Designing in the Face of Defeat

Posted: May 13th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Inspiration, Talks | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I called this talk I gave for the Willem de Kooning Academy’s CrossLab night ‘New Design for a New Aesthetic’ initially, but I reconsidered that title. Not because of the person who took semantic issue with the idea of a ‘new aesthetic’, I couldn’t really care less about that. The idea that there can be a new design that addresses the issues within the New Aesthetic is just too ambitious. We cannot possibly succeed which is why I’m calling this discipline we’re engaged in: designing in the face of defeat (I blogged about this before) and it is what we will be doing for the foreseeable future.

I pre-rolled a screencapture of Aaron Straup Cope’s Wanderdrone to add ominous foreboding to the mix of design/advertising enthusiasm permeating the room. Crosslab called the night a night about Dynamic Design, which I didn’t really get, but I retook an old talk about algorithmic design but now heavily updated to incorporate current thinking about algorithms, the new aesthetic and object oriented ontology.

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Our offices in Berlin-Kreuzberg

Given the fact that we as Monster Swell are a company that does a lot of stuff with maps we are affected by the fact that mapping is being turned on its head. And it’s not because there aren’t enough interesting maps, there are now more than ever before. Just to show a couple.

Eric Fischer’s Twitter Traffic Maps of various cities, here New York:
Is this the structure of New York City?

Google Hotel Finder with an isochrone projection in London:
Google Hotel Finder

Timemaps, a map of the Netherlands distorted by the amount of travel time required during various times of day:
Timemaps

But right now there is a projection inversion going on where a lot of the time we no longer project the real world onto flat surfaces and call that maps, but where we overlay maps themselves back onto reality. And what we call maps does not need to have any relation with physical reality anymore, we can map anything onto anything using any (non-)geometric form we choose.

This is mainly a consequence of us putting the internet into maps. But if you think again, the internet is not the only place where we put maps. We put the internet into pretty much everything by now.

So maps are creeping back into the real world and we get odd clashes when we try to overlay a map back onto the territory or when we try to perfectly capture a capricious world, as you can see in these Google Maps and Street View examples: 1, 2, 3, 4. I don’t know how long they will be online over at the New Aesthetic Tumblr since that has been closed by James Bridle right now.

We got QR codes to enable the machine readable world. These hardly have any real world use (just go over to the WTF QR Codes Tumblr) but they function more as cultural icons, precursors of a strange and inscrutable future.

And even more interestingly they are being used for instance by the Chinese to calibrate spy satellites. So these are maps on the earth that are being used to create better maps of the earth.

The New Aesthetic is when this kind of projection inversion happens more widely, not just in the realm of maps, but in all of the places in the world that the internet touches. By now that is nearly everything. The examples that were being collected over at the New Aesthetic Tumblr showed how the arts were picking up on this trend.

All of these things have been created by algorithms which are not as mysterious as many people make them out to be. Algorithms are how computers work and increasingly how the world works. They codify behaviour and quoting Robert Fabricant, as designers ‘behaviour is our medium’. Being a designer should entail more than a passing knowledge of and proficiency with algorithms. We are moving into a world where creative work is becoming procedural. The most important media are prescriptive and set rules for the world more than they are descriptive and depict the world.

The real problem with algorithms is that they often involve us but they are completely alien to us (in the Bogostian sense). They are operationally closed. Operational Closure means that things may work in ways that are not at all obvious to us, neither at first nor after we poke into them because any kind of sense we make of it is either partial or does not translate into our frame of reference. Algorithms get inputs and perform outputs but the way they operate on these has nothing to do with how we as humans think about the world. Think is not even the right word, but we try to relate to them from our human cognition. The machines see us, but they do not ‘see’ us in any way we would recognize as seeing and we have no idea what it is that they see.

The Machine Pareidolia experiment over at Urban Honking is a good example.

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The ability to see faces in things is a basic aspect of our visual pattern recognition. When we teach that same skill to computers we get unexpected consequences. It is the same with the flash crash on the stock market that happens in the blink of an eye without anybody really knowing what caused it. The rationales of the algorithms are opaque to us and their emergent behaviour unpredictable.

As Kevin Slavin mentioned in an interview: the more autonomous the algorithms are and the more effects they have on our daily lives, the more we may be accommodating them without realizing it.

There was this story recently that scientists have created a robot fish that is so good at mimicking the behaviour of regular fish that it can become their leader. This is what worries me. Who says we are not all following robot fish most of the time?

So that is what I think is the biggest challenge right now for designers. Try to create systems that harness the open and generative power of the internet while on the other hand remaining human and aligned with human interest. One way would be to make the internals of algorithms transparent so people can enter into an informed relationship with them.

Unfortunately there are no magic bullets for this whatever your local design visionary has been telling you. There never have been. Everything is made up of withdrawn objects that are mediated towards one another with unexpected consequences. To quote Graham Harman from the Prince of Networks:

“the engineer must negotiate with the mountain at every stage of the project, testing to see where the rock resists and where it yields, and is quite often surprised by the behaviour of the rock.”

There are no ideas that will solve all problems, there are no products that will do everything. There is only the work through which we may gain more understanding and make better things. So with that, I hope we all can do good work.