Some Assembly Required

Image: Flickr/Matt Mets THE TONE OF THE MAJORITY OF technology writing on the web falls within a narrow spectrum of gee-whiz "this will change everything" bewilderment at one end and brand-loyal fanboyism at the other. It is somewhat difficult to find online publications that facilitate critical engagement with technology, let alone allow for ruminations on how new tools and techniques shape the social realm. Clearly the only logical response to a blogosphere teeming with commentary on technology and software is to add more content to the mix - albeit analysis with a slightly different agenda.

This is the first instalment of "Some Assembly Required", a column that will be published monthly here on Current Intelligence. I'll be tracking a range of emerging technologies including (but not limited to): DIY manufacturing, robotics, urban informatics, interface design, sensor technology and developments within related, rapidly evolving fields. The topics slated for discussion here won't be tethered to product release schedules. It's also highly unlikely that I'll use this space to conduct video autopsies of highly anticipated consumer-electronic devices designed in Cupertino, California.

Instead of focusing on overexposed products and locked-down platforms, "Some Assembly Required" will consider the implications of raw (but honest) prototypes hatched at leading academic and artistic venues such as ITP (US), ETH (CH) and Medialab-Prado (ES). In terms of fuelling speculation, there is greater merit in the untapped potential of an earnest, exploratory research project than in a tool or application that is being focus-grouped as it gears up for third stage venture capital funding. Why not deploy art and engineering experiments, and the homebrew assemblages of the maker community, as crude seismographs for mapping the trajectory of emerging technologies? It seems both natural and intuitive. As multimedia artist Golan Levin has noted, many new media artworks prefigure commercial ventures and ubiquitous, everyday experience (one only need look to his example of the similarities between Aspen Movie Map [1978-80] and Google StreetView to demonstrate this point).

In addition to consciously focusing on prototypes rather than products, three other themes will shape this column:

  • Free and open source software (FLOSS) is an important counterpoint to proprietary, closed platforms. Contemporary artists and technologists often release code, schematics and tutorials related to their research, as a public resource. How does this ethos lead to communal innovation (Brian Eno calls it scenius), and how do we consider strata of research versus individual practices?

  • Design fiction is often at play in the work and thinking of tech-luminaries like Julian Bleecker and Bruce Sterling. It is essentially an acknowledgement of what Bleecker describes as "science fiction being implicated in the production of things like science fact… making things that tell stories." How can we use a prototype as a cipher for reading the present?

  • Eighteen months ago we reached a milestone whereby the price of a desktop 3D printer dropped to approximately that of a laser printer in the mid 1980s. How will ubiquitous access to inexpensive desktop fabrication tools drive design and enable personal manufacturing?

These research interests are admittedly quite vague. That's intentional, since I'll be exploring and celebrating incomplete futures – the goal is to dwell in, rather than dote on, the promise of new tools and prototypes. In the introduction to Deep Time of the Media (2006), media archaeologist Siegfried Zielinski enthuses about the early stages of the technological life-cycle when "the options for development in various directions are still wide open." "Some Assembly Required" embraces this same space of possibility, in hopes of presenting a prescient, energetic overview of emerging technologies.


Greg J. Smith is a Toronto-based designer with an active interest in the intersection of space and media. He is co-editor of the digital arts publication Vague Terrain and blogs at Serial Consign.