Blog all dog-eared pages: Hertzian Tales by Anthony Dunne 10 years on, or “All electronic products are hybrids of radiation and matter”

Scrambled Hertzian Tales. Apt!

From Tony’s preface to the 2005 edition:

“The ideas in Hertzian Tales were developed between 1994 and 1997 while I was completing my Ph.D. thesis in the Computer Related Design department at the Royal College of Art in London. The first edition was publisjed through the Royal College of Art in 1999.

It is interesting to look back and think about the technological developments made since then. Bluetooth, 3G phones, and wi-fi are all now part of everyday life. The dot-com boom has come and gone. And in the United Kingdom, large parts of the electromagnetic spectrum are about to be deregulated.

Yet very little has changed in the world of design.”

I requested a copy of Hertzian Tales from MIT Press as ‘payment’ for reviewing a draft of an about-to-be-published interaction design book. I was familiar the the work, but had never read the whole thing.

I was very glad I did.

Tony’s ideas from 1999 held up incredibly strongly in terms of the practice of interaction design and design in 2009 I thought.

It seems to me that his 2005 fear – that very little has changed in design since he first wrote the book – might now be dispelled by the breaking down of silos between digital and physical designers, and the advanced towards the mainstream of ‘the internet of things’.

Jack of course studied at the RCA and I’ve taught there a few times, and I like to count Tony as a friend, but despite those influences, it really does seem like a key text to return to if you are working in the emerging field of digital/physical interaction, product or service design.

Tony’s wonderful line “All electronics products are hybrids of radiation and matter” alone has enough pertinence, poetry and punch to fuel a revolution in design!

Here’s a few quotes from the ‘dog-eared’ pages that stood out for me:

p16

“Another form of dematerialisation is defined by electronic objects’ role as interfaces. With these objects the interface is everything. The behaviour of video recorders, televisions, telephones and faxes is more important than their appearance and physical form. Here design centres on the dialogue between people and machines. The object is experienced as an interface, a zone of transaction.”

p17

“The material culture of non-electronic objects is a useful measure of what the electronic object must achieve to be worthwhile but it is important to avoid merely superimposing the familiar physical world onto a new electronic situation, delaying the possibility of new culture through a desperate desire to make it comprehensible”

“How can we discover analogue complexity in digital phenomena without abandoning the rich culture of the physical, or superimposing the known and comfortable onto the new and alien?

p19

“No effort need be made to reconcile the different scales of the electronic and the material. They can simply coexist in one object. They can grow obsolete at different rates as well. Robert Rauschenberg’s Oracle has had its technology updated three times over thirty years, but it’s materiality and cultural meaning remain unchanged. Cultural obsolescence need not occur at the same rate as technological obsolescence.

Perhaps the “object” can locate the electronic in the social and cultural context of everyday life. It could link the richness of material culture with the new functional; and expressive qualities of electronic technology.”

p33

“A range of possibility exists between the ideas of the “pet” and the “alien”. While the pet offers familiarity, affection, submission and intimacy, the alien is the pet’s opposite, misunderstood and ostracised”

p71

“In the case of electronic products, hte “unique qualities” of the object of interaction is their potential as an electronic product to persuade the users as protagonists, through the user’s use of the object, to generate a narrative space where the understanding of the experience is changed or enlarged. By using the object, the protagonist enters a space between desire and determinism, a bizarre world of the “infra-ordinary” where strange stories show that truth is indeed stranger than fiction, and that our conventional experience of everyday life through electronic products is aesthetically impoverished.”

p89

“The space of the model lies on the border between representation and actuality. Like the frame of a painting, it demarcates a limit between the work and what lies beyond. And like the frame, the model is neither wholly inside or wholly outside, neither pure representation nor transcendent object. It claims a certain autonomous objecthood, yet this condition is always incomplete. The model is always a model of. The desire of the model is to act as a simulacrum of another object, as a surrogate which allows for imaginative occupation. (Hubert, `1981)”

p90

“From a product design point of view these models lack industrial realism; they look like craft objects, hand-made and probably one-off. But an expanded view of the conceptual design model might regard it as embodying the essence of the design idea, a “genotype” rather than a prototype, constructed from the materials at hand. If taken up for mass manufacture its construction and structure would undoubtedly change. The object’s “content” or “genes” are important, not it’s appearance. In the context of design, the conceptual model as genotype rather than prototype could allow it to function more abstractly by deflecting attention from an aesthetics of construction to an aesthetics of use.”

p101

“It might seem strange to write about radio, a long-established medium, when discussion today centres on cyberspace, virtual reality, networks, smart materials and other electronic tehcnologies. But radio, meaning part of the electromagnetic spectrum is fundamental to electronics. Objects not only “dematerialise” into software in response to minituarisation and replacement by services but literally dematerialise into radiation. All electronic products are hybrids of radiation and matter. This chapter does not discuss making the invisible visible or visualising radio, but explores the links between the material and the immaterial that lead to new aesthetic possibilities for life in an electromagnetic environment. Whereas cyberspace is a metaphor that spatialises what happens in computers distributed around the world, radio space is actual and physical, even though our senses detect only a tiny part of it.”

p111

“Objects designed to straddle both material and immaterial domains arouse curiosity about the fit between these worlds. Many military aircraft are now “teledynamic”, designed to fly undetected through fields of radar-frequency radiation. But teledynamic forms are not aerodynamic and to remain airborne their outline needs to be constantly adjusted by a computer. These aircraft fly through fusions of abstract digital, hertzian and atmospheric spaces.

Objects that I call “radiogenic” function as unwitting interfaces between the abstract space of eletomagnetism and the material cutlures of everyday life revealing unexpected points of contact between them.”

p111

“Aerialness” is a quality of an object considered in relation to the electromagneic environment. Even the human body is a crude monopole aerial. Although in theory precise laws govern the geometry of aerials, in reality it is a black art, a fusion of the macro world of perception and the imperceptible world of micro-electronics.”

5 comments
  1. Thanks for the insights; quite intriguing.

    I wonder if there’s thought being given to a economy of digital objects. The economy of material objects centers on trade of unique objects of value, with money as a medium of exchange.

    Digital objects don’t have single unique manifestations so don’t get traded, they get replicated instantaneously. Legal constraints like copyright lose their hold since replication is without cost and the original remains intact. As a result there is no obvious way for creators, designers, writers, musicians and even reporters, to get revenue.

    A digital economy would need a new medium of exchange, flowing from users to creators in proportion to the value of each creation as determined by the market eg. by usage, reputation etc..

    Digital currency would need to be exchangeable with standard currency so creators could eat.

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