brian carroll on 2 Jan 2001 06:11:11 -0000

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[Nettime-bold] review: Hertzian Tales

 H E R T Z I A N   T A L E S :
 Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience
 and Critical Design

 Anthony Dunne
 Computer Related Design's
 Critical Design Unit,
 Royal College of Art, c.1999
 ISBN: 1 874175 27 6
 It is my great pleasure to be able to share
 my views on a substantial piece of work in
 the cultural investigation of electromagnetic
 phenomena, natural, artificial, and virtual.

 What is so refreshing is that this book does
 not merely repackage old ideas and ideologies
 about technological enthusiasm, but instead
 questions them, through thinking, writing,
 and design. If works in the past have been
 groundbreaking, this is a literal penetration
 of the design field by Hertzian radio waves.
 Anthony Dunne, with written and visual clarity,
 gives dozens of examples of previous attempts
 by industrial designers, artists, and architects
 to grapple with the more philosophical aspects
 of designing electronic products. This research
 in itself makes the book an invaluable resource.
 But interestingly this is where the book begins
 in its critical approach, leveraging serious and
 relevant criticism of much work to date. This is
 because traditional notions of design have been
 mapped onto the new electronic object, in effect
 unquestioningly repackaging them for a totally
 different paradigm of electronic reality these
 new technologies help create and could themselves
 help reveal, through a new design awareness.

 Mr. Dunne refers to architecture and fine art
 as inspirations for industrial designers whom
 are looking for meaning beyond the commercial
 marketplace alone. A place where investigating
 design ideas, as non-commercial ideas, can be
 encouraged as a way of exploring and furthering
 the aesthetic development of electronic products,
 and thus peoples awareness of them in their more
 poetic dimensions.

 From a paradoxical perspective, one of the most
 basic and interesting aspects of Dunne's work is
 also somewhat difficult to accept, in total. It
 is that the electronic object can be designed
 as a `post-optimal' object, meaning an object
 that exists beyond its optimization through
 its design. It is this proposition which launches
 one into a new world of electronic awareness, and
 its active interrogation through design thinking.

 The difficulty comes with the assumption that is
 the basis for the post-optimized object, which is
 that which is most often at odds with critical
 thinking. From one perspective, the optimal may
 still be a critical and unresolved issue, well
 beyond aesthetics and into the economic, social,
 and political aspects of the electronic object.
 For example, a computer may be aesthetically
 optimized, such as the iMac by Apple, but it
 may still use the inefficient, polluting, and
 wasteful systems of obsolescence as most all
 of the other electronic products on the market.
 Thus, in this respect, the critical aspects of
 the industrial design of electronic objects must
 remember the infrastructure which makes and
 distributes and disposes of these very objects.
 Doing so reminds one that things are far from
 optimized in terms of their design.

 But this fact does not limit the importance of
 the ideas that are expressed based on the design
 of electronics past that of their optimization.
 For Mr. Dunne it is about awareness. Not just
 of the object, but the object as a type of portal
 into a new way of perceiving the electromagnetic
 space of Hertzian waves, outside the confines of
 traditional media, such as radio and television.
 Instead of answering what this new design should
 be like, Mr. Dunne makes it clear that this is
 instead a question to be explored by many people
 through critical design.
 Mr. Dunne's writing is both smooth and densely packed
 with ideas, so much so that it is very difficult to
 try to re-rationalize the text with its own complex
 reasoning. But this is not to say that the thinking
 is just another private language and perspective.
 It is most definitely not, and his public conscience
 is revealed in every chapter, reminding the reader
 why design investigations of electronic objects need
 to be made, and these are for their social and their
 cultural impacts, and our need to understand them
 better so that we can design the electromagnetic
 world we want to exist within.

 That this commitment is not simply about equating
 aesthetics with beauty is actively demonstrated in the
 acknowledgement of the dark side of electromagnetism,
 in the author's own works based upon this thinking.
 Using radio scanners Mr. Dunne maps the spaces emitted
 by 'objects that dream', that is, electronic objects
 such as baby intercoms, electronic bugs, and cordless
 phones which invisibly leak their information out past
 traditional boundaries of buildings, and into Dunne's
 moving car, scanning neighborhoods from the streets.
 Likewise, the `gauss meter' becomes a design tool in
 the hands of Mr. Dunne, and electromagnetic fields
 (EMFs) are measured and mapped for their dreaminess,
 and become research for critical design thinking.

 If there is an analogy to this type of designing, it
 might be that of gravity. That, like planets, while
 we may find electronic products attractive, they too
 are attracting us without our knowing of this force
 or of its impact upon our daily lives. In summary,
 Anthony Dunne's Hertzian Tales is about designing
 ways of knowing the electromagnetic environment we
 exist within, and establishing a poetic interaction
 with it through purposeful and critical designs which
 help establish a cultural awareness of electromagnetism.

 brian thomas carroll
 architectural researcher

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