Friday, January 29, 2010

Objectified - 2009 Documentary Review

I did not know that Objectified was made by the same guy who did Helvetica, but both are very impressive documentaries that discuss ideas and trends around design from some of its savviest practitioners.
Objectified gives airtime to the designers who make the every day stuff we use - from toothbrushes to motor cars. It's not text bookish, but has plenty of insight, some lovely nuggets around philosophy and buzzwords like the democritization of design, democratic products. A designer muses on a japanese poet's haiku on the "obsessive sketch". It reflects briefly on the fact that inspite of CAD machines and rapid prototyping, the original prototypes for most products, including motor cars, are carved out by hand. The documentary also gives about five to ten minutes of screen time to Apple, with a designer explaining how they designed the unibody enclosure that's used in Macbooks.
I liked the idea of designing things that get better with use. Leather shoes and jeans have that atribute, as does an operating system with everything installed and configured to your liking. (it's one reason why I never like to flatten and reinstall my OS)
It also looks at the problem that most designers philosophically face - that of sustainability. A designer recounts how his boss found a discarded toothbrush that his firm had made a few months after it was launched at a beach in the Pacific. Manufactured Landscapes takes a much better look at this. imho
I think this one guy nailed it best when he asked for a billion dollars to fund a marketing campaign for "things you already own". Ha. Maybe a $2 frisbee would give you a lot more joy than the iPad. I'm just saying.

It's all very well articulated and put together. A transcript of some of the chain of thoughts from one guy from the docu: I think it's both topical and relevant.
The basic idea was good design is
something you want, good design
is something that distinguishes you,
it's sort of a mark of progress,
if you are a person who recognizes good design it
distinguishes you from all the naive and
corny bourgeois of the past, the past being
everything up to that minute.
So you can now buy into that, you can buy into
progress, good design, good taste.
And they had it available to you in a very attainable
Often the way that a product comes into being isn't
because a bunch of expert designers
sat down and said, "What are the ten most
important problems we can solve?"
There's a company that's writing a check. And what
the company wants is new SKU's,
they want more stuff, and they want more people to
buy it. And that's the name of the game.
We tend to want new things.
They can do something that has a different look, a
fresher look, a newer look,
a new-now, next-now kind of look.
And the problem with spending a lot of time
focusing on what's very now and very next
is that it isn't very forever. And that means it doesn't
last, because there's someone else coming along
trying to design what's now and next after that.
And part of their agenda,
whether it's over-articulated or not, is to make
whatever used to be now,
Iook like then, so that people will buy the new now.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Technology in this coming decade:

The current of Digit has an feature written by me, which serves as a five year timeline of emerging technologies in the computing and communications realm.

Here's an excerpt. For the rest, buy the damn mag cause it's really worth a read.

Computing in 2015
Forget 2012 and the singularity. We're going to try and envision the future of personal computers and technology in the year 2015.

To start off with this feature on future predictions, which will only deal with certainties, we would like to assure our readers that world is not ending in 2012. NASA, in fact had a news release dismissing claims about a phantom planet or galactic alignment which would bring the end of the world. "Even if these alignments were to occur, their effects on the Earth would be negligible." says a news release. "Each December the Earth and sun align with the approximate center of the Milky Way Galaxy, but that is an annual event of no consequence."

However, it is difficult to gaze in a crystal ball and project a grandiose vision for future of all technology, what with the whole gamut of futurologists like Arthur C Clarke, William Gibson and Neal Stephenson jostling for space in this beat. And then there's Thomas Friedman, and the likes of him who explain the world of globalization, chronicling the next big killer app, hotshot CEO in double page photo spreads. Even though there are no five year plans outside of the realms of socialist governments, especially in the field of computing and consumer electronics. However, given that we live in India, and get 3G close to a decade after Japan got it, it would be fairly easy to predict the future of tech five years from now by looking at what is happening around the world.

What makes this task somewhat difficult, is that some of our readers might actually scan this issue and put it up for laughter and ridicule in the year 2015. So we will stick to the obvious, and try and be fairly authoritative about what we are saying here. Even though Bill Gates famously once said 512 KB of RAM should be enough for anyone.

We're dwelling here on the state of the communications and semiconductor industry, where intellectual property, software and interface patents, and walled gardens help retain precarious monopolies. One can't help being cynical when the invisible hand of the free market pinches your wallet. As of December 2009, we're yet to see a $100 laptop or a 10,000 rupee Android, Netbooks are still running on underpowered Atom processors with half the power of an Intel Celeron of the same clockspeed, while CPU companies limit features on their high-end processors by blowing polysilicon fuses out of it. While some first world countries like Finland have declared bandwidth a birthright, Internet connectivity in India is capped at 10 GB by some of the largest telcos, under a "fair usage policy".

The future of computing is already here in many parts of the world, it's just that most of us are yet to afford or experience it, or see it in the Indian subcontinent. Finding low-cost, high value tech products that aren't neutered in anyway is an endless and often fruitless quest. A friend of mine equates devices that require proprietary connectors to circumcision, and far worse - female genital mutilation. He claims to "support Cowon" because unlike other manufacturers, they have good support for video and audio codecs. He asks, "Why don't we have a hard drive version of the iPod Touch?"  For the same reason that we don't have a $200 tablet, yet, I tell him.

Post scriptum:
There is an excellent thread on somethingawful:
 brad industry discusses the future of media.
 I think as digital imaging technology continues to march ahead that photography will undergo a transformation similar to what happened to painting about a century ago. The old idea of photographs as documents will finally die, what we call photographs will come to encompass a huge range of image making techniques and processes, and visual literacy will become even more important than it is now.
General interest and mass market print publications will die or evolve into digital versions. Advertising dollars will continue to follow them. This has already happened to a large degree (look at how many magazines have gone out of business the past year). Print will not die out though, actually I think the opposite. There will be a renaissance in magazines and books in the form of small, niche publications that emphasize quality. This will be made possible as print-on-demand technology continues to mature and allows anyone to become a 'curator' or 'publisher' with minimal investment. Consumers will seek these out as a more personal alternative to the never ending, bite sized stream of digital information. Social media will be the driving force behind how these projects are created and promoted.
Large blogs will move away from the copy-and-paste + commentary approach as old media institutions die and will transition to become the new patrons of the arts as they commission original content to bring in eyeballs in much the same way that magazines do now.


Monday, January 18, 2010

Notes from a guest lecture at XIC

Threw in some TED videos for my guest lecture on blogging. At least, that's what it was supposed to be about.
It was a novel experience as I am not very used to public speaking, and it was my very first lecture. It was good fun, where else can you get to impose on a young audience clips of Adam Curtis, Charlie Brooker, P Sainath, have a student read out the Citibank report on Plutonomy, talk about Sea Shepard, Internet memes, augmented reality, and then have time to segue into kitten pics. Yes there were kitten pics.

I hope some found revelation in V Ramachandran's talk on empathy, and how it is channelled through mirror neurons in the brain, which he calls "Gandhi neurons".
Most of these students were already familiar with P Sainath, but obliged a video of him an hour into the lecture. Most did not know about Ohanian's talk on Splashy McPants (how to make a splash in social media) segued well after my talk about Sea Sheperd and their Batboat crashing drama and a discussion into why whales and pandas get an undue amount of attention. My answer: For the same reasons that kittens do.
I also talked about media memes, going viral, conspiracy theories, fringe belief systems, and think tanks. The power of personal computing technology as illustrated by the documentary Loose Change.

Oppenheimer Documentary on PBS

Some call him the greatest chess player in the world. He was a socialist who brought together some of the brightest minds on the planet and built the bomb that changed the world forever.
And after the deed was done, he quoted the Bhagawad Gita.

He was villified and outed by special interest groups that saw more profit in building more powerful bombs, who labeled him a communist sympathizer for opposing the construction of a hydrogen bomb. This documentary dwells deeply into his personal life, the achievements and vendettas that shaped his career.

My favourite quote from him:
"The open society, the unrestricted access to knowledge, the unplanned and uninhibited association of men for its furtherance — these are what may make a vast, complex, ever-growing, ever-changing, ever more specialized and expert technological world nevertheless a world of human community."
How glad I am that we have something like the internet and wikipedia, which has enabled us with the means to do just what he wished for.

More here:

A review of books chronicling his life: