cleats, milk packaging or garden hoses? In the world of contemporary design awards (for what they are worth), we celebrate the design of background objects, but when we are asked to decipher and create the future we tend to revert back to whizz-bang items of wonder. When I encounter everyday design in science fiction cinema, I get a chill of excitement. From Korben's cigarettes in the Fifth Element, the parole officer in Elysium, and countless examples in Blade Runner, these pieces of design help us get a much better hold on our future than any holographic interface ever could. The future we design should understand this. The characters in our future will not necessarily need to save the world at every turn—most of them will simply live in it, quietly enjoying each day.

2. The Future Mundane is an accretive space

Take a look around you, it's likely that you're interacting with a contemporary piece of technology, be that a smartphone, tablet or laptop, but take a look further around the room. There may be things which are older, things which come from another time—an LED TV atop a vintage table, a Playstation next to a 60's vase, an iPad in a leather bag. If industrial design is in the business of making stuff, then we need to understand that this stuff piles up, favela-like. Humans are covetous, sentimental and resourceful; they cling to things.

When we render the future as a unique visual singularity, we remove from it any contemporary hooks. When designing a new screwdriver, it's important to remember that it will probably sit in a toolbox filled with other tools, perhaps inherited from a previous generation.

In order to communicate our vision, it may be helpful to incorporate the existing designed space in parallel with the new. On a very practical level, we should embrace legacy technologies when conceiving new ones. Ethnographic studies constantly highlight technology accretion: the drawer full of cables, the old interaction behaviors, the dusty hard drives, the mouse mats and inherited hardware. Rather than avoid this complexity, good science fiction embraces accretive spaces, where contemporary design and technology sits side by side with older artifacts. In some cases, this technique can be used to show potential disconnects between the new and established, places where technology sticks out like a sore thumb. This is a useful tool for all designers and using it well can help us depict a more tangible future.

3. The Future Mundane is a partly broken space.

As mentioned, the structure of science fiction cinema calls for extremes of character, event and environment. These are often visible through utopian or dystopian tropes in costume, architecture and design. At one end of the spectrum, we have seamless computer interactions, bright spacious architecture and glossy white surfaces. At the other, we have the dustbowl, the hacker slums and the gritty laboratory in the sewer.

These two categories are useful for building entertaining narrative structure, but the future probably won't be either of these things... at least not entirely. It'll be somewhere disappointingly middling: a partly broken space.

We often assume that the world of today would stun a visitor from fifty years ago. In truth, for every miraculous iPad there are countless partly broken realities: WiFi passwords, connectivity, battery life, privacy and compatibility amongst others. The real skill of creating a compelling and engaging view of the future lies not in designing the gloss, but in seeing beyond the gloss to the truths behind it. As Frederik Pohl famously said, "a good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam."

There are good examples in cinema, notably the cereal box from which John Anderton eats in Minority Report. As he puts it down, the singing cartoon on the front refuses to stop. He tries again but the animation continues, eventually leading him to throw the box across the room in frustration.

In the future, things will fail, but for the vast majority of the world this failure won't be 'the rocket is gonna crash into the planet,' but 'I can't get the audio to work on Skype.' The future will include taxes, illness, weather, transport delays and allergies. Things will break, things will fail to perform as promised, things will need fixing. Rendering the future as a partly broken space gives an audience something to hold onto, something relatable.

In parallel, we should consider how quickly our 'amazing new innovation' will become a normalized. Once technology finds it's way into mass communities it ceases to amaze, ceases to be seen as technology at all, it becomes a regular part of the tapestry of life. In truth, our most common reaction to technology is to focus on its failures, the frustrations, what it can't do or what we'd prefer it to do. Showing people smiling at their device as it reminds them about the arrival of their taxi is disingenuous. By isolating, understanding and portraying a partly broken space we are on the way to creating a more credible future.

Towards The Future Mundane

As part of a workshop I ran with Julian Bleecker at the Emerge conference in Arizona last year, we worked with a group of students to write, cast and shoot a short movie set in a mundane future. For us, the most logical place for this to take place was the liquor store, a place filled to the brim with technology once deemed incredible but now so fully absorbed into society that it becomes almost invisible. The ability to make fire instantly, digital time on your wrist, instant headache remedies, disposable writing tools, chemical power... all for under a dollar. This, to us, says much more about the future of design than any glossy proto-futuristic movie ever could. The movie was fun and challenging to produce (the whole project took just two days), but points at a future which we rarely see embraced in our industry. More recently, Nicolas Nova and his team of students created a series of short films based around curious rituals, those digitally generated behaviors which come hand in hand with emerging technology. The 'Gerardo' segment is particularly pertinent to our discussion.

Let's be clear, this is not necessarily a new concept. There are many science fiction movies, or at least moments within them, which embrace a mundane approach. The British TV miniseries "Black Mirror" contains some excellent moments of The Future Mundane. Whilst the series as a whole is designed as satire, often stepping into cautionary dystopian territory, there are some moments of genuine beauty, particularly in the episodes 'Be Right Back' and 'The Entire History of You.' The new Spike Jonze movie Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix, feels like it could be right on the button, not really feeling like a science fiction movie at all, concentrating more on the relationship between people and technology (literally).

In closing, I'll address a couple of key counter arguments which may have been raised in this piece:

Counter one: What about visionary projects which act as a north star, an unattainable but exciting future?

Everyone has a different approach to their design work, and their process varies accordingly. Certain designers produce concepts and future visions that are deliberately unattainable, but give a strong thematic direction to their work. This is fine, and can be a useful tool as long as the audience is prepared to embrace it as such. If we start to view our dreams as reality, we may be doing little more than feeding the Walter Mitty within. Which is not to say the two approaches are mutually exclusive; one can sit within the other. Elon Musk, the Bay area's very own Tony Stark, recently released his vision for the Hyperloop, a 760mph passenger device which purports to move people from LA to San Francisco in 35 minutes. Whilst most people see the concept as difficult to the point of impossibility, what made it so compelling was not the sexy renders of passenger compartments and vehicle designs but the 57-page PDF that went with it. The document doesn't make it any more achievable, but by embracing of the mundane practicalities of such a project, Musk was able to make it more believable. The Future Mundane doesn't seek to curtail dreams, just to ensure that dreams are rendered as vividly as possible.

Counter two: By assuming that the future will proceed as today, we won't embrace anything out of the ordinary.

Big things happen in the world. There are energy concerns, world wars, population problems, famines, information explosions and many more huge events peppering the history of mankind, but let's not fall into the trap of rendering extremes. Let's remember that against a backdrop of any future world shift, there will still be the common cold, there will still be breakfast, there will still be sport, there will still be work, there will still be almost every aspect of human life visible in some form. It may be strained or broken, but by approaching these mundane facets of life, we may actually be better prepared to tackle the larger issues.

In parallel, and on a more cautionary note, we should be wary of the tendency to assume that the future will be in some way better than today. Whilst many aspects of life are considerably improved from even forty years ago, it could be argued that other areas of life are significantly worse. The design industry has been creating utopian visions for over a hundred years, and it's clearly not working out. Maybe we should give it a rest, or at least come to accept that utopias are unachievable in every respect, a literal 'no place.'

Counter three: Not all design needs to so pragmatic.

I agree. Design tools can be used to develop not just products, but thinking. In this case design can indeed indulge in fantasy and storytelling, but it must be understood as such. Design has a very powerful role in creating stories from the future, not with the intent to produce artifacts but to act as a driver for critical discourse, conversation or thought. Just make sure this is clear beforehand.

The Future Mundane is not a manifesto nor a dogma: It is intended as an approach to help expand our notion of design for the future. As designers, we have a huge opportunity to play with time, technology and people. In designing the future, we are able to play with ideas and dreams in a way that very few people are able. For every fantasy fiction piece of design, I would love to see a counter concept. A concept for the everyman; a concept that knows what might not work and what might break; a concept that delivers amazing future technology whilst comfortably sitting atop a Victorian chest of drawers.

That'd be compelling. I'd watch that.

Redistillation

(First published on Core77)

I spent the first 36 years of my life living in the UK, more than half of which was spent in and around London. As such, I have a deep personal affinity to Gin, that wonderful, complex, delicious spirit made famous by the Dutch and infamous by Hogarth. Gin has recently enjoyed a significant resurgence in popularity, gradually extricating itself from the caustic syrups of the 70s and into the most sophisticated concoctions of mixologists worldwide.

There are numerous reasons why I like gin. It's incredibly versatile, and can be drunk in many forms: with a mixer such as tonic or soda, as a base for classic or contemporary cocktails such as negronis, martinis or gimlets, or even neat (try a glass of Old Tom over ice next time the nights draw longer). Primarily though, gin's allure lies in the glorious, deep variety of tastes. From the driest of London gins to the complex, tea-like Golden Moon, there really is nothing like it. I think gin should be regarded by the same sommelier standards as wines and whisky. It's on it's way, but it still has some distance to go.

So by now you should be wondering what this has to do with Industrial Design. It's an analogy that I've been mulling over for some time and it has to do with the ways in which we approach the creation of contemporary objects. Let me explain by way of vodka.

Vodka is made by pot-distilling a fermented grain mash from barley—though the process itself simply needs a starch, so potatoes, beets, etc., can be substituted—which is then filtered through charcoal and bottled. Throughout the process, the distiller aims to create the purest possible alcohol, removing any impurities, coloration or taste. Vodka is simply ethanol, and whilst it has its purpose, it significantly misses the mark in elegance or taste. Gin, however, undergoes another transformative process. Once the pure liquor is extracted, the master distiller adds a finely balanced recipe of extra ingredients. Typically this starts with juniper berries (which are not actually berries), and is followed by seeds, citrus rinds, fragrant barks, spices, wildflower blossoms and other botanicals. These extra ingredients are added to the ethanol and then redistilled a second time. The resulting mixture is a delicate, fragrant, wonderful liquid, with all the elegant balance of a fine perfume: Gin.

So, back to design...

Over the last decade or so, there has been a trend within industrial design to refine and reduce, borne from classic minimalist dogma trodden by Dieter Rams and redelivered by Ive. We have become attuned to reduction as a means of progress in our art. Everything is removed, streamlined and simplified to create an object pure in essence and interaction. We cherish such objects and marvel at their purity, but all too often they lack heart. They seem empty, perfunctory, cold. They are vodka.

By simply following a path of endless reduction we distill out every impurity, we filter every trace of individuality, every element that deviates from the drive towards that (false) grail: a simple singular expression of form and interaction. Whilst the technical prowess needed to achieve such simplicity is significant and admirable, I am often struck by just how dull the results can be.

By designing in a reductive manner, I believe there is often a necessity for a subsequent distillation process. Once the primary design cycle is complete, and prototypes begin arriving, it's vitally important to revisit the entire experience, to zoom out and re-examine what has been achieved. Following this examination we then have an opportunity to add our 'botanicals' to improve the stark proposition before us, then redistill the object for a second time.

I admit this is a strange and counterintuitive twist in the design process. It is preferable to define the entire object and experience at the outset, rather than add time, complexity and headaches later, but in my experience it's only when design work approaches a nadir of completion that the need for these 'botanicals' becomes evident. When presented with a 'nearly complete' object we should allow time for more complex thought patterns to emerge. These can be simple things: little changes or additions to software, hardware or tone, but they are vitally important to create depth in the final offering. In short, we turn vodka into gin, which results in a more rounded, elegant and satisfying experience.

The Perfect Negroni:

- Take one measure of Cocchi Vermouth, one measure of Campari and one measure of Dry Gin (try Leopolds or Sipsmiths).

- Pour over ice in a mixing glass.

- Stir for a moment.

- Take an Old Fashioned glass and strain the cocktail over a single large ice cube.

- Garnish with a slice of orange zest.

- Turn off the TV.

Weldtype

Whenever exploring a city, you’ll hear locals and guides encouraging you to ‘look up’. I’d argue that you learn an equal amount about a city from looking down. You see discarded litter, infrastructural markings on the tarmac, bus tickets and graffiti. You see past the towering monuments of man’s achievement and see the everyday remnants of regular life. I wrote a while ago about the curious multicolored dots beside San Francisco’s drains and I recently completed another short project in a similar vein. All across the Bay Areas are holes in the ground, some permanent, some temporary, each covered by a sheet of metal. Whilst there exists a small cadre of manhole afficionados they become almost invisible by their regularity. A closer look reveals that each of these metal coverings carries data, be it the company who owns the infrastructure below, the type of service, or the owner/manufacturer of the plate itself. Often this information is cast directly into the plate during manufacture, but from time to time this information is handwritten. Upon installation, a piece of text is added to the plate via a welding torch, leaving a permanent metal version of the creator’s handwriting. This tickles me for many reasons, but perhaps mostly as it’s a great example of finding humans. Many of the characters are wonky and malformed, perhaps evidence of a lack of care, or the difficulty I imagine comes with writing with a welding torch. Nearly all of the type is capitalized, but every now and then you will see a piece of cursive handwriting, which is lovely. A few covers around the city also seem to have been signed, although I could be wrong.

I began photographing these frozen characters about two years ago but recently accelerated the project (on account of the vlog). On Saturday I finally completed a full alphabet (I found a ‘B’, thank you Pac Bell) and I’ve gone through the somewhat awkward and painstaking process of creating a font. It’s far from usable, and definitely not pretty, but it’s crowdsourced, and that makes it modern. You can download the font here: WELDTYPE

If anyone has the required skills and inclination, it would be nice to cast around these welded letters in-situ and make printing blocks from them… maybe?

Peripheral ethnographies

(A follow-up to this blogpost, quick notes without the necessary academic framing, for the sake of putting this on the table)

Recently, in different contexts, I've been asked (both by researchers and students) about "my approach" in field research... which feels slightly weird because I wasn't sure I had a definite one. However, given recent projects with the Laboratory, as well as workshops in design schools and talks here and there, it seems there's a common way of doing things. I called it "peripheral ethnography" (or "ethnographie périphérique" in my language) because of my interest in marginal practices, peculiar behaviors, curious rituals, odd appropriation/repurposing of technologies, little things that people talk less about, situations in which technical objects age, things that do not fit, intriguing artifacts ("intriguing to whom?" one might say). All of those could be seen as what futures researchers call weak signals, and that designers might cherish in order to give direction to their work.

The term "peripheral" is relevant here because it means both "relating to or situated on the edge or periphery of something" and "of secondary or minor importance"... which is close to what French sociologist-turned-writer George Perec described as observing what is often overlooked (in "Species of space" back in 1974), what he referred to as the "infra-ordinary".

By saying that I'm interested in peripheral ethnographies, it means that my focus – on any topics I'm looking into – at these little details that seem avoided, weird or overlooked at first glance... as a complement to the diversity of practices (in a very Mauss-ian way). The hypothesis here being that addressing practices and things which be relatively peripheral (and discussing this aspect with informants), and contrasting this to more standard observations, helps to understand cultures "en devenir" (and eventually craft design fiction work).

(to be continued)

Documenting the State of Contemporary Technology

Or how the observations of mundane technological glitches and frictions offer a complementary form of inspiration to the multitude of glamorous utopian design visions.

At the Near Future Laboratory we are fascinated by the co-evolution of humans and technology, how technology is changing and how it is changing people. Practically, this means we constantly observe this interplay, and we love to question, design and create the future of this relationship. We are persistent stalkers of the partially broken, the tinkered, the seamful, the annoying, the absurd and any other awkward ways technologies surfaces in our modern lives. These observations offer us a complementary form of inspiration to the multitude of glamorous utopian design visions.

TV Control instruction for my fictional AirBnb guests. Courtesy of Nick Foster.
TV Control instruction for my fictional AirBnb guests. Courtesy of Nick Foster. #TUXSAX

In a recent project in the form of the fanzine TUXSAX: the user experience will be as shitty as expected we highlight that perfection, prediction and seamlessness are biased goals for the design of future technologies. They describe an ultimately unattainable and arguably undesirable world.

Our observations are not meant to accuse or mock the institutions or people that are behind all the little digital glitches and frictions that all connected humans must deal with in their daily life. Rather they act as documentation of the state of contemporary technology, how we as a society experience a constantly postponed future, how the promises of tech giants are never really met and more importantly how people deal with the implications: cleaning memories from a bulging cloud storage service, finding out that your USB cable was planned for obsolescence, entering a 16 characters password handwritten on a small piece of paper to access the hotel WiFi, mastering a living room system with 5 different remote controls…

Image courtesy of Nick Foster.
Image courtesy of Nick Foster. #TUXSAX

This work echoes with Sliding Friction: The Harmonious Jungle of Contemporary Cities a pamphlet that assembles photos and annotations we took here and there along our dérive through the many cities we lived in and visited. Published 8 years ago but still very contemporary, Sliding Friction was an attempt to showcase the curious aspects of contemporary urban spaces and question the visions of the ‘smart city’. Through 15 topics and 4 themes we focused our lenses on the sparkles generated by the many frictions between ideas, practices and infrastructures that populate cities.

sliding-friction

Both TUXSAX and Sliding Frictions, are invitations to engage with the knotty, gnarled edges of technology that say ‘there is humanity here’. We aim to provide some raw food for thoughts to consider the mundane frictions between people and technologies. Do we want to mitigate, or even eliminate these frictions? Or as Julian argues in the postface of Sliding Friction:

sliding_friction36

Friction is a force exhibited at the point of contact between two objects. As a metaphor, friction is a powerful image describing where life happens. The effect of contact between ideas, practices, infrastructures is seen at the points where that contact squeaks and groans or throws sparks. We operate from the perspective that friction is something that should be mitigated, even eliminated. But friction is absolutely necessary, especially even as a metaphor. Without friction, our shoes would not allow us to walk. Without friction, airplanes and birds would drop from the sky. Without accepting friction and its effects as necessary, we would be fooling ourselves into thinking perfection were the ideal.

Our aspirations should be to embrace the humanity that is imperfection — the humanity that friction echoes. Whether in the imperfection of broken and exposed wires that suggest net- works of communication, the faulty and imperfect WiFi zones that require a very human kind of improvisation or the rewriting of infrastructures with human faces, friction effects are an enduring mark of human and individual action, rather than systemic, technocratic and faceless agency.

Friction is the sinews of the world as we know it. It holds things together even in its messiness. Friction is the rough edge of planned social space and the mark of social activity — it is part of the lived social world where humans live, play, argue and pay taxes. Improvised trash bins in hollow tree stumps, and service personnel trying their best to keep street surfaces clean are evidence of these rough edges. Friction is part of the “real world” — the world of individual action resisting seamless, smooth perfection to inscribe the presence of its occupants. Perfect, planned, frictionless operation is a faulty perception that some hold as the goal for the future city. In my mind, it describes an ultimately unattainable world. I’d much rather see the knotty, gnarled edges as exhibitions that say “there is humanity here.”

Mobile Ordinary Gestures

As I explained few months ago, I'm working on a follow-up to the "Curious Rituals" project. The project focuses on an anthropological perspective on smartphone usage. It's basically a visual ethnography approach and I recently collaborated with Constance Delamadeleine (from Geneva-base design studio Future Neue) to publish this Print-On-demand booklet that describes a typology of gestures and postures adopted when using smartphones. It can be seen as an intermediary steps between the field research and the writing/crafting of a much more text-based documents... which I'm working on currently.

The book can be found at the following URL.

On weird ethnographies

Thinking about my way to approach field research/ethnography, I've re-read today three intriguing excerpts of articles that I find interesting.

The first one is from "The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory" by Norman M. Klein (1997, Verso Books), who I met few years ago when I stayed art Art Center in Pasadena:

"In many ways, the materials I have assembled look like research gathered by a novelist before the novel is written, before the writer turns the contradictions into a character-driven story. Like blending notes with a diary, I plan to leave the chronicle often, to break off into essays on the social history of media, and of Los Angeles. (...) my primary sources are urban planning reports, local interviews, the detritus of neighborhood conversations, urban legends, movie locations, and so on. Primary or otherwise, sources of this type, even when they look more empirical inside scholarly articles, are unstable and fundamentally fictional. Therefore, to be honest, the text I produce must be partly autobiographical. What else can a history of collective memory be but a rigorous diary about unreliable documents? The documents are a mix of history, fiction and urban anthropology: more a form of historicized ethnography, always cooked, certainly never raw." (p.7-8)

The quote describes Klein's modus operandi for his book about the process of memory erasure in the city of Los Angeles: the accumulation/production of material which is then turned into his "docufables". I'm less intrigued here by the semi-fictional character of the book, and instead, it's the fragmentary nature of the documentation that caught my attention. Also, his selective focus on weird insights is interesting... which leads me to the second article. It's from "Toward a Conception Of 'Gonzo' Ethnography" by E. M. I. Sefcovic (1995):

"Gonzo ethnography rejects the notion of any privileged vantage point for observation, insists on recognition of the participatory dimension of the researcher’s role, and urges experiments with research methods and reporting practices that can liberate and empower general audiences."

Sefcovic's article is mostly focused on a rejection of positivism, the need to involve oneself in the action to such a degree that they become central figures of their stories, and to bring a critical stance.. However, I do think there's another aspect of gonzo "approach" that could be relevant too: it's the tendency Hunter Thompson had to pick stories/anecdotes/factoids/stuff which are mostly peripheral to the subject he was supposed to cover as a journalist. I find that aspect important in my work, i.e. the need to consider things out of my perspective. This is close to what Justin Pickard included in his "Gonzo Futurist" manifesto:

"the observation stage of this operational loop looks like some vernacular, ad-hoc ethnography. This kind of observation is shorthand for all kinds of evidence-gathering, so read widely, take photos, and ask questions. Probe. Keep records. If something seems incongruous, it’s probably important. When it comes to observation, your nemesis is the filter bubble — an echo chamber forged by Google and Facebook; a ‘unique universe of information for each of us … which fundamentally alters the way we encounter ideas and information’ (Pariser, 2011: 9) It may be comfortable in the bubble, but ‘there’s less room for the chance encounters that bring insight and learning.’ (Ibid.: 15)"

One way to get out of the filter bubble IMO relies (for instance) on finding non-standards informants (such as non-users, extreme users, people involved in intriguing practices) or collecting weird material (documents, fictional elements that can describe the social imaginaire you're interested int, etc.). I call that "peripheral ethnography".

Weldtype

electricWhenever exploring a city, you’ll hear locals and guides encouraging you to ‘look up’. I’d argue that you learn an equal amount about a city from looking down. You see discarded litter, infrastructural markings on the tarmac, bus tickets and graffiti. You see past the towering monuments of man’s achievement and see the everyday remnants of regular life. I wrote a while ago about the curious multicolored dots beside San Francisco’s drains and I recently completed another short project in a similar vein. All across the Bay Areas are holes in the ground, some permanent, some temporary, each covered by a sheet of metal. Whilst there exists a small cadre of manhole afficionados they become almost invisible by their regularity. A closer look reveals that each of these metal coverings carries data, be it the company who owns the infrastructure below, the type of service, or the owner/manufacturer of the plate itself. Often this information is cast directly into the plate during manufacture, but from time to time this information is handwritten. Upon installation, a piece of text is added to the plate via a welding torch, leaving a permanent metal version of the creator’s handwriting. This tickles me for many reasons, but perhaps mostly as it’s a great example of finding humans – a small piece of human expression evidenced by a mass produced object. Many of the characters are wonky and malformed, perhaps evidence of a lack of care, or the difficulty I imagine comes with writing with a welding torch. Nearly all of the type is capitalized, but every now and then you will see a piece of cursive handwriting, which is lovely. A few covers around the city also seem to have been signed, although I could be wrong.

christy

I began photographing these frozen characters about two years ago but recently accelerated the project (on account of the vlog). On Saturday I finally completed a full alphabet (I found a ‘B’, thank you Pac Bell) and I’ve gone through the somewhat awkward and painstaking process of creating a font. It’s far from usable, and definitely not pretty, but it’s crowdsourced, and that makes it modern. You can download the font here: WELDTYPE

If anyone has the required skills and inclination, it would be nice to cast around these welded letters in-situ and make printing blocks from them… maybe?

Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 1.58.40 PM

IMG_0585 IMG_0586 IMG_20160323_124654 IMG_20160323_124702 IMG_20160323_124740 IMG_20160330_084648 IMG_0583 IMG_20160307_081559 electric christy