June 2002

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CNET has a story today on the latest obsession of our esteemed Representatives in DC: House passes ban on “morphed” erotica.

An excerpt explains: In their April ruling, a 6-3 majority of the justices wrote that Congress’ first try at banning "morphed" porn was akin to prohibiting dirty thoughts. "First Amendment freedoms are most in danger when the government seeks to control thought or to justify its laws for that impermissible end," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority. "The right to think is the beginning of freedom, and speech must be protected from the government because speech is the beginning of thought." Prosecutors argue that the COPPA bill is needed, since otherwise it is too difficult to prove that an actual child was involved in the production of an electronic image on, say, a seized hard drive. .

Here’s another example of how weird the world is getting due to technology, and how morality itself is often shaped by the medium.
Anybody who thinks this is an easy question is missing the big picture (so to speak).
If a picture is worth a thousand words, and the picture is not of something “real,” then what do the words say?
We used to not have to worry about this problem. It was obvious in an analog world, or at least provable with the help of experts, that a photograph had been doctored, or that a film had been edited and lit to fool the eye.
Not so with CG creations. They’re getting better and better. When they show someone doing the physically impossible (like Spiderman) no big deal, because 1) what he’s doing is obviously a trick and 2) it’s not especially illegal or harmful to anyone except street thugs and supervillains.
But take a few minutes to deftly edit the image of 21 year old woman engaged in sexual activity to look like a 16 year old youngster, and even though what you’ve done is somewhat disgusting, it didn’t hurt anyone physically. Yet you could end up in prison. That seems absurd, right?
But how about this… you’re trying to find and prosecute members of a child porn ring. The only physical evidence you have is a bunch of jpegs on a computer showing pictures like the one described above, along with other scenes. The technology has made it so that we cannot assume these pictures are showing the real thing, although in this case based on testimony of others involved you pretty much know it’s really going on.
If you can’t grab this sicko with the evidence in hand, because it’s possible that it’s “morphed”– now what do you do?
I’ve certainly oversimplified this, but the bottom line is that what we have taken as ‘reality’ over the last couple of centuries is being dissolved before our eyes. Even eyewitness testimony and fingerprinting are known now to be much less conclusive than we could previously, comfortably assume.
So, now, how are we going to sort the baddies from the virtual baddies? If only technology could give us a way to see into one another’s hearts?

Kind of a nice counterpoint to meme-boy Richard Dawkins’ strident claims about religion. An interview with Bob Russell, director of the Berkeley-based Center for Theology and a physics Ph.D. was part of this special on PBS, in which Dawkins was also interviewed.

Wired had an article in 1995 that, bless their enterprising little hearts, is still available lo these many years later online, about Richard Dawkins, Mr. Meme-Coiner himself. Here’s a quote: Dawkins’s revolutionary evolutionary rhetoric has particularly inspired researchers of artificial life. Indeed, Dawkins’s work has created new contexts for exploring genetic algorithms and has sensitized the growing community of artificial-life researchers to the evolutionary dynamics of their software creations. Much as Herbert Simon and Marvin Minsky framed the agenda for artificial intelligence, Richard Dawkins has effectively defined the evolutionary agendas for artificial life. If you want to understand the future of natural and synthetic evolution, you have to read Richard Dawkins.

Now what?

I’ve been using a blog for a couple of years now at drewspace, but it’s pretty limited to the few things Blogger is good at. So I went whole-hog on this here Movable Type extravaganza. But now it almost feels like too much tool for me. Blogger was simple… once I had it figured out, I only had one thing to worry about: posting something now and then to my page. Now with all these other tools available, it’s a little intimidating. MT itself doesn’t come with that much more power on the surface, but it’s much more extensible. Gets me thinking about what it must feel like to companies and departments who spend upwards of a million bucks on a huge new IT tool, only to end up using a fraction of it. (Like getting a Cuisinart, only to end up using it the same way you used your old blender.
For example, I have a category field sitting above the little box I’m typing this into. I haven’t set up any categories yet. Why? Well, I guess I just have no idea what the heck I’m going to categorize and how. I don’t have time for that. I just want to rant on about something and hit a button.
Well, I’m not taking the old blog down for a while, if ever, but I don’t have time to do two of them, so for now I’ll just continue to tweak this memekitchen thing until something clicks for me and I figure out how I’m going to use it. Until then, anybody who stumbled up on this thing is going to have to put up with more of this kind of useless rambling. But heck, that’s what blogs are for, right?


I hereby coin the term “gurule” — and announce that I’m tired of gurules.

By “gurule” I mean overly simplistic rules made up by design gurus, mostly for the purpose of sounding smart and making a name for themselves.

“The Back Button is Always Bad”

“Redundancy is Bad”

“Frames are Bad”

Hm, usually they seem to be about things that are bad.

Not long ago I posted a comment on IA Slash about this.

Yes some things are usually a sign of flawed design, and some things are typically hallmarks of good design, but sticking these insights into categorical pronouncements is just one more step in the slippery slope to hell that is the powerpointification of America.

In this NYT story on usability testing (registration may be required), we get the following quotation that shows how much education is still needed in the public sphere:

One HFI client, the TD Bank Financial Group, encountered some negative feedback when it began its usability testing, said Steve Gesner, the company’s chief technology officer. "Customers said they couldn’t find things on the Web site and they asked us why things weren’t more intuitive," Mr. Gesner said. "We weren’t sending a consistent look and feel across the site."

The client, Gesner, refers to what they are doing as “sending” (i.e. broadcasting) a “consistent look and feel across the site.” Not only does this quotation not especially make sense, but it has very little to do with customers’ being able to find what they need. He’s still talking one-way brand and visual style, when the problems rests with ‘findability’ (part of information architecture) and interaction design.

I’m not dumping on this individual, but quoting him to point out how difficult it still is for people to get their heads around the problems their shared information environments face. The fact that he struggles to make a logical sentence is a powerful indicator of being stuck between paradigms.

And the fact that this article puts eyeball-tracking and taxonomies in the same bucket further highlights how much of a mish-mash this must all seem to be to those outside our disciplines (or even to many of us inside them).

Christina Wodke published some editorial comments at Boxes & Arrows the other day, and it set off a pretty large thread. I did so much writing in response to various other comments in the thread, I figured why not compile them here? So here goes…

I’ve been defining design this way: the creation of a thing for use toward a purpose beyond itself.

I confess, I didn’t even look this up. But it works for me insofar as defining “design” over-against “art.”

That said, I still suffer from the name problem:
I hesitate to call myself a designer, or what I do “design,” because so much of what has passed for design over the last century or so is crap. My “designer” clock radio (one of those Michael Graves objects from Target) is kinda cool to look at, and crap to use.

I’m not sure, but I suspect it was an unlucky confluence of advertising and academic aesthetic instruction that conspired to turn “design” into a pejorative misnomer. It shouldn’t be, because we’re lacking other words for what it was.

Saul Bass was a great designer, we hear. He came up with some fabulous logos. But this was graphic, corporate identity design, a very rarified and subjective form of design that’s more linguistic and aesthetic than functional.
For me, some famous “designers” that did stuff that seems more like what I do would be the Eameses, Buckminster Fuller, Mies van der Rohe, or Raymond Loewy. But even these had their gaffes and misfires, their moments of aesthete’s narcissism.

Now I’m finding out that famous architects have been up to the same malpractice for years. Architecture schools are often found as part of a College of Fine Arts (e.g. Carnegie-Mellon). But, I’m wary of any architect who thinks what they’re building is a “fine art” — if it’s fine art, it’s sculpture. If it’s something I’m supposed to use as shelter, it’s architecture. But hell, maybe I’m just stupid?

On the other hand, I don’t like ugly stuff either. And to paraphrase a supreme court justice of long ago, I know what ugly is when I see it. :-)

(After another query on the comments, I added this additional response)

But to answer your questions more directly:

[Excerpt of question directed at me: “Are you saying that if I am too concerned with form than it isn’t design? That design has to include function and that it has to be included at a certain level in order to be considered design? What gets me here is that it sounds like you are confusing bad design with whether or not it is design at all. “]

If you’re making something for someone else to use for a purpose beyond appreciation of the object itself, then yeah, you’re designing.

Are you intentionally designing? i.e. do you even know you’re engaging in an act of design? Only you know that. If you’re not doing it consciously (with rationale) then chances are greatly reduced that you are designing *well*.

Gray areas? Yeah, sure. It’s as messy as anything else.

If I create a toaster that works pretty badly as a toaster but that looks freakin’ cool and I put it in a gallery, it’s art. But if I mass produce them and put them in Target, it’s bad design. Same object, different contexts.

If I created a toaster that is both freakin’ cool AND extremely great to use, then it could be fine in either context. In one it’s art, the other it’s design. Context is everything.

If the toaster is designed to be bought in Target not to be a good toaster but to get people to think you’re cool because you have one, then it might be a good design. Not as a toaster for toasting, but as a toaster for being cool.

Sometimes, the beauty of a thing comes from its function, or its innovation, or its uniqueness, or its cultural baggage. Sometimes its usefulness comes from those things too.

Form vs. function is a false dichotomy. A hammer is nothing but form. It’s a stick with a hard thing on the end. But I’ve used some crummy hammers (and have bruised thumbnails to prove it). Anything that functions has form (even calculus). Anything that’s form for form’s sake is art. Not design.

This is how I have personally sorted out the world, so that when I use these words they have some kind of definite meaning. Nobody else is required to agree… but it works nicely for me, so I figure why not share? :-)