March 1st, 2015

Victor Margolin

Before I go any further, I must confess that I am a man d’un certain age. Therefore my responses to new technology are selective and generational. I still favor transactions with other human beings over those with machines. When I was a boy in the early 1950s, almost all transactions were between one human being and another. The one exception for me was the gumball machine at the candy store around the corner from my apartment building in Washington D.C. I didn’t mind the absence of a live vendor in order to make my purchase. In fact, it was something of a novelty to put a penny in the machine and get a large colored gumball in return.

The gumball machine was only a precusor to the plethora of human-machine transactions that large numbers of people engage in today. In fact, on-line ordering has put many a store out of business and threatened the existence of numerous others. Most people have become accustomed to these transactions and don’t miss the exchange with a live person. However, some vendors and service providers have chosen to simulate a live person on the other end of a telephone in the misguided belief (according to me) that the semblance of such a person will add emotional value to what would otherwise be a bloodless transaction.

Personally, I prefer the basic machine voice to one that simulates the affect of a human. I find it duplicitious to elicit emotional engagement from a customer through a fake human-to-human exchange. Of course, these simulations fool no one and in fact they become the source of considerable frustration when they don’t deliver what they promise. If things are not going well, the simulacrum usually blames the problem on the customer, claiming that he or she did not specify clearly enough what they were trying to accomplish.

Sometimes, if the simulacrum’s frustration reaches a high enough level, it will gracefully bow out of the transaction and turn the customer over to a live operator. However, rather than wait for this moment, I have learned to short circuit the interaction as soon as it begins by saying “Agent,” which is a cue for the machine-human to say, “Ok, I understand you would like to speak with an agent.” Then I get to talk to a real person. As unsatisfying as such machine-human transactions are, the limitations of the desired deception become readily apparent and almost no one is fooled. It would be difficult to mistake the simulated voices for real human ones as they have an awkward cadence that I can’t imagine deceives anyone. Consequently, I don’t expect simulated human voices to ultimately provide any satisfaction, even as artificial intelligence experts expand their capacity for more versatile conversation.

As if it were not enough to simulate human exchanges on the telephone, the use of simulated beings has now moved onto the Internet. I recently received an e-mail from a colleague with whom I was trying to arrange a time to meet for coffee. However, it was not in his name. Instead it bore the moniker of an assistant whose waspy name I have changed to Jane Brown. The e-mail bore her name as the sender as did the return address, although I did not notice that the web address had the term “ai” in it, revealing, though hardly overtly, the program’s identity as one based on artificial intelligence. Since I had never encountered a digital simulacrum presented as a female personal assistant, I did not suspect Jane Brown.

She did, however, appear rather odd and unncessarily formal. The invitation to coffee with my colleague was presented in a visual box similar to the format of various e-vite programs. Inside the box was a specified time for the encounter, 2:00 – 2:45 P.M. I was also informed that my colleague liked to meet at a particular café, which is not the one that I had proposed. I had never encountered such precision when arranging an informal meeting so I decided to query Jane. First, I told her that I would prefer a different café and I specified which one. Then I asked her if the meeting would be limited exactly to forty-five minutes or whether we might run a minute or two over. The response I received came in the form of another box that contained the name of the café I had chosen as well as a new meeting time, which had been extended by forty five minutes so that I was now allotted a period from 2:00 to 3:30 P.M. This was actually longer than I had anticipated spending but I thought better of bothering Jane again since I did not have in mind my own precise duration for the meeting.

I must admit that I found the interaction with Jane quite odd and decided to query my colleague to find out why he encouraged such a strange procedure for arranging a time for coffee. He wrote back and told me that Jane was actually a simulacrum. I can’t say that I was disappointed because she was so proper and emotionally unendearing but I did feel deceived since I had invested a modest measure of my own emotional energy in engaging with her. The deception was furthered by the fact that her name found its place in the lineups of incoming and outgoing e-mails in my mail program, resting comfortably amidst e-mails from real people and overtly mechanical entities. What differentiated my slight encounter with Jane Brown from the intense relationship that Theodore had with Samantha, his OS (operating system) in Spike Jonze’s brilliant film Her, was that I initially believed that Jane Brown was real, while Theodore knew that Samantha was not, even though he was seduced by the depth of her affect.

What Spike Jonze tried to show us with his ending is that Theodore, after Samantha moves on, might be better prepared to have a relationship with a real woman, even though she would likely lack some of Samantha’s unusual qualities. However, with e-mail simulacra presenting themselves as real people, we may engage with them for a time as if they were real, only to feel deceived when and if we find out that they are not. Therefore, what is the point creating a simulacrum as a personal assistant if the objective of the encounter is simply to arrange a meeting or handle a transaction? I am happy enough to enter an on-line exchange with a text that is clearly instructional or aimed at accomplishing something concrete. I have no need for simulated emotional affect and certainly opt for the absence of it. While the technique for simulating a human voice is clear enough, I shudder to imagine what sort of prose would be needed to successfully simulate a live person in an on-line exchange. Would written affect not be as easily detectable as its aural counterpart?

I should also note that the simulated voices in all the telephone transactions I have experienced are those of seemingly white men and women, most likely in their 40s. No older people and certainly no one with an ethnic accent are ever suggested. On the phone, these simulacra have no names but on line their name is part of their identity. Jane Brown is a decidedly wasp name. The nomenclature of simulacra could be potentially explosive, presuming anyone other than a youngish white person would feel discriminated against for not being simulated.

Unlike the machine-like robots that Isaac Asimov wrote about in the 1940s and 1950s or the ones Will Smith encountered in the more recent film I, Robot, the aspirations of some robot scientists is to integrate artificial intelligence and approximate human beings as closely as possible. There is already a market for such humanoids in service industries where the interactions are more complex than those a vending machine can handle. Imagine simulated cosmetologists in Macy’s or waiters and waitresses in Bennigan’s. They will work for nothing and will not require health benefits or pensions. But will we tolerate them as we now tolerate humanoid voices on the phone? I suspect we will. The only saving grace is that we will know they are robots and consequently will save our emotional energy for real people. Should that boundary between the simulated and the real be blurred we will inevitably feel deceived when we are fooled.

Victor Margolin is Professor Emeritus of Design History at the University of Illinois, Chicago. He is currently working on a World History of Design to be published by Berg in London.

February 1st, 2015

David Stairs

I.

I once founded a town. It’s in the high desert about twenty miles outside of Bend, Oregon overlooking the magnificent Three Sisters Wilderness off in the distance to the west. I called the town Denial. At the time only two other people volunteered to live there, hence the sign. But many more would have qualified to be living in Denial.

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January 1st, 2015

David Stairs

Homo faber, humankind the maker, seems destined to design itself right out of a world.


MacGyver packin’

Unlike pharmacology, or agriculture, technology has a weak review process for testing its effects on the natural environment. We have user testing, of course, the way we discover what will make a product or service dangerous or addictive. And there are certainly safety regulations, but they often are 50 years out of date. Do you imagine Henry Ford thought much about crash-test dummies? Or John D. Rockefeller about climate change?

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November 30th, 2014

David Stairs

Ah, autumn.

A crispness is in the air. The delectable smell of woodsmoke, the warm sun burnishing a hundred shades of orange, the tang of fresh cider at the orchard, or a field full of pumpkins at sunset. Into this idyll clomp the Boys of Autumn toting the ultimate example of techno-idiocy: leaf blowers.


The Boys of Autumn

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October 31st, 2014

David Stairs

As a person who answers a lot of mail inquiring about socially responsible design internship options, a recent Skype conversation with some grad architecture students at Ball State University got me to dusting off some serious criticism of the “faux humanitarianism” of do-gooder design.

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September 23rd, 2014

David Stairs

I grew up in a subdivision of a crossroads-small town named Mattydale, N.Y. In the early 20th century the area had been comprised of dairy and vegetable farms that supplied the city of Syracuse. In the 1920s the farmers sold out, and from then through the 1950s suburbia sprouted where carrots and cabbages once had grown. The earlier developments were diverse, with homes of various ages occupying the same block. Across from my parent’s house, built in 1926, was a Cape Cod constructed in the ’50s, itself sitting on land that once was a chicken farm adjoining the farm house next door.

In my early college days I knew friends who had grown up in Levittown, N.Y. I didn’t think about it much at first, I mean, what’s in a name? Only later, when I came to know why Levittown existed did I begin to question its sanity. The late ’40’s were all about developing affordable living spaces for returning GIs and the families they would raise. John Entenza’s Case Study House project in California was one approach, small, select, specially designed. Levittown, the mass-produced racially discriminatory version, was another. Both projects were constructed upon a concrete slab using pre-fab materials, but there the similarities ended.


Rapid tear down of existing structure in early June…

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August 27th, 2014

Victor Margolin

I like to go to a café in the morning to read the paper before I start work. I also enjoy meeting friends and colleagues in cafes. For some time, the Starbucks in my Chicago neighborhood was my choice for reading the paper and a Caribou Coffee a few blocks north of my home was the place where I chose to meet colleagues and friends. The reason for the distinction is that the Starbucks is designated as a high volume take out store with minimal seating, while the Caribou Coffee, now closed and soon to reopen as Peet’s Coffee, had better seating options for meeting others.

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July 22nd, 2014

The following is excerpted from Jesse McClain’s 2014 Master’s thesis—Ed.

Jesse McClain

Figure 1: Images from top to bottom: Top two images – Anawalt strip mining site in Southern West Virginia. Bottom image: Town of Keystone, West Virginia, near the city of Welch, WV. Photos: Jesse McClain.

SITE CONTEXT AND DOCUMENTATION

Southern West Virginia and Western North Dakota were both visited as part of the research process. These sites were chosen due to their similar connections with the energy industry and also their polar opposites in terms of economic prosperity. Welch, West Virginia is a small town which used to be called “Little New York” in the early 1900s. It was the city at the hub of the world’s first “billion dollar coalfield” and provided many of the area’s residents with a healthy and even prosperous income. Now it is deteriorating as the powerful strip-mining companies replace humans with machines and blow the tops off nearby mountains. Long-time Welch resident, Hilda Mitros, details accounts of personal and environmental violence experienced under the influence of the coal companies. She talks about gas and water explosions in and near her home as the earth becomes unstable with directional drilling and diverted water flow. Floods and sinkholes are commonplace in an area which is sacrificed for it’s fossil fuels. Hilda also reports that the decline in the economic and environmental health of the region has been accompanied by an influx of drugs and political buy-offs. She offers stories of attempts by community members to stand against the development of a major dumping site for disposal of out of state waste. The community was initially able to rally and protest this intervention but eventually, leaders were swayed through high pressure negotiation and shadowy bribery tactics. Hilda used to run a kitchen and bar and she remembers when the times were good and people prospered in a healthy community. I asked her if anything good was occuring in Welch and she said, “no, there is nothing good happening here.” A place that was once full of vitality and optimism is struggling to see a future that holds a promise of anything other than more destruction and abuse.

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June 30th, 2014

David Stairs

There is a concept in science, known as publication bias, that suggests editors of scientific journals prefer to publish positive test results over the results of failed, or negative tests. It’s human nature, one supposes, to prefer good news to no news, and it certainly is better for circulation. The only problem is, it makes for bad science. When a profession, take medicine for instance, is denied the knowledge that certain drugs did not perform the way their manufacturers claimed they would, doctors are less able to act in the best interests of their patients.

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June 10th, 2014

Victor Margolin

If you are a white-collar worker making a decent salary, chances are that your paycheck will go directly to your bank so you can access it with a check or a withdrawal slip or draw on it with a credit card or mobile phone payment. There are banks that charge for such accounts, but only usually if the customer’s balance drops below a given amount. In many banks you will get the checking account free, while in some you will even earn a modicum of interest on it.

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May 10th, 2014

Daniel Drennan


“Believe in stone and survive.”

Framework

From the Declaration of the Palestinian People during the first intifada in 1987:

We will no longer be a subject people. If you order us to our camps, we will roam the countryside. Dig up our soil and bury us alive in it if you will. If you direct us to work in your factories, we will confine ourselves to our homes. Herd us into concentration camps if you will. If you instruct us to buy your produce and your products, we will grow and make our own.

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April 19th, 2014

David Stairs

At 10:02am on Saturday, February 23, 2014 I officially became old.


X-ray of surgical plate to correct a comminuted fracture of my right distal radius

As I left my house to take my dog Asali for a walk I noted that the front steps were blocked by snow. I’d been working hard throughout an unusually harsh winter to keep them clear, but a recent thaw— it had been 48°F the previous day— had caused snow to slide off the porch roof and pile on the steps.

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March 28th, 2014

Victor Margolin

I once thought that the greatest obstacle to reflective thought was the endless haptic texting that occupies the mental space of so many people but now I have a new culprit, data. Devices that have dissected our bodily functions into tiny shards flood the market, enabling us to either confirm the smooth functioning of our multiple organs, energy flows, and synapse synergies or else to detect glitches that merit our attention. Never have people had such an opportunity to be so aware of their bodies and take control of even the most minute irregularities in their physical performance.

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March 7th, 2014

David Stairs

Looking for love? It doesn’t matter if you have specialized tastes. Not only the “fetish-friendly” or the “transgerdered” are searching, but single moms, cancer sufferers, BBWs, middle-age widowers, cheating wives, and sugar daddies, too. The internet caters for all races, ages, and economic levels, no sexual preference too kinky or niche group too small.

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February 10th, 2014

Victor Margolin

Everyone knows that university sports have become a big business and increased access to their aura and actual content is a great way to raise money. Besides luxury stadium seats, there are the intimate dinners with star athletes, free DVDs of great games, gifts of jerseys with the numbers and names of outstanding players on them, and even an opportunity to meet with coaches pre-game to put in one’s two million dollars worth of strategy advice. These ideas are good but they miss the mark.

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January 17th, 2014

Vassiliki Giannopoulos
National Design Awards
Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
2 E 91st St, New York, NY 10128

Dear Ms. Giannopoulos,

Regarding your December 23rd email notifying us that Designers Without Borders has been nominated for the 2014 National Design Awards, we have this response.

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January 1st, 2014

David Stairs

An admission of personal weakness is not always a bad way to start a new year. I’m willing to stick my neck out and tell you a secret: I’m an inveterate maker of lists.

I can’t shop for food without using a list. At night I lie in bed evaluating the past with a list of events. In the morning I often compose an informal list of the days’ forthcoming activities. So, at a time of year when many people are generating lists of resolutions, it should come as no surprise when I tell you that the idea for this post presented itself in list form.

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December 8th, 2013

Victor Margolin

In recent weeks, I have been involved in three chaotic attempts to introduce changes in services that I have come to rely on. These include banking, public transit, and healthcare. The website of Obamacare is not the only evidence of innovative change that is malfunctioning. I would venture to say that a good many if not most of the new services that are being rolled out at a dizzying pace have glitches that range from minor to catastrophic.

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