Links and articles about technology, design, and sociology. Written by Rian van der Merwe. Follow @RianVDM
Nicholas Carr compares two recent Facebook ad campaigns in Home away from Home, and comes to the following conclusion:
What’s really remarkable about “Dinner,” though, is that, in tone and meaning, it’s set in a universe not parallel to that depicted in “The Things That Connect Us” but altogether opposite to it — fiercely opposed to it, in fact. The new ad comes off, disconcertingly, as a sarcastic and dismissive rejoinder to the earlier one: Facebook calling bullshit on itself.
“Our place on this earth”? Doorbells? Bridges? What a load of crap! The earth sucks! Things are boring! People are ugly! Go online and stay online! Chairs, mawkishly celebrated in “The Things That Connect Us” as bulwarks against the meaninglessness of the universe, as concrete means of connection and hence liberation, become in “Dinner” instruments of torture. They trap us in the distasteful world of the flesh, the hell of other people.
It’s an astute observation not just about Facebook, but about advertising in general. How many of the ads we celebrate — yes, even the new iPhone 5 ad — are just fleeting attempts to play on emotions that we find appealing in that instant? The Facebook ad pulls away the curtain to reveal in stark fashion that there is often no thought put into a larger story, an honest portrayal of what a product is and does.
All of this reminds me of the “Bring the love back” campaign from a few years ago:
Sadly — but perhaps as a fitting metaphor for the advertising industry — the bringtheloveback.com domain doesn’t exist any more.
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Jumoke Balogun wrote a hard-hitting piece on uneven economic development in Africa Is Rising. Africans Are Not. The conclusion:
I understand that it is much easier to delight in articles and documentaries about a “rising Africa” than to examine personal class privilege. Economic inequality tasks those who have to consider the legitimacy of their wealth; it is an encompassing problem that we cannot donate, aid, or volunteer away. […]
We must all first admit that most Africans are not rising with Africa, and that wealth disparity is a major obstacle to overall development. Not doing so, and choosing to remain intentionally oblivious to the hardships of the majority of Africans who are losers in this new economic landscape is inane, and just downright cruel.
It’s quite chilling to read that article and then read Josh Ellis’s speech at Inspire Las Vegas a couple of months ago:
We call ourselves problem-solvers, but the evidence suggests the problems we want to solve are what are usually referred to as “First World” problems. […]
We are some of the smartest, most empowered humans who have ever lived. We have so much. Can we use our minds, our skills, our resources to make the world a better place for people who never had the opportunities we have? It would cost us so little, and we can accomplish so much.
This kind of thinking has become much more prevalent over the past couple of years, as smartphones and the app economy are reaching some level of maturity. As to why we tend to focus on solving “First World problems”, I like Paul Graham’s concept of “Schlep Blindness” — the inability to identify hard problems to solve:
The most dangerous thing about our dislike of schleps is that much of it is unconscious. Your unconscious won’t even let you see ideas that involve painful schleps. That’s schlep blindness.
But there is much value in identifying and solving the hard problems:
That scariness makes ambitious ideas doubly valuable. In addition to their intrinsic value, they’re like undervalued stocks in the sense that there’s less demand for them among founders. If you pick an ambitious idea, you’ll have less competition, because everyone else will have been frightened off by the challenges involved.
We don’t all have to stop what we’re doing and become social entrepreneurs. But if nothing else, these articles should nudge us to think about how we can move beyond the obvious problems. Instead of building another weather app, how about using weather information to send text messages to people when their area is in danger of flooding? Instead of focusing on providing people with nicer-looking information, what ways are there to help them do something with that information?
One organization that’s doing great work in this space is Praekelt Foundation. For example, TxtAlert sends automated, personalized SMS reminders to patients on chronic medication. MAMA uses mobile technologies to improve the health and lives of mothers in developing nations. Those are the kinds of solutions we need more of.
Olga Khazan covers a new UNICEF ad campaign in UNICEF Tells Slacktivists: Give Money, Not Facebook Likes:
But one thing clicking “like” doesn’t do is, say, get malaria nets to African villages or boost funding for charity groups. And now that Facebook is nearly 9 years old and Twitter is 7, we’re seeing the inevitable backlash against social-media “slacktivism.”
The print component of the campaign is shown below. It’s a bold, welcome move from UNICEF.
Bill Gates, pulling no punches in an interview with Wired:
Wired: Peter Thiel, expressing his dissatisfaction with technology’s progress, recently noted, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” Do you agree with him?
Bill Gates: I feel sorry for Peter Thiel. Did he really want flying cars? Flying cars are not a very efficient way to move things from one point to another. On the other hand, 20 years ago we had the idea that information could become available at your fingertips. We got that done. Now everyone takes it for granted that you can look up movie reviews, track locations, and order stuff online. I wish there was a way we could take it away from people for a day so they could remember what it was like without it.
Gates’s point is well taken, but it’s also clear from his stance on the inefficiency of flying cars that he’s never been stuck in LA traffic.
(link via @ChrisFerdinandi)
I remember The Net as if it was yesterday. It’s a pretty laughable movie now, for sure, but back in 1995 it was an exciting and scary look at the future of the Internet. Chris Sims recently wrote a really funny and insightful retrospective of the movie, called What We Learned About Technology From 1995′s The Net. I especially like this part:
Really, though, the movie is more about how the rise of technology impacts our lives, and our changing ideas and concerns about privacy. Bennett was easily seduced by Devlin because he spied on her describing her ideal man in a chat room, and filled in the details by going through her records. As she says, our entire lives are recorded on computers, from our work to our taste in movies. In 1995, this was a shocking problem that people had to learn to deal with. In 2013, it’s basically how Facebook works.
Information that in 1995 required extensive sleuthing performed by clandestine government operations is now freely available to anyone who knows how to type a name into Google. It reminds me of this video (make sure you watch all the way to the end):
Joshua Tanenbaum, Audrey Desjardins, and Karen Tanenbaum take an in-depth look at Steampunk sub-culture, and specifically what it means for the future of Interaction Design, in their article Steampunking interaction design. It’s a dense piece, but really interesting. They discuss design fiction as a form of envisioning the future, and how Interaction Design could adjust to that possible future:
Steampunks have imagined a whimsical neo-Victorian fiction to frame their design practice: an optimistic lost age of adventure where invention, individuality, and innovation reign supreme. This fictional world reflects a set of values and relationships with technology, but that is not the most interesting or relevant thing that Steampunk has to offer the HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) community. Instead, it is in the practices of Steampunk makers that we can observe a possible future for interaction design: a future in which design is driven by aesthetics, grounded in a sustainable ethos, and aimed at serving the needs and preferences of distributed communities of engaged expert users.
Also see How steampunk culture offers clues to building a better future for another interesting viewpoint on this movement.
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John Pavlus in Your Body Does Not Want to Be an Interface:
The assumption driving these kinds of design speculations is that if you embed the interface — the control surface for a technology — into our own bodily envelope, that interface will “disappear”: the technology will cease to be a separate “thing” and simply become part of that envelope.
The trouble is that unlike technology, your body isn’t something you “interface” with in the first place. You’re not a little homunculus “in” your body, “driving” it around, looking out Terminator-style “through” your eyes. Your body isn’t a tool for delivering your experience: it is your experience. Merging the body with a technological control surface doesn’t magically transform the act of manipulating that surface into bodily experience. I’m not a cyborg (yet) so I can’t be sure, but I suspect the effect is more the opposite: alienating you from the direct bodily experiences you already have by turning them into technological interfaces to be manipulated.
It’s an excellent essay. I especially like the distinction between Ready-at-hand and Present-at-hand technologies, and how our bodies shouldn’t become marionettes to technology.
Ivan Hewett did a write-up on some very interesting neuroscience research in Why your brain loves music:
When [participants] were willing to pay [for a song] there [was] a strong correlation with one brain region in particular, called the nucleus accumbens. This is the area responsible for the sensation of “pleasant surprise”.
It might seem surprising that people should enjoy having their expectations contradicted. But these results only reveal the physical basis for something we’ve known about for centuries. In the ancient world, teachers of rhetoric knew that one way to hold people’s attention was to set up expectations and then deny them.
“Pleasant surprise”. That does explain a lot. As a high school student with very limited budget, buying a CD was a huge deal, so I didn’t want to waste the opportunity when it did come along. One of my biggest criteria for buying a CD was this: “Will I be ok if this is the only album I can take with me to a deserted island?” The ability to listen to a CD over and over was a strong requirement to make the purchase worthwhile.
Anecdotally I can confirm that the albums I did end up listening to a hundred times over were the ones that were surprising in just the right ways. They were just pushing the boundaries of the sounds I was used to and expected to like. Pink Floyd’s The Division Bell immediately comes to mind as an example of this. It’s probably the same reason we like movies with a strong twist. Even though we’re technically being lied to for most of the movie, we kind of like it. As 17th century English philosopher Francis Bacon said: “There is pleasure even in being deceived.”
See also: The tyranny of endless musical choice