BY Alice Rawsthorn in Opinion | 22 SEP 14
Featured in
Issue 166

By Design

New technology and endangered objects

BY Alice Rawsthorn in Opinion | 22 SEP 14

Dietrich Lubs designed Braun BNC002 travel alarm clock, 2010, first issued in 1987. Courtesy: Braun

One of the howling ironies of contemporary design is the clutter of pre-digital objects that are already obsolete, or soon may be, on our phone and computer screens. To make a call on most smart phones, you press an image of an old-fashioned telephone handset, email is usually identified by a postage stamp or envelope, the calculator by a vintage pocket calculator and digital books by the printed pages of a traditional book, which is, at least, a little less naff than the hideous wooden bookcase that symbolized Apple’s iBooks function not so very long ago.

Enabling the 99.99% of us without doctorates in advanced computer programming to instruct something not much bigger than a cigarette packet to undertake the thousands of tasks of which a smart phone is capable is a Herculean design challenge. When multifunctional phones were first introduced, it seemed sensible to help their baffled users learn how to operate them by providing visual clues in the form of familiar objects or activities that fulfilled similar functions in ‘real’ life, just as it did with early computers. But doesn’t it seem odd that we should still be taking cues from the very things that the applications on those devices are threatening with extinction?

Objects have come and gone from daily life throughout history, having been supplanted by things that are – or seem to be – superior in terms of their size, power, speed, durability, sustainability or whatever else appeared desirable in design’s equivalent of the Darwinian process of natural selection. But there have been few eras in which so much new stuff has appeared and so many old things have disappeared at such frenzied speed as this one. Important though it is to reflect on what thrilling innovations like Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets and driverless cars will mean to us in the future, it is also worth considering which of the once ubiquitous objects that have long defined the design of our physical surroundings we are likely to lose, and why.

The last time the contents of daily life changed on a similar scale was at the turn of the 20th century when the introduction of electricity to millions of homes fuelled the development of cleaner, more efficient electrical gizmos, which dispensed with the need for antiquated contraptions, like gas lighting. So thrilling did electricity seem at the time that the Parisian artists Robert and Sonia Delaunay took to meeting their friends in places where newly installed electric street lighting was to be switched on, and cheering loudly at the first glow of the bulbs.

Robert Mapplethorpe, cover photograph for Patti Smith, Horses, 1975. Courtesy: Arista Records

The catalyst for the current changeover is the transistor, the tiny device that conducts and amplifies power in computers and other digital products. Scientists have proved so successful in their efforts to make them ever smaller and more potent since their invention in the late 1940s that several million transistors can now be packed on to a microchip, which would originally have contained three or four. As a result, our phones and computers have become progressively smaller, lighter and faster, with such cavernous memories that they fulfil the functions of hundreds of products: from printed books, newspapers, magazines, diaries and maps, to telephones, cameras, calculators, watches, sound systems, television sets and a multiplicity of other things that may soon be surplus to requirements.

Any object whose function can be executed more efficiently by a digital application now faces the threat of extinction. Take the door key. Exquisitely crafted though keys were for centuries, and despite their rich symbolism – the word ‘key’ is a synonym for importance – how can a jagged scrap of metal hope to compete against an app that can open and close the doors of your home even when you are not there? Not least because the app itself is safer: anyone can let themselves into a building or drive off in a car if they find the key, but you can stop them from doing so with an app by protecting it with a security code. As with so many possible victims of the digital cull, keys are what could be called ‘promissory objects’. Like money and postage stamps, their value lies not in themselves but in what they promise to deliver, making them superfluous as soon as something else emerges that is capable of dispatching it more efficiently.

Yet even things that are equally effective as their digital equivalents are vulnerable. The pocket calculator is an example. Strange though it seems now, when pocket-sized calculators were introduced in the 1970s, they seemed dazzlingly technocratic with a seductive whiff of the then-inscrutable world of computing. So tempting did they appear to one Soviet diplomat that he secretly bought a Sinclair Executive calculator on an official visit to the West in the thick of the Cold War only for it to explode in his shirt pocket. His colleagues suspected foul play by Western agents, but the Executive’s dodgy batteries were to blame. Nearly a decade later, Kraftwerk dedicated a track on its 1981 album Computer World to the ‘Pocket Calculator’ with the lyrics: ‘I am adding and subtracting. I’m controlling and composing. By pressing down a special key, it plays a little melody.’ A calculating application on a phone is no faster or more accurate than a traditional calculator – there is only ever one correct answer to a mathematical question – but the phone does umpteen other things too, thereby trumping the Krautrockers’ favourite gizmo in terms of convenience and environmental sensitivity. Why waste resources on manufacturing a gadget that is no longer necessary, and why bother carrying it around with you?

Not all endangered objects are as old as keys, or even pocket calculators. Only a few years ago, the design and tech blogs were agog with excitement about the newly developed Nike+ Fuelband, Fitbit and other activity-tracking wristbands that monitor our movements. Lately, the same blogs have been dolefully predicting their demise as more and more smart phones are fitted with motion-tracking chips and sensors, and Apple plans to launch wearable devices capable of surveilling many more aspects of our health, thereby rendering those wristbands as redundant as PalmPilots.

Can other imperiled objects avoid the same fate? Only if there are special reasons to reprieve them. Take cameras. Most of them are doomed: specifically those whose photos are of similar quality to phone snaps. But there are enough people who are more ambitious about photography and are willing to invest in sophisticated equipment to justify the continued production of high-quality cameras and to encourage their manufacturers to sustain their investment in the research and development required for those products to evolve. As a result, high-quality cameras have retained their functional edge over apps; it is difficult to imagine pocket calculators, activity trackers or even keys doing the same.

Germano Facetti, book design for Michael Shanks, The Stagnant Society, 1964. Courtesy: Penguin Books and Penguin Collectors Society

Another possibility is for a product to be so beguiling in terms of how it looks or feels, and the associations it evokes, that it remains irresistible in its traditional form. Beautiful books made from exquisite paper with visually compelling covers and typography fall into this category. They may have lost the struggle for the ‘survival of the fittest’ against digital books – which are indisputably superior in terms of convenience, choice, connectivity and environmental impact – but they could yet win another Darwinian battle, the one described in his 1871 book The Descent of Man. In it, Darwin analyzes why some animals have physical features, which have no discernible practical purpose and appear to be purely aesthetic, seemingly disproving his earlier theory of natural selection. Yet such features do have designated functions, or so he explained in ‘The Descent of Man’, typically to arouse the desire of prospective mates thereby persuading them to breed, as the peacock’s magnificent tail and the richly coloured plumage of male pheasants are intended to do.

A similar principle can be applied to otherwise obsolete objects. If they are desirable enough, they might survive, though not necessarily indefinitely. Conscious though I am of the functional shortcomings of printed books, I feel an affection for them, just as I do for finely crafted wristwatches, fuelled by my memories of growing up with them. But if I were in my teens or 20s, I would see them very differently, unencumbered by nostalgia, which is why, over time, fewer readers will perceive them as alluring.

Joost Grootens, book design for Malkit Shoshan, Atlas of the Conflict, 2010. Courtesy: Studio Joost Grootens; photograph: Lorenz Klingebiel

There is also a risk that surviving in the fetishized form of beautifully fabricated objects made in expensive limited editions, as vinyl records have done, may prove to be a pyrrhic victory. Enticing though they can be, how can such elitist products recapture the cultural potency that was so important an element of their predecessors’ emotional appeal? Just as it is impossible to imagine a contemporary vinyl album cover articulating the spirit of a generation of young women as adroitly as Robert Mapplethorpe’s portrait of an icily androgynous Patti Smith did for Horses (1975), how can the jacket of a special edition book represent the hopes and fears of a section of society as eloquently as Penguin’s paperbacks when Jan Tschichold was head of design there in the late 1940s, and Germano Facetti in the 1960s? It can’t. The only foolproof way for an endangered object to survive is for it to be designed so ingeniously that it offers us something its digital challenger cannot match. An example is a traditional book, whose physical qualities enhance not only the reader’s emotional attachment to it as an object, but his or her understanding of its contents. The Dutch designer Irma Boom does this brilliantly, often using the tactile qualities of unusual papers and unorthodox ways of cutting the page edges to guide us deftly through the text, or to tantalise us. Both tactics are deployed with aplomb in Weaving as a Metaphor, the book she produced in 2006 on the work of the US textile artist Sheila Hicks. Boom covered it in uncoated, roughly textured white paper, which ages when handled, acquiring a patina that reminds its owner of the pleasure of reading and re-reading it over the years. Another Dutch designer, Joost Grootens, has achieved a similar feat in reinventing the traditional printed atlas by devising new ways of organizing and depicting the information in the form of maps, charts, graphs and other visualization techniques that are best deciphered in print, not pixels. 

But Boom’s and Grootens’s books are rare exceptions. Unless other vulnerable analogue objects can produce equally compelling reasons to justify their survival, they are doomed. As for the ones that linger on in the ghostly form of the operating symbols on our phone and computer screens, how long will it be before the user interface designers who devise them realize that fewer and fewer of the people who are clicking on those symbols can remember ever having used the things they represent?

Alice Rawsthorn is the author of Hello World: Where Design Meets Life (2013) and Design as an Attitude (2018). She lives in London, UK.