Industrial Design for a Parallel Future

There was a point where computer technology (and its associated technologies like sound synthesis) were the Jade Destiny sword — powerful in its own right, but also the object of desire for competing interests. As an object — a tool — it is, itself, amoral; its uses can bend toward justice or toward externalized entropy.

Can a weapon be amoral, though?

Those forces were exemplified by the Establishment — who wanted to use them to guide ICBMs — and the Counterculture, who saw them as early as the early 1950s as a way to augment the human experience, as a source of psychedelic altered state in which we would have new ways to perceive and act upon the world.

The rubber met the road with the invention by Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs of the personal computer. Because from there, it was not a matter of DARPA-funded supercomputers, but of networked humans coming to new understandings of the world.

For me, personally, the most critical element of this revolution was that, coupled with the Macintosh Plus my family bought at great expense (some $7000 in today’s dollars — probable the biggest investment my family had made outside of the house) came the HyperCard program.

Some sketches of mine, inspired by Hartmut Esslinger and Olivetti

HyperCard was the product of an LSD trip in which Bill Atkinson saw a new way to perceive information. Working with Dan Winkler, the two integrated HyperTalk (the first scripting language) into it, dissolving the boundary between recorded information and executable software.

It was released at the same time Hartmut Esslinger’s Snow White design language was reaching implementation at Apple. HyperCard is to information what Snow White is to the physical tools that run it: Expansive by way of being small; simple, and therefore conducive to creative complexity.

An early sketch of mine bringing Esslinger’s Snow White up to 21st century technologies, like flatscreens and Bluetooth. This was fun, but I’m doin it wrong. This doesn’t express the quiet complexity that I want to get at. The only thing it really has going for it is the part that would be most annoying: the asymmetry of the screen.

HyperCard, with its interesting features sanded off for expediency in getting a minimum viable product out the door for everyone to start playing with, became the first Web browser, Mosaic. It could no longer execute code, but it portrayed layers of information across a network the way Gopher and FTP couldn’t (and HyperCard struggled to — Atkinson hadn’t anticipated networking, just like Apple, Microsoft, and IBM hadn’t.)

By then, the money was eating the art. Jobs had been ignominiously squeezed out of Apple and had gone on to produce the beautiful NeXT computer that the Web was first developed on. Wozniak seemed to be personally wounded by the way money infected his vision, and pursued other projects. Esslinger went on to other projects where they could appreciate the carefully composed simplicity of his design.

And the .com era began.

I’m designing to those pieces left on the cutting room floor in the interest of being a profitable market follower. The pieces of vision that wouldn’t and couldn’t make a profit for the company. Not the ones that were picked up in subsequent decades, like Esslinger’s phone- and tablet-based computers. But the ones that are about liberation

Some of that is the clean, inviting, design of Esslinger and his contemporaries like Dieter Rams at Braun and the Olivetti design team. They are absolutely descendants of the Bauhaus and its democratic ideals.

An Olivetti-inspired keyboard (with keys yet to be cut into it) that gets at what I love about Olivetti design, but not what I love about Snow White. It’s calm and reassuring, but doesn’t come toward you, doesn’t encourage you to engage.

So, I’m imagining right now what we get when we take the LSD-inspired, democracy-encouraging, design-forward technologies of the 1970s and 1980s, cast them into a world where the ideals of the 1950s and 1960s dominate more than money, and combine them with 2020s techniques and technologies like microcontrollers and 3D printing.

This keyboard design of Esslinger’s reaches for your soft fingers from its clean, hard edges. The Apple iigs had a keyboard very close to this, and my search for one is what has led me into this project.

This is a project I’m doing (and I don’t quite yet know where it’s going!) that is primarily generated out of hope. It’s been in such short supply over the last years that, when I feel a little, I need to drink it in. It makes more of itself. From hope comes the ability to proceed even under apparently impossible duress.

This is hope made of PLA, development boards, and ideas. Whatever comes out of it, I hope it’s more hope.

How might cultures with no ownership work out? I’m sure there are plenty of those in The Fifth World!

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