Posts tagged “bruce sterling”

Shaping Things

Tons has been written about Bruce Sterling’s Shaping Things. He’s an active speaker, with material from the book informing many of his talks. One must give him highest credit for reusing his ideas but not reusing his material. In other words, when he spoke at CCA recently, he didn’t even mention spimes (an important term in the book) and fleshed out the talk with other examples about futurism that are not in the book at all. I haven’t listened to his IDEA presentation, but the comments I’ve seen suggest that this is true here as well.

That notion of the book (well, they call it a pamphlet) as a platform for an ongoing evolving conversation is actually comforting, since the book itself is insufficient. It’s passionate, provocative, confusing, and frankly, unconvincing. The theses stack too high and too wide to keep track of.

And that’s one reason I like to imagine Sterling in a very very large box labeled visionary. We need people like him (with passion, genius, insight, charm, energy, and an audience) to throw wild ideas out there and see what they can hit. He knows more than most of us, he’s seen things further than most of us, and although he wraps his ranting in something that approaches believability, I don’t believe that’s the best use. I hope that his ideas contain germs and seeds and sparks that leave his semi-solid-serious proposals behind but indeed do go somewhere.

But the book itself.

Yikes. Designer Lorraine Wild is given a credit for the book, somewhere it says “lovingly designed.” Sterling talks about his camaraderie with big-name designers and his passion for design as a non-designer.

And the book is horribly designed. Yeah, maybe that’s subjective but it’s really ugly (very subjective) and impossible to use (less subjective). Figures appear at random locations, never referenced in the text. And ambitiously silly visual devices are thrown in but create an acne surface of typographical eagerness.
Different terms are presented in a specific font every time they are used. Oh, and in a different green color, as well. Yes, every time.

It really is hard to read when that’s going on. Not to mention that some of the fonts chosen cause the word to creep to the left or the right (I don’t know the typographical term here) so badly that it appears to be flush with the adjacent word. How readable is that? Is there any thought about how people’s eyes work, how reading happens? Or just a conceit to advance the ideas? Add to this the silly typefaces being used and you’ve just got a mess.

And when a term is used repeatedly you get (instead of the ransom note effect of the above example) this mess. Like someone else has used the book before you and taken a highlighter to it. Does this help or hinder your comprehension?

I haven’t had many conversations with others about this book; I’d be curious to hear what you think.

Fiction is as strange as truth

After both Nicolas Nova and Rudy Rucker recommended Accelerando to me, I bought it and just started today. This passage caught my eye.

Manfred [the protagonist] is at the peak of his profession, which is essentially coming up with whacky but workable ideas and giving them to people who will make fortunes with them…There are drawbacks, however. Being a pronoiac meme-broker is a constant burn of future shock – he has to assimilate more than a megabyte of text and several gigs of AV content every day just to stay current.

Not too far off from the truth for many of us!

Bruce Sterling said something similar in his talk on Design Futurism

Futurist activity of “scanning” – newspapers Internet, television, conferences, other futurists, landmark events, reports, weak signals. Always asking “What are the things out there that might affect clientele (which could be anything!)?”

Note: Nicolas Nova blogged the same quote several days before I did. Copycat or coincidence?

MC SP was in da house


(thanks Katie for the photo)
Friday was the Bay Area’s Best awards, where local winners of the BusinessWeek/IDSA IDEA Awards were feted. I presented the awards. Below are my opening remarks.

In preparing for tonight I’ve been doing some thinking about design in the Bay Area. I’m sure we’ve all had that same experience where we’re on call to our friends and colleagues in other places to try and offer some detailed overview of the local economy for design, consulting, innovation, or whatever. “What’s going on with business out there?” they’ll ask us.

Ummm, well, let’s see.

I mean, how do you answer that?

If you’re like me, you can really only answer it from your own narrow perspective. If you’re having a busy week, you might tell them “The Valley is back!” or if you’re feeling some economic crunch from your employer or your clients, you might just pause and inhale skeptically….”hisssssssssssssssssss. I dunno….”

Of course, we’re all optimists in Sunny (make that Foggy) California, so there’s probably a tendency to lean a bit harder on the “We’re back, baby” side of the equation.

So while I’m sure there’s someone with bar charts, and pie charts, showing the quarterly delta of the Gross Regional Product, design dollars spent per hard good, the macroeconomic tracking index of supply-and-demand curve adjusted for inflation, that’s not me. I can only tell you what I see and hear.

So if you will allow, let’s consider three different aspects of design: people, ideas, and stuff.

Okay, “people”. First of all, look at all of us. A bunch of people who are here tonight for outa-control alcohol fueled mayhem, to raise the roof with each other, for camaraderie, and celebration. To be out with each other and share the connection as part of the scene. We’re here for ourselves, but we’re here for each other. That’s a community. That’s something we know that people move here be part of. If you’ve got friends in other countries or other parts of the US, they may be jealous of that elusive “activity” that goes on here, at events like this and others. If you look at resumes you know that people definitely want to come HERE to work.

One of the largest employers of designers in the world is here…IDEO. With most of their designers here in the Bay Area. Just by mass alone, IDEO puts us all on the map.

We’ve got design students here, with programs at Academy of Art University, California College of the Arts (where I teach), San Francisco State, San Jose State, Stanford and probably someplace else I missed. Those schools are destination schools, and this area is a destination. And certainly the changes going on at CCA and Stanford are well-publicized in the design press, and even in the business press.

So, what about ideas? With Silicon Valley, we’ve got a tremendous history as a place of ideas, ideas that get turned into technologies and of course stuff that people end up using, in other words, design. If you aren’t getting a chunk of the money, you might not think at first that the $1.65 BILLION that Google paid for YouTube doesn’t really affect you, but don’t be mistaken – that’s a dramatic sign about money, content, media, information, entertainment, you name it. Oh, and of course, design.

But the air is thick with ideas here in the Bay Area. Earlier this week I saw a panel discussion with Larry Cornett and Joy Mountford from Yahoo, Peter Merholz from Adaptive Path, and Tim Brown from IDEO. They were considering the design challenges in creating a new class of product: systems with emergent behavior. In other words, where the way the product or system will be used isn’t known before it is created, and the design must allow for that flexibility to emerge over time. Maybe you’d like to dismiss all this as website stuff, but Tim Brown was very clear that he didn’t distinguish; it was all design to him.

And people from outside this area are hungry to bring their ideas here to teach us, and to get our reactions. Just in the last few weeks, we’ve had MOMA design curator Paola Anontelli at Stanford talking about designing the user experience of design exhibits, author and visionary Bruce Sterling at CCA talking about modernism, futurism, and design, Molly Steenson at Giant Ant talking about an ethnographic study she did with Microsoft in Bangalore, India, looking at how people use mobile phones. Turns out that whereas we see the phones as personal devices, for many in India they are shared devices. The design implications for software and hardware in the global marketplace are significant.

And last but absolutely not least comes the stuff. Consider that the talk about emergent systems I mentioned before was held in an overflowing auditorium at PARC, the famous R&D lab in Palo Alto that brought us word processing, the desktop interface, Ethernet, the laser printer, and helped to productize the mouse. We are residents in the ancestral home of revolutionary products, services, technologies – in other words, stuff – the personal computer, the internet, the iPod, the search engine. Revolutionary in that they change how people live, how they work, they create entire economies and destroy others.

And the stuff is why we’re here tonight, after all. Each of the firms we are honoring tonight have a “thing” that we’ll show, a thing that can be seen and touched. But each of those tangible things should mean so much more than the thing itself. The people in our winning firms have taken big ideas, new ideas, and put them into stuff. People, ideas, and stuff, and that’s how we got here, with our Bay Area’s Best.

The event was a lot of fun, although they ran out of beer (I was saving myself until after the awards, and made a dash for the bar only to find they were pushing this malt-beverage-with-caffeine that would have turned me into Portigolio with my shirt over my head) and I had to make do with a churro instead. It was really a party, more than a ceremony, and so lots of people continued to chat, loudly, while we began to speak through the PA. It’s very hard to speak when there’s so much background chatter, and I heard from others afterwards that it was a struggle for some to hear the presentations. I don’t begrudge anyone the desire to continue talking (that’s what’s great about parties) but it would be great if it could be managed so that the speaking-and-listening stuff could also go on as well.

Bruce Sterling at CCA

Bruce Sterling gave a talk at CCA last Tuesday. Part of the talk came from Shaping Things (although he didn’t mention SPIMES directly), but much of it was fresh, presumably influenced by his visit that same afternoon to the scenario planners and futurists at the Global Business Network.

I’ve since finished reading Shaping Things and hope to write up something about it before too long, but meanwhile my notes from the talk are posted at Core77.

The day of the talk I was at MarCamp and had to rush to get to CCA in time to hopefully eat and get a seat (after getting lost on Stanford campus and ending up in the back of a crowded and hot room for the Antonelli talk the day before, I was trying to plan). I walked into the school’s cafe thinking I’d grab something and wolf it down and then go to the auditorium. And there’s Bruce Sterling sitting quietly at a table working on his laptop. He looks up and sees me and as I walk over to re-introduce myself (we met once at an IDSA West event where I had recommended him as the keynote) he seems to know who I am and invites me to sit down. And then another man joins us, and Sterling introduces me to Rudy Rucker, telling him how great my blog is. Rucker gets out a pen and paper to write the details down, Sterling tells him to Google me, and I just hand him a business card.

I then start saying really stupid things to Rudy Rucker; remembering that I read one of his books many years ago but I can’t remember what it is (since figuring out that it was probably Wetware). I don’t know why I did that; it’s not like anyone ever wants to hear that sort of thing even when it’s expressed non-moronically. It’s funny now, I guess. They showed me pictures from some crazy vault in the basement of the building that the Global Business Network is in, discussed Web 2.0, asked me to save seats and so on. I see someone else had a slightly similar experience.

Eventually I went in to get seats (though being early meant I had plenty of choice) and looked up Rudy Rucker online, only to realize that I had purchased a few of his books recently! I gave up on one; and am currently about 10% through another, on my bedside table at home. Moron-forehead slap number 2. When Rucker showed up he asked if I could drive him to the train station afterwards, and mentioned he was going to write a story about giant ants with Bruce Sterling (who was sitting and writing away on his laptop, wordsmithing, I presume, the talk he was about to give). Sitting behind us was Brenda Laurel, newly at CCA, but of course I didn’t realize that until afterwards. What a big evening of famous people that I can act like a clueless goofball in front of…it’s all blog fodder, I guess.

Sterling’s talk was entertaining and provocative. His ability to craft phrases for a verbal presentation is unique, and he manages this semi-sarcastic riffing drawl that brings his written prose back into the realm of the spoken. This lets him rant about some techno-groovy possibility and use geeky phrases about “bluetooth-enabled devices crawling through our skin” (not an actual phrase he used) that don’t thunder demandingly but almost mock the idea while still wildly considering the possibility real and even necessary. It’s engaging as hell, sneaking ideas past your defenses with a dry cloaking device.

And maybe that’s why he’s been a Visionary-in-Residence at Art Center – it’s not that his ideas are entirely clear or convincing or that his logic follows simply and persuasively, but he takes on you and a ride and you may notice that you are off the road sometimes, but you’re still along for the ride. [I hope someone is counting the fallen metaphors here].

Rucker ended up sticking around and not riding in the new RX8, and I finally got to eat my dinner sandwhich when I got home later that evening!


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