Back to the Future day


So here we are: October 21st 2015. Today marks the arrival date of Marty, Jennifer and Doc in the flying DeLorean. It’s been a long time coming, and there have been a number of hoaxes, but it’s finally here.

Back to the Future Part 2 is a very special movie for me, one of those seemingly incidental but retrospectively pivotal moments in my life. It was 1989 and I was 13, a child of Thatcher’s Britain. Like many children of the 80’s I grew up on a diet of American culture: Knight Rider, the A-Team, rap and graffiti became regular features. I remember the first McDonald’s opening in my hometown (and the queue outside). We played American football in the playground. I skateboarded. I bought a surfboard (despite living 200 miles from the sea).

In parallel with this cultural influx, I was also becoming interested in design, how things worked and how they went together. I would spend entire weekends dismantling old radios and VCR’s, performing autopsies on them. A diet of MacGyver, James Bond and The Goonies had me re-jigging the parts I liberated into homegrown gadgets. Then along came Back to the Future Part 2, filled with American pop culture, nike sneakers, skateboards, robot arms, video games, flying cars and a killer soundtrack. I couldn’t have avoided it if I tried.

Fast forward to today. I live in California. My job is designing the future. I surf occasionally. I have a large skateboard collection. I listen to rap and hip hop… and I still love that movie. Whilst it’s surface charms remain, I now look at it slightly differently. Much of what interests me today, (and much of what we do at the Near Future Laboratory), is concerned with the ways in which we portray the future. I recently spoke at the dConstruct conference in Brighton, and made reference to the movie, and it’s skillful representation of pace layers and accretive spaces, but co-creator Bob Gale sums up their approach nicely in this short interview with Bobby Kim below.

“Our attitude about the future was: the future should be great but the McFly family should still be screwed up. We wanted people to see our future and say ‘cool, I want to live in that future’. You see a lot of these movies that take place in the future and it looks like they tore everything down, everything is gone…you can’t connect with it because it doesn’t look like anything looks like today”

I won’t write too much more here, as there have been countless pieces written about BTTF2, and when we over-analyze we risk destroying the joy in something, but I’ll leave you with this: BTTF2 has a fun story, but more important is the way in which that story is told. As designers, we need to understand that the thing we are designing will exist as part of a system. The more of that system we can render, the better our audience will handle new ideas. In order to believe in the hoverboard, it’s helpful to see the evolution of Pepsi, Nike, Black and Decker and Texaco. In order to relate to the future of video-conferencing it should be shown a little bit broken. In order to believe in the people of the future they should be regular, flawed folks. BTTF2 does all these things very well and should be celebrated.

Happy Back to the Future day

Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment: InterLace Telentertainment, 932/1864

"Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment: InterLace Telentertainment, 932/1864 R.I.S.C. power-TPs w/ or w/o console, Pink2, post-Primestar D.S.S. dissemination, menus and icons, pixel-free Internet Fax, tri- and quad-modems w/ adjustable baud, Dissemination-Grids, screens so high-def you might as well be there, cost-effective videophonic conferencing, internal Froxx CD-ROM, electronic couture, all-in-one consoles, Yushityu nanoprocessors, laser chromotography, Virtual-capable media-cards, fiber-optic pulse, digital encoding, killer apps; carpal neuralagia, phosphenic migraine, gluteal hyperadiposity, lumbar stressae."

David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, 1996, p.60

Why do I blog this? because it's a lovely type of poetry.

Weekly digital lexicon #3

Maskenfreiheit (seen here) : German term that indicates the liberty that comes from wearing a mask... and metaphorically to stay anonymous, or to partly hide one's identity in public sphere.

1701 : an adjective sometimes employed to express the "futuristic" character of an object/situation; comes from the name of Star Trek's vessel The Enterprise (NCC-1701).

Auto erect : an expression which refers to the sexual connotation implied by texts/SMS/messages transformed by the auto-correct feature.

Brouteurs : an idiom used in Côte d'Ivoire to designate people committing internet frauds (seen in a text by N’Guessan Julien Atchoua found in "Quand l’Afrique réinvente la téléphonie mobile")

MTurk Research : scientific research projects that employ crowdsourcing platforms such as Mechanical Turk, Rapidworkers, etc. (seen in this article).

Strange hand “choreographies” + mobile phones

Screen Portraits by Anna Pinkas:

"Each video in this series was shot on the New York City subway and captures a passenger’s interaction with his/her phone. The video has been edited frame-by-frame to call attention to the strange hand “choreographies” that our constant use of handheld screens has engendered."

Why do I blog this? An intriguing project that's related to my "Curious Rituals" project. I like the focus on the hands themselves and the way the movement is represented. It allows to highlight specific gestural aptitudes related with digital artifacts such as phones.

It's also intriguing to stumble across this roughly at the same time as Facebook's "Photos of hands holding various phones, to be used in any presentation of your designs." (which are far less inspiring).

New book: DADABOT


Joël Vacheron and I recently published a book about the role of software/bots in cultural production, and the hybridization of cultural forms (music, visual arts, literature) produced by digital technologies.

It’s called “DADABOT An Introduction to Machinic Creolization” and it deals with Twitter bots, generative music, software-based literature, and all those weird art/design experiments with digital hybridization and mash-ups. The book is made up of an essay, experiments with mechanical turks, interviews with Florian Hecker, Holly Herndon, Constant Dullaart, NORM, Silvio Lorusso, Matthew Plummer-Fernandez, an essay by Maxime Guyon, as well as a lexicon of the terminology used by these practitioners.

Designed by Raphael Verona, it's published by ID Pure, and it can be ordered directly from their on-line shop. Some spread below: (a) Mahma Kan Althaman, Whatever the Price by Khalid Al Gharaballi and Fatima Al Qadiri (written in arabix, see more in this Frieze article), (b) a lexicon as well as intriguing list of programming languages, (c) an experiment in which I crowdsourced the description of glitched images to "mechanical turks".

dadabot2 dadabot2 dadabot3

From conversational agents to robots

Mark Meadows wrote an interesting piece at Robohub. Basically, on virtual assistants such as Apple's SIRI, Microsoft's Cortana or Facebook's M are "the testbeds for tomorrow’s personal robots":

"Our mobile devices are becoming natural language interface hubs for life management and, as a result, having a gravitational pull on an increasingly complex buzz of connected services and APIs. This means that things like search will change: we will no longer have to speak Googlese; paper and page metaphors will be supplanted by the more dynamic (and cognitively more addictive) character metaphor. And if trends in virtual assistants and intelligent helpers – software robots – continue, then knowledge-bases (such as Wolfram Alpha or IBM Watson) will continue to come peppered with a patina of natural language, allowing us to move through data faster, with less training, and in a more human manner.

[...] We can also foretell the future by looking at less advanced natural language systems. Bots – essentially natural language oriented scripts – are a good indicator of where the robotics industry is at because bots are pervasive, useful, and simple to author. TwitterBots and FacebookBots crawl through these systems like bees in a hive, industriously providing retweets, reposts, summaries, aggregations, starting fights and flocking to followers. They can be bought, auctioned, sold, and deleted; you can buy 30,000 Twitter followers on eBay for as little as for $20, provided they’re all bots."

Why do I blog this? Although I'm not sure whether these agents need a proper physical instantiation (bigger than a phone), Mark's argument is relevant; especially if you consider how talking to objects (interacting with voice, or chatting/tweeting to bots) becomes slightly more present (= less weird).

Weekly digital lexicon #2

Zykluserkennungssoftware, die: German word "drive cycle recognition" software, a term used in a comment seen on Spiegel Online... that refers to software used to pass pollution tests (🚗💨)… modified by VW (so that they work only during tests).

AI trainer : a new job profile that consists in supervising/train computer programs: "A team of 'AI trainers' works with the program, and if there’s a request that M doesn’t understand the trainers take over. M then learns from what the human trainer does, and can use that technique with later requests." (seen here, thanks Fabien Girardin)

Plogging : the transposition of the (we)blogging logic to social networking platforms such as Facebook or Twitter (which may allow longer posts), seen in this article (merci Virginie Bejot)

开挂 (abbreviation of 开外挂 "kai1 gua4") : a Chinese term used to express disbelief or that something has been enhance/forged (e.g. a Photoshopped image), and which originally refers to "the act of running an illegal plug-in on a game, either for practical usability purposes (translating an interface into Chinese) or to cheat (faking in-game presence to accumulate more virtual currency, or even packet modification to make a character move faster in an online game)" (Source: BoingBoing)