Monday, June 30, 2003

Reading:: Aramis or the Love of Technology

Originally posted: Mon, 30 Jun 2003 08:32:55

Aramis or the Love of Technology
by Bruno Latour

When I first read this book, about three years ago, I agreed with many of the reviewers that it was not one of his best works. Unlike Latour's previous work, Aramis is an experimental novel based on a real research study the author conducted -- a study of a massive R&D project meant to develop a revolutionary new public transportation system. The study is recast as a sort of mystery novel told from many different viewpoints: a fictional researcher named Norbert who resembles Latour; a research assistant trained as an engineer; administrators involved in various parts of the project (through interview transcripts); and even Aramis itself, cast as a sort of Frankenstein's monster who only wants to be made real. On my first reading I was quite skeptical of the premise and the execution. Now I think it's an outstanding book.

What happened? Well, in relation to the rest of Latour's writings, the book provides an extended and enlightening illustration. Latour's major themes up to this point (symmetry and asymmetry, diffusion and translation, syntagms and paradigms, black boxes, networks, traitors, etc.) all make appearances and all are discussed clearly and simply. If you have some familiarity with them, that is. If you don't -- and I really didn't three years ago -- things get muddled very quickly.

So the book is a partial success. I assume that Latour's aims are the same that Norbert describes at the end of the book, when he talks about writing his own experimental novel based on the project:

"And I'd actually like to do a book in which there's no metalanguage, no master discourse, where you wouldn't know which is strongest, the sociological theory or the documents or the interviews or the literature or the fiction, where all the genres and regimes would be at the same level, each one interpreting the others without anybody being able to say which is judging what." (p.298)

That doesn't quite happen, of course. Readers -- or at least this reader -- believe that Norbert the sociologist has a handle on things the whole time, just like Hercule Poirot, to whom he refers frequently. We believe that at some point the researchers will discover the "hidden staircase," the surprise that makes sense of the investigation. But, as in a standard murder mystery, the fun is in trying to figure out the mystery before the protagonists do. I wasn't able to, but that's partially because I couldn't get a good grasp on what I should be looking for. Three years ago, the "hidden staircase," when it was revealed, was a disappointment. This time it was a revelation.

Aramis is also an attempt to write a book that is accessible and interesting to general readers. I don't think it succeeded in that respect. But as an illustration of actor-network theory in progress -- and as an illustration of qualitative research in general -- it is interesting and valuable.

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Sunday, June 29, 2003

Reading:: Make It Bigger

Originally posted: Sun, 29 Jun 2003 11:21:24

Make It Bigger
by Paula Scher

"A friend at CBS Records in the seventies," writes graphic designer Paula Scher in this career retrospective, "predicted that when I die, my epitaph will read, 'Art director of the original Boston album.' The thought has always horrified me."

Scher indeed art-directed the iconic cover, which shows several domed cities blasting off into space just in time to escape the explosion of the planet Earth. It takes a second glance to realize that the domes are really at the butt end of very large guitars. Any science fiction aficionado can pin the reference to James Blish's Cities in Flight, but Scher claims that she and the artists made it up themselves. Possible, I guess.

In any case, the anecdote is one example of the real value of the book. At every stage of her professional career, Scher meditates on what it means to be a graphic designer and how designers navigate various minefields to get their work done. She writes pages worth of advice about how to navigate various client relationships in order to preserve the designer's vision while making the necessary compromises. She talks about building negotiation points into comps so that she can appear to compromise with the client while protecting the most important points of her design. She describes how to identify strong actors in an organization and find ways to make them their allies, noting that once you have convinced a strong ally, the weaker people in the organization will fall into line. And she recounts her mistakes, noting that you learn much from your mistakes and nothing from your successes. Fascinating, rather Machiavellian in spots (and I mean that in a good way), and a great read if you're a designer or someone who might want to hire a designer.

As it happens, my wife is a designer and she insisted that I read this book. I'm glad she did, since design fascinates me. It would be very interesting to have a class read this book in conjunction with Karen Schriver's Dynamics in Document Design, a rather rationalist take on document design that leaves out politics, alliances, and negotiations altogether and pigeonholes designers like Scher as unresponsive to the client. Schriver is a very smart person, and my interactions with her have always been positive, but she tends to portray design as simply a matter of empirically determining the best, most functional way to design an item. In Schriver's world, varying goals and conflicting cultures are just noise. In Scher's, they are genuine interlocutors that must be brought into alignment with the designer's own goals.

Scher's book is not only interesting and well designed, it's reasonably short. Unlike most of the books I read, this one can be read in one sitting. I wasn't quite able to do so, primarily because my daughter kept urging me to read other texts to her.

A final poseur note. I actually met Paula Scher (I keep wanting to type "Pauly Shore") in 2001 at Design Ranch, an annual event put on by the Austin AIGA. My wife Gail was participating in the sessions and I was mostly hanging out and reading articles. Scher seemed to be a very approachable, down-to-earth person, in contrast to some of the more extreme personalities that seem to populate the field of graphic design. That intelligent, down-to-earth tone permeates the book and makes it a real page-turner. Pick it up and take a look.

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