Tag Archives: design

The Parable of the Coffee Maker and the Design Sir

I’d like to start off with an admittedly grandpa-sounding critique of a piece of technology in my house: My coffee maker’s status lights are too bright. My dad got it for my partner and I this past Christmas and we threw-out-the-box-immediately-wanna-keep it, but the thing has a lighthouse attached to it.  We live in a relatively small (and very old) place and our bedroom is a small room right off the kitchen. The first night we had the coffee maker I thought we had forgotten to turn off the TV.  We don’t really need alarm clocks anymore either, because when it finishes brewing it beeps like a smoke detector. Again, we love the coffee maker (Dad, seriously we love it.) but sometimes it feels like wearing a shoe that was designed for someone with six toes. (more…)

Selling the Social Sciences


“If it weren’t for all of you I would have lost my mind at my job.” Its a familiar refrain that I hear at lots of small conferences and, occasionally, on Twitter backchannels. Its an amazing compliment to hear that your weak tie with someone means so much, but its also an immensely troubling prospect. Hundreds (maybe thousands?) of highly trained professionals have serious misgivings about their professional associations, their home institutions, and maybe even their life’s work. I had heard variations on this theme most recently this past week when I helped out at the (really, really cool) Engineering, Social Justice, and Peace Conference hosted here in Troy, New York. The conference was attended by an array of people: engineers, educators, activists, and social scientists like myself. Some people worked in industry, others in academia, and a significant portion worked for NGOs like Engineers Without Borders. And again, I just want to reiterate: No single person said the exact phrase above, and I certainly don’t want to (mis)characterize any of the attendee’s personal feelings about their jobs or work. Rather, what I witnessed at ESJP is more accurately characterized as a feeling of “coming home.” Think of it as the positive side of the same disaffected coin. This anecdotal trend was in my mind when I read this Seattle Times article about social scientists finding new and inviting homes in tech companies. Are social scientists finding better intellectual homes in industry than in academia? Or am I connecting two totally separate phenomena? Is it just the pay? More to the point: can social scientists do more and better things for the world working in Silicon Valley than the Ivory Tower?

A Genealogy of Augmented Reality: From Design to Social Theory (Part One)

Image credit: Audrey Penven, “Dancing with Invisible Light”

Once upon a time in Winchester, VA, a nurse and a psychologist wondered what to name their second child (a newborn boy). This little boy would one day grow up to be a famous politician, so it was important to give him a good name. Eventually they settled on Richard (which means “powerful leader”) for a first name, and John (which means “God is gracious”) for a middle name; they gave him his father’s last name, because that was the custom at the time. Yet today, when someone says “Santorum,” do you first think of the former U.S. Senator? Or do you maybe think of columnist and gay rights activist Dan Savage?

Much to the former Senator’s likely chagrin, “santorum” is an excellent example of how words (and objects) that were not originally intended or designed to be “political” can take on new meanings–as well as new politics–once out in the world. (more…)

#TtW12 Panel Spotlight: The Politics of Design

This is part of a series of posts highlighting the Theorizing the Web conference, April 14th, 2012 at the University of Maryland (inside the D.C. beltway). It was originally posted on 3.30.12 and was updated to include video on 7.19.12. See the conference website for

Presider: Kari Kraus (@karikraus)

Drawing on a diverse range of approaches–from media archaeology and ethnography to queer theory and critical code studies–the “Politics of Design” panel will collectively consider where and how power pools and collects in the designed, value-laden spaces of the internet. Individual panelists will take up digital networks and anonymity (Moesch); established and proposed internet architectures (Shilton and Neal); slick Web 2.0 and grungy “dirt style” interfaces (Kane); and the failed rhetoric of the digital sublime by the founders of Google and Second Life (Chia).  Not content to dwell on surface design features, each speaker unearths hidden variables–whether technological, social, or historical–that affect the systems, platforms, and communication structures under discussion. In the process, they expose the faultlines in those structures that allow us to envision them otherwise; the politics of design, that is to say, ultimately point–directly or indirectly–to alt-design and re-design.

Please join us on 4/14 for what promises to be a fabulous #TtW12 panel!

[Paper titles and abstracts are after the jump.] (more…)

#TtW12 Spotlight: Theory Meets Art

This is part of a series of posts highlighting the Theorizing the Web conference, April 14th, 2012 at the University of Maryland (inside the D.C. beltway). See the conference website for information as well as event registration.

Jason Hughes (@hughesalicious) of the STAMP Gallery and I (@Praxis_In_Space), organized an invited panel session that addresses the link between new media and art and a gallery exhibit for the day of the conference.  When we organized the panel and exhibit, we felt it was important to give artists a place at the conference to discuss and share their perspectives on the influence of new media and the web.

The aims of the panel are to highlight the ways in which art often reflects ubiquitous social changes (namely the presence of new media) and the ways the creative and artistic uses of new media are pushing/challenging academic understandings of new media. More importantly, in the spirit of this conference, we will foster a discussion that will engage what role(s) social theory(ies) and/or practices have in their epistemological approach to new media and art.

We are pleased to announce the panelist will be Krista Caballero, Cliff Evans (@cliffevansnet), and Alberto Gatián (@nootrope) and Jeremy Pesner (@The_Pezman) will be moderating the panel.

[descriptions of the art projects after the jump]  (more…)

Design Influencing Behavior: The case of costly medical records

A recent study on electronic medical records (EMRs) found that they may not fulfill the promise of lowered health-care costs. This  study, and the reaction to it, illustrates much of what is wrong with technology studies, and the unintended social effects of technology itself.

Many technology studies have false ideas of how web and interaction designers actually work. We collectively tend to think of technology as a “fix” that “automagically” eliminates  “waste,” even if this is not the intent of the designers themselves (which it frequently isn’t).  But as this study points out, there are far more subtle and nuanced issues relating to technology. Specifically, technology makes it easier to do some things. Is it any surprise we end up expecting more things to be done?

Let me illustrate with EMRs.

Researchers from Harvard Medical School found that the use of electronic medical records (EMRs) is actually correlated with a higher number of diagnostic tests, such as MRIs, which in turn implies higher — not lower — health-care costs. (more…)

How Cyberpunk Warned against Apple’s Consumer Revolution

It’s a notable coincidence that Steve Job died exactly two decades after Neil Stephenson completed Snowcrash, arguably, the last great Cyberpunk novel. Stephenson and Jobs’ work exemplified two alternative visions of humans’ relationship with technology in the Digital Age. Snowcrash offers a gritty, dystopian vision of a world where technology works against human progress as much as it works on behalf of it. Strong individuals must assert themselves against technological slavery, though ironically, they rely on technology and their technological prowess to do so.

Apple, on the other hand, tells us that the future is now, offering lifestyle devices that are slick (some might say, sterile). Despite being mass produced, these devices are supposed to bolster our individuality by communicating our superior aesthetic standards. Above all, Apple offers a world where technology is user-friendly and requires little technical competency. We need not liberate ourselves from technology; there’s an app for that.

YouTube Preview Image

Values and style are inextricably linked (as Marshal McLuhan famously preached). So, unsurprisingly, the differences between Apple’s view of the future and that of Cyberpunk authors such as Stephenson run far deeper. The Cyberpunk genre has a critical mood that is antithetical to Apple’s mission of pushing its products into the hands of as many consumers as possible. The clean, minimalist styling of Apple devices makes a superficial statement about the progressive nature of the company, while the intuitive interface makes us feel that Apple had us in mind when designing the product—that human experience is valued, that they care. Of course, this is all a gimmick. Apple invokes style to “enchant” its products with an aura of mystery and wonderment while simultaneously deflecting questions about how the thing actually works (as discussed in Nathan Jurgenson & Zeynep Tufekci’s recent “Digital Dialogue” presentation on the iPad). Apple isn’t selling a product, it’s selling an illusion. And to enjoy it (as I described in a recent essay), we must suspend disbelief and simply trust in the”Mac Geniuses”—just as we must allow ourselves to believe in an illusionist if we hope to enjoy a magic show. Thus, the values coded into Apple products are passivity and consumerism; it is at this level where it is most distinct from the Cyberpunk movement. (more…)

Designing an Augmented Reality

Costas K is a graphic designer who used Cyborgology Editor Nathan Jurgenson‘s post on digital dualism as part of a design project. The physical book explores the intersection of atoms and bits. The creator was invited to write a short essay about the project.

As kids, we were told to stop ‘wasting’ our time with electronic devices and that we should be outside, engaging with the ‘real’ world. Early on, the idea was planted into us that what we do using a computer is an alternative false state that bears no value. To still believe this is naive. Personally, I have met some of my best friends online. I make transactions, articulate opinions, receive feedback and get commissioned professional projects. How is this not real?

Still, when approaching the topic the first expressions that came to mind were ‘physical world’ and ‘digital world’ – the cornerstones of digital dualism. Nathan Jurgenson’s text ‘Digital dualism versus augmented reality’ helped me put things into perspective, before exploring them visually.

It is my belief that online activity is a continuation of what we do physically, (more…)

“Tech-Geek Roots” Alienate Female Wikipedia Editors

The debate over the extent to which the design and infrastructure of the Web privileges certain demographic groups is not new, but, nevertheless, continues to be important.  Perhaps, most attention has been given to the way traditional gender hierarchies are reproduced by the masculine infrastructure of the Web.  Cyborgology editor Nathan Jurgenson, for example, has previously covered the Wikipedia’s bias toward masculine language.  Saskia Sassen warns “it may be naïve to overestimate the emancipatory power of cyberspace in terms of its capacity to neutralize gender distinctions.”

In an NPR interview this week, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales addressed the masculine bias of Wikipedia:

“The average age [of Wikipedia users] is around 26,” Wales says. “We’re about 85 percent male, which is something we’d like to change in the future. We think that’s because of our tech-geek roots.”

While the organization’s acknowledgment that the gender disparity on Wikipedia is promising, Wales seems to address the need for making the site more inclusive to women only from a marketing perspective.  Sociologically speaking, there is a far more important reason to attract women to Wikipedia.  Feminist sociologists have long argued the the types of knowledges that men and women produce are fundamentally different (in no small part due to their distinct social experiences).   As Wikipedia is increasingly accepted as the primary source of collected human wisdom, it is important to ask whose voices are being left out, and as such, what ways of thinking are absent in the conversation.  For Wikipedia, design and accessibility are not merely questions of customer service, but, in fact, have profound epistemological implications.

Helvetica: The Web’s Conflict Between Utility and Expression

YouTube Preview Image

Helvetica, the 2009 documentary about the meteoric rise of a Modern minimalist typeface, chronicles the recent history of design theory and describes a continuing clash between hyper-functional Modern design and expressive post-Modern (“grunge”) design.  Interestingly, the design trends that characterize the field of typeface design seem to directly parallel the history of Web design.

Today, we take for granted the simple, sleek minimalism that has come to define the Web.  It is evidenced in the two-tone, single-logo body of the iPad; the bold, spare, and instantly recognizable typeface of the Facebook “f” logo; or the isomorphic convergence of browsers toward an uncluttered and relatively standardized interface.  Of course, various products have strayed from Silicon Valley’s prevailing design standard of Modernist minimalism, but the dominance of this design aesthetic is only further revealed by the ridicule that these companies and products receive.

The dominance of Modernist minimalism on the Web was not always a given.  For example, even at its peak popularity, Myspace afforded users a wide range of customizable with respect to this individual profiles.  In fact, profiles on Myspace continue to vary so widely that there is hardly any coherence to the site as a whole.  But, users seem to enjoy the freedom to customize their own profiles.  Beyond the content, the design itself becomes a medium of self-expression.  If you are an outward and expressive person, be sure to have music blaring when a visitor lands on the page.  If you are the dark and brooding type, exhibit this by selecting font and background colors from the bruise palate.  These observations, no doubt, echo the wisdom of Marshall McLuhan, who famously told us that “the medium is the message.” (more…)