We made a newspaper through our friends at RIG‘s lovely Newspaper Club service. We — myself, Nick Foster, Nicolas Nova and Rhys Newman — collaborated on this. (Rhys did the lovely drawings, by the way.)

We printed a hundred or so. They’re real physical things of course. But you can also download a PDF of Convenience.

The newspaper is called Convenience and it’s based on the hypothesis that all great innovations and inventions find their way into the Corner Convenience store. Take for example, the nine we selected to feature in the newspaper, amongst a couple dozen:

AA Battery (Power)
BiC Cristal Pen (Writing)
Eveready LED Flashlight (Light..and laser light!)
Durex Condom (Prophylactic)
Reading Spectacles
Map (Cartography/way-finding)
BiC Lighter (Fire)
Disposable Camera (Memory)
Wristwatch (Time)

It’s a hypothesis designed to provoke consideration as to the trajectory of ideas from mind-bogglingly fascinating and world-changing when they first appear to numbingly routine and even dull by the time they commodify, optimize and efficient-ize By then, they become so mundane, quotidian and routine that the only way to enliven them is to offer sales discounts (3 for 99¢), packaging copy eye candy (New! Comes with batteries!), color variants, add a few new bells and whistles (Copper Top! Sensually Lubricated!, all done in remarkably infinite variety and a good dose of insight on human impulse and psychology by our friends downstairs in brand marketing.

In the paper, each of our nine items gets a bit of a mini dossier. Where, when, how, how long, by whom? And we have an op-ed section. The over-arching implications here are to consider that great things need not be whiz-bang, flash-bang Military robots+monkeys sorts of things. Or even sleek screen-y things. Innovation can happen in the decidedly less celebrated, less red carpeted approach of just making little things much better and settling for small, deeply impactful implications.

In the paper we also have a center piece that reminds us of the role the Corner Convenience has played in the modern cultural barometer of popular cinema. We did that center section because much of out thinking centered around the quotidian character of the Corner Convenience as represented in film. But also — @fosta and I now here at Emerge 2012 at the Arizona State University in Tempe Arizona (following along at #emerge2012asu) to conduct a Design Fiction workshop.

Our locus of interest? The Corner Convenience of the near future, of course! We are asking ourselves through filmmaking — what will be in the Corner Convenience in a four or five years time? We want to make our own little films to exhibit those things using the styles and genre conventions of Design Fiction.

Corner Convenience

This is where we are, at the counter of your local convenience store — the corner bodega, kiosk, liquor store, small grocer. We could be at the independent certainly. Increasingly we’d find ourselves at any of a number of global chain stores — 7-Eleven, Express Mart, AMPM, A-Z Mart, Get Go, Get n Go, Stop’n’Go, QuickCheck, QuikStop, Kwik Shop, One Stop, Store 24, 7/24, Ministop, R-kioski, Circle K, Kroger, Wawa, Relay, Żabka, Lawson, All Days, In & Out, Convenio, Everyday, Spar.

Just call it Corner Convenience.

Let’s ask ourselves — what makes these stores convenient? It didn’t take long to get here so we’d have to say that location for most of us would be synonymous with convenience.

Next might be the hours the Corner Convenience keeps. This measure of convenience often appears as a kind of subtitle to the store name. “Open 24 hours”, “Open Day & Night”, “Day and Night Liquors”, “We Never Close”.

They are off of every exit on any highway. Around every corner of most neighborhoods. They say they never close. It’s 1:14am. You need gasoline. Turn right.

Summon the image of a weary, pimply-faced 20 year-old Guatamalean immigrant seen safely time-locked into his protected cash register cage in a small beach town in Southern California. We’re free to wander the store — a few aisles of chips, meat jerky, king size candy bars, breath fresheners, throat lozenges, bubble gum, rotissing hotdogs, magazines. Behind two epic walls of built-in refrigerators — bottles of bottled water with excruciatingly meaningless packaging variations, whole milk, low-fat milk, half-and-half, Florida orange juice, orange drink, things to drink, junky pep drinks, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Monster, fancy Woodchuck Cider nestled by a small scrum of chilly, perspiring white wines, and then a formidable flank of a regional workmen’s after work favorites including 24oz Budweiser Clamato and its variations. Locked safe in the after hours attendant’s cage — ciggies, flavored cigarellos, Zig-Zag papers, condoms, herbal supplement packets for endurance and fortitude, lighters, batteries, laser pointers, analgesics three varieties of aspirin, and some flavorful cough suppressants.

The attendant-cashier idly scrolls through text messages — or electronic mail, or news from home, or considers a death-blow of a move in the Words with Friends game he’s playing with a cousin in Arizona, or updates his Facebook profile photo, or Tweets that he’s bored to 740’s hard to tell from behind the 3/4 inch bullet proof. And I don’t really care if he’s amazingly sending digitally encoded radio transmissions to outer space and back because I’ve just bought $53 of Saudi gold. It came over the Atlantic and through the Panama canal in an oil tanker just for me.

The Corner Convenience is a vault containing the treasures of great, world-changing innovations throughout all histories. Truly. We should see our Corner Convenience as a living Neighborhood Museum of Innovation. Someone should enshrine these and teach the lesson to every secondary school student. Think of the product tie-ins. There could be an international holiday commemorating the deep-seated history of innovation in your local 7-Eleven. Where are the brand marketing people? They’ve dropped the ball on this one.

We have at our finger tips the things no one would have taken for granted 50, 100, 200, 500, 10000, 500,000 years ago. There it all is. Fire, for chrissake — and disposable? In any color one would like, or with your favorite sports team printed on it? Are you kidding me? Flick and fire. Flick and fire.

Have an achy head? No leaches at hand? Don’t feel like chewing on the bark of a Slippery Elm? Well — have some acetylsalicylic suspended in a dissolving capsule that you swallow. Nothing to swallow it with? Have some fresh, filtered water, brought to you by truck and ship and conveniently packaged in a dubious plastic bottle. Feeling randy, but not ready to start a family? Pick your variety, shape, size, texture, degree-of-package-salaciousness condom. Concerned about performance? Have a grab-bag of herbal fortitude. Need to make a phone call to *anywhere? Get a disposable cell phone, talk for 120 minutes then throw it out.

It’s all right there. Selection, variety, color — sure, we expect that. But do we stop to marvel at the epic travels in space, time, refinement, iteration, industrialization these mundane, ordinary conveniences have made?

Convenience is the name of the awards ceremony at which capitalism admires itself. Convenience is the final measure of mass production’s success. It is the asymptotic long-tail of industrialization, a tail whose zero is 99¢, 3 for 1, buy-one-get-one-free. Industrialization is found in the rash-dash coupon books that litter our recycling bins. It is the baroque, oddly seductive sales circulars encouraging us to tramp down to our local shop and get a dozen eggs, a flank of beefsteak or a case of birdshot. We find industrialization tucked into the ad supplements of old-fashioned newspapers — the paper newspapers — reminding us that we might need a ream of sustainably farm-harvested non-toxic bleached white paper for our $99 laser light powered printing press.

How do we applaud convenience? Does it represent success insofar as much of the world — though certainly not all — soaks in it? Is Henry Ford, godfather of industrialization, doing an exuberant, boastful Running Man in his mausoleum? “I done done it! I done done it! I done toldya! I done toldya! You know you waaaant it! You know you waaaant it!”

If it is success, it is a conflicted one. No proper post-disciplinary, post-modern Industrial Designer truly *wants their work to end up in the Corner Convenience. That is unless they have fully embraced this sparkly, polished Muzak-filled museum of over-produced, barely distinguished things. They must make peace with the fine folks in brand marketing, the high priests of endless variation and spell-casters of seduction. (We shouldn’t dismiss the Industrial Designer’s dream for another sort of Corner Convenience, albeit of a different register. The convenience store that embraces the mass industrialized infamy of the considered and crafted — Design Within Reach.)

What we have produced for your consideration is a kind of program guide to the counter of your Corner Convenience. A simple, small reminder of the travels that all great things make in this era of mass-convenience and massive, world-scale industrialization. It is with irony that we have made this by re-purposing the newspaper printing press. We are now able to quite conveniently make such a thing — a newspaper, for chrissake — through the foresight and disciplined hard work of the people, presses and algorithms of Newspaper Club. These algorithms marshal unused resources and put them to work in a way that lets the four of us make and print 100 newspapers cheap as chips.

Do not confuse convenience with that which is owed you. Do not act entitled to convenience. Revel in it. Designers, refine it and have the humility to acknowledge what it is, truly. For now, picture the 40-something, father to a few and set to task to create with his colleagues a newspaper on the topic of Convenience. Thus he goes to his Corner Convenience, armed with a 4×6 index card’s list of 10 things of convenience to buy as props so as to consider these conveniences in their physical form. He’s a familiar and regular, yet anonymous patron to his local Corner Convenience. This time though, rather than a quart of late-night milk he runs through a list on an index card: “I’ll take those eye glasses, the 3-pack of colorful BiC lighters, a map, um..condom — no, that one there, in the purple just one’ll be fine — flashlight, BiC cristal pen..and a watch.” One would rightly think he has slipped his moorings to become the neighborhood apocolyptic, prepping for the trending #2012 topic that foresees The End to it all. And of what would that end be? What would we have no more? For some it would be life — for surely there will be the floods and famines and fires. Mostly though, it’d be an end to Convenience.

Ceci n'est pas une caméra

Yesterday while leaving the LA Photo exhibition in Santa Monica — a kind of catch-all retail event of photography through the commercial curatorial world of private galleries — I happened across a small scrum of people with anodized extruded rectangles holding them close to bush leaves, flowers and tiny bits of dirt on the ground. Lytro was in town somehow — or stalking about doing a bit of half-assed DIY guerrilla marketing.

There. I’m a Lytro hater. And maybe I’m getting old and cranky and beginning to catch myself thinkign — “I just don’t understand what kids are up to these days..” That’s a sign of something, I suppose. Oftentimes I can riddle it through and understand, even if I wouldn’t do the “whatever it is” myself.

Nevertheless, I don’t understand what Lytro‘s doing. Let me try and riddle it through.

For those of you, unlike me, who don’t scour the networks for any sign or hint of an evolution in photography and image making generally, you may not know about Lytro’s weirdly optimistic talk about “light field imaging” techniques that is meant to revolutionize photography.

Well, this is it. Effectively, a proper bit of patent gold that allows one to capture a light field (their stoopid way of basically saying “image” or “photograph”) and derive the path of every light ray in such a way that you can focus *after you’ve captured your light field. What that means practically is that you never have to worry about focus ever again, and you can recompose the focus point forever afterwards. So — all that lovely, soft, bokeh (nez depth of field) that has come to mean “professional” photography because you previously could only get nice, lovely, soft depth of field with an expensive, “fast” lens and a big sensor? Well — now you can walk around with an anodized extruded rectangular tube and get it as well. It’ll cost you a bit less than that fast lens would’ve, and you get all the advantages of touching a little postage stamp sized screen to control the camera, and you can run your finger along a side of the rectangle to access zoom controls, and — best of all — you can shove the extruded rectangle at your friends and capture *their light field.

Seriously though — if I were to do a less snarky critique, I’d say that they a few things all turned around here.

First, they missed a serious opportunity to play up on the apparent fascination with analog, or retro-analog, or analog-done-digital. People seem to be in love with cameras that are digital, but harken back clearly to pre-digital photography. I’m talking about the industrial design mostly — but cameras like the Fuji X100 are beautiful, digital and, in their form, signal image-making/image-taking. Things like Instagram filters — whatever you may think about them — signal back to the vagaries and delights of analog film chemistry and the fun of processing in the dark room to achieve specific tonal and visual styles. There’s something about the analog that’s come back. That’s a thing. Perhaps its digital getting more thoughtful or poetic or nostalgic and then we’ll move onto a new, new comfort zone with our gizmos and gadgets and they’ll become less fetish things than lovely little ways to capture and share our lives with pleasing accents and visual stylings. Pixel-perfect will mean something else. Roughness and grit will be an aesthetic.

The extruded rounded rectangle isn’t bad, but it’s not so much camera as it is telescope. And if it’s signaling telescope, I’ll want to hold the thing up flush to my eyebeall, like a pirate or sea captain. And that’s fun as well. More fun, I’d suggest, than holding it out like I was getting ready to chuck a spear at someone.

The fact that I have to hold it several inches so I can pull focus on the display? Well, that’s several inches away from my subject and that little physical alignment schema of photographer —> intrusive-object —> subject is a bad set up. It ruins the intimacy of imaging making. I think that’s well-appreciated if thoroughly ignored aspect of the history of the camera design that the viewfinder makes a difference in the aesthetic and compositional outcome of picture taking. That’s a little bit of lovely, low-hanging fruit in the IxD possibilities for the future of image-making. It’s less a technology-feature, than a behavior feature that can be enabled by some thoughtful collaboration amongst design+technology.

The posture some folks take now of holding their camera out at nearly arms length to compose using the LCD screen on the back of many cameras? That’s bad photography form. You’re taking an image of what your eye sees, not what your camera sees. The intrusion of the visual surround that your peripheral vision naturally takes in when you don’t compose with your eye up to the viewfinder changes the way you compose and how you compose. I’m not saying there are rules, but there are better practices for the rituals of photography that lead to better photography and better photographers. Leastways — that’s what I think. It’s why I prefer an SLR or a rangefinder over a little consumer camera with no viewfinder, or a gesture to the viewfinder that’s barely usable.

You should try taking an image using the viewfinder if your camera has one and then never turn back to the LCD. Use the LCD for image sharing — that’s fine. Or for checking your exposure — that’s awesome and maybe one of the best advantages of the LCD. But to compose using the LCD, you’ve effectively lost the advance that the viewfinder brought to photography, which is to compose the view and do so in a way that makes that composition intimate to the photographers eye. Everything around is removed and blocked out. There are no visual distractions. What you see is basically what you get. (Some viewfinders don’t have 100% coverage, but they are typically quite close.) When the consumer camera manufacturers introduced thin cameras they had to do away with all the optics that allowed the image coming through the lens to do a couple of bends and then go to the photographers eye. And, anyway — all that is extra material, weight, glass, etc. So people started taking photographs by, ironically, moving the camera further away from themselves forever changing photography.

Well, that’s okay. Things change. I like looking through a viewfinder and grouse whenever I see people not using their viewfinder. And, I suppose I don’t use one many times when taking snaps with the happy-snappy or the camera on my phone. Whatever.

The point is that Lytro missed a fab opportunity to redo that compositional gaff that a dozen years of consumer electronics innovation dismissed out of hand.

That’s the Industrial Design gaff. There’s more.

Then there’s the interface. To *zoom you slide your finger left-and-right along an invisible bit of touch-sensitive zone on the gray plastic-rubber-y bit on the near end of the extruded tubular rectangle. Like..what? Okay — I know we’re all into touch, so Lytro can be forgiven for that. But — hold on? Isn’t zoom like..bring it closer; move it further away? Shouldn’t that be sliding towards me or away from me? Or, wait — I get it. The zoom gesture people may be used to is the circular turning of a traditional glass lens. Zoom out by turning clockwise. Zoom in by turning counter-clockwise. Well here I guess you’re sort of turning from the top of the barrel/rectangle — only you’re not turning, you’re finger-sliding left and right. So, I have no idea how this one came about. While a mechanical interface of some sort was probably not considered practical given the production requirements, tooling, integration and all that — I think this begs for either a telescoping zoom feature, or a mechanical rotating zoom feature. At a minimum, a rotating gesture or a pull-in/pull-out gesture if they’re all hopped up on virtual interfaces mimicking their precedents using things like capacitive touch.

Me? I’ve been into manual focus lately. It’s a good, fun, creative challenge. And even manual exposure control. Not to be nostalgic and old-school-y — it’s just fun, especially when you get it right. (Have I game-ified photography? N’ach.) Now with Lytro, the fact that I can focus forever after I’ve taken the image means I’ve now introduced a shit-ton of extra stuff I’ll end up doing after I taken the image, as if I don’t already have a shit-ton of extra stuff I end up doing because the “tools” that were supposed to make things easier (they do, sorta) allow me to do a shit-ton of extra stuff that I inevitably end up doing just cause the tools say I can. And now there’ll be more? Fab.

And further related to the interface is the fact that they introduced a new dilemma — how to view the image. Just as we got quite comfortable with our browsers being able to see images and videos without having to download and install whacky plug-ins, Lytro reverses all that. Because the Lytro light field image is weird, it’s not a JPEG or something so browsers and image viewers have no idea how to show the data unless you tell them how — by installing something/installing/maintaining else, which isn’t cool.

And now I suspect we’ll see a world of images where people are trying to do Lytro-y things like stand in close to squirrels so you can fuck around with the focus and be,

I don’t want to be cranky and crotchity about it, but I take a bit of pride in composing and developing the technical-creative skills to have a good idea as to what my image is going to look like based on aperture and shutter speed and all that. I know Lytro is coming from a good place. They have some cool technology and, like..what do you do if you developed cool technology at Stanford? You spin it off and assume the rest of the world *has to want it, even if it is just a gimmick disguised as a whole camera. Really, this should just be a little twiddle feature of a proper camera, at best — not a camera itself. It’s the classic technologist-engineer-inventor-genius knee-jerk reaction to come up with a fancy new gizmo-y gimmick that looks a bit like a door knob and then put a whole house around it and then say — “hey, check it out! i’ve reinvented the house!”


Why do I blog this? Cause I get frustrated when engineer-oriented folks try to design things without thinking about the history, legacy, existing interaction rituals, behaviors and relevancy to normal humans and basically make things for themselves, which is fine — but then don’t think for a minute about the world outside of the square mile around Palo Alto. It could be so much better if ideas like this were workshopped, evolved, developed to understand in a more complete way what “light field imaging” could be besides something that claims camera-ness in a shitbox form-factor with an objectionable sharing ritual and (probably — all indications suggest as much) a pathetic resolution/mega-pixel count.

What Innovation

Up and to the Right


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Paradox of Intellectual Property

Sunday August 29 19:06

Mine, not yours, buster.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a link to the Planet Money Podcast.

Continue reading The Paradox of Intellectual Property

Weekending 10172010


Well, got about half way through the new Steven Johnson book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation and still going. He tells a good story and I believe much of it. There’s something funny going on in there, though. I’ll sort it out. Seems maybe a bit simple in its argument — things alongside of things, or the adjacent possible. It makes sense and I don’t want to do the typical academician’s “but it’s more complicated than that.” As an alternative to the more popular imaginary of the genius in a basement working alone when inspiration strikes, this is much better.

So..there was that. Then lots of work and time in the studio corralling several (not a few, several) projects into their present state to be shared. Shared, not finished off or anything — but raked and slightly burnished to a semi-finished finish. It’s a good exercise to begin to bring that level of overview and organization to the work. And it’s all good stuff, all well-done. ((I’m slightly eager to get into the material more tangibly. More on that in the coming weeks, I suspect. Or, wait. Not “I suspect” because I can if I want to, so it’s more like — I will make the material more tangible, and make the time to do such. Except — oh, bugger. Look at that calendar for the coming months.))

Anyway, there was also some preparation for the upcoming Design Fiction components of the 6th Annual Swiss Design Network Conference. I’m excited. The line up for both Friday and Saturday look great. I’ll be there with earballs wide open. In preparation, aside from the paper I prepared some months ago, I’ve been continuing my process of cataloging Design Fiction in Science Fiction Film for the DVD collection the Laboratory will be releasing.

I was thinking about what possible projects either way on the back burner or up front, sizzling right now that I could send off to a design project *challenge. Thought about that back and forth wondering what the consequences might be of doing so. Best case, I get to run the project. Worst case, I still get to run the project, but maybe in another context or just *later, at some other time. Should it be something I’ve always wanted to do or force myself to think about enough to put it before someone. Or something to make a point, even if I never get to say anything more about it because, *shrug*..someone’s going to look at it and think, why’d he put this in front of us, anyway?

I had flounced off of the skate photography thing, but that didn’t last long and it was more of a joke to myself, but not doing it for 10 days made it seem like I hadn’t been doing it for months. Went to the indoor ramp around the way. With the winter light setting so much earlier, a drive-by the park becomes less possible these days. Anyway.
Continue reading Weekending 10172010

Features Aren't A Measure Of Innovation

A fix to keep a door from clanging against an adjacent utility pole. Observed in Seoul, South Korea.

It’s too bad that the measure of results often must translate to quantities or business-y things, like numbers of meetings obtained or pages of PowerPoint presentations. Decanting often rich, qualitatively substantial ideas into boxes and “slides” and “decks” sloughs off so much richness that all that was learned often evaporates. The miscommunication is tragic in such instances. When asked for “the presentation”, I’ve taken to doing the electronic email version of a *shrug* — sorry, no “deck”. We can chat. I can send you some object-thing-embodiments-of-principles..if you like. If you want to stare at words, well..

The culture of PowerPoint is best described as a social disease. I don’t mean to gripe too much — it’s not a new thing, and it isn’t only a reaction to conditions as they exist for the Laboratory right now. The culture of the deck has been around us since the days at the advertising agencies and brand marketing agencies during the last cycle — where there were entire departments who did nothing but make presentation decks. Ugh. Can you imagine?

The Measure of Reality has been an obsession since I fully comprehended the made-up nature of reality, I suppose while thinking about the social and cultural parameters of science while over-educating myself. It’s good stuff — I’m not complaining — and it makes it positively frustrating at times to communicate something where you know that everything depends on how you communicate and not only the idea living in your head. No matter how much you believe in it, you have to materialize it in such a way that other people believe in it, too. You need to enroll people in your vision to the degree that they suit up and follow.

In the world of things the Laboratory works on — weird gizmos, gadgets and devices — this becomes particularly difficult when the basis for describing a design-led vision avoids touching on technology-specific features. For some reason lists of features are legible to accountants and engineers who often have the keys to the car and decide what gets done. Here, we wouldn’t offer something up that starts with a bit of technical kit — an augmented reality sensor array or whatever — and then build around that. We would start with a peculiar people-centric platform of experience — say, an otherworldly city guide as we did for the first analog edition of the Drift Deck and as Laboratory Associate Platinum Class Jon Bell is doing for the second digital edition of the Drift Deck. Our conceit has been that experiences for people offer a richer, more meaningful and legible way of creating new stuff. Innovating, only not by stacking lists of features and parts and stuff — but at least by starting with ways of creating opportunities and experiences that lead people in new, unexpected directions. That make space for experiences that go beyond expectation. Basically creating new user experiences. I don’t think you do that just by creating new features and bolting on new technologies.

When I first wrote the draft of this post, it came to mind when the folks at Tenyagroup asked permission to use a photo (that wasn’t even mine, but whatever..) I looked at their short article and found it intriguing. At one point they say:

..great brands change the game by changing the customer, not by changing the product. They become new platforms of opportunity for a new kind of customer, freshly empowered.

Those are weird words not really in the Laboratory lexicon, but somehow it makes sense. The “changing the customer” part might be stated plainly as: offering new sorts of interaction rituals and behaviors. Merely adding a bit of technology does not translate that technology into a necessarily compelling experience. It’s back to the doorknobs joke — if you can’t translate the technology into terms and experiences legible to a normal human, you’ve just stacked yet another unnecessary ornamentation on top of everything else.

This is all swirling around an argument not to design for features lists.

For brand builders, the following definitions of “features” might be useful:

Feature – Evidence of unfinished design.
Feature – The absence of brand vision.
Feature – Fear of freeing the customer–and raising him/her to the next level.
Feature – Footprint of the committee: more is less. As a rule, good design minimizes features and maximizes customers.

(inspiration via

Why do I blog this? This has been sitting in the Drafts pile for 18 months and I felt it was time to just post it before it got lost to some kind of data backup failure. But, I am continuing to hunt down ways of putting design-for-people as a guiding principle ahead of just adding meaningless features. Sometimes I see ideas from powerful decision-making people that basically lists the technologies du jour as specifications for what should be made. It’s infuriating — which is entirely my fault. I wish I had the techkwondo to flip that for real, and do so in an elegant way that helps people see the trouble of trying to stick doorknobs on everything they see. Also — trying to cohere some thoughts and scraps for the upcoming Device Design Day later this month.
Continue reading Features Aren't A Measure Of Innovation

Design Fiction Studio for Young Minds

Friday July 23 18:16

The Innovation Center for Young Minds as an enviable-sounding studio for Fall 2010:

In “Design Fiction Studio,” we will focus on experimental ways to combine science fiction story telling with new forms of media production. The students will be asked to write a short science-fiction story and expected to illustrate it in an experimental book. We will explore ways to combine alternative materials –such as very basic electronic elements, conductive inks, phase- and color-changing materials– with new kinds of fabrication and production techniques to learn both about the materials and the way they can be used in different kinds of fictional products.

Topics to be covered:
– Basic science fiction writing skills to develop a short story or concept that will address a problem we may have in the near future.
– Experiment with new kinds of smart materials, design and interaction techniques to build an interactive book to illustrate the story.
– Discuss how writing fiction and building fictional objects can contribute to our thinking and allow us to bring into attention problems before they may even emerge.

Why do I blog this?Curious to see the ways science-fiction is used in design to think, write and make speculative new stuff. And I’m looking for good examples of design-fiction beyond the theory and principles behind it. Also — this is one of the first times I’ve seen the design-fiction stuff connected so directly to science-fiction writing — I mean, besides those folks who are already science-fiction writers. The idea that basic science fiction writing skills are taught as well as the gooey, arduino-y making-of-things.
Continue reading Design Fiction Studio for Young Minds

*Wheels On Luggage

Luggage without wheels

A short-hand expression used in and around the studio to describe that one, usually small, unexpected and deceptively obvious designed feature that makes an artifact suddenly transformatively useful/helpful/up-graded. The kind of transformation that makes you look back and wonder how the heck you ever schlepped that awkward, sagging Samsonite with one arm across entire airports..cities..continents. Like..what took them so long to put wheels on luggage, anyway? I mean — I’m sure there’s a business case study on it ((if you know, please share with me..I’m curious..))



Above is just one example I came across and was prompted to mention briefly after Ian blogged about his feelings towards presentation software. This is a simple button to do the switch-a-roo between displays that is inevitably a big bump in getting set up to present from Keynote. Often enough, almost inevitably, your presentation notes screen gets piped to the audience display and you have to hunt about in display system settings to switch them. Always awkward to have people staring at your notes, or, worse — your desktop or email. Here’s a quick ejection button that toggles the displays right from within Keynote. No hunting for your System Settings, losing track of where the display mode modal dialog has gone, etc.

*Wheels on luggage.

More generally this idea of *wheels on luggage is useful to remind ourselves that things have not always been as they are — things have been different and they’ll be different again. It’s useful, to me at least, to think that we are in the Jurassic era for *something. Where are the exemplars around us that are waiting to have a set of four wheels put on to make things work a little bit better, a bit more humanely, or sanely? What is the relationship to all our “new” things today to what they will become sooner than we expect — E-waste? Something squirreled away in another bin of lost-and-forgotten things that we once thought we couldn’t live without? bits-and-bobs in a vintage shop display case?

Why do I blog this? I find it a very useful approach to design to imagine that I am making the past for some future, rather than the future itself. Artefacts that reflect ideas and inspiration but are things that someday will be quite ordinary, quotidian and unspectacular. Normalizing heroic ideas to the everyday yet exceptionally useful — such that they are impossible to imagine a world without. Like wheels on luggage.
Continue reading *Wheels On Luggage

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

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