An insane new world

A recent discussion aimed to show how design makes technology understandable – but the evidence seemed to suggest that understanding lies in art, says Peter Hall

“The future isn’t what it used to be,” said Arthur C Clarke. The future as it was envisioned in earlier parts of this century was a utopian place where technology made people happier, and science cured all ills. But after utopias became associated with genocide, and progress with the atomic bomb, future worlds began to look a little less rosy. As Gertrude Stein noted some time ago, progress tends to cloud our judgement: “Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.”

These foresightful quotes were raised recently by the New York graphic designer Nancye Green at an evening devoted to discussion of the future. Organised by the information designer, architect and entrepreneur Richard Saul Wurman, the evening had promised the gregarious Wurman and friends “conversations about the 17 years between Orwell (George) and Clarke (Arthur)” and “the 17 years between 1984 and 2001”. Sadly, a death in

Wurman’s family gutted the discussion of its leading light, and Green was left attempting to knit together a cohesive programme with the remaining speakers: Robert Greenberg, the special effects and interactive design supremo; and Alexander Tsiaras, the photojournalist, programmer and designer.

The idea had been that Wurman would show how, as Greenberg put it, “design makes complicated things understandable,” and is therefore the key to negotiating our information-guzzled future. Without Wurman, however, the guests seemed incapable of pulling off this feat. Tsiaras, who for the last few years has been assembling digital data of the human anatomy into a virtual, reconstructed man for home viewers, only managed to illustrate that design makes complicated things look pretty. His forthcoming CD-ROM, Body Voyage, treated the audience to spectacular fly-throughs of a real human anatomy, but information about the specific bones and organs was distinctly lacking. Tsiaras spoke confidently about the medical applications of his images, but later confessed that the medical community, along with the fine art community, were the ones who had “rejected us the hardest”. This rebuff, he conjectured, was a defensive response to new technology that “threatened radiologists” (who can visualise medical information from X-rays). New technology and design, it seemed, were just making their jobs more complicated.

And so Nancye Green’s provocative illustration of how humans have, in the past, over-estimated technology’s capabilities, hung over the evening’s proceedings. She had spoken of “complexification” – our ability to invent and design things that make simple tasks complex – and the prediction in 1940 that “the

X-ray would cure the common cold”. The finest concurrent example is the much-touted “embedded Internet” where, with wireless technology, a tiny processor in a can of beer in the supermarket would be able to read a demographic card in the shopper’s pocket and immediately change its pack design accordingly.

When Robert Greenberg took the microphone after showing a fast-paced, jump-cut demo of his studio R/GA’s amazing digital effects feats in films and ads, technology began to look like a rampaging behemoth. And design wasn’t helping. An R/GA-designed optical printer had become a museum piece four years later. “I have seen the future and it’s a prototype,” reads a motto above one programmer’s workspace at Greenberg’s studio. R/GA’s latest project is a Website quiz game show on the Microsoft Network, in which the host is an intelligent agent “residing in a hard drive” on a giant server. “Things are happening at an exponential rate that has got me totally frazzled,” said Greenberg. “I don’t get up, I fall out of bed in the morning. I don’t know which way is up.”

For Greenberg, the key to commandeering complexification was not design, but art. In particular, the art of the insane, which Greenberg has been collecting. While innovation and creativity are borne out of a singular vision, he explained, “the future has become more and more about collaboration”. The art of the insane, on the other hand, “can get you as close as possible to a singular vision”, said Greenberg. “I’m not afraid of technology,” he concluded. “I’m afraid of what it means to my everyday life.”

Somehow this confession throws a new light on Stein’s quote. In a deluge of information, we seek solace in the work of those without any sense at all.

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