I Mean Business: the e-cigarette store and how we sell technology

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E-cig store in Les Sables, France

On February 22, Rhizome held This is the ENDD, a one-day forum on the e-cigarette. A version of this article was given by the author as a PowerPoint lecture. Video of the talk can be seen here.

Last fall, I spent a month in Arles, a small town in southern France, which has a population of 50,000. This being France, a large number of the residents smoke, and the town has three cafés-tabacs, where you can buy cigarettes. It also sports two different e-cigarette stores, both on the same street, the main drag in the town. It's clear that the stores are not there to sell the cigarettes, but rather, to showcase them.

I presume both these stores will not exist in five years (that may be a generous estimate). Whether or not e-cigarettes replace real cigarettes, as many e-cig providers claim, the needs that the vape stores answer will change as our relationships with these objects shift. They are designed for a particular moment in the history of the e-cigarette, when it's still a little out of the ordinary, when we're still not totally sure what to do with it, how to normalize it, and whether or not it's actually here to stay. There is an immediacy, a consistency, to our associations with smoking and cigarettes (good and bad, the Humphrey Bogarts and the health threats); trading them in for an electronic object is a mental leap that's hard to ignore. These stores exist to help consumers make the leap.

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I'll Send an OS to the World: "Her" as Critical Design for the Electronic Embrace

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A few years ago, I interviewed for a position at a so-called "innovation consultancy." At the time, they were collaborating with a mobile phone operator to understand what was driving growth in the telecommunications business. The company had devised several ways to intuit the needs, reactions, and aspirations of their target shoppers. They employed a team of anthropologists. They built full-scale replicas in their rehabbed industrial office to conduct focus groups. They boasted fully equipped video production facilities. I was told that narrative filmmaking was an excellent way to speculate about consumer desires.

As I watched Her, Spike Jonze's latest feature, I kept thinking of my visit to that agency. Set in a Los Angeles of the "slight future," primarily composed of present day Shanghai, the film follows ghostwriter Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) and the brilliant women in his life, including the artificially intelligent entity Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). K.K. Barrett's production design conjures both the commercial language of Apple's lifestyle marketing and the familiar Kodachrome-like warmth of yesteryear. 

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Welcome to My Chronic Internet Freak-Out Syndrome

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Left: AOL, about the time the internet and I first met. (Remember that sonorous modem music? The sound of the future!) Right: AOL now (yes, it's still there). With lotsa "headline news" on household health hazards, amazing pet stories, and shocking-yet-true dramatic personal episodes of total nobodies.

 

I.

I should probably start with a brief, unflattering jaunt down memory lane—unflattering mostly to my old college buddy, the internet. See, I came of age as a graphic designer in the early 2000s, when the internet was a vastly different place—virtually (heh, virtually) unrecognizable. I'd only ever had an AOL email account. I'd never sent a text. MySpace hadn't even dethroned Friendster yet as king of social media (a term no one had ever heard), Facebook was still just a glint in young Zuck's eye, Twitter was a looong way off, and a camera phone was the must-have device du jour (bonus points if yours didn't have a little antenna you pulled out to get reception).

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The Ephemerality of IRL: An Interview with Rob Walker

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Shawn Wolfe, Vending Machineries, 2001

"Tell me about yourself, and you might mention where you're from, the music you prefer, perhaps a favorite writer or filmmaker or artist, possibly even the sports teams you root for. But I doubt you'll mention brands or products. That would seem shallow, right? There's just something illegitimate about openly admitting that brands and products can function as cultural material, relevant to identity and expression. It's as if we would prefer this weren't true..." — Rob Walker, Exhibition Essay, As Real As It Gets, 2012.

Journalist and author Rob Walker has a long history of projects that look at the intersection of designed objects and consumer behavior. Formerly of the Times Magazine "Consumed" column and currently found at Design Observer, Walker coined the term "murketing" in his 2008 book, Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are, to describe the blurred strategy between marketing and entertainment used to sell products without the associations of an overt branding campaign. Walker's current project swings to the other side of the spectrum, examining brands so compelling they don't need physical manifestations: he has curated "As Real As It Gets" at New York's Apexart about imaginary brands and fictional products.  I talked to Walker over email about some of the questions the exhibition raises about our complicated relationship with things.

The show, in many ways, seems like a continuation or synthesis of your own speculative design projects with your different tumbleblogs. The majority of your own practice exists exclusively in the virtual sphere, for example your recent Significant Objects project with Joshua Glenn, where thrift store detritus was listed on eBay along with fictive narratives of their history in order to demonstrate the subjectivity of value (and ...

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John Underkoffler at Eyeo, On the Verge

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Two videos for the day: John Underkoffler (Oblong Industries) is the UI designer best known for creating interfaces for Minority Report and Iron Man. His presentation at Eyeo this year was among the most talked about. Also, recently the Verge visited their studio in Los Angeles.

Eyeo2012 - John Underkoffler from Eyeo Festival on Vimeo.

John Underkoffler : Animating Spirit. "A way to change everything is to build a completely new HMI. The new HMI will be exhilarating, beautiful, and capable, a complement and compliment to people. Just as surely as we do it will occupy real-world space, because that’s where the action is and because it will need to pay special heed to hands and what they’re up to. It will be characterized, like living things, by dynamism, by motion elegant and allusive and comic. It will make the pixels it inhabits — projected and barnacled, singular and teeming, sessile and itinerant — it will make these brazenly heterogeneous pixels interoperable: at once incidental and indispensable. This new HMI will embody a conviction that design, that fundamental human activity, is its as well. And it will infect everything built atop it with the same sentiment. The resulting world might well be one we like. So let’s see."

On The Verge, Episode 011 - John Underkoffler

Ross Miller took a trip to Oblong industries to check out their work in multi-screen hand gesture computers à la Minority Report. Then John Underkoffler — Oblong co-founder and chief scientist, as well as the science adviser for Minority Report and Iron Man — talks in-studio with Josh. Fascination, awe, even an ounce of fear — you won't believe Josh's range of emotion.

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Inside the Prosthetic Imaginary: An Interview with Sara Hendren

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Gloves for Two, Sandie Yi Crip Couture (2001)

 

Sara Hendren is an artist, researcher, and writer who explores how design and art practices can inform techno-scientific research and knowledge-building. She is the writer-editor of Abler, an online ‘think space’ where art and design are linked together with high and low-tech prosthetics, both practical and speculative, to explore questions about ability, disability, the normalized and medicalized body, and more. Abler juxtaposes posts featuring assistive technologies normally relegated to the field of rehabilitative medicine with questions concerning smart cities, cyborg transhumanism, and the future of democratic communities.

I Skyped with Sara about the politics of abled and disabled bodies, the artist as amateur, and our hopes for a cyborgian future.


 

Ana Avarez: You’ve written that Abler is one big umbrella project for your work. Can you talk about the ideas driving the site?

Sara Hendren: Abler brings together four streams of interest: First, an interest in the innovations of the high-tech prosthetic fields. Second, I’m interested in tracking the tradition of artists who have been working on prosthetics very broadly defined—a more metaphorical notion of the “prosthetic” as an extended tool that becomes a proxy, or a substitute for experience. For artists, the prosthetic becomes very subtle and associative, pointing to tools for needs we don’t even know we have. Third, I’m looking at ideas about the cyborg and the future of bodies: how we negotiate our dance with machine parts of all kinds, and whether the enhancement and augmentation they promise is tempered enough by good critical conversations. And then fourthly, I’m pointing to what are commonly called “assistive technologies”—the very medicalized devices that lots of people use but that don’t get much analysis as design or culture. Everything from crutches, to wheelchairs, walkers, ankle braces.

Those four fields tend to exist in more or less separate worlds. But all these things have much to say to one another. Abler puts them in adjacency online, along with critical writing, in a form that juxtaposes these ideas against one another and creates cross commentary to try to mix those categories. And ultimately to ask: Who is being assisted by what kinds of technologies? And what kinds of assistance do we want in the future?

The whole project has been to create a blog that’s not just a story-chaser, a popularizer of technology; neither did I want it to become an academic exercise, denouncing the politics of technology development as inherently oppressive. I wanted to take some of the really interesting questions about normalcy and abnormalcy, dependence and independence and look at artworks, design, and engineering work that all address these issues. I wanted all those conversations to exist in one place, to be rich and generative and ultimately really exciting because of what they provoke in the imagination and also the critical conversations they spark about abled and disabled bodies.

It seems like we are going to be using the words “disabled” and “abled-bodied” quite a bit. I want to first ask you, not necessarily for a definition but more of a complication of these terms: what does it mean to be able or disabled and how is that tension addressed in your work?

People who work in disability try to keep raising the idea that being “disabled” is not a fixed and assigned identity. It is not about a body status or a capacity level, but much more about this very complex, changing, evolving, and perhaps temporary, perhaps longer term, political state—in some ways, similar to how we’ve come to understand the slippery designations of race and gender. The built environment and socio-political institutions all make allowances and disallowances for certain kinds of bodies and capacities, and those affordances have ripple effects in cultures, creating abled-ness and disabled-ness. And disability is a status that is always in flux: you enter into different seasons in your life where you are more or less bodily and cognitively able to access those institutions, avenues of social mobility, and so on...

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New Design and Features for the ArtBase

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Rhizome is happy to announce that we have launched a new design and a big new feature for The ArtBase. In case you are not familliar with the ArtBase, it is Rhizome's archive of internet art and new media, contains over 2,000 works of art, and spans nearly two decades of history. Facing such vast size and complexity, and seeing a lack of major archives of internet art and new media that are accessible to a general audience, a major goal of ours was to afford greater to the history and context of these works, as well as improved searchability and browseability. To address the issue of education, accessability, and context we have accessibility launched a new feature: collections.

Just as a museum may provide access to their catalog through historic or thematic groupings, the ArtBase collections seek to surface trends, themes, and creative modes inherent in our collection. We are launching this feature with six initial collections: Formalism & Glitch, Code, Net.art & Hypertext, Tactical Media, Rendered Reality, and Digital Archivalism. Each collection leads off with a curatorial statement, aiming to provide context for the viewer who may not be familiar with the history of these creative practices. The content of the collections is not static, and will grow and change with the evolution of the ArtBase. As well, while these initial six collections were curated by Rhizome, subsequent collections will be curated and driven by indipendent curators and scholars.

Moving forward, we have two big projects on our to-do list for the summer. First, we are in the initial stages of migrating the back-end of the ArtBase to a new collections management platform, which will allow us to catalog works with better metadata standards, and correlate works, artists, collectives, exhibitions in ways that we currently can not ...

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An Interview with Edward Boatman, Co-Founder of The Noun Project

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The Noun Project is a seemingly infinite collection of black-and-white symbols put into the public domain. As the founders put it, it is an attempt to organize the world’s visual language into one online database. Edward Boatman, one of the project’s founders, is also its sole gatekeeper. Each symbol on the database was either collected off the Internet or created by designers around the world. Boatman approves every submission to the project and assigns each icon a word — a noun, of course, either an object or a concept. The images are often surprisingly evocative, despite their simplicity, and unlock a potential for wordless communication for anyone with an Internet connection. 

Boatman was working in architecture design when he noticed it was surprisingly difficult to find basic, high-quality symbols on the web, even for common transportation symbols used by the government. The Noun Project was launched shortly thereafter in December 2010. Now the scope of the Noun Project is limitless. As Boatman told me, the project could create a symbol for, potentially, every noun in the world. Boatman (and co-founders Sofya Polyakov and Scott Thomas) are looking ahead to making the project a sustainable business. 

I talked to Boatman about the purpose behind the project, design for social good, and some of the challenges in creating a visual database that’s always growing.

 


SS: The Noun Project has thousands of icons. What are you looking for in a good image?

EB: Simplicity is key. One thing I always try to articulate for best design practices in a symbol is this idea of only analyzing the essential facts of the object or idea. It’s really fun. First you have to analyze it, and then once you analyze it, you have to identify the attributes or the elements of that object that you want to represent. Then you execute that into a design that’s elegant and has great proportions. One of the more important things in the design is that it can scale up or scale down and still read well. You don’t want to put too much detail in there, because a lot of these symbols are seen at pretty small scales...

 

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RECOMMENDED READING: An Essay on the New Aesthetic

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Maps TD via The New Aesthetic

The "New Asthetic" is a term coined by James Bridle, and collected on Tumblr, further shaped by Matt Jones' comments on "sensor-vernacular" and the "robot-readable world." It is an investigation in the ways that imagry for and from machines has become a popular visual culture of its own, even shaping behaviors (as Tom Armitage asks, "How long before, rather than waving, or shaking hands, we greet each other with a calibration pose"?) If that is still confusing, perhaps Bruce Sterling might better explain the "New Aesthetic."

In "An Essay on the New Aesthetic," Sterling begins discussing the SXSW panel on the New Aesthetic, which included Bridle and Rhizome editor Joanne McNeil, in addition to Ben Terrett, Aaron Straup Cope, and Russell Davies. From there he explains, in almost a manifesto of sorts, just where these influences came from and where it is going:

Look at those images objectively. Scarcely one of the real things in there would have made any sense to anyone in 1982, or even in 1992. People of those times would not have known what they were seeing with those New Aesthetic images. It’s the news, and it’s the truth.

Next, the New Aesthetic is culturally agnostic. Most anybody with a net connection ought to be able to see the New Aesthetic transpiring in real time. It is British in origin (more specifically, it’s part and parcel of a region of London seething with creative atelier “tech houses”). However, it exists wherever there is satellite surveillance, locative mapping, smartphone photos, wifi coverage and Photoshop.

The New Aesthetic is comprehensible. It’s easier to perceive than, for instance, the “surrealism” of a fur-covered teacup. Your Mom could get it. It’s funny. It’s pop. It’s transgressive and ...

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My Broken iPhone

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Doug Aitken (Victoria Miro) at Art Basel Miami (via)

The day I moved to Brooklyn was the day my iPhone screen first shattered. I struggled to get my keys out of my purse while a group of students were waiting at the door for a friend to buzz them in. Unlocking the door in a confused jetlagged state, I held it open for each of them while juggling several bags with the other hand. After the last student entered the building, I stopped the door with my foot while attempting to redistribute the weight of my belongings. My iPhone slid out of my back pocket and on to the concrete. 

The resulting spiderweb of a crack had no impact on the iPhone's haptic sensitivity. It looked ruined but worked just as well. Eventually, I got used to reading without much eye strain. There were even some benefits. Everyone knew which phone was mine at dinner parties with iPhones strewn on various counters and end tables. I never worried about dropping it again as the screen wasn’t going to get any worse. And I didn’t worry much about it getting stolen, either.

My broken iPhone also resulted in random conversations with strangers. In queues for restaurant bathrooms, on public transportation and park benches, I was asked again and again what happened, and why didn’t I just take care of it? ...

 

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