Sunday, December 11, 2005

Holiday Gift Books from 2005: Design & the Future

The Things of Shapes To Come
by William S. Kowinski

by Bruce Sterling
Mediawork Pamphlet Series
The M.I.T. Press

I tend to see the future in terms of story, while real professional futurists see it in terms of design. (Then there’s Star Trek, which sees it as both. I know, you don’t want to hear about Star Trek.)

As a science-fiction writer and a futurist, Bruce Sterling also sees it as both. This particular slim but very full of pith and moment book (under 150 pages) is about designing---and redefining---things, as leading the design of the future.

Things, as created objects, and more. “Properly understood, a thing is not merely a material object, but a frozen technosocial relationship. Things have to exist in relationship with an organism: the human being.” Though this book comes pre-underlined and highlighted, that’s a quote I lifted all on my own.

But things are not generic. They are, for example, artifacts, machines, products, gizmos, spimes and arphids. My spell-check doesn’t like spimes and arphids, they come pre-underlined in red, but that’s because these are new words Sterling coins to extend the technosocial relationships into the present and future characterized by new proportions of physicality and information.

This is all pretty fascinating, especially when Sterling links the design future to the sustainable society he understands as the only lengthy future possible for civilization, though he assumes this more than makes a case for it. There are real designers referenced---the section on Raymond Loewy, for example, is informative and entertaining. I like the brisk elegance and wit of Sterling’s prose, so I went along for the ride even when I wasn’t quite sure where I was going, or even where I’d been.

Of the stuff I understood, I found some revelatory, some reassuringly what I believe is so, and some I’d like to argue about. Oddly, for a book that articulates the changes and possibilities of the Internet and information technology, the book doesn’t name a website for the discussions this book prompts. (However, Sterling is a principal of Viridian Design , with a website where more of his entertaining commentary can be found.)

Here’s one of the parts I like: “ A SYNCHRONIC SOCIETY sets high value on the human engagement with TIME…we are not objects, but processes. Our names are not nouns, but verbs.” Though Sterling disses Buckminster Fuller later in his book without naming him (specifically Fuller's “Utopia or Oblivion” choice, which he topples partly by constricting the definitions), I seem to recall that it was Fuller who famously said, “I seem to be a verb.”

Anyway, before this becomes longer than the book, Shaping Things is a highly recommended read, and a great gift for “designers and thinkers, engineers and scientists” (I’m copying the cover now) and anyone on your list interested in how information technology is changing us, and its role in designing the future. Because that’s what's on these folk's minds, that’s what the buzz is going to be, and besides it’s, you know, short.

MAKING THINGS PUBLIC: Atmospheres of Democracy
Edited by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel
M.I.T. Press

As Shaping Things is short, this book is long---really, really long. Well over a thousand pages. But at only fifty bucks, it’s a truly great deal. It’s a compendium of fascination, an anthology of great photos, illustrations and pieces of prose you are unlikely to find anywhere else.

My first browsing foray took me to Richard Powers describing his process on his novel about the personhood of technology’s freak child, the corporation, and its relationship to the personhood of people; a chronicle of the role of photography in the human-Great Ape relationship, and another about the contemporary obelisks of Stockholm, attractive, oddly iconic and mysterious objects which also visually monitor urban water quality. And an essay on Northwest Coast Native art (which I actually know something about---and recognized people in the photo.)

I’m sure that the editors have a carefully worked out progression of arguments about making, unmaking, remaking, assembling (as in assembly lines and also the state assembly), disassembling and dissembling, of things as they define public relationships. But at least for the first many hours, my guess is this book’s main appeal is in its gorgeous variety, a browser’s paradise, a dilettante’s delight, a playground of ideas and images ultimately relating to contemporary and future design and technosocial meaning, including especially the political---a different emphasis of Sterling’s schema.

More than a hundred writers are represented (including relevant excerpts from the likes of Melville, Hobbes and Jonathan Swift)—philosophers, scientists, political scientists, anthropologists, sociobiologists, artists and scholars. And the illustrations are very well done, probably worth the price alone. Making Things Public is related to a show at the ZKM Center for Art and Media, where co-author Peter Weibel is Director.

IN THE BUBBLE: Designing in A Complex World
by John Thackara
M.I.T. Press

So this makes a trifecta for MIT Press, but design and the future is clearly a major theme for this publisher. The people involved are all over the world---a lot from Europe-- but as a group it's probably a small world (this book comes with a plug from Bruce Sterling on the cover.)

Still, I believe this is an important book, at least as much as Sterling's, and it's also fascinating to read. So it's a highly recommended choice from earlier in the year.

Thackara skewers conventional wisdom and many guiding delusions of the digital revolution with pungent facts, while noting contrarian trends and suggesting greater possibilities with all the elusive precision of aphorism. His intent goes beyond analysis. Director of a design firm called Doors of Perception, headquartered in Amsterdam, Thackara uses 10 principles to organize his ideas about "sustainable and engaging futures and the design steps we need to take to realize them."

The tech revolution didn't lead to the paperless office, nor to eradicating business travel or product transport (in fact, it created much more), and many plans for future uses, such as implanting computers in appliances and "smart" buildings, seemed doomed to equally dour unintended consequences. Nor does technology exist in a valueless vacuum. For all its vaunted efficiencies, like most consumer products it involves vast waste: It takes 15 to 19 tons of energy and materials to make one desktop computer. Cyberspace may seem ethereal but Internet computing alone may soon use as much power as the whole U.S. economy did in 2001. "We've built a technology-focused society that is remarkable on means," Thackara writes, "but hazy about ends."

The ends are near, though Thackara is not so indelicate to say so, but he does point out that we're using up the planet with incredible rapidity, even as we refuse to face the greatest threat that may very well dominate human history for the next century: the climate crisis. Instead, he accentuates the positive. Some 80 percent of environmental impact is determined by design, and "If we can design our way into difficulty, we can design our way out. ... Designing is what human beings do."

"Sensitivity to context, to relationships, and to consequences are key aspects of the transition from mindless development to design mindfulness," he writes. This includes paying "close attention to the natural, industrial, and cultural systems," and material and energy flows. It means focusing on services over things, and treating place, time and cultural difference as positive values rather than obstacles. " 'Out of control' is an ideology," he writes, "not a fact."

As much influenced by Italian literary artist Italo Calvino as by visionary American architect William McDonough, Thackara brings a refreshingly European perspective, not only in examples from societies consciously grappling with social implications and solutions, but in an ability to bring the macro and micro, the big picture and life as it is lived, into a more capacious and balanced perspective. His principles include lightness, conviviality, smartness and flow. "Our machines are disturbingly lively," he points out, "and we are frighteningly inert." He calls passive acceptance of technology "borg drift."

"In the Bubble" is often delightful, stimulating and surprising. Thackara may well emerge as a visionary voice for the wired era. For planners, designers and anyone with an interest in the future, this book is a rich resource of inspiration, ideas, and guiding principles as well as sharply observed cautionary tales. It suggests that what the tech revolution most needs, and may already be moving toward, is a sense of purpose.

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