Material Culture


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A useless pictogram: Merely graphics, no instruction. Contrast this with the DOT pictogram for litter disposal:

This pictogram shows how the user is expected to interact with the object. Drop things into it!

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Diffuse networks, interstitial space, the march of the trash cans. (Apparently an effort to combat improper cigarette disposal.)

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A mobile coat rack, deployed in support of a game of boules in a Parisian park. Domesticated space, the park as literal urban living room. Proprietary, appropriateness: The metal chairs “belong” outside, but something meant for soft and fuzzy coats does not. Coats, like their humans, are inside creatures. The places and spaces where things are “supposed” to happen, the invisible rules that guide our existence, the benefits we accrue from occasionally disregarding them. (Some friends of mine buy a sofa at a rummage sale every summer and keep in the back of a pickup as comfortable seating for trips to the drive-in movie theatre.)

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At BNP Paribas, an animated ATM within your ATM. Not so different from the incorrigibly peppy first-person of Washington Mutual ATMs. (“Hi! How should we talk today? English? Español?”) As graphics technology evolves, the more complicated the story that may be told. Remember those ugly yellow-on-black UNIX-terminal style ATMs? Or the ones with the most basic graphics and a perpetual bank-logo burn-in?

Abstraction, caricature, anthropomorphization, all in support of a financial transaction. Do these serve to more effectively replace a human teller or to augment an electronic transaction?

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Herds on the streets of Paris. As I was preparing this post, sorting through the photos I have, I started thinking about what constitutes a herd and what doesn’t. A herd, I decided, is a group of similar objects that have chosen to gather together. (Or their respective owners have chosen to gather them together, as the objects lack agency.) This excludes merchandise for sale (one common owner; a herd represents compound decisions) and things that operate as indivisible objects (a metro train can be thought of as a herd of cars, but properly the train, while divisible, is an indivisible object—it needs all five cars to operate) and short-term high-turnover clusters of objects (buses arriving and leaving—there is something static to a herd.)

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These photos, on the other hand, show proper herds: Static groups of diffuse, divisible objects that have clustered together through the actions of disparate owners. The motorcycles are an exemplar of the proper herd; these herds of police and medical vehicles are a little harder to define. If the place they gather is formally set, and not ad hoc as the motorcycles’ is, do they still constitute a herd? I would argue they do: Much as herds of animals can cluster out in the field, they can also cluster inside a defined corral. The motorcycles in this example are “out in the wild”—away from their respective home bases—and the emergency vehicles are “in the corral”.

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The definition of a herd also assumes a lack of purpose and agency: A farmers’ market isn’t really a herd of humans, because the farmers have chosen to gather themselves there with an explicit purpose. These herds just are—waiting, in most cases, for their owners to return or for them to be pressed into use. The point of a herd is that it is inactive, that when active it is necessarily diffuse

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Herds, lines, groups, order: The ways in which we organize our common existence.

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“WANTED” brand tortilla products at Le Grand Epicerie De Paris, a high-end grocery store connected to a department store, Le Bon Marché.

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How do we define ourselves abroad? Are these chips and tortillas American because they tilt at Old-West stereotypes? Because they’re in English? Because tortilla chips are un-French?

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The layers of filtration: Mexican food, packaged as American, advertised using American stereotypes of Mexicans, to be sold to a French/European audience. 

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Pico Iyer would have a field day.

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The ways in which we segregate items from our realities. Sudden discrete herds.

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How items are grouped, made indiscrete, and removed to storage or disposal. Objects not in use.

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Leaves, chairs: A Paris park prepares for winter.

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What do you do with a successful brand? You push it, and push it, and push it.

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How disconnected these four women are from their fairy-tale origins! 

The possible downsides of inviting your consumers to eat semolina representations of your characters.

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At a gift shop in Disneyland Resort Paris, a different take on name mugs: Dealing with an international audience by only providing the vastly-more-flexible letter.

The adaptations our environments make on our behalf; the extent to which we expect them. Adaptations or compromises: The extent to which we accept them. Does one-size-fits-all internationalism detract from the individual user experience?

Previous examples of knowing thy audience.

One paper due tonight, three due in the following week. We’re plugging away.

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Hot chocolate served at the bar of a Paris café. The small pitcher inside the cup holds melted chocolate, allowing the end user to determine the chocolate:milk ratio and thereby the taste of the hot chocolate. (The larger pitcher of steamed milk is not shown.) Customization, acceptable tasks. The justifications we mount behind certain ways of doing things.

Both the spoon and the pitcher of chocolate could be transported on the saucer, but only the pitcher is. The spoon is delivered after the saucer/cup/pitcher has been set down. The spoon’s delivery is very purposeful—it is placed just so, its bowl pointing down and its handle resting on the bar.

Anticipation and the staging of an experience; the power of ritual. Even getting coffee from an automated machine has an aura of ceremony to it—the metallic coins deposited, the click of the selection button, the sound of hot liquid hitting a cardboard cup, the always-identical smell, the grimace of the first sip. The line between interaction and observation; the line between accidental or ad hoc or improvised moments and the deliberate creation of a product-to-be-experienced.

(The fiscally-driven spatial product of Parisian cafés: Table service costs more than bar service.)

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Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport, early morning.

A trip to another country or region has the power to dig into assumptions and provoke questions about how we choose to structure our lives. Why do our buildings look this way instead of that? How can the alien swap places with the banal, and so quickly? What elements go into forming the complicated, bubbling stew that is our daily existence? The differences are found in the minutiae (power outlets, laundry procedures, elevators) and the substance (city planning, legal codes, methods of communication) of our lives.

This Material World was in Paris visiting friends this last week, a trip that included ample time for on-the-ground research. Paris is a city rich in history and culture, and its information architecture is just as interesting to examine as the architecture of its monuments and museums. Over the next two weeks or so, I’ll be compiling my photos and notes into full-fledged posts, on everything from the Paris Metro to constrained-choice systems. After exhausting the Paris material, the blog (and custom header) will return to its usual more inclusive (American) lens.

A modified version of this post will be retained as an indexed page on this blog, and will include a list of links to Paris-specific posts.

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