Distribution

Google Reader was officially stopped last summer and with it – many claim – the death of RSS. Which brings me to a question: how do we distribute things?

So. The internet is made up of islands, websites, with bridges in between them, links. It’s a crude metaphor because you’re essentially able to link any island to any other island which makes an awful mess of bridges if you try to think of it literally and physically. But, anyway. The tricky thing is either having a website that people purposefully visit on their own every so often (because they assume there is new content) or have a method that links the islands in a sort of tour group, a stream of new content from all the different sources at once. A pull and a push, if you will.

I’ve been fairly successful with the first here at Acrylo, and my few experiments with RSS really didn’t seem to pick up speed. This tells me my audience doesn’t know about / want RSS or they don’t have any good way of reading it. But, that’s fine. They can plug in Acrylo.ca and see new stuff. Easy enough. But is it good enough?

Social media has been the push in recent years, but I still don’t think it’s really there yet. It’s more like a blimp that hovers over all of these islands: the content is hosted off-site for the most part (although Facebook is trying to fix that) and what’s left is a stream of links to content. It’s not a stream of content itself, really. Twitter could be called content, but any look down the stream proves it’s a majority of links to things that aren’t contained solely in those tweets. There are some people for whom Tweets are the draw, but it largely seems to be a little pithy intro and a shortened link that goes who knows where. You follow the link and you repel from the blimp onto some other island where you can explore and move on from there via the bridges. When those run out, you teleport back up and start again. You see a master list of things that might interest you and you follow them with the assumption that they continue to post things you’ll like. But it’s not terribly good at long form text. Tweets themselves are 140 characters short but constantly linking to an external site with your long thoughts seems self-promotey and spam like.

Facebook is a bizarre hybrid of things. There are some feeds that use it almost exclusively, but for the most part it’s also a blimp, a blimp that has a picture and a blurb from each island. You might be able to get the entire content from just that picture (and don’t need to click through) but for any longer amount of content and you’re going to the source still. Probablematically, it’s also not very good for text. Although it allows you to write as much as you want, I haven’t seen anyone who uses it like that. People assume it’s a place for short thoughts and funny pictures. It’s primarily a visual exchange, with text and tags and people / friends tacked onto that. It’s also different in audience to Twitter: Facebook is for real life friends who you probably don’t like or care about, Twitter is for strangers that you do like and grow increasingly caring about. Which brings us to the strange hivemind that is Tumblr:

Tumblr is photocentric. There’s no way around that. My photo Tumblr: very popular. My short story Tumblr has followers in the two-digit variety. It’s a ghost town. And I can’t blame them because I’m guilty of it myself. I’ve found the small pocket of short writing Tumblrs and admittedly when they come up in my stream I usually scroll past them. I’ve gotten in this terrible habit of using the middle-mouse scroll thing to automatically scroll down rapidly. I’m consuming pictures in what could basically be called a strobe light waterfall. I feel like this cheapens everything, but the signal to noise ratio sort of allows for it; there are very few good, good Tumblrs and when you add in all the other blogs, you’re adding noise to even the purest feed. Inevitably, since you can’t follow a mass of 100% perfect streams, you have to concede quality.

The cool thing about this system is it’s almost entirely self contained. Tumblr hosts everything and everyone either reblogs from the inside or brings things from the outside in to reblog. Maybe 5% of them are consistently OC and the author is making the things that show up in the stream. This seem to be webcomics and artists moving over from DeviantArt. Cool, but it doesn’t help the long form text thing. It doesn’t really help writers.

These three are good, but they are communities made for something else, and while they can be good at distribution of the content itself, the people have to be willing to see those things come up in those places, and unfortunately, those are not the places. I’m a little unusual in that my FB is largely outside sources, but the people that I’ve talked to don’t want that – they want to see their friends and family show up. I can respect that, and I understand it, but it’s a shame because it takes Facebook out of the game from being a serious method of getting outside thing to people. Twitter is better, but you have to balance tweets and links. Some people can manage that, but it takes away from being just a longform writer. Tumblr has the perfect setup but the demographic of short attention spans.

Medium is sort of what I’m looking for, but I’m not sure about it yet. I can’t really articulate why, but it’s just missing something. Maybe I’ll find it later. Maybe they’ll add it later. It’s still young, so we’ll just have to wait and see. So far, the demographic of the writership seems uninterestingly “interesting” in the way TED talks have been going downhill. They’re pruned to be “radical” but it reads like the one doing the pruning is over 40 and so the definition of what is radical becomes slightly out of touch. One thing I’m not a fan of (even if I was invited to) is the permission to post thing. I understand that they’re trying to cultivate only the best, but like Twitter or Tumblr (or even WordPress), let the best rise to the top. Allow everyone to go for it, and if they remain in obscurity then that’s fine too. Being allowed to post is a silly metric for goodness in the first place. Give people a free platform and allow them to rise to the challenge.

In the meantime, welcome to Acrylo Island. We’ll figure out a way to bring our sunshine to you one of these days.

The Future of Blogging

The Kickstarter for Ghost ended the other day and it was very, very well funded which is cool for something that’s going to be free in the future anyway. Just goes to show people will pay for something so simple as a good idea.

I’ve been spending a lot more time on the Tumblr blogs as of late and I’ve noticed they’ve started to take over the role that this blog once had – my finding and sharing cool things mixed in with my opinions and stories from real life. So I pondered: why? What’s changed?

And the solution – as best as I can come up with – is interaction. The emphasis here on the ‘inter’ bit, because it’s more than just a two way dialogue; it’s a web of people intertwining the opinions and cool things and stories from real life.

Now, like any site taken at face value, there is a lot of less than prime content. Not bad things, just noise in the signal of what I’m looking for and want. I see it as noise, but that’s the signal going to other people: the internet really is everyone trying to talk on the same radio band simultaneously. We try our best to pick out the conversation we want to hear, but it’s intrinsically intermixed with all of the others. There are times when this is very good, serendipity is at it’s maximum high here because you’re being exposed to all the things you didn’t know existed, but it’s also hard to concentrate and that means it’s harder to generate good work, then get it to the people who might like it (new readership) and the people who actually want it (loyal readership).

There’s one thing that I really, really like about Tumblr. The ever-ubiquitous “follow” button in the top right. Like something and want more of it? One button. Don’t like it anymore? One button. This is the opt-in / opt-out mechanic of the future. No RSS syndication, no emails for subscribing and unsubscribing, no bouncing all over to different sources of content. One. Button. It shows up in your feed and everyone’s happy.

The interesting thing here is signal to noise becomes a ratio not of who you follow, but of what those people are posting and re-posting. The quality of content is defined by that person’s outgoing stream, not that you’re getting unwanted incoming things. Each person, then, becomes a signal-noise ratio unto themselves, independent of each other.

Sadly, I’m not sure Tumblr is the future of blogging. It’s entrenched in it’s picture format and while there are those who use it for short and long form writing, it seems to be a minority. But we can learn from it. That follow button is such a small thing that holds so much power. There are a lot of blogs that I’d love to follow but simply don’t because there aren’t any good ways to read them outside of showing up to the site every day and checking to see if there’s something new. I realize, of course, that that’s exactly where Acrylo is sitting right now. RSS didn’t work out back then and it seems unlikely to return in any overwhelming numbers. People want an easy, inline way of following and unfollowing things.

So I appreciate what Ghost is trying to do, and it’ll likely be successful enough at it, but what we really need is a Tumblr-esque quasi social network for pure writing.

New Car

That’s a strange photo for a blog post to be written around, but I’ll try my best to describe it’s importance. It’s a still taken from an unreleased video I made the summer before last which is just me longboarding around my hometown and visiting old places of interest and nostalgia. It really wasn’t very good, but I’ve always enjoyed filming the footage more than actually making something out of it.

But it was a common sight that summer, looking over the passenger seat and seeing a faithful piece of bamboo reflect the warm sun around the dark grey interior. This shot in it’s video form shows the shadows of leaves in the trees lining old streets as they stream in, gently waving. The sound is sort of like a waterful or TV static. That white noise of wind. I sat in my car listening to bands I hadn’t heard since high school and staring out the window. It’s an understated activity, really. People see people staring out of windows and describe them as ‘doing nothing’ but it’s hardly a fair observation of what’s actually happening; in that moment I was simply being. I was parked across the street from a perpendicular road (think a large T that I was at the top intersection of) that has a perfect hill for cruising. Just steep enough that you can get some good speed and work into deeper carving, but not so steep that you fear for your ability to stop or bail. It’s a road that is lined with large, old trees and is in the general area of a small indoor pool we used to take swimming lessons at as kids. Beyond it is my elementary school where we were sometimes picked up in the very car I was sitting in then.

Cars as an interior space are an interesting thing because all of my memories come from the same viewpoint: my driver’s seat. With exception to a few from when I was a kid sitting in the back, most of what I know in that car is from the exact same vantage. The result of that is sort of a timelapse, where the time can be sped up to show the surroundings without confusion, because of the fixed angle. Most other spaces – interiors of buildings, for example – would speed up like a movie would, with cuts and scenes that happen all over. They’re all in the same space, but they can’t be compressed or played back in the same way.

And not that my nostalgia would be interesting to anyone but me, but it’s weird to think about all the people who’ve sat in that other seat. Or things, like the longboard or cameras or pizza. The handful of chairs I’ve managed to stuff into the tiny car and bring home. Lumber that’s stretched from the very front of the dash to the very back of the hatch (exactly 8′). My computer tower, seatbelted in and surrounded by blankets and pillows that time I came home for Christmas month school break. Guys and girls, conversations both heavy and giggled. The awkward silence of giving someone you don’t know very well a ride home. The acceleration-challenged rides with four guys crammed in and dancing to some ridiculous song on the radio. The hours spent parked in usual spots just talking and watching the sun set. The time spent alone, or talking to the car herself. Space exists in relation to the people occupying it, and in a lot of ways the car interior is the ultimate space for holding memories, simply because it’s there in so many contexts.

I bought a new car. I’m deeply excited, of course, but there’s a lot of me that’s bitter-sweet about giving up what amounts to one of my longest standing loves. It’s not to say I don’t have good friends but these past years have been filled with new cities, new people and new places – the physical thread that’s always been there has been this one car.

Resolutions

I’ve never made proper resolutions. I’ve never understood why January first is any different than, say, July 14th or March 27th as far as “I’m going to do starting on ” statements. If you have a goal, do it. The dates relative to the year’s beginning or end aren’t really important.

With that said, some observations of the past few years:

My love of photography peaked in 2009, I can’t really deny it. There’s 65.2 GB of photos from that year alone and 5 GB from 2011 and 2012 combined. This past Christmas marks the first time I’ve gone on any sort of roadtrip and left it at home. It’s just fading out of my life and that’s not good or bad or happy or sad, it’s just something that happens. I’ve always wanted to get into video but frankly, it’s a mess. Every time I shoot something there’s some issue with codecs or encoding or RAM or rendering and it’s tiresome. I spent countless hours last year trying to get film that I’d already shot into something usable and in the end never released it because the image quality took such a hit working around the technical limitations. Art – at least in that context – shouldn’t be frustrating. I shouldn’t spend more time fighting with the canvas than painting.

Blender experiments will continue, but I’ve reached my classic impasse where my ambitions outweigh my patience. I simply don’t care enough about a scene to spend the time setting it all up, even if my skills are entirely adequate to do so. There’s a certain excitement when you first start that says “This’ll be so cool when I’m done!” and I’ve lost it. I just don’t care enough about what I make. It’s message-less and bland.

So. This upcoming year. Next week:

I want to finish a comic. I’ve written a handful of scripts and some of them might even have legs enough to go somewhere, but I always make the first page and stop. Again with the patience thing: my ambition quickly outruns my ability to make them and I get frustrated. On every front, in every medium, I’d like to learn past this limitation and start truly shipping work.

On a personal note, I’d like to take up running and biking again. I did both a lot as a kid and just sort of lost them. Last summer I logged a lot of hours on the longboard, which is awesome, but something a bit more cardio might be nice too. Spend more warm, sunset evenings reading in the park. Maybe it’s just the winter blues right now, but I really should have done even more of that than I already did. Similarly; more hiking and camping. More log splitting and fire making.

I’d like to try paragliding in spring.

Why I Argue

The odds are good that if you’ve ever spoken at length with me, you’ve encountered debate on some level from me. Know that while the medium is socially unusual, it’s actually me caring about you. Here’s the breakdown, as best as I understand myself right now:

My mind in it’s analytically monstrous state is at best a prodding machine, I find a topic or an issue or a conversation and dissect it at great, great lengths from every angle. Sometimes this is over time, and we call this “obsession” – which I revel in – and sometimes it’s instantaneous within the conversation, a talent which is used for humor; most comedy is about absurd connections between things. I am a dot connector. I am a spectrum analyzer.

We have in our everyday encounters these topics, these issues, that exist at their most basic on a spectrum. Most issues have more dimensions than a simple position on a line, more positions than simply shades of grey. Some people think only in black and white and these are usually insufferable people to talk to, best left ignored. Some people recognize the gradient but fail to see it’s connections to all of the other gradients and these are at least somewhat interesting, and usually at least willing to look at the bigger pictures and connections. The people I truly love to talk to recognize the abstractness of the ideas and are willing to dive into them fully. The people I truly love to talk to are the ones who are not only willing to debate from positions on said spectrums but willing to debate from any position, fluidly. My ideal conversations are ones in which we have no fixed sides but instead dance around to figure out the terrain via prodding at each other’s relative positions as we move over them.

The medium of debate is how I understand where something exists and, more importantly, where it does not. Occasionally words and ideas are shots in the dark that produce an echo – a sign of some wall or structure. We can continue firing in a variety of ways in order to map the surface of the object, the issue at hand. The end result of this, although it looks like arguing, is people coming to a conclusion of not who is “right” and “wrong” but what the issue at hand actually is. I don’t actually care if I’m right or wrong, and I don’t ever intend to imply the other person is right or wrong, my intentions (and hopefully those of who I’m talking to) are to simply understand.

If I don’t care about you personally, or about the terrain from which you preach (a word which here means I assume you are inflexible to your position (and might lightly poke to find out)) then I won’t engage you. There’s very little to learn about a subject if the sonar pings from the same direction every time. A flat view reveals so little of what could be a rich topic, I’ll simply find someone else to explore it with.

If I care about learning your position and want to understand it, I will try to find out what exactly it is. The best way I’ve found to do that is to disagree with it. But know that it’s a devil’s advocate thing; I don’t have to personally believe anything I say, I simply use thoughts and ideas to understand where you lay. It’s a game of Battleship where I can learn about the issues at hand and also about you personally, since most people won’t stray far from their actual, honest personal belief.

As a side note, this is why I write: to prod at myself. There are many examples in this blog where I start of with one thesis and close with the opposite. I’ve changed my mind halfway through laying out the evidence and since I don’t go back or edit, it stays that way. The famous aphorism: “Write to know thyself”

TL;DR I debate to prod at a topic in order to understand it. If I question you, it means I hold you in high enough regard to help me learn.

Tired

I had a post all queued up for today relating the Polish army’s trained bear to modern day robots but honestly, it was pretty lame. I liked the trivia but it made for a terrible article.

This is the part where if this were a live presentation, I would sit on the edge of the stage with my legs dangling into the darkness and my tone of voice would change into something more like a coffee shop conversation.

I’m frustrated.

The immediate next adjective that comes to mind is “tired” but that’s not quite true – I’m simultaneously agitated and restless. I’m proverbially chomping at the bit to sink my teeth into some big project. They say a happy creative’s life is being able to move from one obsession to the next and I’ve been fortunate to have had that basically as long as I can remember. I’ve always had some obsession and some multitude of projects to work on. I’m slowing down, and it’s upsetting.

The second part of this is a logic loop of lies: IF I can truly learn nothing more (and this is never true) then I should be able to make the things I want with the skills I have. It’s problematic because I equate knowing enough to finish the project and having enough patience and stamina to finish a project, which isn’t fair. I can, with the skills I have, execute a large portion of the things in my head. I break down when I devote an evening to it and get roughly nowhere and then give up. I feel inadequate with my skills, but they aren’t the issue.

And, persistence is a skill like any other – I consciously know that – but I’m struggling to learn it. It’s the mental equivalent of doing five push ups and going “Well, that was a good workout”

There’s a layer of guilt as far as this blog goes. I genuinely love it, but I feel like it’s served it’s purpose for me already. Frankly, I can’t stand critiquing things anymore, I simply don’t believe the same things I used to believe. I’m not sure there is a such thing as right and wrong art or design. There’s certain styles and forms and things that I like more than others, but I can’t condemn people for trying. There is a lot of objectively terrible design out there, it’s true, but I don’t care enough for outcry. There will always be terrible things and some guy writing some column isn’t going to change them. You get what you pay for.

On the flip side, there’s good design that’s worth sharing but I’m growing past that too. Last year, when my posting average was more than one per day, I was really, really up to date in that world. I lived and breathed it. Now I’m spending that time reading fiction and studying mythology. I’d love to start a blog or podcast about other things, and I probably will, but they will be just that: other things.

So what does that leave a design blog? Design philosophy I don’t feel strongly about and a message for people to get out there and make things as I sit in hypocrisy?

It’s scary and confusing. Am I being lazy? Is this merely a relative thing because I maintained superhuman levels for so long before?

In effect, my obsession energy is shifting from good, productive obsessions into ones of self doubt and the wrong kind of introspection. The energy is going into perfectionism and not into producing better work, which is self defeating.

On the Value of Things

Another post on the more hypothetical side.

Things. Stuff. Gadgets and doodads. Old and new, handmade and made by sweatshop hands. We associate a value with all of the things around us based on the object itself – say, it’s market price – and a combination of our personal feelings towards it: a favorite photograph might be worth a lot even if it’s just ink and paper. A hard drive isn’t just a spinning disk after a few years of use.

A question: You’re in a restaurant with a friend and you bought them lunch at some previous date worth the same amount as the lunch he’s going to buy you today. Now, this whole thing is a non-issue depending on your level of friendship and I’ve been fortunate to have never run into it, but nonetheless. He pulls out a coupon for 50% off, say, and proceeds to pay less than it would have normally cost. So the value of the food in both cases is the same – you both had your hamburgers each time, or whatever – but the monetary worth changes; he paid less than you did. Does he still owe you?

Of course, as I stressed before, ‘owing’ is a concept nebulous at best between friends. Forget that for a second.

When we say “owe” as far as the value of things, is it about what you get or what it cost the other person? It cost you $20, say, and you both got your food. It cost him $10 and you both got the same food. If you call value the end results, you’re even; you both got equal amounts in the end. If you call value about cost, you’re still unbalanced; he owes you another $10 worth of cost against himself.

I’ve become fascinated lately by the values people attach to things. I bought an iPad Mini recently, as a lot of people did and it replaced my 1 generation iPad, which I bought on the day they came out two and a half years ago. For me, that original iPad has every bit of value left in it. Sure, it’s slowly dying and the hardware is incredibly clunky (now that I’m getting used to what seems mind-blowingly fast) but it’s ability to do what I want is still inherent. That is, the value I see in it boils down to: “Does it do what I like?” and as long as I keep answering yes, it’s valuable. If I were to sell it at a garage sale, with it’s spraypainted black back and it’s crushed corner and worn patina there probably wouldn’t be much interest, even from the very desperate. It’s simply not worth very much to other people. They compare it at a money level, because they have the potential to take that money and spend it elsewhere. Since I spent my money long ago, it’s continuing value is based on different principles.

And so everyday life comes back to a set of priorities remarkably similar to those found on the design room floor: what are we looking for in a product, and does our design meet it?

Value, then, could be described as how much a thing does what it’s supposed to do multiplied by how much you want / need a thing to do it.

A blender could either be very good or very poor at making smoothies, but if you don’t want / need smoothies in the first place it’s value (to you) remains low.

So when we value ebooks and digital content (which is unique in that it can be made once and sold infinitely) it’s not really about how much the paper and glue costs (or: doesn’t), it’s about how much we want the information or story contained. The old supply and demand doesn’t really work here, because supply never ends. Demand, then, approaches the opposite asymptote. Value needs another driver. A thing done well. A good story x how much you want a good story.

Cars as Temporary Architecture

There’s an idea that’s been in my head for a while now for an Alternate Calgary but I haven’t written it yet – here’s the real-world spin off of it:

Cars are a space, a volume, that moves between two other spaces, say, your house and work. They’re relatively permanent in state – the seats move forward and back but the car’s architecture, so to speak, is generally unaffected – while their position is not. They are a very brief tunnel, essentially. Imagining that all the air around you was a thin pink mist that you could dig away as you moved through it, walking down the street would essentially create a vacuum behind you, right? A tunnel. Now drive through that same volume in your car and we see the same thing but slightly wider. A car is a tunnel that only exists in a certain place at a certain time. A true tunnel is a space that exists between two points all the time.

The neat thing, of course, is this is a tunnel you get to control. You can drive it anywhere you want! This is a room between a room and a nearly infinite supply of other rooms. Not instantaneously, of course, but nonetheless. So when we talk about architecture as a volume, as a space that exists separated from all the other space in the world it’s really just a bubble in our imaginary pink cloud. It’s a bubble that doesn’t move, usually. Buildings, typically, hold their bubble still and contained; trapped inside their walls and ceilings. Cars are a smaller bubble that goes between them. As such, cars are architecture.

Now – and this is where we venture into Alternate Calgary’s worlds – what would a city look like if we took that pink mist pocketed by bubbles and lifted it up, removed all the actual infrastructure? Are there patterns in the tunnels that we could map and re-network? Yes, we could. Now, let’s look at the human interactions:

Say there’s a family of four. The two parents work in different places and the two children go to school in different places. What if the house they lived in broke into chunks and were transported by some means, say, a crane, when required. Let’s say that the chunks could be transported into other areas and re appropriated into other uses. If you put enough children’s bedrooms together you could make a classroom. If you picked up dad’s room (or study or whatever) and moved it to connect with another room containing machines he could work…

You get the idea.

So the tunnels between bubbles aren’t other, smaller, mobile bubbles (cars) as much as they contain the space themselves and are reconfigured. Because that’s the goal of cars, really: to rearrange humans on the planet.

Smiles Per Hour

This idea has been developing in the back of my mind for a few months now and I’ve briefly alluded to it before. Nonetheless, it seems to warrant further exploration.

What if we measured design’s goodness in smiles brought to users – a concept I called “delight” in previous columns – instead of, say, profit or ownership. Ultimately, this is one side to the overarching question of “What should we design?” and it’s basis “What deserves to be in existence?”

Throughout school and my early career I was a very utilitarian designer, very minimal and very essential. There wasn’t much room for whimsy or self-possession in the design, it should be quiet and unobtrusive. In a perfect world there wouldn’t be anything but we would be able to complete any task we wanted. Since this was impossible, it was design’s job to get as close as possible. It was a Rams world moreso than an Eames one, and I say this in the philosophical sense more than the aesthetic one. The Eames couple made toys and had colourful windmills and fun, whereas Dieter was German and stark. It was a Japanese zen approach: the space should not be filled with things but people, and those people will mold the neutral space to their own preference. I still believe these things and will continue to fill my own world with these things, but my argument here is on behalf of the rest of the world.

Unlike physical sales where something is either sold or isn’t we have to extend the metaphor for smiles as a currency. We can think of debt as the opposite of money but anti-smiles are a more complex absence. There are three states: delight, neutral and frustration. The best designed things we marvel at, we delight in, the rest either elicits no response or actively gets in our way. Ideally, of course, we should be designing for the first, but a large majority of objects are the second: they exist and they serve – often well – our needs but we probably don’t really notice them in the positive sense either.

The reason I love this abstraction is it’s broad moral questions that relate humans to design. Questions that bring up, for only one example, things like guns. Not inherently bad and in fact smile granting when used in a range but when used against other people definitely rack up the anti-smile cost pretty quickly. Should they, then, exist as objects? There’d have to be a net balance of smiles gained v. smiles destroyed in every object that either justifies or damns it’s being. Granted, for most things it’d be obviously skewed: the existence of ice cream cones is something that – I’m assuming, at least – would be far closer to the delight end of the spectrum. A water bottle might not be an actively exciting thing, but nor are they actively destroying delight either. So then, there must be other, external factors to finally decide.

Usefulness has always been weighted heavily for me, as mentioned above, I’m an inherently practical person and an inherently practical designer. Water bottles, we can easily agree, are useful. The reductio ad absurdum being holding water in your cupped hands until you need a drink. This would be annoying at best and tragically difficult in reality. Driving and typing become impossible, as would basically everything else we do throughout the day. How many smiles do water bottles destroy? We could point to the life cycle analysis – the energy used to make them, the shipping costs, the stores that sell them, the re-usability, the recycling efficiency / landfill cost and so forth, but in the end we need a metric that correlates those things with humans’ actual lives and their delight level.

Now, this is all good in hypothetical thought. It’s good for imaginative philosophy in both design and humanist circles but in practice becomes impossibly complex to work out. Who’s to say there aren’t families living in landfills who’d delight in finding a good thrown out water bottle? What about the people in the town next to the landfill who anti-delight in seeing it grow closer to their house? Where do those things stack up and cancel out?

But maybe, just maybe, it’s another thing to think about when designing something. Not just cost analysis or profit margins, marketability or sustainability, something so simple as “Will this thing make more smiles than it breaks?”

Manual Labour

The year is 1937, a utilitarian loft with creaky floorboards houses rows upon rows of desks upon which rest an inbox an outbox and a typewriter rest. The large windows allow light to stream in, visible in the ambient dust. The clack of hundreds of mechanical keys reverberate the room’s hard surfaces. Women make social security cards by the thousand, manually adding the numbers and information.

It’s hard to argue that we should go back to this as a way of life.

It’s now 2012 and I sit in a comfortable pub with a handful of designer and engineer friends eating greasy chicken and drinking varying shades of amber. We lament the loss of simple mechanical knowledge in people; “Really, people don’t know how to change their own oil? Woah.” but I see both sides of the argument. Why should the common person understand the internal combustion engine? It’s practical, sure, for self diagnosis of developing noises or vibrations and usually more cost effective to fix things yourself but there’s little necessity to these reasons. You can, as many do, live your entire life comfortably without such knowledge.

There’s a good pile of essential design philosophy literature that insists that the world is collapsing because we’re moving into an information age, an age that doesn’t value physical trades like motorcycle repair. That we’re collectively dumber because our German-made cars have plastic covers over the engines with very little insight as to the magic underneath. Shop Class as Soulcraft author Matthew Crawford describes this as a “hood under the hood” with only a few caps for filling fluids, should the consumer be daring enough to even fill those themselves. This is a valid point, and one that we agree on – it makes sense to learn to do minor things yourself for the independence, know-how and often for the simple cost savings of not paying labour. But I disagree on the lamenting of society. Rather, I focus my lament direction slightly elsewhere:

These are books that suggest that a lack of knowledge is a problem, and that people who lack knowledge are dumb and shameful blights on good society. I’m hardly arguing in favor of ignorance, but I want to shift the blame to the cause, not the effect: a lack of curiosity. We in the pub are, as a former mechanical design class, a collection of intensely curious people. People who yearn to know what this bit of metal does or how it works. We’re the people who grew up on How it Works books and videos and absorb it with sponge-like minds because curiosity drives us. Do I know how everything in the world works? Hardly. Are they – the people who know such things – to lament and shame me for not knowing? In their eyes, yes. But I’d argue that my eagerness to learn it is the defining factor.

So instead of writing books about how society is going down the drain because the average person can’t change their own oil we should be writing books about how awesome learning how to do these things can be. About how to be driven and led by natural curiosity for the betterment of oneself. It’s not about the information age, the jobs that get cut will get cut because there simply isn’t a reason to keep menial tasks around explicitly to fill chairs with people; we’ve got grander things to do! It’s not about mechanical programs being cut from schools or a lack of teachers to teach them – try learning to code in high school; same problem – it’s about having nearly infinite access to such topics and having students who realize they can simply learn whatever they’re truly driven towards.

TL;DR A person’s knowledge doesn’t define them as much as their willingness to learn does.

Title photo via.


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