Wonder and Wonders

Everything is in an attitude of mind; and at this moment I am in a comfortable attitude. I will sit still and let the marvels and the adventures settle on me like flies. There are plenty of them, I assure you.

The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.

Design as politics in a changing world

A well-written argument that “politics”–built from mindfulness, personal commitment, and creative design–is as important to the climate crisis as science and technology:

[We have], basically, two ways out. One is extraordinary technology…[the other] is extraordinary politics: politics that goes beyond the usual interest-swapping and sets new commitments for the country and the world…

Does our culture still have the courage–and the harmony–to commit to real change based on moral beliefs?

Consider the end of slavery—not in the US, but in the British Empire, which abolished the practice thirty years before the Emancipation Proclamation, by an act of Parliament, with compensation to slaveholders…the historians’ view these days is that British emancipation was, in fact, a wildly expensive and disruptive moral commitment, executed through extraordinary politics…

[We need], in incremental and experimental ways, to keep building up a real politics of climate change. That politics will be both environmentalist and human-oriented, because there’s no separating the two in the age of climate change. It will have to ask how the peoples of the world are going to live together and share its benefits and dangers, and also how we are going to use, preserve, and transform the world itself.

That sounds like real design to me. See also Dan Hill’s Dark Matter & Trojan Horses.

Science fiction + science fact

Michael Abrash, head of Valve Software’s augmented reality efforts, talks about why he’s joining Oculus. It’s interesting how he focuses on the imagined experience from the books as much as the technology, which meanwhile proceeds along its own path. Blending the two is a powerful combination.

Sometime in 1993 or 1994, I read Snow Crash, and for the first time thought something like the Metaverse might be possible in my lifetime. Around the same time, I saw the first leaked alpha version of Doom…

Fast-forward fourteen years…

Then two things happen at about the same time. On one path, Palmer develops his first VR prototype, John and Palmer Luckey connect, Oculus forms and its Kickstarter is wildly successful, DK1 ships, and John becomes Oculus CTO. Meanwhile, I read Ready Player One, strongly recommend it to several members of the AR group, and we come to the conclusion that VR is potentially more interesting than we thought, and far more tractable than AR.

The Winston Primer

I’ve been rereading The Diamond Age and understanding a lot more about the “Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer” which plays a major role. So it was awesome to see that some Pixar veterans have started to create something very similar for the iPad…right down to the ractors:

Speech engineers interpret the data daily, and alert writers to fresh answers. In one Fireside Chat Winston asks, “What is your favorite ball?” The staff came up with all the ball types they could think of, but in testing the app several kids replied “gumball.” Since that was not in the lineup, the writers concocted a quip to respond to “gumball” and added it to the database…

So far, more than 3,000 lines have been recorded. The ToyTalk team expects to add fresh material to the app every week. And there’s also a full-time voice actor on staff to record the dialogue.

Why isn’t software beautiful?

It feels to me that software design, despite its intense cultural focus, huge business opportunity, and worldwide effort, isn’t as beautiful, elegant, or compelling as other forms of art and design. Held up against films, music, fashion, physical products and even video games, almost all software feels flat, utilitarian, and uninspired. Why is that? I have a few hypotheses:

  • Not enough people are designing software – This is changing fast, but software design has been a very small and elite field for most of its history. When a larger and more diverse set of a population gets involved in something, the results quickly get better. Think about how most top runners are Kenyan; many top baseball players Puerto Rican–in each case, that is the dominant sport and goal for the youth of the country. We need more people to design software.
  • We don’t yet have the right tools – We admire the very first cave painters, movie makers, and book publishers because the act of creating anything was hard for them. But we’d hardly call that artwork “beautiful” by today’s standards. The tools to create paintings, films, and prints today are so advanced that almost anyone can learn and practice those art forms. Software, however, is still impossible to create without significant technical training.
  • Beauty isn’t useful – My friend Chris often invokes “the Pepsi Challenge”–namely, the difference between liking something for a minute and living with it for weeks. The same design that looks great up on a foamcore board, or in a science fiction movie, starts to grate on you when its ornamentations get in your way for the hundredth time. That’s the reason we had, and abandoned, long cool Flash intros on websites.
  • Utility isn’t sexy – Similarly, a design that quickly and efficiently takes care of things and gets out of your way doesn’t even give you a chance to admire it. You might feel satisfaction with the results, but that’s a long way from awe and lust at its form.
  • We don’t have the right support and organizational structures – Painters and writers generally work alone; filmmakers and video games have a producer/director split. But most software is designed by a triad of project managers, software engineers, and interface designers.
  • We don’t really try – This is a tough one to swallow, but I think it’s fair to say that right now most software designers don’t really pursue beauty as a central goal. Many designers care deeply about elegance, simplicity, and craft, but I’ve rarely met one who speaks about the emotional journey of the viewer, or who thinks about the storyline of their interactions.

Overall, it does seem that software design is quickly improving. Perhaps it will just take more time to get to the place that these other mediums have reached.

The rise of everyday writing

Something easily forgotten but remarkable when noticed–we write more as a society today than ever before. An excerpt from Clive Thompson’s new book:

Every day, we collectively produce millions of books’ worth of writing. Globally we send 154.6 billion emails, more than 400 million tweets, and over 1 million blog posts and around 2 million blog comments on WordPress. On Facebook, we post about 16 billion words. Altogether, we compose some 3.6 trillion words every day on email and social media — the equivalent of 36 million books.* (The entire US Library of Congress, by comparison, holds around 23 million books.)

And what makes this explosion truly remarkable is what came before: comparatively little. Before the Internet, most people rarely wrote for pleasure or intellectual satisfaction after graduating from high school or college.

Some hair on it

Obama, in David Remnick’s New Yorker article:

I have yet to see something that we’ve done, or any President has done, that was really important and good, that did not involve some mess and some strong-arming and some shading of how it was initially talked about to a particular member of the legislature who you needed a vote from.

Because, if you’re doing big, hard things, then there is going to be some hair on it—there’s going to be some aspects of it that aren’t clean and neat and immediately elicit applause from everybody. And so the nature of not only politics but, I think, social change of any sort is that it doesn’t move in a straight line, and that those who are most successful typically are tacking like a sailor toward a particular direction but have to take into account winds and currents and occasionally the lack of any wind, so that you’re just sitting there for a while, and sometimes you’re being blown all over the place.”

Questions and answers

“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.” – Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

What humans are for

“When robots and automation do our most basic work, making it relatively easy for us to be fed, clothed, and sheltered, then we are free to ask, ‘What are humans for?’” – Kevin Kelly

Technology that fades away

Some fun insights in this writeup of the production design for Her:

“We kept asking ourselves, ‘What is his new desktop going to look like when he puts the new (Samantha) software in? Finally, Spike came to this brilliant realization, saying, ‘There’s a reason we haven’t figured this out, because it shouldn’t be anything.’”

“We had this concept: what if we could only see advertising that was all in gorgeous slow motion and there were these beautiful abstract images? Then it becomes kind of a viral game where everybody’s trying to decipher the notion of what these different ads were.”

Barrett’s most radical re-invention for future Los Angeles: There’s not a car in sight. Steering clear of freeway traffic jams, inhabitants ride bullet trains, take subways and walk. “One of the first things I said in designing Her was, ‘I don’t want to show any cars.’” says Barrett. “It’s another gesture of going away from technology. When you look at any film from any time period and see a car, you can place it right to the year.”

“The device wasn’t designed to stand out like a gleaming new phone, but to be something you’d lay on the night stand, like your wallet or your address book. We wanted to go right past the surface of the device and into Samantha’s voice.”