He said that science fiction wasn't special..

Wednesday January 13, 14.34.19

“…because of its gadgets and its landscapes. It wasn’t special because of its ideas about technology or progress: instead, it was special because of its language, and the assumptions and techniques readers used to interpret that language, and the ways writers’ knowledge of those assumptions and techniques affected the stories they wrote.”

Matthew Cheney on Samuel Delany.

Why do I blog this?Just a small nugget that helps communicate the special effect of designing with science fiction, and designed fictions. It may be that it is the *language and this idea of the *assumptions and preconceptions readers or those to whom the communication is directed — the things brought to the story, or small moment in which a new sort of experience is depicted. Small extrapolations, such as this idea of a near future world one could imagine based on today mentioned in Sandy Irwin Cohn’s Singularist in which Google’s search becomes Google Find™ as just about everything becomes indexed and meta-referenced — not just physical data, but objects and things, of course.

In the middle of the drunken satellite debacle no one noticed a completely unrelated event, but they would come to see the satellite as a minor scroll-down news item afterward. It probably would not have become a trender until after the satellite fell off the tail. But, the DRM virus went emergent viral and people noticed outages right away. Actually, outage isn’t the right word. Things went missing. And “missing” was a word that the Google generation could barely pronounce, let alone understand.

The DRM failure was epic. There was nothing wrong with the DRM tech — it was just NP complete to an unfortunate cascade of parameters. As it turned out. Google Find™ was a way to Google in 3D, in the rest of the world that had been nearly forgotten as 6.2 billion active users were in their screen worlds. It was brilliant in the way it could fingerprint anything — and then keep track of that anything, anywhere just about all the time. The digital media rights management stuff from the previous decade? — that was barely an obscure, useless diacritic in a footnote in the near future of intellectual and creative property law. It took multivalent, multiperspective tagging and identification algorithms to make it possible to have true, robust identification of everything from music and movies (no brainer, even the remixes could be backtracked to their multiple originals to 98.9% accuracy) to knock-off sneakers and forged car parts. Point a camera at your left sneaker — and Google Find™ would tell you what it was, when you bought it on Craigslist, what you paid for it, what its resale was, where it was made, from what components with their toxicity, what its carbon footprint was, who the cobbler working what shift in which factory in Kandahar or Pyongpang or wherever the hell. And if you sprung for the $79 Google Find Pro annual license fee — the netware could also tell you where the heck your right sneaker was hiding.

What is curious about this story is the way it spirals into the bumps and errors and failures of this mutation of Google Search into something not so good, where everything spins out of control. A good extrapolation and despite the downfall of things — it still holds onto a possible extrapolation of today into a world where things go missing despite the extensive cataloging and indexing of the world’s everythings.

Continue reading He said that science fiction wasn't special..

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 need..to 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.

“..it 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 2.0?

Thursday April 09, 15.19.14

Expectation or anticipation? In Batvik Finland?

An interesting article in the Harvard Business Review that I came across recently. It is relevant to a long-standing interest in other strategies for “innovation” particularly in commercial enterprises.

The article is called “Fewer Engineers, More Anthropologists” by Navi Radjou. It argues for, like…more anthropologists and fewer engineers while an enterprise attempts to “effectively identify[ing] and address[ing] the explicit and unmet needs of the broader consumer base in emerging markets.” (Quick translation — selling more stuff that makes sense to local people/cultures/practices in Brazil, India, South America and probably Africa, too.)

Why I find this intriguing is how ancient it sounds. If it the article was dated in 1990 I might understand. But it is quite recent, published only this month. This makes me think that something was forgotten, as is the nature of history. This is fine, except along with what was forgotten goes any lessons or insights learned.
Continue reading Innovation 2.0?

Measuring the Immeasurable

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

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

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

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

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

Where to start?

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

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


No matter. Onward…

Continue reading Measuring the Immeasurable

You'll Want To Read This

The Valley and The Sky, Sascha Pohflepp’s RCA dissertation, just now released into the wild’s of the networked jungle. A dissertation about California’s technology culture between idealism, business and futures for design. Submitted to Critical Historical Studies at the Royal College of Art in October 2008.

Congratulations Sascha!

Sascha Tells A Story
Continue reading You'll Want To Read This

Theory, Practice — Art Design — Technology

I did a Pecha Kucha style presentation on some developing thoughts on the relationships between theory and practice, and the role of a hybrid, multiple art-design-technology approach to creating and circulating culture and knowledge. “Making things” can happen in lots of ways. I’ve tried two — engineering and art. And now design. It’s interesting for me to reflect on the different approaches to “making things” each discipline takes, as well as the core principles that guide doing what they do.

How do these practices deal with creating material that engages people? (Related to Nicolas’ recent post on a similar topic — how do different practices talk about people? How are they referred to, and how does that shape the nature of the research? The questions that get asked? And, then, what the outcomes mean, or how they materialized?

I think engineering as one of the preeminent, late-capital means of making things, with an operational and instrumental focus. The closest it gets to involving itself in people-practice is a rather instrumental language about “humans” and their measured abilities and tolerances. (Think, the British originated Human-Computer Interaction and Computer-Human Interaction.) Perhaps the worst description of people is as “users.” Referring to people as “users” may likely be the reason that the product of engineering work that is intended to be, well..products for people fail in their interaction design. Users are definitely not people with a large set of expectations, practices and characteristics. Users are singly-focused entities with a set of expected pre-existing knowledge and a very constrained range of possible actions based on the way engineering principles create options (opportunities) for interactions.

Art, best as I can describe in this context, is a practice that materializes dreams and engages social practice at that level ‚ fears, ambitions, aspirations, represented as “art” of some fashion. Recently, there has been some interesting collaborations amongst art and technology practice. It is in these collaborations that you find indications of that hyphen in art-technology — the places where the boundary between the practices becomes clear. Like, when an art-technology piece has you asking “how’s it work” — that’s a clear indication that there’s more techie-fetish than art or design.

Design seems to have a deep comfort and history with talking with and about people and their practices. In recent experience, this kind of helps make a few things clearer, like why there are so many chairs and lamps in the design canon. Thoughtful designed chairs that take into account not only the ergonomics of people, but the practices they engage in through a larger, richer vocabulary of possible activities that have to do with sitting (and standing from sitting) will likely do better than purely functional (engineered) objects.

What are the possibilities for a hybrid “making things” activity that takes into account the best of each of these broad knowledge and practice communities?