Abstraction - noun
The quality of dealing with ideas rather than events
I've been thinking a lot about abstraction this week. I'll admit it - I'm a tech guy. I build circuits, machines and programs on my spare time. As such I have a habit of getting caught up in implementation details, and worse yet, have a habit of thinking in terms of features rather than benefits. I think that this is something fairly common across the maker movement, and something I'll have to watch out for.
I came across a site called makie.me, which is a UK-based startup that produces custom-built dolls fabricated using RP processes. I can't help but feel that they're going about this wrong though. Their website frequently advertises how they're the "World's 1st 3D printed toy!", which (in addition to being of dubious truth) I can't help but feel is a fetishization of the tech. Ron Arad, a famous Isreali Industrial Designer and Architect discusses this below:
We did launch a collection of eyewear that was [3D] printed, and the producer wanted to make a big deal about how it was 3D printed... And I said "Please don't! Talk about what's good about it the glasses, not about how they're made... We shouldn't get any brownie points for using 3D printing to make something.
I hear this as a call for abstraction - a call to hide details that don't really matter. Don't talk about the journey, talk about the destination.
Remy, Kristine and I teamed up for a Lego Mindstorms workshop. We quickly came up with what is obviously a highly accurate robotic system capable of completing a wide variety of complex tasks. A demonstration is visible below:
Alright, so what we actually made was a fairly ugly giraffe/car thing that ran into walls (and other robots). But we had an absolute blast doing it - the plug-n-play mechanics of the whole thing was fairly liberating. All the complexity of the electronics was hidden, abstracted away behind standardized modules. The Lego system also allowed us to iterate really quickly on ideas, adding, removing and changing parts on a minute-by-minute basis.
I watched a video by semi-famous hardware hacker/maker Chris Hackett.
The whole video is pretty interesting, and well worth watching, but one bit that particularly stuck with me was what he says right near the end.
You need to retrain your eye, so you’re not looking at a thing as to what it is, what it’s branded, what it’s originally intended for. What you’re looking at is what it is at the core, and once you start looking at things for what they really, really are, you have the power to completely remake the world.
Much like Brian Burns' "People want toast, not toasters" this is a call for designers and makers to seek abstraction, to not get caught up in the way things are, but rather the way they should be.
The only problem that cannot be solved by adding another layer of abstraction is having too many layers of abstraction.