Concept design

Absentee futures

We congratulate ourselves on the accomplishment of democracy…But regardless of who votes, what is the real meaning of any such choices if the alternatives among which we are selecting are underimagined, or clichéd – or simply absent? – Stuart Candy

My most influential role these days is less “tastemaker” and “decider” than simply “option generator”.

Calvin, rapid prototyper

Utopia and its discontents

I’m a huge fan of Neal Stephenson, and also of his newest project Hieroglyph, which aims to inspire future scientific breakthroughs with optimistic near-future science fiction. But I found two critiques of the approach quite compelling this week.

First, Virginia Postrel (whose writing on design I’ve enjoyed in the past), writes that “Peter Thiel Is Wrong About the Future” (I’m reading his book as well), and mentions Hieroglyph as similarly misled:

The dystopian science fiction Stephenson’s Project Hieroglyph aims to counter isn’t the cause of our cultural malaise. It’s a symptom. The obstacle to more technological ambitions isn’t our idea of the future. It’s how we think about the present and the past…

The reason mid-20th-century Americans were optimistic about the future wasn’t that science-fiction writers told cool stories about space travel…People believed the future would be better than the present because they believed the present was better than the past. They constantly heard stories — not speculative, futuristic stories but news stories, fashion stories, real-estate stories, medical stories — that reinforced this belief.

It’s the same ambivalence toward today’s progress that Louis CK rails about, and that many science fiction writers and futurists recognize. We do live in amazing times, yet the dominant cultural reaction is frustration and dissatisfaction. We don’t often celebrate the incredible progress we’ve achieved. As David Brooks once wrote, “Americans have always been united less by a shared past than by the shared dream of a better future.”

The Guardian also confronts the Hieroglyph collection, calling the stories “built on willful ignorance”:

But there is also a deliberate naivety to Project Hieroglyph. Stories such as Cory Doctorow’s The Man Who Sold the Moon are a veritable hymn to the culture of Silicon Valley and tech start-ups, but deftly wave away the part these cultures play in today’s corporate capitalism and all the inequalities that come with it.

I agree with their assessment of the best stories:

The best contributions to Hieroglyph are the least optimistic, and the best attuned to the human reality that technology so often obscures. Entanglement by Vandana Singh and Madeline Ashby’s By the Time We Get to Arizona both look at the impact of new technologies in developing nations and among the world’s poorest people. They also tackle the obvious problem of technological innovation, the looming menace of climate change, environmental degradation and resource depletion that go hand in hand with new technologies.

I still believe there is a role for optimistic science fiction in changing the world. However it’s always good to be mindful of the present and past when thinking about the future, and to include messy and uncomfortable situations in even the most polished vision. The real future will be both based in today’s world and include a lot of today’s problems, and people are wise enough to recognize when those aspects are missing from stories about the future.

The boring future

One of the defining challenges of writing science fiction is explaining to the audience the amazing new things in this world while respecting the fact that the characters already live in that world… For you, this future is cool, but for them it’s just another day with the same old problems.

See also Jamais Cascio, “Your Posthumanism Is Boring Me” and “Fifteen Minutes Into the Future“, and Stuart Candy, “Amazing=Mundane“.

The impossible and the improbable

Some good guidance on which technique to use depending on what you want to say:

It’s been said that science fiction and fantasy are two different things. Science fiction the improbable made possible; fantasy the impossible made probable. – Rod Serling

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.

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.”

My favorite movie design moments

Documentary or drama, I’m a sucker for watching people be creative. Here are a few of my favorites:

Drama

Documentary

  • Making The Incredibles (some clips; the DVD has the best stuff) – My all-time favorite. About 90 minutes of in-depth stories and explanation about the process of making the film, with a ton of similarities to great product design. I watch this at least once a year. My notes.
  • The Mystery of Picasso – Picasso painting on an illuminated sheet of glass, so you see the strokes build and change into something completely different than he started with. The paintings at 1:00:00 and 1:04:30 are mind-blowing.
  • Comedian – Jerry Seinfeld tries to follow up his outlandishly-successful sitcom career by getting back on small comedy stages and writing a new standup act. Inspiring to see the courage and introspection that goes into it. My notes.
  • Sketches of Frank Gehry – Gehry’s experimental way of developing buildings combines art and science in a unique way. My notes.
  • A Day in the Life of John Lassetter – Lassetter seems like a wonderful leader and his optimism is infectious. My notes.
  • Art and Copy – I find advertising has a lot of parallels to concept design, and this film collects the thoughts and processes of several different advertising luminaries. My notes.
  • The Pixar Story – The way they build collaboration among roles in a team is unparalleled. My notes.
  • Tough Room – Ok, this is just audio (from NPR) but The Onion’s headline pitch session is amazing. I love how they judge stories by the headlines alone.
  • Six Days to Air (not currently online) – How each South Park episode is made in a week. The forced constraints have created a lot of innovation in process and technologies.

Speculative spending

It’s actually very difficult to spend meaningful amounts of money, relative to Google’s scale, on things that are speculative.

One of my favorite Larry moments was when he used to regularly ask the whole company to work on artificial intelligence and no one would do it:

My own experience within Google is that it’s hard to get people to work on those kinds of things because of the personal risk they feel they’re taking…

I’ve told the whole company repeatedly I want people to work on artificial intelligence – so we end up with five people working on it. Guess what? That’s not a major expense. There’s a reason we talk about 70/20/10, where 70% of our resources are spent in our core business and 10% end up in unrelated projects, like energy or whatever. [The other 20% goes to projects adjacent to the core business.]

Actually, it’s a struggle to get it to even be 10%.

Proving imagination

What is now proved was once only imagined. – William Blake