Design Observer Twenty Years 2003-2023

John Thackara | Essays

From Movies to Moblogging [August 2003]

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We've seen the past, and it features film. Most of the 2,700 snaps we take each second of every day will soon migrate to camera-phones. The first stage will be reached when sales of digital cameras exceed those of cameras that use film, in 2005 (says The Economist, quoting IDC). This is bad news for Kodak and Fuji, who sell film and prints. But camera-equipped mobile phones will soon supplant stand-alone digital cameras, too. Don't believe it? Consider: when the new Sony Ericsson SO505i phone-camera launched in Japan, 40,000 units were sold on the first day.

"Moblogging" is when you frame, shoot, send, and upload - and therefore share - an image in one single action. At the world's first international moblogging conference, held in a Tokyo nightclub called Super-Deluxe, organiser Adam Greenfield cautioned that, "moblogging is not seamless and easy yet: devices often find it hard to send image files successfully to websites". But old-style cameras, including digital ones, seem doomed by the clunky steps needed to dowload images or make prints.

The average teenage girl in Japan spends, or charges to her pliant parents, a hefty $300 a month. A significant minority spends far more. The money goes about equally on three things: food; fashion & beauty products; and the mobile phone. According to investor and moblogging eminence Joi Ito, when a sample of these girls was asked where they would cut back if - heaven forbid - their paltry allowance were to be reduced, a large majority said food would go first, then fashion, and phone calls (and now moblogging) last.

Scottish moblog pioneer Alan Bradburne, who runs, a consumer moblogging site, says pictures of dogs and cats are the most popular subjects. This news triggered a nasty flashback to the start-ups which were paradigmatic of era excess. Let's hope pet fetishists don't do moblogging in, too.

Soon, more people will play computer games on mobile phones than on computers or consoles. One out of every three Japanese - 38 million people - already uses i-mode "to connect real to life" as an i-mode brochure puts it. "Location is no longer a barrier to fun and competition", it burbles. Was it ever? The more interesting question is how we will use wireless communications proactively to shape the way we experience places.

Another trend for copyright owners to worry about: naughty people in Japan take camera phones into bookshops and newsagents and snap pages from books and magazines.

A Sony person we met at the Moblogging event was described on his visiting card as: "Creative Manager. Creative Strategy Department. Creative Center". Sony should be told: "creative" is the must-avoid "C" word of 2003. It's over-used and devalued - like its luckless siblings concept, and community.

Prada, which is said to be 1.5 billion euros in debt, lavished $87 million - more than three times its profits for 2002 - on a new Herzog and de Meuron-designed store in Tokyo. The bubble-wrapesque plexiglass exterior certainly stands out, and we popped in for a look. Been there, done that. Christopher Everard of "InterLife" consultancy (sic) told The Economist that, "by using iconic architects, the label is building brand equity". Translated into plain English, Prada spent 87 million bucks on a clothes shop that contained nothing we wanted to buy.

Prada's investment is chickenfeed, a mere grain of corn, compared to Tokyo's Roppongi Hills tower whose 8.2 million square feet (800,000 square metres) have just opened. No expense has been spared by Yoshiko Mori, its developer, to compensate local people for the sacrifice of their old neighbourhood to progress. Pre-existing traditional features have been saved, reassures the brochure, including a Japanese garden, a Buddhist temple, and a children's park. These human-scale traces of old Tokyo proved frustratingly hard to locate amid the Hills' 200-plus shops, 75 restaurants, and zillions of square feet of office space and apartments.

A Who's Who of the global art establishment - including Glenn Lowry from MoMA, Nicholas Serota from the Tate, and David Elliot, its British Director - is backing the Mori Museum of Art on Roppongi Hills' 53rd floor. The museum opens in October with a bitingly critical look at contemporary life called, "Happiness: a survival guide for art and life". Only those with a "community passport" are admitted to this Xanadu of art-as-happiness - but, once admitted, you gain access to a bar designed by Conran Associates and at least six museum shops. "Art, design and happiness, the kind of place that we want to become".

It took 130 model-makers eight months to create Roppongi Hills' opening exhibit, "The Global City". Spectacular 3D models of London, Berlin, Paris, Frankfurt, Chicago, New York, Shanghai and Tokyo include thousands of tiny houses with photographs of their facades pasted on. The show's climax is the100 square metre (1,000 square feet) Tokyo model. By an amazing coincidence, Roppongi Hills sits bang in its centre. As an ecological design principle, the "compact,vertical urban development" advocated by the show is preferable to US-style sprawl. But. Following Groucho Marx, we cannot imagine wanting to be admitted to a gated community devoted to art-and-design-as-happiness.

Roppongi Hills may end up as a gravestone of the art world's credibility, but a video tour de force called "Tokyo Scanner" is not to be missed. A motorised glider bearing state-of-the-art cameras was flown slowly around the city on a clear day. The resulting twenty-minute film is projected on a vast, high-resolution screen. Matrix-style data and architectural graphics are artfully superimposed. Sometimes the camera zooms in on real people from way up high, and frames them like a sniper's scope. Tokyo Scanner leaves a nasty aftertaste.

But there's no need to worry. Bill Gates says so. "Information technology will be a force for more security, more privacy, and greater individual freedom", said the great libertarian in a recent keynote address on surveillance, data collection, data analysis, and cybersecurity. Bill was addressing a conference on "information technology leadership in a security-focused world".

Forbes Global magazine stands up for modernity in its July issue. The house magazine for billionaires attacks radical Islam for its "culture of death" and its "war against freedom and modernity throughout the world". The magazine then devotes most of its pages to its annual Celebrities List, which is compiled by someone called Kafka. "These personalities are more than fluff," says Forbes, "they are the stuff of modern business".

An "art-life" exhibit at the Spiral building in Tokyo is called "Speed and Slow". Photographs of nature are shown next to large-scale city maps that have been embellished with abstract, 3D embroidery.

At Tokyo's motorway ramps, toll booth gates flip crisply like a pinball game. Highrise buildings sport flashing red lights; at night, the whole city blinks like a gigantic machine. A vast funfair wheel at Palette Town flashes, glows and pulses with the best neon light installation we ever saw. It's still a great city.

En route back to Europe we find that Bangkok's newest mall, Gaysorn Plaza, is filled with empty white space, luxury boutiques, and Wallpaper-style cafes serving only Illy coffee. A Blueprint-style magazine, art4d, covers the Thai and South Asia high design scene. Its editor, Pratarn Teeratada, is an expert on Bangkok's street food scene.

Bangkok has gone questionnaire mad. The tiniest transaction is accompanied by an evaluation form. Ten questions accompanied our beverage at Coffee World. One was entitled "Value of Money". Your correspondent ticked the box that said, "Need Improving".

The International Festival for Tactical Media brings together art, campaigns, experiments in media, technology, and transcultural politics. The organisers are looking for films, videotapes, DVDs and CDs created with a specific social, cultural or political agenda. In other words, they want the media of crisis, criticism and opposition - an antidote to the world as we see it represented in the mainstream.
Amsterdam, 11 - 14 September 2003

This online consultation forum enables you to submit research ideas to the guys who run the European Commission's Future and Emerging Technologies programme. They're on the look out for "visionary and challenging long-term goals that are timely, mobilise multidisciplinary research teams, and have strong potential for future impact".

Paul Saffo memorably criticised the web as a "mausoleum" because it contained completed, rather than live, artefacts. For museum professionals, mausoleums are a good thing, and they are developing new design methods to create digital replicas of cultural heritage artifacts such as photography photogrammetry and stereo photography. "Presenting and Exploring Heritage on the Web" takes place 1 September, at the DEXA 2003 conference in Prague.

Who needs painters when we have computers? The Generative Art Conference takes place in Milan, 10-13 December. Topics range endlessly from Art & Science, Infinity & Identity, Image & Space - to Artificial Life and Generative Robotics. Expect to encounter many beards.

People, who have bodies, cannot inhabit virtual space. But we persist in trying to do so. Another group of hopeful researchers meets at "Technology for Presence" at Aalborg University, Denmark, 6-8 October.

Life would be fine if all technology were easy to use, but does it make business sense to spend money making it so? The "Hits" conference searches for links between user value and business value. Its gallant explorers include Tim Brown, President & CEO of IDEO; Mark Greiner, workspace futures specialist at Steelcase; Tom MacTavish, who runs Motorola's Human Interface Lab; and Don Norman, who made the rest of the world think about usability in the first place. October 16-17, Chicago, Illinois.

If the Chicago gig sounds too serious to move you from your deckchair, then consider Mythology in Design - Gifts from Elves to People. It's the title of a design exhibition from Iceland. 2-30 July, BioNord, Bremerhaven.

We think they may be a menace, but why not decide for yourself? Europe's largest conference on smart labels, including RFID, smart packaging and beyond, takes place 1-2 October, at Churchill College, Cambridge, UK.

The Next Generation Foundation (NGf) explores the nature of creativity and learning. It provides exceptional educators with opportunities to learn new skills. As part of its strategy to make learning innovations visible, NGf is developing a database of projects that exemplify issues of creativity, play and learning in schools or museums. Please send your suggestions to NGf's Director, James Bradburne.

"The value of publishing information on the Internet is in a combination of access and connections. . . The Internet presence of the Museum, Library, or Foundation exists in Enterprise Web Space, a combination of many web sites, databases of digital collections, publications, special exhibitions, membership and user information, and related digital resources." Information designer Paul Kahn coined the Star Trekky term; now he's running a workshop at the big cultural-institutions-meet-digital-techology event, ICHIM O3, in Paris on 9 September.

What does it mean to live in a world where there is instant connection? How do we manage a vast net of information, resources, and people? What is really happening at the hubs of communication? How can we make sense of it all? The Multiples of 1 Conference explores what happens at the nodes of a network, 7-8 November, MIT Media Laboratory, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Information designers have a certain reputation for . . . er . . . seriousness. But if you want to go to Recife in Brazil and don't mind listening to papers with names like "Orality of hypermedia narratives: a semiotic approach", then off you go. September 8-11, 2003. Recife, Brazil.

An international conference on "Creativity and the City" will be held in Amsterdam's former gas works, Westergasfabriek. Westergasfabriek is the latest urban project to transform a former industrial site into a public and cultural amenity, and it wants to share the lessons it has learned and bring together comparable projects from around the world. A range of interesting case studies in the programme includes projects from Belfast, Tacoma Waterways and the North Sea Canal. Doors of Perception is supporting the event and your correspondent John Thackara, is among the speakers. 25-26 September, Amsterdam.

Jobs | October 01