Material Culture


A stroller with attached umbrella. What does this say about the parent? What does it say to other parents? Are you a bad patent, especially in Seattle, if you don’t have an on-stroller umbrella?

Stroller as accessory development platform. Cup holders, diaper bags, etc. Exaptation. To what extent do we expect products we purchase to be adaptable/expandable?

Another instance of umbrellas.

Auto-stickers; auto-mythmaking. Establishing a local identity, forcing the built environment to see us.

Does Vashon Island even have an airport?

(Answer: Yes, although the FAA identifier is 2S1, and not VSH, which doesn’t quite have the same punch to it. Smaller airports serving general aviation (i.e. non-commercial flights and small planes) tend to have number-letter-number FAA codes, because there aren’t enough location-based letter codes to go around. How do we code empire into our basic systems and protocol?)

(Also: Pilots planning flights to 2S1 should be aware that there are OCNL LARGE WILD ANIMALS ON ARPT. Oh, rural Washington.)

Or: Scenes from CPR Training.

Is it like looking in a mirror?

A hairless, rubbery mirror?

Training, simulation, constructive play. A world without consequences.

The willing suspension of disbelief. (Even mannequins wear socks.) 

How do we enter such worlds? How do we think about them?

How do we regard ourselves and our actions? As real, or just another simulation?

The absurd, quietly manifested in objects-not-in-use.

The dream of every little boy and girl: Their very own Hands-free Ear Light.

Most Advanced Yet Acceptable, or MAYA, is a design axiom meant to capture consumer preference for the familiar. New designs should look new, fresh, like the future incarnate, but shouldn’t be so alien that consumers can’t imagine themselves using one. Hands-free flashlights have been around for decades—think miners’ headlamps—but the Hands-free Ear Light capitalizes on the design, orientation, and use of bluetooth headsets. Why? Because headlamps, while old, weren’t something you’d wear on your ear.

Exaptation, cross-pollination, variables and constants. The magic of cheap labor and economies of scale.

Why this is being sold next to vitaminwater is anyone’s guess.

(Notice also the aisle information sign in the background. Why the cutting trapezoidal shape? A designer’s best guess, or market research at work? I’m guessing the former, but would really like to see a video of the focus group behind the latter. “The rectangle’s just normal, I guess. Trapezoids make me feel kind of cutting-edge.” And on that wisdom, we remodel our worlds.)

Selling ideas, selling concepts: The product is secondary to the ideal, the image, the lifestyle.

The verbal talismans we brandish to keep our monsters away. The useful gnomes we invoke to justify our actions.

To misquote Stalin: One million deaths is a statistic—and one million tragedies.

I left my laptop sitting in the library for a few minutes while I went to get a book and found this flyer next to it when I returned. While similar flyers posted around campus and table tents in our dining halls carry the same message, those are addressed to a plural, general, anonymous audience—this flyer was meant for me, and no one else.

The leaving of this flyer, like the hypothetical theft of my laptop, both have to happen when another person intrudes into my space, into my life.  This is classic show-don’t-tell advertising: Instead of drumming advice into someone’s head, demonstrate to them what might happen if they disregard your advice.

I was on a walk last night and started noticing the front ends of cars. Do we anthropomorphize cars, and judge them as we judge human faces? What message do we read in the headlights—the eyes—of this Volvo? Does our preference for eyes that are proportionally large to the face in which they are set (puppies, babies) carry over into cars? 

And if the idea does, does the preference still? Might we prefer cars that are anti-cute? How is this linked to the passage of time and changes in automobile design? Car size varies tremendously with economic conditions and the price of gasoline, but what about the aspect, the personality of the cars we encounter? I think this Toyota looks angry. Do recent cars look angrier than older cars? Does the zeitgeist of each decade show itself in the cars produced?

And what of national origin? Do the Volvo and Toyota have different ‘aspects’, different ‘personalities’ to them than this Ford? This is only further confounded by the complicated ownership structures of multinational corporations—Volvo is owned by Ford; many Toyotas are manufactured in the United States.

Cars sit at the junction of utility and design. They are unnecessary in a way, or less than necessary: Cars simply happen to be the way we transport ourselves, but they do not have to be the way we transport ourselves. And now that they’re here, we will do with them what we will. Like cakes, they have both outside and inside meaning.

[UPDATE: Moments ago, I opened Henry Petroski’s The Evolution of Useful Things, which I’m reading for my material cultures seminar. In the book’s second paragraph, Petroski neatly elucidates the wider question of this post: “If form does not follow function in any deterministic way, then by what mechanism do the shapes and forms of our made world come to be?”]

How does our environment alert us to shifts in technology, especially potentially dangerous ones? After such shifts, how are we warned that our expectations of an object’s behavior no longer hold true? More broadly, how do different objects take different forms at different times when different uses are required of them? (I’m reminded of the Concorde’s droop nose.)

Interesting that the graphic is a mash-up of an abstract helvetica man and a representational outline of a bus.

How and where and when do we code our beliefs into our ambient environments? The above cakes engage in an active dialogue with individual consumers through their decorations, a dialogue in which each party contributes to the story of the other. For the consumer, the selection of cake decoration is both a public statement of beliefs and priorities, and an internal statement of aspiration; that is, the decoration both defines and is defined by the person who chooses it.

(In a system in which one must present an image, a narrative, an idea about oneself, there is no way to opt out of the system: Even serving a blank cake sends a message, albeit a quieter one than a topped cake.)

Things are, I think, more interesting for the cake, which doesn’t really care what decoration is put on it. For the cake, all messages are equally valid. The same is true for the corporation selling the cake, as long as the message turns a profit. From the cake’s point of view, a cake is a cake is a cake.

(Might some of these decorations have purely symbolic value? For example, how often does someone order the Bible-and-chalice decoration? Is its inclusion in the book—the cost of printing the page and providing that option—contingent upon the cost of inclusion being less than cost of exclusion i.e. boycotts or angry religious groups?)

But these cakes, by being frosted with their used-under-license perfectly reproduced trademarked images, raise questions about consumer preference in the age of mass production. I happen to be reading Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom, by the anthropologist Sidney W. Mintz, for a class of mine, and I think these cake decorations are an example of Mintz’s theory of how various forces conspire to compel us to vest the material world with meaning. Mintz writes:

The daily life conditions of consumption have to do with what I called inside meaning; the environing economic, social, and political (even military) conditions with outside meaning. Inside meaning arises when the changes connected with outside meaning are already well under way.

These grand changes ultimately set the outer boundaries for determining hours of work, leisure, and the arrangement of time in relation to the expenditure of human energy. In spite of their significance for everyday life, they originate outside that sphere and on a wholly different level of social action. [… Once these outside conditions are set,] people alter the micro-conditions as much as they can and according to their emerging preferences—the where, when, how, with whom, with what, and why—thereby changing what the things in question signify, what they mean to the users. New behaviors are superimposed upon older behaviors; some behavioral features are retained, others forgotten. New patterns replace older ones. [1996, 20-21. Italics original, emphasis added.]

In this case, the rise of a national popular media culture (shared recognition of sports teams, fictional iconography, television characters, etc.), coupled with the adoption of standardized franchise business models, along with the decline in cost of edible printing technology and its according widespread adoption, conspire to enable a set of circumstances inside of which consumers are ultimately able to vest the end-products (cakes) with individualized and specific meaning.

These cakes take the same form and are put to the same use as earlier, more traditional or conventional birthday cakes, allowing consumers to shift what they consume without shifting how they consume it. New behaviors are thereby superimposed on old as the new type of cake is dropped into an existing paradigm of celebration.

The big question is: How is the idea of the birthday affected by the image on the cake? Does the image co-opt and overpower the traditional meaning of the birthday, or does the birthday simply make a minor adjustment to accommodate a cosmetic change?

A skeuomorph is “a design feature copied from a similar artifact in another material, even when not functionally necessary,” as explained in a recent a-word-a-day email forwarded by tmworld’s dad. (Although I think Wikipedia’s definition—”a derivative object which retains ornamental design cues to structure that were necessary in the original”—is a little clearer.)

Examples of skeuomorphs include the shutter sound made by cameraphones to indicate a photo has been taken, even they do not have shutters, or the copper cladding on zinc pennies. Interesting stuff, but esoteric and seemingly isolated to a handful of cases.

And so I was astonished to encounter the above cup. It looks like its normal paper-and-plastic disposable to-go cup brethren (pictured at the top of this post) but it is in fact constructed wholly from plastic and is designed to be reusuable. The cup is a production of Capital Cups, which it as being a “spill-proof, reusable, recyclable, insulated beverage cup.” You can see examples of cups they’ve done for other clients; I think the Dunkin’ Donuts cup is especially skeuomorphical. 

Several of my friends were handed these cups by employees outside our local Au Bon Pain, a fast-casual bakery chain on the east coast, similar to Panera or Cosi, as part of some promotion, apparently. ABP is now selling these “travel mugs” for $2.99 in their stores, but if you have one you can buy coffee there at the refill price. My friends who have them, like them: they’re pretty good travel mugs and make it easy to take coffee or tea to-go from the dining halls. They say they’re not any more likely to buy coffee at ABP than they were before—especially because the dining halls always have fresh coffee.

But the cleverness of the cup isn’t in whether the person you hand it to becomes a regular ABP customer: The cleverness is that the people around that person will see them using an ABP cup. It looks like a to-go cup, so those around you would naturally assume that you’d just been to ABP. The cup is physical viral marketing. (I’m reminded somehow of Bloomingdale’s Medium Brown Bag Tote Bag, which is a $35 replica of the brown paper bags they give away in-store.)

I could think of one other example of a skeuomorph in physical advertising: Replica food. This is primarily a Japanese phenomenon, meant to be a sort of physical menu showing how food and drink will look, although my family owns a Café Du Monde Christmas ornament that is a replica of one of their famous beignets. The purposes of these two types of replica food are different, obviously—both are advertisements, but one is meant to compel purchases, while the other is meant to induce nostalgia—but the format is the same. (Ikea and other furniture stores often display feature fake TVs and DVD players; while skeuomorphs, these props are designed to be place-holders for their real counterparts, not to advertise those counterparts.)

For skeuomorphs in food, the question of reality is clear-cut: The real food is food you can eat. But here the question is more difficult: Which cup is real? The travel mug, because of how it presents itself, is more postmodern (and therefore less real): how things appear has trumped what things are. The irony is that the travel mug is better at being a cup than the “real” cup. It is stronger, more portable, reusable, and holds liquid longer. How valid are these claims? Is one cup more real than the other?

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