Tuesday, February 21, 2006

It's a mad, mad, modular world

Click! - Work, play & LEGO (pdf) by Robert Willim

"Lego can be linked to the way in which images of Framfab as a company were created. The Mindstorms components and the colorful Lego blocks in the box caught the attention of visitors when they came to the office...In many respects, the Mindstorm props in the office harmonized with the image of innovative, deeply involved hackers...The blocks were like a discreet promise of playfully simple innovative products and growth. The pieces of Lego in their box became a motor that powered fantasies and images of the company. Through their power to symbolize and steer associations, they fitted the placing of Framfab in various media, particularly as a backdrop to politicians’ encounter with the young company...

A computer, like most other digital media, is a highly complex artifact. Using various modular solutions is a way to simplify both the use and the development of the technology. As a stage in this simplification it may be necessary to have models to think with. In the development of Brikks, something physical and material was therefore used as an aid to thought, to pinpoint what was going on under the shell of the digital equipment. This physical and material aid was Lego...Building with Lego means using prefabricated bricks which can be combined, within some limits, into various creations. Prefabrication recurs in several contexts connected with IT around the turn of the millennium.

Willim goes on to describe how the company is involved in "rhetorically prefabricating the future" of (their) technology-in-the-world, a focus I find particularly helpful in questioning the 'inevitability' of technology. And if we take that our words are always already embodied, then "pre-fabricating" objects with our words is even more interesting. (Note to self: I should ask Trevor about this - it has something to do with the virtual becoming actual.)

"Playfulness and pleasurable work are mainly a positive thing. Yet this does not mean that the attempts to integrate work and leisure at Framfab were without problems. Several of those who worked at the Framfab office were so involved for a time that it was difficult to discern whether they really did it because it was fun or were exploited as a result of their delight in their work...Working hours and the employees’ attitude to their work had to show flexibility. We are justified in speaking of flexploitation, that is, a give and take of freedoms and benefits on the part of the management. Employees were expected to be adaptable, and flexibility was simultaneously viewed as a kind of freedom."

This reminds me that adaptive architectures encourage modular solutions in both product and process. After all, these sorts of inscriptions and modulating forces are at the heart of control societies.

It's also interesting to note how all this future-building affected the everyday present of Framfab workers (and how that part of the process was excluded from their rhetoric):

"The work was not fun all the time, it was not always stimulating to work and be in the office. Especially at times just before deadlines there was not much room for playfulness. One of the employees with whom I spoke, for example, said that he felt like a zombie before a deadline. In these strategic periods, time became a paradoxical experience of stagnation and gloominess. Several of the people I interviewed also found the fragmentation of the work irritating. The days were timetabled in smaller and smaller parts according to a pattern which dictated that more work should be done in the same time. Time was cut up into pieces. The direction of day-to-day work thus became elusive. The present felt chaotic...In a for-profit stock-exchange-quoted company in which time is money, play easily crystallizes into something that gradually becomes less and less playful. This was never made visible in the rhetoric about the playful enterprise of the new economy."

For my purposes, I'm interested in what happens when the rhetoric doesn't match the reality - or maybe when the map no longer even tries to resemble the territory because its not connected in such a way that it matters. How do we understand our intervention in these processes? What sort of modular roles do we play in this modular world-building? How are we responsible to anyone or anything outside our own module(s)?


Anonymous Andrew said...

"Willim goes on to describe how the company is involved in "rhetorically prefabricating the future" of (their) technology-in-the-world, a focus I find particularly helpful in questioning the 'inevitability' of technology."

I can certainly see the appeal of this attitude, but it eerily reminds me of the attitude towards that "reality-based community" infamously dismissed by an "unnamed Republican aide" in a Ron Suskind NYT Magazine article in Oct 2004 (well-excerpted here.)

There's a term for "rhetorically prefabricating the future": faith. Suskind nailed it with this now well-known quotation in that article:

"The aide said that guys like me [Suskind] were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

(Aside: what an impressive peice of rhetoric that aide's statement is, especially the deft contrast between "empiricism" and "empire".)

It hadn't occurred to me before just how closely that thinking is to current attitudes about building tech businesses and products, especially web-based ones. Remixing and API mashups are one example of purely modular design at work. An API mashup really is "design-by-faith", in a way, isn't it? A creation of something new but ephemeral from elements not your own, which you expect to continue to exist in order to support your work.

The "endless beta" is an example of fabricating technology-in-the-world, in "real time" as it were. That's even closer to Suskind's aide's "acting to create our own reality."

Anonymous Andrew said...

(Shoot, I hit Publish too soon. Darn this technology-in-the-world.)

Design models and prototypes really are, then, a way of grounding faith in the world, which certainly helps explain the persuasive power of a good beta.

All of which is not to say that faith is bad, or that anti-rational approaches to parts of the design process (prototyping, blue-sky ideas, brainstorming, play) are somehow bad. Maybe it's that "design thinking" has permeated culture more deeply than we thought; all the way to geo-political strategy.

Blogger jaceee said...

hi Anne -- just some morning thots - Isn't 'modular' just a subset for the prescribed patterns of interaction that a (hierarchical) social system imposes on those who participate in the system. That a social system is built up of proscribed (accepted or imposed) pathways for individuals to exchange their energy. Modular is also an engineering term that arose directly from the broader concept of standards (-ization). It is these socially-determined patterns that actually create the social system itself. An 'open' system is one where the patterns are relatively less prescribed -- allowing participants to use "novel' ways of interacting. (where 'novel' can be alternately dangerous, surprising, creative, threatening, etc). Social systems can be measured by their capacity to accept different patterns of engagement. The modular is an attempt to restrict expression to a narrow band. And in this case, hopefully not to narrow as to alienate the creative impulses of those who have (voluntarily) decided to limit their possibilities in that way (money - the promise of greater social power & influence - lubricates that decision...)

Anonymous pseudomyn said...

I'm terribly disturbed by the idea of modular as it is being described. The inference and even the metaphor of a Lego describe such a mundane reality.

The "aide" is also desribing the worst aspect of this. The blocky square edged, add another layer of what we have readily available, whether it is a prefab steel room on your office or a prefab propaganda excuse for organized murder, reeks of unimaginative people doing what they already know and calling it creativity.

Organic is cancerous, self destructive, illuminating and ecstatic. Procreative, yes of course, from known subsets, but the opportunity for unplanned growth is far more available from something as granular as DNA, than an 'API mashup'.

Histories actors are also the World Social Forum, Tim Berners Lee, Bucky Fuller.

I'd posit that nanotech is going to alter the direction yet again, flipping from theoretical-determines reality, to actual physical spontaneous development requires understanding and application of abstract understanding to utilize. Yes, that model encompasses the 'original actor' policy decisions described by Suskind but that myth belies the premeditated quality of the current Bush regime's dusting off of Reichstag principles.

Social Science is capable of providing the opportunity for organic development by instilling a trust in the self, a reaffirmation of human potential to deal with technological uncertainties. Loving the process and providing legitimacy to the idea that life is fun might be really required to get through this little birthing process.

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