Friday, January 30, 2009

The Other End of the Spectrum

It would probably be helpful to read and analyze the 'anti-wear' perspective. What is appealing about disposability, aside from novelty and fashion? Karim Rashid, in an 2003 interview:
I'm a big believer in a disposable society. I think that one day we won't own anything. I think eventually we'll throw out everything all of the time. And I think when we develop a perfectly cyclic system, then we'll be able to do it without guilt.
He is (or at least was) a certifiable technocrat. Let's hope that 'perfectly cyclic system' arrives sooner that it seems like it's going to - because that's a whole lot of guilt.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Thesis Direction - Materially

There seem to be two main paths to explore the concept of wear explicitly:

1) Utilizing existing, patinated materials in a new context. While history and use are already imbued in the new object, a user lacks strong connection to that history. Using existing materials is also a definite advantage. I would need to source these materials immediately.

2) Develop a blank canvas to receive wear. The user is quite possibly more invested in the object, but it probably requires new materials or finishes. In this scenario, I would probably need to amplify or accelerate wear in an obvious or blatant way. If the wear is imposed through touch, in what ways can the human hand leave a mark? Heat and oils of the skin are the first two obvious options. Materially, what type of finishes, coatings, or raw materials respond to touch? Paper could be an interesting material choice since its essential function is already to receive marks.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Brief History of Patina

According to Grant McCracken's Culture and Consumption, patina was the visual proof of status prior to the 18th century's consumer revolution and the onset of the fashion system. Patina served as an icon of a family's longevity - during the Elizabethan era five generations were required to gain full gentle status. "Patina made certain that those who merely enjoyed wealth but who had not yet qualified for standing could be identified as such." When fashionable objects became more desirable than patinated ones, the waiting period for the gentry evaporated, encouraging "new mobility and the recognition of ability."

McCracken goes on to say patina still represents status today, but on a much smaller scale, only used by the most high-standing groups. Today, "for the mass of society, the notion of patina is itself hopelessly antique, a charming notion that has passed from fashion."

I think an appreciation for patina and wabi-sabi is developing, for some objects, outside of the antique. For example, through the greatly increased use of easily scratched stainless steel in the home, people are learning that objects, when used, shouldn't necessarily remain in their original pristine condition - they can develop an even more interesting, meaningful, and rich surface through normal use.

Monday, January 26, 2009

365 Days of Wear

A photographer put together a video documenting the wear developed on a pair of raw denim jeans over the course of a year.

All 187 Things I Touched Today

The following list mentions each item only once, not every time it was touched:
door knob
drinking glass
pill container
coffee mug
sugar jar
sugar spoon
coffee carafe
fridge handle
cream container
cream lid
kitchen sink faucet
dish drainer
coffee machine
bread knife
toaster oven handle
laptop case
frietag bag
computer mouse
camera case
coffee table
laundry basket
long underwear
cell phone
light switch
facewash tube
toilet seat cover
toilet seat
toilet handle
bathroom sink faucet
bar soap
vanity mirror
plastic bag
door handle
building door
outside car door handle
inside car door handle
outside car door
subway railing
subway card
subway turnstile
train railing
subway exit cage turnstile
elevator button
id card
studio door handle
studio chair
laptop power button
studio table
mini-fridge door handle
mini-fridge door
laptop trackpad
laptop keyboard cover/keys
power adapter
power strip
sigg cap
water fountain button
toilet paper
toilet paper dispenser
toilet flush button
soap dispenser
paper towel
hand lotion tube
hand lotion
rubber stick-on furniture feet
glass container
emergen-c packet
gum packaging
gum wrapper
bank revolving door
atm card
atm buttons
atm screen
train station swinging door
bus stop button
bus doors
glass coffee shop door
glass coffee shop counter
paper bag of coffee beans
front door knob
coat hook
drawer pull
bag of quarters
laundry basket
laundry detergent container
back door deadbolt
quarters wrapper
washing machine lid
washing machine buttons
leather boot
vinegar bottle
wooden hanger
dryer door
dryer buttons
coffee maker lid
coffee filter
garbage can foot pedal
cabinet knob
coffee grinder lid
coffee grinder dial
coffee grinder
coffee grinder hopper
brita pitcher
oven temperature dial
baking sheet
tortilla chips bag
tortilla chips
stove dial
chef knife
twist tie
kosher salt container
kosher salt
remote control
remote control buttons
cabinet pull
mini dust pan
mini dust broom
litter box lid
litter box scoop
litter box
shower curtain
shower faucet handle
body wash bottle
body wash
shampoo bottle

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

You Can Never Do Merely One Thing

Garrett Hardin's first rule of ecology emphasizes the extreme complexity of systems. Every act has consequences and implications - both intended and unintended - or even a result completely opposite to that desired. When applying ecological principles, "the idea is not to slavishly imitate nature, but to model a natural ecosystem in all its diversity and interdependence." Pollan describes the 1960s organic movement's understanding of the connectedness of everything, and "sought to establish not just an alternative mode of production (the chemical-free farms), but an alternative system of distribution (the anti-capitalist food co-ops), and even an alternative mode of consumption (the 'countercuisine')." What are equivalent alternative systems for objects? Local artisans, freecycle, craigslist, and ebay?

Consumers' disconnectedness from the extraction, production, distribution, and disposal of goods (great summary at the Story of Stuff) allows the illusion that consumption is an isolated act, instead of a consequential one in a complex system.
A stronger connection to other participants in the system, such as buying produce directly from the farmer at a market, or an object directly from its designer or maker, alters the consumer relationship within the system - revealing, among other things, the political implications of the global industrial vs. the local artisanal modes.

The artisanal competitive strategy is to produce something special rather than a commodity at the lowest cost possible. Although proposed in an agricultural context, Allan Nation theorizes that:
This artisanal model works only so long as it doesn't attempt to imitate the industrial model in any respect. It must not try to replace skilled labor with capital; it must not grow for the sake of growth; it should not strive for uniformity in its products but rather make a virtue of variation and seasonality; it shouldn't invest in capital to reach national markets but rather should focus on local markets, relying on reputation and word of mouth rather than on advertising; and lastly, it should rely as much as possible on free solar energy rather than costly fossil fuels.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Eyeglasses and Identity

I have wanted new glasses for a few years, and probably needed to update my prescription for just as long. Occasionally I would stop into a glasses store and try frames on. A couple of times I found a pair that I liked, but never did one seem exactly right. Choosing a pair of glasses is a commitment. Few objects, if any, communicate more immediately, obviously, or frequently about their owner.

I had been primarily looking at metal frames, bold colors, and 'designerly' styles. However, last week I walked into a store with a large selection of frames and came across a section of authentic-looking vintage frames. I asked to try one pair on, a subtly variegated dark horn-rim, just for fun, not expecting much. But I was surprised to really like them. I then found out from the salesperson that they were unworn deadstock frames bought from an optometrists's estate that included a cellar of still-boxed glasses that dated from the turn of the century to the 70's.

I went back to the store today to try them on again and get my girlfriend's opinion. They had moved the section, and it took a while to find that frame, even though it was the only one I had tried on last week. While I was considering the possibility that someone else had already bought them in the interim, I realized that I definitely did want them.

Which reminds me of another decision-making concept from Stumbling on Happiness: "we generally do not sit down with a sheet of paper and start logically listing the pros and cons of the future events we are contemplating, but rather, we contemplate them by simulating those events in our imaginations and then noting our emotional reactions to that simulation." Decision-making is far from a purely rational act - as demonstrated in this edition of Radiolab on choice that tells the story of "Elliot", a successful corporate accountant
(at the 20:30 mark). Due to brain surgery to remove a tumor in the orbital frontal cortex, he lost the ability to experience emotions. An effect was Elliot's complete paralysis in any type of decision-making, logically analyzing each decision forever - like taking a half hour to decide to sign a contract with a blue pen or a red pen. Eventually he got divorced, lost his job, and moved back in with his parents. Obviously, emotions play an important role in decision-making.

Back to the frames, I immediately knew I had found them from the way the left temple felt on my ear. I again liked them and knew from my emotional reaction I wanted them, so after a little debate, decided to buy them. This purchase is a great opportunity to document the habituation process of an object in my life.

If consumption today is curating an identity, or brand, glasses are quite possibly the logo.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Bias Against the Long-term

An increased emphasis on the long-term, in relation to the effects of current systems of production and consumption, implies sacrifice, or at least significant change, in the now. In James March's A Primer on Decision Making, he writes, "The immediacy and clarity of the present and nearby tend systematically to disadvantage the spatially and temporally distant." Also, "Correcting the bias is, however, complicated by the fact that favoring the clear and the close is sometimes necessary to survive. In that sense, at least, concerns about long-term and global intelligence must always be subordinated to valid concerns about short-term and local intelligence."

I think the key phrase is
valid concerns. How is that judgment made, where is the line drawn between need/concern and want/desire, and how can people be persuaded to deem long-term effects 'valid' that will very likely not personally affect them?

Along the same lines, according to Gilbert in Stumbling on Happiness,
when people think of distant past or future events they think abstractly about why; when thinking of events in the near past or future, people think concretely about how. For example, in a study, "when volunteers are asked to imagine themselves locking a door the next day, they describe their mental images with detailed phrases such as 'putting a key in the lock,' but when volunteers are asked to imagine themselves locking a door next year, they describe their mental images with vague phrases such as 'securing the house'." If so, even if people intend to change the way they behave for a long-term abstracted purpose, taking the concrete steps toward it each day could be a somewhat separate mental process requiring different motivation, feedback, or incentives.

"A coldly rationalist individualist can deny that he has any obligation to make sacrifices for the future."

-Ecologist Garrett Hardin

An appeal beyond the rational will very likely be necessary.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Becoming Ordinary: A Double-Take on Habituation

One of the reasons we buy new things is that we become bored with what we have. The object that at one time was novel transitions to mundane. On successive occasions of having a particular experience, Gilbert writes, "we quickly begin to adapt to it, and the experience yields less pleasure each time. Psychologists call this habituation, economists call it declining marginal utility." He suggests there are two mechanisms to counteract habituation - variety and time, although variety isn't necessary if there is sufficient time separating experiences.

Although Gilbert doesn't make the connection explicitly, presentism, or the tendency for current experience to influence one's views of the past and the future, also seems to play a role in stimulating purchases. Upon an initial novel experience with an object, we assume we will continue to have the same positive feelings for long after we purchase it - forgetting to take habituation into account. Gilbert does propose that comparisons have a similar effect. When considering the purchase of a new item, we compare it to our current, habituated, mundane possession - rendering the new, novel and/or the current, outdated. However, we fail to consider that after purchase and the discarding of the old, the delight produced by that initial contrast is gone. Styling, and perceived obsolescence, takes advantage of this phenomenon to persuade essentially unnecessary upgrade purchases.

Gilbert's theories don't sufficiently explain the existence of favorite, long-standing, frequently used possessions, as he doesn't account for contained memory, attachment, and meaning in objects. However, Michael Pollan, in Omnivore's Dilemma, proposes a framework for eating that transfers well to objects. (One of many concepts in this book that translates smoothly into material culture.) He suggests humans' "innate neophilia - the pleasure of variety, and neophobia - the comfort of the familiar," motivate the contradictory inclinations for the new and the known. We sometimes seek the excitement of novel experiences and stimulations and other times prefer the safe reassurance of the familiar.