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Monday, January 3, 2011

Thoughts on a rapidly evolving interface - Deepankar Bhattacharyya

2011 is here and while we were doing whatever we do in the normal course of our lives, events of considerable import have been making new and startling connections.
It may be interesting to dwell on one of them.

Technologies and software vendors are about to harness the power of many-core processors, enabling mind boggling output within the same space as occupied by the relatively few that are used today. At ever lower energy consumption. This coupled with something that is ten times faster than flash memory, is half as expensive, needs less energy and retains its state even when switched off. The world of 'memristor' and the instant 'on' computing device with no more boot ups! Add some of the other developments across the spectrum of information and communication technologies such as cloud computing and HTML5 and we have a recipe for radical and worldwide transformation.

Mobile phones have reached everywhere and most families, even in rural India, have them. There are approximately 700 million connections; our population is just over a billion. Telecom is rapidly converging with information and communication technologies, 'phones' can do a lot more than what was dreamed of in the last decade.

Information, Communication, Interaction, are fast becoming the foundations of everything that we do. Soon enough, there will be no place that is so far as not to be in instant and constant connection with everything else. Via a multiplicity of devices, cheap and energy efficient devices that will be the defining characteristic of our environment. Our world will have a layer of rapidly evolving thoughts and meanings that will permeate every one's consciousness. Everyone will be talking, sending messages and images, looking at each other's lives on a scale that will make today's communication networks look elementary. Everyone will be creators and distributors of news, ideas, entertainment, pornography and art, the line dividing the producer/disseminator and the consumer will be blurred and, the roles interchangeable and shifting. Many new ways of interacting with information and with each other will add dimensions that lie beyond our imagination.

The contexts of modern design has evolved from craft technologies to science technologies to knowledge technologies, India has all of these co-existing side by side and in interesting mixtures. We involve ourselves in a diversity of projects across these contexts. We may work at the level of strategy and decision making or on the shop floor and implementation but we make products or offer services that help in product making - hybrids of communication/industrial/craft systems and products and through them help create usable environments that sometimes delight and sometimes frustrate.

All very well, but what happens when the context defined by knowledge technologies and economies progress to contexts defined by information, expression and social interaction - every body's changing thoughts, emotions, expression, opinion and neuroses.

Culture and the memes that are its repository have traditionally had their roots in geographical locations and specific communities, they play an important role in defining world views and is a paradigm which informs us of the basic contours within which our senses learn to make sense of our world. Cultural traditions come from way back and have traditionally formed the backbone of perceived realities within which we create and express ourselves. Our arts, rituals, habits, all have a strong connection to it. It isn't a static thing; it imbibes information from other cultures and grows to make these new influences its own. Thus far, different cultures have been able to retain an individual sense of self even while changing with the impact of meeting other cultural influences.

One characteristic of a globally connected world is the ready availability of different cultural inputs at the click of a mouse. This facility, when available to the young in their formative years has a profound effect on how they see and engage with their world. You cannot de-construct before you have constructed.

Does this lead to acultural paradigms of sensory development or perhaps, more appropriately, a complex global culture, more uniform than not? This paradigm is likely to be far removed from the myths and fables that sprung from our encounters with the vagaries of the natural world and our specific geographical contexts or the sensory archives of our immediate ancestors. Human experience or more correctly, individual experiences as expressed through various new media from across the world will shape the new cultural paradigms. This is a qualitative change from what we are used to and will probably impact on design education and practice in a fundamental way.

Notions about 'Indian-ness' are under enormous stress.

Already, that repository of Indian sensibility that is/was seen in our craft traditions has been reduced to mere decoration and serve to identify a certain quaint prettiness that one uses to decorate one's homes. How the mighty have fallen! These ancient and rich traditions, expressions of core visions of reality, honed over centuries and definitive of a people's sensory history have, now, a utility that is best appreciated in the isolation of a decorative curiosity.

The Hindu caste system, that great stabilising influence of our societies in the face of impossible odds and intertwined memetically with the making of our objects of use, our built world, our crafts, has faced the demons of its inequalities, its foundations of slavery and oppression, its ruthless subjugation and static, mind-numbing immobility and is, thankfully, on the way out. It is a pity that our custodians of craft culture find freedom and dignity at the cost of having to relinquish age-old activities. 

The potter's wares have no more takers, multi-coloured plastic pots have found acceptance and are seen in abundance, his children migrate to towns and cities to work at construction sites and factories in search of sustainable incomes and upward mobility, mechanisation of farming has put the metal worker out of business, the weaver has no work. It is the same story everywhere. The young workforce is looking to find higher incomes to improve their living conditions and to put their children through an education, they go out and bring back new ways - change is visible in everything from the clothes they prefer to the foods they eat or the music that stirs their souls.

The new sensibilities that seek to find acceptance and validation make attempts to find connections with ancient sensory traditions and new and enormously interesting avenues open up. Designers are uniquely placed to pursue these and to develop new languages, new stories and bring them to bear on the world of objects that are their domain.

Along with a few other 'more universal' things...

It will not be long before everyone has the means to send out as much information as they receive - their thoughts, needs and desires. Solutions will need to be interactive and personalised to suit the desires of individuals who are now consumers and creators in equal measure; flexibility will need to be built into products and spaces that will tend to be multi-functional. All of them will essentially be information and communication devices that can be programmed to deliver experiences.

When our individual perceptions, thoughts and ideas begin to find easy translation into the 'information & communication atmosphere' we, all of us will begin to have a more direct relationship to the shape of the worlds that we will live in. A complex, democratic, highly personalised built environment...

Technologies are becoming cleaner, cheaper and energy efficient

Desired and interactive experiences are more readily amenable to be conjured up via cheap and omnipresent devices in our environment
A very high degree of personalisation to suit every need and mood is becoming the norm
Notions of 'Quality' are being recognised as subjective, good design is efficient design that can deliver what 'I' want
Everybody has to be part of the process of design development, because everybody participates in actuating the product deliverable

I see design moving from product to process, from form to experience, from consumption to collaboration.

Everything, from delivery of medical facilities to education to governance to the tapping of utilities is going to undergo massive change and will demand re-definitions at a conceptual level.

How do these developments, among several others that can be enumerated and should be discussed, impact on design education and practice?

I think that we need to debate the changing realities and discuss ways to bring design education more in line with emerging design possibilities, there is little point in preparing our students for yesterday's challenges.

New Delhi, 01 January 2011

1 comment:

  1. Hi Deepankar,

    Great article, I just had a thought to share: while the idea of a democratic world where every individual is a creator in his own right promotes the philosophy of live and let live(in certain ways), it could be that in future our wars are all intellectual and ideological...where people are not killed, maybe terrorism is also intellectual, with only ideas taken hostage....that could then lead to other problems!


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 India License.