On Defining a Post-Industrial Style (1): from Industrial blobjects to post-industrial spimes

Today we recognize that a new set of cultural paradigms are emerging to supplant those of the Industrial Age, driven by an emergent and progressive demassification of culture amplified by digital communications and paralleled by a similar demassification of industrial production by virtue of digitally enhanced machine tools.

A 3-parter by Eric Hunting.

Today: from Industrial blobjects to post-industrial spimes.

Industrial Age blobbyness:

“In any given culture predominate styles of design coalesce as a function of the aesthetic principles/theories/notions dominant in that culture at any given time and the nature of the dominant techniques of art, fabrication, and industrial production employed in its communities. Archeologists and anthropologists understand this well and commonly identify cultures and time periods by tell-tale characteristics of the design of artifacts and their manufacture. Even for the laymen this is a relatively easy things to discern. We can readily see the stylistic differences between ruins of ancient Roman, Egyptian, pre-Columbian, and other past civilizations. We can easily see the differences between pottery from ancient China, native American Pueblos, Greece, and Africa. But what about our contemporary civilization, for which we should have a more intimate understanding? What predominate characteristics denote the nature of design and manufacture in our current Industrial Age culture?

Given the industrial illiteracy common in the contemporary society, one could be forgiven for assuming there are no predominate characteristics of Industrial Age culture because there are so many kinds of products and industrial processes and such a vast diversity of aesthetics along with -thanks to the global and mobile nature of our current civilization- a mish-mash of world ethnic cultural stylistic elements. In most any American household one might readily find artifacts with stylistic features lifted from any number of cultures past and present; Chinese dishware in the kitchen, Dutch tiles on the countertop, Scandinavian modern furniture in the living room, Japanese lanterns in the back yard, middle-eastern rugs, Javanese batik patterns on clothing and bed sheets, Italian Palladian elements in the basic design of the suburban home -and we’re not even talking about artwork and the like put up purely for decoration. It’s almost impossible to go anywhere in the industrialized world and not find such a mix. And yet when one learns a bit about manufacturing and industry and looks carefully at the artifacts making up our habitat one begins to see common characteristics in the design of factory-produced goods. Though the spectrum of industrial processes used today is vast, there are some techniques and methods more dominant than others and which are more strongly associated with the key paradigm of the Industrial Age; economy and ubiquity of goods through centralized mass production. The logistics of mass production itself imposes limitations reflected in the design of goods -even where design often attempts to disguise or conceal them in some way. Like the tell-tale mold marks on an injection-molded toy, there is a subtle, underlying, Industrial Age style imposed on most everything in our habitat today that transcends any of the decorative stylings we apply to it all on the surface. A series of characteristics that, if you look for them, clue-you into products fabrication processes and to a general schema for manufacture as a whole.

Dominated by this overriding paradigm of centralized mass production, across the Industrial Age we have seen an evolution in industrial design culminating in what designers Steven Skov Holt and Karim Rashid dubbed -and SF/futurist writer Bruce Sterling popularized- as the ‘blobject’; a mass-produced artifact characterized by streamlined organic ‘blobby’ forms deriving from the use of CAD/CAM and moldable materials such as plastic in largely monolithic shells. Commonly regarded as a very recent phenomenon, the actual origins of the blobject probably trace back -at least- to the application of Bakelite and similar early press-formed plastics to early consumer electronics and appliances as well as the use of pressed steel welded unibody construction in cars prior to WWII. It’s roots lay in the desire of industrial design to accommodate a Modernist streamlined aesthetic of the period, to separate style from function as a means to aid the specialization of design as a profession independent of engineering, to facilitate forced obsolescence through fashion, and to accommodate Industrial Age manufacturing’s tendency to seek to eliminate all aspects of hand craft in production through simplified fabrication processes (producing simplified forms) in order to insure uniform consistency and efficiency. These ideals tend to favor production processes based on molding of some form that can be easily mechanized -processes which are now predominate in contemporary manufacture.

The essential physical architecture common to most common blobjects today may actually have its origin in the 1955 Regency TR-1; the first pocket transistor radio and one of the first mass produced consumer electronics products employing a two-piece snap-together injection-molded case. This might seem too functionalist and rectilinear a design to be called a blobject -it’s less ‘blobby’ in shape than the Art-Deco style radio enclosures of the pre-WWII era-, yet all the essential characteristics of the contemporary blobject are there including the exploitation of the mutability of topology of electronic systems to accommodate a design whose form is dictated by other factors. Though contemporary design forms may be increasingly fanciful, the architecture of a printed circuit board and other components suspended within a two-piece clam-shell enclosure is the dominant architecture among current consumer electronics products. The key difference between blobjects of the past and present is the economy of production tooling. The approach was always favored for its economy over other approaches that were more craft-dependent but the nature of molded plastic and metal production compelled maximization of production volumes to accommodate high tooling costs, particularly in the fabrication of steel molds and dies. This limited early blobjects to a spectrum of products most likely to be produced in volumes of many hundreds of thousands or millions of units. The reason for the explosion in application of these forms today is due to the application of CAD/CAM resulting in a radical reduction of costs for such tooling allowing the use of such forms to be justified for products of relatively low -and falling- production volumes.

The blobject now dominates contemporary product design and with their design process now empowered with computer modeling and their prototyping radically simplified through rapid prototyping technology, blobject characteristics can now be seen in everything from home appliances to spacecraft like the famed Spaceship One. However, a peculiar side effect of this has been a deterioration in the general competency of design. It’s professional specialization now total, the design ‘industry’ increasingly disregards engineering and the technicalities of production, treating design as something pure and independent of such things. Students can graduate design schools without any working knowledge of any science or technology and we are increasingly seeing the showcasing and lauding of imaginary CGI based product designs that are quite simply impossible to ever produce in reality, defying even the most basic laws of physics. And as a community, designers seem decreasingly concerned about this because they treat the ‘reality checking’ as someone else’s job. Industrial design is eliminating that industrial aspect. It’s becoming a kind of art, which would be OK if the end result wasn’t an increasing number of products that are wasteful and poor in function and performance and whose price is inflated on the basis of style. Style can now put a $100 price tag on a piece of cardboard. Is this a triumph of design, or a perverse aberration of it?

The blobject is the quintessential Industrial Age artifact. An object optimized for automated mass production where handcraft is completely eliminated and design is largely independent of function and production technique. While considered emotionally engaging, the blobject is often the basis of a kind of dishonesty in design. An attempt to hide the way things work, how they are made, and to disguise what they are made of and to base their quality on subjective aspects of aesthetics and stylistic reference to certain socio-economic classes. In this they tend to reflect the Industrial Age notion of a sliding scale of economy for everything in life, including social class status. Blobjects are also often deliberately irreparable and un-upgradeable -sometimes to the point where they are engineered to be unopenable without being destroyed in the process. This further facilitates planned obsolescence while also imposing limits on the consumer’s own use of a product as a way to protect market share and technology propriety. Generally, repairability of consumer goods is now impractical as labor costs have made repair frequently more expensive than replacement, where it isn’t already impossible by design. In the 90s car companies actually toyed with the notion of welding the hoods of new cars shut on the premise that the engineering of components had reached the state where nothing in the engine compartment needed to be serviceable over a presumed ‘typical’ lifetime for a car. (a couple of years) This, of course, would have vastly increased the whole replacement rate for cars and allowed companies to hide a lot of dirty little secrets under that welded hood. In his 2004 speech to SIGGRAPH entitled “When Blobjects Rule The Earth” Bruce Sterling commented on the dark side of the blobject saying;”…they haven’t started ruling the Earth yet. Because they’re still too primitive. They’re not sustainable, so they’re merely optimizing the previous system. They are a varnish on barbarism.”

Today we recognize that a new set of cultural paradigms are emerging to supplant those of the Industrial Age, driven by an emergent and progressive demassification of culture amplified by digital communications and paralleled by a similar demassification of industrial production by virtue of digitally enhanced machine tools. We characterize this emergent Post-Industrial cultural shift by these processes of demassification and by the progressive miniaturization and automation of tools and processes of fabrication resulting in a localization and personalization of industrial production and progressive customization/personalization in the design of goods. The consumer of the Industrial Age is evolving, slowly, into a ‘prosumer’, increasingly engaged in the lifecycle of design and production of products as well as their use, adaptive-reuse, upcycling, and recycling. New miniaturized processes of production radically alter how things are likely to be designed and made to accommodate the topological and logistical limitations. As we have just seen, the Industrial Age culture is indeed characterized by predominant production techniques and a resulting predominate theory in design. Thus we can anticipate that the same would emerge with the emergence of a Post-Industrial culture.

Towards Post-Industrial Design

Let us now consider what a theory of Post-Industrial design might be like and the stylistic characteristics that are its hallmarks.

Industrial Ecology:

Alvin Toffler suggested that the transition between cultural ‘waves’ of civilization was not strictly serial in nature. That the seeds of the Second Wave (the Industrial Age) were emergent in the midst of the First Wave (the Pre-Industrial or Agrarian Age) and likewise the seeds of the Third Wave (the Post-Industrial Age) are currently emergent in the midst of the Second Wave. This is perhaps no more clearly apparent than in the history of the Industrial Age’s greatest technical achievement; the personal computer. For in this achievement lay one of the seeds of the Industrial Age’s own obsolescence; a new and commonly overlooked industrial paradigm called the Industrial Ecology. The personal computer is the single-most sophisticated mass-produced artifact human beings have ever created. Bill Gates once suggested that the creation of a new personal computer operating system was akin in complexity and man- hours to engineering and building a new jet airliner. And yet the astounding thing about this device is that, over the span of a couple decade, what was originally a multi-million-dollar colossus became a blobject one can carry in a pocket, is now so cheap and ubiquitous that people who can’t even afford basic housing can still often afford a computer, and is so simple in composition that a child can be taught to assemble one in less than an hour using components made and bought from all over the globe -and it will boot up and run the first time it’s turned on! This is an incredibly astounding feat that we are generally oblivious to. This is the single-greatest accomplishment of the Industrial Age, and most of us never think twice about it.

How was such a feat possible? We commonly attribute the rapid shrinking in scale of the computer to the advance of integrated circuit technology. But that’s just a small part of the story that doesn’t explain the economy and ubiquity of computers. The real force behind that was a radically different industrial paradigm that emerged more-or-less spontaneously in response to the struggle companies faced in managing the complexity of the new technology. Put simply, the computer was too complicated for any one corporation to actually develop independently -not even for multi-national behemoths like IBM that once prided itself on being able to do everything. A radically new way of doing things was needed to make the computer practical.

The large size of early computers was a result not so much of the primitive nature of the technology of the time but on the fact that most of that early technology was not actually specific to the application of computers. It was repurposed from electronic components that were originally designed for other kinds of machines. Advancing the technology to where the vast diversity of components needed could be made and optimized specifically for the computer demanded an extremely high development investment -more than any one company in the world could actually afford. There simply wasn’t a big enough computer market to justify the cost of development of very sophisticated parts exclusively for computers. While performing select R&D on key components, early computer companies began to position themselves as systems integrators for components made by sub-contractracted suppliers rather than manufacturing everything themselves. While collectively the development of the full spectrum of components computers needed was astronomically expensive, individually they were quite within the means of small businesses and once the market for computers reached a certain minimum scale it became practical for such companies to develop parts for these other larger companies to use in their products. This was aided by progress in other areas of consumer, communications, and military digital electronics -a general shift to digital electronics- that helped create larger markets for parts also suited to computer applications. The more optimized for computer use subcomponents became, the smaller and cheaper the computer as a whole became and the smaller and cheaper the computer the larger the market for it, creating more impetus for more companies to get involved in computer-specific parts development. ICs were, of course, a very key breakthrough but the nature of their extremely advanced fabrication demanded extremely large product markets to justify. The idea of a microprocessor chip exclusive to any particular computer is actually a rather recent phenomenon even for the personal computer industry. Companies like Intel now host a larger family of concurrently manufactured and increasingly use-specialized microprocessors than was ever imaginable just a decade ago.

For this evolution to occur the nature of the computer as a designed product had to be very different from other products common to industrial production. Most industrial products are monolithic in the sense that they are designed to be manufactured whole from raw materials and very elemental parts in one central mass production facility. But the design of a computer isn’t keyed to any one resulting product. It has an ‘architecture’ that is independent of any physical form. A set of component function and interface standards that define the electronics of a computer system but not necessarily any particular physical configuration. Unlike other technologies, electronics is very mutable. There are an infinite variety of potential physical configurations of the same electronic circuit. This is why electronics engineering can be based on iconographic systems akin to mathematics -something seen in few other industries to a comparable level of sophistication. (chemical engineering) So the computer is not a product but rather a _platform_ that can assume an infinite variety of shapes and accommodate an infinite diversity of component topologies as long as their electronic functions conform to the architecture. But, of course, one has to draw the line somewhere and with computer parts this is usually derived from the topology of standardized component connections and the most common form factors for components. Working from this a computer designer develops configurations of components integrated through a common motherboard that largely defines the overall shape possible for the resulting computer product. Though companies like Apple still defy the trend, even motherboards and enclosures are now commonly standardized, which has ironically actually encouraged diversity in the variety of computer forms and enclosure designs even if their core topological features are more-or-less standardized and uniform.

Thus the computer industry evolved into a new kind of industrial entity; an Industrial Ecology formed of a food-chain of interdependencies between largely independent, competitive, and globally dispersed companies defined by component interfaces making up the basis of computer platform architectures. This food chain extends from discrete electronics components makers, through various tiers of sub-system makers, to the computer manufacturers at the top -though in fact they aren’t manufacturing anything in the traditional sense. They just cultivate the platforms, perform systems integration, customer support, marketing, and -decreasingly as even this is outsourced to contract job shops- assemble the final products.

For an Industrial Ecology to exist, an unprecedented degree of information must flow across this food chain as no discrete product along this chain can hope to have a market unless it conforms to interface and function standards communicated downward from higher up the chain. This has made the computer industry more open than any other industry prior to it. Despite the obsessions with secrecy, propriety, and intellectual property among executives, this whole system depends on an open flow of information about architectures, platforms, interfaces standards, software, firmware, and so on -communicated through technical reference guides and marketing material. This information flow exists to an extent seen nowhere else in the Industrial Age culture. It’s hard to even characterize the computer industry as something of the Industrial Age because of this. And perhaps the single-most ironic part of all this is that most of the people in this industry have no grasp of this concept of an Industrial Ecology or any concrete notion of how their own industry works. They never see the forest for the trees -leading to repeated strategic blunders from the top with executives forever left puzzled because they still think they’re in an industry that works like Henry Ford’s car industry. This whole thing evolved ad-hoc, aided by the rather abstract or high-level nature of digital electronics and software engineering with their basis in symbolic languages.

One of the surprising aspects of such an Industrial Ecology is the multi-directional flow of design and development influence along the food chain. One might assume that control over the evolution of computer platforms flows strictly from the top down. It doesn’t. In fact, IBM learned that lesson the hard way. Competition produces innovation at any level of the food chain with impact flowing both vertically and horizontally through the ecology. And though a particular platform may define a particular food chain down through the ecology, any number of potential food chains may be hosted in that same collective ecology. This is why such radically different platforms as the Macintosh and PC can be products of the same ecology.

Progressive modularization and interoperability standardization tends to consolidate and simplify component topologies near the top of the food chain. This is why a personal computer is, today, so simple to assemble that a child can do it -or for that matter an end-user or any competitor to the manufacturers at the top. All that ultimately integrates a personal computer into a specific physical form is the motherboard and the only really exclusive aspect of that is its shape and dimensions and an arrangement of parts which, due to the nature of electronics, is topologically mutable independent of function. There are innumerable possible motherboard forms that will still work the same as far as software is concerned. This made the PC an incredibly easy architecture to clone for anyone who could come up with some minor variant of that motherboard to circumvent copyrights, a competitive operating system, a work-around the proprietary aspects of the BIOS, and could dip into that same food chain and buy parts in volume. Once an industrial ecology reaches a certain scale, even the folks at the top become expendable. The community across the ecology has the basic knowledge necessary to invent platforms of its own, establish its own standards bottom-up, and seek out new ways to reach the end-user customer. And this is what happened to IBM when it stupidly allowed itself to become a bottleneck to the progress of the personal computer in the eyes of everyone else in its ecology. That ecology, for sake of its own growth, simply took the architecture of the PC from IBM and established its own derivative standards independent of IBM -and there was nothing even that corporate giant could ultimately do about it.

Today even end users compete with the ‘apex manufacturers’ at the top of the food chains. A PC can be as readily built by an end-user himself or built-on-demand in a shop as it can be bought pre-made with some large company brand. This has led to some companies adopting strategies of ‘mass customization’ based on allowing customers to select configurations of PC products assembled on-demand -a powerful concept in a demassifying culture increasingly subject to Long Tail market phenomenon and which is now spreading to other industries where there are means of introducing similar flexibility in production, usually through modularization of optional features. So all along the food chain of the PC platform parts developers are alternately thinking about and marketing to OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), parts distributors serving custom PC makers, and even end-users. Again, this is all an astounding revolution in the way things are supposed to work in the Industrial Age. A great demassification of industrial power and control. Just imagine what the car industry would be like if things worked like this -as well one should as this is, in fact, coming. Increasingly, the model of the computer industry is finding application in a steadily growing number of other industries. Bit by bit, platforms are superceding products and Industrial Ecologies are emerging around them.

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