Michael Garfield – How To Live in the Future: An Emergent Syntax of Stuff

17 August 2011

An Emergent Syntax of Stuff

Originally published in a barely-recognizable edit at Octa.
Technological progress is a double-edged sword. More subtle and pernicious than the threat of disastrous new weapons, rampaging dinosaur clones, and other Science Gone Wrong, our species now faces the exponential growth of stuff – not only endless acres of disposable packaging, but items designed for ludicrously specific applications (and useless in every other way).

Consider the dubious innovation of glove dryers, laser-guided scissors, and the motorized ice cream cone. (Plenty more where those come from...) Items like these – as well as the mounting hours we spend tending to this mountain of over-specialized equipment – are an affront to our long-held belief that the future would make life easier, more streamlined and efficient. Our minimalist visions of gleaming starship bridges are in stark contrast to the rat’s nest of wires and adapters that seem increasingly necessary to connect our devices.

There is hope, however, that this inelegant mess of gear is on the verge of a radical reorganization. In chaos theory, systems on the verge of transformation tend toward wilder, noisier behavior – imagine the wobble in a top right before it leans over, or the parade of random images that flash before our eyes as we pass into sleep. Maybe, all of these shoulder straps for our iPads and battery-powered wi-fi detection t-shirts are the frustrating precursors to a new and saner relationship with design.

One person who would seem to agree is Harvard mathematician and biologist Martin Nowak. In his work on the evolution of syntax in human language, he turned to the science of emergence – how greater levels of order and complexity appear from the interactions of simpler parts. In addition living chemical systems, language itself obeys these rules.

Nowak argues that at some point in human history, the number of situations we needed to describe exceeded our ability to easily remember a new word for each unique scenario. It became easier to develop new parts of speech and combine them for a multiplying effect, than continue creating new distinct calls to mean “lion behind you,” “lion in front of you,” “lion to your side…” Humans were suddenly able to talk about many different kinds of lions, and apply “behind you” to any number of objects, without having to memorize a new term for every situation.

Incidentally, this is what makes written Chinese so much more difficult to learn than written English. Chinese is an older language that uses hundreds pictographs to identify every unique referent, whereas English has only twenty-six letters that can be endlessly reassembled to make new words.

Likewise, the more sensible end of the design community today is dedicated to multiple-function technologies. First came the Swiss-Army Knife…then a screwdriver that fits most sizes of screws. (What took so long?) TV is now online, in case you don’t feel the need to purchase both a desktop and a flatscreen. (But if you do, thank God, more and more of them connect wirelessly.) We no longer need to carry around a discman and a cellular phone and a note pad and a pocket calendar and a flashlight; a single smart phone puts all of these functions and more at our fingertips with computer power beyond what NASA used to reach the Moon.

Admittedly, the modern corporate focus on propriety and profit means many items are still designed with intentional shortcomings that force users to make additional purchases. (Why on Earth did Apple not just add an HDMI port to the MacBook Pro? Do we really need a unique wall charger for every new cell phone?) Fighting the insanity, however, some designers actually accessorize gadgets in ways that expand their utility. Take, for example, how the brilliant minds behind the iWatch made the world just a little lighter. Similarly, gripping tripods have rendered innumerable specialized camera attachments irrelevant.

Nowak’s logic is indisputable. We may not all have tricorders yet, but as our complexifying world demands an emergent syntax of stuff, there will come a day when smart devices interact intelligently to evolve new functions, and planned obsolescence is a thing of the past.