Posts tagged “history”

An interview about The State of UX Research

I was interviewed by Jen Ignacz of Topp. We spoke about the history of user research (at least how I experienced) and some of my thoughts about the present – and future. Check out the audio and/or read the transcript here.

I remember that we did this project with IBM that was very much like the future of the home PC, so for us that was really, really new and exciting. Maybe a lot of people might be rolling their eyes like yes, we’ve seen that we’ve done that, so that was this watershed moment where we were able to do a sort of an industrial design type of project, but it led with ethnography – it led with rethinking the whole purpose of this thing they were making. And right after that we got approached by a packaged goods companies that wanted to rethink breakfast, and that was the exciting part because their innovation part of the business was getting clients that didn’t look like industrial design clients. It was someone else coming through the door, and that was the moment where I think we thought “this is a real thing” – you know, companies – business is looking into this and we can work on all kinds of stuff. I think that was a huge moment. Fortune, BusinessWeek and other magazines were writing cover stories about ethnography or anthropology, and showing pictures of people in pith helmets or scientists or similar. The conversation turned a lot more serious and specific about how this kind of work was going to help business. I think the work we were getting and we were doing, and this kind of popular press shift, we started to feel like oh, this really is a viable thing for business, a viable service to be offering. We will see products made this way from here on out, so that was kind of the transition.

Molly Wright Steenson: Shifting time

This interview has been edited, condensed, etc.

Molly Wright Steenson is an architectural historian, designer, researcher and strategist. She is a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University’s School of Architecture, where her dissertation, “Artificial Intelligence, Architectural Intelligence: Nicholas Negroponte ad the Architecture Machine Group” looks at the intersection of technology and architecture in the 60s and 70s, and how AI and architecture created groundwork for contemporary human-computer interaction. Molly began working with the Web in 1994 at a wide variety of Fortune 500 and smaller, creative companies. As a design researcher, she examines the effect of personal and mobile technology on people’s lives, with recent projects in the US, India and China. She was a resident professor at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea in Italy and holds a M.A. in Architecture from Princeton, a Master’s in Environmental Design from the Yale School of Architecture and a B.A. in German from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Molly’s lived online at Girlwonder.com since the mid-90s. She travels too much and she probably knows someone you know.

the Omni Project: How do you define technology?

Molly Wright Steenson: Technology is a device, the connective tissue, the functional implement. I’m especially interested in how technology drives our communication, whether we’re talking about the Pony Express, the pneumatic post, or the Internet.

tOP: What insight can we gain from the way we conceive of and discuss technology?

MWS: One of the hangovers of Web 2.0 and the there’s-an-app-for-that mentality is that success in technology values the market and shipping a project, not a critical viewpoint or different design questions that can lead to breakthroughs we haven’t had before.

One reason I love teaching in schools of design is the speculative nature of student design work: it does not need to make it to market to be successful; it does not need to answer to a bottom line or an uncreative client. What it needs to do is address the question of the application of art, the incorporation of a stance or point of view, and the execution on a variety of levels, whether drawn, rendered, built as a model, told as a story, presented as a fly through, or enacted as a performance. In order to develop novel ideas for the mainstream or commercial world, it’s important to spend time on speculation and surprise.

I approach technology from a historical perspective to look at the foundations of why we turn to different technologies to help us communicate, to consider the kinds of problems we had in the past and the interfaces we developed to help us deal with it. For instance, telegraphy boomed in the 1870s because it was inexpensive and theoretically instantaneous, but it was difficult to get a telegram across a crowded city like Paris quickly, due to traffic and the labor required to transmit and transpose the messages. So it made more sense to build a network of cast iron pneumatic tubes between post offices, to bypass street-level traffic. Every major financial center had this problem; financial centers drive communication needs and thus the technologies that support communication. Paris developed the largest pneumatic post network in the world with 450 km of pneumatic tubes, and at one point processing 12 million pieces of pneumatic post.

Pneumatic tubes. Doesn’t that seem elaborate? A technological wonder? Magical? Steampunk? Yet at the time, given relationships between civil engineers and the government and communications, it made sense to build something this elaborate. What could we learn from this decision today? What does it teach us about our questions of interface, of network, of capital, of finance?

tOP: As a historian, do you privilege the past over the future? What is the benefit of looking backwards when looking forwards?

MWS: Becoming a historian provided another perspective: it shifted time for me. I like looking at things flatly: newer does not necessarily mean more advanced. My perspective considers equally the contemporary impact of mobile phones on urban India or social network technologies in China, or Web 0.0 and 1.0, or the projects Nicholas Negroponte led as a part of his Architecture Machine Group at MIT in the 1960s and 70s, or the pneumatic post in the 1880s. All of these contexts-and many more I have yet to discover-represent possible futures that haven’t happened yet, or might happen in a different way. They’re all fruitful and ripe contexts for investigation.

So what about near-past casting, instead of future-casting? I’m struck by what Haruki Murakami said about his new novel, 1Q84 in a New York Times interview

“Most near-future fictions are boring. It’s always dark and always raining, and people are so unhappy. I like what Cormac McCarthy wrote, The Road – it’s very well written…But still it’s boring. It’s dark, and the people are eating people…George Orwell’s 1984 is near-future fiction, but [1Q84] is near-past fiction. We are looking at the same year from the opposite side. If it’s near past, it’s not boring.”

Thinking slightly back in time spurs different thinking.

tOP: When you look at your life, what impact is technology having?

MWS: Molly Steenson has come unstuck in time, to borrow liberally from Kurt Vonnegut. I’ve lived my life online in some manner or another since 1992, on the Web since 1994, and as girlwonder.com since 1997. I maintain a huge network of people and things, and for better or for worse, the technologies that illuminate our social network makes these things all the more possible. In some ways, I feel a lot more like people a generation younger than me who grew up with the Web and mobile technology: it’s very much a part of who I am. It’s sometimes bewildering to people my age or older outside of high tech culture.

tOP: A network of things?

MWS: I’m interested in how things mediate connections between people-the relations they bring to bear. Some parts of actor-network theory (ANT) influence on how I think about people and interactions with places and things. ANT doesn’t necessarily privilege people (or users) at the center of an interaction, but rather actants: human or non-human elements that stand in relation to each other. The relations become particularly important. So when I look at the world that we interact with, I see people and infrastructures and interfaces. I see people as interfaces for ideas, and interfaces as ways to get what lies beneath and makes ties us together.

When I wrote about the Poste Pneumatique (published in short form in Cabinet, a clip available here) and about the Paris Central Post office, I went back and looked at all of the interfaces I could determine: brass cranks, cast iron tubes, steam engines, water for the steam, cast iron and glass desks for mail sorting, elevators for moving the post, chutes for sending it to the basement. I also looked at the relations that these enabled between people and financial systems, between the movement of capital and the development of communication networks.

But these same kinds of interactions are why I was fascinated by the phone book as a kid, of how to call a foreign country (though I didn’t have anybody to call and I didn’t go overseas till I was 17), why I still stop and look mail sorting facilities and switches and wires. Somehow, they seem to represent us and the relations we build between ourselves. I guess you could say I’m an infrastructure nerd, or a media and communication nerd.

tOP: You have a strong connection between what you are learning and how you are living. How do they drive each other?

MWS: One of the reasons that I went back to school was the experience I had living in Ivrea, Italy, when I was a professor at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea. Ivrea was the headquarters of Olivetti, and although it’s been there since Roman times, it’s best known for its role as a modernist social-corporate utopia. We lived in Talponia (mole city) – a huge 1972 semicircular residence built into the side of a hill, with a meadow in the middle. It was parts Logan Run, parts northern Italian idyllic, and it changed me. For that matter, it changed all of us who lived there. I came back to the US, fairly undone from the whole experience of living and working there, inspired by the architects and industrial designers I worked with, and needed to change my focus. That’s how I ended up studying architectural history: I wanted more depth than my previous career in user experience afforded.

Asking “What can I do to spend a month (or two, or three) where you are?” leads to wonderful things. I just came back from a month in Ume?•, Sweden, where I was a resident at the HUMLab (the digital humanities lab at the university), where I turned 40. Two years ago, I spent the summer in Montreal at the Canadian Centre for Architecture There’s been Berlin, Bangalore and Copenhagen while I’ve been in grad school. In all of these cases, the travel isn’t random: it’s connecting with people and projects and places that I know, and as a student, I’m lucky to have the flexibility I do.

tOP: If society is changing through technology, what is gained, and what is lost?

MWS: Look at this quote: “…the transmission of intelligence, in the most literal sense of the term, annihilates both space and time.” [1] It’s the case today, certainly, but the quote is from 1850, from Dionysius Lardner, and the technology in question in that quote: the electric telegraph. “Nothing facilitates and develops commercial relations so effectually as cheap and rapid means of intercommunication,” he writes.

It seems to me that we’re grappling with the same question today that Lardner asked, whether at the speed of rail travel, as he addressed it, or at the speed of nanoseconds and the scale of planetary orbit. What are we gaining or losing? Maybe that’s the wrong question.

Okay, one thing. I have this thought that we’ve lost our senses of proxemics and proprieception, thanks to our reliance on the mobile phone screen we always looked down at before we make our next move, and it’s changed people’s walking and peripheral vision, even when they don’t have their devices in front of them or in their hand. I think we’ll learn how to reintegrate and multitask both with people in front of us on the street and as we drift in the third space of mediated communication, but it’ll take some time. It makes it really annoying to get anywhere quickly, even in a place like New York or a busy international airport (especially at the top of an escalator, but I digress).

tOP: What else do you want to tell us?

MWS: I’d like to pick up the things I’ve loved but that somehow fell away over the years: playing classical guitar and flute, acting, writing poetry. I’d like to do more of the things that I enjoy but am not awesome at, like running, or drawing and watercolors. My life’s about to focus a lot as I finish my dissertation and find (a likely academic job). And I want a dog.

[1] Dionysius Lardner, Railway Economy; a Treatise on the New Art of Transport, Its Management, Prospects and Relations (London,: Taylor, Walton and Maberly, 1850), 18.

Portigal Consulting year in review, 2011

Another year is speeding towards its conclusion and we wanted to share our highlights for 2011.

Really nostalgic? Check out summaries from 2010, 2009 and 2008.

Adrian Hon: Illustrate a better future

This interview has been edited, condensed, etc.

Adrian Hon is co-founder and CEO at Six to Start, specializing in game-like stories and story-like games. Clients have included Disney Imagineering, the BBC, Channel 4, and Penguin, and Six to Start has won multiple awards including Best of Show at SXSW.

He also writes about technology for The Telegraph, is writing a Kickstarter-funded book A History of the Future in 100 Objects, and is the co-founder of Transmedia London. Adrian studied neuroscience at Cambridge, Oxford, and UCSD, and has spoken at TED in California about Mars exploration.

the Omni project: What was the impetus for A History of the Future in 100 Objects?

Adrian Hon: The direct impetus was the British Museum and Radio 4’s brilliant series, A History of the World in 100 Objects. While listening to the series, I almost immediately started thinking that this could be a great way to think about the future in a way that would more concrete and accessible to the public.

However, my broader drive is to illustrate a better future for humanity. Not a dystopia or an unthinking utopia, but a world in which we slowly, gradually become happier, healthier, and more kind to each other – and of course technology has a role in that, as it has over the past millennia, but so do changing social norms and greater tolerance.

You only need to open a (western) newspaper to see both the right wing and left wing talking about the imminent collapse of society, financial ruin, global ruin, the notion that our children will have a worse life than us, to see that a very strong and current vision of the future is very negative. Ditto for popular culture. Those are absolutely things we should think about, but it’s not all going to be bad.

tOp: What’s the connection between exploring the future, especially the future of technology, and storytelling?

AH: I am especially interested in the impact that technology has on people and their experiences and relationships. Stories are one of the best ways of imagining different viewpoints, whether that’s putting yourself in the shoes of someone with a very different upbringing, or someone in a different time. They have their limitations, to be sure – they can offer a seductively simplistic picture and they often imply that life has beginnings, middles, and ends – but they are far more effective than simply rattling off a list of how fast planes will be able to travel in the future.

That’s why Apple has been so successful, because both its products and its marketing have focused on what you can do with new technology, rather than the specifications of the technology itself.

From an engineering standpoint it is certainly interesting to know that a phone might have a dual core processor and 1GB of RAM or whatever, but this isn’t what really matters. It could have a quantum computer inside and if it couldn’t check mail quickly, most people couldn’t care less.

It’s harder to extrapolate those experiences. You can’t take Moore’s Law and say that in 18 months, people will start falling in love with the Siri ‘personal assistant’ on the iPhone 4S, and than 18 months after that, the number of people will double. People use technology in unusual ways.

I saw a guy at TEDxSheffield say that we should make humanities degrees cost ¬£90k and engineering degrees cost nothing. What a ridiculous thing to say! Technology without a purpose is just an expensive box. That’s not to say that engineers don’t have ideas, but rather to say that the humanities help us understand what we want to do and why.

tOp: Does your work influence product developers and technologists in making real technology?

AH: We’ll have to see – the book isn’t out yet! I hope it does, and I know that I’ve been greatly influenced by authors such as Vernor Vinge and Neal Stephenson when it comes to designing games and technology. Ideas don’t just appear out of thin air, they’re formed out of what we read and see and interact with, and stories help give ideas a more substantial form.

tOp: Conversely, does the work of real technologists impact the way you conceive of technology in order to tell stories?

AH: To an extent, yes. I want my book to be grounded in real science rather than some of the completely ridiculous “design fiction” out there (Electrolux is particularly bad at getting designers to make concepts that are totally impractical, not to mention often physically impossible). So I do have to keep current with what real technologists and scientists are doing. But it’s possible to be too current and I have to stop myself from just jumping onto whatever the big idea of the day is.

tOp: Ridiculous “design fiction?”

AH: I don’t think they’re trying to make impractical and impossible concepts on purpose. I think they’re just doing it by accident because they don’t care either way. You could say that that’s an admirable thing, an unfettering of the imagination, and in other circumstances I would agree. The issue is that their concepts (like a fridge made of cold green plastic ‘nano goo’ that you can just squish apples into and other food into) regularly get plastered on newspapers as some plausible vision of the future, on par with driverless cars, when in fact they are actually far more difficult to make. That’s marketing, I guess.

tOp: How do you think technology is changing the everyday lives of mainstream consumers?

AH: It’s changing people’s lives dramatically. A lot of people seem to think that a) We’ve always had mobile phones and b) They’re not that big a deal. The truth is that most people only got mobile phones 20 years ago, the internet 15 years ago, the iPod 10 years ago, and smartphones 5 years ago. I use the word “only” because if you went back to the year 1000 and looked for the technological changes from 980, I suspect you wouldn’t find a huge number. Yet the difference between 2011 and 1991 is, I think, pretty enormous. I can now talk to a billion people around the world for almost nothing.

I suppose you could say that none of these things really matters compared to stuff like the car and the washing machine, particularly if you look at economic impact, but that would frankly be bullshit. You only need to walk into a university or a school and take away everyone’s phones and laptops to realise how important these things are.

And I honestly think it’s only just starting. As we see more and more jobs require fewer and fewer humans – from call centres to cars to supermarkets – we’ll see massive strides forward in the standard of living accompanied by massive and sustained unemployment. That’s a big change.

tOp: When you look at your personal life, what kind of impact is technology having?

AH: I find that I’m able to do much more than I could before. Like everyone else, I roll my eyes when I hear the words “social media” but I’m able to make a blog post or a tweet that can go around the world in seconds; and I can now publish a printed newspaper, write a book, or even design a game (with a team!) that can go in front of millions, without being held up by gatekeepers. That’s doesn’t make it easy, but it makes it easier than before. You still need to write a good book.

The other big change is that I am starting to own less stuff. Perhaps this is because:

a) I have had to move three times in the last three years
b) I don’t have any kids

but I find myself very taken with the idea of owning just a few, very high quality, physical possessions. It used to be a real sacrifice to do that but now I can get all of my entertainment and reading digitally, I don’t feel like I’m giving up much in exchange for the ability to move quickly and worry less about getting stuff stolen. I wouldn’t go so far as to extrapolate my experiences to anyone else, but I definitely feel like I’m at Peak Stuff. From here on out, I only own less.

Nicolas Nova: Scanning for signals

We’ll be interviewing experts and thought-leaders to uncover a range of perspectives on technology and its impact on society. If you or someone you know would be a good interview, let us know!

This interview has been edited, condensed, etc.

Nicolas Nova is a consultant and researcher who undertakes field studies to inform and evaluate the creation of innovative products and services. His work is about exploring and understanding people’s needs, motivations and contexts to map new design opportunities and help designers and engineers. In addition to design ethnography, he is interested in foresight about scanning/analysis of signals about the future of various technologies. He applies his methodologies in the domains of urban informatics, mobile and location-based media as well as video games and networked objects/robots.

He also teaches interaction design and ethnography in design schools (HEAD-Geneva, ENSCI Les Ateliers in Paris) and is curator at the Lift conferences.

the Omni project: How do you define “technology?”

Nicolas Nova: It seems that technology nowadays refers to the design and usage of specific devices (tool, instrument, machine, etc.) to perform a specific function. Given my interest in a people-centered perspective, I use this definition. I don’t make any specific distinction between the digital and the non-digital. I see a vacuum cleaner or a dishwasher as a piece of technology. Perhaps this is because I work in fields related to ubiquitous computing, in which any artifact can be augmented by information and communication technology..

Finally, a technology is not inert like a stone or a meteorite falling from the sky. As Howard Becker stated “It makes more sense to see those artifacts as the frozen remains of collective action, brought to life whenever someone uses them.” This is important as it means that a technology has been designed and made by people, and thus embeds certain preconceptions that have implications when “users” employ those technologies.

tOp: Thinking about the many things I’ve seen you curate/aggregate/ observe such as technology failures embodied as dreams (jet packs, smart fridges, smart kitchens, discarded PCs, video phones), what do these stories (and they way they are told) reflect about our culture and our relationship with technology? Are there positives or negatives? Anxieties? Hopes or expectations? Is there humor?

NN: This is related to the Becker quote. As any piece of technology is the result of a process carried out by humans, some cultural traits are embedded into it, such as: preconceptions about how the technology should be used, the context in which the technology can be deployed, etc. The example of the smart fridge is pretty interesting if you think about all the assumptions designers and engineers made about people’s relationship to food, such as the idea that we don’t want to go shopping and that consumption is just a matter of ordering stuff automatically.

So, if you take any piece of technology, you can uncover (decipher!?) these sorts of assumptions. They generally reveal the kinds of cultural inclination the people in charge of innovation bring to the table: values about what is important and what is not, hopes about a potential future, the need to go faster, the illusion of being more efficient, etc. It’s hard to say if they are “positive” or “negative” because these are very relative. Even if I dislike the very notion of a smart fridge, I can certainly understand that a bunch of guys with lab coats in an aseptic R&D center really though that their project would be super positive and would change the world. What I mean here is simply that technologies embed some values and that these values are shaped by society at a given point in time and by the companies. It’s clear that the Zeitgeist influences the design of products and services. If you consider that the 50-60s were all about the space race, speed and nuclear stuff or that the early 90s were all about cyber-whatever then you can see that this is necessarily reflected in the way technologies are created.

The technological failures that I am especially interested in are the one that are repeated over time such as the videophone or the smart fridge. They clearly reflect this recurring tension between technological possibilities (e.g. automation) and a flawed vision of human aspirations.

It’s interesting you mention the notion of humor, as generally all these projects definitely suffer from a clear lack of this dimension!

tOp: Are dreams of possible technologies ever realized?

NN: Yes, but they are never really used as we expected. Something is realized and over time the ideas find their way by being hybridized with others because of contextual or behavioral adjustments by users.

There’s a perpetual gap between the intents of designers/engineers/marketers and the real use of the product. This is the beauty of human life: we always repurpose artifacts into something different. Fortunately, this is what I am passionate about! Understanding how products are repurposed is a good way to find more user-centered avenues and iterate to create new versions.

I am really curious to see what the smart fridge will become and how upcoming versions will necessarily include other notion of “smartness” based on more human needs and aspirations. Sadly, I don’t think many companies in this business understood they should adopt this humble stance.

tOp: When you think about mainstream consumers, how do you think digital technology is changing their everyday lives?

NN: The biggest change is possibly the use a digital media for a growing set of activities: listening to music, communicating, controlling the heating system of your house, etc. This does not simply mean that any artifact at home gets digital capabilities, but that everything becomes mediated through different channels (generally your computer and your cell phone).

What technology also does is reveal things that are implicit or invisible. It makes things apparent because there are digital traces: SMS stored in your phone, an email message in your email program, your presence on Facebook, etc. And more and more people are being held accountable for this content.

Among all the changes brought by technologies, the most conspicuous is what I call the decision trade-off. Technologies are supposed to help people, or at least to be convenient, and possibly prevent you from doing things you did not want to do any more. Interestingly, most of the time, technologies lead to new decisions that we never really had to take. For instance, choosing a TV channel among 350 possibilities is generally painful and somewhat new (it’s curious to think that other industries found solutions for this, e.g. shuffle mode on MP3 players). More and more micro-decisions like this have to be made everyday, and it can be tiresome.

tOp:
When you look at your personal life, what kind of impact is technology having? What specific changes are you experiencing?

NN:
I don’t have a car (I rent one when I need one), I have no dishwasher, I use a collective laundry (in Switzerland we have one in each building) and I don’t subscribe to any network TV system (mostly because I find them useless and overlapping with what I find on the Interwebs). I have to admit I am very cautious in the way I use digital technologies. That said, I use digital technologies a lot and it forces me to be extra careful about:

  • Work/life balance: I try to shy away from the computer/smartphone in the evening, during weekends and vacations. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I won’t use one of these at those times, but I try to avoid spending a long time browsing the web/reading email/documents, etc. and prefer going for a walk, reading a book, hiking or visiting friends. The more I use digital technologies, the more I need to find moments during which I escape from them.
  • Attention: more and more multitasking, which is bad (for me and the task at hand).
  • Privacy: as I mentioned, digital technologies reveal things that used to be implicit or invisible. This means that I sometimes need to be careful about the traces I leave.


tOp:
With the changes that technology brings, what do you believe society is gaining, or losing?

NN:The population is not equal. People who grew up with these technologies will be less stressed out by the vague micro-decisions we have to consider, simply because they have lived with this new norm. This is a big difference compared to our grandparents, for instance. Also see Steven Johnson’s book Everything Bad is Good for You. Overall, I see a set of tradeoffs:

  • A huge and diverse quantity of material that can be useful or interesting for anyone curious. I grew up in the countryside and it was a pain in the ass to get access to “long-tail” music/books/fanzines/etc. The web is a formidable source of difference for people intrigued by others’ cultures and who want to learn.
  • However, this huge quantity of material makes us run like headless chickens, taking a quick bite from lots of sources of information but we may lose our ability to sit still and think deeply about a certain topic.
  • At the psychological level, the capacity to cope with large amount of information, integrate multiple factors and make decisions. Yet we also suffer from decision fatigue (e.g., bombarded by requests, information and data).
  • Privacy is shifting and we are more and more obliged to share personal information with others.
  • An urge to be reachable (and aware of current trends) 24/7 which is tiresome too.

tOp: Anything else to share with us?

NN: “One of the diseases of this age is the multiplicity of books; they doth so overcharge the world that it is not able to digest the abundance of idle matter that is every day hatched and brought forth into the world.” Barnaby Rich (1580-1617) wrote that in 1613. This quote inspires me to ask questions about the situation back then and now: if our ancestors felt this overload, how did they cope with it? What happened then? Did this feeling vanish? Was it a continuous feeling or recurring? What about now? Can we draw some inspiration from what happen in the past? Or should we find new ways to move forward?

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • [from steve_portigal] Did My Brother Invent E-Mail With Tom Van Vleck? [NYtimes.com] – [Errol Morris' series is a fascinating. personal history of computer technology.] Batch processing…was like taking your clothes to the laundromat. You’d take your job in, and leave it in the input bins. The staff people would prerecord it onto these magnetic tapes, they would be run by the computer. The output would be printed. This cycle would take at best, several hours. It was maddening, because when you’re working on a complicated program, you can make a trivial slip-up ­ you left out a comma or something ­ and the program would crash. You would try very hard to be careful, but you didn’t always make it…A process that could take a week, weeks, months. People began to advocate a different tactic called time-sharing. Have people at typewriter-like terminals. It certainly seemed feasible. But no manufacturer knew how to do it. And the vendors were not terribly interested, because it was like suggesting to an automobile manufacturer that they go into the airplane business.

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • [from julienorvaisas] Empty trash. Buy milk. Forge history. [The Boston Globe] – [Of course, I'm a big fan of looking at the seemingly-mundane to examine what it means to be human and bring meaning.] A household list might seem a fairly modest starting point upon which to build a whole theory of economic development. But in fact these types of lists are becoming increasingly important to historians — documents produced not as a message to posterity, like a memoir or diplomatic record, but as a simple snapshot of everyday life. Taken as a group, lists offer a rare window into the building blocks of society, economy, and culture — one that is becoming only more valuable as historians gain the processing power to make sense of them. “Something as innocuous as a list turns out to be incredibly fruitful if you bring both a sense of historical questions and context."

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • [from steve_portigal] The WhatWasThere Project – [It's exciting to see these sort of audacious projects start to emerge and to actually believe that they are possible. There's already a wealth of similar data on Flickr and presumably on Facebook as well; is there a way to tap into the existing data ethically?] The WhatWasThere project was inspired by the realization that we could leverage technology and the connections it facilitates to provide a new human experience of time and space – a virtual time machine of sorts that allows users to navigate familiar streets as they appeared in the past. The premise is simple: provide a platform where anyone can easily upload a photograph with two straightforward tags to provide context: Location and Year. If enough people upload enough photographs in enough places, together we will weave together a photographic history of the world (or at least any place covered by Google Maps). So wherever you are in the world, take a moment to upload a photograph and contribute to history!

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • [from wstarosta] Status displays: I’ve got you labelled [The Economist] – [Evolutionary biology helps to explain why luxury branded objects, even counterfeit ones, are so appealing.] DESIGNERS of fancy apparel would like their customers to believe that wearing their creations lends an air of wealth, sophistication and high status. And it does—but not, perhaps, for the reason those designers might like to believe, namely their inherent creative genius. A new piece of research confirms what many, not least in the marketing departments of fashion houses, will long have suspected: that it is not the design itself that counts, but the label.
  • [from steve_portigal] The Future of Books. [McSweeney’s Internet Tendency] – [As usual, McSweeney's does razor-sharp mockery, but you could read this as straight-ahead prediction and it would sadly almost pass for believable] 2050: Analog Reading Will Be Digitally Simulated. As people spend more and more of time immersed in massively multi-player role-playing games, they will begin to crave some downtime. Virtual simulation worlds will start to include hideaway "libraries" you can lock yourself into. There you'll be able to climb into a virtual bath and lovingly turn the pages of a pixilated representation of one of those dog-eared tomes—reliant on old-school linear narrative— that by this time will have been made illegal in the real world. Perfectly reproduced will be the sensation of turning the pages, the crack of the spine, and even the occasional paper cut.
  • [from steve_portigal] When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink? [Smithsonian Magazine] – [Fascinating cultural history] The march toward gender-specific clothes was neither linear nor rapid. Pink and blue arrived, along with other pastels, as colors for babies in the mid-19th century, yet the two colors were not promoted as gender signifiers until just before WW I—and even then, it took time for popular culture to sort things out. In 1927, Time magazine printed a chart showing sex-appropriate colors for girls and boys according to leading U.S. stores. In Boston, Filene’s told parents to dress boys in pink. Today’s color dictate wasn’t established until the 1940s, as a result of Americans’ preferences as interpreted by manufacturers and retailers. “It could have gone the other way,” Paoletti says..Nowadays people just have to know the sex of a baby or young child at first glance, says Jo B. Paoletti, a historian & author of Pink and Blue: Telling the Girls From the Boys in America. Thus we see a pink headband encircling the bald head of an infant girl. [Via @boingboing]
  • [from steve_portigal] In Sweden’s frigid north, auto testing is hot [SFGate] – [Obvious car companies do a ton of lab and simulation testing, but they are also big advocates of real world testing] Arjeplog, a region in northern Sweden is is important to car makers eager to optimize their vehicles for driving in extreme weather, This winter, temperatures have hovered around -4 F, making ice on the lakes consistently thick enough for driving. About 180 engineers convened at the test center at one point this season to work on making cars more fuel-efficient in cold weather and to optimize their anti-spin function. While Arjeplog is the world's largest winter testing area, rival locations include Ivalo, Finland; West Yellowstone, Mont.; Carson City, Nev.; and Millbrook, England. Francisco Carvalho, an analyst at IHS Automotive, says such tracks provide automakers with "the ultimate test for the little things they can't detect or predict in a lab." Almost 9,000 car industry officials visit Arjeplog each winter, with about 2,800 engineers working on any given day.

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • [from julienorvaisas] A Memory of Webs Past [IEEE Spectrum] – [The French National Library is updating their technical ability to archive absolutely everything ever published.] "We have a lot of so-called crap, and we're happy about that," says Illien, an archivist. His colleagues in other countries might turn up their noses at hard-core porn, advertisements, and obscure newsletters, but not Illien. "In a hundred years, what's totally irrelevant or dirty today will end up becoming of extreme interest to historians." The archivists here aren't after just printed material; they're preserving the electronic, too. It's his daunting task to archive French Web sites—all of them, in all their evanescent, constantly changing, and multimedia splendor. "I'm convinced the Web as we know it will be gone in a few years' time. What we're doing in this library is trying to capture a trace of it." Illien sees himself as a steward of an ancient tradition; he believes he is helping pioneer a revolution in the way society documents what it does and how it thinks.

Portigal Consulting year in review, 2010

2010 has been an amazing year for us. While we can’t talk about many of the incredible experiences we had doing fieldwork and working with clients, below are some of the highlights that we can share:

You can also see previous summaries from 2009 and 2008.

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • [from steve_portigal] The time-warp room and other medical breakthroughs [CultureBy – Grant McCracken] – [A fascinating example but as usual it's Grant's gentle pokes in his analysis that offer the most value in this post] Coombe End Court, a retirement center in Marlborough, Wiltshire has a "time-warp" room. It’s outfitted with a gramophone, manual typewriters, a telephone made of Bakelite, and furniture from the 1950s. That this "reminiscence room" is loved by residents is not surprising. Who doesn’t like to see the return of an "old friend" from the object world? What captured the attention of the gerontological community (and the magnificent website Retronaut) was that this room as lead to a "dramatic" drop in the need for the anti-psychotic drugs given those who suffer from Alzheimer’s.

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • [from steve_portigal] Geoffrey Crawley, 83, Dies; Gently Deflated a Fairy Hoax [NYTimes.com] – [The lasting power of popular mythologies, especially when tied to a new technology. It reads quaint now, but do we have any current analogs?] Were there really fairies at the bottom of the garden, or was it merely a childhood prank gone strangely and lastingly awry? That, for six decades, was the central question behind the Cottingley fairies mystery, the story of two English schoolgirls who claimed to have taken five pictures of fairy folk in the 1910s and afterward. Set awhirl by the international news media, the girls’ account won the support of many powerful people, including one of the most famous literary men in Britain. From the start, there were doubters. But there was no conclusive proof of deception until the 1980s, when a series of articles by the English photographic scientist Geoffrey Crawley helped reveal the story for what it was: one of the most enduring, if inadvertent, photographic hoaxes of the 20th century.

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