When most of us refer to the “developing world” we are talking about technological, economic, and political progress along a particular spectrum (e.g. towards an economic model based on continual growth) and, more to the point here, implicitly expressing a model of change that flows in only one direction. The model is that countries are now in a given state and they can progress to a more advanced state. We typically think of education in the same terms. Now this seems clearly problematic for a number of reasons. The one I’ve been thinking about is the directionality: who is developing towards what? I’m particularly excited about the ways in which knowledge - i.e. development - flows the other direction, from less to more industrialized places.

In particular, I have a theory that much of the accumulated knowledge and expertise in the global South will become increasingly relevant to the North as we stretch our planet’s carrying capacity in the years to come.

I first thought of this in context of tool innovation and technological regression. 
Manual sewing machines, bicycle-powered knife sharpeners (and other machines), the sorts of amazing resource-conserving repurposing wonderfully collected on Afrigadget. It will make more and more sense in the North, if electricity becomes more expensive and harder to come by, to use people-powered tools. It’s the other side of “energy independence,” where we find ways to get by with less rather than coming up with increasingly-fancy ways of providing the same amount we use now.

More recently, I’ve starting wondering in what ways behavior - basic coping skills - might develop “here” by learning from “there.” In India, for example, blackouts are relatively common and one can presume that people have developed ways of coping with them, of accepting them into the flow of day-to-day life. What are those mechanisms? If Oakland starts having regular blackouts, how might I learn what folks in other parts of the world know about what to do? Not just right now - light a candle, leave the fridge closed, etc - but how to plan, in an everyday manner, for the certainty that the power will go out. And I can think of other examples, such as changing our cultural relationship to garbage

I’m not saying we should be happy for regular blackouts and overcrowding - I have no desire to roll back many of the world’s technological and social advances -  just that if we are going to survive what may well be an extremely difficult future, we need to find knowledge wherever it resides.

I’ve been noticing how Apple’s Macbooks wear out in such a way that they feel old and broken, that they announce they are ready to be replaced rather than repaired (or simply enjoyed like an old hammer or a copper bartop that’s developed an inviting patina with use). 


Photos: flickr.com/gubatron (Macbook), flickr.com/erix (hammer)

At Apple, this quality extends to the visual design, which uncannily becomes dated the very instant the next version is unveiled. I don’t know how they manage to do this over and over again, to appear timeless and classic at one moment and laughably dated the next. Planned obsolescence seems to be part of the design strategy at Apple.

But I’m more interested in the physical component of this than the visual, the way the materials chosen or assembled ensure premature failure rather than longevity. And I can’t help wondering if it’s intentional, if someone has made a deliberate decision to use materials that will wear out rather than wearing in.

I’ve been trying to think of what to call this. It’s related to planned obsolescence, but that seems to refer more the capabilities of the thing or, as I’ve used it above, to its appearance, not to its integrity as a thing. No, this is at once more subtle a strategy and more stark. Something like designed failure.

Of course, like most tools of design, designed failure can be used for good as well as for bad. A simple, but clever, example, is the way a tiny slit in an otherwise all but unopenable package, when folded over becomes the start of a tear. I love designs like this where simple physics are used to such effect and few instructions are necessary because we are all vernacular physicists.


And I was just alerted to another example of designed failure by the twitterverse: the K1 Auto-disable syringe which, to prevent infections from shared syringes, can only be used once. According to the marketing copy: 

A small ring etched on the inside of the barrel allows the specially-adapted plunger to move in one direction and not the other. After one complete injection is given the plunger will automatically lock in place, and break if forced, rendering the syringe useless.

So, two questions to ponder: If you are making something that should last, are you designing for resilience and repair? And, if not, can you design failure that supports the needs of your users?

Muji Chronotebook is a new dayplanner that uses an analog “clock” metaphor, with each page arranged around a circular center. The left page is AM and the right page is PM.

So, my first reaction was really positive. We desperately need more design that grounds our daily experience in the physical, and this appears to be beautifully expressive of circadian rhythms and the subjective experience of time, but…

… is it really so natural? Looking at the layout, I feel pretty uncomfortable. Sure, our experience of a sequence of days is cyclical, but I think our experience of the flow of a single day is much more linear.

I also wonder about writing around a circle. Maybe this works better for character-based languages, but it seems awkward for, say, english.

(Please note that I haven’t actually used the thing. Maybe it’s awesome ;)

In Scottsdale / Phoenix this week. This area is 20% beautiful and 80% ugly. The beautiful parts (red rocks, cactii, big sky) are just lovely, but the ugly parts more than make up for it in the brutal inhumanity of their aggressive greed. Capitalist geography at its most misanthropic.

Anyhow, I was wandering around in a bit of the 20% (specifically, the Desert Botanical Garden) when two Japanese tourists approached me with the universal sign for “please take our picture” (i.e. holding a camera out and gesturing at the panorama behind them). I happily obliged and only realized after snapping the pic and wandering off that only one of them had posed. So, what I’m still wondering 12 hours later in my hotel room is: why didn’t she ask her friend to take her picture? Is her friend a pathologically bad photographer? Or is it somehow that having your picture taken (i.e. by someone not of your party) is more important than the photo itself? Anyone have an idea?

This list of atrributes shared by all known human cultures is fascinating (tickling, hair styles), though I find myself not quite believing all of them are truly universal (males dominate public/political realm). (via)

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a total mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Fcuknig amzanig huh? (via taylor)

Update: Here’s an explanation of how this works as well as a debunking of some of the inaccuracies:

I’ve written this page, to try to explain the science behind this meme. There are elements of truth in this, but also some things which scientists studying the psychology of language (psycholinguists) know to be incorrect. I’m going to break down the meme, one line at a time to illustrate these points, pointing out what I think is the relevant research on the role of letter order on reading.

I just had an interesting online experience. I wanted to sell my old digital camera. First I listed it on craigslist, which is essentially a glorified newspaper classified. Multiple people expressed interest and arranged to come see the camera but then never showed up, thereby wasting a fair amount of my time. Finally I listed it on ebay. The up-front effort of wading through the (none-too-spectacular) ebay interface was a bit onerous, but then a magical thing happened: someone won the auction (for more than I had expected) and the exchange went smoothly, camera sold.

What I find noteworthy here is that, while interaction designers often talk about software enabling human interaction, in this case, the main benefit was that the software reduced the amount of human-human interaction. In many cases, I’d rather deal with a machine than a person, no matter what Clifford Nass says.

Modafinil is a new drug that lets you stay awake for 40 hours with no impairment. And allegedly “The next generation… will be more effective. You’ll be able to stay awake for X amount of time and not add sleep debt.”

Computer Human Values is a nice rant about Cliff Nass’ research (amazing stuff which demonstrates that people interact with computers astonishingly similarly to how they interact with other people—like saying nicer things about an application if they are in the same room as the computer on which they saw the application!)

The Myth of “Seven, Plus or Minus 2” (via eleganthack)

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