Wednesday, March 17, 2010

But Today We Collect Gizmos

"To understand the advertisements which appear in the New Yorker or Gentry, one must have taken a course in Dublin literature, read a Time popularizing article on cybernetics, and have majored in Higher Chinese Philosophy and Cosmetics"
- Alison and Peter Smithson, on advertising

"Its function was to bring instant order or human comfort into a situation which had previously been an undifferentiated mess."

- Reyner Banham, on gizmos

To respond to a problem, it's necessary to bring some kind of model to bear on it, and be ready to discard or change that model if it isn't working. A gizmo is a temporary, easily available, means of organizing an undifferentiated continuum. We collect gizmos because we need to bring many models to bear on the problems we are presented with.

Underneath lies that basic confusion about the American Network landscape - is it a wilderness, or a paradise? For us it would be the objects on the beaches, the piece of paper blowing about the street, the throw-away object and the pop package.

The landscape is informational, the desert is networked. If it is all constructed, or at least made from parts of constructs, the ground can be mined for patterns. Even the navigational gizmos themselves are little else but temporary constellations within social, material, and informational networks. There is the persistent rumor that the skins of the Powerbook G4 and the Guggenheim Bilbao were only feasible to produce during a global dip in titanium prices, after Russia flooded the market in the late 90s. Tablet computers are nothing if not devices to sort through the tangle of text and publishing outlets available, and bring reading back under some kind of manageable control.

Ordinary life is receiving a powerful impulse from a new source. Where thirty years ago architects found in the field of the popular arts mechanical engineering technique and formal stimuli, today we are being edged out of our traditional role by the new phenomena of popular arts advertising interdisciplinary consulting.

Unlike the singular, algorithmic machine, which allows only the variation of parameters, the gizmo is multiple, modifiable, hackable, even (especially) disposable, it is in permanent beta. It is a heuristic, not an algorithm: not the be-all, but the good-enough. The minimum of skill is required in its installation and use, and it is independent of any physical or social infrastructure beyond that which can be ordered from a catalogue and delivered to its prospective user.

The application of a heuristic gizmo is an act of pattern recognition - the intuition that some set of undifferentiated circumstances is isomorphic to some other set that was previously encountered, even if the context was wildly different. A City is Not a Tree, but a maze is, or at least certain types of them are, very much like trees. Simply connected mazes are topologically identical to trees, or in another sense, circles. Mazes of this type can be navigated with a heuristic called the Right Hand Rule: tracing your right hand along the wall of a simply connected maze, you will eventually lead yourself out.

If a maze is connected in 3 dimensions, or is disjoint, other methods must be brought into play, like the Pledge Algorithm, the Random Mouse, or the Recursive Backtracker. Name it, then we'll know what it is. What if you don't know what kind of maze you're in? What if you don't even know that you're in a maze at all? The field of metaheuristics is concerned with ways of determining which heuristic is applicable to a given situation. It turns out that the best way of doing this is often trial and error, with a comprehensive collection of gizmos to draw from. Someone's got to decide whether to hit the Black Box with Maslow's Hammer or Occam's Razor.

It has been said that things hardly "exist" before the fine artist has made use of them, they are simply part of the unclassified background material against which we pass our lives. The application of gizmo metaheuristics requires a certain kind of approach to interdisciplinary work and expertise: try it first, then read the manual. Like a western tourist using chopsticks, there is an attitude of being cheerfully out of one's depth, but willing to learn, and eager to add this new technique to the repertoire and impress the folks back home.

Why certain folk art objects, historical styles, or industrial artifacts and methods become important at a particular moment cannot easily be explained. Techniques, when named, abstracted to their simplest form, and packaged up (Sears catalogue style), seem to want to travel. What can we learn about sustainability from the closed-loop space colony ecosystem diagrams of the the 1970s? How can we talk to civil engineers about the emerging trend of micropractices in stormwater management? A collection of gizmo metaheuristics enables a more fluid code-switching, and a more useful exchange of knowledge within and between disciplines.

Gropius wrote a book on grain silos,

Le Corbusier one on aeroplanes,

And Charlotte Periand brought a new

object Gundam to the office every morning,

But today we collect ads gizmos.





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