Archive for the ‘Ideas’ Category

Letting the Crowd Help Solve the Crime

April 17th, 2013

In the aftermath of the horrible Boston Marathon bombing, my mind was wandering — thinking of ways that I might be able to help. In fact, I think a lot of people feel this way after such intense public tragedies. Then, when the police began asking people to submit the photos and videos they may have taken of the area around the bombing that day, I had a thought:

Why isn’t there an app that can help the crowd submit their photos and recreate the events leading up to a crime?

All digital photos are time-stamped, and many — especially those taken with smartphones — are also stamped with the geo-location where they were taken. After a crime takes place, these photos could be quickly submitted from many people’s phones, fed into a central database, and be automatically sorted and re-presented to the investigators on a sort-of visual timeline. It would make both the contribution of and the analysis of these invaluable crime-scene documents much easier. People could easily see where holes existed in surveillance and flip through their photos for relevant images. Any public event could be recreated this way.

boston marathon bomb app


Recent news reports are indicating that some surveillance footage and possibly some crowd-contributed photos are already leading authorities towards certain suspects in this case. I can only imagine how much more quickly we might have responded if the whole process was simplified.

In fact, if any of you out there are ace Android or iOS developers and want to help me build this thing, please let me know.



Design, Digital, Ideas , ,

The Symbolic Progression of Marriage Equality

March 26th, 2013

While the Supreme Court debates today and tomorrow on two cases related to gay marriage, more and more people on Facebook and other social networks are adopting a pink and red symbol of equality to show their support for marriage equality and civil rights protection. These symbolic badges all display the ‘=’ symbol, but as more of them started showing up in my Facebook feed, I was drawn to the small differences between these simple statements of support.

Slight differences abound in this simple flag.

Many the images seemed to be copied and recopied from other postings as the notion of symbolic support went viral across social networks, resulting in exaggerated pixillation as the images got re-optimized by various compression algorithms. However, some of these symbols seemed to be custom-made, with alternate sizing, framing, and weight of the symbol. The reds used varied from #ca0000 to #cb0101 and #cb1c01 — pretty close — and the the pinks hovered around #e88d8c, #e88c8d, #e98d8e, #eb8d8d, and #e28d8a, though some of these color variations surely came from compression distortion.

Perhaps it’s largely an academic exercise, but it is interesting to study the ways images and symbols get distorted and altered as they are adopted and interpreted by the masses. It reminds me a bit of Sebastien Schmieg’s recursive image search projects, where he feeds an image into an image search engine and uses the result to start a new search. A narrative of unexpected relationships reveals itself as the images progress.

In any case, I hope the Supremes do the right thing this week and uphold the rights of all to have access to civil marriage benefits and responsibilities that literally have nothing to do with religious freedom or popular opinion. This is one progression whose arrival is long overdue.

Design, Digital, Ideas , ,

Leaving White Space: The Growth of Remix Culture

February 24th, 2013

One of my favorite ideas on interactivity comes from something of an unexpected source. In his 1995 diary turned book: A Year With Swollen Appendices, arty soundsmith Brian Eno suggests that the term ‘interactive’ is really just a hyped-up tech term for ‘unfinished’. Coming from 1995, the year that Microsoft Windows took over the computer world, Eno envisioned a future where music would be left unassembled, still in pieces, waiting for the listener to finish the song as they see fit. Since then, we’ve seen the technology emerge for anyone with an Internet connection to do just that. Becoming much more than an underground music trend, “Remix Culture” has caught on big time with some of our biggest companies; What started with drum loops being lifted from old LPs has expanded into a web best-practice.

For example, the biggest content websites in the world: Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, each offer up remote access to their content through APIs — little snippets of code that allow websites to pull and push content to and from other sites — so that anyone can replicate key points of functionality from anywhere on the web. These APIs are the reason you can see your friends’ favorite articles on the New York Times site, update Twitter from your iPhone, or watch music videos on some kid’s Tumblr blog. In essence, what these sites have realized is that it isn’t necessarily best to keep tight control over how and where people view your content. In fact, people are sometimes much more engaged with content if they feel some sense of authorship over it. In the age of the Internet, people have come to expect their participation in media (and many other things) to come on their own terms.

I was reminded of this idea recently by two different encounters with culture I’ve had here in New York over the past year. The first was the subway advertisements that appeared to announce the arrival of the fifth season of Mad Men. The posters were little more than a stark white space with a familiar suited figure falling through it. They were striking ads on their own, but the coolest thing is what passers-by did with them. All over the city, these ads were treated as canvases, unfinished dots to be abstractly connected into a new pictures. As anyone in NYC can tell you, subway ads have long been defaced as interactive canvases, these ads just left a little more to the imagination. I’m not sure if this was a foreseen feature of these ads, but it was very fun nevertheless.

mad men subway ads


More recently, artist Rutherford Chang has taken over the Recess space in SoHo (at 41 Grand Street) with an installation titled ‘We Buy White Albums’. Chang has filled the gallery with a bank of record players and bins upon bins filled with his extensive collection of first-printings of The Beatles so-called ‘White Album’. Going through the collection, you’ll find that some of the most interesting specimens have been decorated and filled-in by their former owners, endowing the objects with much more power than their more pristine brethren. (These images were lifted from Dust & Grooves, which offers a great interview with the artist.)



Philosophically, the idea of decentralizing authorial control over meaning is nothing new. The academic grad-schoolers among you will recognize the notion that an audiences’ interpretation may, in fact, represent the true meaning in any work of art. Browse some of the post-structuralist musings of Jacques Derrida from way back in the 60′s and you will find that some creative philosophies actually give the audience more credence than the author. Maybe this is what the Beatles were acknowledging when they put this record out in 1968… or maybe they were just trying to clear their minds after their extended hang with the Maharishi.

In any case, whenever I make something — especially when I’m designing a platform that will be populated with user content — I try to leave room for this idea of the unfinished. I believe that some of the most engaging experiences (and business models) are those that leave room for a little serendipitous audience manipulation. Why try to build a world all by yourself, wall it in, and declare it finished, when your audience would be thrilled to offer up their own energy to help build alongside you.


Advertising, Design, Digital, Ideas

An App Store Revolution

June 26th, 2011

The recent unveiling of Amazon’s marketplace for Android apps got me thinking about digital commerce and its seemingly steady march towards becoming a reflection of real-world commerce. Currently, you can only buy mobile apps in a few digital mega-stores, but this sparse landscape may eventually be filled with Ma and Pa app stores of all stripes, each one serving a specific demographic by offering a curated selection of apps. The prevailing trend towards more social computing all but guarantees it.

If you’re only familiar with the Apple’s iTunes App Store — the sole marketplace where an iPhone or iPad owner can purchase apps for their devices — you may not be aware that, while Google runs an official app marketplace for devices running their Android platform, there are several other marketplaces where Android device owners can buy apps. In fact, Google has structured Android, their mobile operating system, to allow users and mobile device manufacturers a great deal of freedom when it comes to applications. This ethos that values flexibility and customization allows device makers to pre-install their own apps and, more relevantly for most of us, allows users to download Android apps from anywhere on the Internet that they please.


Like the iTunes app store, the official Google app marketplace has been widely criticized as being difficult to shop. The number of apps available for mobile devices has grown so large that the simple but simplistic shopping strategies employed in both of these marketplaces are now insufficient to connect users with the apps they seek — assuming a user even knows that an app they might want exists. Only the editorially featured and most popular apps are easily surfaced for the consumer. For everything else, word-of-mouth, blogging, and advertising are the only real hope for an app to find its audience. An overhaul of these nascent app shopping experiences is long overdue. (I’m looking at you, iTunes.)

Additionally, because Google doesn’t stringently vet applications as part of the approval process, the Google Android Market has become known as a sort of Wild West. Malicious, buggy, or misleading applications seem to find their way onto the phones of unsuspecting users all too often. Apple takes advantage of this supposed side-effect of freedom to justify their highly-restricted-but-safe “walled garden” system. However, I am fairly certain it is possible for freedom and safety to coexist within an online community if it is given the right tools.


Since they don’t happen to own an operating system, Amazon’s mere presence in the app business suggests that there is room for a variety of storefronts in the app business — that apps, like cans of Coke, should be available not just in a Walmart, but from any store that wishes to sell them. I bet the Internet is full of app connoisseurs who would gladly evangelize their favorite apps in exchange for a little cash or a reward of some kind.

In the future, given enough consumer demand and developer support, opening a curated gallery of digital experiences for sale could be as easy as installing WordPress. Instead of just recommending apps, Gizmodo, New York Times, or your local Girl Scout Troop could offer their favorite apps for sale. A free market for digital experiences would be totally cool, and it would shift the power of app recommendations into the hands of those that do it best — friends, family, and brands whose values the consumer already sympathizes with. These specialized app shops may not have the breadth of apps that a super-store like Apple, Google or Amazon would, but they would be able to offer a trusted sensibility and inspiring curation.

Superstores are mega-profitable and efficient entities, so it looks like they are here to stay. However, besides offering low prices, they are rarely identified as delightful shopping experiences. In the real world, it was a long, slow, profits-driven journey from the neighborhood corner store to the mega mart. In the world of appstores, it appears that journey will be precisely the opposite, the power of commerce moving down from the big companies and out into the hands of the little guy. I’m betting it will happen because people will always demand boutique shopping experiences. One could argue it is this same love of the boutique sensitivity to purpose that has made apps a more popular experience on mobile devices than the web browser.


I believe e-commerce, like most cultural experiences, is constantly seeking equilibrium between efficiency and authenticity. The engineers of today’s Internet have plied the system with a lot of the former, but not so much of the latter. The contemporary shift toward more ‘social’ digital experiences is the inevitable result of the system trying to balance itself. Entrepreneurs and engineers now building software platforms and tools that give more than lip service to this shift will surely ingratiate themselves into the hearts and wallets of today’s humanity-starved Internet goers.

Apple is setting itself up as the Starbucks of mobile app retailers, increasingly offering a safe and efficient retail model tuned to a mass market scale. They are sure to remain a successful business that will always have its place. However, I believe Google’s Android will eventually see massive returns on the truly social experiences that are sure to result from the openness of the platform and their business model. For true authenticity to be expressed, you must empower the people not just as consumers, but also as implicit owners of a culture on all levels.

The revolution is coming to the way we buy, sell, and trade apps.

Design, Digital, Ideas , , , ,

Is Facebook ‘Too Big To Fail’?

April 20th, 2011

Facebook is fast becoming the ubiquitous form of both personal and social identification on the Internet and across connected devices. Unlike most of its earlier competition, Facebook has grown beyond it’s simple beginnings as a walled social network; it now powers the social features of numerous other digital experiences. Members can use their Facebook ID to sign into websites, challenge their friends from within video games, populate apps instantly with contacts, and spread feedback and comments all over the web. Heck, as we’ve recently seen, the site is even helping change history in its role in political revolution across the globe. In other words, Facebook is proving incredibly useful and nearly indispensable (gasp!) as the first widely accepted common denominator for personal identity and social features across numerous digital platforms.

So, as membership grows and the service weaves its way into more and more experiences, at what point does Facebook become too big to fail? It is projected that 50% of all Americans will be registered on Facebook by 2013. At this rate, does it begin to make sense that Facebook should become recognized as an integral part of our digital infrastructure, and its social databases regulated as a public resource? Should Facebook’s social web be commodified; becoming synonymous with ‘social network’ instead of merely being one example?

Though it’s the goal of most every startup, the true indispensability of a specific Internet service is a foreign concept; The Internet is simply too young, too unstable, and too marginalized as just one slice of everyday life. Our demands on this digital system are growing, however, and we can look for precedent in other industries and commodities, such as water. Clean and available drinking water is something that most of us see as a common right. It would would seem ridiculous if landowners were allowed to claim full rights over the water in a river that runs through their property, charging all those downstream for the right to drink. If a factory was allowed to pollute a river, harming everything and everyone later exposed to the water, most of us would agree the government should step in and stop them. While Facebook may not be as necessary to life as water (for a few of us, at least), at some point the availability of a free, secure, and universal source of social identity on the Internet will be necessary to create the meaningfully connected digital experiences we all dream of.

The transition of property from private to public resource is never a simple matter. We have a system of patent and copyright expiration for intellectual property, eventually allowing brilliant inventions like Mies Van Der Rohe’s Barcelona Chair or Pfizer’s Viagra (which goes generic in the US next year) to be made and sold by any manufacturer.  However, patent expiration and its terms are always bitterly debated by any affected parties. The digital industry most certainly sends lobbyists to Washington to make sure their concerns are heard on this and other relevant issues.

Of course, one of the primary hurdles for any unified social network is whether or not most people would actually want a singular online identity. Facebook offers complex permissions and groups settings, but personally I use LinkedIn for all my business connections and FourSquare to inform select friends of my partying whereabouts. Most of my other social dealings online are either borderline random or totally anonymous. It’s too tedious to keep recreating a new social network every time I join a new website. So, if the alternative to a unified system is that only three or four of my digital experiences are truly social, it strikes me that unification will eventually win. We’ll just have to figure out how to address best practices for permissions and privacy.

With no one new in the industry able to find a way to compete with Facebook in the social arena, there’s a lot of pressure to figure out how to best socialize new digital experiences. Promisingly, the not-quite-finished HTML5 standard lays the initial groundwork of a social web by including tags to identify the author of an article and of any linked pages. The more we live our lives digitally, the more we will need to continue to develop HTML in this direction. I believe the users of the Internet will eventually need a commodified social tool — a standardized, extensible, protected, and regulated personal identification and address book. With 600 million users (and growing), I am curious to see if Facebook will eventually offer itself (or part of itself) as a candidate for this standard before the government steps in and requests regulation on our behalf.

UPDATE: As I finished writing this article, the Obama administration announced a plan for a regulated marketplace of public and private Online identity providers — perhaps resulting in the very vision I just outlined. If this initiative goes forward, I wouldn’t be surprised if Facebook is counting on being the front-runner, thus cementing their place at the top of the social-web hill for the foreseeable future. Still, we have yet to discover whether people will trust any identification system officially sanctioned by the government.

Design, Ideas , ,

Art At Auction: The Game

January 29th, 2011

Holed away inside a rental cabin in the thick, rainy, forest near Washington’s Mount Baker, I happened upon an unexpected treasure: a board game from the early 1970′s about buying and selling fine art at auction. The box featured a surly cast of fiscally flush archetypes straight out of some airport intrigue novel — all of them bidding against each other to take ownership of the masterworks that line the walls around them. The game was called Masterpiece.

Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Renoir — paintings by the world’s most famous artists are on the auction block, for sale to the highest bidder. How high will you bid before the tension and bluffing get to you? And how good’s your eye — can you spot a forgery when you buy one?

The MASTERPIECE game combines the excitement of a fast-paced board game with the glamour and sophistication of a game that deals with fine art. Some of the world’s greatest paintings, illustrated in full-color postcards, are an integral part of gameplay.

The high-stakes world of international art — and the power plays of an auction — will entertain and enlighten as you join a particularly eccentric group of collectors who’ve all come in search of a MASTERPIECE.

The version of the game that I played, the original, featured works from the collection of The Art Institute of Chicago, including Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day, and even relative newcomer Jackson Pollock’s Greyed Rainbow.

The game was designed for Parker Brothers by master toy design firm Marvin Glass Associates (in an office located, at the time, just a few blocks away from the Art Institute in downtown Chicago). The firm had recently created the classic bug flipping game Ants In The Pants and, with Masterpiece, someone at the firm apparently wanted to take things a few notches up the cultural ladder. You know, in order to teach young people about something culturally relevant… something like the concept of art as commodity.

The cast of characters that you play in the game are gross caricatures of the wealthy “art collecting class”. You’ve got shady Barons, huffy intellectuals, and plenty of inherited or stolen wealth. I imagine in 1970, after a Hippie youth uprising and in the midst of a distinctly anti-establishment movement throughout the country, I too would be tempted to turn a few screws into the elite class — snobbish, self-possessed pricks throwing their ill-gotten money away on a bunch of old paint and canvas. Also, the way that the value of the paintings in the game get assigned randomly according to chance presents a similarly jaded viewpoint, and helps to reinforce the silliness and greed of the collectors themselves.

It is in this same spirit that contemporary artists like Andy Warhol were managing to both make fun of the art market and also to prosper within it. By 1971, Warhol’s Factory was openly taking commissions for silk-screened portraits at a price of $25,000 apiece, milking dough from these same tasteless collectors by giving them what they really wanted: pictures of themselves.

Artists would soon attempt to opt out of this system of commodification completely. So called ‘conceptual art’ was popularized in the 1970s, led by artists such as Sol LeWitt, who didn’t sell objects, but instead sold sets of directions that allowed his ideas to be realized by others. Ideas became valuable, simultaneously owned by everyone and no one. On Kawara made simple paintings that depicted simply the date of the work’s creation in white text on a black ground. He and others produced ideas and objects easily copied by whomever found them appealing. This body of work was a cry for freedom from a much more elite world of painterly talent, schooling, and expensive materials. Anyone with a love for ideas could feel free to collect without worrying much about things like money or rarity. However, the irony of this populist subversion was, of course, that the collection and subsequent high market value of such ‘immaterial’ work has served perhaps to alienate the general public from the art world even more.

In any case, games such as Masterpiece certainly don’t help to re-frame a dismissive opinion of art and its buyers. As much as this game no doubt served to introduce many people to beautiful works by renowned artists, it also primed them to understand the world of fine art with a veneer of contempt. Unfortunately, the “masterpiece” of the game turns out to be whatever random work gets randomly assigned the game’s only million dollar price tag. It seems sad that a whole generation of kids grew up with this slanted notion of artistic value, when they probably should have been taught that it is possible to have a real relationship with art — a meaningful and ongoing conversation based on their own ideas, empathy for artists and their historical environments, and maybe even a little wonder thrown in for good measure.

Back at the cabin, my curiosity got the better of me, and we ended up playing a round of Masterpiece. I felt a rush of satisfaction as I snatched up Mary Cassatt’s gorgeous The Child’s Bath, only to be immediately crestfallen to see that I had apparently overpaid. In the end, I must report that the game really wasn’t very much fun. In a real auction, you get to assert your love for a work of art by bidding on it. The amount you’re willing to pay becomes what the work is worth to you — what the work is worth in the real world. In the game, you are often forced to acknowledge that your love was misguided when the work turns out to be worth half of what you paid for it. Your confidence in your own taste and in the artist is deflated, and you try to trick someone else into taking the ‘dud’ off your hands. This dynamic kinda sucks.

Everyone at the table agreed that the game was lackluster, but we also saw promise in the basic premise of an art collecting game. If I were to redesign the game, I might encourage players to defend or steal the works they love from other players, designate their own ‘masterpiece’ to pursue, or at least award a bonus to the biggest collection of art at the end of the game. Though the game would still be unavoidably focused on art as a commodity, at least it would also consider the artistic tastes of the players themselves and give a value to the art itself as something more than a stand-in for cash.

The thrill of the sale must never usurp the much more significant and meaningful thrill that accompanies an association with beauty, vision, and genius. That’s the real trip of the art collector.

Art, Ideas