Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘innovation’

21 MARCH, 2012

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


“…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:


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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26 JANUARY, 2012

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: A Story of Passion and Possibility


What bamboo poles and bicycle chains have to do with sparking the spirit of entrepreneurship.

When he was only 14 years old, William Kamkwamba dreamt up a windmill that would produce electricity for his village in Malawi. The trouble? As Malawi was experiencing the worst famine in 50 years, William had to drop out of school because his family could no longer afford the $80 annual tuition. This meant he not only had no money to purchase the parts, but also no formal education to teach him how to put them together. Determined, he headed to the local library and voraciously devoured its limited selection of textbooks, then gathered some scrap parts — a bicycle dynamo, bamboo poles, a tractor fan, rubber belts, a bike chain ring — and brought his vision to life, building a functioning windmill. He spent the next five years perfecting the design and went on to found the Moving Windmills Project in 2008 to foster rural economic development and education projects in Malawi.

In 2009, Kamkwamba shared his moving story of perseverance, curiosity, and ingenuity in the memoir The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope. Now, this modern-day entrepreneurial fairy tale is being adapted for young hearts and minds in the beautifully illustrated children’s book The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Young Readers Edition. Kamkwamba’s story shines with all the more optimism and tenacity in the hands of 27-year-old artist Elizabeth Zunon, whose rich, lyrical, almost three-dimensional oil-and-cut-paper illustrations, reminiscent of Sophie Blackall’s, vibrate with exceptional whimsy and buoyancy.

Coupled with the launch is a wonderful literacy effort — for every book parents, teacher, and children read online on We Give Books, the Wimbe community lending library, where Kamkwamba’s journey began, gets a new book, up to 10,000. Despite serving some 1,500 pupils, the library currently has no picture books.

Beautiful, moving, and immensely inspirational, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Young Readers Edition tells the kind of story that helps budding entrepreneurs relate to the world through a lens of infinite possibility — the kind of message that might, just might, empower them to harness if not the wind the future itself.

Thanks, Tom

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26 JANUARY, 2012

Laconia: An Architecture of Thinking


Multimedia landscape as a language pattern, or what Ezra Pound has to do with Twitter.

In LACONIA: 1,200 Tweets on Film, Masha Tupitsyn explores the curious intersection of the print tradition of books and the micronarrative model of Twitter. The project is essentially an experiment that appropriates the forms of social media — soundbites, fragmented commentary, quotes, condensed reactions — in a work of film criticism that preserves the cultural purpose of the genre but divorces it from its traditional medium of essayistic narrative. What makes Tupitsyn’s project exceptional, however, is that it reverse-engineers the now-familiar frameworks of Twitter anthologies — unlike Tweets from Tahrir, for instance, which sought to capture of a slice of the social narrative about the Egyptian revolution by culling tweets after the fact, Tupitsyn’s approach put the intention of the book before the composition of each tweet, so that every tweet was deliberately crafted with the larger narrative in mind. Rather than a cohesive analysis of one idea at length, however, that narrative instead connects dots across diverse sources and constructs a mosaic of cultural patterns that explore the relationships between films.

LACONIA is, in essence, an architecture of thinking. It is also a book that shows its skeleton. That tackles the multi-media landscape as a language pattern rather than a material phenomenon.” ~ Masha Tupitsyn

At its heart, the book is as much about film itself as it is about how Tupitsyn thinks about film in the age of infinite connectivity and on a platform that has more in common with poetry than with prose. In Tupitsyn’s own words:

In some ways, I think I was born to write this kind of book because for me writing always starts with: a line, a phrase, a fragment. Modeled on the aphorism, while updating and tailoring it to film and pop culture, the goal in LACONIA was to zoom in rather than to zoom out, to write in close-ups, so that every word, to quote Ezra Pound, could become ‘charged with meaning.’ Like the aphorism, which according to James Geary in The World in a Phrase: A Brief History of the Aphorism, must be ‘brief, definitive, personal, philosophical, have a twist,’ and reveal some larger truth, each tweet in LACONIA is a miniature exegesis; an appraisal of the world through film and media since our understanding of the world has become increasingly, if not entirely, shaped and mediated by both.”

In a way, LACONIA is akin to John Chris Jones’s classic, The Internet and Everyone, substituting tweets for Jones’s lengthy letters to piece together a dimensional meditation on a medium through thoughtfully engineered fragments.

Spotted via The Millions, who have a wonderful piece on the future of fragmented reading.

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