We’ve entered a dramatically different relationship with technology, an age where machines talk to each other, where we’re developing new rituals and routines and where advertisers and brands tell stories about the soft benefits of hard technology. And it will change our relationship to images. Welcome to the Age of Hard and Soft
The conversation around technology is already changing, slowly, discreetly, the network has become ‘pervasive’, ’embedded’,’wearable’ – it’s in the ‘cloud’. You get a sense of the prevailing winds when in the UK the BBC’s The Apprentice features a task to design wearable technology, amid anxieties over privacy, and despite one of the products looking like a jacket with added gaffer tape one retailer ordered 250 because they “like to be early adopters of technology”. Welcome to the age of Hard and Soft, the age of the internet of things where machines start chatting to each other, an age where we human beings fold ourselves into the network, and where objects communicate, inform, talk to each other. “Hello” says the milk bottle to the fridge, ‘I am empty”. The Fridge (the star of all Internet of Things conversations) adds milk to a shopping list which uploads to the supermarket site who tells the staff to deliver an extra carton to Bill at 42 Acacia Way. “Oh” says the fridge, “and print a cake and a candle on the packaging, it’s Bill’s Birthday.” Business inventory and logistics will become even more time-sensitive reducing waste of all kinds. But most of all the age of Hard and Soft will subtly shift our relationship to things, to places, to ourselves. The difference between the digital and the physical world will get more complicated, and as technology gets more customized, targetted and functional, advertising and marketing will seek to tell softer emotional stories. Likewise the institutional and corporate power of hard quantifiable data will only serve a purpose when delivered through softer storytelling (read psychotherapist Peter Kramer in the New York Times on the necessity of storytelling in an age of medical big data). And in other words, the age of Hard and Soft is about a changing relationship between Art and Science, in sectors such as technology, healthcare and education.
Image of the Physical
The material and immaterial worlds are connecting and combining in unexpected ways. Not least in the recent free download of U2s Songs of Innocence, whose booklet (whatever about the marketing) wasn’t at all innocent. In the absence of anything physical, the digital booklet displays an image of the vinyl version: the sleeve indented by the record, ‘U2’ stamped and faded, and the letters ‘LP’ written and circled in felt tip. The representation of this old physical technology now has serious soft power though it has little ‘hard’ commercial power in terms of actual vinyl sales, The Telegraph suggests vinyl records are largely bought as collectors items, as desirable non-functional objects. Nevertheless the cultural power of U2s black and white vinyl, its ‘authenticity’ is magnified and mirrored by the black and white photo of the band opposite.
‘Like’ is Hard
But perhaps this strangest blend of the worlds of hard and soft, where the signs of the digital and material ghost into each other’s universes came from a recent ad for C&A by Brazilian agency DM9éDDB in Contigo magazine. The virtual sign, the icon of the digital age, the Facebook ‘like’ icon is transformed into a material button. The magazine contains a chip so when the reader presses the icon the ‘like’ is immediately registered on their Facebook page. The fashion model is her own subject in the selfie, the catwalk has expanded colonizing any space there is a smartphone camera.
The coming technologies around the internet of things and health apps where information becomes both tangible, and synchronized with the human, are the big drivers. So when Apple (a brand which consumers have accepted as a conduit for the future into the present via lifestyle products) launch their new iWatch, this new new relationship between hard and soft, between information and flesh feels like it has made a leap into mainstream consciousness. The human arm transformed into an interface in a world where we are never offline, software as a kind of active Tattoo, where the borders between the physical and the intangible have become transparent.
It’s a familiar image in the culture as the conflict between the Hard and the Soft, technology and culture, is periodically played out, most resonantly in Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man (a set of stories around a tattooed man), where his remarkably prescient short story The Veldt is a must read for planners seeking frameworks for how the internet of things will also shift our relationship to images (see also Project Underskin by New Deal Design).
Interestingly, The Tattoo, is fast becoming a staple of stock photography where once it was airbrushed out regarded by mainstream society as a kind of cultural deviance. This acceptance by the wider culture, was arguably driven by the sharing of stories and feelings in the digital world, and made it ok for this form of coded storytelling on the body, defining significant relationships, people and events.
The visibility of the Tattoo, has become an expression of soft power, the signifier of a transparent emotional honesty. Which brings us back to Apple’s shift in communications from the hard sell of hardware and technology to the soft sell of sentiments. These soft benefits are quantified as experiential, emotional and very much shared. (Image Source photographers can read Creative Director Ashley Jouhar’s in-depth visual analysis in the recent briefing)
Sustainability, Backstory and the Cute
This warm feeling around our emergent relationship to technology, objects and space will also be powered by bigger issues such as sustainability. Take our example of milk in the fridge earlier, instead of being an afterthought, sustainability will be dynamic, as products feedback to us and talk with each other. There will be less waste, as the sensors on the carton of milk tells the fridge that I need more milk, which updates my online shopping list, which means I won’t buy more than I need. Eventually these machines which talk to each other about us, our behaviours will enable us to have a different, more acute relationship with time, with the future. By telling me about their production, tabulating their environmental costs, they will enable me to make informed choices or make me feel guilty about making bad ones. These objects and the information they immerse us in will place us in the future, helping to make us think about the future impact of the choices we make, for this reason we will have an increasingly complicated relationship with objects and things. And with time. In terms of products the internet of things, and the imagery surrounding is likely to be driven by the hyper-soft emotion of ‘Cute’. We might be a little wary of new technology that will become part of us, and will create different kinds of objects that are animated by information and knowledge about us, but the best way of getting the foot in the door is through puppies. Take for example Lowe’s DIY stores in the US introducing smart objects into its range of customer offerings. Business magazine INC.com uses a classic image of a puppy to illustrate the feature- smart. “The PetSafe pet door from Lowe’s is among a series of new devices that the company introduced this week, all of which can be controlled on one single platform, Iris. With the Iris app installed on your smartphone, you can keep track of your puppy’s movement when you are out shopping or working. Together with a collar sensor, the door also allows you to identify your own pet so that a neighbor’s cat won’t sneak in to steal food.”
Rituals, Gestures, Etiquette
Just as the dawning of the internet age generated a wave of character art shared online (like friends guiding us through this strange technology) expect a further growth in the imagery of ‘cute’ (see our feature on The Double Take an early version of some of the themes we address here, and our briefing exploring visual definitions of cute – Cute 22). Objects and things are already changing us physically, shaping how we exist in space. Dan Hill, former Interactive Designer for the BBC and Monocle, writes on a visual research project for conducted at Art Center College of Design, that “The Network is still spoken about as if it were somehow something separate to Us, as if it is an ethereal plane hovering above us, or perhaps one we might be increasingly immersed in but separate to our bodies, to our selves, nonetheless. This doesn’t feel accurate now. There is no separate world, and this list indicates how we are even changing what our bodies do in entirely emergent, or at least unplanned, everyday fashion, in response to The Network’s demands.” Curious Rituals, Gestural Interaction in the Digital Everyday is a project that is astonishingly sharp about new behaviours, and whose credibility and emotional resonance is shaped by the diagrammatic aesthetic.
The authors write that these images of behaviour are the kinds of ‘B-Side’ of the images put out by tech companies which are generally futuristic. “The curious habits described in this book can be seen as ingredients with which technological objects are domesticated by people, integrated into their own daily routines. Fixing strategies, nervous tics, device juggling or courtesy postures, to name just a few, are not only peculiar interaction habits, they reveal how people normalize so-called ‘futuristic technologies’ or what seemed magical and complex at first.” We think that this new wave of ‘Hard’ machinery will be accompanied by images that aren’t constructed around traditional codes of utopia, that envision a space with a minute different to the present, but in that gap the age of Hard and Soft begins to talk – in Colour, in Small Moments, and Rituals. Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator, Department of Architecture and Design at MOMA in New York wrote in the 2011 introduction to Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects, “Talk to Me explores this new terrain, featuring a variety of designs that enhance communicative possibilities and embody a new balance between technology and people, bringing technological breakthroughs up or down to a comfortable, understandable human scale. Designers are using the whole world to communicate, transforming it into a live stage for an information parkour and enriching our lives with emotion, motion, direction, depth, and freedom.” While objects have always talked to us (or maybe it was just my special relationship with Teddy) we are entering a new age where we devolve responsibilities to objects. In the next few months we will be exploring in more depth the increasing importance of Colour in shaping the image of this new space where people and things talk and check in with each other. We will be exploring visually our changing relationship to ‘things’, to Home, to public space, and in the visual trend of ‘Raw Nerve’ a world where hardware increasingly relies on the soft power of imagery as a way to translate how this new world might work. In the meantime, we can say with a degree of certainty that there is a new visual icon for this age. Just as the light bulb was the metaphor for the idea in the electric age, the domestic refrigerator is the sign of the new age of talking objects. “Hello Things!”