Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Category: Design (page 1 of 7)

How to weaponize editing: The Daily Stormer’s style guide

Ashley Feinberg has a scary but great piece dissecting the Daily Stormer’s style guide.

It’s more than a style guide for writing internet-friendly neo-Nazi prose; it’s a playbook for the alt-right…. The site’s stylistic decisions, the subjects it covers, the specific racial slurs it employs — all are consciously chosen for the purpose of furthering The Daily Stormer’s ultimate goal, which, according to the style guide itself, is “to spread the message of nationalism and anti-Semitism to the masses.” Everything is deliberate.

The guide is particularly interested in ways to lend the site’s hyperbolic racial invective a facade of credibility and good faith. Or at the very least, in how to confuse its readers to the point where they can’t tell the difference. The Daily Stormer, for instance, uses block quotes for much the same reason Richard Spencer stuffs himself into vests…: it allows writers to borrow some of mainstream media’s air of scrupulousness and good hygiene.

I know that manipulation is nothing new– rhetoric and music were seen by ancient Greek philosophers as tools for manipulating the passions of the unwise– but I think we’re living in a Cambrian explosion for manipulation, thanks to two trends: the weaponization of behavioral economics or persuasive technologies, A/B experiments that aim to fine-tune products to suit our preferences, and technologies technologies that behave like car salesmen– adjusting their sales pitches based on our previous purchases and current behavior; and the growing use of these strategies for ends that are, at best, sketchy. When Facebook encourages you to spend time with friends on Facebook so they can track your social graph and sell it to advertisers; when games are designed to have no clear end-point so you feel like you’re abandoning your friends if you stop playing; when the Daily Stormer uses humor and block quotes in an effort to normalize virulent anti-Semitism; it becomes easy to assume that these kinds of efforts are lurking in the background of every interaction or communication.

This is not bike parking this is art

Spotted at Papirøen:

This is not bike parking this is art

Art can be confusing, I suppose.

Are Post-its evil?

My friend Anthony Townsend turned me onto this entertaining rant against Post-Its and design thinking: Jamer Hunt argues that the Post-It filled wallboard has become a wrongheaded symbol of creativity.

The predominant image of design in the 21st century is that cliché of the empty conference room or studio–just after some feverish brainstorming extravaganza–plastered with Post-it notes … as if the act of design had suddenly morphed into some strange game of pin the Post-it on the mind map. How is it possible that the wonderfully complex process of design has devolved to the point that we now commonly represent it by the leftover artifacts of quickie ideation? Is that all there is?

As someone who's written pretty extensively on the use of paper media and paper spaces in collaborative creative work, naturally I was intrigued by Hunt's argument, but he seems a lot more concerned about the Post-it as symbol of design. He doesn't seem to be arguing that it's a tool that leads you to do bad work, or is too weak to support good work. So what's wrong with the Post-it as symbol?

The problem is that in serving as a substitute for the whole of design, the Post-it represents only a small fraction of what makes design uniquely effective. It papers over the fact that ideation without materialization is not design. Designers discover as they turn ideas into thing (even when those things have no physical form). We gain true insight in the act of making a mark on a page or pushing pixels on the screen. We don't need to over-hype those processes, but to ignore them means that we shortchange the practice of design. Clever ideas are a dime-a-dozen–about the cost of Post-its.

Fair enough. The idea that ideas are what matters, and that the actual thing is kind of an afterthought is one of the scourges of our age. This kind of creative Platonism downplays (or just misunderstands) the difficulty of actually making good things, and the role that solving production problems can play in innovation. (I was turned onto this by two very different sources: Bill Leslie's work on Bell Labs and Western Electric, and Matthew Crawford's Shop Class as Soul Craft) To the degree that those of us in the delirious professions treat brainstorming (and its material/visual expression) as an end-point rather than a stage in a bigger process, we sell ourselves short, and do a disservice to our clients.

Social bike sharing

Another example of bicycles becoming smarter and more social: Social Bikes.

For those who aren't familiar with how these resource-sharing services typically work, check out our story about the technology behind Zipcar. In a nutshell, there are little car lots (or in the case of B-Cycle, a company that will soon deploy shared bikes in Chicago, bike stations) located all over a city that are locked when not in use. A user can make a reservation online for a car or bike and then pick it up at the designated time.

There is no human interaction required: once the mode of transportation is reserved, the user identifies him or herself to the car or bike either by RFID (Zipcar) or PIN at the cycle station (B-Cycle), which then unlocks the car/bike. When the user is done, he or she returns the vehicle to the same lot so that others can make use of the car. For B-Cycle, users can return bikes to any B-Cycle station, not necessarily the one they rented from.

The SoBi system follows a similar path, but the technology is a bit more advanced than that of services like B-Cycle…. For one, there are no cycle stations: SoBi bikes are parked all over the city (starting in New York City) at regular old bike racks. This means that bikes could, in fact, be anywhere at any given time, and not just at a designated station that could be blocks away. You can pick up any bike that's not already reserved, and drop it off anywhere without having to hunt down a drop-off station….

Like a Zipcar, each SoBi bike is equipped with its own "lockbox" that communicates wirelessly with the SoBi servers via GPS and a cellular receiver (an H-24 module from Motorola, Rzepecki told Ars). When you make a reservation online or via smartphone, you see a map of all the bikes in the area based on their GPS data and are given the option to unlock a specific bike when you click on it….

Since the lockbox contains a GPS module, a cell chip, and a lock that works with a PIN pad, there has to be some way to power it. The SoBi team is still working out the kinks in power consumption, but plans to power the devices with a hub dynamo on the bike's rear wheel. The lockbox is essentially powered by your pedaling—no charging stations required.

[thanks, Heather]

The Copenhagen Wheel

For a long time, I've been interested in getting an electric bike, especially after I saw the Optibike at the California Academy of Sciences. Via the Daily Dish, I came across an MIT hybrid bicycle project that looks like just the thing: the Copenhagen Wheel. Check out the video:

Not completely clear from the video exactly how it works, but I like how elegantly it attaches to a bicycle (some bike motors look like real kludges), and that it also is a smart device:

Dyson Award-winning design:

Smart, responsive and elegant, it transforms existing bicycles quickly into hybrid electric-bikes with regeneration and real-time sensing capabilities. Its sleek red hub not only contains a motor, batteries and an internal gear system – helping cyclists overcome hilly terrains and long distances – but also includes environmental and location sensors that provide data for cycling-related mobile applications. Cyclists can use this data to plan healthier bike routes, to achieve their exercise goals or to create new connections with other cyclists. Through sharing their data with friends or their city, they are also contributing to a larger pool of information from which the whole community can benefit.

It's called the Copenhagen Wheel because the bike-friendly wants to increase the number of people who cycle, and worked wit the team to

to investigate how small amounts of technology could improve the cycling experience and how the four main obstacles to getting people on bikes – distance, topography, infrastructure and safety – could be overcome. What has resulted is the Copenhagen Wheel: a new type of electric smart-bike which utilizes a technical solution for overcoming distance and topography (a motor and batteries with regeneration capabilities that can provide riders with a boost when needed) and a real-time data network and series of applications to support infrastructure creation and foster a sense of safety.

Trading intelligence for resources; encouraging mergers of people and devices on human terms rather than device terms; bringing information to users in context– all great examples of an end of cyberspace device.

Futures Company on Wordle

A good critique by Russ Wilson of the Futures Company of the limitations of tag clouds to actually explain things:

I have two main issues with Wordles [a tag cloud generator], and they’re exemplified in the wordle above, based on David Cameron’s coalition speech. First, they remove the word from its immediate context. Take the word interest, represented as one of the more frequently occurring words. But it could equally indicate curiosity and engagement or interest payments.

The second issue is that frequency is being proposed as an indicator of importance, but that’s not how we actually interpret speech…. Frequency of use is simply that – frequency of use.

Both of these are classic problems in information management– or to use the old school term, indexing. When I was at Britannica, people often used the example of "depression" in the same way Wilson talks about interest: the Britannica had articles on the geological kind, the economic phenomenon, and the psychological condition, but it was hard for most automated systems to distinguish between them. Users, in contrast, could do so quickly– because they brought (or could quickly surmise) the specific context in which an instance of the word appeared.

And a moment's reflection should make clear that frequency and importance are not the same thing. Sometimes they are. But how many times is the word "like" over-used to the point of meaninglessness– ether as a verbal tic, or, thanks to the flattening of the term by Facebook, as the Web equivalent of Valley girl-speak?

Racing, innvation, and the Automotive X Prize

Great article in Slate about attempts to build cars that will claim the Progressive Automotive X Prize, and how these efforts benefit from a quirk of recent history. For most of the history of cars, automobile racing and everyday innovation were connected:

The track wasn't just a marketing tool; it was a proving ground, a place where engineers learned new tricks that filtered down to the American consumer. Well into the 1960s, when Ford challenged Ferrari in the European endurance race known as the 24 Hours of Le Mans, automakers lavished money on their racing teams, believing they'd earn it back in expertise and sales. The link between motor racing and the cars in our driveways turned into a mantra for the industry: Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.

Through the 1980s and '90s, that connection eroded. The IndyCar and NASCAR circuits were flooded with sponsorship cash from tobacco and beer companies, which didn't care about automotive innovation. They just wanted the races to be entertaining…. It used to be that the goals of racing and consumer R&D were one and the same—to make better road cars. Now the automakers' consumer divisions are searching for the holy grail of fuel efficiency while the brilliant engineers in their racing divisions make tweaks to the latest gas-guzzling V8s. It's a tragic waste of human capital, as if Silicon Valley's elite programmers had spent the last two decades optimizing video-game code instead of creating search engines.

Let's leave aside the question of whether Silicon Valley's elite programmers really have or haven't been optimizing video-game code, and whether that was a good thing (better simulations, anyone?), and note that this situation has created an opportunity to 1) acquire strong design talent, and 2) apply it in constructive and interesting ways. The article talks about one company that's doing just that, Edison2:

Edison2 was founded by a 48-year-old German real estate developer named Oliver Kuttner. Ever since he was a kid, Kuttner dreamed of running his own car company, and when the major automakers slashed their racing budgets to save costs during the recession, laying off thousands of engineers and mechanics, he saw an opportunity. He hired half a dozen of the most talented castaways, including Ron Mathis, a Brit who had designed champion F1 cars for Audi, and Bobby Mouzayck, a journeyman mechanic on Corvette, Viper, and Audi race cars.


edison2 cars, via flickr

As their Flickr photostream shows, the cars look pretty insane. But it's a very different kind of utopianism driving (as it were) Edison2 than, say, the Aspen Institute's hypercar:

Until now, much of the thinking about the future of transportation has been done by people who find cars irritating. For them, fuel efficiency means more people walking around and riding bicycles. They're busy drawing the chalk lines of a post-car America: high-speed rail, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, congestion pricing, bicycle lanes, sentient herds of Urban Smart Vehicles…. The car people who are now entering this conversation—the true gearheads—aren't utopian city planners. They're pragmatists who know that you can't transcend the car without building a better car first. And history tells us that a better car often starts with a dopey desire to go ridiculously fast.

Actually, prizes have been another significant source of innovation in the history of technology, and are more popular these days in promoting targeted innovation in science and technology (I had an elegant piece on this in Signtific, but for whatever reason IFTF took that million-dollar investment offline months ago and has never seen fit to put it back online).

[To the tune of Rush, "Red Barchetta," from the album Moving Pictures (a 3-star song, imo).]

Paper Spaces: Visualizing the Future

Years ago, I read Richard Harper and Abigail Sellen's Myth of the Paperless Office. For me, it's like Annie Hall or Houses of the Holy or David Brownlee's modern architecture class: it's one of those works that blows you away when you first encounter it, and still resonates years later. Almost immediately after reading the book, I started thinking about how paper media and their affordances are used– usually quite unself-consciously– by futurists in expert workshops.

The result is an article titled "Paper Spaces: Visualizing the Future." Like many of my articles, it's taken an unseemly amount of time to get into press, but it's finally coming out this spring in World Futures Review. A PDF of the latest draft is available here.

Here's the big argument, from the introduction:

We tend to think of space as irrelevant in creative work, or at best only indirectly influential: for example, architects may use a mix of open office plans, natural lighting, and bold colors to create stimulating, useful workspaces. But for workshops, and for the kinds of visual processes that many futurists use, the relationship between space, ideas, and creativity is much more intimate. Ideas are embodied in materials; they become cognitive and physical spaces that literally surround groups; and the process of creating those spaces can promote a sense of group identity and common vision for the future.

I use the term "paper spaces" to describe these environments, and to highlight several things. First, we're used to thinking of things made of paper as physical objects whose qualities help shape the experience of reading, but it's useful to pay attention to their spatial and architectural qualities as well. Large visuals aren't just things: they're spaces that possess some of the qualities of desks or offices. Workshops exploit their scale and physicality to promote social activity between workshop participants. In this case, the spatiality of paper is fairly self-evident; but many of our interactions with paper, books, and writing have a spatial quality. Scholars could gain much by analyzing print media using conceptual tools from architecture, design, and human-computer interaction, as well as literary theory and book history.

Second, it warns us against taking too passive or formal a view of visual tools in business, of treating them like paintings on a wall. In the way users interact with them– they're annotated, extended, argued over, and played with– they're more like Legos than landscapes. The process of creating maps, and the maps themselves, both reflect a set of attitudes about how to understand and prepare for the future, one that emphasizes user involvement, and the need for actors to develop and possess shared visions of the future. (Ironically, there may be more studies of large interactive displays and other digital media, than of the old media they're meant to displace. )

Third, the term "paper spaces" highlights their hybrid, ephemeral quality. They work because they're simultaneously interactive media and workspace, but their lives are brief and easy to overlook: they are designed to support idea- and image-making, but leave little trace of themselves…. [Despite this, though,] paper spaces are ubiquitous: most of our interactions with texts and other media have a spatial dimension that affects the ways we read, think, and create.

Car cost-sharing: finally around the corner?

Back in 2004, when I was a columnist for Red Herring, I wrote a piece about what would happen when reputation systems make their way into the world— that is, when they stop being things that we only consult in online transactions, and become things we can consult easily in real-world transactions. I talked about how they could jump-start car-sharing systems.

Today, I saw an article about RelayRides, a

person-to-person car-sharing service, which will be launching soon in Baltimore. Unlike fleet-based services—Zipcar, City CarShare, I-GO, and others—which maintain their own vehicles, RelayRides relies on individual car owners to supply the vehicles that other members will rent.

There are a couple other services like this, including Divvycar, but there seems to be a sense that these systems are ready to take off. So "why are peer-to-peer car-sharing services emerging now?"

Part of the answer might lie in the way online and offline services like Zipcar, Prosper, Netflix, and Kiva.org are training us to share our stuff—people are simply getting used to the idea. “‘Zip’ has become a verb to the point that we could ‘zip’ anything—they just happened to start it with cars. Close on their heels was Avelle (formerly Bag, Borrow Or Steal) and now SmartBike for bikes on demand. The next step seems to be a crowd-sourced version of Zipcar,” says Freed.

Another part of the answer might be found in our response to the ecological and economic crises Americans are facing. As Clark explains, “You just think of the number of cars on the road, and the resource that we have in our own communities is so massive… what the peer-to-peer model does is it really allows us to leverage that instead of starting from scratch and building our own fleet.”

From an individual’s perspective, peer-to-peer sharing is a means for owners to monetize their assets during times when they don’t require access to them. But peer-to-peer models can also be understood to utilize existing resources more efficiently—ultimately, to reduce the number of cars on the road—through shifted mentalities about ownership, the intelligent organization of information and, increasingly, through real-time technologies.

Since peer-based car-sharing companies don’t bear the overhead costs of owning and maintaining their own fleets, they don’t require the high utilization rates for vehicles that Zipcar and similar programs do—the result is comparatively fewer limitations for the size and scale of peer-to-peer operations.

Always satisfying for a futurist to see the future actually start to arrive.

PDF of social scanning piece

I've posted a PDF that pulls together my social scanning argument into a single document.

I'll add footnotes to every third word and send it to a journal in the near future.

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