Strange Native


01. First Thoughts on a Thesis

How We've Evolved, And How Our Extensions Need To

Mar 29, 2010

How We've Evolved, And How Our Extensions Need To

Though work won’t begin until next semester, a lot of us here at chez SVA IxD have been racking our brains all semester to come up with some brilliant thesis ideas. Slow going at first, but my creative juices got a jump-start down in Savannah during IxD ’10. There were so many brilliant ideas on display it was hard not to come away with a few of your own. Like the effect of hearing a faint tune in the distance and interpreting your own original melody from the fractured bits you hear. That’s happened to you guys too, right?

Original Notes:

Initially I thought it might be interesting to do something musical, but I hesitated. I didn’t want to concoct a new instrument interface. I’ve seen that done a lot (see: tenori-on, otto, and or draw your own), and while that would be fun and fascinating in its own way, it felt too obvious. I want this project to guide my career for at least a few years to come. So I wanted a broader scope.

I’ve been thinking about evolution. After hundreds of thousands of years, we’ve become highly physical beings: gangly arms, upright posture, joints and bones that withstand long arduous walks, teeth that can cut and grind nearly anything, hands that can perform millions of coordinated, nuanced manipulations. We’re amazing physical beings. Yet, we spend all of our time sitting, staring into projected light computer terminals, handling virtual objects with a “digital finger” that has less nuance than my pinky toe. We punch 78 or so keys repeatedly to “talk” to friends or to “compose” a piece of music. We’re not using our bodies, and so they are failing us. Bruce Sterling, in his book Shaping Things, puts it pretty well:

…the heavy duty programmers…are commonly portly guys with wrist supports, thick glasses and midlife heart attacks.

They weren’t born that way. They didn’t get that way by accident, either. They got that way by chronic, repeated abuse. That’s not a digital problem, that’s a physical problem. It’s still about an industrial system that cruelly sacrifices human flesh for the sake of dysfunctional machinery. They sit, they type, they stare in screens. All day, every day.

Of course we do this to ourselves for a reason. The computer gave us so many opportunities to work abstractly, to expand beyond the physical, to create a document that wastes no paper and can be edited with little to no effort, to model reality. We encased these functions in a form that fit the means of the time: screen, keyboard, mouse. Back then, technology couldn’t be expressive. Since it did the job well enough, we stuck with it—for 50 years now.

But technology has increased on exponentially since then, and we have the capability to do so much more. We have the ability to create, touch and manipulate virtual spaces and objects in ways only dreamed of a few years ago, in ways that seamlessly blur the distinction between “IRL” objects and those of the virtual world. We should celebrate and honor our evolution by finding new and more physical ways to handle the digital. We should find ways to de-abstract our computational world in ways that still carry the benefits of virtualization.

So, in a nutshell. That’s what I want to do.

Here’s some great projects and people who are thinking the same way:


  1. This is a fascinating set of questions and I really appreciate your approach. I’ve often felt like digital options reduce people’s curiosity by encouraging us to skip over learning how to actually do something and think through it. It seems to me you’re on to something; surely we’ve evolved enough to find smart ways to use technology to make us smarter, not dumber.

    • Russ

      Thanks Maggie! That can certainly be the case. Often computers give way to a kind of abstraction. We tend to color that abstraction with metaphors that we recognize from real life: a desktop, an inbox, a trash can, a file folder. It’s an awkward pairing. Now we have the ability to do the opposite. We can use the real objects and add a layer of abstraction, rather than the other way around.

      Thanks for the comment!