Technology as a Window into CultureEdit

The hallmarks of the character of a culture rest in the way they make things. Neither technology or design exist for their own sake. They are mediums of culture. How a society uses any particular technology is a reflection of its common paradigms and aesthetic ideals. There is always a reason why anything looks the way it does. And once you understand that you find that, in its reverse-engineering, is a deep story about the society that made it. This is why archeologists and anthropologists can derive so much information about cultures of the past by examining their artifacts. Things tell you how they are made, and when you understand their technology they tell you, by the logistical aspects of production processes, many things about the way the people, societies, civilization that made them worked.

Throughout our contemporary environment and the countless artifacts making it up are many common characteristics that reflect much about the way things work in our civilization -for better or worse. We commonly overlook these, much as we ‘unsee’ such artifacts as telephone poles and other easy-to-overlook elements of our infrastructure. Take, for instance, the design of most electronic gadgets. Look at a few of them together and you’ll notice something; a seam which runs along some long-axis of the case enclosing it. Once you take notice of it, you start to see it again and again. It’s everywhere.

Take one of these apart and you find two shell pieces of injection-molded plastic or -more rarely- milled alloy, or -even rarer these days- joined and milled wood or pressed wood composites. And suspended between these shell pieces are the active components of the device -usually a single circuit board for a small electronics device or some combination of other electromechanical parts. This is an almost universal architecture covering a vast number of things in our environment. And if you understand how these things were made and designed -this fabrication of plastic molds, the process of injection molding, the production of circuit boards by various techniques, and so on you start to understand a great deal about how a lot of things in our environment works. It a hallmark of the 20th century and the paradigms of production that dominated across that century. It reflects certain models about the nature of business, economics, and so on.

And what’s very telling about our culture today is that these very common methods of making things aren’t common knowledge. Indeed, even the average factory worker is only typically allowed to understand some specialized segments of the production process he’s a part of all day long. People can work making computers for decades and can’t tell you how they work or give you much help to fix your’s when it breaks. They can manufacture cars by the thousands in a factory and not know the first thing about designing and making one for themselves. There is no course in schools in ‘industrial literacy’, and yet this is as much a crucial ‘language’ of our culture as written and spoken language. And this is a rather modern phenomenon. It was only a little more than a century ago that to make anything one needed a very deep level of understanding of the process because, before the assembly line and its compartmentalization of tasks and consequential compartmentalization of skill and knowledge, the typical fabrication worker had to perform most of the steps of production. We could spend hundreds of pages of discussion on a deduction of how and why Industrial Age paradigms led to a greater contemporary industrial illiteracy than ever in history.

A basic element of TMP2 is the cultivation of what this author has referred to as a Post-Industrial culture. This is an emergent evolution today, referred to in many ways. Futurist Alvin Toffler referred to it as the Third Wave. Others have characterized it as a post-scarcity culture, a pre or post-Singularity culture, and so on. What is this culture like? We have touched in that question in many ways in TMP2. In this set of articles we’re going to try making it more tangible by exploring this question in terms of technology and how those technologies impact design and are likely to reflect characteristics of the culture and the built habitat they produce.

The Race Between Assemblies and BlobjectsEdit

We will be discussing specific technologies in the sub-articles in this section but an important overriding characteristic of Post-Industrial technologies is going to be a kind of evolutionary competition between two basic strategies of design and fabrication that ultimately -with the advent of robust nanotechnology- may converge. These two strategies are modular assemblies and blobjects. Most people should be familiar with the idea of a modular assembly. But the term ‘blobject’ may be new to many. A contraction of the words ”blob” and “object”, it was first used by designer Steven Skov Holt, and later popularized by writer Bruce Sterling, to characterize a steadily increasing number of product designs over the latter part of the 20th century. They are products that reflect the convergence of injection-molding types of production processes with increasingly solid-state mechanisms and are typified by products using those plastic shell structures just described above and smooth, round-edged, sculptural, blob-like’ forms. In fact, while some people attribute the blobject to designs rather late in the 20th century (and often typified by products from such companies as Apple Computer). This author suggests that their origin can be traced back at least to the first mass produced electronic product with a two-piece injection-molded plastic case; the Regency TR-1 pocket transistor radio, which was also the very first mass produced transistor radio.

Blobjects may be the ultimate expression of Industrial Age production paradigms. They are designed entirely around centralized mass production, seek to absolutely minimize human labor in their production, are intended to be produced in extreme quantities, and are typically intended to be disposable rather than repairable and only very recently in any way recyclable. In fact, today they are increasingly intended to be internally proprietary. They are meant to break or self-destruct if one attempts to open them in order to maintain the secrecy of their manufacturers’ proprietary technology, which has in the past decade come to manifest as a cultural battle over the nature of the corporate rights over personal property for technological products.

As we have been entering this new century, very new cultural ideas -priorities- about the design of our stuff are starting too emerge. Overriding all is a steadily increasing awareness of environmental responsibility and sustainability in industrial production as we now confront the critical challenges of Global Warming and resource scarcity. But we are also adopting new concepts of social responsibility in production, design, and use logistics -considering more subtle impacts of products and their use on workers and consumers. Little by little, our western culture has been cluing into the fact that the essential social deal of the Industrial Age has not been so great a bargain and people are beginning to think about alternatives. This has become reflected in an anti-globalization movement and a quest for the application of technology toward the localization and personalization of production -an industrial demassification which, in turn, results in the demassification of economic and political power.

And out of all this we are seeing signs of a kind of evolutionary competition between modular component systems -which improve recyclability and enable industrial demassification and large scale social participation in development by reduction of elements to commodities- and blobjects whose aesthetics we have become very accustomed to by consumerism, favor technological propriety, and which are constantly pushing the curve forward in terms of what can still only be manufactured by old industrial approaches.

Where this conflict is most readily seen playing out today is in the realm of computers which only got to their present economy and ubiquity through the cultivation of an ‘industrial ecology’ of competitive commodity component production across shared platform food chains while the computer manufacturers at the top of the food chains -largely oblivious to the actual underlying nature of their industry- have constantly struggled to exploit intellectual property as a tool to lock-in market shares. We see great standardization of modular component interoperability compared with much knowledge sharing in the industry because that interoperability defines market share within the lower levels of the food chains while end-products trend toward increasingly blobject-like designs that make the technology increasingly obtuse to its own users and allow some companies to limit user’s ownership rights. So on the one hand computing technology is becoming increasingly generic and commodity-like in nature while some companies -usually those considering themselves makers of ‘premium’ computing products like Apple- seek every angle possible to define and impose propriety to keep end-products themselves from become generic commodities. (Which gets very difficult when, at the same time, design is favoring minimalism!)

Where this competition is seen elsewhere is a bit more subtle. For instance, we see modular home-building systems emerge alongside new technologies for ‘fabbing’ houses whole as colossal blobjects. We see cars firmly entrenched in blobject-like propriety yet customers demand ever-more options for customization and personalization, which demands modularity to implement cost-effectively. We see increasingly elaborate sculptural designs in ‘high end’ furniture yet at the same time other companies are pursing flat-pak versions of everything and end-users are rediscovering modular furniture concepts of the 1960’s allowing them to make increasingly durable and custom furnishings of their own.

A key factor in how this competition plays out over time is in how significant industrial literacy becomes in the culture. Will we remain mere consumers of an increasingly automated and obtuse production infrastructure or evolve into a society of ‘prosumers’ as production localizes and the trade of ‘goods’ around the world is superseded by a trade in commodity materials? Will Industrial Age manufacturers be able to continue to push the curve forward in perceived quality and performance of proprietary technology or will the advance of Open Source technology and manufacturing overtake them?

Where this competition may ultimately converge is in the development of nanotechnology with its potential to reduce modularity to the molecular level while eliminating the need for specialized production systems of large scale for all but the largest of artifacts. The power of nanotechnology rests not only in its ability to manipulate material at a molecular level but also in its potential to totally generalize production to where it is performed by one kind of universal production system scalable right down to the table-top. And so we see the limitations of both modular assemblies and blobjects eliminated and their virtues and physical characteristics combined in this common production technology.

Smart StuffEdit

An extremely important characteristic of Post-Industrial technology will be a progressive smartening of the tools of design and production leading to not only a progressive economy of automation and advance in its use but a progressive generalization of production with tools of shrinking scale. What this means is that progressively fewer, smaller, smarter, more interoperable, and more collectively automated tools will be needed to produce an increasing diversity of products. Eventually, much engineering, component market, and industry standards knowledge will become embedded into our tools of design and the end-production systems themselves. And as passive and active Artificial Intelligence emerge, we will find design an increasingly casual conversational process with are machines, leading eventually to a general automation of engineering and design itself for those aspects of things we have less aesthetic and personalization concern for. Industrial design may become self-evolutionary as systems pursue performance and efficiency advance on their own and we concern ourselves more with innovation, novelty, and the beauty of products.

Let’s now turn our attention to some of the specific technologies we can anticipate from this new culture.

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