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June 30, 2003

Coincidences (maybe).

Just when William Gibson decided to pay homage to George Orwell on his 100th birthday, The Economist published an article "The sentient office is coming", with illustrations that could be easily used for a cover of 1984.
Almost at the same time the MIT's Technology Review talks about sensors and the networks that will collectively give them sentient-like qualities (most links via Smart Mobs).
Finally an article on the New York Times, "Is Google God?" (requires registration), not only resonates with all of the above, but also echoes previous thoughts from yours truly:

"Within the next few years you will be able to be both mobile and totally connected, thanks to the pending explosion of Wi-Fi.
Says Alan Cohen, a V.P. of Airespace, a new Wi-Fi provider: If I can operate Google, I can find anything.
And with wireless, it means I will be able to find anything, anywhere, anytime. Which is why I say that Google, combined with Wi-Fi, is a little bit like God.
God is wireless, God is everywhere and God sees and knows everything. Throughout history, people connected to God without wires.
Now, for many questions in the world, you ask Google, and increasingly, you can do it without wires, too.

Perfect findability in an always-on, wirelessly-networked world.
Sounds a lot like Connectedland if you ask me, with its many potential dark sides.
Incidentally Wi-Fi will be just one of the many ways that will keep us tethered to The Network all the time, but you knew that already, right?

One personal side thought: sensor networks and constant seamless access to data sources Google a God will not make.
That will be how you will feel.
Harnessing the power of ad-hoc knowledge people will be performing feats now usually associated with magicians.
Getting used to that kind of feeling will be intoxicating, not to mention the most powerful driver of Interaction Anxiety.

One final Bill Joy-anesque comment, evoked by The NY Times over-dramatic article title.
"Answer", an old science fiction story by Fredrick Brown, told of a future in which scientists created the most powerful computer ever.
The first question they asked: "Does God exist?".
The answer: "It does now".

Posted by fabio sergio | 4:10 PM | permalink


June 27, 2003

Welcome to Sterlingville.

A few years ago, in the opening plenary of CHI 99, Bruce Sterling verbally sketched snapshots of tomorrowland.
A place where each object would have beeped its own presence.
A place where, Sterling half-jokingly mused, we would have owned very little, relying on the ability to track our possessions wherever they might have been left, lost or lent.
A place where we would have called our car keys and they'd have answered back.
It had to happen sooner or later, it's happening now.

RFID tags are increasingly attached to every object, from clothing to musical instruments, while GPS-enhanced alarm systems and Bluetooth tags promise to prevent wheeled possessions and toddlers from straying too far from loving eyes.

What remains to be seen in many of these cases is how privacy will be preserved, if it will at all.
In other words, when you'll call your scissors, will everyone else hear the answer?
Or will your things talk behind your back altogether? And with whom?
Just like Benetton has recently learned, an increasingly vigilant part of the (buying) public might simply not be ready to accept certain propositions.

As with many of these simmering trends, ready to reach the tipping point, I remain enthusiastically skeptical.

Posted by fabio sergio | 11:30 AM | permalink


June 26, 2003

Geo-located Friendsters.

SwissCom has a teen-targeted mobile service called FriendZone, which is basically a mobile version of Friendster with location-based enhancements and IM-like, emotional presence features to boost.
"I am unhappy right now, and I am here. Wanna chat?"

Similar services have long been the rage in Japan, especially when it comes to location-based dating services.
While they have quickly become popular among teens they've also showed their less innocent, darker side in as similarly short a time.

It feels like ages have gone by since I stared at the greenish glow of a Nokia 7110, awed by Razorfish Sweden's Mobile Buddies project.

Posted by fabio sergio | 3:48 PM | permalink


June 24, 2003

Miscellaneous (mobile) links.

Nokia's president, Pekka Ala-Pietila, said that the Finnish company be expanding its vision from "connecting people", the concept at the heart of Nokia's rise to fame, to the broader notion of "your life goes mobile".
Not necessarily a surprise in our moblogging-happy present and life-streaming upcoming future (via Smart Mobs).

Along the same lines read "Mobilisation" (via Dan Hill), an interesting report from Demos on mobile usage and its impacts in the UK (download PDF here, 321 Kb):

"This report ... confirms that mobile users are far ahead of political institutions in the creative embrace of mobile telephony.
But in an age of unprecedented atomization, mobile use remains largely restricted within personal networks of friends, colleagues and family.
If mobiles are important to the modern sense of self, it is because they function as comfort objects, antidotes to the hostile terrain of wider society.

Elsewhere the SUI meets the GUI, announcing novel and not-so-novel interaction design opportunities/problems.
Take a look at Sony's concepts for flexible devices and at MyOrigo's upcoming phone, which sports a User Interface that will adapt to the way the device is being held and moved in space.

To the puzzled Interaction Designer's aid here come Peter Wright's Interaction Design Course, (hours of downloading pleasure) and Boxes and Arrows' new article, "Solving Mobile Challenges with Psychology-driven IA".

See, don't fret, answers are out there.
Waiting for the right questions to be asked.

Posted by fabio sergio | 5:18 PM | permalink


June 18, 2003

Mapping Memory.

Jonathan Jaynes had referred to First Monday's essay "Creating the digital future", to support his interesting views on Digital Collective Memories.
As you might know I share many of his concerns.
What will we do with all the billion bits we increasingly collect about ourselves?
How will we tell the chaff from the grain ten years from now?

His words resonated with some I had written to Carsten Schwesig to reply to his comments to one of my previous entries.
Thought it fitting (with Carsten's consent) to re-publish them here, with a few edits.

Usefulness is not the only way to measure the value of a tool.
My "concern" has to do with the "emotional quality" of the recording, and with what kind of mindsets and values will be driven by the ever-increasing use of digital tools.
I guess the point I want to make is that the more we look at our life as something we need to "document" and "store", the more our experience will be filtered by the same instruments we'll use to record it.
Sometimes, I argue, is not what you see, hear, taste and smell that matters, but precisely what you don't.
Many times I consciously decide to leave my camera at home because otherwise I end up looking at reality with a "photographer's" eyes, searching for great shots, with life framed between 4 straight lines.

When it comes to digital media there's also the aging issue: it is only the container that ages, not the content.
With analog supports the container and the content are inseparable, and the aging of one reflects on the other, which is precisely why any map from one of the past centuries will always be so much more engaging that any digital mapping service.
Handling a physical map actually diminishes the quality of the information it holds, but it enhances its emotional value.
A digital map will look the same in a thousand years and provide a lifetime of functional benefits, but it won't bear any stain.
And, you see, that stain that now makes it impossible to read the names of a couple of streets in the heart of Rome comes from that time when you laid it flat on a table in a cafe and a girl saw you looking around and asked if you needed help and as she pointed at a street on the map her hand tipped your coffee cup over and as she tried to say how sorry she was you both smiled and she sat down and you spent the rest of the day together and still now years after that moment you both hold that stained map as one of the most valued objects in your house and one of your kids will surely want it when they'll finally inherit the things you have slowly gathered around you each one with its history and meaning.
That very stain. If you get your nose close to it you might even still smell the coffee, evocation playing strange games with your senses.
Hard to do with a map downloaded onto your PDA.

The same can be said about Commodore 64 video games, which may look and feel prehistoric, but could run, for all purposes, exactly the same as when you first laid eyes on them.
Caught in a state of ever-present which has nothing to share with the aging decay of anything remotely human.
Unsurprisingly there's a lively market for the hardware we used to run these bits upon, and I am quite sure that if you actually still had the physical container they shipped in (packaging, plastic cartridge and all) you'd find collectors who'd be interested to give you money for those aging atoms.
Now try to just sell them the bits.
And all of the above is not a fault of digital artifacts, it is just their nature.
Bits are meant to flow (and the internet is a tool arguably invented to shuffle bit as fast as possible from point A to B), while atoms have this strange habit of falling victim to gravity and time.
Just like us, really.

Technology has its benefits, and for all purposes I openly embrace the changes it daily brings.
What I don't like doing though is adopting it blindly, trusting that it will keep providing answers to questions it has helped raise.
I try not to think in terms of "how can we design a better interface", but in terms of "why do we need an interface in the first place".
In other words I am much more interested in searching for ways in which we can use technology to quench our thirsty souls.

Posted by fabio sergio | 11:23 AM | permalink


June 17, 2003

Conference envy.

Just like Jonathan I've been long roaming the desert of the conferenceless, living off locusts and honey.
This leaves me to envy the usual suspects who get to attend and often talk as well.

The latest example has to be Aula's "MOM 03: Exposure", which was recently held in Helsinki and will eventually lead to the publication of a book.
Not that it really matters but the site of the conference itself is as beautiful as they come.

Posted by fabio sergio | 11:41 AM | permalink


Precious words of wisdom from yours truly.

Tomorrow I'll know more about the future.

Posted by fabio sergio | 10:58 AM | permalink


June 16, 2003


Many interesting articles over at Cheskin (thanks Nathan).
"Ethnofuturism", or why Ethnographers need Futurists and vice versa, and how it all links to chaos theory and fractals.
"Designing for Aliens", or why empathy is so important when creating for others (as also recently noticed by Mr.Merholz)

More over at Future Concept Lab's MindStyle Magazine, "styles of thought for the new millennium", a bit outdated here and there, but still stimulating.
"Net and Nomadism", "Magnetic and Magmatic", "Square and Share".

Finally for those of you who (like me) have been long frustrated with the lack of inter-communication between the Interactive and Product design communities here's a welcome conversation between Jesse James Garrett and Jim Leftwich.
Need more of them.

Posted by fabio sergio | 4:54 PM | permalink


June 13, 2003

Originals. Copies.

I must admit being a compulsive book buyer, something that works wonders on my bank account given the average price of design/architecture books these days.
Last Saturday I found myself paying for The Art of Looking Sideways.

It's a stunningly beautiful, inspiring book, just like most anything else published by Pahidon.
What got me thinking though was the relationship between the (large amount of) text that fills the book's pages and the way it has been graphically arranged.
Hardly a word in the coffee-table-sized tome has been written by the author; its 1064-pages are entirely filled with creatively arranged quotes and excerpts.
The result is a book that's original in the way it is assembled, not necessarily in its textual content.
A discourse created through a choreography of carefully chosen citations, that stimulates the reader's optical nerves with a seemingly endless sequence of graphical feats.
Suddenly the word simulacrum, as "a copy with no original referent", came to mind.
Unsurprisingly memories of The Matrix movies were not far behind.
In one of my moments of useless enlightenment I realized that the Art of Looking Sideways and The Matrix movies share a very similar structure.
Not the movies' plot, mind you, the movies themselves.

As you might know I've been fascinated with the way these films are overloaded (bad pun intended) with citations, ranging from comic books to theology and philosophy.
A maze of subtle and not-so-subtle hints that enables patient decoders to trace stimuli and references.
Neo stepping out of a phone booth and taking off his glasses before taking off altogether (at the end of the first movie) is an overt reference to Superman's famous transformation antics, but it is also hints at Neo's new super-human powers. It implicitly leverages our collective pop-cultural references to tell a new story.
The citation is in other terms descriptive, it can be read at face value if you know how to look for it, but it is also layered with new values inherent to the context in which it is inserted.
What distinguishes this kind of operation from other art forms is that in this case everything seems to be deliberate, planned, almost as if the movie had a Myst-like quality, stimulating viewers to trace carefully dropped breadcrumbs to unravel a mystery.
A path that leads wayfarers to explore the Wachowsky brothers' own cultural obsessions, a "Being the Wachowsky Brothers" of sorts.

The circle closes.
The Art of Looking Sideways can be decoded in light of its own title, an implicit lesson about how innovation (and inspiration) can be found in novel arrangements of existing and apparently obvious constructs.
Nothing is created, nothing is destroyed, everything is transformed.
Similarly the Matrix tells a story in which what the characters experience is not always what they really experience, but it is also a movie that hints that what we see is not what we really see.
The book and the movie(s) are thus pure signs.
Simulacra of our times.

Posted by fabio sergio | 12:24 PM | permalink


June 12, 2003

Google-enhanced Monkey.

English is not my mother tongue, a fact that usually makes the writing process quite lengthy.
In addition to try and paste together my (useless) half-formed thoughts I am left with the merry task of triple-checking that what I scribble is not completely unintelligible in English.
Being the anal type I happen to be, this usually means re-reading my entries a thousand times, and making sure that the spelling makes at least Word's checker happy.
Unfortunately that is not enough when your limited vocabulary has you using terms like interesting and fascinating every other line.
I've thus become a frequent user of tools like Merriam Webster's thesaurus, in a desperate attempt to enrich my choice of words.

Lately though I have come to rely on what else other than Google to do all of the things above (and more) at once.
I use it to check entire phrases, or bits and pieces, or just single words.
It comes handy to see if a term exists at all, if it can be used in a certain way, or in what context and manner an idiomatic expression is normally applied.
GoogleGrammar 101.

Remember the proverbial monkeys with a typewriter?
You are reading the words of a Google-enhanced version.

Posted by fabio sergio | 3:00 PM | permalink


House Music.

Valeria and I live in a small village close to Varese, about an hour north of Milano.
Our flat is on the first floor of an old house, overlooking a courtyard from the top of a flight of uneven stone steps.
This summer the town government has decided to entertain citizens with a few concerts, and our courtyard has been picked to host them.
Last Sunday we were treated to the gentle notes of a classical ensemble, which performed music ranging from Vivaldi's seasons to Astor Piazzolla's tangos.
A warm summer night. Good music.
We lit a few candles.

Posted by fabio sergio | 2:38 PM | permalink


June 06, 2003

The myth of the paperless paper.

Kirk Kirksey's "The Future of Personal Computing" points at the whys and hows paper might be the reference form factor for computers in the future (via Smart Mobs).
He basically suggests our cultural heritage will ultimately drive data crunchers to mimic the substance that has been bearing our knowledge in the past 6000 years or so.
The article makes for a thought-provoking read, especially with its references to the "Aesthetics of Technology" and the "User Illusion".
I was left with a strange aftertaste of Mc Luhan's most famous mantra, mixed with User Experience memes.

The article also resonated with another one recently pointed to me by the ever insightful Mr. Jones: Malcom Gladwell's "The Social Life of Paper".
Gladwell uses office practices and air traffic control procedures to exemplify the reasons why paper is still much more effective than digital tools in quite a few ways.
Among other benefits paper lets us rely on visual and proprioceptive stimuli to decode implicit information not contained on its surface.
In other words a pile of paper on your desk might be more valuable as a reminder, than for the text and graphs found on the stacked sheets.
Gladwell's considerations around flight strips also reminded me strongly of the whole concept of periphery in "The Age of Calm Technology".

Companies like E-Ink and IBM have been long looking for high-tech alternatives to paper, but almost purely from an output point of view.
So far efforts have also mainly focused on the e-book approach, basically using one screen/surface to replace all sheets of paper.
Having an endlessly reusable etch-a-sketch pad does induce into temptation, but Gladwell's article seems to hint that if e-paper wants a future it might have to clone its parent's low cost, large quantity availability and piling capabilities.

Who knows, maybe in a UbiComp scenario even the humble paper sheet might over time gain enough intelligence to stand on its own (sorry, couldn't resist).
As Arthur C. Clarke said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.".
What if we found ourselves relating to paper that way, one day?

Posted by fabio sergio | 6:08 PM | permalink


Taking the blue out of bluetooth.

Just when I had digested Fossil's "Dick Tracy" wristphone, here comes the Wireless Tooth, another science fiction-inspired product from the future of the 50's.
Can you imagine? "Just a moment honey, I am flossing my phone".
Maxwell Smart's ShoePhone can't be too far behind.

I have been long convinced that our mobile connected tools are bound to simply disappear into objects we have been carrying around for a long time now, like pendants, watches and wallets, but this is another thing altogether.
Intimate technology?
Cyborgs will be salivating.

Posted by fabio sergio | 12:42 PM | permalink


The sad tale of the asynchronous blog.

As you might know I keep my RSS feed updated by hand, which is, to be honest, a real pain.
More than being a pain it's becoming a hindrance.
I often decide not to publish a quick thought or a few links just because I don't have the time and/or will to update the feed and FTP it where it resides.
Which brings me to an easy decision.
As long as the site is kept in its current LO-FI state I'll be updating freegorifero's RSS feed only when I'll feel an entry is particularly valuable.
For the chatter you'll have to come here and check, the old-fashioned way, every now and then.
Call it technology/laziness-induced RSS self-censorship.

Posted by fabio sergio | 10:51 AM | permalink


June 05, 2003

Catching up, sort of.

Monday was a bank holiday in Italy, which turned the past week-end into a pleasant short vacation.
Valeria and I had a great time.
We did nothing, except waking up when our bodies felt like it, ditto for eating and all other daily activities.
On Saturday night we took a taxi boat with a group of friends to the Isola dei Pescatori on the Lago Maggiore, and enjoyed good food, wine and company.
Reading and napping uncontrollably rounded out the perfect package.
Otium at its best.

The long week-end also brought with it a much-awaited date.
Valeria and I will get married on October 2nd, later on this year.
It is not set in stone yet, but official enough to make us both feel we can start to let the news seep through.
I am a happy, lucky, very lucky, happy man.
Cheers to Adam who just took the plunge and is now back in transmission mode, his unmistakable style and all.
Un abbraccio a te e a Nurri amico mio.

Tuesday I had a great time teaching the ABC of User Experience Design to a varied crowd, in the most hot'n humid room I've had the luck to spend the entire day in lately.
I value passing knowledge onto others above all other things, it is such a gift to communicate enthusiasm about topics you are passionate about.
Then again my sweating classroom may have thought otherwise.

While I was busy having fun, other friends were enjoying good company and enlightened conversations.
Anne and Molly were in Chicago, speaking at the Digital Genres conference.
Both of their papers are well worth reading (what's new from two of the brightest people I know?) and deal with equally stimulating topics.
Anne talked about "The Augmented City" (download presentation here, 830 Kb Power Point), while Molly advocated for a return to "Imaginary Architects" (download paper here, 65 Kb PDF).
I've been thinking about utopia, space and architecture quite a bit lately, so the usual "wish I could have been there" feeling was even more exacerbated this time.

After reading Molly's hectic now-you-see-me-now-you-don't schedule I became so envious that the upcoming week comes as a nice variation to my to-Milano-and-back commuting routine.
Valeria is off to Agadir, on holiday, and I'll be in Stockholm for three days, unfortunately missing Nathan, who's there this week but will be flying to Italy/Ivrea on Sunday night.
On the plus side I'll be finally having dinner again with Nome and meeting the Ocean Observations kids on Monday night, which will be great.
It's really been a while.

Finally next week Jeff Veen and Janice Fraser will be in Milano, holding the first European Adaptive Path Workshop.
Stefania Marcoli and Massimo Budicin, two friends/colleagues, will be attending, and I am really excited for them, it'll be a blast.
I also hope that since Mike will be in Italy those days, and Molly will be back by then, there'll be a chance for dinner and chatting...with enough brainpower around the table to knock seismometers off-scale.
I'll be the one with the empty stare, smiling, pretending to understand.

Posted by fabio sergio | 5:21 PM | permalink


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