There is a large and fast-moving shift occurring within the landscape of tools & technology. Increasingly, products are dematerializing and being re-engineered as services. This shift is being driven in part by rising production costs and an increasing awareness of the very real environmental impacts of producing durable goods and managing their end-of-life downstreaming into landfills. It is also a response to the rapid digitization of culture pushing many consumables into less tangible data transactions, often mediated through increasingly fetishized devices. Thus, content is becoming disengaged from fixed carriers like disk media and paper and is, instead, flowing through networks and devices.
Perhaps the most iconic and revolutionary example of this trend is the pairing of Apple’s iPod with its iTunes service. For the past 20 years, millions upon millions of cd’s, dvd’s, cases, and printed inserts have been consuming resources, fixing materials into unrecoverable or downcycled hard media and filling landfills. Apple has fundamentally rewritten this paradigm by dematerializing the content – music & movies – and connected it directly with the player. The materials & energetic overhead has been consolidated into a (hopefully) more durable device, freeing the high-volume transactional content from such a large resource burden. While there are manufacturing and reclamation costs associated with the device, the impact is lessened by decoupling those costs from the content.
There have since been an ever-increasing movement away from product towards services, as easily illustrated with the rise of online services within the Web 2.0 age. Digital cameras are another example that, like the iPod, decoupled the relentless production of content from a toxic & non-renewable material carrier – in this case, film & print paper. Likewise, print production itself has increasingly moved away from expensive, wasteful, and toxic inks & papers and has re-targeted to the ubiquity of screens. More & more “print” content – once the domain of magazines, newspapers, brochures, and advertising shwag – has moved away from hard carriers. Again, the pattern shows content being released from material substrates to move effortlessly across networks and devices.
There are a few interesting effects of this trend. Of course, piracy of content becomes considerably easier and cheaper. Content can be copied and moved across networks effortlessly, and copy protection is just another set of bits to be cracked. As Stewart Brand keenly observed, “information wants to be free” and the rapid digitization of culture has radically reinforced this proposition forcing every pre-web industry to completely re-evaluate their business models. Conversely, the bitifying of content and the democratization of powerful desktop authoring tools has empowered and emboldened the historical allure of remixing and massively reinvigorated our cultural creativity. Ironically, in an age that has enabled so many to create so much, the notion of intellectual property has less merit now than ever. When your content contains bits from 10 other pieces of content, who actually owns it? As has been noted by many authors & analysts, the genie is out of the bottle.
But perhaps more interesting are the behavioral and psychological shifts happening in response to these trends. As stuff dematerializes into intangible bits, the fact that we can no longer touch product subtly undermines the very notion of ownership. We begin to abstract our relationship to stuff as something we interact with more than possess. While this is potentially liberating it also makes it easier for content providers to assert total ownership in perpetuity: you’re merely borrowing content through a service provided by the “real” owner. Without direct ownership, are we protected and do we still have the right to share?
With respect to content, personal ownership has shifted to the device – the increasingly fetishized container through which content is constantly flowing. Our smart phones are awesomely empowering extensions of our selves, conferring unimaginable abilities to their owner. The simplest & most intuitive of these devices become second nature, third-hand extensions of our bodies, effortlessly wiring us to each other, to content, and vast stores of knowledge. Of course we fetishize such objects and of course we’ve grown dependent upon them.
Industrialization has regrettably optimized its business model through planned obsolescence, with much hard product designed to time-out and push an upsell to the next model. No doubt the devices we now rely so heavily upon have their own built-in failings, whether intentional or simply as a byproduct of the profit margin incentivised to invest in no more quality than is absolutely necessary. So have the benefits of dematerializing content from cheap carriers been negated by the resource requirements and inevitable breakdown of our devices? Has the energetic and environmental impact spared by going paperless been doubled by the sheer overhead of manufacturing and running vast global server farms? Any real evaluation of the dematerialization of products to services must consider the very large impact of the infrastructure supporting it.
Nevertheless, this is where we’re headed. Mobiles will get smarter & prettier and will be increasingly targeted for content and transient marketing. Screens will continue to multiply at an exponential pace finding their way into all aspects of our lives. Hardware manufacturers will be increasingly beholden to both international standards committees and shareholders to account for the carbon and environmental impacts of their processes. And the notion of object and ownership will continue to be challenged in ways yet unknowable.
Julian Bleeker – Design Fiction: A Short Talk on Design, Science, Fact, and Fiction. [Etech09 Notes]
My raw notes from Julian Bleeker’s talk at E-Tech 2009 – Design Fiction: A Short Talk on Design, Science, Fact, and Fiction. [This is a topic near & dear to my heart. Compelling narrative writes the future.]
“To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete” Bucky Fuller. “Future is here it’s just not evenly distributed” W. Gibson. Near Future Lab and Nokia. Convergence between design, science, fact & fiction. Ways to meaningfully shape the future. Science, fact & fiction are all knotted up. Eg moments from films, eg Minority Report. How did minority report as a film become a meme around advanced speculative interface? Google search on “Minority Report” returns a muddling between the film and real experiments.
Imaginary worlds become instantiated in the real world. Becomes an index that helps cohere imagination around a desire to realize the speculative fiction. Expectations of what realized tech should do typically reference the prevailing fictional representation. Eg GSpeak – company looking at gestural interfaces, started by the guy that informed tech of Minority Report. Moved from fictional authority to real authority.
Stories Matter More Than Features, Specs & Engineering. The framing of a new idea helps transmit it and engage people to act on it or bring it to realization. Compelling fiction makes the effect of the tech transparent and easily understood. Eg don’t need to spend any time talking about the gestural interface in Minority Report – it explains itself. Eg Jurassic Park leading to Time cover about Dinosaurs. Conflating fact and fiction to look forward. Diegetic Prototype, “diegesis” the moment of the narrative – David A. Kirby. “Diegetic prototypes have a major rhetorical advantage over true prototypes”. Stories matter when designing the future.
Science Fiction Can Do Things Science Fact Cannot. A hybrid of the two can do more than either alone. Science fiction is much better at circulating scientific knowledge than real science. The narrative is compelling, the delivery is humanized. Expands the realm of possible futures. eg Star Trek, How William Shatner Changed the World; Star Fleet Technical Manual. Eg Death Star over San Francisco. Eg Dark Knight.
Entanglements between fact & fiction. Finding productive ways to allow the crossover. Highlighting the concern over ubicomp & surveillance. Eg Listening Post (Hansen & Rubin) displays conversations on the network. EG 2001 Filming the Future. Kubrik & Arthur C. Clark worked with scientists and ET researchers to better inform the narrative presentation. Conflict of what is imagined and what comes to pass. Possible challenges, pitfalls, and failures.
Why Muddle Design, Science, Fact, & Fiction? It’s valuable to explain, to imagine, to materialize ideas, and speculate about different kinds of worlds. How might the world transform itself and address the challenges that face us today? Using narrative to inform what might come to pass. Think of PKDick as a System Administrator. There are insights to be had when reading Bruce Sterling as Software Documentation.
Helps to Think of Science Fiction Props as Conclusion to Today’s Engineering Prototypes. What is the world like, what are their daily routines, and how are these things affected by the speculative tech? http://cli.gs/designfictionessay (failure is important so dystopias are valuable to show us what not to do, rethink and reflect on the proposition).
Here are my rough notes from the ETech 09 talk by Lane Becker and Thor Muller of Get Satisfaction.
The End of Obsolescence: Engineering the Post-Consumer Economy
System of Consumerism: Economists think recessionary patterns (eg cobblers, repair) are transient and spending/consumption will return. Disposable culture. Planned obsolescence, lock-in, bigger is better –> The Ownership Society. No such thing as an infinite loop (eg pop dynamics). Rise & fall of growth and recessions is taken as a given of a natural cycle. Landscape amnesia. People forget what it used to be like. Our situation looks much more like a sharp asymptotic curve leading to a much sharper crash. Consumerism, growth curve is crashing quickly. Speed kills but it can force us to change in real time.
The Great Compression. A squeezing out perceived value to leave only real value in our economy. We have under-estimated the costs and over-estimated the value. Value destruction at work (slide shows sectors of economy with huge chunks that make things of no value or move value around, esp wholesale trade, manufacturing, financial investment – these are being selected against). NYT: Job losses hint at vast remaking of US Economy. Collapse – social, environmental, financial. Environment being wrapped up as the gooey center of the larger collapse. All of our systems are under pressure to remove false value and select for intrinsic value.
Design Patterns for Post-Consumerism: weak signals, indicators that suggest possible directions. What could replace consumerism? Two types of patterns: 1) Go back to basics. Not likely. Service economy represents giant heatsinks of human activity. Free time, cognitive potential. Other heatsinks are terrorism and civil unrest. How can we effectively use people’s free time. 2) Progressive future. Eg The Diamond Age; Universal copy machine. Physics & culture at the heart of the problem. Bits don’t move – they are copied. What can’t be copied? What is important? Culture becomes all-encompassing. World breaks out of nation-states into tribes. Culture is defined by what people make. OpenSource as example of removing economics of production. We still make & participate & contribute & collaborate.
Design Pattern 1: FREE. What economic & cultural value can be created outside of capital? What if everything was free? We assume economic trade must be the primary framing of value in our lives. Capitalism is shrinking. It must compressed because a lot of economics is perceived value, not actual value. This encourages alternatives that build real value. Design
Pattern 2: Repair Culture. Old school. When something is built to last, you want to see it last. We need objects that tell us to take care of them. Inverse of culture of obsolescence. The curse of innovation. Always improving products… how to avoid obsolescence? Eg DIY & Maker culture. Now there are customer communities & repair cultures for everything. Emergent business ecosystem that rises from repair communities. Eg Twitter community of teachers, services.
Design Pattern 3: Reputation Scaled. Reputation is the fertile ground from which civilization arises. Keeps us honest. Internet has transformed the village into the global village. This has transformed reputation (nobody can hide). Eg microlending. Collective reputation. Rewired the system to fund people without credit. Lent to groups of people who know each other – individual reputations are tied to group reputation. Innovation from the bottom-up. Eg Tidy Towns. Engage people in rural Irish towns to get passionate about clean cities. Town, community, individual. Tying individual reputation to larger group reputation.
Design Pattern 4: The Loanership Society. Lending stuff we can spare or don’t use. Eg why does everybody have a power drill? Why not share across groups? Eg Eco-neighbuzz. “I need a drill. Can anyone lend me one?” Make it a utility. Eg utility of the Zipcar. Notion of ownership over solid media versus subscription models. Subscription models for everything. Eg Comcast bundles subscriptions. People want a la carte. Hence more people are going to the web for content on their own terms. Pride of ownership vs. pride of stewardship. Eg John Muir. Not “I own this thing”, but “we collectively have a guardianship”. What are the environments where stewardship is more appropriate than ownership?
Design Pattern 5: Virtual Production. Eg device containers that stuff gets made and sold for. Not solid product but digital goods. Breaking cycles of production & consumption. Eg iPhone & apps. Eg. Air Level, iCandle. Se amount of economic activity that involves creating new stuff is being retargeted to virtual goods. Such goods get better over time rather than decaying. Eg Last.fm. Creating micro-economic climates. New metrics.
How can we move the culture towards these trends. Amplify the patterns. We have the opportunity, the tech, and the will. Benefit ourselves and our culture, our futures and our children.