the grid and its references (wobbling solutions, part 2)

Ryōan-ji (Shinjitai: 竜安寺, Kyūjitai: 龍安寺?, The Temple of the Peaceful Dragon), Zen temple, Kyoto. Here an image of the famous karesansui (dry landscape) rock garden

In the previous class we made several examples.

Can we find other similar cases? Let’s take a look at the famous Zen garden of Ryoanji in Kyoto and let’s compare it with an iPod (or if you prefer the Sony Walkman). Here again, there are some similarities: in both cases, we are faced with designed systems conceived to satisfy the desires of a single person (non necessarily one, but a Zen garden and an iPod are best experienced in a “solo” mode). In both case we have a sophisticated device designed for the aesthetic appreciation by a specific person.

Sony Walkman, 1979

Next, we try to organize all our examples upon a question going like: “who does what for whom?”. Where our focus is more on “who” and “whom” rather than “what”.

A design principle of computing is known as “Zero, One and Infinity”. In computer systems the various constraints should always be placed in terms of non-existence (zero), existence and uniqueness (a) or existence at any number (infinity). A computer to which you can not connect a webcam is OK, as well as one to whom you can connect one or an unspecified number of webcam. Still, a computer that can handle only three webcam is nothing short of despicable. If we get to talk about “things”, what are our categories (what are the more “appropriate” categories)? (3)

What kind of values can be associated to the linguistic variables “who” and “whom”? We begin with a single person (a bricoleur, a craftsman, someone who acts alone). Then we have a small group (a family, a club, a tribe, a small company), followed by a larger group (a corporation, a religion, the inhabitants of a city). The fourth and final group is everybody (or if you prefer, the mass). The reader will allow us to use “all” even in the cases where we actually have “almost all” or even “a good portion of humanity.” Turning to pronouns and adjectives, we can say we have now four groups: I / We / Many / All.

We can try out our method on games, one of the few areas of human activities where we normally use the “how” principle as a way of listing and classification. There is the single person playing a card solitaire or tangram (one for himself) next to another person solving a crossword or a sudoku (one for another). Then we have chess or backgammon (one against one). Having three people, it starts to be fun to play board games like Risk or Monopoly (which are not so much fun with two players), all the way to games such as Diplomacy (again, you can play with just two players, but the optimum is seven). If the group is bigger, we can decide to introduce the “team” mode (a game of football for example) or to play “solo” within a bigger group (most of racing activities fall within this family). The size of the group can change. Small groups could row on a canoe or to get together to solve a puzzle. We should not forgot the “one against all” pattern (hide and seek or a lottery). The groups can then cooperative or internally competing (or the two things at the same time, see for example, Dungeons & Dragons). If we add computers and social networks then things become even more complex; the small group of friends playing a role-play or casino games extends to become a (potentially) infinite group made by people scattered all over the world.

Caravaggio, “I giocatori di carte”, 1594

But let’s quit the game world (much as we love it) to return to the realm of design.

What we did was to write down the most interesting examples we could come up, and gradually a small grid started to take shape. Our little Mendeleev table (forgive us for our arrogance), a table where we can place all of our object. Since we come from the XXth Century we couldn’t forget Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and his “less is more” tenet, so we worked on a bare-bones structure.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, “Farnsworth House”, 1946/51

Four rows and four columns. Good enough to start to begin our exploration.

In the sixteen classes of this course, we explore every intersection created by the action and will of a specific “who”(I, us, many, all) toward a second class of “who” (once again using the same four categories mentioned above).

The individual for the individual, the individual for the small group, the individual for the big group, the individual for all. Then we start again with the same exercise, this time having the “small group” as a subject dealing with the needs and desires of the individual, the small group of the big group, the mass). Box after box up, filling up the sixteen items of the matrix until we reach the last one (“the mass for mass”, or if you prefer: “all for all”).

This simple grid allows us to explore what we see as the sixteen founding families of “how” humans do things. Sixteen typical phenomena, looking at them in terms of case studies. We augment them with various observations and reflections that build further links of meaning (4).

At this point it may be useful to share with the students some of the conceptual references of reference we did use to come up with our theoretical exercise. First of all, we should go to the Marx’s idea of commodity fetishism (with the subsequent developments carried out by Gyorgy Lukacs, Guy Debord and Jean Beaudrillard) (5). As a complement, it is necessary to refer to the seminal text by George Kubler, “The Shapes of Time. Remarks on the history of things” (6). Finally we arrive to the recent: “Design of Everyday Life” by Elizabeth Shove. (7).

In technical terms, the framework within which we place ourselves is the so-called “practice theory”, an analytical framework applied in the “The Design of Everyday Life”. To summarize, the objects are surrounded, supported and justified by “practices”. These practices are the place of social interaction “a nexus of verbal and physical activities which unfolds and spreads over time” (8). This is the reason why we chose to define our 16 boxes referring to the “who”, completely ignoring very legitimate category such as the materials, the manufacturing process or the area of use.

The history of objects overlaps completely with the history of people. If we return to the original question: “who does what to whom”, you will soon dive into floods of subsequential questions: why? by what means? together with whom? what kind of resources? following what laws? using what kind of knowledge?

To talk about the latest iPad (an object belonging to the category of: “big group to big group / all”) without having clear that this object is just the last ring of a chain that reaches back in time all the way to the Apple-1 (an object belonging to the category of: “small group to small group”, it is the kind of shortcut that skips important bits of knowledge (perhaps the most important ones). For example, how did Apple manage to go from a two people company to a corporate empire, and why did this story take place in Silicon Valley rather then the American East coast (or other places) (9)?

Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Apple 1, 1976

Furthermore, how come the iPad user are a large group, while the Apple-1 was a tool for a few (about 200) fellows? What happened in these thirty years, and how can the iPad fit so effectively in so many practices (daily life, systems of values, economies)?

In a world where intellectual wail because nobody reads on paper anymore, someone has invented books-on-demand. The book-on-demand” system is a relatively simple technological infrastructure that lets us reprint some lost books of the past (let’s say the: “Introduction to down-hill skiing” by Carlo Mollino), or a collection of haiku written by you last night (eventually, even in a single copy). Literally, now everyone can be a writer.

Carlo Mollino, “Bisiluro”, 1954

In a similar way, at some point the iPhone arrives complete with development kit: all of a sudden we understand something very intriguing fact about the phone apps. We ourselves (or people approximately like us) can make these applications, we don’t have to rely on Nokia or Motorola engineers. In both examples we are dealing with sharp minds who stop to think about the “what” (a book of paper, an application for the phone) and put at their heart at work on the “how”: the ways in which people do “things” (10).

It’s a giant leap but not many people have understood it. For instance, the BlackBerry is a platform where developing and distributing applications is extremely laborious, complex and time-consuming. From our point of view this (and not the touch screen) is the main difference with the iPhone. The BlackBerry is designed for those who will use it (larger group / all). The iPhone design goes beyond the end esure and also keeps in mind a large community of developers. This is not a minor detail.

iPhone Applications (2009)

Notes

3. One of the things we love most about classification systems is that they want to be satisfied. An empty class wants to be filled with at least one instance, a numerical sequence wants to be extended in both directions. It takes a certain giddiness in thinking that in the sequence before “one” there should be “zero”. If we imagine that zero people “means” at least one machine, we can imagine scenarios where a stand-alone machine (how smart?) works to the benefit of people, or even – very exciting – people working for the benefit of machines.

4. In the world of design there is a large amount of brains devoted to the relation between conceptual grids (more or less defined and refined) and final results. Team X (team 10) architects (a group of influential architects very active in the second part of the twentieth century) were obsessed with this theme. To explore the world of thinkers who focus on the process and look to the final form as a mere function of the process, would be interesting but it would soon become another book. We still owe the reader pointers to giants of thought such as Ramon Lull and his “Ars Generalis Ultima” (also known as “Ars Magna”), as well as his amazing devices to formalize various elements of thought and communication (all of this between the 13th and 14th century!). John Cage is another master in this arena (as well as his disciple, Brian Eno: look up his deck of inspiration cards: “The Oblique Strategies“). Another key character is Christopher Alexander and his book: “The Pattern Language” (very important for architects as well as computer scientists). If you want to proceed toward digital worlds we cannot skip Will Wright (creator of “Sim City“, “Spore“) and his games.

Brian Eno, “The Oblique Strategies”, 1975

5. For the fetishism of commodities, we refer the reader to the “Capital”, Vol 1, Chapter 1, Sec. 4 from which excerpts: “A commodity appears at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. So far as it is a value in use, there is nothing mysterious about it, whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it is capable of satisfying human wants, or from the point that those properties are the product of human labour. It is as clear as noon-day, that man, by his industry, changes the forms of the materials furnished by nature. The form of wood, for instance, is altered by making a table out of it. Yet, for all that the table continues to be that common, every-day thing, wood. But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to dance of its own accord.”

And if you do not want to immerse yourself in the “Capital” more can be found in: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commodity_fetishism

Marx’s discourse then proceeds on: “…(Marx) argued that commodity fetishism tends to subordinate social relations among people to relationships between humans and objects: for example, the relationship between producer and consumer is obscured. The producer can only see his relationship with the object he produces, being unaware of the people who will ultimately use that object. Similarly, the consumer can only see his relationship with the object he uses, being unaware of the people who produced that object. Thus, commodity fetishism ensures that neither side is fully conscious of the political and social positions they occupy”

(from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commodity_fetishism).

It is also important to mention the subsequent developments of Marxian theory of value. Theories (although not directly connected) such as Freud’s sexual fetishism, or the work of Gyorgy Lukacs, where the concept of “reification” is intended to be the main obstacle for the class struggle (“reification” from the Latin “res”, “thing” or, to become one thing). Concepts derived from Marxist philosophy where we observe the process of the man abstracting from himself, his sense of humanity, to be regarded as a mere thing among things.

The work of Lukacs influences the subsequent theories of Guy Debord (the “fetish” is for Marx what the “spectacle” is for Debord) and Jean Baudrillard (who focuses on the role played by advertising in relation to consumers and to the construction of their identity ).

6. Kubler writes: “Let us suppose that the idea of art can be expanded to embrace the whole range of man-made things, including all tools and writing in addition to the useless, beautiful, and poetic things of the world”. By this view the universe of man-made things simply coincides with the history of art”. Kubler suggests looking at the history of art as a history of things, shifting aside the artists. He also suggests to understand history as a sequence of images and objects whose function is to respond with various solutions to problems in a constant flow. Kubler defines an overall framework where the processes of innovation, replication and change are in continuous dialogue through the different eras and different times.

George Kubler, “The shape of the time: Remarks on the history of things”, Yale University Press, 1962.

If the reader gets interested in the theories of Kubler, the next step and ‘reading: “The life of forms in Art” by Henri Focillon, Zone Books, 1992

7. “The Design of Everyday Life”, Shove, E., M. Watson, et al. (Berg, Oxford, 2007).

8. “Theories of practice emphasize tacit and unconscious forms of knowledge and experience through which shared ways of understanding and being in the world are established… …rather than existing in mental qualities, in discourse or interaction, the social exists in practice” (“The Design of Everyday Life”, p.12)

9. There isn’t just one answer. In June 2004, during a meeting with Terry Winograd, Stewart Brand, Clement Mok, Bill Moggridge, Bill Verplank (and some other key players of the digital revolution that blossomed in San Francisco in the late 70’s and 80’s), we asked them the question in a direct way. They all agreed on these main ingredients: the presence of successful entrepreneurs operating in the same area of activity. Namely the possibility to connect with previous generations. Previous generations also generous and willing to support the research and experiments of the “young” bunch), people such as David Packard (together with Bill Hewlett, founder of HP). The local top-level research centers and universities (Stanford and others). The specific and peculiar human material available in the Bay area. Generalizing (sometimes it is quite useful), if you want to earn lots of money then you go to Los Angeles. If you are in San Francisco your mind probably works in a quite different way…

Hence the importance of the overlapping of three different layers: engineering at the highest level (Stanford). The business-oriented environment (if you read the story of a company like HP you will notice the striking similarity with Apple: 1939, the two lone and brilliant inventors in their garage, $ 538 to start up, flipping a coin to determine if the name should have been be: HP or PH …). Last but not least, the presence of an excellent avant-garde scene of (all those things we generally label “American counter-culture” and its capital San Francisco). Beat poets, the Merry Pranksters, Timothy Leary, Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog gang. In one line: technical knowledge, antagonist knowledge (therefore free from any constraint and dogma), money (and the generosity needed to have access to it).

Stewart Brand (editor), “The Whole Earth Catalog” 1968/1988.

From this point of view, the individual (as conceived by the American counter-culture of the ’60s and ’70s) is a person very different from the one conceived by the corporate world. A complex mind, with a peculiar spin to launch special activties and business.

10. Sharp observers could compare the culture of an “hard-core” engineering company like Motorola (founded as a manufacturer of radios, televisions and other small consumer electronics) and the cultural universe of social and economic circumstances surrounding Nokia (a Finnish industrial conglomerate that did not work in telecommunications until the ’70s). From this point of view, the Motorola phone is always – in first place – a perfect piece of sophisticated engineering. While its Nokia version has always placed the user – his needs and desires – at the center of its productions. The Nokia phone isn’t generally a masterpiece of technique, but it is always appreciated and loved by its users for its ease of use and its simplicity.

Can we build a link between the features of Alvar Aalto architectures (buildings always celebrated and acclaimed for their human-centered approach, always establishing empathic relationship with the people living and using them) and Nokia phones? Furtheromore, what happens when in the commercial arena dominated by Nokia and Motorola we have the arrival of the Apple boys and their Californian post-hippie values?

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