photo by Jon Leon
Christopher Simmons at the Hopscotch Design Festival
The Hopscotch Design Festival
is in full swing today (read the INDY's preview
), launching with an introduction by co-founder Matthew Muñoz, chief design officer at Raleigh’s New Kind
. The company's offices are in one of Raleigh’s more pristine modernist buildings, designed by a protégé of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
Muñoz noted the presence of “so many people with different backgrounds,” even though the attendees were predictably homogenous: young white people with glasses and interesting sneakers. Less predictably, the festival got started with a couple of surprisingly anti-tech presentations.
The keynote guest, New York Times
best-selling author Austin Kleon
(Steal Like an Artist
), launched his presentation at the Raleigh Convention Center
with the “cult classic of life hacks,” which is apparently something Jerry Seinfeld invented to stay busy. You mark your calendar on the days you work, following the imperative “Don’t break the chain.” Kleon offered a series of prompts for how to be creative without the computer. Hence, his workstation binary: the analog desk versus the digital desk.
Later, Christopher Simmons, creative director of San Francisco-based design firm MINE
, began with a Verizon commercial showing a camping family streaming movies in their tent
. He suggested that we’re missing “the entire fucking universe” because of our reliance on technology. This put us directly into the heart of the conflict: TECHNOLOGY = WAR. Simmons' thesis was that from the wheel onward, generally good improvements in technology have often been co-opted for nefarious pursuits. Thus he positioned technology along a perpetually conflicted continuum.
While Kleon wanted to teach us productivity tricks—basically, how to work more—Simmons, in a funny, smart way, seemed to suggest that we should work less, because industrial design often creates, rather than solves, problems.
His examples included the Vessyl smart cup
, which tells you what you’re drinking and its dietary content, and the Melon app and headband
, which measures your brainwaves for focus, meditation, and relaxation. Both are invested with an optimism functionally contrary to their intention. The Melon app, which syncs content from the headband, is a distraction that causes a lack of focus. The Vessyl cup is simply awkward, requiring the user to work harder by doing things twice.
In the last half of his talk, Simmons personalized his relationship to design. He described his visceral haptic experiences with a Bang & Olufsen stereo and The Beatles White Album
, illustrating a technological paradigm that shifts value from the content to the device that contains it.
Both Kleon, with his analog desk and strategies for “going dark,” and Simmons, with his nostalgia for tactility, wanted the audience to question the usefulness of new design products for having a shared human experience. Two totally different approaches to the same drive to escape the entanglements of tech, when paired, managed to strike a dull balance.
Are we to play around like children with our desk toys, as Kleon suggested, committing ourselves to making commercial work even though “it doesn’t matter whether it’s good or bad” as long as it gets done, while chanting “the dictionary is magic," to arrive at unmediated creative bliss?
Or, should we carefully assess the value of everything around us (“Are billboards immoral?” Simmons asked) in order to arrive at a genuine peace accord with technology? The takeaways this morning, “Step away from the screen” (Kleon) and to ask “What am I giving? What am I giving up? (Simmons) were middling strategies for untethering from our devices and products.
If technology is war, then perhaps it’s best to assassinate the game either by transcending it through authentic forms of non-participation—turning off forever—or, preferably, by going all in, like the genius programmer in the film Ex Machina
, for a truly disruptive breakthrough. If we really want to find touchable experiences, sitting in the middle won’t move anybody.