Had to be drunk proof, dustman proof, and bomb proof. Also has to be emptied without needing a key, but be difficult to open if you don’t know how (to prevent Saturday night vandalism). To top it all had to be designed to be able to be replaced after emptying so that it self locks, and yet is made by a moulding process that means there may be up to a couple of centimetres movement from the design spec. I am very impressed.
Steve Gill is visiting so that we can work together on a new book on physicality. Last night, over dinner, Steve was telling us about a litter-bin lock that he once designed. The full story linked creative design, the structural qualities of materials, and the social setting in which it was placed … a story well worth hearing, but I’ll leave that to Steve.
One of the critical things about the design was that while earlier designs used steel, his design needed to be made out of plastic. Steel is an obvious material for a lock: strong unyielding; however the plastic lock worked because the lock and the bin around it were designed to yield, to give a little, and is so doing to absorb the shock if kicked by a drunken passer-by.
This is a sort of Judo principle of design: rather than trying to be the strongest or toughest, instead by yielding in the right way using the strength of your opponent.
This reminded me of trees that bend in the wind and stand the toughest storms (the wind howling down the chimney maybe helps the image), whereas those that are stiffer may break. Also old wooden pit-props that would moan and screech when they grew weak and gave slightly under the strain of rock; whereas the stronger steel replacements would stand firm and unbending until the day they catastrophically broke.
Years ago I also read about a programme to strengthen bridges as lorries got heavier. The old arch bridges had an infill of loose rubble, so the engineers simply replaced this with concrete. In a short time the bridges began to fall down. When analysed more deeply the reason become clear. When an area of the loose infill looses strength, it gives a little, so the strain on it is relieved and the areas around take the strain instead. However, the concrete is unyielding and instead the weakest point takes more and more strain until eventually cracks form and the bridge collapses. Twisted ropes work on the same principle. Although now an old book, “The New Science of Strong Materials” opened my eyes to the wonderful way many natural materials, such as bone, make use of the relative strengths, and weaknesses, of their constituents, and how this is emulated in many composite materials such as glass fibre or carbon fibre.
In contrast both software and bureaucratic procedures are more like chains – if any link breaks the whole thing fails.
Steve’s lock design shows that it is possible to use the principle of strength in weakness when using modern materials, not only in organic elements like wood, or traditional bridge design. For software also, one of the things I often try to teach is to design for failure – to make sure things work when they go wrong. In particular, for intelligent user interfaces the idea of appropriate intelligence – making sure that when intelligent algorithms get things wrong, the user experience does not suffer. It is easy to want to design the cleverest algotithms, the most complex systems – to design for everything, to make it all perfect. While it is of course right to seek the best, often it is the knowledge that what we produce will not be ‘perfect’ that in fact enables us to make it better.
A couple of weeks ago I was at a ‘Long Table’ discussion on Technology and Democracy at [ space ] in Hackney. The ‘Long Table’ format was led by Lois Weaver (I now note the name although didn’t at the time) and took the form of a simulated dinner art where the participants chatted about the topic. We were invited to write on the table cloth as we posed questions or espoused viewpoints – this later became part of the Not Quite Yet exhibition opening the next day.
Because of the table cloth sitting in front of me I was reminded of the role textiles have played both as significant technology themselves and in the development of technological society. It was the spinning jenny and the cotton mills that created the industrial revolution and it was needle manufacturing that was the inspirations for Adam Smith‘s division of labour. In the context of the discussion of ‘democracy and technology this is particularly poignant. Before the factories spinning and weaving were skilled cottage industries described so well in Silas Marner [G|A] and the importance of the textile factory was as more about exerting control over production than about efficiency of production.
Today a book arrived from The Book Depository for Fiona “The Object of Labour: Art, Cloth and Cultural Production”. It is a majestic tome and I’m looking forward into dipping into it sometime. It says it explores the “personal, political, social, and economic meaning of work through the lens of art and textile production”. Interesting its 408 pages are covered in words and the etymology of ‘text’ itself from Latin texere to weave 🙂
Somehow whilst my mind wandered over this I came to ponder the term material culture (maybe because have recently been re-reading Malfouris “The cognitive basis of material engagement” and Mike Wheeler’s response to it “Minds, Things, and Materiality“). The word ‘material’ has many meanings ‘raw materials’ for industry, ‘material evidence’ in law … but if you say the word to a person in the street ‘material’ means simply cloth. So interesting that cloth has played such a strong part in material culture and is ‘material’ itself.
This led me to wonder about the words (like text and textile) when the special meaning of material as cloth arose or even of they have different roots. Turning to the Shorter OED I looked up the definition of ‘material’. It is long, over half a column The etymology is again from Latin materia – matter – and there are meanings related to that (as in material culture), the legal and philosophical meanings, the sense of documents or sources used for writing, indeed the implements of writing ‘writing materials’ … but nowhere material as simply cloth, not even in the addenda of recent words.
The most common meaning of material, the most mundane, the one that sits next to my skin as I write – forgotten, written out of the dictionary, as the hand-loom weavers were written out of industrial production.