FreshMeat #23: Total Recall

FreshMeat #23 from Steve Portigal

               (oo) Fresh
                \\/  Meat

FreshMeat is kicking it old school. Don’t you think?
We can remember it for you, wholesale
It’s a common exercise in December to reflect back on the
about-to-expire year, but it can be particularly
challenging to identify the highlights in any category.
Sure, cultural critics produce a raft of best-of lists,
but how easy is it for the rest of us to look back?

We are all exposed to media (or information, or stories,
or whatever you’d like to call it) at an enormous quantity
and at a staggering rate, receiving content from TV,
magazines, newspapers, advertising, blogs, music (radio,
CDs, and MP3s), email and more. So, it shouldn’t be hard
for me to come up with some 2004 list of something, right?
After all, I read two daily papers, more than 125 blog
feeds, and about 10 magazines. I manage two mailing
lists (one about the Rolling Stones and one about user
research), participate in several others, as well as
online discussion forums. I contribute to three
different blogs. I’ve got a handle on the zeitgeist,

Wrong. I can’t remember a damn thing.

What the heck happened in 2004? I can remember the front-
page stuff (crimes, war, politics) but little else. So I
decided to do an experiment: I went to several online
sources – BoingBoing, MetaFilter and Core77
and skimmed their archives of two random 2004 months,
February and April. I used these sites as triggers for
stories that seemed cool when they broke but eluded my
memory by the time December rolled around.

Just those two months amounted to over 150,000 words-and
many, many stories. Most I recognized with a hockey-card
collector’s nod – “seen it; seen it; seen it;” some I didn’t
notice at all at the time (or if I did notice, made so
little impact that I didn’t recognize them months later);
and a few still seemed new and cool. But a bunch of others
stood out as important, had personal resonance for me, and
seemed, somehow, to be representative of the year. So here
we go:

February, 2004:

The Grey Album – the highest-profile mashup, created by DJ
Danger Mouse from Jay-Z’s The Black Album and the Beatles’
White Album

Gay weddings at City Hall in San Francisco

Cingular buys AT+T Wireless

Scientists discover M&Ms randomly dumped into a bowl pack
together much more densely than spheres

Amazon writers caught reviewing their own books positively

Flickr launches

The Dynamap – bringing the power of layered online data to
a printed medium

Howard Stern dumped by Clear Channel

Brian Wilson performs his lost classic Smile, 37 years

Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ released – it does very
very well

Janet Jackson’s breast becomes the most searched-for image
in Lycos

A BBC poll named Apple designer Jonathan Ive as the most
influential person in British culture

Glare from Frank Gehry-designed Disney Concert Hall heats
up neighbor buildings

April, 2004:

Porn stars get HIV

BBC launches TV programs for pets

Roboticist develops swarming traffic-cones

Adbusters launches “Black Spot” sneakers

Legoland starts tracking kiddie visitors with WiFi and

Scary pics of an overweight guy designing his own Tron

Retro 1850s and 1950s appliances

Google launches Gmail

Campbell’s sells Warhole-esque cans of soup as a tribute
to Andy

Burger King’s subservient chicken ad

IKEA founder, Ingvar Kamprad, has overtaken Bill Gates as
the world’s richest man

Academic conference about Wal-Mart

Sony launches a premium brand, Qualia

These are stories about design, technology, culture,
politics, media, and entertainment, all jammed together –
stories that are probably familiar, but that most of us
couldn’t have listed on our own without going back over
some kind of archive. Anyone who took Psychology 101 (not
me) will know that there are different types of memory. In
this case we’re contrasting the memory of recall with the
memory of recognition. We might not be able recall the
names of all our high school teachers, but we could
probably recognize most of them by name or photo. (Of
course, there are some teachers who we’ve blocked from
both recall and recognition due to excessive trauma – but I

Perhaps some of the items listed above provided a frisson
of recognition, a surprise of a forgotten incident, the
pleasure of an interesting experience from the past or a
splash of perspective gained from just a few months’
distance. And you could do your own lists, using the
filter of what tripped your fancy or tickled your funny
bone, and that list might provide some fun for others
around you, but the parlor game would still hold; in this
time of information overload, we seem to need the stimulus
to have the response.

Why, if we’re consuming so many cultural stories, is it so
hard to recall them? Again, those Psych 101 students
will know about the Recency Effect – our inclination to add
weight to the more recent items. (Film studios plan
release dates for award-likely movies based on this
phenomenon; Sideways, released in the fall, seems to have
won a conspicuous number of film awards.)

And the Recency Effect is markedly intense when we try to
sum up the cultural experiences of a large period of time,
say a year. We’ve spent that time primarily consuming
information-not accumulating knowledge – the zeitgeist
database rapidly building, each fresh item reshaping the
slag heap, with the older pieces buried ever deeper below.
Try it yourself: you can probably recall last month’s
cover of ID Magazine (or a similarly relevant industry
journal), but not the one before it.

The notion of consuming media, in a period of history that
serves up so many choices, was recently addressed by Peter
Merholz in his thoughts about “media obesity”. (Indeed,
when does anyone have the time to listen to 40G of music?)
Of course, the tag-team of marketing and technology are
adding ever-more options, increasing the challenge of
ever-keeping up: If you enjoyed Seinfeld when it was
originally on television, and then again when it was in
reruns, you can now own it, so that you are able to watch
at least once more. Oh, and then one more time after that
with the commentary. So in addition to all the new media
experiences being generated from this moment forward,
there are re-released and enhanced versions of media
experiences from last year, from 5 years ago, or from 30
years ago. We’re at a single point in time with a stream
of media bearing steadily down upon us like a NASCAR final
lap, while if we’re not careful we’re going to get pounded
by the reverse commute of yesterday’s content.

And if we consider design, specifically, we have to ask
ourselves whether our contribution to this congestion is
unique in any way, or simply more of the same. Designers
are certainly in the consumption business, and while
design both creates and reflects the cultural stories
we’re considering here, the work is typically tangible.
Sure, “the iPod” sits in the zeitgeist somewhere near
“Janet Jackson’s breast,” but Lindsay Lohan’s iPod is a
concrete, physical, experience-able, designed artifact –
especially for Lindsay herself. And maybe “design
stories” – or “personal experiences with design” – are
a kind of story that is more memorable precisely because
it’s tied to an artifact. These kinds of stories may be
richer, individualized, or recall-able on other levels
(tactile, olfactory), making rapid and effective
connections with memories, emotions and experiences in
ways that that are palpable – indeed, literally physical
– and have an upper hand in providing effective tour guides to
both our collective and individual stories.

So here’s the corollary experiment: I was easily able to
generate (mostly from recall, with little need for
stimulus-recognition) a list of my own design-y
experiences from this past year – experiences that
affected me emotionally and intellectually (either
positively or negatively):

Touching the Bean at Millennium Park in Chicago

Rem Koolhaas student center (McCormick Tribune Campus Center) at IIT

Ontario College of Art and Design’s new Sharp Centre

Cornerstone Festival of Gardens


Bruce Sterling’s opening keynote at the IDSA Western
Region conference

It looks like design can impact an individual’s stories,
pushing past the Recency Effect, lodging in whatever
cranial fissures house the items available for recall. And
what a nice thought that is, looking back at all we’ve
been through and ahead at what’s still to come. Dylan
wrote, “She’s an artist, she don’t look back”, but he also
wrote, “Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go.”

A similar version of this article appears on the Core77
Industrial Design Supersite
. Check it out, with pictures
and everything, here.


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