Pixels to Pronouncements

Quick Read: Pixels – the building blocks of our digital edifices – could be assuming an influence of mammoth proportions across verticals. For e.g., an interesting wave of ‘virtual dressers’ is catching the fashion world by storm.

30 Rock..

..or 30 Rockefeller Plaza is a skyscraper that forms the centrepiece of Rockefeller Center in Midtown Manhattan, New York City. When walking by its Sixth Avenue entrance one might find something curious. It has four sculptures – bas reliefs, carved in stone by Gaston Lachaise, an American sculptor  – placed all the way up on the third floor.

One might ask, “What are they doing all the way up there?”

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Sixth Avenue Entrance of 30 RCA Building. Source

The answer is that when Rockefeller Center was built, the elevated train still ran up Sixth Avenue. The Lachaise reliefs were placed so these ‘El riders’ passing through the station could see them.

This happens all around us. 

When real estate is at a premium – from facades of iconic buildings to the shelf space in our neighbourhood grocery stores – one can make an entire career out of optimising the design/layout of the underlying physical space for our attention, so it delivers on its intended ‘return on placement’.

These days it could almost be trite to state that it is actually the ‘digital real estate space’ that arguably commands a greater premium vs that of any physical space. And the job of the UX/UI designer thereby becomes one of the most influential (and in my opinion – one of most fulfilling) roles in Product Dev/ Management. In fact, the ‘pixels that they design’ essentially become the gateways to digital products/services shaping the user experience for millions of us around the world. No wonder great UX/UI designers are in great demand.

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And never is the product designer’s* significance more evident than in the current Covid times when the design/layout of an app could be a true window into its product’s soul. (*’product designer’ as a catch all phrase for all design functions in the service of a product) 

For e.g,. given these unprecedented times, how does a product balance its rational (product/services) promise with that of its emotional (empathy/sensitivity) narrative? What are its core values and beliefs and how does the product reconcile it with its commercial underpinnings – its core reason for existence?

Check out a highly recommended read here on this very topic. Post reading it, one could even be tempted to take a walk down one’s playground of pixels (a.k.a one’s apps on their phone) to try and infer those subtle truths that govern their design.

These days, pixels don’t just make for subtle commentary, but also influential pronouncements impacting the zeitgeist of the times.

When pixels become fashion pronouncements

In what now feels like a different meta verse, human beings used to gawk at outfits on the streets or ogle at chic strangers’ coats to see what new brands/designs/designers people are into while designers used to organise their new expositions through coveted fashion shows and had hordes of fans waiting in lines for their exclusive pop up sales. Well now (or rather here in this current meta verse of social distancing) some designers have still been able to do this and more.

For e.g., on a recent weekend, the fashion designer Sandy Liang held an extremely exclusive pop-up sale. Only six people were allowed in at a time, with attendees (the list that swelled to almost 100 people at one point) waiting in line for over two hours.

Before you panic about the potential social distancing violations involved, know that this sale took place on a completely virtual plane: an island in the video game Animal Crossing.

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Enter a captionScene from Sandy Liang’s Animal Crossing pop-up. Source

For the uninitiated, a quick crash course on Animal Crossing below:

With the Nintendo game Animal Crossing: New Horizons, players can customize their looks to show off outfits that reflect their personal style, something that piqued the interests of fashion enthusiasts playing the game, who quickly began designing custom looks that riffed on the trendy designers of the moment. Coupled with social distancing and less opportunities to show off fits in-person, it’s created an unorthodox, but amazing opportunity for Animal Crossing users to show off their outfits — so much so that many real-life fashion designers are creating official clothing codes so users can cop designs from their latest collections.

–Time

Today there are entire Instagram communities centered around Animal Crossing fashion. Marc Jacobs even created his virtual fashion line available for gamers through codes.

And if I’ve run out of style codes or ideas, there are even virtual stores like nookazon (a fan built enterprise) where I can buy clothing for in-game characters. And we have not even scratched the surface of this trend of fashion-conscious people using the game as a platform for style expression by dressing their avatars in pixelated versions of clothes by Gucci, Celine, Supreme and more.

For many, it could even look like Animal Crossing is the only place where people seem to get dressed up for now. Clearly ‘pixels’ seem to have become our canvas for self expression like never before.

Could this change the way fashion works forever?

[Featured Image: Animal Crossing illustration on The Washington Post]

The Sci-Fi Pay Phone Fallacy

 

Quick Read: Future predictions could sometimes just be past projections – repurposed to fit the current context. Sometimes that could make for a liberating realisation – especially in current times.  

3.15.20

That’s the name of the latest album by Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino – an American actor, comedian, writer, producer, director, musician, artist and DJ – a polymath in the entertainment business.

What’s unusual about this album?

It has no title except the date of release, 3.15.20; no artwork; and except for 2 songs, none of the 12 tracks has a title. Quoting Sanjoy Narayan on mint:

On Sunday, 15 March, Donald Glover Jr, better known by his stage name Childish Gambino, launched a new website called Donaldgloverpresents.com and released a new album, which streamed on a loop on the site for most of that day. There was no fanfare; no announcements; no publicity.

For an artist as high-profile as Glover, this was an unusual approach….

…Shortly after his new website stopped streaming the album and went blank, Glover’s, or, rather, Gambino’s, new album got more conventionally released on music-streaming services where you can hear it now. It has no title except the date of release, 3.15.20; no artwork; and except for the second and third songs, Algorhythm and Time, none of the 12 tracks has a title. Instead, Gambino has chosen to title his tracks by time codes—the points in time that they come up on the album. For instance, the first track is labelled 0.00; the fourth is 12.38; the fifth 19.10; the sixth 24.19; and so on.

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The album initially played on a loop on the site ‘Donald Glover Presents’, accompanied by an unfinished illustration depicting a very modern scene of rioting, fiery chaos and selfie-taking. (Source)

What’s truly unusual about the album, however, is how it mocks at our assumptions and shatters our accumulated biases about his music. Quoting Sanjoy Narayan again:

It’s an astonishingly experimental album on which Gambino is, in parts, a rapper, a soul, funk and R&B guy, and a sonic innovator who composes melodies and harmonies and melds them to make songs that push every boundary…

..It’s a super ambitious album that traverses so many genres and styles that it would require multiple listens to try and list out or even describe. Funk and soul collide with electronic music; modern hip hop gets to mate with elaborate orchestral arrangements; and smart lyrics comment on the state of the world and other serious issues.

Unique juxtapositions, delightful blends, unexpected connections, inventive remixes and surprising twists. That’s always been the recipe for great story telling across formats from stand up comedy and sci-fi thrillers to food and fashion.

It is compelling how consistently it works every single time – get people to default to their baseline expectations and add in an unexpected twist to move the carpet off their feet and presto, you have a winner! In fact an entire movie was made literally off this very premise.

Turns out getting us to default to our baseline world views/expectations is not that hard after all. Simply because we tend to base our assumptions of a likely future basis our previous experiences. In fact, research suggests that humans predict what the future will be like by using their memories.

Imagining the future then becomes a kind of nostalgia. 

This fallacy could sometimes be evident in sci-fi movies.

Let’s take a classic example: the original Blade Runner from 1982.

In the film, Harrison Ford’s character Deckard makes several calls to other characters using a “videophone,” which is essentially a glorified payphone with a VHS-quality video screen glued on top. Incidentally, the film is supposed to take place in a futuristic 2019, but it makes a faulty assumption that human beings will still be using pay phones as their primary form of communication by then.

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Video Pay Phone in Blade Runner (1982), Source

Back to the Future II also prominently featured payphones and fax machines—both of which were prevalent at the time the film was made, but are obsolete today.

Writers even have a name for this – the science fiction pay phone problem. It essentially refers to how we often assume the continuity of our previous experiences, and subsequently bring our accumulated biases with us, when trying to predict the future.

This could perhaps help serve as an instructive reminder to us that even though we can dream up detailed, novel scenes of things yet to come, our imagined futures could sometimes really just be projections of our past.

And nowhere is this reminder more relevant than in the current times when we are inundated with predictions and discourses about what a post Covid future could look like and how it could potentially impact us, our educational institutions, organisations, cultures, traditions, industries, economies and nation states at large.

As the sci-fi pay phone fallacy reminds us, the future always holds more surprises than we might predict. So instead of stressing about and losing our minds on what a post Covid scenario would pan out to be, sitting back, relaxing and enjoying some Childish Gambino could just be what the doctor ordered for us.

Stay safe. And here’s hoping we all come out of this better, stronger and together. Real Soon.

[Featured Image: Payphone from Back to the Future, digital wallpaper source]