More thoughts by Allen Tan
Maybe I’m noticing it more with the end-of-the-year roundups, but time is such a slippery thing on the web. In fact, it’s often little more than a timestamp.
Stacking a list of things by reverse-chronology is easy for computers, but my squishy human brain misses having more discrete units of time. Printed publications can be categorized by how they bracket time — dailys, weeklies, monthlies, quarterlies, annuals — and are as much tied to their pace of production as to their worldview of what is the most interesting span of time?
We haven’t yet formed good answers to this online. Streams reflect our ability to instantly put things out there, but what is the right amount of time to talk about an idea? To deep-dive into a subject? To have an argument? To celebrate, or to mourn?
What unit of time will distill this piece of information to its most potent?
Sometimes you have to step away from your work to see what’s not there.
This video is most-probably-definitely-maybe staged, but I don’t love it any less for that. It takes an everyday situation and flips it into absurdity. It’s hilarious and a little painful to watch, as it builds and builds up to…well, keep watching to the end.
There’s so much there you can laugh at. You don’t need to have lived in Italy, you don’t need to drive or park — I showed this to a 7-year-old and she laughed as hard as I did. I wish more of our work could be like this. To have low barriers. To be liked by people of all kinds. To have a bit more range.
I always keep two books on my nightstand. Right now, I’m trundling through Anna Karenina (my first Tolstoy!) and rereading a 2011 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly titled The Future. It’s a way to make accidental juxtapositions and see connections that I wouldn’t have come up with on my own.
Timo Arnall recently wrote about the problems with ‘invisible design’. It not only questions the myth of the intuitive, but also argues eloquently for the legible. (It doesn’t hurt that it draws upon lots of prior design literature, which we could all stand to do more of.) The piece got shared widely online and was met with surprise and controversy.
Now, here’s some juxtaposition (emphasis mine):
It turns out that changing behaviour is a way to subsequently change attitudes; this is entirely counter the thinking behind many smart systems, which are predicated on feedback loops delivering information to people, whose attitudes then change, and who then choose to change their behaviour accordingly. Instead, behaviour change happens through changing behaviour, and then attitudes.
It is not enough to simply “make the invisible, visible”, to use the already well-worn phrase in urban informatics. But change might happen through creating convenient, accessible ways to try something different, and then multiplying that through social proof and network effects, reinforcing through feedback. (This means all those smart meters are a complete waste of time and money, and will eventually have to be uninstalled.)
That was from Dan Hill’s piece about ‘smart cities’ and active citizenship. It takes Timo’s arguments for legibility and extrapolates it to more smartness—but guess what? Dan posted it before Timo’s piece. I was lucky to make the connection between them only because I’d read Dan’s entry a week prior.
This particular kind of serendipity—remembering and seeing connections between unrelated works—ignores many distinctions. It doesn’t matter whether something is new or old, whether it was published in the New Yorker or on a blog, whether it was written by a designer or scientist or urban planner. Your act of reading—jumping from point A to point B—creates a wormhole between the two. It lets you time travel.
Apps are greedy. They demand to be constantly played with, refreshed, updated — and buzz at you with glaring red eyes when ignored.
Just as a thought experiment: what would an app without any interactions be like? Something you put on the wall, or on your desk. You glance at it a couple times a day. Its face isn’t bright, and doesn’t flash with bright colors and sound.
What if an app acted more like a clock?
Form-making gets a lot of attention today.
The new forms are what people talk about. They win awards, clients, the praise of your peers, and money. They start to get reused, adapted, and become a shorthand for kinds of storytelling. Our collective attention privileges the thing.
But it’s worth remembering that they’re the substrate of a process. What you see rests on experiments with framing word and image in certain ways, dividing and managing readers’ attention and rhythm and flow, and a whole mess of technological superglue that bonds them together.
More often than not, it’s the form that gets copied, not the process that it came from. Maybe it’s because it’s easier to copy the thing. But to mimic something without understanding why it works is to become a cargo cult, unlikely to reap the benefits you’re hoping for.
The thing doesn’t matter. It — along with the assumptions, gambles, and affordances inherent — is simply a stake in the ground.
This worked here.
It allows the adjacent possible, the next set of forms, to be uncovered.
Maybe it’s also because the thinking behind form-making is hard to decipher, and that we’re rarely comfortable with talking about this stuff. Not in the open, anyway, and not nearly enough.
Here are the dates of Allen Tan's future thoughts
- Sunday, 23 June
- Tuesday, 23 July
- Friday, 23 August
- Monday, 23 September
- Wednesday, 23 October
- Saturday, 23 November
- Monday, 23 December