The Betty Crocker Cruiser May 28, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
I have been reading Shop class as soulcraft by Matthew Crawford. So far, I have found it both a compelling read and an insightful critique of the supposed opposition between manual work and the good life.
The book touches on a number of interesting subjects but one in particular struck me as relevant for a design audience. Let me quote from Crawford’s remarks on how companies now encourage people merely to consume their “stuff” instead of mastering it, while deliberately conflating the two situations (pp. 66-67):
An ad for the Yamaha Warrior in the July 2007 issue of Motor Cyclist carries the caption “Life is what you make of it. Start making it your own.” The picture shows a guy in his home shop, focused intently on his Warrior. There are motorcycle parts on shelves above his ancient workbench, and a full stack of grungy, obviously well-used tool boxes in standard mechanic’s red. He’s not smiling for the camera; he’s lost in his work. A smaller caption reads, “The 102-cubic-inch fuel-injected Warrior. We build it. You make it your own.” Smaller still, it reads, “You only get one shot at life–may as well make it mean something. And when you start with the four-time AMA Prostar Hot Rod Cruiser Class Champion Warrior, then add your choice of Star Custom Accessories, the result is very powerful. And very personal.”
So it turns out, in the small type, that what the guy is actually doing is attaching some accessory to his bike. This is a little like those model cars where the child’s role consists of putting the decals on. Motorcycle culture retains a dim remembrance of the more involving character of the old machines, and the ad seems to gesture in that direction. Back in the 1950s, when the focal practice of baking was displaced by the advent of cake mix, Betty Crocker learned quickly that it was good business to make the mix not quite complete. The baker felt better about her cake if she was required to add an egg to the mix. So if the Warrior were to be christened with a street name, an apt one might be the Betty Crocker Cruiser, forged as it is in the Easy Bake Oven of consumerism.
Crawford’s comment is relevant for any designer and, indeed, for their educators. To my knowledge, many classes in engineering and other design fields emphasize ease-of-use. Students in a Human Factors class learn techniques for making devices intuitive for their users. Crawford points out that this emphasis serves the purposes of a broader design ideology, namely consumerism. Consumers use their gear until it breaks down or they get bored with it. Then, they turf it out for something else. This process is supposed to make users happy and producers happy. Consumers, in this sense, necessarily have a flaccid and passive attitude towards the things they own.
Contrast this attitude with one that Crawford calls spirited. The spirited owner develops an attachment to his gear and desires to find out how it works and how to fix it when it breaks down. This attitude inhibits the urge to throw stuff out when it does not behave properly or goes out of style. Thus, it is vastly different than consumerism, and has different implications for the environment, obviously, but also for designers.
Designing a machine to be easy-to-use often means making its inner workings opaque and inaccessible to the user. If all goes well, then the user can make the machine work without spending time understanding its workings or strengths and weaknesses. However, when the machine breaks or misbehaves, the owner is at the mercy of “service representatives” or simply finds it cheaper to buy a new one.
Crawford argues that the passive attitude encouraged by consumer items is bad for owners. Whatever its economic rationale, consumerism stunts people’s growth and self-realization. It makes them stupid. If so, then designers of people’s gear face a question: Is it always a good idea to make things so easy-to-use?
There must be some balance between challenge and ease-of-use in design, and I do not yet know what resolution, if any, Crawford has to offer. However, this issue strikes me as an excellent one to raise with students who are learning one or another of the design disciplines.
The Pill May 21, 2010Posted by J. Andrew Deman in : Uncategorized , comments closed
It is hard to deny that the single most influential development in pharmaceutical technology is the birth control pill. Penicillin, sure; synthetic insulin, yes; but in terms of radically realigning our culture and society, nothing in recent history trumps the pill. The fact that we still refer to it as “the” pill is perhaps the greatest testimony to it’s influence. So too, however, is the controversy surrounding it. The social tensions, conflicts, marches, riots and even random acts of violence that came out of the introduction of the pill (and in most cases still recur) indicate the radical nature of the change that it created. Furthermore, in some ways, this social upheaval is exactly what the pill was designed to do. A good concise history of its origins can be found at:
As the article notes, the synthetic hormone that constitutes the active ingredient of the pill existed years prior to its introduction. What really spurred the mass-production and distribution of the pill were a pair of women’s rights activists. What we may have here then is an interesting example of pharmaceutical advocacy. People trying to change the social and cultural context of the world through the development of drugs. Hard to deny that it worked. Some claims made about the effect of the birth control pill:
-enabled women to enter the workplace
-formed the basis of the “sexual revolution” (Hugh Hefner, for example, credits the pill for this)
-enabled the so-called “second wave” of feminism, which sought true gender equality (the first simply sought the right to vote).
Think, for a moment, about the ramifications of each of these claims. Think about what kind of effect dual income families have on an economy, on a culture, on the basic composition of the nuclear family. Think about what the sexual revolution did to Western culture, how it changed the way we date, marry, flirt, even just how we view members of the opposite sex (or same sex for that matter). Think about how the feminist movement has altered our social and cultural landscape. Then think that the source of all this change, all of this controversy and all of this radical restructuring of our society, was a pill. A pill did that; the pill.STV202 , comments closed
Probably you have heard that the government of Pakistan has ordered Internet service providers in the country to block Facebook access. The reason is a Facebook page that encourages people to post pictures of Muhammed:
The Facebook page at the center of the dispute — “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day!” — encourages users to post images of the prophet on May 20 to protest threats made by a radical Muslim group against the creators of South Park for depicting Muhammad in a bear suit during an episode earlier this year.
My point is not to comment on the Facebook event nor on the Pakistani government’s reaction to it. But there is an aspect to the controversy that connects to a technology-and-society concept, namely motivated design. The objection to depictions of Muhammed, as the Wiki page has it, concerns idol worship.
The key concern is that the use of images can encourage idolatry, where the image becomes more important than what it represents.
So, if people regarded depictions of Muhammed as merely a means to remind them of his life and activities, all would be well, I assume. The worry is that this means could come to be regarded as an end-in-itself, something desirable for its own sake: Believers would value the images instead of what they represent. A ban on depictions is necessary to prevent this from happening, or so the argument goes.
Well, the thought pattern identified by this concern is real enough. However, motivated design is a problem only when evidence against the acceptability of the design is readily discounted. I would guess that, because this Facebook event is manifestly a provocative show of disrespect for the beliefs of at least some Muslims, no one is likely to regard the images produced as idols.
High levels of BPA in food cans May 19, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : Uncategorized , comments closed
Bisphenol-A (BPA) is an organic compound that is sometimes added to plastics to make them more ductile. Such plastics have been used for medical equipment and food containers. Concerns about bisphenol-A center on its connection with various neurological disorders, gland disorders, and cancers in humans. People are exposed to BPA through ingestion of foods into which it has leached from plastic containers.
Now the National Workgroup for Safe Markets has come out with a report claiming that canned foods, many of which are labeled as “healthy” or organic, contain an average of 77 parts per billion (ppb) of BPA. When the FDA last tested canned food in 1996, it found found an average of 16 ppb, or almost five times less than the average level of BPA found in the NWSM report.
The higher level is regarded as a serious health concern, although the level of concern appropriate is contested, of course. In any event, FastCompany predicts legislation from the US government to establish new tolerances for BPA in food containers.
I cannot help but compare this situation with that of climate change. In some ways, the situations are quite similar: BPA is leaching into foods, thus threatening the health of many, including newborns and other vulnerable members of the population; CO2 is pouring into the atmosphere, thus threatening the way of life of people around the world, especially those vulnerable to rises in sea levels or changes in rain patterns. Yet, in the first instance, action seems imminent while, in the second instance, action has been hesitant, when it has not been forestalled completely.
Why the difference? Well, there are important differences in the two situations. At a personal level, people are perhaps more likely to react viscerally to a poison than to an invisible atmospheric gas. Also, potential victims are reminded often of the problem, namely every time they open a can of beans or whatever. In addition, is seems more obvious where to apply the regulatory pressure: Producers of food cans are easy to locate whereas emitters of CO2 are ubiquitous and hard to reach with a single law (although a carbon tax on oil would come close). Finally, this problem is one for which there is an apparently tractable and technological fix: Change the way that food cans are made. As Farhad Manjoo pointed out regarding the project to fix the Y2K bug, to marshal support for a project, it helps that the project involves an activity we are set up to undertake anyway, such as updating computer software.
This point could be thought of as an argument for geoengineering: the redesign of the atmosphere to maintain agreeable conditions on the Earth’s surface. To solve the problem, apply the technological fix. However, it could also be viewed as another regrettable instance where a technological fix seems necessary because the people in developed countries lack the will to change their lifestyles instead.
Who needs a $30 Centrifuge? May 18, 2010Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV100, STV202 , comments closed
In March, I posted a story about how hobbyists were bringing high-tech to the people, via rapid-prototyping technologies like MakerBot. When people can make anything they can visualize, all sorts of neat things appear, like the DremelFuge.
It was this story that I thought of when I read about another cheap centrifuge: a thirty-dollar model built from a salad spinner by undergraduates at Rice University:
The centrifuge was designed as a project for a global health class. The students were asked to develop an inexpensive, portable tool that could diagnose anemia without access to electricity. They found that a salad spinner met those criteria. When tiny capillary tubes that contain about 15 microliters of blood are spun in the device for 10 minutes, the blood separates into heavier red blood cells and lighter plasma. The hematocrit, or ratio of red blood cells to the total volume, measured with a gauge held up to the tube, can tell clinicians if a patient is anemic. That detail is critical for diagnosing malnutrition, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and malaria.
Which strikes me as a clever adaptation of an existing technology (similar to the eggbeater-centrifuge), and certainly a useful contribution to Rice’s “Lab in a Backpack“. Last year, these efforts helped rural villages in Ecuador gain access to improved healthcare.
At the same time, it’s not hard to be a little cynical of these western approaches to development assistance. When the outcome depends on having access to a salad spinner (or an egg-beater) it doesn’t seem like a technology suitable for transfer. Appropriate technological transfer generally requires a movement of appropriate skills and resources plus an appropriate use of local skills and resources. Yes, students might successfully lug the spinner in their backpacks across campus, but what happens when the plastic gear train breaks in the “remote jungles and mountains”? As one snarky blog commenter noted, “Crate and Barrel locations in West Africa (or South America) are often short of salad spinners”.
This is not to disparage the efforts at Rice, or any other engineering-driven attempt to help the Third World (such as Waterloo’s remarkable Engineers Without Borders), and I’m sure the spinner will come in handy and almost certainly help save lives. But isn’t this half a solution until people in the underdeveloped world can recognize and solve their own problems? And do we need to tell them what their problems are?
I’m honestly not sure. Like many people at North American universities, I’ve never been to Africa, and as John Perry Barlow put it over 10 years ago, “Everything you know about Africa is wrong.” Maybe I’m just being overly sensitive to past imperialist technological endeavors. I discovered the $30 centrifuge via Futurity.org, a clearing house of “news from leading research universities” with promises to reveal the future but where are the breathless stories and press releases detailing Third World innovations? Although last week’s guest-edited Globe and Mail about the future of Africa was impressive, the blog Africa Unchained provides a broad coverage of Nigerian, Kenyan, Rwandan and other innovations, inspired by George Ayittey’s ideas of Africans solving African problems. This is an area I’ll continue to follow.
On Ethics and Robo-Ethics May 12, 2010Posted by J. Andrew Deman in : Uncategorized , comments closed
Discussions of ethics in our treatment and use of robots or artificial intelligence are old. Very old in fact. Today’s generation has been raised on such cultural icons as HAL from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” The Terminator Franchise, and Isaac Asimov’s “I, Robot” (not to be confused with Will Smith’s “I, Robot,” which, to apply a technical term, sucks). In spite of our cultural fascination with Robo-Ethics, media coverage of some very real manifestations of what was once a purely hypothetical issue, relegated to the realm of Science Fiction, has been surprisingly sparse. Robots are now actively employed in military operations and although they don’t look like the Terminator, or Robocop, or even that freaky giant sentient glowing dreidel thing from Tron, we now live in a world where robots are indeed killing human beings (either directly or indirectly).
The ethical issues surrounding this practice are well-phrased in the following article from 2006.
Essentially, iRobot (makers of the decidedly non-lethal Roomba vacuum) are using their technology – and profits from poor naive pacifists who never imagined that by buying a robot vacuum they would be supporting the production of lethal robots – to build robot weapons. The ethical conundrums here are many and varied.
Furthermore, there’s a morbid irony to the company’s name. iRobot is named, as you might guess, after “I, Robot,” Isaac Asimov’s short story collection that analyzes (through a series of elaborate scenarios) the ethical dimensions of robot/human co-existence. Asimov’s work moves beyond speculation, however. “I, Robot” is considered the founding text of “Robo-Ethics,” an entire field that emerges from Asimov’s work, particularly his now famous “Three Laws of Robotics”:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Again moving beyond speculation, these three laws formed the basis for the proposed “Robot Ethics Charter” of South Korea, which sought to basically institute Asimov’s laws within the South Korean legal system.
Now, to avoid sounding alarmist, it’s important to note that there’s very little (by which I mean zero) chance that an armed iRobot drone is going to go rogue and run off on a killing spree – not even in the event of a rare planetary alignment or direct lightning strike. At the same time, though, what we’re seeing here is an important precedent in the history of Robo-Ethics, one that holds the potential to define our relationship with our robotic technology. As that technology becomes increasingly ubiquitous, these ethical questions may prove far more significant than they are currently perceived to be. Something to ponder.
Random design May 11, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
One standard of good design is that it should be rational. Following Herbert Simon’s theory of bounded rationality, this means that a design should be known to work, in so far as limited knowledge and predictive capacity permit.
Now, consider the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Early attempts to control the leak by capping it have failed. Without the immediate prospect of other means of relief, all bets seem to be off. Into the breach steps Stephen Colbert. Noting that “no one knows what the f*ck they’re doing,” he brings out an “Oil containment solution randomizer” to generate novel designs to stem the tide of unwelcome ooze.
(Image courtesy of RawReplayMedia. This link may work in Canada only.)
Well, a new design paradigm is born and, despite being hopelessly irrational, I like the sound of bundled used futons delivered by that hot chick from Mythbusters better than that of an underground nuclear explosion.
Airport scanners May 7, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
You have probably heard that X-ray scanners will be used at airports to detect illicit items on travelers. The scanners will develop an image of each traveler who passes through the device, so that airport security staff can examine the image for bombs, scissors, hand soap, and other threats. In the interests of privacy, the images are to be deleted after this use.
(Image courtesy of Jarekt, Wikimedia Commons)
Now we have news of an incident involving an airport security person who was teased by his coworkers after a test scan revealed that he had a small penis. After some days of this teasing, the man became angry and assaulted one of his tormentors. Assault charges are pending.
Hopefully, travelers will not be subjected to the amused responses of security personal to images of their private parts. Image evaluations can be done from a separate location, by people who are not in view of travelers. One wonders, though, how well those personnel could keep their minds on their jobs. Mall security personnel are somewhat notorious for using parking lot (or structure) closed circuit cameras to look for couples having sex in their cars. Well, staring at parked cars for a living is pretty boring. Is airport security likely to be any different?
What sort of privacy do people want? May 4, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
Farhad Manjoo writes in an article on Google and privacy that people really want control and not privacy, as such. He contrasts two recent moves by Google:
- In 2009, Google introduced behavioral advertising, where Google tracks the Web-surfing activities of its users in order to identify what advertising they might best respond to. Google provided an Ads Preferences Manger that provided people with control over how the system affected them.
- Google recently introduced Buzz, a social networking tool in which your list of contacts was populated by your most frequent Gmail correspondents. The population occurred without warning or the ability to opt out.
Behavioral advertising was readily accepted whereas Buzz created a stir of complaints about privacy violations. Manjoo concludes that what people like is not privacy, which both systems compromise, but control, which only the first provided.
First of all, this way of putting things is confusing. What is privacy? It is usually parsed into two components along the following lines:
- Control over the information that others have about you.
- Control over the ability of others to interfere in your activities (“being left alone”).
Saying that people prefer control to privacy sounds strange because privacy is, in any case, a form of control.
Second, though, Manjoo has a point. He argues that people prefer control over interference (2) over control over information access (1). That may well be true.
But why? I would speculate that people may be more interested in what they can accomplish than in what is known about them. Imagine aliens on a far-away planet who are equipped with fantastic sensing equipment that enables them to record every detail of your life. However, the information is stored light years away and will never affect you: It will not help you gain your goals in life, nor prevent you from achieving them. Who cares?
On Earth, of course, the two sorts of privacy are more closely connected. Consider reputation. Your reputation consists roughly in the beliefs and attitudes that others have about you. Those beliefs and attitudes affect how others treat you and thus constrain what you can accomplish. So, control over information (1) affects control over interference (2). This connection is not always obvious, nor do privacy controls on Websites tend to raise these issues with their clients.
Maybe there is a design solution available. Privacy controls are often framed in terms of control over information. You know: “Do you want to share this photo with (1) no one, (2) friends and family, or (3) the public?” Instead, privacy controls could be framed in terms of what social strategies you prefer: “Are you (1) very, (2) somewhat, or (3) not concerned about how this information will affect your reputation?” Then the application could figure out information control settings that would suit your interpersonal values.