An Emerging Landscape in The New Ecology of Things
An updated, illustrated, and edited version of this post was published in the JohnnyHolland.org magazine about Interaction Design.
With the Apple iPad launched and scores of other tablets and e-readers hitting the market, I think it’s important to step back and look at the larger trends. We’re in the middle of a major shift towards ubiquitous computing, cloud based personal storage, and tangible interaction. It’s a shift away from the generic computation typified by the “personal computer,” which never really achieved the individuality or specificity implied by the term “personal.” In short, we’re experiencing the emergence of The New Ecology of Things, where a network of heterogeneous, smart objects and spaces create opportunities for a more personal and meaningful landscape. This is what I’d like to explore:
- Where we’ve been and how the personal computer has made us soulless
- Where we’re about to be #1 with the emergence of digital slabs
- Where we’re about to be #2 with a new form of design that’s a hybrid of software and product
- Where we may be going and the future of the designer in an era of bespoke objects
A couple days ago, RISD president John Maeda tweeted that “Design is a solution to a problem. Art is a question to a problem.” Perhaps he was kidding, but I have to object. To me, good design raises new questions. If designers simply solve problems, we deaden design and culture by making things that operate at the most mundane level. Instead, we should create things that inspire, challenge, provoke, surprise, satisfy, engage and open up opportunities. The best design changes the context around it and allows people to see and feel the world in a new way. What problem did the Porsche 356 solve? What is the impact of the new Seattle Public Library? Why is the iPhone important? What’s interesting about Paula Scher‘s posters? What makes a great hammer?
Each of these play a role in people’s lives with broad effects in terms of activities, emotions, thinking, tactility, social interactions, creativity, work, play, and more. Even the “functional” hammer does more than solve the problem of putting nails into wood – it feels right in the hand, it gains a patina over time that makes it personal, in a pinch it will open a beer bottle, and you can use it to repair a church after Katrina.
In particular, if we think about Interactive Design, the highest goal should be to empower people to create their own meaning spaces, not solve pre-determined problems or even make great experiences. As I’ve discussed in my Productive Interaction paper and in The New Ecology of Things, design plays a greater role than serving tasks and solving problems. The things in our lives communicate, create social exchanges, and enable us to manipulate both the tangible and the idea. They afford creative abuse and invention. Forget solving problems, design things to be productive, embodied, mythological, meaningful.
I just read a couple interesting posts on something called The Implicit Web which relates ideas of the Semantic Web, social computing, “clickstreams“, folksonomies, sophisticated search systems, intelligent software assistants, crowdsourcing, etc. By tracking the activity of people and analyzing semantic content on the web the Implicit Web can automatically discover networks of people and interests without the explicit kind of work one does in Twitter, Facebook, or Google search.
In other words, by tracking what you and others do and create (emails, blog entries, tweets, browsing activity, shopping, etc.), and by scouring the web and analyzing its content, these systems make sense of the web in a much more sophisticated way than the brute force kind of searching that Google does. So it could find correlations, generate connections, optimize searches, make you aware of implicit networks of interest, and generally act on your behalf to both filter the incoming avalanche of data, and provide better/faster means to get to interesting information that you might not otherwise find.
While this idea is related to the kinds of recommendations that Amazon and other sites do, it is stronger because it aggregates a lot more activity and content beyond the silo of a single site. Plus, the ultimate expression of the implicit web (I hope) is that the user will have more control, and can “dial-in” the criteria of a search or automated task to their specific interests at that moment, rather than being stuck with some company’s idea of your interests. This idea relates to my essay on Productive Interaction, where the design of these systems is not about creating enveloping, persuasive experiences (as experience design dictates), but designing contexts where users are empowered to create their own meaning spaces.
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