January 2004 Archives

Viz Gizmodo via Metafilter via (someplace else) come pictures of Bill Gaver's Drift Table, clearly a product of the RCA's interaction design program. I heard about this some months ago, but I wasn't able to find a picture of it, so it's funny to have it show up on a gizmos site.

Where should I start? It's nifty, it's smart and it's furniture. I like it. Why don't I think it's Smart Furniture (as per my definition)?

First of all, I don't think it's using the information around it in a way that's actually useful to its user. It's description does little in the way of defining a need that it's solving:

The Drift Table allows people to float slowly over the British landscape from the comfort of their own home. The distribution of weight on
the table controls the slow scroll of aerial photographs displayed on a central viewport. Progress is slow, but the Drift Table can be used to visit favorite places, look at geographical features, or simply watch
the world go by.
[...] The Drift Table is designed to allow exploration and daydreaming, rather than to fulfil any particular task.

Though I don't think that all objects need to be absolutely utilitarian, this seems to be a pretty tepid explanation for why all the work went into making the thing. Which brings me to a rant, and you'll have to excuse me (especially if you're one of the people I mention in my rant), but I've been meaning to get this off my chest for a while.

Like many of the RCA things, this object seems to cross the design-installation art line in a way that I'm uncomfortable with. In November I asked Noam Toran, an RCA grad who did a project at Ivrea called "Objects for Lonely Men," a question about how he defined design. I loved his project, but I disagreed with his definition of design. He said that design to him is a medium. I think it's a process.

And that's to core of my problem with "critical design," the process that Dunne and Raby practice/teach at RCA. Maybe because I was a design school dropout I have a primitive view of what design is. It seems to me, however, that design is a practice that is neither particularly an efficient or an effective process through which to explore ideas about society and the practice of design, which is what critical design is an attempt to do. It seems like a shoehorning of critical theory into a design program in order to not be left behind by the revolution that happened in other university departments in the 80s. I get it, but it's confusing the messenger with the message (maybe intentionally).

Design, to me, is the process of projecting the explorations of science, art and industrial production onto everyday life in a way that uses those discoveries to enhance people's lives in an immediate and tangible way. That covers a lot of ground, but it kinda requires that there be some immediate real utility, which critical design seemingly intentionally avoids. Despite all of the frustrated artists who enter the field (I among them), design is an applied art. Sometimes it can transcend its utilitarian nature to become art in itself, but the objects must first be applied, then art, not the other way around.

That said, I believe that design can learn a whole lot from art, specifically from tech art and installation art, and it should. But redefining design to be the medium of industrial production--i.e. everything that's produced or looks like it was produced using industrial processes--is a disservice to both design and art.


Which is a very long-winded way of saying I still like the Drift Table and I'm willing to be convinced otherwise, but I think it shouldn't be confused with a product that belongs on a gizmo site.

Oh, and it's part of a larger series of objects, that are all interesting and all kinda suffer from the same set of problems.

I was looking at the NetStumber national access point map and noticing that it hasn't been updated in a while. Clearly the excitement of finding WiFi access points has worn off. But it started me thinking. What if there was a way to use that kind of data--the incomplete, potentially erroneous, volunteed-created--data, because there seems to be something interesting about knowing the GPS location of a given access point? I mean, access points don't tend to move and are broadcasting their IDs (in the form of their Ethernet addresses) all the time, regardless of whether you can log on to use the Net. How could that be useful?

It's useful in this way: until GPS hardware gets to be cheap enough to incorporate into everything as WiFi and Bluetooth are now, using Access Point/GPS location databases can create a cheap kind of GPS for WiFi devices. All that has to be done is that a table matching one with the other has to be downloaded to a device, and then when that device sees the Ethernet address appear, it knows (with some rough degree of certainty) where it is. Imagine a busy downtown area, such as the Financial District in San Francisco. There are dozens of visible WiFi access points per block. Sure you can only log into maybe 10% of them, but who cares if all you're looking for is their Ethernet address? Downtown SF is full of history: this giant area here was once the bay, here was where the Niantic Hotel used to stand, here's where that fire raged in 1906, etc. I can imagine creating a tour of downtown San Francisco that would fit on a WiFi-enabled PDA--something that's likely a whole lot more common than a GPS-enabled PDA--and would allow you to walk around downtown, giving you information for which the location was determined by the WiFi access points visible to the PDA.

Would it be super accurate? Of course not. But it would be cheap from a hardware standpoint--it would be expensive from a data-collection standpoint, but not ALL that expensive. One afternoon walking with NetStumbler would collect all of the necessary data, and it could be updated every six months, with the tour cues synched appropriately.

Sure it's a silly stopgap measure until actual geolocation becomes available, but I think that there's a whole lot more opportunity here than just downtown tours.

I'm reading a fascinating paper right now called Social Origin of Good Ideas (PDF) by University of Chicago professor Ronald S. Burt. It's an analysis of how, to paraphrase, exposure to different fields creates the opportunities for good ideas and how that makes people more successful. His research is thorough, readable, appropriately interdisciplinary and it's a fascinating application of social network analysis. Most important, however, is that it validates my dilletantism. ;-) Here's a chunk of the abstract, which describes the gist of the paper:

The hypothesis is that people who live in the intersection of social worlds are at higher risk of having good ideas. Qualifications come immediately to mind, but the gist of the hypothesis is familiar in sociology and makes intuitive sense: ways of thinking and behaving are more homogenous within than between groups, so people connected to otherwise segregated groups are more likely to be familiar with alternative ways of thinking and behaving, which gives them the option of selecting and synthesizing alternatives. I describe anecdotal and aggregate evidence consistent with the hypothesis, but my goal in this paper is to study the hypothesis in finer detail, at the level of individuals, to talk about ideas as a catalyst for the performance effects of social capital.

I saw this referenced in Strategy + Business magazine, but I find it interesting that the study of multidisciplinary thought and social networks is starting to filter through to the popular media. Social networks, of course, have been a big meme since Friendster broke, but the interdisciplinary nature of the current intellectual environment is a relatively new thing, I think. I've had a bunch of conversations lately about it with Ben, Danah, Molly and the rest of the usual intelligentsia (and, for the record, I'm not going to let the topic fold in on itself--yes, my social network of interdisciplinary intellectuals is dicussing social networks of interdisciplinary intellectuals, move along), so it's probably an interesting thing.

Where this current interest comes from? For those of us who grew up in the rampant relativism of the 70s and 80s there's a kind of intellectual vertigo. I've often heard people talk about being starved of anchors of certainty in their lives. The ephemeral nature of Internet work (maybe modern creative work in general) only serves to reinforce it, forcing people to seek ever more extreme ways of grounding (Burning Man? knitting?). Lately, interdisciplinary ideas seem to have escaped places like the Santa Fe Institute and the Global Business Network to become more generally popular. TED-like conferences and university programs seem to have appeared much more frequently than I remember 10 years ago. Maybe this is the escape that people have found from the anxieties of perennial doubt? Narrowly-focused Modernist certainty (which extended from narrow job definitions to the coining and following of successive art movements) was undermined and followed by an age of ever-deeper uncertainty (i.e. the 70s and 80s), which was deeply anxiety-inducing. But maybe the end of the Cold War inspired enough optimism that people managed to look for and find a new kind of anchor by looking in several places at once? Maybe the Web resonated with this need and accellerated it? Or maybe I'm just projecting justifications? (I'm certainly rambling.... ;-)

Maybe. For now, it's interesting to see that someone is studying it.

Where are the cool places today? This question has come up a number of times, but most recently in a conversation I had with Jesse, Rebecca and Peter back in October. For Bohemians there have been many cities that serve as the icons of their age, where "interesting stuff" was happening: Picasso's Paris, Weimar Berlin, Beatnick San Francisco, Swinging London, Post-Wall Berlin, dotcom San Francisco. What's the cool city today? San Francisco currently seems spent (for the purposes of this discussion—there was disagreement around the table) and there must (it's felt) be the next big thing, but where is it? Where is that cheap/creative/liberal/exciting cultural space where people stay up late talking big ideas and "subverting the dominant paradigm"? Could it really be....Portland?

We didn't know and I wonder if that place can exist anymore. The dynamics that led to many of those places were caused by influx into inexpensive urban centers, often emptied because of war or shifting population dynamics. There are few inexpensive urban environments left as cities have gotten popular again, victims of a reversal of the mid-century suburban exodus, the fall of the Iron Curtain and the general rise of the standard of living among the middle class in Europe in the 90s. Certainly the "good ones"--the traditional centers of Western culture--are now too expensive to live in for someone trying to make a living selling abstract watercolors on the street to tourists (I'm using that as a caricature of Bohemian life, but it's the romantic ideal that fuels this desire for a cool place, so I think it's appropriate).

We're designers and designers are second-wave Bohemians. Designers come after artists, who come after musicians, who come after junkies, who generally live in transitional neighborhoods of first-generation immigrants, who have lived in neighborhoods abandoned by the middle class as they moved to the suburbs in the middle of the century. Or at least that's a rough approximation of the pattern I've seen in many places. It's a fascinatingly aspirational cycle, with each cycle aspiring to be a bit like the one before it (the exception is junkies, whose horizon is so short that their aspirations don't generally extend to examining the lifestyle of those who came before). As designers, we have the dubious honor of being the first group of people with stable incomes to move into a neighborhood, and therefore the ones who actually represent the beginning of the end.

But now the cycle has almost run it course, at least as far as coastal urban centers in the go. Designers are everywhere. Sure LA's downtown is still primed for gentrification, Philadelphia and DC are still only patchily gentrified, but almost everywhere else I've been, both in the US and Europe, urban renewal has actually happened. So where is the next generation of disaffected creative youth aspiring to go? Where is the 1966 Haight-Ashbury of 2010? The current trend is to inhabit second-tier cultural centers, places where there is not a history of being a major cultural center. So Portland and Pittsburgh are acquiring their share of boho life, even Detroit is experiencing a revival of sorts, but it's seeming like a major migration has ended. Now all of the "prime" places have been taken by those with six-figure paychecks and it's up to the secondaries to pick up the, er, slack. ;-)

So what happens next? I'm betting that the movement moves back out to the suburbs. New Urbanism, which has been simmering for 20 years, seems to be gathering steam and, frankly, it's not because people are suddenly realizing how much more sense it makes; I think developers are realizing that there's a growing market for a new suburban Bohemia, a brand new, prefab, simulated, yet comfortable environment that symbolically links the values of the urban creative class to the manufacturing technology of the burbs. There are already loft-style developments in non-urban settings and I've heard of a suburban development that attempts to mimic the loft-style architecture of downtown, which—at least in San Francisco—is already a copy of actual loft spaces. From there it's only a matter of time before someone starts building suburban developments that refer to the symbolism of artist colonies in the same way that retirement villages refer to outdoor living. Kerouac Court, here we come!

[Or, at least, that's was my thinking about the US and Europe back in October when I wrote this. Since then I've read a bunch about the growing middle class in China and I think that the real next cool place is going to be there. The educated classes are becoming sufficiently affluent to be able to have the time to create a Bohemian intellectual environment, an artist/rebel/philosopher class. I wouldn't be surprised if there was already an expat community in Shanghai and Beijing.]

[2/19 addendum. Jon Logan, a DJ living in Shanghai, sent the following in response to this post:

in fact, shanghai already is ostensibly the hot hip
city of the new century... or, perhaps, was. the crest peaked in
2002, they say. real estate is skyrocketing and people are falling
all over themselves to get rich. car ownership is exploding and the
advertising industry is the biggest growing business here. mobs of
money is moving from hongkong into the mainland by way of shanghai.

kind of a bittersweet situation, actually, seeing this relentless
drive for development.

there's a *huge* expat community here. funny thing is, most people
dont know that china slipped out of its mao-suit wearing,
chickens-in-the-street guise fifteen years ago. while america was
busy downplaying china as backwards communist, they were busy
converting to 100% capitalism in everything but the name.

shanghai is like any other international city now; there are
starbucks on nearly every corner and i swear something like 90% of
the population has cell phones. the cool thing though is that in all
the alleys and side streets, you can find the old china, which means
friendly old folks who've never talked to a westerner, or bowls of
steaming fresh noodles for 25 cents.

cool place. feels like san francisco a la 1999, except its the full
spectrum: everything is booming here, not just the IT industry.

some sites to prove my point:

Thanks, Jon!]

Linksys has included Matt Jones' Warchalking card in the appendix to the manual (PDF) for their latest wireless router (on page 68), but they've definitely not done in as promotion of his ideas. In fact, quite the contrary:

Wireless networks are easy to find. Hackers know that, in order to join a wireless network, your wireless PC will typically first listen for "beacon messages". These are identifying packets transmitted from the wireless network
to announce its presence to wireless nodes looking to connect. These beacon frames are unencrypted and contain much of the network's information, such as the network's SSID (Service Set Identifier) and the IP address of the network PC or router. The SSID is analogous to the network's name. With this information broadcast to anyone within range, hackers are often provided with just the information they need to access that network.
One result of this, seen in many large cities and business districts, is called "Warchalking". This is the term used for hackers looking to access free bandwidth and free Internet access through your wireless network. The marks
they chalk into the city streets are well documented in the Internet and communicate exactly where available wireless bandwidth is located for the taking.

Of course they have every reason to get people to buy more routers, and closing networks is an easy way to do that, but it's interesting to see how they're envoking "hacker" boogeymen throughout the description, after implying some kind of vulnerability created by beacons (which they describe in a way that's clearly not designed to describe what beacons are, but to imply that there's this scary highly technical vulnerability that should be closed off immediately).

Silly, but it just shows how confused people are about bandwidth and property.

Following the threads of the Ambient Intelligence stuff I just found, I found the Grenoble Smart Objects conference that happened last spring. Again, it looks much along the lines of what I've been thinking and I'm very happy to have found it. It's not surprising--Don Norman DID write The Invisible Computer like five years ago--but it was all theoretical then. It's nice to see that it's becoming real now.

Even better, they have the proceedings of the conference online. That's the way it should be.

It's really exciting (and humbling) to find an entirely new vein of thought that's deeply resonant with what you've been thinking. The people behind ITEA's Ambience Project seems to be thinking along much the same lines as I was when wrote my Expectations in a World of Smart Devices essay. They even had a Symposium to talk all about it, back in November. Granted, their focus seems to be more along technological lines than the user expectations-driven axis I'm currently focused on, but it's definitely the same ballpark.

Here's a definition I like:

Ambient Intelligent environments can be characterized by the following basic elements: ubiquity, awareness, intelligence, and natural interaction. Ubiquity refers to a situation in which we are surrounded by a multitude of interconnected embedded systems, which are invisible and moved into the background of our environment. Awareness refers to the ability of the system to locate and recognize objects and people, and their intentions. Intelligence refers to the fact that the digital surrounding is able to analyze the context, adapt itself to the people that live in it, learn from their behavior, and eventually to recognize as well as show emotion. Natural Interaction finally refers to advanced modalities like natural speech- and gesture recognition, as well as speech-synthesis, which will allow a much more human-like communication with the digital environment than is possible today.


The Berlin and Beyond film festival is in SF and Ben and I went to see one of the films last night, Lichter (or Distant Lights in English, here's a synopsis). It was in much the same genre as Traffic. That film's tagline, "no one gets away clean" can apply here, too. What's different about this film is that rather than trying to tackle the problems of the central narrative element--smuggling people and cigarettes across the German-Polish border--head-on, it tells a more subtle story about human frailty, need, trust and betrayal. The characters, and there are many in its six (five? it's hard to keep track) parallel stories are all more than the roles they play. Traffic, an excellent film, made its characters iconic, representational of the roles of people in their position, and so made them statements in a debate on drug smuggling. Distant Lights doesn't seem to want to debate policy, it's much more concerned about how the situation, the border, forces people to confront themselves, their aspirations and each other. In a way it's a pretty serious downer of a film, since it provides no answers and--frankly--doesn't even articulate any questions, but it's a really powerful statement about what it takes to make choices and how contingent our choices are. As filmmaking, it's one of the most subtle, well-edited and tightly-written films I've seen in a long time and I highly recommend it.




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