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Blog posts tagged as 'writing'

“Companion Species” in Icon’s special edition on Mobile Phones

Icon #106

Will Wiles, the Deputy Editor of the design magazine Icon, asked us recently to contribute to a special issue on Mobiles Phones alongside James Bridle, Kazys Varnelis, Marko Ahtisaari and Will Self, among others.

I wrote a short piece on smartphones as ‘companion species’, that reflects a lot of ongoing themes and discussions in the studio around designing the behaviour of sensate devices with ‘fractional intelligence‘.

They see the world differently to us, picking up on things we miss.

They adapt to us, our routines. They look to us for attention, guidance and sustenance. We imagine what they are thinking, and vice-versa.

Dogs? Or smartphones?

Mobile devices (can we still call them phones?) are being packed full of sensors, processing power. They are animated by ever-more-sophisticated software, dedicated to understanding the world around them (in terms of advances in computer vision and context-awareness) and understanding us (speech recognition and adaptive ‘agent’ software such as Apple’s ‘Siri’)

They are moving – somewhat awkwardly – from being our tools to becoming our newest companion species.

Donna Haraway, theorist on our transformation into cyborgs, published ‘The Companion Species Manifesto’ in 2003. It addresses the relationship between domestic dogs and humans, but there is much in there to inspire designers of smartphones, apps and agents.

“Cyborgs and companion species each bring together the human and non-human, the organic and technological, carbon and silicon, freedom and structure, history and myth, the rich and the poor, the state and the subject, diversity and depletion, modernity and postmodernity, and nature and culture in unexpected ways.”

Using inspirations from theory such as Haraway, and fiction – such as Philip Pullman’s ‘Daemons’ from his ‘Dark Materials’ books – we can perhaps imagine a near-future that is richer and weirder than the current share-everything-all-the-time/total-gamified-personal-productivity obsessions of silicon valley.

A future of digital daemons would be one of close relationships with software that learned and acted intuitively – perhaps inscrutably at first, but with a maxim of ‘do no harm, with maximum charm’.

Intel’s Genevieve Bell recently spoke of the importance of designing relationships with – and crucially, between our technologies – so that we not in the centre of an arms-race of ever-more-complex 1-to-1 interactions with our phones, tablets and apps. She memorably quoted a research subject that likened her collection of digital devices to a ‘needy backpack of baby birds’

Much better to have one faithful, puppy-smart daemon device, working at our side to round everything (and every thing) up and relate what it senses to us?

At BERG we are fond of quoting MIT roboticist Rodney Brooks – who said that fifty years of sustained work by the brightest and the best in artificial intelligence would get us things that were ‘smart as puppies’ if we’re lucky.

This seems like a fine goal to us, rather than creating uncanny, flawed and frustrating analogues of human intelligence and interactions – such as Siri, or if we cast our minds back a decade – Microsoft’s ‘Clippy’.

This future might also free the form of our devices – from glowing rectangles that suck our attention from the world, to subtler physical avatars representing our companions – things that listen, watch, speak – to us and for us.

Our companion species as are likely to inhabit the biomimetic descendants of the Nike fuelband or the now-mundane bluetooth headsets as Ive’s perfectionist slabs of glass and alloy.

Also, companion species might be shared, as a family pet is now – bound to home and hearth rather than the predominant 1-to-1 ‘personal computing’ paradigm of the last 40 years or so.

What forms might these ‘household spirits’ take? Nest’s smart thermostat has pursued the Ives/Rams route of tasteful (if ironically, cold) elegance, whereas our own Little Printer takes a rather different approach…

There will be more diverse responses to these new categories of digital/physical extensions to ourselves, our homes, cars and cities. Which is as it should be.

I hope it triggers explosion of form and interaction beyond the glowing touchscreen hegemony. The advent of ‘digital companion species’ should be a cambrian moment for design.

BERG in Icon #99

We’re happy to report the work of the studio is featured in Icon #99 out this month, with an eight page piece written by deputy editor Will Wiles.


It’s in an issue focussing on Artificial Intelligence that also has a great article by our friend James Bridle on the architecture and psychogeography of server farms…

My favourite thing is the picture of (nearly) all of us on the steps behind the studio…


The cover however, has deployed the latest in anti-theft technology, by featuring three exhausted, stubbly ne’er-do-wells staring out at you…



My piece on iPad magazines for Icon’s September 2010 issue.

Icon September Issue: piece on (near-)future of digital magazines by me

Outgoing editor Justin McGuirk asked me to write a little about the near-future of digital magazines for Icon #87, in which I talk a bit about challenges of the context they now find themselves in as a media form, as well as things we think we learned during the Mag+ project.

They’ve kindly allowed us to republish it here.

Since the launch of the Apple iPad six months ago, the world of digital magazines has seen fevered activity and hyperbolic punditry.

Big names such as Wired, Vanity Fair, Time and Popular Science (which our studio, BERG, helped to bring to the iPad with the Mag+ platform) have released editions into the App Store and made proclamations that it’s the future of magazines.

However, the very term “digital magazine” smacks of “horseless carriage”, Marshall McLuhan’s term for an in-between technology that is quickly obsolete. While nothing is certain about the future of any media, there is no doubt that the digital tablet form will grow in popularity, with the iPad being joined later this year by numerous other (possibly cheaper) competitors mainly powered by Google’s Android operating system.

So, what does the future really hold for digital magazines? We can identify some challenges and some opportunities. One certainty is that the manner by which we discover and purchase magazines will be given a hefty thump by the switch to digital. We are in a world of search rather than browse – which perhaps in turn leads to a change in the role of cover design, from “buy me, look what’s inside” to “you know what’s inside, but here is an incredible, evocative image”. In many ways it’s a return to the “classic” magazine covers of the 1950s and 60s, privileging the desirability of the object itself rather than shouting about every feature.

The bounded “object-ness” of the magazine embedded in the world of the endless, restless internet is seen by most as an anachronism, but it is also one of its greatest attributes. Research we received from our client Bonnier as part of the brief for the Mag+ concept indicated that people really were attached to the magazine as a form of media that creates a bubble of time to indulge in reading – and as a contrast to other, faster forms of media.

Meeting this need – while acknowledging the breadth, speed and interconnectedness of the internet – is a design condition that has not been satisfied fully by the current crop of digital magazine offerings, our efforts included. But stay tuned.

Another change in what we might term the “attention economics” of digital magazines is that their new neighbours in the app ecosystem are not other magazines, but games, spreadsheets, supermarket delivery apps, photography apps and so on. One device is now the conduit for vastly different activities and experiences.

And yet – at least in the current user-interface paradigm of Apple and Google – they all get pretty much the same real estate on screen. You have to decide between killing time with a magazine, playing Angry Birds or ordering your Ocado delivery based on the same visual evidence.

Perhaps future iterations of mobile and tablet operating systems will have a more media-led approach, as evidenced by the new Windows Phone 7 mobile operating system (yes, that’s right, Microsoft has made a more media-centric user interface than Apple) – leading to magazine icons being bigger or more varied on the media surface.

Still, having such vastly different neighbours nestling so close creates a new context for an old form that has heavier production costs than its new competitors. A casual game developed by five people commands the same attention of a magazine produced by 25. That is remarkably imbalanced, but don’t think these attention economics will stand. The production and form of the magazine cannot fail to be affected. Internet-native publishers such as gadget expert Gizmodo, fashion maven The Sartorialist or critically minded gamer Rock, Paper, Shotgun are smaller and nimbler. And eventually they’ll be able to publish to the same canvas as the big boys and girls – and be able to charge for their expert curation and commentary.

Which brings us to some of what I’ve started to call “two-star problems”. In the consumocracy of the App Store, star ratings are all, and unfortunately most of the current magazine offerings have only two stars, compared to the four- or five-star world of games and other apps. Even Wired and, I’m sad to say, Popular Science garner a “must-try-harder” three stars. Consumer dismay at customer service, reliability, consistency, pricing and the overall offer seem to lead to these relatively low ratings. Consumers’ expectations are determined by the value they see offered by software producers compared to traditional media producers.

So where to head? What are the opportunities? I think they are supplementary to what magazine publishers see as their existing strengths in writing, curation and design. They will emerge from their less glamorous but equally deep knowledge of subscriptions, service and “belonging”.

Take the best of what you understand of your readership and the decade or so that many magazines have spent on the internet and look to exploit the social technologies of the web, rather than run to present your content as an isolated recapitulation of a mid-1990s CD-ROM.

Create hybrids and experiment – not with the empty (and costly) spectacle of embedding jarring 3D and video, but with data, visualisation, sociality, location-based services, semantic technologies.

There’s no reason that the feel of a well-designed, valuable, curated object shouldn’t be complemented when placed properly in the roaring, sparkling stream of the internet. And experiment not just with editorial content, but also with advertising. I’d rather have a live link to the latest Amazon price for a camera than a spinning 3D video of it.

Tablets promise to be transformative – in their context of use and how well they can display content – but they do not wish away the disruptive challenge (and opportunity) the internet presents to magazine publishers.

This is the beginning of a tumultuously exciting time for magazines and those who produce them – not an end to the “free-for-all” of the web as many would love to believe. More experimentation, not less, is what’s called for. As a reader and a designer, I’m looking forward to that.

The City Is A Battlesuit For Surviving The Future

A Walking City

Our colleague Matt Jones has a guest post up at the sci-fi blog io9 (strapline: ‘we come from the future’). He riffs on architecture, stories and comics, sensors, and the urban future. A representative para…

The infrastructures we assemble and carry with us through the city – mobile phones, wireless nodes, computing power, sensor platforms are changing how we interact with it and how it interacts with other places on the planet. After all it was Archigram who said “people are walking architecture.”


Go read his post, The City Is A Battlesuit For Surviving The Future.

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