Thursday, February 28, 2013

The "Holy Grail" of Design?

Colbert Interview

I just wanted to reflect briefly on a comment by a Curator of Architecture and Design when speaking to Stephen Colbert. Stephen asks, in his characteristic tone, "We have two sizes of Ipads, aren't we done?" Antonelli responds that we could have a 3rd, and a few more or that really, the "holy grail" of design is to make the Ipad disappear.

What can she possible mean by that? She elaborates: "The idea is to make everything disappear so you can be in things so you can be in the interfaces." Not only could be "in" the interface but rather the interface would be "in" us. Stephen asks, "What would I show the people who don't have one?" She says "You would show your retina."

Stephen's question reveals one problem with the ubiquitous design paradigm: not everyone can have one. If the interface is "within" in our body, even more so than now (its not as if we are separate from our interfaces; as Marshal McCluhan reminds us, our technologies are extensions of the central nervous system) than it is like saying not everyone can have such an extravagant interface.

But aside from the question of access, the deeper problem lies in our desire for the interface to "disappear." Once interfaces disappear, we forget about them as filters and reality simply becomes "the way it is." Devices are already disappearing into our every day use of them (my computer for instance) but once they become incorporated back into our bodies, it will be even more difficult to see them as mediators, as one possible mode of existence among others.

When shown the "bee vase," Stephen's remarks reveal the problem with forgetting the materiality of the interface: "Is that more or less expensive than having Chinese people do this?" Only recently has the media made visible the exploitation of foreign labor for our high-tech devices through the scandal at FoxxCon. Still, we forgot about this exploitation and go on using our devices. The "bee vase" most likely does not only exploit bee labor (animal labor is explored by Haraway in When Species Meet), but most likely human labor as well.

Thus, if our devices our microscopic (or 'nano') then we will most likely forget this labor altogether -- until the device malfunctions.

When we talk about devices disappearing into our bodies, we tend to focus on what this does to our essential "humanness." As a relatively committed posthumanist, this is not my issue; my issues are, in addition to the ones above: What about continued tech support? If our Ipod fails, we have to throw it away and buy another one. Although this creates problems in terms of e-waste, we should also consider the possibility of the possible failure, or, if not that, the regular maintenance required for devices that disappear into our bodies.

And the Ipad (or perhaps the MacAir -- see below) is a perfect example of this, since Apple arguably makes some of the most closed and mysterious "black box" technologies of any company today. If we cannot maintain our external computers ourselves and must rely on "geniuses," a crucial device for professional life in America today, how could we ever expect to be able to maintain and care for the devices that will most likely be surgically inserted into our bodies. If this were the case, we would have to subject our embodied flesh (and not just our minds) to corporate technicians/surgeons.

What if we cannot pay for such maintenance? What if, instead of having a broken phone and being disconnected from others, we go deaf, blind, dumb -- insensate to an extreme. As we know from drugs we put in our bodies (vaccinations, SSRI's, Aspirin) anything we put into our bodies affects them in unpredictable manners and if we are allergic to a medicine or our body rejects it, it can leave traces on our body and mind. The artist Stelarc ran up against this limit when he tried to change his evolutionary architecture by grafting an ear onto his arm, complete with bluetooth capabilities. The fictional novel, Feed by M.T. Anderson also explores the problem of inserting internal hardware, particularly when this hardware is controlled by for-profit companies.

Clearly we need to think about these issues when we state unproblematically that the "holy grail" of interface design is for them to "disappear." I think Antonetti is probably aware of these dangers, but if design is sold to citizens in such a manner, we may forget these dangers in our techno-optimistic visions.

Monday, February 4, 2013

"Getting it"

This post asks a deceptively simple question: "What does it mean to 'get it'?"

Recently, my friend Scott told me that with theory you either "get it" or "you don't get it" and there's no way to teach this "getting it." Its true that those people who don't get it now might get it down the line. They might read more texts or maybe they'll have an experience in their lives, something will connect and the theory makes sense.

But I want to reserve the term "make sense" for something else. Because, relatively at the same time, my friend Tim posted a text that made me grateful that there are writers that do not always have to "make sense" because they are not beholden to academic standards of clarity or the exigency of the "hot topics" in academic discourse. I wrote,
From those of us who are doomed to make a little bit of sense for the sake of a career (rather than to be sensible), its a refreshing reminder.
Tim responded to me and initally reversed my qualification: That is, all we can do is make "a little bit of sense" the career forces us instead to "be sensible." This is different from "be sensitive" (even if the difference also always puts it in relation). To "be sensible" is a call to pragmatism; Here I am specifically referring to the pragmatic imperatives of the academic discipline rather than to the philosophical position of pragmatism.

These are not mutually exclusive calls; as Tim writes,
By “being sensitive” — attentive, curious, creative– one can surmount the rather rough sensibilities of academia (I think, I hope). It’s all a matter of how to learn to play the difference– with the sense: to somehow establish a rigor sensitive to multiple demands, often contradictory. Obscure contradictions are less observable, but more important than the blatant ones. Always.
Now how does this relate to "getting it"? It's that "getting it" is "experience making sense" (to use Tim's phrase and to incorporate all of the meaning of "experience" recently gleaned from Gregory Ulmer's Avatar Emergency). "Getting it" is what we say alternately to saying "that makes sense." Both of these refer to a flash of understanding or intuition in which we grasp something, even if we are unable to articulate it, to turn it into knowledge.

It is possible to turn it into knowledge by transforming it through an expression of our insight -- this might be called the more "aesthetic" response. In academia, in contrast, the challenge is sometimes to articulate that insight by a "reading" of the text. This involves an immense amount of energy and time because part of a "reading," arguably, traces the moves of the argument. Even if it the argument is not strictly "linear," a "reading" is a tracing of the texts twists and turns, morphing into an assessment of these turns on its own terms or otherwise.

But that's not quite right either. For as academics, we just have to "get it" enough to use it in our own writing. Indeed, the move seems to be to "get it," use it, and move on -- critical reading has become unfruitful.  However, this puts young academics in a difficult spot: We shouldn't operate critically and yet we cannot break too many conventions in our own writing to be truly inventive because we are still trying to enter the discourse.

And we should never forget that there is no final "getting it," but a series of insights that unfold and are invented over time through our engagement with various "whats" (to use Stiegler's terminology). It is whether we feel (and it truly is sometimes a feeling) we can come to new insights and new knowledge with texts that we devote the time to trace their turns, to uncover a method or instructions for our own project.