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Becoming Real by Adam Greenfield Part 2

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and the sad truth is this; Most often, things fail to cohere. They fail to come together. Almost everything that human beings set out to do never makes it to the light of day. That is why, in fact, that this chair exists. That's why I call this a miracle. I mean, all the complicated things that had to come together for this chair to be sold and bought by somebody. It's amazing when you consider how many chairs are left on the drawing room, on the floor, essentially or left on somebody's screen as ideas that never got produced. Hundreds or thousands for everything that made it out in the world. so it's kind of amazing here we are, Sitting, clothed in our chairs, in this room, together, like this. It's something to think about. For me, anyways. Why do things fail to cohere? There are a couple of concrete reasons. The first is, a project may be a bad idea. It may, from the outset, suffer a failure of recruitment. You may not be able to convince anybody else to work on your project with you, because frankly, it's so stupid. What if I were to come and say, you know what? I think I'd like to design a chair that has a row of sharp spikes up the middle of it, that's really awkward and uncomfortable to sit on. And I'd like you, commercial chair manufacture, to help me with this thing. You're never going to recruit that manufacturer to help you since the idea itself is bad. Projects may fail because translation renders them untenable. In which means, the initial idea is a good idea but as actors join your network and the idea changes, eventually the idea may no longer has value. It may have evolved in order to recruit specific people, specific parties, specific companies, and it may have evolved to a point that is no longer recognizable as the original idea. No longer has much merit or value to it. And it falls apart. The entire project falls apart. And finally, translation may drive actors to an impasse. What I mean by that, is that people spend so much time at the table, trying to negotiate the changes that are involved in translation, that they can never come to an agreement. They spend so much of their time and energy and money trying to negotiate what the shape of this thing out to be and eventually one or both or all parties say, "you know what, this is no longer any fun." or "we no longer believe in this project." or "we no longer believe in you to create it." And we say, "okay, forget it. We're just going to draw a red line through this and move on." Now, that's happened to me. That's has happened to companies I've worked for. It's a reality. Sometimes you spend so much time trying to finesse the details and shape the project just to get a name that it winds up eating all of your time and energy and your resources. You have nothing left to actually produce and launch the project. So, remember Bruno Latour? He wrote an amazing book that I've been reading and re-reading since I first read it ten years ago. It's been super relevant to me because I was about to launch a company of my own. And I really wanted to figure this stuff out because it's going to be very, very important for me to increase my success rate. As I had only produced those four things in twelve years. That's not a very good percentage. It's not really very reassuring to myself as I go out and start the company. I'm reading everything I can get my hands on to teach me a little bit more about how I might make things. Latour writes this incredible book called "Aramis, or the Love of Technology". Now, "Aramis" is a case study that Latour uses to talk precisely about these issues of translation, recruitment, the project regime and how you go about it. Aramis would have been the most advanced public transit system in the world. It was imagined by an engineer in Paris in the mid 1970s. At a time, mind you, when France was extremely technologically advanced. At that particular moment and time, France had developed the Citroën DS, the Citroën SM, the Concorde, and even Minitel, which was a kind of phone-based monochrome version of the Internet. People used it by the hundreds and thousands in France. They were easily ten to fifteen years ahead of anybody else in the world. So France was at the forefront of technological development in a lot of ways. And they had this idea for Aramis. And Aramis would have been a public transit system for Paris that was as equal or as advanced as any of the others. There was going to be small subway cars of about four passengers each. There were going to be, the cars were going to be small and light, built more like cars than trains. They would have been so small and so light that the network itself could have infiltrated further into people's neighborhoods. So instead of having to walk for five or ten minutes to the metro station, the metro stations would be lighter and smaller, located closer to you. These cars would not move through the system mechanically coupled as trains. They would be programmed by computers so that five or six or ten of them could have moved through the system as a train, but not mechanically coupled to each other. It was called Non-mechanical Coupling. There were many other features on the Aramis system, and together, they made it the most advanced system of its time. But this, mind you, is Aramis as an idea. As a matter of fact, before it left this gentleman's head, it wasn't even Aramis yet. Aramis was the name given to the project later on. At first, it was just an idea. It was an idea about a personal rapid transit. Well, he had to recruit someone to make that happen. He was just a single engineer so he had to recruit a company called MATRA. MATRA was a French aerospace company. They had made fighters and missiles for the French military. MATRA had a meeting with him. He was able to recruit them, to seduce them. He was able to invest them into this project. He was able to convince them that their time, money, and energy would have been wisely spent developing this. They looked at the business case that was represented in his personal rapid transit system and they said, "You know what? We're trying to expand beyond aviation and military rockets. As a matter of fact, we can see that after the end of the Vietnam War, there's going to be less and less of a market for our products. We need to diversify into different sectors. Public transit is something that there's always going to be a need for. We would like to diversify out of the military aviation rockets and into public transit. And so, we are on board with this." He was successfully able to recruit MATRA. But the cost of some translation. Now, it was at this stage that this was first called Aramis. Someone at MATRA named it. MATRA had to find a site for this. They couldn't just make a public transit system without a "public". So they recruited the RATP; the Parisian public transit system. The administration that runs the public transit systems. They were able to recruit the RATP to their vision of what Aramis was. Now, the public transmit authority liked Aramis for a bunch of reasons. They liked it because it didn't have conductors, for example. So their metros, each and every single metro has a human conductor on it. Each and every single conductor is paid a salary. Each and every single human conductor draws a pension. So obviously, the RATP is interested in something that mechanizes those conductors out of the loop. They're very very attracted to what Aramis is. But they require changes being made to it in order for it to be released on a test site. As a matter of fact, they say this whole thing with the non-material couplings, this whole thing meaning that the trains are not going to be mechanically linked to one another, forget it. Never going to happen. So, a translation happens. Aramis takes one step closer, as a matter of fact, a very big step closer to being Real, because it's found the sponsorship now. Not merely of a company that's willing to invest in building it, but in a transit authority that's willing to buy this system and use it. That's a huge step closer to existing. And yet, a couple things have happened along the way. The non-material coupling is already gone. As we'll see in a second, some other fatal changes are going to happen. The RATP and MATRA together are able to involve the national government. They are able to say, for reasons of national prestige, France should remain at the forefront of transit technology and development. Paris needs to have this as the jewel in its crown. Paris needs to have Aramis. So, the national government was interested in it, for reasons of national prestige. The RATP was interested in it because it might keep the operators out of the loop, and be a financially better bet for them as well as offering better services to people. MATRA is interested in it because it's able to get them out of the aviation and military market. Do you see how all these interests, none of them particularly align with one another. They're all pulling in different directions but they can all be see as pulling together in the same direction, pulling Aramis towards reality. But let's look at what happens as each one of these things happened. The perfect idea becomes MATRA's Aramis. We've all already seen that one aspect has been traded away. As it becomes Aramis at the Boulevard Victor site, the non-material coupling was waived. As it became Aramis on the Petite Ceinture, a region of South Paris, more and more changes affected it. The size of the cars were no longer a four-people a car because someone says, when we get out to the real world, what happens when you get trapped in the car? What happens when you're a single person, single women, riding this car and you get trapped in a car with a rapist? There's just the two of you in a small car. Terrifying. Absolutely terrifying. We won't stand for that. So the size of the cars were increased. The size of the cars were increased to 10. They're now no longer non-materially coupled, they were now completely conventional cars. They're no longer computer controlled entirely. There is now a human operator. Every single step of recruitment required so many changes that by the time the system is almost ready to be deployed, it's just about to be Real, after almost ten years of development it's almost Real, the whole thing falls apart. The system is no longer Aramis, by that point. It's no longer the advanced technological public transit system that is represented up here. So many changes have occurred to it in the process of translation that it was no longer able to bind together all of the parties that it needed to in order to secure its existance. There was a change in government, the right wing replaced the left wing, the funding for certain aspects of public transit was reduced, Aramis was cancelled in 1987. It doesn't exist. We can't really say anything about it because it doesn't exist. There are some pictures of it. It's actually very hard, despite the fact that this system was in development for ten years. It is very hard to find pictures of any of the effort that went into that. It is very hard to find documentation of any of the software that was written. Because the thing doesn't exist, all of those pieces flew apart. They may be in an archive somewhere in Paris. They may be in MATRA's archives somewhere. But Aramis failed. It doesn't exist. We don't have it. We can't really say very much about the project. Let's look at another case, a little bit closer to home, where something was lost in translation. This is one of my favorite industrial designers, this is a guy named Jasper Morrison. And he was contacted by Canon, the Japanese consumer goods manufacturer. And the idea was that Jasper Morrison and Canon would work together to develop a camera. And again, it was going to be uniform and chic and well made and technologically advanced. It was going to be everything you wanted Canon to be. But as it happens, here we are, speaking about this and I cannot find an image of this thing online. I've seen it. I've seen sketches. I've seen mock ups. They don't exist anymore because the camera itself never came into its existence. Why is that? Well, it's because there is a literal, in this case, failure of translation between Jasper Morrison thought what he was doing and what Canon thought they were doing. I think there's a very, very interesting phenomenon to be observed in this case. I think in Morrison's mind, it was this. It was that he had the idea that he was recruiting Canon to produce the camera. And I think Canon thought that this is what was going on. That they were going to make a camera and they were hiring this industrial designer to give it a physical appearance. I think that there was a very, very literal failure from the very beginning. They might have successfully recruited one another but whatever the idea was, it wasn't translated between them into something that they could both agree on. As a matter of fact, the project was ridden by trouble at the outset when Morrison first showed his direction. He had once in a way come up with some sketches and direction for it. He presented this to Canon and there's nervous silence after he had presented the camera sketches. And finally one of the junior executives from Canon's side raised their hand and said, "Excuse me, what is the concept of this camera?" "What are the keywords?" Now, how many people here think that "concept" is an American or an English idea? Does anybody think this? Well I'm glad because, in at least an American vernacular, we simply do not use the phrase, "concept" or "key word", in the ways or flavors that you would think. And as a matter of fact, I have met Japanese people who think that these are commonly used terms. Because Morrison did not have "concept" driving his vision of things, his understanding of things were simply that he has been asked to design an camera. He came back with a design for a camera. There was no "concept". He failed to understand what his client was asking of him, in a sense. Or possibly, depending on how you look at it, Canon failed to convey their requirements to their designer. Either way you look at it, this failed. There's no camera. We don't have to talk about it. We don't have to say, "Oh yeah, that camera was crazy." "You know, I used to own it." or "Yeah, that camera was kind of great but the pictures it took were a little bit yellow." Or, "Man, you know, that was the most beautiful thing I've ever owned." You can't say any of these things about it because the project failed. There was never an object. So I think we got an understanding now of we mean by "project" and "object".

Video Details

Duration: 16 minutes and 36 seconds
Country: Japan
Language: English
Producer: AQ
Director: Ian Lynam
Views: 109
Posted by: tsasaki on Nov 6, 2010

In Adam's words: "'Becoming Real: The Art of Making Things Happen'" starts in my own frustration with how few of the projects I've been involved with in the course of my career ever actually shipped, launched, or otherwise saw the light of day." / This talk was given on October 29th, 2010 in Tokyo for an event organized by AQ.

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