XX.5 September + October 2013
Page: 80
Digital Citation

Demo or die?

Jonathan Bean, Daniela Rosner

Transforming Micro-Apartment at the Museum of the City of New York

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A tall, blond woman walks expressionless through the apartment, her stiletto boots registering nary a click on the floors. The apartment is small, 325 square feet to be exact, or about the size of a two-car garage. It is impeccably furnished, electric colors popping up against a slick ground of gray and black and white, on trend with the 1970s revival making its way through the home-design scene. The woman is impeccably dressed. Her white blouse matches the walls. Her gray heathered-wool skirt matches the Bolon-brand woven vinyl floors imported from Sweden.

This is where she goes through life's regular routines. When she has friends over, the striped pink ottoman transforms into four stools and a table. When her friends leave, she flips up the seat of the hot-pink sofa, stores the square-ish back couch cushions, then flips the seat down and pulls on a shelf over the sofa, causing a wall panel to hinge downward. On the other side of the panel is a neatly made bed. When she needs to change clothes, she opens a white-lacquered closet door and selects one of her other three white blouses. She also has two pairs of white pants. All of these garments can be ironed with a white iron on a board that swivels out from the closet.

She does not seem aware that we can see her. The filmic effect is somewhere between American Psycho, Rear Window, and Sleeper. Okay, that might be overstating it a bit, but from the video it might be fair to diagnose a slight case of OCD. We are talking, after all, about a woman who wears only white and gray and who spends a lot of time rearranging furniture in stilettos.

Modernism is maintaining its grip on the future.

Video woman—she doesn't have a name, but it would be safe to call her Heather—is on a permanent one-minute, 43-second loop on the TV in her own apartment, a narrative device for a model home in an exhibit on future housing forms at the Museum of the City of New York [1]. Given the context, the video is meant to be informative. But it comes off as creepy. More than creepy. Unheimlich.

Video is an effective way to communicate the potential of new ideas, and it's becoming increasingly important to designers, especially to those in the HCI community. MIT's Media Lab set the tone for these with their "demo or die" maxim [2]: short films that are a little bit cheeky, irreverent, and yes, geeky, set to a well-crafted audio background of clicks, whirs, and pops, occasionally culminating in an appeal to make the world a better place—or at least a different place. Through the adoption of a new circuit board or robotic actuator, the people in these films delight in a world transformed.

This transformation comes to life at the interface of what Madeline Elish has termed the "research video" and the "official video," the first built to explain and the second designed to inspire and excite [2]. Elish probed this boundary in her documentation of an MIT Media Lab research video that was "leaked" to the public on YouTube. The video's depiction of smart robots gave rise to panicked comments—a "YouTube wakeup call" that brought the medium's narratives of unproblematic future-making into question.

Videos elsewhere on the Web reinforce this problematic. For example, successful Kickstarter videos—for obvious reasons—match the manifest persuasiveness factor of an infomercial. One successful Kickstarter video pitched Windowfarms, "vertical, hydroponic gardens that let you grow some of your own food indoors, even in the winter ... so we'll all be learning together how to grow again." But while having access to fresh herbs in January is undeniably appealing, the promise that a device that pumps fertilizer directly onto plant roots is going to soothe a collective yearning to go back to the land seems more than a little far-fetched. What we have is not a simple communication device illustrating the potential of a new innovation, but rather an advertisement that must conform to the conventions embedded in the marketplace. And that causes trouble.

Middle class, well educated, and white: Those using the designed objects of the future—as represented and imagined in many videos—are often the same as the designers and funders of those objects. They share an interest in the same kinds of activities, make similar lifestyle choices, and relish a technological aesthetic, the same as the designers and engineers behind the scenes. While claiming inclusivity, they introduce preferences for particular mediums and input techniques, as well as material and sociocultural constraints, that inadequately account for a diversity of use [3]. Demo videos are rooted in this worldview, so they not only communicate what is or might be possible, but also reinforce whose problems the design possibilities are meant to address.

Heather's home, represented as both a prototype and a video demo, was part of an exhibit titled "Making Room: New Models for Housing New Yorkers." It asked architects and planners to speculate on how density could be increased in an already dense city. New York City, which is projected to add 600,000 more people in the coming 16 years, is not the only place experiencing a housing crunch; cities all over the globe are trying to fit more people into less space due to a number of factors, including immigration, economic factors, the younger generation's preference for urban life, and increasing standards of living. But while the other proposals on display paid attention to the full spectrum of people who live in cities, including immigrants and the disabled, the most impactful experience was focused squarely on the "needs" of the upper middle class, showing that you don't need thousands of square feet to live the good life—just thousands of dollars to spend on built-in Transformer furniture.

Never mind another trend: Increasing social mobility brings with it geographical mobility. Who wants to spend $5,000 on a couch you may own for only three years and that may not be practical to transport to your next apartment in San Francisco, London, or Shanghai?

The problem is the needs of the group of people addressed in demo videos are already fairly well met. In the case of the exhibit, New York's existing housing stock of brokered apartments and a little company from the Swedish countryside called IKEA has already been addressing the needs of the socially mobile and those who are relatively affluent but cramped for space. In the case of HCI videos, specialty stores and IKEA similarly serve as resources to fuel desires for play and environmentally sustainable living. But working-class people and immigrants face entirely different everyday challenges, squeezing into illegal apartments in the outer reaches of the Bronx and Queens, and spending hours on buses and trains to get to low-paying service jobs—problems that folding furniture, no matter how ingenious, simple, and stylish, can't solve.

Since Engelbart's "mother of all demos," video narratives of technological development have shaped futures by introducing cutting-edge research to the public domain. In HCI, in the wilds of entrepreneurial technoculture, and especially on Kickstarter, the demo video rules. As a representational form, video is emotionally resonant. By positioning a new technology as the clear solution for a known problem, it can transform us from passive viewers into agents of a solution. Yet, in traveling from the lab or studio to the television or YouTube channel, the designed object, along with its representation, configures and reconfigures the user, itself, and the culture it pervades. The question then becomes how we might use this visual language to build a greater diversity of use—and whether such diversity is even possible given the privilege associated with a career in design and technology. Should it be our responsibility to create platforms that enable the co-production of video demos by under-represented users, and to encourage commentary and the modification of demo scripts by inviting additional voices into the editing room? After all, it is the conversation between the video audience and video producers that matters. Rather than riding the modernist wave of efficiency, clean lines, and universal solutions, demo videos might exhibit multiple propositions for reenvisioning the future and ourselves.

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2. Elish, M.C. Responsible storytelling: Communicating research in video demos. Proc. of the 5th International Conference on Tangible, Embedded, and Embodied Interaction. ACM, 2011, 25–28

3. Oudshoorn, N., Rommes, E., and Stienstra, M. Configuring the user as everybody: Gender and design cultures in information and communication technologies. Science, Technology & Human Values 29, 1 (2004), 30–63.

back to top  Authors

Jonathan Bean is a postdoctoral fellow at Parsons the New School for Design in New York City, where he is helping to start a new program in design studies. His work is interdisciplinary and deals with domesticity, technology, and consumer culture.

Daniela Rosner is a Ph.D. candidate at U.C. Berkeley's School of Information and a lecturer at the California College of the Arts (CCA). Her research focuses on how cultural histories are woven into our interactions with the things we create.

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