Technohaberdashery

Paul Raven @ 02-09-2011

Now this is just wonderful, even if it’s a clear response to the start of a long (but maybe not so slow) ramping down from the current consumer-driven innovation model of technology business:

The notion of a “haberdashery for technology” came from traditional haberdasheries which are (or, more often than not, were) filled with knitting needles, sewing machines, patterns, buttons, thread and examples of clothes, bags and quilts that you can make yourself. They tend to have shop assistants who are experts at their craft, as opposed to general salespeople, and they give you advice and host classes to learn new sewing skills.

Hirschmann explains: “Now replace all of that with LEDs, circuit boards, soldering irons and lots of lovely little drawers with resistors, capacitors and switches The store is immaculately organised and there are explanations of the bits and bobs near all of the components to help demystify what they do and how they might be useful. There are a selection of bespoke DIY kits for you to explore at home.

Operations like this are a heartening sign, but the ones that last the course will probably be a little less worthy and a lot more ramshackle, much more along the lines of a “bring yer thing and fix it yerself then pay me for the parts” sort of place, a free hackspace that both monetises and entices its meattraffic with the same supplementary offering.

This sort of high-functioning ‘adaptive reuse as business model’ thing is an inevitable necessity for a world with low incomes and limited resources, really… but it’s not a new thing, though: think back not too far to the days when you might have a door-to-door knife-sharpening guy come round the neighbourhood once a season, for instance. As much as we talk about our technologies as being tools, we don’t value them like a really good tool is valued, like a good knife would be sharpened regularly all throughout its long working life. We think of “tools” as being almost a commodity concept nowadays; a word like “power”, “bandwidth”, “leverage”. “Tools” is just our ease of access to Stuff That Does Things, it’s our ability to buy or rent or borrow what we need when we need it.

That ability will cease to pertain in the realm of physical meatspace tools very quickly. This means good tools – well made, well used, maintained and cared for, stored properly – will become valuable social capital in a post-growth economy: an opportunity to contribute rather than a lever for power. Also: the return of the freelance artisan and jack’ll-fix-it, available in both static/urban and nomadic/rural models. Every block or village will have a guy who sysops for local businesses, f’rinstance, and probably another dude who handles the hardware side of things; less glamorously (but equally essentially), you’ll have white-hat infrastructure hackers, people who can patch a local power grid, keep water and sewage systems running, repair or demolish problem architecture… and again, none of this is new. Indeed, it’s current in any major city with a sizeable favela population.

Your city may not have any favelas right now, of course. But it will.

Further weird signals form the nearest strange attractors: some guy hustles Mercedes into sponsoring his prosthetic hand [via MetaFilter]. That’s a novel in nine words, right there, and it’s not even a made-up story. Related: the guy who swapped out his glass eye for  a little digicam [via ModeledBehaviour]. These are just two of real on-the-ground transhumanism’s many, many faces; there will be more of them to come. The two greatest mistakes one can make about transhumanism are falling for the Kurzweilian corporate Singularity fantasy (which I increasingly suspect portrays only the parts of the future reserved for shareholders), or assuming that the ludicrousness of said Singularity fantasy invalidates or derails the existence of an observable and growing subculture. (Confession time: I’ve been guilty of both before now.)

To put it another way: we won’t be uploading our minds any time soon, but there’s more unexpected-consequences-of-being-cyborgs in the very near future of our species, without a doubt… because another of those new artisan careers will be the bodysculptor, the back-street surgeon, and they will not be short of work (even if most of it will be elective or cosmetic rather than… functional, shall we say.)

At this point someone is sure to be thinking “but to do that to yourself would be genuinely insane – like, actual pathology craziness!” You’re probably right, too. I think the problem with dismissing the more extreme examples of the transhumanist urge (no matter how shallowly understood it appears to be in each participant) as mental pathology is that doing so is a convenient way of avoiding the need to address the real problem: what’s causing that craziness, and how prevalent is it? The second question is probably the least important, because it’s the one that’ll answer itself very quickly. The answer to the first will be something already embedded deep enough in the body of our civilisation that its removal would kill or cripple us: it is technology itself, and the madness of kids trying to become the Terminator is the madness of a body trying to remake itself in an image more like the ones it dreams of.

It is the madness of being young in a mad world, and it will not be cured or engineered away.


Trust and utility

Paul Raven @ 24-02-2011

This Freeman Dyson article/review at the New York Review Of Books has many interesting points in it, and the new James Gleick book it discusses sounds like a title I’ll need to get my hands on at some point (his biography of Richard Feynman is a fascinating work). But there was a pair of sentences that really just leapt out at me, and I offer them here without further comment (but with a little emphasis):

Among my friends and acquaintances, everybody distrusts Wikipedia and everybody uses it. Distrust and productive use are not incompatible.


What exactly is a cyborg?

Paul Raven @ 06-09-2010

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

The word cyborg makes for a great example of rapid semantic drift; in the fifty years since it was coined, its definition has both broadened and narrowed, depending on who is using it, and to what ends. As an early salvo in the 50 Posts about Cyborgs series (as mentioned a few days ago), Tim Maly takes it back to basics:

I want to present you with a different vision of cyborgs, one that derives in part from the work of feminist theorist Donna Haraway, author of A Cyborg Manifesto.

In it, she argues that we are all and have always been cyborgs, hybrid entities that combine biology, culture, and technology into a single blurry unit. Haraway wants to move away from the essentialist narratives of gender, race, and politics but in doing so, she ends up taking the rest of us along with her.

There has never been a moment when we did not integrate with tools.

(Rather reminiscent of of Timothy Taylor’s theory of the artificial ape, no?)

Our tools define and shape us, they tell us who we are. We use them to extend our literal selves out into the world. When you get into an accident, you say “she hit me” not “her car hit me” and not “her car hit my car”.

We are embraced and enveloped by the technosphere and even if we try to escape and smash the system, we find we are part of it.

50 Posts About Cyborgs is going to be a really interesting collection of work… things will be quiet(ish) here at Futurismic for the next week and a bit, so you might want to head on over there to bolster your daily diet of geeky brainfoods.

But why are things going to be quiet(ish) here? Fear not! The next post will explain it all… 🙂


Stylus and sketch: interaction for design

Tom James @ 13-01-2009

An ongoing trend in design tools and techniques lies in finding ways to make CAD more intuitive by using pen-based interfaces, from Physorg:

Because thinking about a new product shape by sketching is more expressive and more intuitive for engineers than the traditional mouse-and-menu-based design interfaces, the new system gives users more freedom to be creative and a shorter learning curve for use.

By providing greater freedom in conceptual design phases and alleviating costly redesign issues, the new technology will have an immediate impact on a multitude of industries, Carnegie Mellon researchers said.

This sounds similar to the ILoveSketch software tool, demonstrated in this video:

[ILoveSketch from Seok-Hyung Bae on Vimeo][via Bruce Sterling]


Bruce Sterling says the iPhone is the postmillennial Leatherman

Paul Raven @ 18-10-2008

In a slight reiteration of some of his more recent design-related riffs, this brief article by Bruce Sterling compares the iPhone to the Leatherman multitool:

Like all digital technologies, the iPhone has yet to achieve the hard-grained, Spartan elegancies of the steely Leatherman. It makes up for this with its cannibal appetite for other tools. Leathermans will disappear—I commonly give mine away—but iPhones devour other tools, digesting them into virtualized application services: phone, camera, e-mail, Web browser, text-messaging, music and video players, whole planet-girdling sets of urban Google maps, house keys, pedometer, TV remote, seismometer, Breathalyzer, alarm clock, video games, radio, bar-code scanner … the target list grows by the day.

It does indeed. Plus you can take an iPhone on a plane without anyone accusing you of being a terrorist… for the moment, at least. [via Warren Ellis]


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