Les Enfants Terribles

Posted in art, technology by johnsnavely on May 30, 2011

A few weeks ago, K and I had dinner with a new couple we hadn’t met before. At one point during the dinner, as I was explaining what I do– that I work at Microsoft to paint a vision of the future of technology. I was asked bluntly if my work was out of step with the world and what the world needed was less technology instead or (gasp) no technology at all.

This has happened before. I’ve spoken a few times at K’s undergraduate philosophy classes and there’s been a reaction each time. “Why can’t we just go into the woods and turn it off?” “There’s too much technology– I wish we could go back in time.” This angst is coming from an age group which, if the numbers are to be believed, is using technology more often than any other. (They’re probably also an age group which is ‘angsty’ more often than any other too, but that’s a new post.)

In fact, these days not a month goes by when I meet someone, explain to them what I do, and have them frown unpleasantly as I said I was a Scientologist, rather than a futurist.

People who say technology should go away because there are some bad experiences out there sound a lot like Hitchens or Dawkins on religion. Religion did something bad, so religion should just go away. Even to an atheist like me this sounds more ridiculous than provocative.

So what do to with this hypocrisy? (And yes, there’s quite a bit about our experiences with technology and information which could be improved. That’s a problem too.) Are these feelings, as a coworker would suggest, the normal, inevitable Luddite backlash you have in any culture at any time in history? (“There’s too much iron, stone tools are more handcrafted.”)

There’s a lot to unpack in the backlash. And I’ll probably need to write more.

But there’s something rumbling around in my brain after a few conversations with August and Edith… we all agreed that we hated the word “content consumption” and I’m trying to figure out why.

via DIS Mag

I found myself thinking of these videos. The idea that given the choice, we prefer to identify with children more than adults. There’s a stunted maturity which, when contrasted with adult concerns (the sexuality in Hafaas videos, for example) is either provocative or wrong…. it’s hard to tell which.

In the back of my mind, I think of technology as aspiring to identify us as children, providing the “simple” interface into the world. In reality, people’s lives are complex– filled with “adult” situations and desires. Relationships between coworkers family and friends may leave one feeling more like the parent than the child. Serving and served. Interactive versus interpassive.

via DannSpann

The concentration of technology on childhood represents a focus on it’s role in our private lives, not in our ability to construct public lives. Sherry Turkle’s call to “put technology in its place” is a little misguided. She suggests that technology works well in our private lives (when I’m alone) but hinders interpersonal relationships. But instead of shrinking from this challenge, technology could be used as a tool to augment social interactions.

As much as I’d like technology for adults, an audience which I think is a bit underserved. I can see that we might build software worlds where you alternatively take turns being the caregiver and the care-receiver. Production and consumption could be given equal weight and each a turn.


Posted in architecture, art, culture by johnsnavely on January 10, 2011

A friend of mine asked me to come and guest lecture at a class he’s teaching at UW. It’s a graduate seminar in design– a theory course. There’s a fairly dense reading list already in the syllabus for each week, but for my guest lecture/discussion, I get to choose the readings.

There is a little irony in this task, since I’m pretty skeptical of theory and criticisms role in the design process. I often think of theory and criticism, especially as it is presented in the pedagogy, as working against the creation of good designers, as it diverts attention from the art making things to the art of talking about them.

As the syllabus has a decidedly modernist bent to it, I’ve decided to inject some pomo into the precedings. Here’s my draft list of readings (and a few comments):

Fredric Jameson
“Postmodernism, or The Logic of Late Capitalism”, New Left Review I/146, July-August 1984

Jameson is the bomb. He pretty much identifies most of the major problem areas within post modernism’s uneasy co-dependence on (Late Capitalist) culture. I’ve chosen the article instead of his book, because the article is a much easier read, the philosophical thought is much less dense, but the banter and critique situate his writing better historically.

Jameson comes down pretty hard on pomo stuff– his description of pastiche being the zenith of the attitude. Jameson is the foundation of the lecture; the rest of the articles are a slush of ideas that put his writing into tighter focus.

Yves Behar
Review of TechnoCraft Exhibition at Yerba Beuna Center for the Arts

They haven’t finished the catalog for this show, so we’ll have to read a review of it first. I’m not Behar’s biggest fan, but this show was quite good and very well curated. It presented a nice summary of a certain set of design trends that have taken root as a response to the same cultural forces of capitalism with which Jameson wrestles. (There’s also an uncomfortable naivete to the show and its design principles that is difficult to stomach.)

Andy Warhol
Final Interview

Jameson holds Warhol up to the fire a bit and it’s only fair to let Warhol defend himself. Warhol’s last living interview does so, in Warhol’s traditional laconic style. The artist’s remarks on The Last Supper and the price of Jasper John’s paintings are to be noted.

Ryan Trecartin
Shades of Notware
Ryan’s Web 1.0

While not entirely criticism, Trecartin’s work hints at much different processes and mental states for designers and artists to inhabit, with new tools and new ways of thinking. Web 1.0’s behind the scenes unveils what a designer’s thought process could look like, if they were as amazing as Mr. Trecartin. The idea that what Jameson calls design/art making might have little in common with the practice we give that name should be in question.

Keehnan Konyha, 2TheWalls
In Praise of Expedit
Dark-est Nostalgia
Lady Fag
Vader Barton
Michael Graves

Keehnan Konyha is an architectural and cultural critic who focuses mainly on interior design. Posts on his blog, 2TheWalls, consist of tightly curated mashups of text and image. Most entries tend to show their postmodern roots and yet, there are often carefully injected contemporary moments that bring the result outside of mere historicism and into current discourse. 2TheWalls might be what Jameson’s work might have looked like if he had been working 30 years later.

Who didn’t make the cut?

Tao Lin
Tao Lin is this decade’s Andy Warhol. A chapter of Richard Yates would have been enough to show some subtleties that Jameson did not see in Warhol. But there’s something to be said for the man himself. Interviews with Warhol read like Tao Lin novels. And so, Warhol stayed and Tao Lin left.

Sylvia Lavin
Sylvia Lavin says some beautiful things:

“[T]o be contemporary- to be on time, to move with time and the times, subject to its losses, entropies, provisionalities, obsolescences, currencies, intensities, fads, and flourishes is a possibility that architecture assiduously avoids.”

– From Lavin’s book Crib Sheets

But ultimately, her focus is much too architectural and her call to action, although compelling, lacks some substance. (Read my friends Stephanie Teurk’s review of Crib Sheets for more.) 2thewalls does more, better and can speak to an audience that Lavin cannot.

Wes Jones
Wes Jones’ article PostCool is pretty great. They should probably read it. Unfortunately, Jones is already in the syllabus and I didn’t want to repeat.

Quentin Tarantino
He’s too good for this lecture.

So that’s what I’m having people read. I’m not sure if I have to give a presentation or what. Are there any texts that you would include? I also don’t have a title for the set of readings…. suggestions?

The Valley of the Lamb

Posted in art, personal, technology by johnsnavely on October 31, 2010

As most of you know, I am obsessed with the Uncanny Valley. I want to live there.

Actroid F is a modified version of the Geminoid F female robot that we discussed earlier. A lot of effort has gone into making these robots simpler, cheaper, and easier to power. The air compressor and valves that control Actroid F’s motion can run off of household electricity. Actroid F is also 30 kg lighter than other full scale robots in the Actroid/Geminoid series. The webcam setup for telepresence is meant to be as simple as possible while still providing the right experience for the user. To talk through Actroid F you need three cameras: one aimed at the speaker to pick up facial expressions and movements, another camera showing the Actroid’s face so the user can see how the robot is conveying her emotions, and a final camera that shows a panoramic view of the robot interacting with people in the room. A little more complex than your standard Skype portal, but that’s to be expected when you are speaking through a robotic avatar. Pay attention in the videos below to see how Actroid F can clearly pick out face and head movements, and adjusts its eyes to follow sound. This is a very life-like robot…which, again, is probably why it can be so eerie to watch.



Posted in art, hobbies by johnsnavely on March 4, 2010

Trying to write a post about androgyny. It’s not really coming together very well. In the meantime, here’s some random pictures I made that are in my brain.

All that Glitters is Good

Posted in architecture, art, friends, hobbies by johnsnavely on February 12, 2010

I just started my first architecture competition:

The rules are simple:

1.) Make an architectural drawing.

2.) Use glitter.

3.) Upload and win $500

Students of architecture, let’s make it impossible to walk through the country’s architecture studios without coming away with glitter on your soles (for at least a month).

Please share and participate!

ps David Lynch, I’d like you to be a judge. Please.


Posted in art, technology by johnsnavely on January 3, 2010

Three things I very much want to talk more about, which I think are connected, but I haven’t the words to explain how yet:

Number #1

From a recent post by T, which has truly tapped the zeitgeist. (Although I’m still unpacking some of the links in the post, I have just ordered Ong’s book; it sounds awesome.)

“Sure,” you say, “Ong claims that writing changed the human consciousness — but what does that really mean? What is the mechanism through which consciousness could be changed by a technology, radically or at all?”

The answer is memory – and it’s here where I hope some of your ears will perk up. Both speaking and writing function as technologies allowing us to extend and supplement our own memories, even beyond the extent of our own lives. (This is, for me, a working definition of culture.) For people who only have access to the speech technology, an oral culture, this remembering is structured through verbal recitations composed from formulaic patterns which are interchanged, repeated, and combined into the working linear narratives which structure memory. Ancient Greek literature, the Odyssey and the Iliad, are primary examples for Ong — hence my questions about Milman Parry. In a literate culture, on the other hand, the technology of writing allows cultural memory to be crystallized in a different form — the separation of the word from the speaker-of-the-word allows revision, tree-structured (‘analytic’) thought, and abstraction from experience to concept.

Furthermore, most of us don’t even really realize how deep this change from ‘orality’ to ‘literacy’ really was, and how thorough its effect is on our own consciousness, until we try to examine and recover the modes of thought that are specific to purely oral cultures.

Number #2

A passage from Neuromancer:

He turned on the tensor beside the Hosaka. The crisp circle
of light fell directly on the Flatline’s construct. He slotted some
ice, connected the construct, and jacked in.
It was exactly the sensation of someone reading over his
He coughed. `Dix? McCoy? That you man?’ His throat was
`Hey, bro,’ said a directionless voice.
`It’s Case, man. Remember?’
`Miami, joeboy, quick study.’
`What’s the last thing you remember before I spoke to you,
`Hang on.’ He disconnected the construct. The presence
was gone. He reconnected it. `Dix? Who am I?’
`You got me hung, Jack. Who the fuck are you?’
`Ca — your buddy. Partner. What’s happening, man?’
`Good question.’
`Remember being here, a second ago?’
`Know how a ROM personality matrix works?’
`Sure, bro, it’s a firmware construct.’
`So I jack it into the bank I’m using, I can give it sequential,
real time memory?’
`Guess so,’ said the construct.
`Okay, Dix. You _are_ a ROM construct. Got me?’
`If you say so,’ said the construct. `Who are you?’
`Miami,’ said the voice, `joeboy, quick study.’
`Right. And for starts, Dix, you and me, we’re gonna sleaze
over to London grid and access a little data. You game for
`You gonna tell me I got a choice, boy?’

Number #3

A failed art project of mine: Biggie Bot. I took a javascript version of ELIZA, written by Norbert Landsteiner, and substituted Eliza’s menu of phrases with Christopher Wallace lyrics. The result isn’t quite what I had hoped for (it doesn’t flow), but it’s a start.

Some brain glue to hold all these together coming soon…


Posted in art by johnsnavely on September 30, 2009

I thought this font by Jonathan Perez was quite beautiful.

Cadence font by Jonathan Perez

Cadence font by Jonathan Perez

Cadence font by Jonathan Perez

From the website:

This character is a revival of a metal type font, which comes from a French type specimen of the nineteenth century. I do not know who is the author of the original ornamental design. This work is not a strict revival of the original character: the main thing was to retain the strong aesthetic and conceptual bias, while making the system evolving, notably because of the evolution from metal typesetting to digital typesetting.
The character is remarkable for its process of construction: contrary to a classic ornamental font combining a lot of simple geometric elements, this one combines a few number of highly-complex non-geometric elements. One of the consequence is the speed and ease to set sophisticated pattern with a great rigour of construction. Another consequence is that the eyes are “lost” in front of the pattern: we hardly find at the first look the hidden construction as we do not see the shape of the basic elements. It refers to a kind of psychedelic aspect in the resulting aesthetic.
The font is designed to be used at large sizes (55 pts in the character’s specimen). It is made of 3 versions, intended to be combined easily by the user to make patterns.

The images come from a sample pdf, which is an unbelievable piece of work. Everything fits together!


Posted in art, technology by johnsnavely on August 26, 2009

I thought this project was quite beautiful:

It’s a drawing machine that samples from the patent library and best selling books. From the website:

Basic procedure

  1. The program downloads and parses a part of the text of a recent best-selling book.
  2. The algorithm eliminates all insignificant words like “I”, “and”, “to”, “for”, “the”, etc. The remaining words and their combinations are the keywords for the patent drawings.
  3. Using the keywords in chronological order, it searches for the key-patents.
  4. The program now searches for a path connecting the found key patents. This is possible because every patent contains several references to older patents – the so-called “prior art”.
  5. All key-patents and the patents connecting them semantically are arranged and printed.
  6. Goto step 1.

The result is a sort of infinite illustrated technical manual of technology and literature. I wish they could make a campier version which sampled lyrics from pop songs.

Be sure and watch the video.

Différance Part II

Posted in art by johnsnavely on August 8, 2009

Thanks to Skitch’s RT skillz, I found this neat translation equilibrium site. It converts from English to Japanese and back again until some sort of “equilibrium” is found.

Of course, I ran the first few lines of Derrida’s lecture (from before).

http _translationparty.com_tp_


Posted in architecture, art, friends, hobbies, personal, projects by johnsnavely on July 20, 2009

I’ve been away from this blog for a while, but it’s because I’ve been sort of busy…. and also lazy, so lazy. Here’s a batch of updates in no particular order. More to come, of course.

For work, I’ve been managing construction for two interior projects at Microsoft.

One is an office remodel for my group, Office Labs. We’ve been working in an old building: Building 4– the buildings are numbered by when they were built on the Redmond Campus– that’s been less than ideal for team work and collaboration. Basically, we’re taking down a lot of walls and putting up some glass to provide areas where people can work together more easily. I’ve designed a couple really simple pieces of furniture for the space too. Pictures will come soon.

The other is the second phase of the Envisioning Center, a lab space where my team (the Envisioning Team) will experiment with different software and hardware prototypes. I’ll talk more about this later. There’s still much more work to be done on the space. Another phase. Furniture. Technology pieces. For now enjoy the renderings.


At home, I’ve been playing around with type and some Oppen lines (many thanks to K). Posted a few more to flickr.


In older news, my friend, Pablo Herrera, has published a book which accumulates the work we’ve (Kenfield, Daniel, Pablo & our students) done in  a series of Rhino Workshops in Latin America.

Last but not least, my good friend Arthegall is finally engaged to the lovely R. Congratulations! (It’s about time.)