Department of Design

Curated by Timoni West.

Primarily focused on product design, technology, cognitive psychology, and the brain. Also—pretty pictures, sometimes moving.

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Posts about the internet
July 22nd, 2014
Email is the copy-paste of the Internet. It is passing notes in class. It is writing postcards. It is no less the place of manifestos or the mystery of language and all the hand-written letters before it regardless of its delivery medium. It is a conceptual framework that affords more than the alternatives and even where it fails it still demands less than other choices and so it still comes out ahead of everything else. It is hardly perfect but built-in to its use is the idea that the person at the other end of a message isn’t a complete idiot and can fill in the blanks, or just hit reply and ask you to elaborate if they can’t.
The net, in its present infantile condition, gives access, not to the sum of preserved human knowledge, but rather to advertisements, cranks, journalists, and technical reports.
May 18th, 2014
The idea of “seamlessness” as a desirable trait in what we design is one that bothers me. Technology has seams. By hiding those seams, we may think we are helping the end user, but we are also making a conscience choice to deceive them (or at least restrict what they can do).

Jeremy Keith, Seams

April 20th, 2013

In the fall of 1960, during his second year of graduate school, Ted Nelson found out about computers, and not a moment too soon. He was drowning in his own information, carrying around an already monumental collection of barely collated notes about his abundant dreams and schemes. He found out about Vannevar Bush’s paper and embraced the idea that he could use a computer to keep track of his own prodigious stream of thoughts and sketches.

Ted was disappointed to discover that there were no computers equipped or programmed to perform such a service. Down the road at MIT, the first time-sharing computers were only beginning to be built. But Ted needed a storage and retrieval system to keep track of his notes, and it seemed like such an obvious way to use computers as aids to creative thought that he set out to create such a program himself. Twenty-three years later, he admitted: “It seemed so simple and clear to me then. It still does. But like so many beginning computerists, I mistook a clear view for a short distance. “

The Harvard course in computer programming that Ted took in 1960 used the only computer then available at Harvard, the IBM 7090 at the Smithsonian Observatory. As a term project, Ted decided to write a machine-language program that would enable him to store his notes and manuscripts in the computer, to change and edit drafts in various ways, and produce final printed versions. Somewhere around the forty-thousandth line of his program, it dawned on him that his first estimates of the magnitude of the task — and the amount of time it would take to establish it — had been overoptimistic.

Nelson’s inability to create something even though he was able to clearly envision it is not unusual in the software world. The problem is so widespread that one of the unofficial rules of computer programming (known in some circles as “Babbage’s Law”) is: “Any large programming project will always take twice as long as you estimate.” Even though the simplest of the text-handling capabilities he specified in 1960 were to become, in the hands of other programmers, the software spearhead of office automation in the 1980s, Nelson went far beyond simple text manipulation in the program he set out to write for his term project.

Like Doug Engelbart, whose work he had yet to learn about, Nelson yearned for more than a lazy man’s typewriter. They both wanted the freedom to steer their thought paths in new ways. And Ted especially desired the prerogative of changing his mind. He wanted the freedom to insert and delete words and move paragraphs around, but he also wanted the computer to remember his decision path. One of the specs was for something he called “historical backtrack,” in which the computer could quickly show him the various earlier alternative versions of his ever-changing text.

"Alternative versions"? From a place to store notes to a tool for sculpting text, his term project had now landed him in even more wondrous science-fiction territory, a place where it was possible to think in terms of parallel alternatives. Of entire libraries of parallel alternatives, and automated librarians to perform the most tedious of searches in microseconds. Why should we abandon any thought at all? Why not just store every variation on everything and let the computer take care of sifting through it when we want to view something?

The World Wide Web was precisely what we were trying to PREVENT— ever-breaking links, links going outward only, quotes you can’t follow to their origins, no version management, no rights management.
December 13th, 2012
In the early days of the social web, there was a broad expectation that regular people might own their own identities by having their own websites, instead of being dependent on a few big sites to host their online identity. In this vision, you would own your own domain name and have complete control over its contents, rather than having a handle tacked on to the end of a huge company’s site. This was a sensible reaction to the realization that big sites rise and fall in popularity, but that regular people need an identity that persists longer than those sites do.