Physical to Digital and Back: Bespoke Media

Curator's Note

One of the complaints I’ve seen lodged against the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is that it is always onto the "next big thing," often with iterative and unfinished products, never fully realizing their vision. Whereas tablets were the focus of a number of keynotes last year (when the PC market tried to beat the IPad before it hit the market), much of the talk this year has centered around the idea of "Always On" content that happens in a world "After the Computer."

Over at GEARFUSE, John Brownlee states the problem from a journalist’s perspective, but it affects all of us who use consumer electronics: “It’s a shame. I wish that the hundreds of talented tech journalists who converge upon CES every year could pass onto their reader a coherent vision of the landscape of the next year in tech, but who can blame them for not being able to do that when even the people making these gadgets can’t answer as simple a question as why their device matters?”

This is especially the case when so many of these devices operate in a wholly digital ecosystem. To a lot of people, they do not matter. While the digital media ecosystem is growing, it leaves many people behind, cut off from those who have moved on. This digital divide is common, and at least in library circles, it will be addressed by teaching the second-level literacy skills of “Transliteracy,” first defined by Sue Thomas as “…the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks.”

Far, far away from the glitz of Las Vegas, at the 2010 Saint Étienne International Design Biennial, “(a)ll objects, images, and services exhibited to the visitors may either question serious issues or show unexpected visions.” To that end, designer John Kestner has created a bespoke piece of technology, without minute iterations, that attempts to solve the digital divide in an elegant and personalway. While it does not address the underlying need for transliteracy, it meets the intended user more than halfway into their comfort zone, something which the Busybacksons at CES seem unable to do, as the process of iteration lacks any vision outside of minute technological evolution for mass production. It also is part of the “After the Computer” worldview, it does not look like a computer, it only has two functions, and it is “always on.” But it is much closer in feel to the non-digital world, where “always on” has little meaning. Even if it is for one person, it is suprising to see how simply one can answer the question: why does this device matter?



Thanks for this fantastic post, Joe.  There's a lot to work with here, and you actually anticipated a lot of the themes I tried to hit on in my post for tomorrow.  For now, I'll just focus on the question of "why does this device matter?", one that seems so absent at events like CES.  I think there are two ways of approaching the question.  

The first requires a second order interpretation of the device, the burden here being on the imaginary "soothsayers" of Brownlee's piece to draw significance out of the device (the "technologies as texts" argument).  

The second is that the device is a concept in itself.

Brownlee is after a new kind of tech journalism that can give us an overall picture of paradigm shifts rather than the obsessive anatomization of micro-changes in specs, etc.  While Brownlee's piece is really really good, and I love his writing, I think when you write here of products "finishing their vision," you're after that much more interesting (and slippery) second approach: the device as concept.

If we are to take CES as a kind of barometer for the coming year in consumer electronics and digital media--as the tech press tends to--I'm curious what you think we can take from the objects themselves that were presented?  That is, if we rise to Brownlee's challenge and try to imagine a "coherent vision of the landscape of next year in tech," is it possible to do so through the devices themselves rather than with an overarching journalistic account?

What strikes me about the video you embedded here, as well as a number of some of the devices presented in those less-well-lit corners of CES 2011, is this growing retro-gadget trend.  We have the Lady Gaga-designed, polaroid style camera with instant digital prints, the Fujifilm X100 that looks like a 1950s Argus or Bolex, the old drawer filled with dusty, forgotten family photos.  These homages to dead media seem to represent a yearning for tangibility and physicality that the touch screen simply can't provide.


 Joe – Thanks for a fantastic post, and for bringing Kestner’s Tableau to our attention. My comments are inspired by the quote you pulled from Brownlee’s Gearfuse article. Brownlee laments that CES exhibitors and tech journalists fail to offer a “coherent vision of the landscape of the next year in tech.” I disagree. As your post noted, each year CES exhibitors and the gadget press join together in designating a handful of innovations as that year’s “big stories.” In 2010 it was tablets and 3D TV; in 2011, it was “smart TV” (the subject of my post later this week). As I see it, the problem isn’t necessarily a failure to articulate a coherent vision, but rather that the vision that gets articulated is at best extraordinarily disconnected from the concerns and desires of consumers, and at worst insultingly insensitive toward those concerns and desires. Take 3D TV for instance; I’ve yet to encounter anyone who is clamoring to replace the HDTV that she spent a couple of thousand dollars on a few years ago with a 3D set. And yet the message out of CES 2010 – a message that was articulated on the floor and in the keynotes and subsequently amplified on all the gadget blogs – was that that set was all but obsolete. Perhaps the problem, then, is the level of collusion between the gadget press and the industry it covers. Perhaps what we need is not more soothsaying about technology’s future, but instead more tech writers who have the courage to critically engage with technology’s present.




@ Grant: Your question is worth asking, and I hope that the gadgets themselves would dictate the "coherent vision of the landscape of next year in tech," but it goes back to my desire to look for device as concept! I kinda feel like Brownlee passes the buck: journalists can't give the picture because engineers can't give the picture.

@ Max: Right?! (Also, I need a keybopard with an interrobang)

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