Filtering by Category: Culture

Recurring dream, recurring flops

James, at Crap Futures, blogged last week this intriguing diagram: 


Of course one can always argue about modifications and missing connections, it somehow gives a pretty good outline of "the journey of a technology." When observing it  the other day, I quickly realized it should be less of an arrow, and more of a cycle... considering that it takes many (failed) products to have a technology reaching a sort of maturity (and then obsolescence). But the red "recurring dream" part plays that role in the diagram; I can't help thinking about technological flops that belonged to this category (humanoid robots, smart homes, monorails, VR/AR headsets, etc.) How can we revisit the evolution of <technology> based on this?

Given that the crap futures blog insists on deconstructing smartness, I can imagine that the diagram can be helpful to map the various parameters around which the notion of networked/smart/connected/automated objects are built. Also, this diagram is relevant because it can help to generate (micro-)briefs. Say, you want to work on *teh smart home of teh future*, it would be intriguing to design several versions: the cheap one, the functional one. Alternatively, one can also think about the ingredients to design such technology: what if the smart home of the future was designed sans consideration for science-fiction (you remove that bit from the diagram) and an important emphasis on the sublime/spectacle? What would be the result (beyond an episode of The Simpsons)?

Weekly digital lexicon #3

Maskenfreiheit (seen here) : German term that indicates the liberty that comes from wearing a mask... and metaphorically to stay anonymous, or to partly hide one's identity in public sphere.

1701 : an adjective sometimes employed to express the "futuristic" character of an object/situation; comes from the name of Star Trek's vessel The Enterprise (NCC-1701).

Auto erect : an expression which refers to the sexual connotation implied by texts/SMS/messages transformed by the auto-correct feature.

Brouteurs : an idiom used in Côte d'Ivoire to designate people committing internet frauds (seen in a text by N’Guessan Julien Atchoua found in "Quand l’Afrique réinvente la téléphonie mobile")

MTurk Research : scientific research projects that employ crowdsourcing platforms such as Mechanical Turk, Rapidworkers, etc. (seen in this article).

Weekly digital lexicon #2

Zykluserkennungssoftware, die: German word "drive cycle recognition" software, a term used in a comment seen on Spiegel Online... that refers to software used to pass pollution tests (🚗💨)… modified by VW (so that they work only during tests).

AI trainer : a new job profile that consists in supervising/train computer programs: "A team of 'AI trainers' works with the program, and if there’s a request that M doesn’t understand the trainers take over. M then learns from what the human trainer does, and can use that technique with later requests." (seen here, thanks Fabien Girardin)

Plogging : the transposition of the (we)blogging logic to social networking platforms such as Facebook or Twitter (which may allow longer posts), seen in this article (merci Virginie Bejot)

开挂 (abbreviation of 开外挂 "kai1 gua4") : a Chinese term used to express disbelief or that something has been enhance/forged (e.g. a Photoshopped image), and which originally refers to "the act of running an illegal plug-in on a game, either for practical usability purposes (translating an interface into Chinese) or to cheat (faking in-game presence to accumulate more virtual currency, or even packet modification to make a character move faster in an online game)" (Source: BoingBoing)

Weekly digital lexicon #1

(I used to run a daily idiom thing on twitter few years ago, never had the time to continue, but I guess a weekly lexicon is easier to maintain)

Speakularity (spotted on Nautilus) : a word proposed by journalist Matt Thompson and that corresponds to the transition between a society in which "the default expectation for recorded speech will be that it’s searchable and readable, nearly in the instant." (while the default nowadays is that it's not)

Sega-core (found in Killscreen) : sub-genre of chiptune music, produced by machines with 16-bits processors (Sega Genesis in particular)

Stratocaching : evolution of geoaching (a game in which participants use a GPS receiver or mobile device to hide and seek containers, called "geocaches) with flying objects (balloons, flying capsules, etc.) dropped to earth from the sky.

Fork bomb (also called rabbit virus, or wabbit) : a denial-of-service attack wherein a process continually replicates itself to deplete available system resources, causing resource starvation and slowing or crashing the system. 

"I've been playing the same game of Civilization II for 10 years"

The other day, in a conference about video-games I co-organized in Lausanne, I instagramed this presentation by Brice Roy in which the game designer mentioned a game that can only be completed in 250 years. One of my contact (@carinaow) wondered about the very fact that "it's longer than a lifetime" and that "nobody can vouch for it". Sure, that's quite big amount of time but the point of the game is to question the notion of trans-generational play.

250 years is certainly very long, especially for a digital program to continue its life on different generations of devices. However, this notion of "long play" is interesting as it's close to another weak signal that caught my attention: the story of this guy who has been playing Civilization for ten years.

The guy said he grew fascinated with this particular game and that we wanted to see how far into the future he could get and what sort of ramifications he could encounter. Here are some excerpts of what he learnt doing this:

"The world is a hellish nightmare of suffering and devastation. (...) The ice caps have melted over 20 times (somehow) due primarily to the many nuclear wars. As a result, every inch of land in the world that isn't a mountain is inundated swamp land, useless to farming. Most of which is irradiated anyway.

As a result, big cities are a thing of the distant past. Roughly 90% of the worlds population (at it's peak 2000 years ago) has died either from nuclear annihilation or famine caused by the global warming that has left absolutely zero arable land to farm. Engineers (late game worker units) are always busy continuously building roads so that new armies can reach the front lines. Roads that are destroyed the very next turn when the enemy goes. So there isn't any time to clear swamps or clean up the nuclear fallout. (...) You've heard of the 100 year war? Try the 1700 year war (...) Every time a cease fire is signed, the Vikings will surprise attack me or the Americans the very next turn, often with nuclear weapons. Even when the U.N forces a peace treaty. So I can only assume that peace will come only when they're wiped out. "

Why do I blog this? These kinds of accounts of long-time play are so scarce that it's great to find one of them. It would be so fascinating to watch a replay and see how a narrative of such play could be inscribed in book or movie, surely an intriguing project to be done.

Notes from Playful 2011

My super quick notes from the Playful 2011 conference I attended in London last Friday. The main reason I enjoy going to Playful is that it always deal with peculiar aspects of playfulness and game-related technologies. It's more about the culture of play than the problem of the game industry. For instance, no one talked about the notion shown on the picture below, except to say that we need to move forward and talk about something else:

The topic this year was close to the one I handcrafted for the Lift09 conference (labelled "Where did the future go?"). The starting point of the conference was to consider the gap between the "future we were promised" (jetpacks, the Death star, AI, robots, big technological devices) and what currently have (the Hummer as opposed to a flying car, Siri instead of sentient robots). Some in the audience (or the twitterverse) noticed how this impression is a cultural construct:

"There was apparently a generation of British men seriously duped by science fiction a few decades ago and v disappointed now."

A big car from a sci-fi comic book, we don't have this kind of stuff today but we have Hummers

This gap is quite common in people interested in technology foresight or human-computer interaction. Researchers working on Ubiquitous Computing may be interesting in reading about this in a paper from Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell entitled "Yesterday’s tomorrows: notes on ubiquitous computing’s dominant vision". In this article, the author describes how:

"the centrality of ubiquitous computing’s ‘‘proximate future’’ continually places its achievements out of reach, while simultaneously blinding us to current practice. By focusing on the future just around the corner, ubiquitous computing renders contemporary practice (at outside of research sites and ‘‘living labs’’), by definition, irrelevant or at the very least already outmoded. Arguably, though, ubiquitous computing is already here; it simply has not taken the form that we originally envisaged and continue to conjure in our visions of tomorrow."

... a lesson some speakers certainly followed during their speech, as they gave us some good insights about glimpses from unevenly distributed futures.

A quote from William "unevenly distributed futures" Gibson showed by Brendan Dawes that exemplifies this delusion

A side-effect of the aforementioned disappointment towards the "promises of the future" is the fact that human beings seem to be less prone to dealing with "big and futuristic projects". As Toby Barnes claimed, "there's not enough people trying to make a dent on the world", as exemplified by Neal Stephenson's recent comment about innovation starvation:

"Still, I worry that our inability to match the achievements of the 1960s space program might be symptomatic of a general failure of our society to get big things done. My parents and grandparents witnessed the creation of the airplane, the automobile, nuclear energy, and the computer to name only a few. Scientists and engineers who came of age during the first half of the 20th century could look forward to building things that would solve age-old problems, transform the landscape, build the economy, and provide jobs for the burgeoning middle class that was the basis for our stable democracy."

Although this delusion towards the future looks a bit sad, the talks were funny and engaging and I took plenty of notes... some might be loosely related to this topic but it's generally what happens in this kind of context.

In his talk called "Time Lords, frothing and Dungeon Maste", Matt Sheret relied on how his friends "play with cities" to highlight curious perspectives about the near future: role playing games, the Tower Bridge twitterbot and BERG London design projects. Above all, and because I knew the other projects, it's the perspective about RPG and the role of game masters that I quite enjoyed. He basically discussed how fictional cities in such games are somehow co-created by the players and the GM. The way dialogues between players and artifacts such as maps or urban descriptions can be seen as an interesting way to show how a "city talk to you".

A quote from Richard Lemarchand that I enjoyed: "people are not necessarily mean, they just want to see what happen if they try things out"... he showed how him and his fellow game designers noticed how playtesters were punching other people in their game... which led them to create characters that shake hands with players. Although this anecdote seems a bit futile, it's a good example of (1) the importance of playful interactions in games, (2) how you can rely on testing prototypes to tune a design proposition. It's always interesting to hear designers discussing how their understanding of player's psychology help them reconsider their work. This topic was also dealt with by Louise Downe in her talk about self-flushing toilets and automatic air-refreshener:

"I don't walk out toilets thinking it's OK, I need control over them. Intimacy with machines really requires trust. Trust that they think in the same way we do"

Chris O'Shea gave a quick overview of interesting toys and interactive projects for kids... based on some relevant data: how kids expect anything to be touchscreen (trying to zoom in), how "84% of parents are interested in asynchronous gaming to play collaboratively with their kids".

Also an important topic at Playful was the role of prototyping in the crafting of Playful experience. O'Shea showed how he used basic material (cardboard, plastic, lego bricks) to create iPhone casing and apps that can engage kids with basic activities:

This "low-fi prototyping" attitude was also exemplified by Brendan Dawes and Matt Ward, who gave a great presentation on designing peril, the fine line between entertainment, humor and fear. He showed how low-fi interaction is key to learn in a design research approach and that suspending people's disbelief is easier than they thought at first. (as shown in this video of their bomb project)

And finally, two highlights in terms of format. First Scribble Tennis was an entertaining idea: two players competing with drawings on an overhead projectors: Second, a so-called artificial intelligence called Siri gave a talk on the stage table: Well, actually, this didn't happen but this giant screenshot of the iOS-based personal assistant application next to a table (altar?) on stage gave me the impression that the future is not boring and brilliant.

Cyberpunk and creolization

Read in No Future! Cyberpunk, Industrial Music, and the Aesthetics of Postmodern Disintegration by Patrick Novotny: Why do I blog this? Collecting material about cyberpunk for an upcoming interview about the connections between science-fiction and interaction design. The creolization meme seems important but, for some reasons, I don't know (yet!) how to articulate its role. More material needed to understand the implications.

Cities as printed circuits

Read in the marvelous novel by Thomas Pynchon called "The Crying of Lot 49":

"She drove into San Narciso on a Sunday, in a rented Impala. Nothing was happening. She looked down a slope, needing to squint for the sunlight, onto avast sprawl of houses which had grown up all together, like a well-tended crop, from the dull brown earth; and she thought of the time she'd opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both out-ward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. There'd seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she had tried to find out); so in her first minute of San Narciso, a revelational so trembled just past the threshold of her understanding."

Why do I blog this? No wonder I liked this quote after two weeks driving here and there in the US with such a book in my hands. See also Computer motherboards, citadels and Michel Houellebecq.

Björk's crystalline and new personal experience with [mobile] music

Biophilia - Björk's app-based music album - is a curious experience. Among the different app, the one that caught my eyes is certainly "Crystalline" (which corresponds to the first single off the new album) made by Scott Snibbe. From a musical standpoint, the song is played with Gameleste, an iPad-controllable mix of Gamelan Celeste hybrid that makes sweet xylophone organ box sounds. On top of which she sings the following lyrics:

"underneath our feet, crystals growing like plants/ listen how they grow/ I’m blinded by the light/ listen how they grow/ in the core of the earth/ listen how they grow/ crystalline internal nebula/ crystalline/ rocks growing slow more/ crystalline/ I conquer claustrophobia/ crystalline/ and demand the light."

Now, about the app, it's a bit like a REZ/Katamari Damacy cross-over. It's basically like a rail shooter except that you don't kill targeted enemies. Instead, your avatar, a tiny crystal, travel along a predetermined path through mines in which you can collect other kinds of crystal. You just have to tilt the iOS device to catch them:

By aggregating new material, basically unlock new colorful tunnels in which you can progress. Each of them correspond to different music modules. The result is a quite immersive experience that allow listeners to discover their own music arrangements.

As discussed on

" The “Crystalline” app is the way Björk sees music in her head. I think she has a certain type ofsynesthesia, so that when she’s listening — especially to pop music, she said — she actually sees a tunnel like that. The number of sides of the tunnel changes depending on the rhythms and the music. So that app is about music structure, crystals, obviously, and this game-like interaction to move through the structures."

See also his point about the kind of experience they created:

"or sure, people are still going to be listening to recorded music tracks while they’re doing something else (...) But with the digitization of music, we’ve lost that special moment. You can think of the app as, finally, that chance to unwrap the box and have a personal, intimate experience again with music. It might be the case that people spend a lot of time with the app when it first comes out [as they did with album covers] and then perhaps they’ll move on to purely enjoying the music after that. But we’ll really have to wait and see."

Why do I blog this? Playing with iOS apps on Saturday morning and reflecting about them. Beyond the role of apps in music album, I find interesting to observe the sort of original experience one can create when crossing various components such as a tilting sensors, a tiny display, video game archetypes, headphones and good music.

Ursula LeGuin on Science-Fiction

Interesting excerpts from Ursula LeGuin's introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness (1976)... about the fact that "science-fiction does not predict":

"though extrapolation is an element in science fiction, it isn't the name of the game by any means. It is far too rationalist and simplistic to satisfy the imaginative mind, whether the writer's or reader's. Variables are the spice of life. (...) The weather bureau will tell you what next Tuesday will be like, and the Rand Corporation will tell you what the twenty-first century will be like. I don't recommend that you turn to the writers of fiction for such information. (...) All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain great dominants of our contemporary life — science, all the sciences, and technology, and the relativistic and the historical outlook, among them. Space travel is one of these metaphors; so is an alternative society, an alternative biology; the future is another. The future, in fiction, is a metaphor."

Why do I blog this? Gathering notes for an upcoming talk about robot, scifi and predictions.

Using historical research in HCI/Ubicomp

"Historical Analysis: Using the Past to Design the Future" by Wyche, Sengers and Grinter is an article about how the discipline of history similarly can contribute to research about human-computer interaction and ubiquitous computing. The authors takes the example of a specific context, domestic environments, to show that history can go beyond inspiring "new form factors and styles such as retro" by providing "strategies that, like anthropology, unpack the culture of the home and, like art-inspired design, defamiliarize the home".

The process is described as the following:

" First, we analysed historical texts to identify major themes in the development of technologies (often automation) for the activities under investigation, in our case housework. Second, we gained a broader understanding of the existing technological design space through the search of patents. Third, we developed a personal sense of the changing nature of housework through examination of primary sources from popular culture. Finally, as part of broader fieldwork we gathered oral histories from older people, using a designed, material artefact that reflected the popular history of housework to stimulate memories and reflections."

And here's how they saw a contribution:

"It was effective in helping us understand the subtle changes that have resulted with the introduction of new domestic technologies and in opening new space for design. Although the historical texts already revealed themes pertinent to ubicomp design (i.e. labor-saving debate and technology’s gendered character), by drawing on popular texts, patents, and interviews with elders as well, we learned things that could not easily be gleaned from texts alones. (...) With current interest in restoring felt experience as central to design, we believe that historical analysis is an important source for becoming aware of sensual aspects of experiences that have become lost but could be addressed in new forms of technology design. (...) In addition to revealing how felt qualities are altered with the introduction of new technologies, another benefit of our historically grounded approach is its potential to inspire radically novel design concepts. A collection of speculative design proposals resulted from our process [see 30 and 36 for details]. Like ethnography, history forces designers to become more aware of their preconceptions about a topic."

Why do I blog this? Working on the history of game controller, I am currently putting together a list of references about the role of history and historically informed approaches in (interaction) design research. This paper gives some interesting pointers about it.

Teardown culture and companies' reaction

POPSCI has an article about the "history of the teardown" and what happens on websites such as (A robot tinkerer's desk at the design museum in Zürich)

The article describes the important of this kind of activity to understand how things work, child-like memories of bricolage and to generate a "culture of repair". But this is not the thing that attracted my attention, I was more curious about how companies react to this:

"A culture of repair fanatics would be rough on the tech manufacturers who rely on pumping out marginally changed gear, year after year, but would have a pretty astounding effect everywhere else. (...) The tech companies themselves aren't helping. "The manufacturers are more hostile now," says Wiens. "The Apple II came with complete schematics," but newer Apple products boast proprietary and hard-to-find screws, unlabeled components, batteries that Apple says must be replaced by the company and not the user, and no user documentation whatsoever. Apple is typically held as the worst or at least the most obvious example of this kind of repair-unfriendliness. (...) The iPhone 4, a few years later, features screws that were created by Apple expressly for this purpose. These weird, five-lobed, flower-shaped Torx screws have no practical advantage over, say, a Philips—except to keep tinkerers out. That didn't stop iFixit, of course: "We actually had to make a screwdriver—had to file a flat-head screwdriver down to fit [the Apple screw]," says Wiens (...) In Apple's case, it's probably a combination of secrecy and simple greed, but even some of the "good" companies, like Dell and HP, bury their manuals deep in their sites, difficult to find for many consumers."

Why do I blog this? This is a good example of a sort of "arm race", or a co-evolution between products and tinkerers (who need to design new tools to tear down products).

This also echoes a conversation that I had last week with some representatives of a domestic appliances company at Robolift. The notion of tinkering/repurposing/opening products is both seen as a challenge and an opportunity. But companies do not necessarily know if they should go against this. I wonder about what can be possible and what can be done with the right target group of people.

"we took note of every choice they made in cyberspace"

"Jack: Although everything imaginable was on the web, certain texts had disappeared. Though interactivity and equal access to information were the cornerstone of the revolution's rhetoric, no one seemed to notice, or at least feel, the loss of expression officially deemed malcontent, antisocial, and sinful. I knew. I was the architect of the agency's demographics and target marketing programs. The people were our targets, and we listened to their language, we monitored their dreams, we took note of every choice they made in cyberspace, we studied their buying motives and propensities, then created messages that perfectly reflected their existing emotional states. No one could hide. Triple M could recognize any citizen as soon as they turned on their computer. The web would dynamically reconfigure itself to suite an individual. Something you could hold in your hand, read on your own, think about in private - this was considered elitist, immoral, and bad for business." Source: The Girl from Monday (2005)

Forgers versus Honers

An excerpt from Diamond Age Neal Stephenson (1995)

"Hackworth was a forger, Dr. X was a honer. The distinction was at least as old as the digital computer. Forgers created a new technology and then forged on to the next project, having explored only the outlines of its potential. Honers got less respect because they appeared to sit still technologically, playing around with systems that were no longer start, hacking them for all they were worth, getting them to do things the forgers had never envisioned."

Why do I blog this? an interesting metaphor to be re-used in an upcoming talk.

"Creative computing" magazine

Recently ran across this curious magazine called "Creative Computing", one of the earliest covering the microcomputer revolution (published from 1974 until December 1985). Readers interested in this can have a look at the some articles.

With titles such as "Is breaking into a time-sharing system a crime?", "Why Supermarkets Are Going Bananas Over Computers", "Videodiscs - The Ultimate Computer Input Device?" or "How Much Privacy Should You Have?", the magazine is definitely an intriguing read today. The topic addressed there ranged from artificial (and "extra-terrestrial") intelligence, computers in education, languages and programming theories, BASIC scripts, upcoming technologies, games and fictions (with "art and poetry").

For people interested in current "trends" such as DIY or privacy, there is plenty to explore in order to understand some underlying roots. See for instance "amateur computing" or How One Computer Manufacturer Looks at the Data Privacy/Security Issue

Why do I blog this? sunday afternoon hops on the internets always lead to curious material. Possibly useful to show students some examples of computer culture history.

List for time-travelling

(via) Oh, and btw, an highly important tool for 2010: a reminding list of important stuff in case of time-travelling:

Why do I blog this? It's always curious, as a thought experiment, to think about what one would put in this sort of list. Perhaps asking my students "What pieces of knowledge and artifacts would you like to bring in the past, in case you can time-travel?" would be a good brief (to start off a discussion about what would change accordingly).