If we make our buildings, and there after, they make us, what of our things?
I want to study how customization of things contributes to the self-actualization of a person. I want to create a platform or framework for customizing our things that facilitates a greater connection between people, things, and the way those things communicate to the world about the story of their owner. I believe better connection to our things will foster a more world-friendly mentality about consumption and self-expression.
I’m going to study the process by which we imbue products with personality and put pieces of ourselves into them. In other words, what process creates our attachment to objects? What creates our feeling of loss when we have a bike stolen, a hard drive crash, or our favorite t-shirt loses its final battle with the washing machine? And, adjacent to the question of attachment is the question of self-expression. We choose objects that say the right things about us. How can we make objects say the right things, rather than search them out? Not everyone can afford a bespoke item, and even custom items aren’t cheap (bikes, bags, etc.). Can we find a better way?
Once I know what creates our attachments and deal with self-expression, I want to find a way to foster a faster connection to these items.
I think my work could be for anyone who is searching for a deeper relationship with their stuff, looking to express themselves through their things, or just wanting to make something. I think this is important because we don’t give enough thought to our things and how our purchases affect the rest of the world’s ecosystem. Because our things become vessels for our stories, and sometimes they become our stories. I think we can even make them more “ours.”
My hope is that this work will have an effect in our homes, in our brains, on our stuff, and our connections to our stuff. I want to foster a way for people to do more self-expression, storytelling and actualization with less stuff. I want to reinforce individuality in an increasingly homogenous world.
As I begin this journey, I need to do a few things. First, I need to research, research, research. There are several good works on things, among them the movie Objectified, and a series on objects from Design Observer. I also will put together some surveys regarding people/thing relationships, and distribute those to as many people as I can. Additionally, I am working with Michael Yap on a Public Interfaces project with the goal of re-discovering one’s ability to work with one’s hands (via public art(?) installations reminiscent of Duchamp’s Ready Mades. I’m sure the work I do for thesis is going to be highly informed by this experience (and vice versa).
I hope to bring experience in the physical world to bear as I explore ways to accomplish this digitally (or determine that digitalization of this isn’t necessary). However, my feeling is that customization in the digital world is still in its infancy period. Based on the patterns found on custom clothing/personal objects, custom technology, and custom blog sites (like Tumblr), customization on the internet is essentially just choosing between a canned set of choices (although the number of choices is sometimes mind-boggling).
Our Thesis Development advisor, Frank Chimero, gave us a few questions to frame our thesis explorations. Blocked as I’ve been, I couldn’t bring myself to delve into them until last night. These are my answers are they relate to customization.
Defining an Idea
What is it? I think what I’m trying to do is determine how we imbue products with personality and put pieces of ourselves into them. If you want to get nerdy about it, we kind of make horcruxes out of objects. Have you ever lost a wedding ring, or had your bike stolen? What about a hard drive crash? How did you react when your favorite t-shirt finally lost the battle with the washing machine?
If we make our buildings, and there after, they make us, what of our things?
And in today’s disposable world of mass-produced $11 jeans, $200 tablets, and cheap IKEA furniture, how do we make our things our own? What are all the ways we customize objects? What is our physical relationship to them?
Who is it for? This could be for anyone who is searching for a deeper relationship with their stuff, looking to express themselves through their things, or just wanting to make something.
Why do it? Because we don’t give enough thought to our things and how our purchases affect the rest of the world’s eco system. Because our things become vessels for our stories, sometimes they become our stories. I think we can even make them more “ours.”
What/Where will its effect be? In our homes, in our brains, on our stuff, and our connections to our stuff. I think this will make us more attached to things, more likely to hand things down and desire quality items, rather than disposable objects.
How will you do it? I’m not sure yet. Michael and I are working on a physical manifestation of becoming more attached to bicycles via a hands-on public installation. I’m sure the work I do for thesis is going to be highly informed by this experience (and vice versa).
Who will be involved? Me?
What/who is the competition? I’m not sure this relevant yet, since I’m not sure that what I’m making is a product, so much as a framework.
What are the patterns? Right now, customization online is in its infancy. You can pick from a set number of choices: type, size, color, and few accents or flourishes. Typical patterns can be found on jean customization sites, bike customization sites, and things like Cafe Press. There are other types of patterns as well, like those found on the now defunct StickyBits and SCVNGR.
What’s the benefit? If we have things that we had a hand in making, we form a greater attachment to them. This makes us less likely to throw them away and more likely to take good care of them, repair them, and pass them along. In this way, our things become vessels for ourselves. They become methods of self-expression and actualization. In the world of the internet, where we are increasing the thing being sold to someone else, it’s important to maintain our individuality and assert our freedom to express ourselves.
I had previously been thinking of the idea of customization within the frame of a bicycle and cyclists, but I’m not sure that’s the best way to go now. At the same time, I’m sure that limiting myself to one audience and one object will happen at some point (for the sake of paring down), and since I am who I am, bicycles will never be far from my mind.
I’ve had a hell of time re-adjusting to school and (re)starting the thesis process. I’ve felt adrift, out of my element. I’m already psyching myself out. The hardest part for me is always starting…
The following is a bit of stream of consciousness that I wrote about thesis topics, and trying to get started:
I want to study customization, and how people use customization to define who they are.
I want to give personalities to bikes, and add them to the network of things.
I want to make going out to bars more social and fun, and make it easier to buy drinks for yourself and for friends.
I want to make a step-by-step direction system for bikes.
I want to make an interruption that gets people out of their seats for a few minutes every hour and encourages them to not only get up, but to also go outside.
I want to teach people how to take care of their bike, and remove the mystery.
I want people to connect on a deeper level with their things. Their objects, their clothes, their home items. I want to give people the ability to imbue history, making it more difficult to throw things away in the garbage.
I want to encourage people to stop taking their cars, and start walking, riding mass transit, or riding a bike. Or not going out at all.
I want to concentrate on the suburban and rural population, since everything these days seems directly aimed at urbanized populations. And let’s face it, we’ve got a whole country in between the two coasts.
I want to save the Post Office.
I want to fix the subway system.
I want to do digital consumption right, and beat Netflix or Spotify or Rdio, or, or, or.
I want to create a new To-Do system that acknowledges that you must give things up to achieve everything.
Continuing on… I want to give personalities to bikes, and add them to the network of things. We already give personalities to our bikes. We speak to them, and they speak to us. How does your bike talk to you? How do you talk back to it? Who’s the dominant player in the relationship? How do you find similar bikes and people?
Continuing on… Customization and self-actualization: There’s always a compromise when you customize an object from a canned set of choices. And there’s compromise when you pay someone else to make something that is bespoke. They’re going to make something based on their own experience, and their perception of you.
Customization can bring you visibility, enable visibility. I’m thinking particularly here about clothing, and how our choices in clothing can automatically associate you with a tribe. Girls wearing boy clothes = lesbian. People where sports jersey = fans. We choose these things bc we are trying to broadcast to the world (or at least to the people that we want to reach) that we are something, whether it’s true or not.
What do people customize that is invisible? Speaking patterns, accents. Underwear. Organizational structures (computer, paper files, desk setup). Fantasies. Future selves. Diets/eating patterns, exercise patterns (these things customize the body). Schedules. Truth to tell, there isn’t much that’s invisible.
Are there ways to measure customization?
Off the top of my head, you could simply use your senses to observe. You’d need to glean things from those observations. If we’re talking about an online system or a retail situation, watching the inventory that goes in and out based on customizations is one way. If we’re talking about clothing, we can anticipate customization trends simple through averages (average sizes, normal colors, etc).
Customization is a feedback mechanism which we can learn from to produce new products. How do people hack at tools to make them work for them? Can that be a product on its own?
How do you turn someone who customizes things into someone who makes them instead?
What are the most important things to customize in order to make something on your own?
How does customization enable you to do more? It allows you to work in your own way and speaks honestly about either who you are, or who you want to be (this is self-actualization). In Frank’s words: customization is a confession…
What about the performance of customization? How do we dramatize it? Do we quietly customize things and let them speak for themselves? Or do we do it loudly, either in process or result, and have that individuality scream? Both, obviously, but why do people choose one over the other?
What drives people to want to customize?
What environments do we customize in? Home, personal items, work space, cars, clothes…
The fact is though, that I’m psyching myself out. And I don’t mean this in a mean way, but I’ve really blown this thing up. I’ve made this bigger than I can handle, I am hyperventilating and over-gripping on the start holds of a climb I know I can do. I’m afraid to get started.
I need to breathe. I need to shake out.
I wrote a tweet this morning about how I need to reframe my thinking about thesis. I need to think about it as a side project, something that’s awesome and fun to work on.
So… customizing bikes. The new Timeline on Facebook is fascinating to me. This new tool is meant to tell our stories through our data. Our bikes can put out a huge amount of data, and they can also be our friends through time. What about creating a way to customize the personality of our bikes and tell that story through the Facebook Timeline? This of course, could be extended to almost any object that we can network (the telling needs to be automatic), not just bikes. I’m thinking favorite stuffed animals, keepsakes, favorite shirts… What if you could quantify a lucky pair of underwear?
We make our buildings and thereafter, they make us. We get our stuff, thereafter, our stories are told through that stuff.
My bike is a big part of my story. It tells where I go, it tells what kind of mood I was in, all these things. But still, no one is doing a good job with tracking all this data…
On other idea, that I’ve had in the back of my mind since I don’t even know when, is that there are a lot of people that don’t fit into the traditional feminine/masculine roles, but who don’t feel uncomfortable, per se, in their bodies. However, they do feel uncomfortable in their clothes. Thinking to my own experience, I remember (and still sometimes) choosing to wear men’s clothing because I didn’t want to be seen in something too low-cut or too pink or too girly. The clothes that were available to me didn’t say to the world the things that I wanted to say about myself. So I wore men’s clothes to basically say the opposite of what the women’s clothes said, but it still wasn’t saying I wanted, just the opposite of what I didn’t want to say.
So to say it succinctly, I want to make a line of clothing for women that is based directly on men’s fashion, but tailored to make women look good.
Here’s another thing I keep thinking about:
New websites SUCK. They do, they suck. The Daily isn’t that great either. And I’m sick and tired of people only reading news that they agree with, that doesn’t hurt their brain. There are two questions: how do we make news more interesting to read, more readily discoverable, more enabling of discovery, and more pushy about giving different points of view, while at the same time, being more personalized? Do you have to start a whole new news organization with writers that exhibit different points of view? Do you create an aggregator? Or a content re-writing system, like HuffPo?
I guess for now, I need to try to take a step back and breathe, and shake it out. Thesis is something I always knew would come, and knew that I had to do. This isn’t a punishment, it’s a gift: the chance to do something fun and different. The chance to explore and do something I don’t normally do. I have my whole life to work on websites and apps. Cooper said today, “I’ve got the rest of my life to get funded by Union Square Ventures,” and it’s true. Maybe they’ll even fund some our thesis projects some day, but I need to throw out that pressure and just have some fun.
I’m the one paying for this, after all. I need to show up to the class I want to have.
Closing the book on a saga that began last January: All of my web products are now housed with companies that are NOT owned by a women-hating, endangered animal poaching CEO. My sincere thanks to all the kind customer service guys that helped me out, and my sincere curses to all the people who decided to make it so difficult for me to extricate myself from that company in the first case.
Perhaps a more detailed post to come, but for now: a giant sigh of relief.