The symbols of the divine initially show up at the trash stratum.
— Philip K. Dick
Increasingly, it feels like we live in a kind of Colonial Williamburg for the 20th century. With the introduction of networked digital devices we’ve gone through an epochal technological transformation, but it hasn’t much changed the design of our physical stuff. We’re like historical reenacters hiding our digital watches under bloused sleeves to keep from breaking period. We hide our personal satellite computers in our woodsman’s beards and flannels.
Is this a problem? Is the digital revolution incomplete until it visibly transforms our built environment? Is the form of our physical stuff a meaningful yardstick for progess?
British designer Russell Davies, of Newspaper Club and the Really Interesting Group, thinks so. Back in 2010, Davies wrote a lament for the lack of “futureness” in the physical stuff that populates our lives:
Every hep shop seems to be full of tweeds and leather and carefully authentic bits of restrained artisanal fashion. I think most of Shoreditch would be wandering around in a leather apron if it could. With pipe and beard and rickets. Every new coffee shop and organic foodery seems to be the same. Wood, brushed metal, bits of knackered toys on shelves. And blackboards. Everywhere there’s blackboards.
Davies has an expectation that the physical environment should be futuristic:
Cafes used to be models of the future. Shiny and modern and pushy. Fashion used to be the same – space age fabrics, bizarre concoctions. Trainers used to look like they’d been transported in from another dimension, now they look like they were found in an estate sale.
Davies worries that the Steampunk aesthetic of our physical things (all that brass, blackboard, and leather) is evidence of a fundamental conservatism in our design culture. But in focusing on physical stuff as the primary place to look for signs of the future, he ends up advocating a different, deeper kind of conservatism that I’ve taken to calling “Thingpunk”.
Thingpunk is a deep bias in design thinking that sees physical products and the built environment as the most important venues for design and innovation even as we enter a world that’s increasingly digital. It has roots in the history of design as a discipline over the last 100+ years, the relative stagnation of digital technology in the social media era, and “Tumblr Modernism”: a fetish for Modernist style as it appears in images as divorced from its built and political reality.
“Thingpunk”, as a term, came out of a conversation I had with Kellan Elliott-McCrea last year at Etsy. It is meant to be understood by analogy to Steampunk. Where Steampunk displaces 19th century styling onto 21st century products and spaces, Thingpunk attempts to continue the 20th century obsession with physical objects into a 21st century permeated by digital and network technologies. Thingpunk worries about the design of physical stuff above all else. Even when engaging with digital technologies, Thingpunk is primarily concerned not with their effect on our digital lives, but in how they will transform physical products and the built environment.
Less Than 100% Physical
The biggest technological change in our lifetimes is the rise of networked digital devices. Before the last 30 years or so, for most of us, no part of our daily experience took place through computers or networks. Now, at least some portion does, often quite a significant part. Since our days and our lives didn’t get any longer during that time, this new digital portion of our experience necessarily displaced physical (non-digital) experiences to at least some extent.
The core experience of what’s new about the digital is its non-physicality, the disembodied imaginary space it creates in our minds. This idea dates backs to the origins of Gibsonian cyberspace:
Cyberspace is the “place” where a telephone conversation appears to occur. Not inside your actual phone, the plastic device on your desk. Not inside the other person’s phone, in some other city. The place between the phones.
Invoking “cyberspace” may sound hopelessly old-fashioned. But regardless of that term being rendered retro by 90s overuse, the problem it expresses is still a pressing concern. Just this week Quinn Norton, noted chronicler of “decentralized networked organisms” such as Occupy and Anonymous, vividly described the challenge of writing compellingly of contempoary life:
There is an aesthetic crisis in writing, which is this: how do we write emotionally of scenes involving computers? How do we make concrete, or at least reconstructable in the minds of our readers, the terrible, true passions that cross telephony lines? Right now my field must tackle describing a world where falling in love, going to war and filling out tax forms looks the same; it looks like typing.
The digital non-space of the net didn’t turn out to be a visualization. No cubes of glowing information or 3D avatars. That itself was a fantasy of the continued primacy of the physical. Instead, our lives are shaped by the new aesthetic and personal experiences that actually happen in this digital non-space built of typing: the scrolling micro-updates through which we do both our social grooming and our collective experience of profound events, the emails and Facebook messages through which we conduct our courtships, affairs, and feuds, the alternatingly personal and random images from around the world that stream through our pocket satellite-connected supercomputers.
A common Thingpunk response to articulating this non-physcial quality of digital experience is to refocus on the objects and buildings that make up the physical infrastructure of the net. From Andrew Blum’s Tubes to James Bridle on the architecture of data centers, these accounts tend to have a slightly conspiratorial tone, as if they were revealing a secret truth hidden from us by the deception of our digital experiences. But while we should certainly pay attention to the massive construction projects being driven by the importance of networks, like the $1.5 billion dollar fiber cable through the Arctic, these physical portions of the network are not more real than the mental and inter-personal experiences that happen through them.
And it is exactly those latter experiences that most of today’s designers actually work on, with, and through rather than these physical mega-infrastructures.
Design Turns Like a Steamship
Interactive digital design has only been around for about 30 years and for half that time it was practiced solely by a tiny handful of designers at the few companies with the resources to ship operating systems or boxed software. The real explosion of GUI design as a major fraction of design as a discipline began in the late 90s with the rise of the web and (later) mobile applications.
Fifteen years of thinking about websites can’t overcome the past 100+ years of design as a tradition of thinking about and through physical things, especially when so much of design on the web is what design professionals would condescendingly call “vernacular”, i.e. made by amateurs. The towering figures of pre-digital design, from the Arts and Crafts movement through the Bauhaus to the work of Charles and Ray Eames, still shape design’s critical vocabulary, educational objectives, and work methods.
Where the tools for making websites and mobile apps differ from those for making furniture and appliances the ideas transmitted by this tradition become an increasingly bad match for today’s design work. The malleability of code, the distributed nature of collaboration, and the importance of math are just the first three of the many profound sources of this mismatch. Each of them are key to the craft of digital design and at best completely outside the scope of the pre-digitial tradition.
Further, this design tradition preaches a set of values that’s powerfully at odds with lived digital reality.
Despite their differences, pre-digital design movements are united in the qualities of experience they promise: authenticity, presence, realness, permanence, beauty, depth. These are essentially spiritual virtues that people have hungered after in different forms throughout modern history.
Digital technology is endlessly criticized for failing to provide these virtues, for being artificial, false, disposable, ugly, superficial, and shallow. Ironically, nearly identical arguments were made at the start of the Industrial Revolution against machine-made objects as detached from the human and spiritual virtues of handicrafts, arguments which the discourse of modern design spent much of its history trying to overcome. This historical echo is often audible in the Maker rhetoric around 3D printing and “the Internet of Things”: that they represent a return to something more authentic and personal than the digital. This move is most obviously visible with the Maker obsession with “faires” and hackerspaces, venues for in-person sociability, which is represented as obviously more spiritually nourishing than its remote digital equivalent.
The problem of the persistence of these traditional values is that they prevent us from addressing the most pressing design questions of the digital era:
How can we create these forms of beauty and fulfill this promise of authenticity within the large and growing portions of our lives that are lived digitally? Or, conversely, can we learn to move past these older ideas of value, to embrace the transience and changeability offered by the digital as virtues in themselves?
Thus far, instead of approaching these (extremely difficult) questions directly, traditional design thinking has lead us to avoid them by trying to make our digital things more like physical things (building in artificial scarcity, designing them skeumorphically, etc.) and by treating the digital as a supplemental add-on to primarily physical devices and experiences (the Internet of Things, digital fabrication).
And meanwhile our digital technologies have stagnated.
While there are a lot of reasons for this stagnation, one I’d like to highlight here is the role of social media. Building a technology that lets technologists and designers feel (and act) like celebrities is dangerously fascinating. Creating Yet Another Social Media startup or web framework will get you a lot of social attention, tens or hundreds of thousands of followers, maybe, which as social creatures we’re addicted to for evolutionary reasons. It’s like the ancient instinct that tells us to eat every fatty and sugary food within reach, which may have been a good plan when we never knew when the tribe would next bring down a buffalo, but doesn’t work as well in the industrial food landscape.
The result of this Junk Food Technology has been that digital technologies, and especially the web, have degraded into an endless series of elaborations on social media, making physical technologies seem more innovative by comparison.
But there are still lots of real hard important things to be done on the web and in digital technologies more generally, many of them arising from the profound design questions mentioned in the last section:
- Taking the seemingly endless pile of technological wonders produced by cutting edge computer science research and making them into culture.
- Doing more with the super-computer satellite camera sensor platforms we constantly carry with us (more than using them as clients for reading social media).
- Figuring out how to teach each other and do new research without digging ourselves under mountains of debt.
- Making media that moves people in 30 second chunks when consumed out of context.
- Telling emotional stories through the strange lives of bots and pseudonymous twitter writing
- Breaking out of our bubbles to find empathy with far-flung people less like us around the world.
It’s by wrestling with these problems (and many others like them) that we’ll define the appropriate values that should drive design in a digital era, not by trying to shoehorn the older era’s values into our new digital venues.
A Fetish for 20th Century Modernism: Do Big Things vs. Fuck Yeah Brutalism
To conclude, I want to return to Davies’ dream of a design futurism that would visibly transform our cafes and neighborhoods.
One of the chief dangers of a futurism that’s centered on the built environment is that it lives in the shadow of 20th Century Modernism, the high church of the religion that changing the visual style of the built environment was inseparable from radical transformations in how we live our lives. Modernism was a project of gigantic scale with huge ambitions from transforming our politico-economic systems to remaking our infrastructure and physical environment. Its legacy is extremely mixed: it changed the way we live substantially in ways that are sometimes quite troubling.
If you are committed to expressing the future through physical things, if you are going to speak in a Modernist language of transforming the built environment, what will your relationship be to that legacy? Do you want to transform the world with huge projects? Or is that ambition just another fetish for a historical style (of raw concrete, shiny metals, and polished glass instead of blackboards and brass)?
An example of the former is Neal Stephenson’s Heiroglyph Project. Stephenson wants to push science fiction authors to tell stories that can inspire the doing of new Modernist-scale dreams. Personally, he wants to build a 2km tall tower to make it cheaper to put things into space.
To this, I say: fuck yeah. We need these big dreams to try to dynamite us out of our incrementalism (in both physical and digital innovation). If Neal and his buddies can do it then I’d love to see them take the scale of Modernist ambition and prove that it can be done without the attendant de-humanizing that lead us to reject Modernism in the 20th Century.
The latter relationship to Modernism, though, is much more common. The design world is full of fetish material for 20th Century Modernism as a lifestyle, especially in interior design and minimalist magazines like Dwell and about a billion Tumblrs.
The worst offender, to my mind, is Fuck Yeah Brutalism, which posts a parade of pictures and drawings of Brutalist architecture (like this drawing of a proposed Seward Park Extension from 1970) and has over 100,000 followers.
This kind of pixel-deep appreciation treats Moderism as a sexy design style that looks pretty on websites, completely divorcing it from its huge, and often extremely troubling, human and political effects.
For three years, I lived across the street from the Riis Houses and the Lillian Wald Houses in Alphabet City, Manhattan:
They are what Brutalist architecture and Modernist planning often became in practice, a vertical filing cabinet for the city’s poorest and least politically powerful populations whose maintenance has been visibly abandoned by the city.
It’s easy to fetishize Brutalist buildings when you don’t have to live in them. On the other hand, when the same Brutalist style is translated into the digital spaces we daily inhabit, it becomes a source of endless whinging. Facebook, for example, is Brutalist social media. It reproduces much the same relationship with its users as the Riis Houses and their ilk do with their residents: focusing on control and integration into the high-level planning scheme rather than individual life and the “ballet of a good blog comment thread”, to paraphrase Jane Jacobs.
The divide between these two ways of adapting Modernism into the digital age, powerfully illustrates the threat of Thingpunk. Its real danger lies in its superficiality, its mistaking of the transformation of surface style for evidence of systemic change.
Thanks to Rune Madsen and Jorge Just for feedback on a draft of this.