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Links and articles about technology, design, and sociology. Written by Rian van der Merwe.

How steampunk culture offers clues to building a better future

Being More Human is a fascinating article written by Brian David Johnson, Intel’s resident futurist. He explains how steampunk culture offers clues to building a better future:

Steampunk has emotion and passion; it has an opinion and a point of view. It is sassy and thoughtful and optimistic about what could be built. It is convinced we can build a better future by envisioning a different past. Steampunk shows us that people want the devices and the technology in their lives to have a sense of humor, history, and humanity. This desire has radical implications for the type of future we could build.

He then discusses how steampunk reveals three relationships that people want with their technology, and concludes as follows:

When I tell people I’m a futurist and an optimist, they seem surprised and amused. People expect all futurists to be pessimistic prophets of doom. I’m not like that. The future is going to be awesome because we are going to build it. The future is not some fixed point on the horizon that we are all helplessly hurtling toward. Quite the opposite: the future is made every day by people’s actions. We all, on some level, create the future. From the family we raise, to the community we live in, to the business we do, we build the future. We all need to be active participants in imagining the future: the one we want and the one we want to avoid. Then we need to do something about it.

I try hard to stay away from the word “must-read” in these posts, but I’m going to relax my guard on this one, being holiday and all. So, really — read it!

The Internet and narrow horizons

Ian Leslie’s In search of serendipity is a very interesting article on how the Internet is narrowing our horizons by only giving us what we’re looking for, and nothing more:

Today’s world wide web has developed to organise, and make sense of, the exponential increase in information made available to everyone by the digital revolution, and it is amazingly good at doing so. If you are searching for something, you can find it online, and quickly. But a side-effect of this awesome efficiency may be a shrinking, rather than an expansion, of our horizons, because we are less likely to come across things we are not in quest of.

I especially like this metaphor for the Internet as modern city:

In 1952 a French sociologist called Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe asked a student to keep a journal of her daily movements. When he mapped her paths onto a map of Paris he saw the emergence of a triangle, with vertices at her apartment, her university and the home of her piano teacher. Her movements, he said, illustrated “the narrowness of the real Paris in which each individual lives”.

To some degree, the hopes of the internet’s pioneers have been fulfilled. You type “squid” into a search engine, you land on the Wikipedia page about squid, and in no time you are reading about Jules Verne and Pliny. But most of us use the web in the manner of that Parisian student. We have our paths, our bookmarks and our feeds, and we stick closely to them. We no longer “surf” the information superhighway, as it has become too vast to cruise without a map. And as it has evolved, it has become better and better at ensuring we need never stray from our virtual triangles.

As much as everyone seems to hate the word “curation”, it seems obvious to me that it’s important for all of us to seek out people who can lead us to things we didn’t know we’re interested in. As Callum J Hacket advises, make it a habit to follow reliable people rather than rigid topics.

The future of the amateur web

Robin Sloan laments that because there are so many different browsers and devices to support these days, it’s no fun to make personal websites any more. He proceeds to make the case that maybe we don’t need to do it ourselves, and that it’s more practical to rely instead on near-perfect “machines” created by professionals (such as Medium, Svbtle, etc.). From The end of history and the last website:

Today, I don’t think—and I’m almost afraid to write this, because it’s like the tolling of some great bell—today I don’t think the amateur’s best effort is good enough. We as internet users have less patience and less charity for janky, half-broken experiences. (Which is quite an evolution, because the whole internet used to be a janky, half-broken experience.) That’s unfortunate for me, and other amateurs of my approximate skill level, because that’s really the only kind we can muster. [...]

Don’t get me wrong; the amateur web isn’t going anywhere. It’s just that, if it used to be the internet’s Main Street, it’s starting to feel more like the forest on the edge of town. I don’t mean that in a bad way. Sure, it’s a little spooky out there, but it’s also where all the adventures start, obviously. You know, like: I hear there’s an old guy out there who makes robots out of car parts. Let’s go find him. The amateur web will always have that: the old guy, the robots, the car parts.

I get what he’s saying, and it’s a logical argument to make. But personal websites are rarely based on logic, they’re based on a fairly impractical but passionate desire to “own your corner of the web.” This site might not render perfectly on all devices, and having your own domain is a very difficult way to build an audience these days. But damn, it’s gratifying to play around in a sandpit of your own.

Giving your voice a chance to be heard

Craig Mod just published the first issue of his Roden Explorers Mailing List, and it’s great. He talks a bit about disconnecting from the Internet — a topic that, let’s be honest, we’re all thinking about at this time of year:

It’s REALLY fascinating to watch the language and texture of the world around you change when you disconnect. It’s also a bit sad, I guess, or hilarious, I suppose, to fetishize disconnection. But that’s the world we live in these days.

He proceeds to discuss author Susan Sontag’s book Under the Sign of Saturn, and one of the rules she made for her apartment in the 1970s:

“[It is] in this tiny room where books are forbidden, where I try better to hear my own voice and discover what I really think and really feel.”

Books! The enemy! Excise them to go: Offline!

This is such a great description of why one needs an internet diet every now and then: to better hear your own voice and discover what you really think and really feel.

We grab frantically at social network signals, news, podcasts — whatever — during all moments of downtime. Nevermind the last time we heard our voice, when’s the last time we gave our voice a chance to be heard?

The whole letter is great, so I definitely recommend subscribing to Roden Explorers.

Distinguishing between impactful and immersive design

Jon Tan’s Science! rounds off another great season on the always interesting 24 Ways. Jon discusses some of the science behind good design, starting from this premise:

I tend to distinguish between these two broad objectives as designing for impact on the one hand, and designing for immersion on the other. What defines them is interruption. Impact needs an attention-grabbing interruption. Immersion requires us to remove interruption from the interface. Careful design deliberately interrupts but doesn’t accidentally disrupt. If that seems to make sense to you, then you’ll find the following snippets of science as useful as I did.

I look forward to next year’s 24 articles already.

The perfect espresso

I loved Marco Tabini’s essay in The Magazine about his experiences growing up in his Mother’s coffee shop in Italy. From Majestic Espresso:

A professional espresso machine — in my mind, always the Machine — is intimidating in function and involved to use. I used to liken the Machine to the star beast of a mythical circus of the kind you would find in the pages of a fantasy book by Hickman and Weis. Manhandled, it would defend itself by spewing dangerously hot liquid, billowing clouds of steam rising from it like smoke from the mouth of a fire-breathing dragon; but it could also be capable of extreme gentleness, pushing out a shot of espresso one drop at a time while growling quietly in the background.

This bit about Starbucks made me laugh out loud:

A good espresso blend has been processed to a medium roast; the beans should have the color of bittersweet chocolate, with a slight sheen of essential oils on their surface. Dark-roasted beans produce a bitter taste because of the excessive caramelization of the sugars in them; contrary to popular opinion, a dark coffee doesn’t produce a “stronger” espresso, but only one that tastes like burnt earth. As my mom once exclaimed after trying Starbucks for the first time, you might as well grab a handful of dirt from your garden, drop it in a cup of hot water, and save some money.

The Magazine just gets better and better with every issue. And since you’re probably looking for some quality holiday reading this week, now is a great time to subscribe.

The cure for technology overload

Dave Pell is writing on Tweetage Wasteland again, and that’s a wonderful thing. Earlier this week he called for a better media in Get Off My Stoop, and today he’s back with a very good essay on technology overload. From The Answer Is Just A Click Away:

Technology used to be a way to solve life’s little problems. Now, technology is used to solve the little problems caused by technology. On some level, we know that doesn’t make sense, but we don’t have an app to convince us. Where’s the computer algorithm to prove that the quiet walk without the phone calls is the balance?

It’s worth reading his conclusion — and subscribing to his site if you don’t already do so.

Mankind’s almost infinite appetite for distractions

I recently started reading Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (thanks to J.D. Bentley for the recommendation). It’s great so far, and I’m sure I’ll have lots more to say once I’ve made my way through it.

Postman juxtaposes George Orwell’s “Big Brother” prophecy from Nineteen Eighty-Four with Aldous Huxley’s very different view of the future as set out in his 1931 book Brave New World. With that as backdrop, it’s amazing to think that this section from Amusing Ourselves to Death was written in 1985:

Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.

As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

Sounds like it was written yesterday, doesn’t it…

Designers should be in a constant state of observation

I really enjoyed Sarah Doody’s article in UX Magazine called The Flâneur Approach to User Experience Design. Flâneur is a French word that means “to stroll.” Sarah explains:

The flâneur’s mind is always in a state of observation. He or she connects the dots through each experience and encounter that comes his or her way. The flâneur is in constant awe of his surroundings. In the article “In Search Of Serendipity” for The Economist’s Intelligent Life Magazine, Ian Leslie writes that a flâneur is someone who “wanders the streets with purpose, but without a map.”

In the world of product design and start ups, there’s growing pressure to focus prematurely on the solution, to connect the dots backward instead of forward, to design the system before you’ve addressed the story. But, as user experience designers, we know that our greatest purpose is to develop the most intimate understanding of the people we design for and the problems they’re facing. To do this, we must be flâneurs.

It’s really worth reading the whole article to see more of Sarah’s conclusions and advice.

Paying for the product doesn’t guarantee anything

Derek Powazek pulls apart the saying “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product” in his post I’m Not The Product, But I Play One On The Internet. His conclusion:

We can and should support the companies we love with our money. Companies can and should have balanced streams of income so that they’re not solely dependent on just one. We all should consider the business models of the companies we trust with our data.

But we should not assume that, just because we pay a company they’ll treat us better, or that if we’re not paying that the company is allowed to treat us like shit. Reality is just more complicated than that. What matters is how companies demonstrate their respect for their customers. We should hold their feet to the fire when they demonstrate a lack of respect.

This is, of course, in response to the Instagram TOS debacle, which resulted in an update from Instagram to clarify their terms in a post with the “please stop shouting at us!” title Thank you, and we’re listening. But as Faruk Ateş points out in What Instagram did wrong:

Bad language is merely a symptom of the bigger mistake they made. Their failure lies in not acknowledging—or understanding—the change in expectations that took place amongst their users when they sold themselves to Facebook for a billion dollars. […]

Once you sell to a frequently-criticized juggernaut like Facebook, users’ expectations change from supportive to skeptic, and, especially because of Facebook’s long history of privacy-related mishaps, you may very well lose all benefit of the doubt amongst some of your users.

Oh, how many PR disasters could be avoided if companies would learn to respect their users, and be more in touch with their needs and goals…