Friday, October 6, 2006

Schulze & Webb grasp good design

Jack Schulze & Matt Webb, two of the most talented and fun people I know, have a new blog: Pulse Laser.

(Get that title! It's almost as good as the crazy prog-rock-meets-Archigram aesthetic they seem to dig as well. I mean, how can you go wrong with a "spaceships and politics!" - not to mention "more exploration of robot arms" - approach to "design, the new world of product, and interactions"?! Matt and Jack rock my world. )

But seriously, there's some good thinking and writing and drawing going on there already - although I am having some problems with the feed link (a little help guys please?).

Discussing Timo's recent, and most excellent, post on the dashed line, Matt notes that "the dashed line for RFID is doubly appropriate first because the field is invisible and, second, because indicated interaction hasn’t happened yet–it exists only in potential." Indeed!

And this post on model-train hobbyists reveals the kinds of genuinely ethnographic sensibilities that Matt works with (I like to think this has something to do with our excellent conversations over the years ;)). Notice the detailed observations - the pointing and describing of what he saw - as well as the attention given to cultural expectations of personal privacy. But then we get to the interpretive bits, the reflexive bits, and things get really interesting.

"Nothing has changed. The technology is the same as it was [18 years ago]–the trains are controlled with a voltage knob wired to the track, and the points are controlled by switches directly connected. I guess I was expecting some involvement of computers, or some automation… but maybe that’s not the point. I did see two chaps operating trains on the same layout, communicating only through on-layout signals, just as regular train operators would. It’s apparently very absorbing, operating the controls...I don’t know whether this was true when I last went to an exhibition, but the technology was surprisingly unreliable. Trains often needed assistance to get over a rough patch in the track, especially at slow speeds, and people were often doing small amounts of maintenance...I was surprised not to see any futuristic trains...Perhaps this is simply because layouts with more points are more exciting, and futuristic, high speed trains don’t work like that...But it was disappointing to see the lack of change over the past two decades..."

Matt's assumptions about technology, and his expectations of technological progress over time, become very apparent in these excerpts. But what if the values these hobbyists associate with their craft include the beauty and nostalgia of keeping history alive? Or the joyous absorption of manual work and constant maintainance? What if there is a desire to resist automation and ease of use? What could we learn then about what people want and expect from new technological designs?

Matt's thinking leads him to ask, amongst other things, "what a model railway hobby would look like using modern technology and an internet sensibility." This made me think of my dad and crystal radio hobbyists. The hobby involves old, sometimes even obsolete, technologies - and yet the hobbyist community uses the internet, a current technology, to stay connected. The model railway guys get together through public exhibitions; the crystal radio guys get together through newsgroups. Both hobbies are largely solitary activities, done in the privacy of their homes. But getting together with others who share the interest, and who can provide material support for it, is integral to the survival and development of the hobby - and to the technologies used by the hobbyists. I assume that a big part of the pleasure in each case involves the back-and-forth that happens between individual activity and social interaction. This back-and-forth action is also a big part of computer hacking, car-modding and crafting of all sorts. The exhibition, the conference, the auction - we need these spaces to come together to trade things and ideas. As Matt says, "Nothing has changed."

And as if that's not enough to hook me, Jack posts a sketch of "a phone dock that distributes all the things I use in the phone into discrete physical instances locally. Pretty self descriptive really, a receipt printer pushes out text messages as they arrive. To make a call, stamp out the number, or add a name card from the Rolodex, then pull down on the indicator lever, the end blinks while it rings and snaps back when the phone returns to idle or someone answers."

Wow. And actually, I think the pleasure in this design is very similar to that experienced by the model railway and crystal radio hobbyists: a tricky combination of simplicity and complexity, and perhaps as well a desire to directly manipulate, and thus genuinely grasp, how things work. Good stuff.


Blogger Phil said...

what if the values these hobbyists associate with their craft include the beauty and nostalgia of keeping history alive? Or the joyous absorption of manual work and constant maintainance? What if there is a desire to resist automation and ease of use?

I think these are exactly the right questions. Pretty fundamental questions, in fact - and I dislike and distrust technophiles like Schulze and Webb (and Archigram, for that matter), precisely because they don't ask them.

Blogger Matt said...

Phil, I hope I am able to ask these questions, and I think I do, in a lot of my work, look for and attempt to preserve existing practices. But obviously I don't as much as I could otherwise they would have come across more in my post about the model railways. I agree without reservation that they are the right and fundamental questions to ask.

I will plea one mitigating factor, which is that I was noticing a change in the hobbyists use of technology over the past couple of decades - in pursuit of those same values that Anne gave - rather than complaining that the hobby wasn't "up to date with progress" or whatever. I've attempted to go into more detail..

Anonymous anne said...

hey phil - that's a bit harsh, but you know i'll stand by my friends, don't you?! ;)

now seriously, matt & jack don't strike me as technophiles - geeks and enthusiasts for sure, but that's not the same at all. the bit about them being fun is not irrelevant either. i know some smart & competent people that are so arrogant and obnoxious that i'd rather never work with them - let alone have them in charge of designing for social concerns.

part of matt & jack's charm lies in their personalities and behaviours, which also speaks to their engagement with the genuinely pleasurable aspects of technological practice.

and i think it's worth noting that a sense of *appropriate pleasure and comfort* in specific technologies also informs the selective adoption of new technologies amongst historical luddites and contemporary anabaptists - but not so much amongst technophiles.

and thanks for commenting matt - the clarification in your summary post is also helpful.


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