Thursday, February 02, 2006

How Small is Too Small?

Consumer electronics' great disappearing act

by Carla Diana

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, MICHIGAN, October 22, 1997 -- [Image]
The philosopher Hegel once wrote that "there is
nothing in heaven or on earth which does not contain in
itself being and nothingness." He probably never thought
that those words, meant to describe human consciousness,
would be applied to something as banal as consumer
products, but in the case of electronics, they seem to
foreshadow a trend toward product invisibility.

Today, we witness the speed of technological development
through the shrinkage of electronic components. Computer
systems that occupied an entire room now can be the size
of a notebook. Modems once as big as a shoe box can fit
comfortably onto a VISA-shaped PCM/CIA card. Super-thin
LCD screens can replace their chubbier CRT ancestors.
What's more, our ability to digitize information has
placed entire libraries onto a few compact discs -- or in
the immaterial world that is cyberspace.

The smallness of the components that make up our
electronic appliances gives designers new freedom. Once
they were limited to designing a shell to hold necessary,
bulky components; now they have the freedom to experiment
with more sculptural forms. The mass of the object itself
has almost no relation to its inner workings.

On the other hand, recent affections for extra-small
gadgets have threatened to erase the role of the designer
from the product development process. Some technology
gurus predict that speakers will disappear into walls,
becoming all-but-invisible flat-panel membranes, and the
walls themselves will turn into giant all-purpose screens
for program viewing, communications and general
computing. Remote controls and other physical interfaces
can be replaced by hidden voice activated sensors that do
everything from making coffee to balancing a checkbook.

The Motorola Micro-TAC telephone was the belle of the
ball when it was first introduced, yet its
design-worthiness came not from its form, but from its
miniature glory. If we so desired, we might soon have
tiny telephone components implanted under our fingernails
so that we have only to gesture with our thumbs and
pinkies whenever we want to reach out and touch someone.
And furniture could be reduced to invisible force fields
that gently support us in our favorite couch potato
positions.

Sure it sounds kinda cool -- for a while. But if left
unchecked this uber-modernist "less is more" trend will
lead to sterile environments, leaving us with homes full
of nothing. It's like having lots of really efficient
servants, but no real friends. As Ralph Caplan, author
and design writer says, "We need things. Things made of
stuff." After all, even the Jetsons had physical objects.

The bottom line in all this is that electrotechnology
introduces into our lives devices that function in a very
mysterious way. People once could see the mechanisms
around them and had a rudimentary sense of which gears
were touching and which springs were being activated as a
button was pushed (like the satisfying resistance of the
lever on a toaster). Now we have at best only a vague
grasp of how our electronic appliances operate. Human
nature makes us crave a connection with our environment,
and when you're an urbanite as I am -- several steps
removed from finding comfort in the great outdoors --
you're going to get it from the things that fill up your
home. So it's becoming more important than ever for
designers to show an acute sensitivity to creating things
that will enhance our contact with the constructed world
around us.

We've already started seeing a backlash to the
immateriality of technology. Stores like Pier One Imports
and the Pottery Barn capitalize on a desire to have
crafted objects made from natural, tactile materials in
styles showing a human influence in the making process.
Even The Gap, that bastion of mass-market consumerism,
has responded to our need to have sensual experiences in
the material objects of everyday life by marketing
fragrant candles and a "grass" room deodorizer --
literally, a block full of cut grass. (Go figure.) While
this lawn-mower-residue-cum-hipster-product fad might be
taking things a little too far, it shows encouraging
signs that we'll search for a balance between the
benefits and drawbacks of technology.

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This column is an etown.com exclusive.

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