The Zeitgeist Project - speakers liveblogged

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth


The Zeitgeist Project is a response to the “noise” of all the consumer electronics companies ‘shouting’ their products at us at IFA. It turns the idea on its head, focusing on the people and working back to the products.

The eight invited curators are going to talk about the Zeitgeist of our times – the cultural trends that are shaping us and our products. The aim? Finding the product that defines our time. So says Adam Scott of FreeState, our host for the evening.

Bring on the curators…

Simon Waterfall

Simon Waterfall

There’s a word for predicting the future: science fiction. And it’s never good news. It’s all “robots have taken over the planet” and “I’ve got wires where I shouldn’t have”.

The old future – the way we understood things coming into our lives – was very genteel – all ebb and flow. You could see what was coming, absorb it, and let it change your life. That’s how people put the future in front of you. You were in charge of it. The current future is not drip-fed. We are sipping from a firehose. We are surrounded by so many possibilities, that it’s literally being force-fed to us. The communication systems is the most complicated, expensive machine humanity has ever made.

Remember when you first saw Google Earth? Six weeks before it didn’t exist, and then it was there in your life. You could see Scott’s hut in the Antarctic. What did you look at? Your own front door. This isn’t the future Google intended this enormously expensive machine for…

Look at the Arab Spring, look at Anonymous – they could be heroes or villains. How are they going to use technology? 3D printing is one of the most exciting things to have emerged. When you’re stood in front of the big machine, ready to press the green button, what will you print? One guy with a £20,000 machine printed his surname first.

In the future, inappropriateness is going to be key. Computers don’t do desire – the devil does desire. If you think about the devil, what will you print? Why would you print a Gucci handbag, when buying it is most of the pleasure?

You will print the illicit, the illegal. The internet was born in dirty porn studios. What will you print, when there’s no trace, no Visa track, no way of identifying? How can we drip-feed this desire into brands?

Richard Seymour

Richard Seymour

The future happens at the rate we can assimilate it. Is a technology desirable? Do we like it?

For the first time in 100 years, our ability to make things outstrips our imagination. There’s a storm coming, which is coming so fast you can’t see it. You won’t have seen the inversion coming. Show a class of seven year olds a typewriter, what do they think it is? A laptop that prints, which you don’t need to plug in. The people who are designing products know it’s a typewriter. The people they’re designing for don’t. We have to wait for the anthropology to catch up.

The big corporations that make a lot of big stuff might be in trouble. Emotional functionality is something we’re going to have to factor into everything we create. Apple figured this our early on – the laptop sleep light is the first thing that a bean-counter would get rid of. They’re building an ethos, and the product is a souvenir of that. We have to believe in things.

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, HAL was everywhere. He was omni-present. And we are on the brink of that now. When we flip, we might be able to get anything you want from anyone’s kit. A new development of technology will occur based on omnipresence. If you need only to know who you are and where you, that’s easy to do. It will lead to the rise of the fetish – the item that will identify you and your position. The next game you buy may be two metal dog tags you wave over your device and which download the game.

But we’ll always want stuff, but it’s as likely to come from Dior as Sony. Siri is the first disembodied product to come from Apple. WIll it become omnipresent? We’ll need extraordinary intelligence to model this future. Observing it from the past or present isn’t particularly useful, you need to stand in the future and pull the present towards you.

Charles Spence

Charles Spence

The future is about the brain, the most bloodthirsty organ in our body. We’re starting to get a handle on consciousness, and that’s beginning to feed into product design. We need to design around the brain. If we understand the rules of sensory interaction, you can move into a new area of design. Most of us don’t realise how inter-connected our senses are. You can change how people perceive wine by a few drops of odourless food colouring.

People have been predicting this since at least 1997 – the future will be synesthetic, they claim. There’s advertising which tries to do this. There are people who see colours as numbers, or hear smells. They’re all different. If you ask people what sweet and bitter would be like as sounds, sweet becomes high pitch, bitter low. There are patterns.

People are trying to scent products – TVs with smells in the boxes. But it’ll only work when they connect all the senses.

Michael Wolff

Michael Wolff

Gout is extremely painful. He can feel it in his left foot. But he can’t feel his brain – he has no sensation of it. People often don’t notice what they’re noticing. For a long time he didn’t completely understand the power of language. The graphic design phrase “the copy” denigrates the power of language.

They had two photocopies in an office: one was Xerox, one Canon. Both said “warming up” when you started them. One said “ready” when done, one said “start”. “Ready” made Wolff feel it would do the work, “start” made him feel that he would have to do it. We underestimate the effect of words in graphic design.

Architects sometimes get overwhelmed by the details of buildings and forget place. And in product design we often forget about sounds. He could talk about “clicks” for an hour. Here’s an a to z of sounds:

  • A is for Apple – the chord that a Mac starts up with converted him from technophobia.
  • B is for baby crying – it has the most astonishing effect on you; it makes you think something tragic is happening.
  • C is Coke bottle opening.
  • D is a dentist’s drill, which made him bite a dentist.
  • E is for Echo, used in sonar, which allows you to see things.
  • F is for Ferrari
  • G is for the whoomph of gas lighting
  • H is for a Hasselblad shutter.
  • I is the Intel Inside noise.
  • J comes from Argentina – the sound of jackboots on cobbles
  • K is for kalashnikov
  • L is for Lawnmower
  • M is the German Diesel in a taxi
  • N is Nokia – the original ring tone
  • O is for Organ, the particular note
  • Q is for Quack
  • R is Rottweiler
  • S is for Spitfire
  • T is a train
  • U is for Underwood typewriters
  • V is for velcro
  • W is for the willow cricket bat
  • X is for Xerox copiers
  • Y is a yawn
  • Z is a zippo lighter, which he thinks has an American accent.

Bobbie Johnson

Bobbie Johnson

We’re all carrying around a smartphone. We’re all doing the same thing – customising it. He has a photo of a baby on his, as do many others…. We have these mass-manufactured goods – and we’re desperate for them not to feel mass-manufactured. We want them to have a sense of intimacy. We’re seeing elements of intimacy break out across the technology industry – we don’t want to be part of a machine. A chef’s pan is meant to get better over time. Consumer electronics aren’t like that. Their products’ moment of perfection is when you take it out of the box. That’s why people fetishise it – that’s why there are so many unboxing videos. Religion is the greatest mass-manufactured product – and the most intimate.

Crowd-sourcing is an incredibly powerful way of creating intimacy in products. They allow consumers to connect with products before the product is off the drawing board. He’s a journalist – obsessed with stories. Crowdfunding does an amazing job of getting people involved in the story. People want to believe, be part of the product. They want intimacy.

He co-ran a Kickstarter a few months ago, and raised £50,000 in 36 hours.

That’s the service design end. At the other end, there’s the short-run manufacturers in China. The economics mean you can do that in smaller and smaller numbers now. There are Chinese pirates who create products that look almost exactly like the products we know – an iPhone with an extra SIM card, or a much better camera. It’s a iPhone tailored for you. An intimacy of sorts.

3D Printing brings real intimacy to manufacturing. He thinks its good,but it won’t save the world or anything. But it’s intimacy from the word go. It’s always a product of one – so you can tailor it to people’s needs. Imagine a phone (or “handy”…) that’s actually built for your hand. That’s an intimacy we haven’t seen before.

If you take all these things, crowdsourcing bringing people in from the start, 3D printing allowing customisation – that’s intimacy.

Tom Uglow

Tom Uglow

A virtual (recorded) speaker.

We live in a post-digital world now, the point where we stop being awed by the power of computing. In fact, we’re in a post-internet age. We should marvel at this technology – but we don’t. We expect our phone to conduct three way international video conferences for free… This isn’t “normal”.

There’s a theory that we’re connected to nature – we feel better under an open sky, wearing natural wool. We need to understand that in consumer electronics – where the white, black or metallic box is king – that we need this physicality. We listen to invisible music, and take invisible photos that live on drives. How do we bring back the physical sensations?

We love damage, distress and residue in digital and physical spaces. We want to see it in our polished consumer goods. You want the scratches on the record. He loves the crack in his phone, the dent in his MacBook. It’s what marks it out as his. Instead of augmented reality, we want reality, augmented.

Twine thinks about how to connect the real world objects with messaging. Pebble tries to harness the power of your phone in your watch.

Kati Krause

Kati Krause

48% of Germans don’t use their real names on social networks. 20% use complete fantasy names. Google stopped taking street view photos in Germany, because so many people wanted their properties blurred. Microsoft have abandoned a smilier project. The App Stores are being sued for breaching German data privacy.

The funny thing in German is that they’re not concerned about privacy in other matters – they have ID cards, they have a census, they have a private company that holds everyone’s financial data for credit-worthiness. Everyone’s fine, because they know what data’s being collected and where it’s going.

What does this tell us? It could tell us that Germans are illogical or that they are slow to adopt. She doesn’t think so. She thinks that the internet companies are going to have to adapt to the German way of thinking, and handle personal data in a different way. This clashes with the desire to make products more personalised, and with the desire to make advertising-run products.

John Bird

John Bird

21 years ago in London, he got a multi-millionaire to give him £0.5 million to get capitalism off the hook. London had a homelessness problem. He had to put aside his own politics, talk to everyone. And he launched the Big Issue, a street newspaper to help homeless people. Their intervention was very simple – instead of giving people handouts, they gave them what the middle-class love – the opportunity to make their own money, and grow.

The world had conspired to keep the poor down by giving them handouts. Fuck the poor. He doesn’t love the poor – he loves the poor who are becoming something else. If you’re on the street, you’ll meet people to want to exploit you, to prostitute you.

Now – technology is the way we can crack poverty. Why is it in Africa that mobile phones have transformed everything? Why is the mobile the last thing the homeless will give up? Because it allows them to be like you – to have communications and move up.

They’re building Answers from Big Issue to turn the homeless into content providers – a respectable middle class job. When they launch in November, they’ll be both helping people get off the street, and shining a light on corporate social responsibility projects all over the world.

We nee to change the way we give. We need to ask questions. Nearly 25% of people are involved with charities. It’s enormous, but it needs to get better. The web and the mobile will allow us to create a better tomorrow for the poorest people on the planet.

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.