Monday, September 9, 2013

So what's the point of this, anyway?

There are any number of things I could be doing to satisfy any creative ambitions I have. Why this stuff? OK, aside from the Alex's Batcave room, which is sufficiently cool to require no explanation; everyone worth speaking of wants a Batcave. Why the faux-antique high tech items? Well, for a start, our most sophisticated tools are our most boring. When I started working in IT, computer hardware was uniformly featureless beige boxes. Now, it's mostly featureless black boxes, but some are featureless grey boxes. Exciting! They're also shaped pretty much like they were decades ago. Monitors are smaller because they're LCD screens instead of tubes, but present essentially identical rectangles to the viewer. Desktop computers are tall rectangular boxes, keyboards are wide but flat rectangular boxes, mice conform to one of a handful of designs to fit the hand but be used ambidextrously, laptops are clam-shell boxes, and tablets are almost entirely screen on one side and featureless plane on the other. There are vents and ports around the edges, and even an on-off button on most devices, but they're otherwise as featureless as possible, and everything that happens, happens invisibly inside the featureless boxes. I'm surrounded by such devices all day, and I'd like them to be more interesting.

Part of my approach to more interesting devices is to have technology that looks like it does something. Sure, sticking gears and smokestacks onto a computer won't give those bits a function, but they look like they might have one. Rather than being an inscrutable slab or hand-curved peripheral, the device takes on an illusion of having macro-scale parts which visibly work towards some end.

There's a secondary goal of, for lack of a better word, humanizing devices. Wood and leather are organic. Using them on a device puts the user in touch with substances connected with life, and possibly make it look a bit more like they were made with human hands than stamped out by a machine. Fake buttons, cranks, and similar elements make it look like you're supposed to physically interact with it. Beaded and filigreed ornaments are decoration for decoration's sake, something that only a frivolous, feeling human would add. All of those elements bring it closer to being not just an item for storing and processing data, but one which a human touches and regards.

Though a number of things I've done might fall under the rubric of "steampunk," I'm not sure that's the vibe I get from all of them. The iPlume feels borderline pre-industrial (say, Georgian), while the USB drive with the brass-screened porthole feels electrical, like a tube radio, rather than steam-powered (call it, perhaps, Edwardian). That said, I can see why people into casemodding might go heavily into Victorian and para-Victorian modes. We don't have a great many approaches to industrial design to play with. The Industrial Revolution shades into dieselpunk, which shades into the Space Age, which shades into today's featureless black boxes.

What I'm doing, I realized only recently, isn't that far different from Japanese chindogu, made famous back in the early-mid 90s by the Unuseless Inventions books which a friend at the publishing company I worked for at the time showed me. They're not as deliberately useless or self-defeating as real chinodgu are, but they are definitely whimsical and over-elaborate. (Also, never sold.) They all function, even if they're larger, heavier, and/or more elaborate than they need to be.

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