January 10th, 2013 by Gwen McCarter
Tech innovation is the stuff of magic when it presents us with the devices we never knew we couldn’t live without, or when it fulfills our collective geek dreams to see Star Trek become reality. (Now that we have the iPad mini with FaceTime, here’s hoping teleportation is next.)
And then there are times when perfectly useful and good technology morphs into something hideous and terrifying. In the case of The Terminator (or, more accurately, in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which gave me many a nightmare), machines were positioned to take over the world because of one scientist’s desire to see his research through to its full potential. (If Joe Morton’s character couldn’t have foreseen the consequences in 1991, fair enough, but this wipe-humans-off-the-earth scenario has apparently become so much of a pressing concern that Stephen Hawking recently joined an “anti-robot apocalypse think tank” called The Cambridge Project for Existential Risk.)
A much more common and seemingly benign version of this shift happens when a popular tech innovation is stretched just a little too far. Take high-definition television (or the floundering 3-D fad, for that matter). In contrast to the charming pixelation that we were willing to tolerate for decades, HD has felt nothing short of amazing as a way to make pictures clearer and experiences closer. But the time has come when companies are attempting to make that experience so close that it’s no longer comfortable. Instead of interacting with a story through a filter that leaves something of its world to the imagination, instead of looking at a news anchor through a lens that kindly leaves his or her pores out of the picture, we’re confronted with an in-your-face, never-before-so-intense degree of the hyperreal.
This morning, I came across news that one of the products being showcased at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show is a horrifying ultrahigh-definition television set. New content will have to be created specifically for this device because it contains four times more pixels than current-generation HD TVs (a difference that would allow viewers to see the veins on a leaf, for example…or on Lady Grantham’s hands, should she go without gloves). According to NPR, only about 50 films have been shot using an ultra-HD camera since 2004.
I can imagine the reasoning behind the decision to introduce this 110-inch monstrosity relied on the idea that people love HD, so extreme HD must be the ticket to even greater success. More is more! That logic certainly applies to some things in the world, and not everyone despises the ultrareal experience as much as I do, but tech innovators are at risk of missing an important trend: the reintroduction of the human.
As a counterpoint to all things glitz, glam, corporate, and mass-produced, many of us have been gravitating for some time toward objects and experiences that are handmade, flawed, underground, and singular (hello, Etsy! hello, letterpressed and microbrewed everything!). The point isn’t necessarily to displace perfect objects completely, but neither is it to only fill our homes with handcrafted goods from Brooklyn. It’s more so to strike a balance, taking advantage of tech advancements while making sure we don’t lose touch with the human condition in the process.
In a December New Yorker piece, Trent Reznor discussed a nascent project–a collaboration with Beats Electronics that will launch a new kind of streaming music service as a follow-up to the likes of Spotify and Pandora. The idea behind the project (known informally as Daisy for now) is to offer suggestions to the listener through a combination of algorithms AND expert curation. According to Reznor, there was a need for this type of service because the first generation’s model “has begun to feel synthetic.” In another article, Reznor was quoted as saying Daisy would be a platform “in which the machine and the human would collide more intimately.”
In this new year, I’m looking forward to seeing more projects pushing in that same direction, more thinking that doesn’t thumb its nose completely at technology but that helps us reclaim some humanity in our digital lives.
Meanwhile, Daisy is set to come out in early 2013, and I will be watching The Graduate in glorious, romantic Technicolor on my regular old high-def TV tonight.
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The PARAGRAPH Project is a marketing research and strategy firm based in Durham, NC. We are, at times, a strange brew. But this is what works for us — and inevitably, it works for our clients. The types of people who work at PARAGRAPH are strategists, anthropologists, artists, engineers, entrepreneurs, negotiators, students and builders. Herein lies our value.We are able to look at problems from many different perspectives and apply this diverse point of view to solutions for our clients. After all, if we conduct the same research in the same ways as our competitors, what advantage do we gain? By using old research methodologies in new ways and inventing new methodologies unique to each client’s research objectives, we quickly explore more territory to find insights often overlooked. We believe creativity is the missing link between useful information and actionable inspiration.
September 3rd, 2011 by Gwen McCarter
In every direction, we see nostalgia for the good old days of analog — when budding technologies were splendid in their simplicity and romantic in their rough-around-the-edges appeal. (At least, that’s the view from here. My pink plastic film camera was, in 1989, undoubtedly more decrepit than fabulous.)
Seemingly with no boundaries, we’re breathing new life into old charmers, from Polaroid and Lomography to turntables to rotary phones. Even hand-written letters have been experiencing a resurgence. In large part, it’s no wonder why we crave slow, tangible pleasures; an always-on digital life can be maddening. And if we allow ourselves to be fully caught up in that existence, impatience for everything to operate like clockwork can lead to burnout.
But that trend hasn’t kept on going and going and going just because we are sentimental creatures craving escapism from the world as it is. There has to be more to the story than just that.
From at least one angle, the most interesting part of returning to analog rituals is how they can reinvigorate our hectic business and creative routines, giving brief respites from chaos that help us put our hands back in the fire with fresh enthusiasm.
There’s no shortage of research supporting activities of this kind. Says NYU psychologist Joshua Aronson, keeping our minds nimble is crucial to keeping and growing mental capacities:
“A decade ago, we thought you got what you were given at birth and that was pretty much it. But now we know the number of brain cells can increase throughout your life through neurogenesis. There’s great evidence that shows if you really work on a skill, the part of the brain associated with that skill grows. The mind is like a muscle. If you don’t keep exercising it, it will atrophy.”
But science aside, people engage in restorative mental activities — and keep on doing so — because they work. Plan and simple. If they didn’t work, I doubt even the most patient among us would be choosing peaceful ashrams and monasteries as vacation destinations or engaging in daily meditation at home.
Of course, rituals work differently for each of us; it doesn’t matter how you slow down as long as the experience inspires you to get back in the game.
Lucky me, I recently came into possession of a 1937 Remington typewriter that creates just that kind of experience. When I tap-tap-tap on that thing, old facilitates new. You see, each of the keys is connected to a circuit that, with the help of a USB cord, feeds my typing into an electronic document on my computer. The typewriter physically slows my hands down, which slows my mind down, which helps me feel more satisfied with what I have so deliberately produced. It helps me focus on the task at hand, not least because I know I have a digital copy to go back to and edit whenever I want.
But slowing down doesn’t necessarily require tools.
A cliche though it may be, I go on walks to get ideas. It worked in college when I drew a blank about the paper I had to write for my German philosophy class. And it works today when I want to write something creative but feel like my mind needs room to spread out. So I leave the digitally charged air of my apartment and venture out. More often than not, I arrive home with something I’m dying to commit to paper.
They say we must “slow down to speed up.” And by finding our own ways of keeping the creative juices flowing, this modern life can be a sustainable thing.
What are your rituals for coping with and making the most of a fast-paced life?
July 18th, 2011 by Dave Alsobrooks
Along the way in our discussion of ingenuity we met Johannes Gutenberg, a gaggle of DIY-ers and a few other characters concerned with the business of forward thinking and making things in new ways. Gutenberg was a good place to start as his storied work with moveable type ushered in a new age of learning and thus the advancement of society as a whole. Let’s leap forward to the here and now where we are experiencing another great leap in publishing, the magazine app. Is it just a glorified PDF or the way forward? We are in the early stages but I believe the ingenuity of developers and end-users of this medium alike will usher in a new age of publishing.
About a year ago, Wired jumped out in front of many other publications with a much-ballyhooed edition of their magazine for the iPad. There was a distinct wow factor at the time. Talk about moveable type! It was fun to flip through a magazine again. There was plenty to love, but the critics who knew plenty about UX, publishing models and so on were able to poke a few holes in the initial release. Essentially they were split on like/dislike, but where was the precedent? Who was right? Well, a year later and Wired is still pushing the evolution of the medium. And it’s getting better. They’ve been an integral part of the initial thrust of magazine apps alongside the likes of Popular Mechanics, Sports Illustrated, Self, and Oprah. Just like in the 15th century, it would seem we are witnessing a publishing revolution.
The magazine apps have opened up new possibilities for making content stickier. We still have many of the same columns and guest appearances by our favorite writers, photographers and illustrators. But how about embedded video and audio files to go along with our text? Additional links to other relevant content? We can now do these things — and under a familiar masthead, one with equity. These capabilities foster a new kind of immersion in topics of interest to readers everywhere. At least those with tablets. What about the tactile experience? To be honest, not everything needs to be tactile to our fingers. A little mental stimulation is just fine, thank you very much.
But as the critics pointed out, a few growing pains persist. And these are not all tied to the developers — some of them fall back onto us marketers. For example, in a recent Wired edition for the iPad I noticed several static ads that looked as if they’d been “ripped from the headlines,” or maybe more appropriately, “ripped from the print edition.” These were certainly a missed opportunity to take advantage of the technology being employed. Also, a few with QR codes. QR codes in a magazine app? It’s easy to surmise that no one has really figured out how to best implement these codes. But seriously, am I going to take out my mobile device, scan the QR code from my tablet, and find myself enlightened? I’m more likely to find myself mildly annoyed without even scanning the code. This before I swipe through to the next article. These electronic editions are a specific medium and so they require a bit of attention in how they are utilized. We’re learning, just as Gutenberg’s contemporaries did before they began spewing forth centuries of learning into the world, fostering a new generation of luminaries. So with a little ingenuity on the part of developers (and a little help from us), new ways of capitalizing on this burgeoning technology will continue to surface. But I digress. We were speaking about magazine apps, not QR codes.
From the business side, ingenuity has already served many of the tablet ‘zine companies well. The apps have served as new ways of hooking additional readers when they were being lost to browsing online. Sure, the big publishers still manage to get folks signing on for year-long subscriptions. But now, they can also sell more one-off editions because they’ve wiggled their way into the lifestyle of today’s consumer and made it easy for them to access content (except <ahem> for those long download times). And a few publishers like Condé Naste are now offering discounts over print subscriptions. Call now! At the other end of the spectrum there are smaller niche publications who serve a specific clientele (more likely to have already invested in tablets) who can now play on the same field with the Wired‘s and Time‘s of the world. So the electronic edition makes a lot of sense for them as well.
Time will tell whether the electronic edition is here to stay. Ingenuity will foster new ways of evolving this technology and what it eventually becomes. And even where it lives. Textbooks, car manuals and even more, I’m sure. It will be exciting to see — and read.