The genius of design June 29, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : Events , comments closed
I have recently watched a documentary series entitled The genius of design. The series consists of five parts, which are all accessible as playlists on YouTube:
- Episode 1, on design as a profession;
- Episode 2, on the development of modern design, concerning mass production and approaches to it through modernism in Europe and Industrial Design in the US;
- Episode 3, concerning the effect of WWII on design and mass production, contrasting the emphasis on quality in Nazi Germany versus the rough-and-ready approach adopted by Germany’s enemies;
- Episode 4, about the role of plastics in modern design, from high hopes to humdrum;
- Episode 5, about design from the era of plastic (did that ever end?) until the iPod.
The series is well made, with an appropriate mix of product shots, talking heads, and sound bite philosophy. (I mean that in a good way.) Each episode leaves the viewer with some interesting information but without glib pronouncements, although episode one comes close to being a mere paen to genius of designers in shaping the world we live in. Instead, we are invited to consider the problem of whether or not design, meaning industrial design, has served society well. Have a look and see what you think.
Lawyering 2.0 June 24, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
The Web provides a bazaar of ways in which users can do for themselves things that would otherwise require expert help. Another example of this sort of opportunity is Cybersettle.com. This service allows people to negotiate a settlement to a lawsuit involving damage claims. Suppose, for example, that a City snowplow strikes your car and damages it. To seek redress, you hire a lawyer and sue the City in court, right? Problem is, lawsuits can be messy, complicated, and inconvenient, at least for the non-lawyers. This new service would allow you and the city to negotiate a settlement online, by making offers and counteroffers until you alight on a mutually satisfactory figure.
(Image courtesy of Tene via Wikimedia Commons.)
As TechnologyReview points out, this process could make a costly and unpleasant experience much less so:
Law, with its enormous volume of interlocking arcana, seems prime territory for automation. Cybersettle says that it has already facilitated the settlement of over a quarter of a million claims for some of the largest insurance companies, corporations and municipalities in the country. It’s a trend that could see even less employment for lawyers used to helping their clients go through the motions on routine matters like settlements.
This service does sound intriguing. It might be very handy to make short work of the negotiation process. Also, if the service also provides a database of previous settlements to search and consider, then it could make the settlement process considerably more fair than it already is. Knowing how similar suits have been settled would tend to bring equitable consistency to the process.
As always, there are concerns, e.g., privacy. Who would have access to your settlement data? The police? The tax-man? Your employer? Also, such a system might require integration into the existing court system. For example, accessing court records is currently done by pencil and paper forms in Ontario. So, use of a Web-based settlement system might require the government to fund changes to existing legal practice.
Then there are potential unintended consequences to consider. For example, Jevons’ Paradox suggests that making a process more efficient can actually lead to an increase in its expenditure. In this case, making legal settlement seeking more efficient might induce people to file more lawsuits. After all, they are now so easy to finish! People already complain about the number of lawsuits launched; presumably they would complain more about an increase in that number. Along the same lines, could this service make people less tolerant of each other? Today, you might forgive the city, or your neighbour, for putting a minor ding in your car. However, if suing them becomes easy enough, then why not?
Your $lide is my drug! June 17, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
(Image courtesy of the US Navy courtesy of Wikimedia.)
Happily, it turns out that Microsoft is on the job. David Karle, an executive communications manager with the company, is liasing with the military to help them get their habit under control:
The basic idea behind Karle’s Method is to introduce “simplicity, cleanliness and a very refined and simple tool set” to plan a presentation.
[Karle] offered his Method as a way for people to focus on the goals of their presentations, rather than getting hung up on the technology — which results in the tangle of boxes and arrows that give PowerPoint its bad reputation.
The Method is a library of standard graphics, templates, and best practices tips for military personnel to access when creating presentations.
Will it work? Well, my impression of the US military is that it tends to be rule-bound, meaning that it focuses on procedures even when that it not appropriate. Things must be done “by the book”. So, another set of rules, that is, the Method, will just make the process of presentation making more arduous than before.
Karle does suggest that sometimes presenters should not use Powerpoint but instead use Word or a whiteboard, if the situation calls for it. I am sure that is good advice, but is it a cure for the addiction?
Perhaps the military should re-examine its need for presentations. Do so many communications have to take the form of meeting and briefing? I am not suggesting the use of mime, but perhaps they could revive the old-fashioned art of conversation. Or, if they are incurably smitten with communication via computers, perhaps Wikis or blogs would be better sometimes? Whatever his virtues, it is unlikely that David Karle considered such a recommendation. He does sell Powerpoint, after all, and the ultimate message behind Powerpoint, as Marshall McLuhan might argue, is that communication must take the form of bullets, charts, and animated graphics. The only question is, “how many”?
Can you bronze an e-book? June 17, 2011Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV100 , comments closed
So, what happens to old technologies when new technologies show up and take over? They become obsolete and fall from use, right? Well, it’s not always that simple.
It rarely the case that the old technology disappears overnight. There is an uptake curve and a discard curve, as different groups discover the new technology and set aside the old. The process can take years or decades or more. For example, while the idea of steam engines as the driving force of the Industrial Revolution is a popular notion, the use and influence of steam was varied. Indeed, in many industries water wheels remained a significant power source into the late 19th century, just as muscle (human or animal) was not replaced by mechanization on the typical farm well into the 20th century. Living in the Waterloo Region we are reminded by the local Old Order Mennonites that some technologies may never be discarded and others never accepted; there are farms five minutes from where I’m sitting without connections to the electrical grid.
And so, as I was listening to an In Our Time podcast about the Iron Age, the host rightly did not begin with iron, but its antecedent bronze. Interestingly, the Bronze Age required a remarkable and complex set of trading networks: copper and tin often did not appear in the same spot, but archeologists have found bronze artifacts everywhere across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. The raw materials were being traded, the final products were, or both. In any case, working with iron was simpler in the sense that it can be found much more readily but harder in that it was physically much harder to work. Nonetheless, it proved to have a superior utility for many objects, taking a much better edge than bronze knives or weapons, for example. Thus bronze became obsolete and disappeared. Not so fast, said one of the guests. First of all, it took decades, even centuries for the transition to occur as different groups discovered or otherwise acquired the techniques. Additionally, bronze metallurgy didn’t really disappear, it just shifted towards the smaller production of cultural objects and artisanal work. Statues, medallions, jewellery, and the like.
Which made me wonder about more modern examples. What came to mind was the book. Yes, it appears that the paper-based Bio-Optic Organized Knowledge device once known as the codex may be obsolete. At least, it seems to be in trouble, given the shuttering of publishers and bookstores. Although Amazon will not disclose sales figures for the Kindle, its e-book reader first released in 2007, as of May 2011 it admitted that e-book sales exceeded all paper book sales. After only four years! Well, only four if we conveniently ignore that electronic texts have existed for decades: the Oxford English Dictionary was digitized at uWaterloo in the 1980s, Project Gutenberg began in 1971, and automated language translation projects were launched in the 1950s, only a few years after the first computers was built. Oops.
But what strikes me is that the book isn’t going away or likely to disappear, at least not any time in the next four years. Instead, I would expect a greater emphasis on artisanal publications: small print runs, artistically-driven choices in paper, bindings and covers. Hand stitched, no doubt, and handmade paper. There’ll be a premium of some kind but that will create that much more exclusivity.
Last fall, when the Giller Prize for Canadian Fiction was announced, the demand for copies of the the winning book, The Sentimentalists, was enormous. Unfortunately for the tens of thousands of eager readers the publisher, Gaspereau Press, could produce only one thousand copies a week. To wit:
Employing a wide range of modern and antiquated production techniques and technologies, Gaspereau Press creates books that marry function and form. From limited-edition letterpress projects to Smyth-sewn trade paperbacks with handprinted jackets, every project carries some trace of the human mind, eye and hand. The result is a unique publishing list of award-winning books – affordable, beautiful, and designed to endure.
Eventually, a deal was reached for another publisher to produce a mass-market copy and e-book, but from what I’ve been told by my local bookseller, there is still a backlist for the Gaspereau edition. And why not? They are, as described, beautifully designed and made. You just have to wait. The mass market edition looks and feels like it came from a indifferent machine, never touched by a human, and one can hardly describe the e-book version any different.
Clearly, e-books and readers have many advantages over paper editions, but they will never win in terms of the “feel” or exclusivity. Just as first editions or signed copies are prized by bibliophiles, so to will be the paper copy in the electronic age. I fully expect they will benefit from greater attention and emphasis on the form as publishers and designers continue to explore (and rediscover) the book with a much more narrow audience in mind.
Your robot co-driver June 15, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
According to this FastCompany article, researchers at MIT have been designing prototype automated driving systems. One of the goals of this research is to develop a kind of co-driver, a program that tracks your driving and that of other drivers around you so that it can intervene in the case of an emergency:
… they’ve built an algorithm that tries to predict how cars will accelerate and decelerate at intersections or corners and can thus compensate to move itself out of an area where it predicts the two vehicles could collide while maneuvering. It uses a game theory-like decision system, grabbing data from in-car sensors and other sensors in roadside and traffic light units, elements of the future intelligent driving system.
Imagine the first time that you are approaching an intersection and the car countermands your driving instructions, e.g., your use of the accelerator, to slow down to reduce the risk of collision.
(Image courtesy of Magnus Manske via Wikimedia Commons.)
It sounds like an intriguing development, and who would not approve of a system that seems likely to save lives? Of course, there could be unintended consequences. Readers of this blog will probably ask themselves whether or not this safety system could induce drivers to be more careless in their driving practices, on the assumption that their robot co-driver will bail them out of any difficulties. In his book Why things bite back, Edward Tenner discusses examples of how safety equipment in sports, for example, made players more reckless or aggressive, resulting in more frequent or more devastating injuries. The failure of anti-lock brakes to reduce accidents has been attributed to similar causes, so the concern is plausible.
Beyond that, the development of robot co-drivers poses some thorny ethical issues. It appears, for example, that the aim of the current system is to save the life of the driver in an accident. However, why is that outcome the best one to aim for? If the car finds itself in a situation where a bad accident, a pile-up, say, seems likely, then it might be preferable to sacrifice the driver in order to save others in the vicinity. This scenario sounds somewhat like the notorious Trolley problem, in which people are asked what they would do if they had to, for example, push a man under a trolley in order to prevent it from running over a group of others standing on the tracks further away.
In driver education, we do not train drivers to make these sorts of calculations. Instead, folklore suggests that drivers instinctively protect themselves. In the folklore of driving, the front passenger seat of a car is known as the death seat because a car driver will swerve away from an oncoming vehicle, thus placing the person in the passenger side between the driver and the threat. This maneuver is not a calculated decision, just a natural instinct in a split-second situation. Of course, a computerized co-driver with lots of information about the situation may well have the opportunity to decide who gets to live and who does not. So, we need to think about how this decision is to be made. Is it, as in the movie I, robot, to be based on a risk assessment? If so, how? If not, why not? How would you program the co-driver to behave in such circumstances?
Virtual worlds and prison labour June 9, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
I recently came across this article describing how Chinese prisoners are being made to play World of Warcraft in order to enrich their guards. Prisoners, who are sent to work in coal mines, for example, during the day, are put to work playing the virtual reality game at night. There, they earn credits that they then turn over to the guards, who sell them to gamers overseas for real money:
“Prison bosses made more money forcing inmates to play games than they do forcing people to do manual labour,” Liu told the Guardian. “There were 300 prisoners forced to play games. We worked 12-hour shifts in the camp. I heard them say they could earn 5,000-6,000rmb [£470-570] a day. We didn’t see any of the money. The computers were never turned off.”
Well, there’s another reason not to get locked up in a Chinese prison!
(Image courtesy of juanpol via Flickr.com.)
The practice of outsourcing WoW gameplay for money is called “gold farming” and is not new. It is the basis of a sizable industry in China, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere. Even as a legitimate business, the work does not sound too great:
At the end of each shift, Li reports the night’s haul to his supervisor, and at the end of the week, he, like his nine co-workers, will be paid in full. For every 100 gold coins he gathers, Li makes 10 yuan, or about $1.25, earning an effective wage of 30 cents an hour, more or less. The boss, in turn, receives $3 or more when he sells those same coins to an online retailer, who will sell them to the final customer (an American or European player) for as much as $20. The small commercial space Li and his colleagues work in — two rooms, one for the workers and another for the supervisor — along with a rudimentary workers’ dorm, a half-hour’s bus ride away, are the entire physical plant of this modest $80,000-a-year business. … Collectively they employ an estimated 100,000 workers, who produce the bulk of all the goods in what has become a $1.8 billion worldwide trade in virtual items.
If the work is so dull and unrewarding that players are willing to farm it out to others, then I can only think that it must be somewhat degrading for the people who do end up performing it. However, some employees seem to enjoy the work, at least some of the time. Also, doing dumb things for wealthy foreigners is the basis of many an industry, and I would hate to put 100,000 people out of work.
Of course, forced labour is another matter. Perhaps WoW could be changed just to auction or sell people credits (or artifacts, or levels) if they care to buy them. The British used to buy and sell commissions as officers in the Army. The presence of rich idiots in the officer corps did not help the Army, but I do not see that the same consideration would apply to WoW.
Modernism and public taste June 7, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Today, I want to continue the item that I discussed in the previous blog. It concerned Henry Dreyfuss’s argument that industrial design has elevated, not decreased, the level of good taste in the general population.
Besides his problematic argument about attendance at art shows, Dreyfuss makes another argument for his case based on a comparison of goods from the 1930 and 1955 Sears Roebuck catalogs. Pictures of heaters, toasters, chairs, weight scales, sewing machines, and stoves from each era are shown side-by-side for easy comparison. I cannot reproduce the figures here but I will put up similar pictures below.
(A reproduction 1930s-style toaster; image courtesy of Cfrederico via Wikimedia Commons.)
(A reproduction 1950s-style toaster; image courtesy of Donovan Govan via Wikimedia Commons.)
So, is the modernist toaster below aesthetically superior to the earlier one above? One thing you have to give the later design is that it looks safer. With the earlier design, the user had to open the side doors of the toaster in order to flip the toast around manually, if both sides were to be toasted. That maneuver meant that the user’s hands were exposed to the heating elements in the middle, which could result in burns or, at least, discomfort. The pop-up toaster protects the user from the heating elements and thus is much more inviting. A similar point could be made for the sewing machines that Dreyfuss displays: The older one has more of the mechanism exposed, presenting more opportunities for the sewer’s fingers to get caught (or stabbed) than the later, better encased model.
Dreyfuss also contrasts two chairs from each catalog. The first is a wicker rocking chair whereas the second is a simple living room chair. Have a look at the examples below.
(A reproduction wicker rocking chair, courtesy of Amazon.com.)
(1950s style chair, courtesy of Justin and Elise via Flickr.com.)
Like the modernist toaster, the newer chair model is much simpler and less fussy than the wicker chair. However, it looks less inviting to me. It is just too severe. Also, the back is too low and would not support the upper torso of a taller person. The rocking chair appears to have better padding, and the rocking motion is allows can be quite soothing and welcome.
Finally, compare the two electric stoves below.
(1930s electric stove, courtesy of kthread via Flickr.com.)
(1950s electric stove, in the right corner, courtesy of m kasahara via Flickr.com.)
Note that older stove is much more spread out and includes a large empty space under the stove top. The newer model, by contrast, is much more compact. Also, as you can see in the photo, the newer model fits in with the kitchen counter top, whereas the old model would place the oven right in the way. Having said that, an advantage of the older model is that the oven is at eye level instead of knee height. I would have to agree that the newer model is better looking, if only because it seems more organized and less haphazard.
So, is Dreyfuss right? The argument, as stated, does not really work. At most, the catalog comparison shows that styles have changed, not that they have gotten better (or that they have improved the public taste). However, as I noted above, the newer designs appear mostly more convenient and safe, which is certainly in their favour. Also, it should be added, the items from the 1955 catalog would not look so out of place in a contemporary house, whereas the older ones mostly would. With the exception of some limited retro fads, people have not returned to the older designs.
Of course, the endurance of the 1950s style could be due to lock-in. The stove with oven beneath is preferred because stoves have to fit in with counter tops today, whereas stoves were more likely to be isolated in earlier kitchen arrangements. So, the persistence of counter tops could explain why the later model stove continues to be popular. Also, increased attention to the need to ship goods constrains their style severely. Older items were designed without much thought to how much it would cost to ship them to stores or arrange delivery to customers’ homes. Contrast this situation with the design of Ikea furniture, say, in which items are “knocked down”, that is, carefully squeezed in pieces into little boxes that can be shipped efficiently and which consumers can take home in their cars for final assembly. Although furniture and appliances are now designed for efficient shipping, thus reducing cost, that does not make them prettier.
Also, the change in style seems to bear witness to a preference for masculine appearance over feminine. That is, the older items are lighter, have more curves, and are more decorated, on the whole, than the new items. The latter are more heavy, rectilinear, and severe in appearance. If industrial design has taught consumers to prefer a more masculine aesthetic, then does that constitute progress? Not as such, I would think.
Nevertheless, the newer models do display in their appearance a concern for ease of use, compactness, and safety that people would reasonably prefer. Perhaps consumers have become more demanding about the looks of their appliances (if not furniture, where styles still vary quite a bit), at least where that appearance suggests safety and convenience. As that does sound like an improvement, we can thank Dreyfuss and his colleagues for educating the public through their work.
Rise in the level of public taste June 3, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
I have been reading Designing for people by the industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss. He was one of the pioneers of the field, perhaps best known for the design of the Bell series 300 and 500 telephones, the latter remaining the standard desk phone for the remainder of the century. (See also this discussion of his design for a thermostat.) His book is certainly well worth the read, in spite of the intervening years.
(Image courtesy of ProhibitOnions via Wikimedia.com.)
I took special notice of his defense of industrial design against accusations that it merely promotes consumerism. Dreyfuss characterizes the criticism in this way (p. 82):
They imply that Americans, in their worship of comfort and luxury, have so surrounded themselves with slick mechanization that their capacity to esteem the fine arts has become dulled or has disappeared entirely.
So, industrial designers make life more comfortable for people through making products more attractive or just more usable or disposable. This emphasis on ease coarsens the attitude towards art, whose appreciation requires the effort to cultivate taste. Thus, industrial designers are making Americans coarser than ever.
There is a touch of defensiveness here, perhaps because Dreyfuss got his start in the theater, designing sets and costumes and the like. In any event, Dreyfuss replies that industrial design actually improves the public level of taste. After all, he argues, good design in consumer products is much the same as good taste in the arts. The more that industrial designers provide the public with better designed goods, the more the discerning the public will become about all designs, including art works.
To bolster his point, Dreyfuss cites statistics showing that attendance at museums in New York City nearly equaled attendance at sporting events in 1954. If Americans care only for lowbrow activities such as baseball or football, then why do they show up at the American Museum of Natural History in such numbers?
This rejoinder is interesting and relevant, although it does not quite make the case. After all, his claim was that industrial design improves the level of public taste, not that enthusiasm for dinosaur bones will rival that for basketball. What we would need to know is whether or not attendance at art shows has increased since the arrival of industrial design. We would also want to control for confounding factors, e.g., the possibility that an increase in attendance at arts shows is due to better advertising, growth in income, a baseball strike, etc.
Nevertheless, the position that better industrial design tends to make the public more discerning and stimulated by the arts is worth investigating. However, I do not know of any studies that tend to confirm it, although some preliminary ones would not be too hard to conduct. In the meantime, what do you think? Have the carefully contoured curves of your new iPad made you more discerning? More interested in sculpture or painting?