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"

Showing And Telling: Some Notes On Visualisation and Cognition

Saturday December 19, 12.58.43

Reality augmentation instruments, designed with more than a suggestion of the now-canonical handheld device footprint. These are practically those sort of *kids’ toy* editions of adult devices, you know? I’ve become recently consumed by what a reality augmentation device might be and, as pertains the topic herein, how changes in the way we see changes the way we think.

A few notes for the notebook on this essay Visualisation and Cognition by Bruno Latour. In it I found a few points relevant to this idea of *design fiction* — the imbrication of design, science fact and fiction to help imagine and materialize new kinds of near future worlds. The essay certainly isn’t about this directly, but there were some aspects of it that relate ideas to their materialization via visual techniques, specifically *immutable and mobile* visualizations — ways of making ideas travel from one place to another. Film is a means of mobilizing ideas, enrolling more and more allies through an immutable inscription.

Below are my own notes, mostly to myself. I am most interested in what might be extracted from this essay regarding the significance of *visual inscriptions* to change and innovation; and the relationship between *props and prototypes* — are they in a sense one and the same? If they are meant to stand in for *what could be?* This relates to Latour’s points indirectly — he emphasizes the capability of linear perspective and drawing because of their ability to capture an idea and move it from place to place in order to enroll allies and make things happen. It becomes possible to have an idea, render it and effectively bring people to where you have been, by bringing that place or that idea to them without them having to go through the trouble of making the journey on their own. Film, I *think*, can do the same thing and is perhaps the contemporary equivalent of the more historical points Latour makes. This might be a stretch, but drawing and film might be performing similar functions in this regard — allowing an idea to be rendered and to travel without too much hassle.

If I had to summarize the points here, I would draw from this moment in the film Jurassic Park where the high school science film *Mr. DNA* in which a complicated, technical process of extracting dinosaur DNA is explained in an entertaining narrative film. It is a complicated phenomena that is summarized in a compelling visual story. As a function in the film itself, this allows the audience to go on this journey that scientists (curiously, both in the film and external to it, because this hypothesis explicated in the high school science film is an active concept by *real* scientists) are making themselves. Once taken on this journey, the audience can at least temporarily comprehend the possibility that dinosaurs can exist today.

There are two points argued in Latour’s Visualisation and Cognition essay that are relevant for the work here in the Laboratory: the invention of mobile, immutable, presentable, legible objects and; creative visualization — not the data viz stuff that’s all the craze these days (although this is relevant), but new/evolved ways of describing and presenting, not just graphs and tables that visualize *complicated* or *hidden* phenomena that can now be rendered legible because masses of realtime data exist in public databases. But, what I mean more specifically is to leverage an old trick of optical consistency — making impossible places, impossible things realistic, or to make possible objects more probable than other possible objects.

1. The first point Latour makes is to emphasize the significance of writing and imaging craftsmanship in the work of what I will call — innovation. Rather than economic (materialist) or intellectual (mentalist) historical perspectives — the big, overarching views used to describe the specific characteristics of modern technoscientific cultures — the ability and deployment of descriptions and drawings is what allows ideas to evolve in a specific way which is this: not only does writing and imaging allow an idea to move from precisely that — an idea in someone’s head to more material form — it allows that idea to travel without changing; it becomes what Latour calls an “immutable mobile.” However clever or insightful one might be alone, the ability to “muster on the spot the largest number of well-aligned and faithful allies” is the way to win, for example, a confrontation, or to win a decision in one’s favor. (“We look at the way in which someone convinces someone else to take up a statement, to pass it along, to make it more of a fact, and to recognize the first author’s ownership and originality.” [p.5])

As simple (thankfully!) as drawing a map of an island and being able to bring it back to Versailles across a vast distance in order to enter it into the bureaucracies that will debate, decide and declare the best ways to sail to, or attack or colonize that island is far more significant than *only* being able to get to the island in the first place (via the commitment of capital to fund the journey, the ability to navigate via the stars, etc.). One must bring these two perspectives together. It is not enough to be able to do the extreme journey on its own if the extreme journey does not help mobilize and muster new resources.

“ is not perception which is at stake in this problem of visualization and cognition. New inscriptions, and new ways of perceiving them, are the result of something deeper. If you wish to go out of your way and come back heavily equipped so as to force others to go out of their ways, the main problem to solve is that of mobilization. You have to go and to come back with the “things” if your moves are not to be wasted. But the “things” you gathered and displaced have to be presentable all at once to those you want to convince and who did not go there. In sum, you have to invent objects which have the properties of being mobile but also immutable, presentable, readable and combinable with one another.”

So..there’s that. It’s not enough to be clever — one must also effectively communicate, in all sorts of ways, beyond only rhetoric.

2. The second relevant point for the Laboratory tails on to the first point: if we want to show possible near future worlds that might tend away from convention, or lean towards speculation we must do so simply, visually and with as effective a description (narrative) as possible. This is the reason why we’ve been very interested in the production of visual stories — not just the stories themselves, but the *how* of their making, specifically the creation of visual stories that may show things that cannot yet occur outside of a visual or written fiction. (c.f. The Reality Effect of Technoscience) Why is this significant? Why does *design fiction* — the imbrication of design, science, fact and fiction — need to show (in the plain sense — visualize, render, draw)? Because “[h]e who visualizes badly loses the encounter; his fact does not hold.” [p. 16-17]

In summary: some things are best shown in order to be thought-through. This is relevant to the point of designing with fiction because we are trying to obtain in a real, material way a near future world which needs a way to compellingly enroll *allies* — supporters, interests, the imagination of people — in order to bring this world into being. This won’t just happen “cause” an idea is a good one. It has to be made good through the enlistment of participants who can be taken on the journey to that near future and then come back with the commitment and belief in this near future.

Two further notes from the essay.

The first is a point that starts the essay out — Latour is looking for another set of characteristics particular to *scientific modernity* (which I rephrase as *technoscientific culture*) that is something other than materialist or “mentalist”. That is, characteristics that are not about the accumulation or attributes of capitalism or economic growth; and not about brains that have grown with the times to allow us to be smarter. (The reasons we make aliens with huge heads.) What he is looking for is a simpler, less controversial (and perhaps less racist) character of technoscientific culture. Rather than the unyielding accumulation of more machines, intellectual property, wealth and so on to support the creation of new technical objects — what is it that allows ideas to generate and propagate? In a word, he looks to drawing — the ability to capture an idea and then mobilize it immutably.

And this is the second point. Perspective drawing is particularly relevant, he argues convincingly. It’s simple — perhaps too simple a description for some people — but compelling. Once something like, for example, a map can be drawn that captures a place and that map can show a place from a vantage point that allows the vantage point to move without changing the place, because of the rules and techniques of linear perspective), one can *move that place, taking that map back to Versailles to show the traders and politicians and aristocracy and bankers — and then..* Similarly with drawing a mechanism for a machine or press or siege weapon, etc. The idea can travel, because the flatness of paper makes this possible, and it can travel without changing because of the techniques of linear perspective — even if you change a viewport, the *thing* does not mutate.

Simple, Not Grand. Perspective over Capitalism.

Latour looks for explanations as to the specific underpinnings of our technoscientific culture in this essay. He describes a rather useful alternative to the two most common and tiresome (because they are so common) descriptions of the origins and special characteristics of modern technoscientific culture: the materialist and the “mentalist”, as he refers to them. The alternatives have everything to do with being able to project in a simple way through *visualization*

“The two-dimensional character of inscriptions allow them to merge with geometry. As we saw for perspective, space on paper can be made continuous with three-dimensional space. The result is that we can work on paper with rulers and numbers, but still manipulate three-dimensional objects “out there”.”

Are we really a technoscientific culture because we have become smarter? Or richer in ideas, resources, capital — both financial and intellectual? Rather than the hackneyed descriptions that rely on either a materialists (it has to do with the availability of resources, the unyielding *push* of capitalism to create more, better, faster, smaller), or a “mentalist” (we got smarter and smarter with time, ideas and *innovations* stacking up on top of each other, increasing the *up and to the right* curve of *progress*), Latour starts by wishing to obey the principle of Occam’s razor:

Hypotheses about changes in the mind or human consciousness, in the structure of the brain, in social relations, in “mentalités”, or in the economic infrastructure which are posited to explain the emergence of science or its present achievements are simply to grandiose, not to say hagiographic in most cases and plainly racist in more than a few others. Occam’s razor should cut these explanations short…The idea that a more rational mind or a more constraining scientific method emerge from darkness and chaos is too complicated a hypothesis.

With this set up we are able to look more closely at the simple, less-grand, less dichotomous divides between what was and what follows. Rather than “great divides” between prescientific and scientific cultures that force binaries and strong asymmetries which are useful for children’s bedtime stories (good versus evil; then versus now; us versus the others) but of little use for understanding the evolution of innovation and change, we should find simpler, more subtle explanations that do not strain credibility for their overarching, impossibly broad perspectives that are simultaneously simple. Simple and overarching don’t go well together and do not hold things together very well. They move too far away from the hand, from what people do in the everyday. They do work well for historians and their stories, but not particularly well for the work of craftsmen doing what they do.

Why is this a difficult point to start from? Why are “grand narratives” of innovation and evolution difficult to give up? Is history really a sequence of *disruptions* that suddenly appear from nearly nowhere? As Latour says, “The differences in the effects of science and technology are so enormous that it seems absurd not to look for enormous causes.”

How do you maintain an adequate description of the *scale* of effects but without explaining it through similarly scaled explanations like the history of human consciousness, the development of reason, unyielding accumulation and creation of capital of all sorts? What we want to do is avoid these usual explanations in order to describe innovation in a more empirically precise way, one that does not ignore the practice and craftsmanship of knowing, one that pushes aside omniscient economic and intellectual histories.

Inscriptions Mobilize Immutably

The mobilization of many resources through space and time is essential for domination on a grand scale. Latour proposes “immutable mobiles” as those objects that allow this mobilization to happen and that the best of these had to do with written, numbered or optically consistent paper surfaces(!).

1. Inscriptions are mobile. Things can’t move to other places, but *inscriptions* can.

2. They are immutable when they do move, as much as practical. Perspective enforces this. “..specimens are chloroformed, microbial colonies are stuck into gelatine, even exploding stars are kept on graph papers..”

3. Inscriptions are made flat, two-dimensional. “In politics as in science, when someone is said to master a question or to dominate a subject, you should normally look for the flat surface that enables mastery (a map, a list, a file, a census, the wall of a gallery, a card-index, a repertory) and you will find it.”

4. The scale of inscriptions can be modified. From billions of galaxies in a photograph, scale models of oil refineries the same size as a plastic model of an atom.

5. Inscriptions can be reproduced and spread.

6. Inscriptions can be reshuffled and recombined. (Metaphor and metonymy.)

7. Inscriptions can be superimposed as a result of their ability to be recombined/shuffled.

8. Inscriptions can be made part of a written text. (Captures from instruments merge with published texts; a present day laboratory is the unique place where the text is made to comment on the things which are already present within it. It is not simply “illustrated”, it carries all there is to see in what it writes about. Through the laboratory, the text and the spectacle of the world end up having the same character.)

9. The two-dimensional character of inscriptions allow them to merge with geometry. Space on paper can be made continuous with three-dimensional space.

The summary conclusion here is that writing and inscriptions are crucial characteristics of the technoscientific modernity — these are deceptively simple characteristics and not as grand as the creation of trade, or the invention of fungible currencies, or the invention of the telescope or perspective or a particular war or even the printing press. It is these things, certainly — but together with this ability to describe and to draw and to do so in a way that is mobile and immutable — that can travel back. You can go to the far reaches of the world or the imagination and then come back to show what you mean. And, the simpler, the better. No grand, esoteric explanations.

Why do I blog this?I like this perspective of coming back to simple explanations of things. It seems that complexity or quantity often rule in situations. More words; more data; more user study data; more pages in the PowerPoint. More and more stuff to hide behind before making a decision…and so on. I’ve been more intrigued by the power of a compelling visual description, even for awkwardly speculative perspectives or propositions. This is very similar in my mind to these moments in the design fiction idiom, especially the moment in science fiction films (which may as well be journey’s to other possible worlds) where something fantastical is revealed and the *how* is brought back to us as viewers to allow us to enjoy the film without questioning the *science* that belongs properly to the fiction.
Continue reading Showing And Telling: Some Notes On Visualisation and Cognition

Thickly Imbricated

Knot Thatch Structure

I just finished Richard Powers’ intriguing industrial historical novel Gain, which was brought to my attention by a couple of passages in Bruno Latour’s Reassembling the Social, which was brought to my attention by..&c.

One of the passages in the Latour is a sidebar in which he deploys an extended quotation from Powers in order to capture the multivalent prismatic network of associations that invigorate what a corporation is. There are no singular definitions — there are associations of the firm from a legal perspective, from the perspective of the guy working on a loading dock, from the point of view of shareholders who own lots of a company, and those who only own enough to have a modest retirement (they hope), from the perspective of environmental activists, from a historical point of view in the sense of corporate history, or a historical point of view from the perspective of labor history — and so on. The multivalent identity of a corporation is a complex thing, and even more complex to represent.

In this quotation, Powers’ captures the complexity of the corporation in a wonderfully succinct fictional historical moment. We’re in the denouement of the novel. The Clare company has come from a rich history of family enterprise in the American colonial days to today. Starting as an intrepid candle making trio (two Claire brothers and an Irish widower who is a candle craftsman) to a multinational, multiproduct conglomerate. As the CEO prepares for an interview on public television about this storied company, he ponders a question the producer has asked him to consider, jotting notes on a legal pad.

To make a profit. To make a consistent profit. To make a profit in the long run. To make a living. To make things. To make things in the most economical way. To make things for the longest possible time. To make things that people need. To make things that people desire. To make people desire things. To give meaningful employment. To give reliable employment. To give people something to do. To do something. To provide the greatest food to the greatest number. To promote the general welfare. To provide for the common defense. To increase the value of the common stock. To pay a regular dividend. To maximize the net worth of the firm. To advance the lot of all the stakeholders. To grow. To progress. To expand. To increase knowhow. To increase revenues and to decrease costs. To get the job done more cheaply . To compete efficiently. To buy low and sell hight. To improve the hand that humankind has been dealt. To produce the next round of technological innovations. To rationalize nature. To improve the landscape. To shatter space and arrest time. To see what the human race can do. To amass the country’s retirement pension. To amass the capital required to do anything we want to do. To discover what we want to do. To vacate the premises before the sun dies out. To make life a little easier. To make people a little wealthier. To make people a little happier. To build a better tomorrow. To kick something back into the kitty. To facilitate the flow of capital. To preserve the corporation. To do business. To stay in business. To figure out the purpose of business.

Kennibar thinks of adding: “To beat death,” but he’s afraid he’ll forget what he meant when the cameras roll this afternoon.

Richard Powers. Gain: A Novel. p. 398

What is the relevance of this? In part, reflecting upon the capability of a good story teller to capture a richness that escapes even the most well-researched corporate histories. In this sense, the power and force of the well-written word resonates with the sensibilities of “design fiction” to convey an idea, a concept, a *new thing* or even an *old thing* in a more compelling way than wireframes and storyboards.

Latour makes this point in an earlier passage — the wonderful dialogue chapter between the student and his professor — when the persistently baffled and obstinate student fights the losing fight for *objectivity*, not realizing that this moves him so far away from his material, from his site of curiosity that he conveys nothing but clichés. And in part the dialogue encouraged me to find this book, Gain.

S: But certainly nothing is objectively beautiful — beauty has to be subjective…taste and color, relative…I am lost again. Why would we spend so much time in this school fighting objectivism then? What you say can’t be right.

P: Because the things people call ‘objective’ are most of the time the clichés of matters of fact. We don’t have a very good description of anything: of what a computer, a piece of software, a formal system, a theorem, a company, a market is. We know next to nothing of what this thing you’re studying, an organization, is. How would we be able to distinguish it from human emotions? So, there are two ways to criticize objectivity: one is by going away from the object to the subjective human viewpoint. But the other direction is the one I am talking about: back to the object. Positivists don’t own objectivity. A computer described by Alan Turing is quite a bit richer and more interesting than the ones described by Wired magazine, no? As we saw in class yesterday, a soap factory described by Richard Powers in Gain is much livelier than what you read in Harvard case studies. *The name of the game is to get back to empiricism.*

Why do I blog this? A question of the the how and why of conveying material and ideas and histories in a way that is both empirical and with the powerful disbelief-suspension mechanics of a good story. Using fiction to do the work of designing as well using fiction in the work of communicating design that moves away from silly knee-jerk assumptions about what is “good” or what will make a profit. What is conceptual and innovative beyond the borders of ho-hum least-common denominator kruft?
Continue reading Thickly Imbricated

Construction of Things


What was sticking in my mind, and has been recently, and especially after dinner conversation and the lecture which was on Design Fiction with an emphasis on the relationship between props, prototypes, and the normalization/everyday-making of provocative ideas.

A few notes on this point, as reading notes from Latour’s *Reassembling the Social*

Making normal and everyday serves a purpose, I am thinking, in design and in the communication of design ideas.

1. As to the point that it serves the purpose of design, I mean that it brings it into the realm of the familiar, putting something or an experience or a moment into the world and making the engagement *exist* as if it needs no explanation — it is here, and perhaps even it is the case that it is near-obsolete so we can tell a story about its entire life. We defetishize newness and glamour, retreating to the mode of familiar, reliable blandness, as most things go that have lived a full life in the world. If something has not become everyday, chinked on a corner, or experiencing a glitch, or booting a little slowly this time, or making an aged complaint, it has not had a good, long life in the world ((discounting a normative assessment as to what is *good*, or the point that perhaps “it” is new and just crappy and poorly made.)) Which basically suggests it was here for one failed Christmas push and then dropped off the edge of the Earth. Or has just become a cherished relic, or is simply old and worn, but still precious and useful.

2. In the communication, making something everyday is meant to suggest that it has become part of life — perhaps not everywhere, which is not always the goal, nor is ubiquity. But, ‘part of life’ suggests that it’s a good idea and the effect is to communicate as much as this — that it could have been here, around and with us. The communication normalizes the thing to the point of routine blandness. Whether this happens by association or more directly is significant. In the communication, don’t have people smiling with glee when operating/experiencing/discussing the thing, and don’t explain what is going on as if the communication is a features-and-functions list. Didactic and apologetic explanations are a poor substitute for a well-designed thing that expresses itself through a story or fits into everyday life without a list of “whys” or “whats.” Cinematically speaking — *show it, don’t tell it.* Let the communication describe if it needs to — but don’t explain. If you still need to explain something, you need to *explain* in the material — go back and iterate the design. The explanation should be the product of the design, not a way of substituting for an opaque object — the materialization of your ideas in the object/thing/service/widget should effervesce from the communication.

Dump of Crap

Once cool stuff

3. Rather than the design tactic of spectacle-making, what about making things normal so that designs move into their place in the world, perhaps even moved off to the utility drawer of the world to become either quaint or so routine and everyday that they are taken for granted. Like a AA battery. No one every made much of a spectacle of those things, except maybe Madison Avenue, once, together with a phalanx of Rabbit troubadours.

4. I am wondering about implementations and ideas that are two-way props/prototypes. A design tactic that is encouraged to go into the future by materializing new ‘near future worlds’ and then come back into the past, as in an archeological unearthing and investigation and un-constructing of what is around us today. On the one hand, forward-into-the-future design creating new worlds that are hopefully better than the ones we have today. On the other hand, taking what we have today and describing it in the way of sociology-of-associations, anthropology, science studies, &c. Dig something up that once existed and tell its story — or mis-tell it for the purpose of showing how a thing can be re-inscribed with unexpected contexts so as to remind us how significant the interaction and the experience is in making the object meaningful.

So..what? Why this strategy for design and communicating a speculation, or an idea, or something future-fictional?

**To help imagine what things will become and to defetishize the things that are normally elevated beyond themselves — like when new gadgets are oogled and ahhhhgle’d and beyond what they deserve because, ultimately, at some point, it all becomes crap that’s thrown out anyway. (The Near Future Laboratory Defetishization Bureau recently issued a Fatwah on all ‘unpacking’ blog posts and descriptions.)**

In plain English, to say something is constructed means it’s not a mystery that has popped out of nowhere, or that it has a more humble but also more visible and more interesting origin. Usually the great advantage of visiting construction sites is that they offer an ideal vantage point to witness the connections between humans and non-humans. Once visitors have their feet deep in the mud, they are easily struck by the spectacle of all the participants working hard at the time of their most radical metamorphosis. This is not only true of science but of all the other construction sites, the most obvious being those that are at the source of the metaphor, namely houses and buildings fabricated by architects, masons, city planners, real estate agents, and homeowners. The same is true of artistic practice. The ‘making of’ any enterprise — films, skyscrapers, facts, political meetings, initiation rituals, haute couture, cooking — offers a view that is sufficiently different from the official one. Not only does it lead you backstage and introduce you to the skills and knacks of practitioners, it also provides a rare glimpse of what it is for a thing to emerge out of inexistence by adding to any existing entity its time dimension. Even more important, when you are guided to any construction site you are experiencing the troubling and exhilarating feeling that things could be different, or at least that they could still fail — a feeling never so deep when faced with the final product, no matter how beautiful or impressive it may be.

Latour, Reassembling the Social [p88-89]

Also, consider failure and its opportunities. Cf. Nicolas Nova on failures. Failures are situations that reflect on the assembly of things — err – their disassembly or their accidental destruction in a perhaps inglorious fashion.

But still — why do we want to see the made-ness of things this way? Is there more to be seen below the surface that reveals..what? The possibility of reconnecting things in other ways? That reveals the contingency of the construction — who was involved? What they did? Where the principles and sensibilities and politics of the thing are? Why was this fastener chosen over another possible one? To make it more secure and stable? Or to make the BOM cheaper and more likely to fly apart when dropped? Can you point to a part and say something about the principles of the design?

One insight from Latour that reflects on the importance of revealing the in-progress, in-construction aspect of things — things disassembled, or in exploded-view. These sorts of indicators of construction, constitution, assembly suggest a made-thing — which we always know if pressed that everything must be. Showing the components in-assembly or in-explosion suggests to us that this could have been done differently.

Why is this important?

Momentary Visibility Ways of bringing the associations amongst things into view. “Social” is a fluid visible only when new associations are being made..a brief flash which may occur everywhere like a sudden change of phase.

Why make the social visible?

Develop and execute — is this the preferred pattern of constructing things? No? Rather, might a more considered approach that learns lessons all the way down be design as perpetual iteration?

A list of situations where an object’s activity is made easily visible

Fortunately, it is possible to multiply the occasions where this momentary visibility is enhanced enough to generate good accounts. Much of ANT scholars’ fieldwork has been devoted to trigger these occasions..

1. Study innovations in the artisan’s workshop, the engineer’s design department, the scientist’s laboratory, the marketer’s trial panels, the user’s home, and the many socio-technical controversies.

2. Second, even the most routine, traditional, and silent implements stop being taken for granted when they are approached by users rendered ignorant and clumsy by distance — distance in time as in archaeology, distance in space as in ethnology, distance in skills as in learning.

3. The third type of occasion is that offered by accidents, breakdowns, and strikes: all of a sudden, completely silent intermediaries become full-blown mediators, even objects, which a minute before appeared fully automatic, autonomous, and devoid of human agents, are now made of crowds of frantically moving humans with heavy equipment.

4. Fourth, when objects have receded into the background for good, it is always possible — but more difficult — to bring them back to light by using archives, documents, memoirs, museum collections, etc., to artificially produce, through historians’ accounts, *the state of crisis in which machines, devices, and implements were born.*

5. Finally, when everything else has failed, the resource of fiction can bring — the the use of counterfactual history, thought experiments, and ‘scientification’ — the solid objects of today into the fluid states were their connections with humans may make sense. Here again, sociologists have a lot to learn from artists.

Latour, Reassembling the Social [p.80-82]

What is relevant here – possible tactics for design, assuming something has been made, without making it, and back-tracing the ‘controversies’ of its assembly. Assume you have only fragments of ‘what the thing was’ or ‘what the thing will have been’ and unpack it as an investigator/sociologist-of-associations/anthropologist/archeologist-of-associations; track back through the associations and construct what it might have been.

However, we worry that by sticking to descriptions there may be something missing, since we have not ‘added to it’ something else that is often called an ‘explanation’. And yet the opposition between description and explanation is another of these false dichotomies that should be put to rest — especially when it is ‘social explanations’ that are to be wheeled out of their retirement home. Either the networks that make possible a state of affairs are fully deployed — and then adding an explanation will be superfluous — or we ‘add an explanation’ stating that some other actor or factor should be taken into account, so that it is the description that should be extended one step further. *If a description remains in need of an explanation, it means that it is a bad description.*…As soon as a site is placed ‘into a framework’, everything becomes rational much too fast and explanations beging to flow much too freely. The danger is all the greater because this is the moment most often chosen by critical sociology, always lurking in the background, to take over social explanations and replace the objects to be accounted for with irrelevant, all-purpose ‘social forces’ actors that are too dumb to see or can’t stand to be revealed. Much like ‘safe sex’, sticking to descriptions protects against the transmission of explanations.

Latour, Reassembling the Social [p. 137]

So..what? Why do I blog this?
Is there anything about the sociology-of-associations and Actor-Network Theory that can become a part of a design practice that does more than incremental innovation? Or, what does the sociology-of-associations and ANT have to say about design practice? Why might it? Because ANT concerns itself with the making of things — or, also, the un-making to implicate practice in the creation of stabilized systems. Here, at the Laboratory, we are makers of systems that stabilize and cannot see how it would not be beneficial to understand how these systems stabilize — or at least to have an articulate point of view on how an idea hatched in California plops off the end of an assembly line 15 times a minute, 11 months later, and then get buried in the ground 24 months after that. And, if you understand — or have one or two of many possible articulate points-of-view on this — you have a better grasp on how to do this better, or perhaps how to decide in particular situations how not to do this, or how to design differently so that we don’t drown in things coming off of assembly lines 15 times a minute..only to end up filling land 24 months after that.

Innovation and Design

Roberto Verganti’s Design-Driven Innovation, a business book on how “firm’s” can participate in larger networks of design discourse in order to achieve radically innovative stuff. Mostly an argument with a three-step “how-to” addressed chiefly to executives. An intriguing argument with a fistful of examples presented over and over to drive these points home. In the “good” column, I would say that it is not bad to have (another) book addressed to (potentially) skeptical executives who are more motivated by features and bottom line bill-of-materials/profit/margin sorts of things. On the “m’eh” column, I would say that the book, like most business books, simplifies the really curious, intriguing and fun challenges of leading an organization that has fiduciary and legal responsibilities to make as much money as it can; that has cultures that are led chiefly by engineering and accounting; that thinks design is putting lovely curves around rectangular circuit boards; &c; &c; It would be a much more interesting read to hear the knotty, thorny challenges of design-led innovation. Rather than the “pat” case studies, I would like to have more of a deep/thick investigation of what happens really when one leads with design. It’s more than partying with the well-known, hipster designers Verganti highlights.

I’m reading two books at once, a dangerous thing to do because one is always interpreted alongside the other, changing what it may have been and my perspective, necessarily. But, in hindsight I would say that I am doing this on purpose. One of the books is Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Clarendon Lectures in Management Studies) by Bruno Latour, which I am reading for the second time. The other book is Design Driven Innovation: Changing the Rules of Competition by Radically Innovating What Things Mean by Roberto Verganti, which I only bought because of the suggestive, business-y title and because business books are things I can make short work of during a 5 hour airplane flight. You know — they basically tell you everything you discover in the title, and then repeat it for no more than 200 or 250 pages, only with snap-to-grid, spic-and-span examples.

* Skip right on past my rambling to my executives’ summary *

What could be the relationship between a noted sociologist-of-associations and a tailored-suit-with-french-cuffs-wearing business professor / management consultant? Perhaps nothing useful. But, one of the roughly constructed graphics in Verganti’s book resonated with Latour’s notion of the collective — and it was even described as a drawing of “a collective research laboratory” — and being a good Latourian, I had to follow the links in my head. These are just some sticky-notes between these two books and my own interest in the role of design in changing things, as well as the ways that organizations can be led by design sensibilities or design studios, rather than engineering efforts and accounting principles. Both are things that are lurking below the surface of these two books, Verganti more explicitly than Latour.
Continue reading Innovation and Design

Gradually Undisciplined. Stories Not Titles.

Life: A Game. Played that evening in downtown Los Angeles.

Not directly in conversation, but in the topics that happen between people, especially when they share the same studio space (as well as the same city), Mr. Chipchase’s posting about his ACM CHI keynote had me dig this dispatch out of the “pending drafts” depot of the blog (where it’s been sitting since last year, pondering itself and fermenting..) Between re-re-reading Jan’s post, and being asked last weekend at a family gathering by a friend of the family who I had never met — what do you do? — and thence answering by getting another beer and telling a short story about a guy, justified in his over education, wearing a janitor’s shirt with his name and Near Future Laboratory emblazoned on the back, with a diploma signed by The Terminator an iPhone in his pocket and a paycheck from Nokia, etc. — I thought it was time to ask myself again — what have I become?. Perhaps the sort like Jan, myself and the countless others who operate in between things, the question is better put in the more ontological tense — what am I always becoming?. The answers for me are always the stories, not (job) titles.

Crossing into a new practice idiom, especially if it offers the chance to feel the process of learning, is a crucial path toward undisciplinarity. The chance to become part of a practice — with all of its history, ideology, languages, norms and values, personalities, conferences — is an invigorating process. Embodying multiple practices simultaneously is the scaffolding of creativity and innovating, in my mind. It is what allows one to think beyond the confines of strict disciplinary approaches to creating new forms of culture — whether objects, ideas or ways of seeing the world.

I’ve been an engineer, working on the Motorola 88000 RISC processor at Data General back in the day. I studied how to think about the “human factor” as an engineering problem while I was working at the Human Interface Technology Lab at the University of Washington where I got my MSEng. The human factor has a less instrumental side, I discovered — it’s not just median heights and inter-ocular distances. So, I went to study culture theory and history of ideas at UC Santa Cruz where I got my Ph.D. I wanted to understand how people make meaning of the (technology-infused) world around them. Shortly after that, and quite accidentally, I entered the art-technology world when I recognized that I could do a form of “research” that was simultaneously technical and cultural. Four years in academia on the other side of the lectern provided a useful opportunity to try a different way of circulating knowledge, and a different set of constraints on what can and cannot be done in the area of practice-as-theory.

Upcycling materials in a street trade cobbler, Chinatown, New York City.

These disparate practices actually have a satisfying arc, in my opinion. It’s a combination of instrumental and practical skill, together with a sense of the meaning-making, theory and aesthetic possibilities of mostly technical and engineered objects.

Objects, I have learned, are expressive bits of culture. They make meaning, help us understand and make sense of the world. They are knowledge-making, epistemological functionaries. They frame conversations and are also expressions of possibility and aspiration. In many ways, they are some of the weightiest and expressive forms of culture we have. Being able to make objects and understand them as expressive, as able to tell or start or frame larger conversations and stories about the world is very satisfying.

Objects express the cultural, aesthetic, practical knowledge of their making — in their “design”, and in their crafting as “art”, or also in their “engineering.”

This is not a revelation for most of you, of course. For me, though, it has been a revelation to understand this kind of statement from the perspectives of multiple practices or disciplines.

Objects and culture are reciprocally embodied, certainly. But what object? And what culture? Certainly not one solidified, rock-solid meaningful object. If I take a phone (there are lots around me nowadays) and try to understand it, it matters from what “culture” (or discipline, or community-of-practice) I study it. At the same time, making an object, and how it is made, and what it will mean, and when I will know it is finished — all of these things depend on what culture or practice or body of knowledge from which you choose to look at it.

Put an engineer, a model-maker, an industrial designer, a marketing guy all around a table, staring at a phone. What will they see? Where will they agree on what they see and where will they look blankly and wonder — what is that guy talking about? How much time is spent — minutes? months? — negotiating what is seen?

What practices fit in the middle? Is that inter-disciplines? And what practices run across many? Is that multi-discplines? Do trans-disciplines work above and beyond? What about undisciplinary? What way of seeing that object will make it into something new and unheard of? What way of seeing will materialize new objects, innovative ideas and conversations that create new playful, more habitable near future worlds? (And not just smart refrigerators and clothes hangers that automatically dry clean your shirts, or whatever.)

What are your stories?

Continue reading Gradually Undisciplined. Stories Not Titles.

A Manifesto for Networked Objects — Cohabiting with Pigeons, Arphids and Aibos in the Internet of Things

One of my pieces of “output” from the workshop on Blogjects/Networked Things that Nicolas and I put together is the document contained herein. (BTW, we’re very close to having our more formal workshop “write-up” completed.) It started out as some scribblings on what I learned from the workshop, seeing the groups’ projects, and so forth. It then grew into more of a polemic as I recognized what were some consequential stakes — why things would matter, or help, if Things were networked? Why would I want a world such as that? And how would I design interactions for such a world?

I didn’t want to lay low and play the engineer who might just geek out on the technology behind networked Things (I do.) I didn’t want to lay low and play the social scientists and just geek out on theorizing or studying how engineers make and how social beings interact in a world of networked Things (I do that, too). I wanted to start by creating a near-future kind of technology fiction about one particular set of design goals for a world in which networks pervades space and social practice and in which networks are co-occupied by slightly differentiated social beings — us and Things.

What would I want from such a pervasively networked world? A better bead on what the state of that world is that is impactful. Hence, my stumbling about trying to describe a world of networked Things that aren’t only around to help track packages, but are around to help create a world-wide accessible register of various real-time “feeds” of macro and micro states of the social and ecological environment.

This is not complete and the translation of my ideas to a progression of articulate words sometimes feels like someone who slips on the ice for about 20 minutes and refuses to give up the struggle and just fall down to save themselves the mounting embarassment.

Why Things Matter or A Manifesto for Networked Objects — Cohabiting with Pigeons, Arphids and Aibos in the Internet of Things

Abstract: The Internet of Things has evolved into a nascent conceptual framework for understanding how physical objects, once networked and imbued with informatic capabilities, will occupy space and occupy themselves in a world in which things were once quite passive. This paper describes the Internet of Things as more than a world of RFID tags and networked sensors. Once “Things” are connected to the Internet, they can only but become enrolled as active, worldly participants by knitting together, facilitating and contributing to networks of social exchange and discourse, and rearranging the rules of occupancy and patterns of mobility within the physical world. “Things” in the pervasive Internet, will become first-class citizens with which we will interact and communicate. Things will have to be taken into account as they assume the role of socially relevant actors and strong-willed agents that create social capital and reconfigure the ways in which we live within and move about physical space.
To distinguish the instrumental character of “things” connected to the Internet from “things” participating within the Internet of social networks, I use the neologism “Blogject” — ‘objects that blog.’

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