A quick word about a new series I’m curating for Domus, the Italian art, architecture and design magazine. Called SuperNormal, it’s an attempt to ‘sketch’ a different kind of technology journalism, recognised how cultural it is.
A few years ago, in response to the usual diminished depiction of contemporary technology as simply “IT”, someone—I forget who—said something like “Is a 14 year-old girl updating her Facebook status from her mobile phone as she walks down the street ‘IT’?” Of course it is, but more importantly, it isn’t. It is more than that; contemporary technology is deeply cultural. We might argue that all technology always has been “deeply cultural”, from the Stone Age axe onwards, but given that symbolic consumption and production—one definition of culture—is now actively and deliberately embedded in objects we design and build, and that these objects are embedded in the patterns, habits and rituals of everyday life—another definition of culture—we must now see technology for what it is.
So with Domus, Joseph Grima and I saw an opportunity to write in a different way about everyday technology. Domus has a long tradition of writing about such things, driven by the strong Italian heritage of post-war industrial design, covering Brionvega radios, Elica hoods, Vespa scooters, or Olivetti typewriters, for instance.
But as I suggest in my series opener (below), perhaps a culturally powerful contemporary equivalent of these things now exists in the form of social media, mobile phones, web services, information graphics, smart cards, personal informatics, robots, and so on.
It might be a stretch to suggest that these things are the equivalent of an Olivetti Valentine in a number of ways, but not in terms of the way such things now shape our lives. Yet the vast bulk of journalism concerning this everyday technology is dominated by the technology press, which is rarely critical in the sense that Domus is, rarely covers design aspects with any depth, and rarely attempts to place developments in a wider cultural context. While I have no problem with the likes of Engadget, Techcrunch, Wired and the rest—not that they’d notice either way if I did!—there did seem a gap in the market here.
Conversely, this was also a way to introduce discussion of the recent design disciplines of interaction design, experience design, service design and information design, to this more established strata of design media. For what it’s worth, my motive for doing this—discussing the technology in terms of culture, and discussing its design in the context of other design practices—is in order to try to understand it better; which is in turn in order to design it better, to realise it better, to procure it better, and so on.
(By the way, it’s a huge honour to work for Domus. There can have been few more influential titles in design history since its inception in 1928 and Joseph Grima, who I first worked with on Postopolis, has repositioned the magazine at the forefront of media once again, for me alongside Eye and Idea as the best design magazines out there. It’s also been a pleasure to work increasingly closely with the designers, Salottobuono, and particularly Marco Ferrari.)
The series will run in the magazine and online. We’re using the website to carry more in-depth versions of the print articles, and including video and other contextual information such as interviews where relevant.
I’ve written the first two articles to frame the series.
The first covered the Nokia N9 (and to some extent its successor, the Lumia running Windows Phone) but pitches that in the context of the wider skirmishes in the mobile phone market, tactility, sounds and ocularcentrism in cellphone design, the hegemonic power of Apple, the importance of materials and the “dark matter” of licensing and logistics, European design history and entrepreneurship, via Roland Barthes and the Citröen DS19.
The second piece concerns Facebook Timeline, and so timelines, information design, social graphs, identity and representation, and so on —but also the broader context of a shared social memory, and how that might affect the way we forget and function. (Additionally, Facebook were good enough to get us an interview with Timeline’s lead designer, Nicholas Felton—he of Feltron Annual Reports fame)—and his early mockups of Timeline, to accompany this article. Thanks to both Nicholas and Meredith Chin for that.)
These initial articles are markers, sketching out the trajectory and territory of the series to some extent. But as the series opener suggests below, the terrain should get increasingly rich, diverse and fertile and I’m lining up a set of great writers ready to explore it and map it. More on that to follow. I’ll pitch in from time to time too.
And here, below, is the original text for the series—which I’ve dubbed SuperNormal, in respectful homage to Jasper Morrison and Naoto Fukasawa’s great book and exhibition, noting its title Super Normal: Sensations of the Ordinary. This text introduces and frames the venture, and is a slightly different version to that which appears on the Domus website and in the magazine.