Wednesday, January 27, 2010

You'll Come A'waltzing . . . .

I think of her as Matilda, which is rather bizarre given that she has neither gender nor personhood.  I have never personally known a Matilda, other than the waltzing variety who also seems more imagined than real.  Matilda: a disembodied female voice. Maddeningly distant.  Perhaps it is the total lack of affect in her voice.  I have never heard her sound excited, nothing rattles her.  I can completely ignore her, countermand her every suggestion, and she never retaliates.  She pauses for a moment and then intones with frustrating placidity, “Recalculating.”

And still, I love her.  The cheapie USB A to USB A cable that powers the cooling pad for my laptop had died – meaning I can only run it for a half hour or so before I can fry eggs on it – push it much longer and it simply shuts down.  You’d think it would be an easy thing to replace – but no, nobody carries them.  Not Staples, not Best Buy, not Radio Shack – nobody except a funky little computer shop called Connect-IT up in some corner of the city I never frequent.  I gave Matilda the address and off we went – “going 1.3 miles and turning right on Chapel Hill Road.”  35 minutes of dispassionate dialogue later there I was – “arriving at Connect-IT on the left.”  I admit it – I need her.  Which is, of course, why my wife bought her for me this Christmas.

Still, I wonder about the place of the GPS in the contemporary technology negotiation.  Matilda can be as capricious as any woman I have ever known.  As I drive into to work she instructs, “In .5 miles stay left on E. Durham road” despite the fact that both her map and the road curve right.  “In .4 miles turn right on Western Avenue.” An obvious left.  Yet on the return trip her instructions are flawless.  What is it with that?  Shades of Hal in 2001 – “Turn left into on-coming traffic. Trust me Robert, it will be all right.”

Then as we approach campus she says, “In 2 miles turn right onto Avent Ferry Road.” This time the directions are correct but the pronunciation is wrong.  Everyone who lives here knows that the proper pronunciation is “A”-vent, as in A, B, C. But Matilda says “Aw-vent” as in “Aw-shucks.” “Turn right onto Aw-vent Ferry Road.” If I were to return to Raleigh in 20 years, I wonder if I would discover that all the freshman were telling their friends back home that they live on Aw-vent Ferry Road - because that is how the GPS on their smart phones pronounced it.

The idea is that the more ubiquitous the communication container, the more significant its potential to affect our communicative style – “gr8! on the right in .2 miles.”

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Fig-ure it out.

My colleagues over in Design would be quick to point out that "form follows function."  A well-designed utensil will not only be visually pleasing, it will also do an exemplary job of performing the task for which it is intended.  iPods are wonderfully designed pieces of technology, but we wouldn't plunk down our hard-earned cash for them if they didn't  store and reproduce high quality audio, graphics and video.  Their little touch wheel navigation gizmos were the epitome of form following function until the touch screen came along with an even more parsimonious solution.

It strikes me that form should also follow philosophy.  The container should be harmonious with the essence of that which it contains.  Hence, I have a bit of trouble, for example, with splendid cathedrals and jewel encrusted religious costumes as trappings of a faith that, in theory, eschews wealth and ostentation.  Beauty pageants awarding college scholarships give me a similar feeling of vertigo.

I encountered a commercial recently that seemed more than ordinarily disingenuous in the whole form follows philosophy arena.  I'm talking about Sunsweet Ones - individually packaged prunes.  The general narrative of the ads attempts to shade itself green.  They mention high antioxidant  content, great taste and convenience.  Hmmmm.  I admit to being curious as to the amount of energy and resources it requires to wrap a single prune and then wrap those single prunes up in a larger package, then box up those larger packages in a big box and put them in a truck and then .  .  .  .   Well, you get the idea.

I'm thinking I may have found some new candidates for that special circle of hell that I had previously reserved for the people who invented shrink wrap.