Future #44: Cottagecore holograms

Happy March, the month that wants to be spring but is, in every way, still winter. Take your mind of your seasonal affective disorder with this week’s signals, which explore product evolution, virtual collaborations, the beauty of abundance in digital art, and the most hilarious AI exploit ever. Enjoy!

—Alexis & Matt

The product growth paradox

We’ve written before about the concept of “playable systems”: systems that are designed to afford virtuosity, in the way that a musical instrument might. One of the design principles we identified for building playable systems is that they should be open enough that they allow space for emergent behavior. They should be able to grow in ways that extend the experience beyond its initial design. 

Jason Fried alludes to a similar concept in this post, where he talks about two types of products or features. The first is a “stem cell”, or a product that is small, simple, and can eventually grow into all sorts of things: “It can grow, it can change, it can find its way into being whatever it eventually wants to be.” The second is an “organ”, or a product that is so fully developed that it has limited abilities to evolve beyond its current incarnation. He advocates for building stem cells, as they allow you to put something out into the world and better understand what it “wants to be” based on how people use it and what they desire to do with it.

Frankly, this is why it’s so fun to build new things from scratch. It’s really easy to stay simple and focused, to not over-engineer things or fall prey to feature bloat. You can experiment and iterate quickly because you’re seeding fresh soil. The truly tricky part comes further down the road. Once your stem cell has evolved into more of an organ, how do you continue to innovate? This is where many products get stuck: they need to grow and evolve, but they are no longer a blank slate. Any new feature has to engage with the complexity of what’s already built, which often constrains or bloats its scope. To stretch the metaphor, how do you add new stem cells to existing organs?

Stem cell or organ? | Jason Fried

Holoboration (sorry, had to do it)

Holograms and VR are technologies that, in our lifetimes, have always been situated a little in the future. They have been working technologies for a while now, and actual consumer products in the last several years, but how many people do you know who use them on an everyday basis? Tech like this tends to take one of two paths: it either remains tantalizingly out of reach (i.e. jetpacks) or it feels implausible until some tipping point where it suddenly becomes ubiquitous (i.e. artificial intelligence). We’re still not exactly sure where holographic VR falls on this scale, but Microsoft is trying to bring us one step closer with their Mesh platform. 

Mesh is software for holographic virtual collaboration — you get to hang out as a hologram in a VR space with others where you can move around, chat, and manipulate virtual objects. While this interaction is obviously optimized for Microsoft’s HoloLens headsets, they are also trying to establish Mesh as an open platform. Users can also access Mesh via laptops or smartphones, and there is a developer platform that allows others to build remote collaboration into their own software. In addition, the object manipulation features seem to be targeted at creators, allowing designers and engineers to bring 3D models into their workspace to collaborate on. James Cameron is experimenting with Mesh for his new OceanXplorers series, where he “plans to create a Mesh-enabled ‘holographic laboratory’ on its advanced ship, allowing scientists on-board and remotely to collaborate around 3D models.”

Microsoft Mesh aims to bring holographic virtual collaboration to all | Engadget

The end of distance

Neil Redding, friend of the Lab and founder of Redding Futures, wrote a compelling narrative around a series of somewhat-related innovations that map the virtual onto the real in different ways. He argues that the pandemic has accelerated the demand for experiences that shrink the distance between people, and that these new ways of interacting augment our physical spaces in ways that weren’t available before.

Some of these new ideas map virtual onto physical in an inward direction, like trying on glasses or makeup with augmented reality. Others use AR to map outward, bringing us into virtual open-worlds or collaborative spaces such as with Microsoft Mesh, above. Redding doesn’t speculate as to how these new interactions will come together, but as with the “stem cell” version of innovation described above, it will be interesting to see how our understanding of place and community evolves as we incorporate these mixed realities. 

The end of distance | Neil Redding

Scarcity isn’t a good thing, honestly

We’ll admit to being skeptics of blockchain tech, especially of NFT-based art markets (as we discussed in our last issue). While the objections that center around massive environmental impacts are simplest to articulate, we’ve often felt somewhat uncomfortable about the underlying motivations in ways we haven’t quite been able to describe. 

Everest Pipkin did us an enormous favor this week by writing this reaction to cryptocurrency and non-fungible tokens that focuses on the conceptual problems that surround it. While Pipkin has many concerns (and does a great job getting into the weeds of the ecological issues), the two arguments we found ourselves nodding along to were (a) that cryptocurrency markets are essentially pyramid schemes, requiring ever more entrants to increase value, and (b) that when applied to digital art, the concept of scarcity violates the one thing that made digital art compelling: how easily (and perfectly) copied it was. Put together, these concerns coalesce into a picture of crypto art as a way to convince ever-more gullible investors to speculate on ownership of an object that can’t really ever be owned.  

Two paragraphs can’t do justice to this long read, so please do give it your attention. (Matt, who is currently resuming his “Breath of the Wild” phase, would also point you to Pipkin’s “Traveling Swordsman Problem” streams on Twitch, in which they use the “Hero’s Path” feature to navigate the in-game world without Link ever crossing his own trail.) 

Here is the article you can send to people when they say "But the environmental issues with cryptoart will be solved soon, right?" | Everest Pipkin

Why Boardwalk and Park Place are really so expensive

Mary Pilon, who literally wrote the book on the board game Monopoly, has a related piece in The Atlantic that touches on one of our core beliefs: actions pile up on each other and have future consequences in ways that are unpredictable.

Pilon uses the construct of the property values on the Monopoly board to reveal the history of redlining and segregation in Atlantic City in the 1920s and 30s. Despite Atlantic City being located in the North, the policies of segregation (separate hotels, entertainment venues, neighborhoods, etc) that we often associate with the post-Civil War South were prevalent here as well. Streets like Baltic and Mediterranean Avenues were historically where Black servants and laborers worked; these properties have the lowest values on today’s Monopoly board, a nearly-century old reflection of the relative value that segregation dictated. Naturally, Boardwalk and Park Place were the toniest locales where wealthy white people lived, and those properties are highly valued on the board now as a result.

We take some solace in the spaces between, however, and the reasons for their importance. Kentucky Avenue was a bustling street full of Black-owned and operated businesses, including movie theaters and music clubs. New York Avenue was home to some of the first gay bars in the United States. And Oriental Avenue hosted not only Chinese restaurants, but also Jewish delis. These middle-tier properties are valuable now not in spite of their historic racial composition, but because of it.  

The prices on your Monopoly board hold a dark secret | The Atlantic

Are you more Cleancore or Cowpunk?

We’re a little obsessed with Aesthetics Wiki, and loved this Atlantic article that gives an overview of the wiki and the culture that surrounds it. There’s something that so purely encapsulates much of what we love about internet culture — the easy proliferation of visual culture and memes, the community-driven documentation of wiki platforms, and the deep need to create taxonomies for everything (Oh, just us? ). 

“Really, I challenge you to think of anything you’ve ever seen. There’s almost certainly an aesthetic listed for it on Aesthetics Wiki. “Intel Core”: an aesthetic for people who really like the look of early-aughts desktop processors. “Bubblegum bitch”: an aesthetic for people who feel a spiritual kinship with Bratz dolls and the rude women who use cherry emoji in their Twitter usernames. “Cleancore:” an aesthetic for people who have experienced a global pandemic and now feel deep pleasure looking at spotless surfaces and full bottles of soap.”

Cottagecore was just the beginning | The Atlantic

Ceci n’est pas une pipe

Laughing too hard to write about this. The whole thread is full of absolute gems.