Wired NOVEMBER 13, 2000 - Douglas Heingartner


Over a thousand designers, engineers, and students gathered in Amsterdam this weekend to address the issue of lightness in design, and, as organizers put it, the fact that "a strange thing happened to the 'weightless' and dematerialised economy we thought the Internet would bring: It never arrived!" The sixth Doors of Perception conference, taking place in Amsterdam from November 11-13, started with discussions of what lightness actually means, as well as suggesting new ways to perceive and map it.

Its finale will focus on actual applications of this knowledge.

The conference tackled many nettlesome issues: the role of open-source and file-sharing software on design methodology, the need for more strategic alliances in order to withstand impending ecological doom, and ways to dismiss the clichés that reflexively associate "ecological" with, as festival moderator John Thackara put it, "less stuff, less change, less fun."

Through its varied assortment of speakers and presentations, the conference successfully showed that green doesn't need to be a dirty word.

The tone was breezy, mildly flippant, and lightness was woven into the very fabric of the event: Its symbol is a trippy doily, its drab conference-hall setting spruced up with diaphanous textiles, and the short presentations added lots of space to the program itself.

Except for a few episodes of unreconstructed corporate chest-pounding - more suited to this week's Comdex fair in Las Vegas - the eclectic speakers here all stressed the inherent (and not the market) value of a light touch.

The ideas on display addressed wastefulness in the design of both things as well as information.

One example was the home, which used to be a simple place. Over time it has been stuffed to the brink with weighty technologies like TVs and stereos, but the convergence of technologies is allowing it to shed some pounds. Webby Award founders Maya Draisin and Tiffany Shlain demonstrated how the Internet was born very light, grew unsustainably bloated, and is now downsizing itself in step with what users actually want, i.e. anything but megabytes of indecipherable icons and skippable intros.

Witness the Digital Entertainment Network, which sank under its own weight, while Napster remains light, aloof, and ascendant.

Spanish designer Martí Guixé demonstrated how a series of simple twists can provide graceful solutions to problems of design and waste. Among them, temporary tattoos that serve as rulers and subway maps, a shoe store that uses its leftover boxes as furniture, and branded food that pays its own way: CK emblazoned on our pizzas, IBM writ large on our black beans.

Of course, no one's saying that achieving all this lightness is simple. As in ballet, it takes a lot of effort to make something complex look easy. As Doors' spokeswoman Jane Szita eloquently noted, "less is more work."

In a conference of this scope, it's not surprising to encounter a host of contradictions. Brian Eno presented the Long Now Foundation's ultralight Rosetta Disk, which stores a text written in a thousand languages (along with clues for future cryptographers to make sense of them) on a two-inch nickel plate that will outlive any data rot or discarded operating systems.

Cultural critic artist Tjebbe van Tijen, meanwhile, argued that too much effort has already been spent archiving a millennia's worth of documents that no one will ever bother wading through. Why not, he wondered, simply tread lightly through the present?

Traditional media broadcasting structures were also taken to task for being heavy and oppressive. A proposed solution would be for us all to webcast our own untempered visions.

That is, until you think about the resources that so many armchair filmmakers would consume.

As Thackara saliently pointed out, a typical notebook computer leaves behind four thousand times its weight in waste material, a harsh reminder of what Natalie Jeremijenko called the "delusional immateriality" of digital information.

Likewise, Bruce Sterling lambasted the unbearable lightness of lightness as a "divine intellectual spider web," an untenable asceticism that shuns all ornament in favor of a "perfect present, no future."

So much gleaming minimalist design contradicts everything we know about nature, which is not clean but rather meaty, putrid, prone to infection. His Viridian movement foresees a future where ecological catastrophe and sustainable design will necessarily propel each other forward.

Sterling's giddy debunking seemed a tough act to follow, especially for a scientist talking about how best to spread the Internet into impoverished regions of India, but Sugatra Mitra pulled it off with ease.

He suggested a redefinition of the ancient paradigm whereby teachers dictate what students learn. Why not just abandon this dense and outmoded infrastructure in favor of simply dropping computers into children's untrained hands, jettisoning along the way any concerns about supposedly necessary fundamental skills?

His experiments have proved that children accomplish quite a lot without any instruction, even if they do refer to a cursor as a bird and an hourglass as a drum. Their tabula rasa perspective allows them to bypass many traditional training steps, and also offers valuable insight to interface designers.

He's now trying to get funding to distribute some one-hundred-thousand terminals throughout India, arguing that they would pay for themselves several times over in educational value.

Which makes a very compelling argument for making things lighter.