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The Thunder Burp

This blog's been really playful lately, what with all the coverage of the study of play in the news. Gives me the illusion of having my finger on the pulse of something. This time NPR contributed to my delusion of prescience with a report on the importance of play in children's development.

This story features findings from the National Institute for Early Education Research that suggests that make-believe leads children to learn how to self-regulate, mostly because it encourages private speech. In other words, kids tend to talk themselves through their actions when they pretend. Their studies correlate all sorts of good social behaviors that prevail in children who engage in the most make-believe and private speech.

Most interesting, though, is the connection this piece makes between how children once played and how they play now and what changes that brings about in their development. Also featured is the social historian Howard Chudacoff, who has a book coming out soon from NYU Press titled Children at Play: An American History.

What made this media ecologist's head snap back, and will likely be the reason I read Chudacoff's book, is that he points to October 3, 1955, as the date in which how we perceive play changed. The Mickey Mouse Club debuted on TV that day—but so did the first televised ad for a toy, Mattel's "Thunder Burp" gun. As Chudacoff says in the NPR story:

It's interesting to me that when we talk about play today, the first thing that comes to mind are toys. Whereas when I would think of play in the 19th century, I would think of activity rather than an object.
Which leads me to wonder: What is the concept of play among children who've grown up in a world in which there have always been computers and the Internet? What will the children who grow up natively with pervasive, ubiquitous computing—that is embedded in our physical environments and that communicates with portable devices we carry—think play is?


Man Bites Dog

I spend so much time thinking about how digital environments affect physical environments that I occasionally lose sight of the fact that the relationship is reciprocal. Sometimes the real world asserts its reality over virtuality, as it did last week when a Staten Island judge determined that friending on MySpace violated a restraining order. (Via Machinist and Switched.)

According to the law, cyberstalking is still stalking. And in an interesting turn in this case, it was a 16-year-old stalking a 43-year-old.


It's So Important, the Times Mag Covered It

Dr. Brown and his institute, which we discussed last month, were profiled in this weekend's New York Times Magazine (thanks for the tip, Laena).

After an explanation that play, as observed among animals in nature, diminishes in times of distress, the article poses the central question, "If play is an extravagance, why has it persisted?" In other words, if it's inessential to survival, why do animals (including humans) still do it?

Well, based on how this husky's play skills stopped its ass from getting chewed by a hungry polar bear, I'd say play is more than simply an extravagance. However, I'd also say that play gives its participants confidence. Play is situational and safe—it's the acting out of an otherwise real situation in a safe context, one in which there's nothing at stake. Whether or not the specific actions of play are exact correlates of the real situation matters little. What matters is that the participants in play face a challenge under controlled conditions.

This is why martial arts training and apprenticeships are such successful systems. They involve an aspect of play—at least in the sense that the trainees are engaged in actions that simulate the real but don't carry the ultimate consequences of the real. After many many simulated challenges and circumstances, the trainee gains enough confidence to perform the action for real and often does so successfully, whether that action is breaking a board or fending off a real attacker or crafting a beautiful or useful object.

This aspect of play holds profound implications for education and art and business. By providing a safe place for newbies to learn and test their skills and knowledge, we're actually providing a great service to them and to the craft or field we hold dear. By providing a safe place for those who would follow in our footsteps, we ensure the security of our chosen field for at least one more generation—though I suspect in doing so, we ensure it for several more generations beyond.


Are CK-12's FlexBooks a Killer App?

Textbooks have long been the cash cow of publishing. Though they're hardly fortune-makers, textbooks could always be counted on to pull in steady revenue that would supplement a publishing house's more artistic and prestigious projects. However, textbooks are also the most consumable of books. They rarely have the same shelf-life in a library or home as other types of books, including that other great consumable, the reference book. You need only look to any campus bookstore at the end of a semester and witness the crush of students trying to sell back their course materials to know just how consumable textbooks are.

Consumables are the products most vulnerable to technological change. Newspapers have yet to figure out how to balance both a paper and Web presence. And it looks like reference books will never recover from the blow Wikipedia and online dictionaries have dealt them. Strangely, however, textbooks remained somewhat immune, despite rapidly increasing prices and an increasingly demanding audience of school districts wanting customization.

As Brady Forrest reports over at O'Reilly Radar, CK-12, a non-profit launched in 2006, is looking to drop costs, open content, and offer content flexibility to educators. In CK-12's own words:

Today, textbooks that are used in K-12 system are limiting, expensive and are difficult to update. Because of this, K-12 teachers find it hard to introduce new concepts and cater to different needs. What we need is a more flexible and less expensive system to create and distribute books and online content. FlexBooks, by their very nature, satisfies this need. They contain high quality online content, and are easy to create, update and print. They provide a new system that will follow an open source philosophy to place content on-line that can be "mixed, modified and printed".
Their system, known as FlexBooks, would seem to be a well-designed playground for mash-ups, allowing educators to contribute, manipulate, and share content. It would also seem to deliver what it promises: flexibility, customizability, and cost savings, while reducing the strain placed on students' backs by the ten-pound tomes most publishers put out these days. Therefore, it very well could be to textbooks what Wikipedia was to Britannica.

However, CK-12 also faces some serious obstacles. They've provided the context but, alas, they do need content. They also need a fairly large educational community to rally around it to make it work. Furthermore, how much flexibility and customizability can be achieved in the face of standardized curricula and No Child Left Behind? And even if they do help to overcome widespread institutional standardization, won't doing so create a climate of tribalization in which children will be taught only according to regional and local bias, rather than some more universal version of "truth"?


AOF: America OnFacebook

Even if Yahoo's reported partnership talks with Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.—which could result in News Corp. folding its social site MySpace and other online assets into Yahoo—is simply a ploy to beat back Microsoft's unwanted advances, it still makes the idea of a Facebook and AOL marriage a little less absurd and much more palatable.


The Belief of the Designer, part 3

Anyone who has ever attended a Christian marriage service is probably familiar with the famous New Testament passage from the first epistle of Paul of Tarsus to the Corinthians, also known as 1 Corinthians 13:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
I disagree. Perhaps from a theological perspective, love is the greatest. But from a human perspective, it's hope that wins out. From the perspective of winning converts and keeping true believers—that is, the perspective of keeping an organized religion organized—hope is all you need.

Because it's hope that keeps people coming back to church or temple or other religious gathering places in the face of the denial of their desires and impulses. Hope in a like-minded community. Hope in support in times of distress. Hope in some measure of peace on earth. Hope in an afterlife. Hope in transcending all that is human, even death. Hope in the promise that we'll see our loved ones again.

It's hope that gives believers a reason to love and have faith.

Therefore, hope transcends desire, whether for real or even simply in the minds of believers. And I think that designers can somehow harness hope in their work. Perhaps that's what some people mean by the term "sustainable design." I don't know. And perhaps my argument will be viewed as cynical, though I don't intend it that way. Regardless, I think that that if hope is studied and approached by designers in the same fashion they've approached and studied desire, there's a good chance they'll design some transformative products and services.


The Belief of the Designer, part 2

First, a little housecleaning: I am not advocating one religion over another. Nor am I engaging the benefits or ills of religion or belief. In fact, I am not advocating belief in any form. This is simply an absurdly broad socio-historical look at belief and religious thought and how their study could benefit design. It's a probe into an area that I think deserves in-depth examination.

It's safe to say that design is a fundamental and pervasive quality of human existence, one that affects us even as we control it. As the design researcher John Heskett writes in Toothpicks & Logos:

Design is one of the basic characteristics of what it is to be human, and an essential determinant of the quality of human life. It affects everyone in every detail of every aspect of what they do throughout each day. As such, it matters profoundly. Very few aspects of the material environment are incapable of improvement in some significant way by greater attention being paid to their design. (p4)
Heskett goes on to point out that design is a product of choice, that its process is an iterative cycle in which human decisions are the only constant and dominant influence at every stage. To design is to decide.

Is it any wonder that such a human-centric field, process, and mode of thought would focus on such an equally human emotion as desire?

However, there exists an similarly fundamental and pervasive quality of human existence: belief. Belief in a higher power is such a common, universal, and archetypal element of human experience that psychologists and cognitive scientists suspect an evolutionary and physiological reason for our species' craving for it.

Furthermore, the functional process of belief, religion, has persisted among humans for millennia. In fact, if examined as products of human thought, the world's oldest and largest religions—Hinduism, Judaism, Catholicism, and Buddhism, for example—qualify as by far the most successful design systems in history. They all span epochs and cultures and bind otherwise different peoples within a single cosmological view.

Most remarkably, though, is their ability to do so while, in many cases, teaching the suppression of desire. A common element among many systems of belief is the transcendence of human frailty. Through them we are taught to strive for a higher state of being, either on earth or in an afterlife, whose existence cannot be otherwise empirically proven or perceived by our five senses. In other words, they simply ask us to believe—and many of us do.

So what human quality or emotion does belief appeal to, if not desire? And how can design study and harness this quality so ably embraced by religion? I have a guess, which I'll share shortly.


The Belief of the Designer, part 1

Design is, in many ways, the prototypical interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary field of study. It encompasses art and architecture, engineering and aesthetics. Good designers dabble equally and alternately in education, politics, marketing, technology, cognitive science, and ethics—among innumerable other specialties.

Included in this cacophony of fields is philosophy, which has proven a particularly fertile area of inquiry for designers.

Designers have studied epistemologists and phenomenologists, historicists and social theorists. Names such as Baudrillard and Bachelard and Habermas and Foucault are well known among designers—and all have been used to great effect. Perhaps the single greatest result of such philosophic inquiry is the recognition of desire as a core human feeling.

Though designers are yet far from perfecting it, they've begun to discover precise paths to desire. Desire is part of design's parlance and is the ultimate goal of any whiteboard begging to be filled. Hence the appearance of such products as the iPod, which anticipates the need it fills, satisfying change even as it creates the need for change.

As design approaches perfection of the fulfillment of desire, it needs to look forward to other human feelings, needs, or impulses. After all, if everything is designed to satisfy all of our desires—which are, by definition, a product of a loss or absence—is there an absence left to fill? Therefore, the design field needs to look toward a field of inquiry different than philosophy, yet one akin to it.

I believe (loaded phrasing for an atheist, there) that design needs to look to religion for its next stage of evolution. We could, perhaps, call it intelligent design.


AOL and Facebook: Perfect Together?

Today's public announcement by Time Warner's new Chief Executive Jeff Bewkes that he plans to split AOL assets comes on the heels of conjecture that the Microsoft hostile takeover bid for Yahoo! leaves AOL out in the cold. As the popular thinking goes:

  • Two of the three most likely bidders, Microsoft and Yahoo!, are embroiled in other more important matters
  • The third, Google, already holds a 5% share of AOL. Why would they want, or need, more?
  • Other possible bidders, such as Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, have already said they have no interest.
I completely disagree.

Why not Facebook? AOL would offer a plug-n-play portal, email, and IM elements to Facebook's social site, even as portals and engines, such as Google and Yahoo!, are trying to add social elements to their email apps. And if Facebook opened them to developers, as is their pattern, then these could really grow into something special.

I guess it's not likely to happen. But wouldn't it make things interesting?


The Giants Win the Pennant!

I know, I know. Wrong era. Wrong Giants. Wrong sport, for that matter. But I am no less ecstatic than Russ Hodges at the New York (football) Giants' unlikely victory yesterday.

I'm often put in a position of defending my rabid football fandom by people who don't know me very well.

I'm not the very model of a modern metrosexual. But I do love literature and music. I enjoy the occasional night out at theater (known as "theatre" by us cultured types) when I can afford it. I could have even told you what a pinot noir was before I saw Sideways. All of which leads acquaintances to be surprised when they discover I like me some pigskin. It also usually leads to the inevitable "but it's so brutal" discussion.

I now have only two responses. First, if you don't see ballet in David Tyree's catch last night, then you have no soul.

Second, if you can't appreciate the Bobby Fisher-like strategy of the game plan designed by Giants Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnulo—which, granted, boiled down to "hit Brady hard and often" but entailed so much more and still held a record-setting offense 21+ points under its per-game season average—then you're not as brainy as you think you are.


'Roll Review #7: Pop Culture Librarian

I have a confession: I have a blog crush on Pop Culture Librarian.

It's not a creepy crush, mind you. My wife wouldn't allow that. It's more a "I wish I could write like that" crush—the way any of us likes to be around people with admirable qualities.

Though she is, apparently, a librarian, her blog isn't about librarianship. Instead, she offers up funny anecdotes of her life and in doing so exhibits the qualities of the best librarians: wit, intellect, and a sense of humor and play.

Not many can pull off a sentence referencing a French deconstructionist and a cross-dressing Brit:

I have equal amounts of love for such things as Derrida and Madonna, Chekhov and Eddie Izzard, Doris Day and M.I.A., and Noguchi and Nellie Oleson, and if you have a few hours, I can tell you why all those ideas are related.
I suspect both Derrida and Izzard would approve of this juxtaposition.

Perhaps one day we'll find out how those ideas relate. Until then, I'll be content to keep reading about whatever pops into her mind.