Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

21 MARCH, 2012

People-Dependent Technology: Designing with Our Highest Ideals for One Another

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“…design everything on the assumption that people are not heartless or stupid but marvellously capable, given the chance.”

Someone dear once lent me a remarkable out-of-print book by John Chris Jones, the first professor of design at the Open University, entitled The Internet and Everyone* (public library) — a tiny, thick tome printed in an impossibly small font that embodies the uncomfortable, nonlinear urgency of the budding medium it explores. It contains a series of letters Jones had written in the mid-90s, as the Internet was beginning to take shape, “without knowing what was coming next.” Sometimes erratic, often intense, always insightful, these meditative missives present a rare time-capsule of a tipping point in the history of contemporary culture and media — an early vision for the Internet as a force of cultural awakening.

Among Jones’ many keen observations is a response to a question by Thomas Mitchell about what constitutes bad design. This particular portion, exploring “people-dependent technology,” is reminiscent of Paola Antonelli’s insistence upon humanized technology:

3 ‘PEOPLE-DEPENDENT TECHNOLOGY’

That is a new term for which as yet I can think of no examples — it is my current hope.

What I envisage is that, instead of designing everything (and particularly computer software) on the assumption that ‘people are going to behave like machines’ — that is, without feeling, love, hatred, anticipation, intuition, imagination, etc. (the very qualities we think of when we ask what it is to be human) — we design everything on the assumption that people are not heartless or stupid but marvellously capable, given the chance, each and every one. I’d like to see machines, systems, environments of all kinds, made such that if they are to work well everyone who uses or inhabits them is challenged to act at her or his best and that there are no built-in obstacles to doing that. The main obstacles to this at present are not so much the machines and technical processes but the presence of our other selves, as paid guardians, ‘protecting’ every one of us from our ‘mechanically stupefied selves’ and enforcing rules of behaviour and design which assume that ‘users know nothing and producers know all’.

An edited version of this correspondence appears in Mitchell’s 1996 book, New Thinking in Design: Conversations on Theory and Practice.

* Does the cover feel familiar? Perhaps it’s because it inspired the cover of another, much more recent and equally important media bible — James Gleick’s The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood.

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21 MARCH, 2012

27 of History’s Strangest Inventions

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If you can’t deliver the newspaper on your amphibious bicycle, you can always fax it.

“If at first an idea is not absurd,” Albert Einstein famously said, “then there is no hope for it.” Sometimes, however, absurd is just absurd — yet, even so, it’s a fascinating slice of history’s collective direction of curiosity and experimental innovation. After those vintage versions of modern social media and yesteryear’s visions for the future of technology, here come some of history’s most weird and wonderful inventions, from wooden swimwear to spectacles for reading in bed, captured in archival public domain images by Holland’s Nationaal Archief.

One-wheel motorcycle

Germany, 1925

Manual dredger

Workers operated the so-called bucket dredger with their arms and legs using stepper boards. The machine is a small model, but whether it was actually realized is unknown.

Bike tyre used as a swimming aid

Invented by Italian M. Goventosa de Udine; maximum speed: 150 kilometers per hour (93 mph).

Steam automobile design circa 1845

Amphibious bicycle

This land-and-water bike can carry a load of 120 pounds; Paris, 1932

All-terrain car

This all-terrain car can descend slopes up to 65 degrees; England, 1936.

Radio stroller

Stroller equipped with a radio, including antenna and loudspeaker, to keep the baby quiet; USA, 1921.

Wooden bathing suits

Wooden bathing suits, supposed to make swimming a lot easier; Hoquiam, Washington, USA, 1929

Ice sailboat

In the 17th century, it was so cold that meteorologists spoke of a Little Ice Age. The ice sailboat addressed the challenge of transporting goods over frozen lakes and rivers. Designed by A. Terrier, January 17, 1600

Radio hat

Portable radio in a straw hat, made by an American inventor in 1931

Wetlands windmill

A windmill for draining wetlands, lightweight enough to function in marshy areas. It was designed by C.D. Muys in 1589 but was never built.

Bulletproof glass

Demonstration by NYPD's finest shooter, 1931

Clap skate

In 1936, inventor R. Handl came up with the movable heel plate, but it wasn't until 1996 that this concept revolutionized skating.

Extensible caravan

Built by an unknown French engineer in 1934.

Piano for the bedridden

Piano especially designed for people confined to bedrest; Great Britain, 1935

Hamblin glasses for reading in bed

A pair of spectacles especially designed for reading in bed; England, 1936

Electrically heated jacket

Electrically heated vest, developed for the traffic police in the United States, 1932. The power is supplied by electric contacts in the street.

Loetafoon

A turntable linked to a film projector. It comes with single, dual and triple turntable. Designed by F.B.A. Prinsen, 1929

Car with shovel for pedestrians

Invented for the purpose of 'reducing the number of casualties among pedestrians;' Paris, 1924

Hearing light for the blind

1912

Early GPS

Yesteryear's TomTom, a rolling key map that passes through the screen in a tempo determined by the speed of the car; 1932

Folding bridge for emergencies

The emergency bridge can easily be transported on a handcart; invented by L. Deth. The Netherlands, 1926

Booted rubber boat

Drawing of a 'pneumatic sports- fish and hunt boat,' an inflatable boat for one person with boots attached; The Netherlands, 1915

Faxed newspaper

In 1938, the world's first wireless newspaper was sent from WOR radio station in New York City. In this photo, children are reading the children’s page of a Missouri paper.

Snowstorm mask

Plastic face protection from snowstorms. Canada, Montreal, 1939

Gas-resistant stroller

A wartime stroller equipped with gas protection; England, Hextable, 1938

Revolver camera

A Colt 38 carrying a small camera that automatically takes a picture when you pull the trigger. At the left: six pictures taken by the camera. New York, 1938.

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21 MARCH, 2012

Oh, My Hand: Complaints Medieval Monks Scribbled in the Margins of Illuminated Manuscripts

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“Thank God, it will soon be dark.”

The history of bookmaking hasn’t been without its challenges, but never was its craft as painstaking as during the era of illuminated manuscripts. Joining the ranks of history’s most appalling and amusing complaints, like this Victorian list of don’ts for female cyclists or young Isaac Newton’s self-professed sins, is an absolute treat for lovers of marginalia such as myself — a collection of complaints monks scribbled in the pages of illuminated manuscripts.

Writing is excessive drudgery. It crooks your back, it dims your sight, it twists your stomach and your sides.

As the harbor is welcome to the sailor, so is the last line to the scribe.

This is sad! O little book! A day will come in truth when someone over your page will say, ‘The hand that wrote it is no more.’

This gem comes from the Spring 2012 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, entitled Means of Communication, which previously delighted us with the first usages of famous words and to which you can and should subscribe immediately.

Thanks, Michelle

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