re:Re-Building the Real World

There are several interesting posts on the Core77 blog today and one concerned an article written by Carl Alviani titled “Hacking the Physical World: What we taught software designers, and what they’re trying to teach us” (Link). I’m hesitant to state flatly that it’s worth reading because as some of you can doubtlessly imagine, a line like

Distinguishing the design of physical goods from virtual ones is a necessary step…

doesn’t jive with what this blog is all about: the coming together of the tangible (Real) and intangible (Virtual).

Right off the bat, what I’d personally like to know is: “Why is this distinction a necessary step?” I don’t consider it necessary. In fact, I consider such a distinction less relevant with every passing day.

Of perhaps greater significance to the Industrial Design community reading this article, I get the sense that Alviani is speaking from inside the proverbial structural engineering / industrial design “box”, so to speak. He seems to me to be putting blinders on the very people who should be dreaming with their eyes wide open.

For example, in this bit:

The digital world is not like the real, of course, and the degree to which it resembles the real is purely a function of the labors of its designers. Where this gets us into trouble is when we try to take the analogy too far, or forget that it is an analogy to begin with.

I get the sense that Alviani is both unaware of just how tenuous our sensory grasp of the “real” world is, and that some very smart people like Neil Gershenfeld (listen to him at 2:40 and at 3:00) are already conducting lab experiments “integrating bits and atoms”. Consequently, the digital world is arguably very much like the real world in some ways. And thus making distinctions is sometimes not just difficult, but unnecessary.

Yes, I’m aware he’s probably just talking about GUI’s here, but the article isn’t about GUI’s. This article is, according to the title, about “software development”… only he’s including a wide range of creative types in addition to programmers and software engineers.

Furthermore, I sense a significant problem when Alviani distinguishes his work with atoms from the work of those who deal with “just the electrons flowing between them”, as if this is some necessary distinction.

I’d instead suggest that the real trouble begins not with taking analogies too far, but in failing to grasp how closely everything is intertwined. How closely related the bits are to the atoms, and how rapidly we’re bringing the two together so that distinguishing between them is sometimes essentially irrelevant.

The biggest problem I have with this article comes when Alviani gets into the Agile example, which he uses to support his claim that “truly universal [design] only falters under deeper scrutiny“. There’s plenty I don’t like about this section of his article.

For one thing, I wish he’d get beyond rapid prototyping as being (apparently) only worthwhile in expediting the old tried-n-true design process. Software developers don’t have to cut steel, and neither do tangible product designers using rapid manufacturing technology employing digital tools.

Certainly there are plenty of people besides me increasingly discussing rapid manufacturing as the wave of the future. Is Alviani ignorant of what’s going on or is he ignoring it because it doesn’t apply to the majority of industrial design work being done today? If it’s the latter, then I’ll say again that I believe he’s doing the Core77 audience a disservice by not opening them up to possibilities and letting them do what they do best: use their imaginations.

Secondly, if he was looking at rapid prototyping technologies as part of an evolving manufacturing capability instead of just as a way to expedite the design process for developing products using old manufacturing methods, then he’d likely understand why I consider this portion of his article deeply flawed:

The fundamental idea behind Agile is publishing a complete new product every month, and then modifying it continually. Desirable new features are added to a list, which is regularly re-prioritized, pushing the most coveted to the top and leaving things we want but can’t afford or have time for languishing at the bottom. This works in software development because the “product” is a virtual entity that can be repeatedly created and released on the world, then modified and re-released at a future date.

Industrial designers and those in related disciplines will immediately see where this starts breaking down when you try and apply it to the physical world.

On the contrary, it doesn’t break down anything except pre-conceived notions of limitations on our abilities to assemble and disassemble physical objects or to simply upgrade them (e.g. my stellayan Blackberry example – reLink).

If Alviani took the time to see what was on the other side of the barriers he’s reinforcing instead of making questionable claims about what is or isn’t necessary, he might find a kirkyan or some other new kind of Thing. You know, the kind of imaginary but feasible object that designers dream up when they take off the blinders.

3 thoughts on “re:Re-Building the Real World

  1. Too much Russian blogspam so I’m shutting this down early. If anyone wants to comment, drop me a note and I’ll open this up.

  2. Pingback: Traweln 2009: Los átomos son los nuevos bits | Denken Über

  3. Check out the Traweln blog entry (trackback above) for an update on how things are going in this arena.

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