On May 3 and 4 a memorable event took place in Cambridge, Mass. About 70 people gathered, practically impromptu, at the IBM/Lotus Rogers Auditorium to participate in the reincarnated Ninth Annual Living Surfaces miniconference Multiples of 1.
A longer version of this program was scheduled for a full three-day conference in Chicago, with 24 speakersincluding keynote speaker Karim Rashidas part of the American Center for Design's (ACD) ongoing programs. Two weeks earlier, the ACD sadly announced the closing of the 75-year-old organization. The timing couldn't have been worse for Living Surfaces, once a popular forum exploring the intersection of technology and design.
Just two weeks before the opening, though, the speakers were practically ready. The program was set and anticipation was building. The news came as a shock.
Exactly a week before the conference was to open, and while dropping off my children at school, I ran into some friends, with whom I shared the event's predicament. Later, one of them called me to brainstorm. The following day we went to see some other colleagues in Cambridge to discuss the situation.
That evening, three friends called me separately and each suggested almost simultaneously that we have a local version of Living Surfaces, to "preserve the spirit of Multiples of 1." As if to confirm this symbolic sentiment, one of them heroically moved the conference information from the now defunct ACD Web site to his own personal site.
What is remarkable was the ensuing whirlwind of collaboration, support, and generosity. Frantic calls and e-mails between the Boston AIGA Experience Design group, Harvard Design School's Center for Design Informatics, Viant, IBM/Lotus, friends, family, and colleagues.
Sudden flurry of activity and positive energy reincarnated the program and event with nine local speakers, as our new ad hoc organizing team put together the event in less than five days. Suddenly, rather than a swan song for the nine-year-old tradition, Living Surfaces was alive and kicking in Boston.
The conference explored the benefits and pitfalls of collaboration, playfully named "Multiples of 1" around three themes and six subthemes (see sidebar on page 21). Recognizing that most designers abhor design by committee, I asked the attendees to think about what it means to work "within the network" and the implications for productive collaboration.
As individuals working together within a network, we need to explore at least three challenges: identity, or coping with an inevitable identity crisis; production, or learning to improve on product design and profit margins; and reception, or managing information in multiple channels and modalities.
Each speaker addressed one of two aspects of the themes (Identity: Double and Defy; Production: Reap and Reproduce; and Reception: Interpret and Invade).
Double, Defy + Double
Stating that "identity is the first casualty of consensus," I introduced Anthony Fabian's short film Jean, an enigmatic "psychological thriller, a puzzle that must be resolved by the viewer." With this film, the young London-based filmmaker asks, where "everything seems to be concerned with a duality, an inversion, some kind of binary structure. Isn't that just very human?"
Next came Judith Donath, who directs the Sociable Media research group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where research focuses on intuitive visualizations of social interactions. Judith spoke about making sense, personifying, and making visible others in the network, stating that "categorization, like collaboration, can be both a bad and a good thing."
David Tames, a local filmmaker, media technologist, and experience designer, showed his two-minute gem Destiny, "a classic New York love story of two people who are perfect for each other, yet never meet." In the discussion afterward Tames wistfully commented, "as designers of virtual communities we are challenged with creating a sense of place in virtual space."
Reap + Reproduce
Kate Ehrlich opened a session claiming that the exponential value of Reed's Law lies in the social dimension, not just the numerical, observing that the value of having more people connected only comes when there is interaction between people. But "there is no guarantee that everyone will talk to each other all the time even though they could."
Addressing the proposition that products today require sensual differentiation, Hiroshi Ishii, founder and director of MIT's Tangible Media Group, presented "Tangible Bits: Towards Seamless Interface between People, Bits, and Atoms." Ishii showed a compelling range of remarkable objects, including the Curlybot (see Figure 1), arguing that today's products can provide "physical embodiment, tactile feedback, and physical persistence of a digital connection."
Karen Donoghue, founder and principal of HumanLogic and author of the recently released Built for Use, shared with us her delight that executives have recently begun to understand the value of experience architects and the role of user-centered design as something on equal footing with marketing and product development.
Interpret + Invade
David Rose, founder and president of Ambient Devices, opened the third session by sharing his father's age-old fascination with barometric devices, which led Rose to the invention of new networked productssome displaying weather in innovative ways. Rose observed that "information artifacts have the potential to make information easy to know and also may invade surface in our lives."
Glorianna Davenport, a founding member of the MIT Media Lab, and Aisling Kelliher, a PhD candidate in the Interactive Cinema Group, presented "Observation and Constructed Realities: Growing a Shared Story Perspective." They proposed that "all cultures are built on a foundation of shared stories." While discussing the challenges of co-creation, Davenport argued that "the structure of expression is shaped by culture and technology," and Kelliher observed that trends such as video blogs are making us more public and less shameless about our most intimate thoughts.
For Invade, Jeffrey Huang discussed his adventures working in the zone where the virtual and real meet, where the Internet has played a pivotal role in changing our experiences. (See "Internet and Architecture," which exemplifies two of the themes in this issue.)
Despite its rather rapid reincarnation, the miniconference drew about 70 people. It provided a much-needed forum for discussing pertinent social realities and applying them to design and technology. Attendees spent much of their time debating, sharing, and enthusing about the provocative ideas proposed by the presenters and panels. Many people, especially those who hung around long after the ventilation systems shut down, are already expressing their support for holding a similar event in the future. Who knows, perhaps we'll do it again next year? Stay tuned.
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