The Matrix: MEME 2.08

MEME 2.08


"Computing is doomed. It is going away. Like the spread of reading with the advent of print, computing will become second nature and sink down into the everyday course of life."

David Liddle, CEO Interval Research Corporation.

The fertile lands of Northern California are dotted with vineyards, and empty hills rising around San Francisco, a sight that always startles me, a life-long New Yorker whose primary contact with nature are the two trees at the end of my block. Even with the crush of condominiums and the now pedestrian bloom of Silicon Valley to the south, nature thrives, minutes from the homes and labs that sit beside the Route 101, a stretch of highway connecting San Francisco with San Jose, the putative epicenter of high-tech. It was here, amidst the hills and vineyards, that in the late sixties a young generation of engineers and computer programmers redefined computing.


Awash with Federal research grants and a profits from a thriving economy, this generation redefined computing as an extension of human activity, as an "augmentation of man's intellect," transforming computing machines once seen as cold, calculating engines into playthings, assistants, vessels for fantasy and seemingly limitless possibility, what some called "knowledge navigators". That age, ushered in by the creation of "time sharing" and "minicomputers" in 1960, ended in 1969 with the creation of the mouse, "windows", "icons", ARPANET and the first commercial microprocessors. This legacy lives on today: we still use the same metaphors -- mice, windows, icons -- surf the same network, ARPANET's child Internet, and perceive computing as connected to screens, keyboards manipulating a fusion of text with icons. Many of these students, now grown-up, control the great high-tech companies of our age. Their work produced a culture, defining an age, the Age of Information, with Silicon Valley, home to Stanford University, Xerox PARC, Intel, Apple Computer, and the first leg of ARPANET which connected UCLA to a Sigma 7 computer at Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park in September of 1969, as the cradle.


When I traveled to Interval Research two weeks ago, driving down Route 101 from the San Francisco airport, history was on my mind. I was sensing the first indications that this long cycle of computing was coming to a close, and a new wave, a wave spawned by the children of that generation, was coming forward, dimly visible. The first indications came to me in March when I served as moderator for ID Magazine's 42nd Annual Design Review. I was responsible for the Interactive Media category, and moderating between the four judges (Gloriana Davenport, of the MIT Media Lab; Tom Nicholson of Nicholson Associates, a multimedia design firm; Rick Prelinger, founder of the Prelinger Archive which contains 33,000 films; Kathleen Wilson, Creative Director for Viacom Interactive), who in turn had to evaluate over two hundred entries. After two full days of hands-on experimentation, glimmers of a trend emerged: the most creative designs came from students, and those designs made little reference to "the box" of the computer. The hammer-lock of "point-and-click," "drag-and-drop," "pages," "icons" and "windows" was weakening, replaced by more "organic," "tactile," "fragmented" three-dimensional structures, structures more whimsical than useful, more beautiful than efficient, more about play than work. It was the reflection of the computer as an everyday intimate object from the gut, not the brain.

The winner, Calculators, by nine students at London's Royal College of Art, took the mundane everyday desktop calculator that comes with the Macintosh and redefined it nine different ways. Calculators is fine example of this shift in our computing metaphors. One claculator resembled a see-through sphere which had to be rotated, changing the position of numbers and operators, producing a calculation. Another used a sliding bar which shifted the position of numbers and operators in a vertical line; results of calculation receded in the background, dimming with time. Each of the nine calculators required the user to explore the interface, since the "rules" governing their operation had to be discovered, creating an experience that resembled the journey of a video game, and a kind of "soft" industrial design that embraced beauty over functionality, like the aimless pleasure of screen saver. The form of these calculators redefined their function, associating pleasure with calculation, hinting at a wider future: pleasure in computing.


I went to Interval to see the results of their University Workshop, a six-month program that funds projects at interactive media design departments. The theme of this workshop was "interactive play," and the seven schools present included another team of students from the Royal College of Art, students from New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, the Kyoto Institute of Technology in Japan, the National College of Art and Design in Norway, Carnegie-Mellon University and Stanford University. The students from around the world, all in their twenties, had grown up with computers and were accustomed to them as personal devices. Unlike their predecessors who learned assembly language, C++, FORTRAN and COBOL, these students knew little about programming in that sense of the word. Instead, they were masters of new set of tools -- Adobe Photoshop, Macromedia Director, Alias Wavefront -- tools explicitly created to broaden interactive media design into a community that knows little of formal computer science.

The results are hardly related to computers as we know them: a monitor, box, keyboard and mouse. These prototypes went "out of the box" literally, breaking up the computer into fragments and dispersing them. Many replaced mice and their two-dimensional axes with three-dimensional pointing devices, devices which allowed for squeezing, shaking and movement in all directions. One particularly rich prototype was a squeezable, putty-like egg containing internal pressure sensors, a camera and microphone. Designed by students at NYU's ITP for seriously ill children quarantined in hospitals, the object allowed them to communicate over a local-area network with other ill children. The idea was to give these children who have no control over their lives (everything is timed according to doctors and nurses, and they cannot leave their rooms freely) an environment where they could feel some sense of control, and freedom to be in contact with other children. The mushy egg controlled an equally amorphous representation of the child on a screen in each room. Using the egg controlled the movement of the child's representative shape, brining it into contact with other children's shapes. Touching shapes initiated communication. By squeezing the egg in different ways, the child could open a video or audio connection, build other structures (which could then be entered by other children) and enter "story clouds" containing various kinds of entertainment. Hidden under the bed was the Central Processing Unit and local-area network connection. This project was titled "Billow."

The students from the Kyoto Institute of Technology and the National College of Art and Design in Norway collaborated on "PuppetBench." Like Billow, PuppetBench was created to allow children to communicate over networks. PuppetBench used puppets as an interface, turning the computer into a stage where puppets became the means to explore and communicate over long distances. Puppets become vessels for made-up identities, connecting the fantasy world in digital space with the actual puppet in the child's hand, fusing two forms of the age-old game "let's pretend." Students at Stanford University produced a squeezable hand-held object used to play a game called "HandJive." Using a network of wireless HandJives, which are approximately three-inch-long rods connecting three spheres, the devices shake and squirm according to signals coming from other HandJives. Their movements become patterns in a game of either cooperative or adversarial patterns. The other schools produced equally interesting prototypes, and all shared the same foundation: the box was gone.

Later that day I spent some time with David Liddle, the CEO of Interval Research. Liddle came to computing in the heyday of time sharing, and is part of that earlier generation of computing pioneers. He spent ten years at Xerox PARC, from 1972 to 1982, where he worked on the development of Ethernet and the Xerox Star computer, which was the first commercial implementation of the now-familiar Graphical User Interface of windows and icons. Interval Research is funding these student workshops for non-altruistic reasons: they hope to gain some insight in developing their own commercial technologies (Interval was started by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen in 1992 with a $100 million endowment and a ten-year mandate to explore new technologies). Liddle, a cautious speaker, became animated when the subject of generations came up. We talked about how ARPA helped form a community of people thirty years ago, and how the results took a life of their own, overturning what many derisively termed a "priesthood" of white-coated technicians standing between computers and programmers. "These hackers," Liddle said, smiling, "created a new culture and now they've become a priesthood of their own, with sneakers and red shoe-laces."

Just as it took years for the mouse, windows and icons to filter out to the world (The mouse and windows were invented by Douglas Engelbart at Stanford Research Institute, funded in part by an ARPA grant. Engelbart also had the honor of being responsible for the first Internet connection, between his lab and UCLA.), it will take years before fragmented computing arrives. Many companies are unaware of this shift, as they blithely assume the World Wide Web, a paramount example of traditional computing metaphors with its two-dimensional pages, scrolling and clicking, is the base on which the future of interactivity rests. It not coincidental that most young designers, given the freedom and funding to explore, flee the Web with its restrictive demands in favor of fresh explorations (unless, of course, some silly company offers them lots of money to design a Web site).

What form fragmented computing will first take is anyone's guess; in physical space it will first appear in children's toys, toys which owe a bit to pagers, microprocessors, simulated environments and action figures. In the virtual world, fragmented computing will appear as swapable, downloadable programs, similar to Sun Microsystems's HotJava Applets. These programs may serve little purpose, other than being cool, neat, fun. They will be swapped and traded the way baseball cards and pins or Magic cards (a role-playing game) get passed around. From there fragmented computing will spread to adults, first as novelties, later evolving into objects that give some pleasure and beauty to the user. Usefulness and efficiency will take a back seat to fun and beauty. Whichever path fragmented computing takes, it should usher in long and deep era of fresh design, new uses for computers, and plenty of the unexpected.

MEME and its contents copyright by David S. Bennahum. Duplication for non-commerical use is permitted. Contact me if you have questions. Direct comments, bugs and so on to me at