Monday, February 20, 2006

Why Things Break

In the book "Why Things Break -- understanding the world by the way it comes apart", the author Mark E. Eberhart tells the story about how he became obsessed with the search for why things break. He is a professor of chemistry and geochemistry with a strong interest in material sciences. Eberhart makes the difference between the questions "when things break" and "why things break". We have always known when things break, at least more or less. People have figured out how much a rock or a copper sword can take. We can measure this by trying over and over again with different weights or forces. But this does not tell us "why" they break.

The book gives many interesting examples of the history of materials and how humans have learnt to use these materials, such as stone and later on bronze and iron. I like the way he describes the intimate relation between humans and their materials. It is clear from his way of telling history that knowledge about the material have in so many case been at the core of a society.

For me this leads to the issue of our contemporary material -- the digital material. What do we about it? When does it break? Are we enough close and intimate with the material to really get an authentic understanding of its qualities and character. I am not sure we are. At least not at a general level that it can inform our way of choosing our future.

To some extent, Eberhart's question can be related to the famous statement of the philosopher Virilio, that every technology carries its own disaster. Virilio also states that we do understand the disaster of most technologies (airplanes fall down, cars crashes, etc), but what is the disaster of digital technology? Maybe the most dangerous technologies are those where the disaster is not visible! So, maybe Eberhart's ambition of finding out core qualities of materials is precisely what we have to do when it comes to digital technology!

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Expanding the Design Space

To continue a theme on this blog -- a really good example of the importance of material in design is to be found in the field of cameras. In an article on CNET this is shown clearly. The article is about how our understanding of what a camera is and how it looks and how it is used, is challenged. And the cause is of course that new cameras use digital material as carrier of content. The article mention several examples of how the change of material transform a whole industry.

For instance, when a camera offer wireless networking, the notion of a camera changes. Maybe it is not a tool for capturing a place in time, instead maybe it is a tool that connects two places in real time -- whatever that means.

So, the camera article shows that the change of material really expands the space of possible designs. We are not witnessing any kind of stabilizing of products or services in the field of digital technology, instead we are only in the very beginning and the design space is still growing rapidly. This is, of course, a huge challenge for designers (in all design disciplines) since it is difficult to develop a (field specific) repertoire of design experiences and competence that over time can create a stable foundation for future design tasks. But, this is the way it will be for a long time.

60 second TV series episodes

The TV networks are struggling to find ways to adapt to the new digital reality. One of the newest initiatives by CBS is to launch a TV-series with 60 second episodes! The idea is that short episodes fits the new distribution channels like iPods and cell phones. This is of course an attempt to experiment with the digital material. The networks understand that when their content transforms into being carried by digital material, it is not only a change of some underlying technology. It is a fundamental change. It is a new material that changes everything, in this case even how the content is created and formatted. It also changes how the content is written and directed. It even changes the basic rules and principles in dramaturgy and story telling.

The transformation to digital material will not only change the way people interact with the content, but also the way they appreciate and distinguish good quality from bad. This will of course have impact on the way content will be presented in the traditional technological setting, such as the TV at home in the living room.

The ongoing transformation to digital material is maybe the most important societal change today. It happens everywhere, in all aspects of our reality, with consequences we can not grasp or understand.