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Review: hertzian tales

“Before I tell you that story, I have to tell you this one.” — Howard Waldrop

Let me start by expressing my (probably unpopular) opinion: the vast majority of “conceptual art” has failed whatever purpose it was trying to serve. If I have to read a sign or a placard or a guide book to understand your art, then you have failed as an artist because your work did not communicate whatever it is you were trying to communicate. (And if I can’t understand what you’re trying to say after reading your explanation, maybe you should consider a new career.) I’m having a particularly dim view of “conceptual anything” right now, having recently visited the Carnegie Museum “Life on Mars” exhibit. There were some real gems here and there, but I still stand by my one sentence lolcat review:

“ART: UR DOIN IT RONG”

Now I can tell you this story that masquerades as a book review.

Recently my pal Golan Levin told me I should read hertzian tales in response to my blathering on about computational situational awareness, and I dug up a copy and put it on the “in” stack. When I saw the words “conceptual design” on the jacket I spit up a little bit in my throat and considered putting it way at the bottom of the stack. However, after seeing some of the work in the MOMA “Design and the Elastic Mind” exhibit, I realized I was probably being a little unreasonable and that I should at least give the book a fair chance. (More importantly, Golan is a very sharp sort who wouldn’t suggest I read something that would be a waste of my time.) The last time I was on a plane, I brought along it and a backup book just in case I got more than airsick.

I never cracked the other book. Dunne managed to both educate me about what conceptual design is and isn’t and really get me thinking even bigger questions than before about situational awareness and observing invisible spaces.

hertzian tales has two major components: the relationships between conceptual design, product design, and Hertzian space; and documentation of Dunne’s process in developing conceptual design pieces to investigate Hertzian space.

Dunne starts with a history and survey of conceptual design and product design. I think that many of us outside of capital-d design would probably describe “conceptual design” as “experimental design” — the design of objects not to fulfill a certain set of criteria, but to create either a physical or thought experiment that lets us gain a new perspective on some concept or object. These sorts of things can range from asking questions like “What if I had glasses that kept track of how much TV I watched and went dark if I’d watched too many hours in a given day?” or what sort of products would be useful for a lonely guy that had just been dumped by his girlfriend?

I like both of these because they don’t so much give you real answers as give you answers that make you ask more questions. What if my glasses went dark when I drove by a jumbotron screen, or just as a movie was ending? If I need “Accessories for Lonely Men”, which one should I get first, “Sheet Thief”, “Plate Thrower” or “Cold Feet”? It’s obvious what the products are going to do, who they are for, and why (in theory) someone would want such a thing. Well, maybe not. Do lonely guys really need reminders that they are lonely? Do I really want my TV watching regulated by glasses instead of common sense? Probably not, but thinking about these sorts of imaginary (and humorous, admit it, you laughed or at least smiled) products is a good way to open up one’s mind and think about existing technology and society from a new perspective.

Dunne’s survey of conceptual design projects is also useful in that he shows how they are relevant to the design of real products or how they change how we think about our relationships with technology and society. He doesn’t declare a bunch of truths because he’s an art professor, he substantiates his opinions with both factual history and well written arguments. As an example, I probably wouldn’t have taken Daniel Weil‘s conceptual radios very seriously if I saw them in a museum, but Dunne gives them a context that helps me understand some of what Weil was attempting to do.

Having led us off with a history of products and technology, Dunne then moves into Hertzian space. The idea of Hertzian space is that all of our electronic devices radiate radio frequencies (RF) as part of their operation, and that is a new space for us to explore and observe. It’s usually not a device’s task to generate RF, it’s merely a side-effect of it being electronic. RF Interference (RFI) from all this radiated energy is enough of a problem that most nations have some sort of legal restrictions on how much RF can be emitted (or “leak”) from a device. In the US, turn over just about anything that uses batteries or plugs into a wall and look for the legalese about “FCC Part 15 compliance”. That’s the manufacture declaring that they’ve followed any rules that relate to how much RF is leaked from the device.

It’s not just radios, computers and mobile phones generating RF, it’s pretty much every technological component of our society. If electrical power runs through it, from the transformers on power poles to the alternator in your car’s engine to the washing machine in the basement or your wireless doorbell and garage door remote, it generates some sort of RF. (If you’re interested in learning more about RF interference or radio theory in general, check out amateur radio websites like the ARRL or EHAM.)

What Dunne asks us to think about is, What can we learn about ourselves from looking at the Hertzian space? What tools do we need to develop or use to look at this space? The book finishes with documentation of a couple of Dunne’s projects in this area, both at the personal/object level and at the city level.

In the end, the book is a kind of conceptual design project in and of itself — it lays out a bunch of information, takes you through a line of reasoning, and then chucks you off a cliff with a bunch of unanswered and open-ended questions about what you’ve just read. Dunne doesn’t make any claims to having answers, he just points you in the same general direction he’s headed and gives you a gentle shove.

Which is probably the sort of book I like reading the most these days. I’m tired of people telling me their answers, I want them to make me ask more questions. Even if you don’t agree with his opinions or like his projects, Dunne will leave you with more questions than answers.

(Edit: Anthony Dunne, on “design for debate” and a Bruce Sterling talk on speculative/science fiction interaction design.)

Anthony Dunne, hertzian tales. MIT Press, Cambridge, 2005.

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