Looking Alive

The objects around us are becoming more and more like living things

Like many members of the Baby Boom generation, I grew up thinking about the human body in mechanistic terms. In elementary school I sat through repeated showings of a film in the Bell Science series, Hemo the Magnificent, which depicted the body as a factory staffed by little men who were constantly turning valves on and off, or running from cell to cell like milkmen, delivering oxygen. Even at age nine I knew this wasn't how things really worked. Still, metaphors matter. Those cute little animated workers may not be manning my aorta, but they have stuck in my mind ever since.

In recent years, though, our culture's metaphors about biology and technology have been reversed. Rather than thinking about our bodies in terms of mechanics, we are now encouraged to think about technology as if it were a form of biology. Computer viruses are a good example. And this past April, IBM made front-page news when it announced plans to develop "self-healing" computers, which will analyze their own malfunctions, repair them, and keep working while doing so. Whereas we once thought steel strong and flesh weak, now the steam drill is learning from John Henry.

When metaphors change, it usually means that reality has done so already. And in fact our bodies are filling up with machinery. Pacemakers, knee and hip replacements, eye implants, artificial skin, and even man-made organs are becoming so commonplace that cyborgs—hybrids of human being and machine—are already living in our midst. But they don't look like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator. They aren't supermen; they're only us.

Then, too, there's the Speedo Fastskin wet suit, which was worn by a majority of the top swimmers in the Sydney Olympics last year. This second skin enhances swimmers' performance not by making their bodies smooth—the traditional swimmer's strategy. Rather, the fabric of the suit replicates structures found on the skin of a shark, which act like tiny hydrofoils and redirect the flow of water over the animal's body. Although the suit is a high-tech product, its sophistication relies entirely on mimicking biological forms. Swimmers wear the suit because it helps them go faster. The fact that it makes its wearers look as if they just stepped out of a Marvel comic doesn't hurt. With a change of costume a mere human being becomes a shark-skinned superswimmer.

It's almost impossible to separate the engineering features that make the Fastskin work from its "design"—those qualities of form, texture, and color that make a thing memorable and meaningful. The Fastskin comes close to the ideal that form should follow function. However, most of the time function needs a little help. It falls to designers to make people feel comfortable with technology. Throughout the twentieth century they generally did so by dramatizing an object's benefits—speed, power, and efficiency, for instance—while hiding the things that made the object work. They took the early automobile, for example, in which each functional part was visible, and fashioned a steel shell that hid the machinery and gave the car a personality. In so doing they turned a contraption into a convenience.

Sometimes function has little to do with it. There was no practical reason for a 1930s refrigerator to be streamlined, but its new profile turned the erstwhile icebox into an embodiment of modernity and progress. The objects in which form follows not function but fantasy are often the most revealing ones.

During much of the past century designers' principal aim was to encourage people to welcome technology into their homes and their lives. This battle has long since been won. Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we are accustomed to carrying powerful electronic devices in our pockets. Soon many of us will be wearing them, and before long they may be part of us.

Some of the most sought-after pieces of contemporary personal technology, such as the titanium-clad Macintosh PowerBook and the aluminum-clad Palm V, hark back to twentieth-century notions of hard-shelled competence. But as distinctions between technology and biology blur, glossy, sculptural steel-age objects are being supplanted by forms that are supple, ambiguous, subtly sexy, and even a little bit creepy. The age of inanimate objects—at least those that look and act inanimate—may be coming to a close.

Ellen Lupton, a design curator at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, in New York City, believes that some new designs stand in for living beings, others celebrate the artificial augmentation of the body, and still others reflect anxieties about what may be a hostile merger of human being and machine. She has a computer hard drive full of images of furniture, buildings, clothing, and other products to show what she means. When I visited her recently, at her home in Baltimore, she called up, for instance, a photograph of a robot face that has been engineered to signal compassion to those in need of an electronic friend. There was also a very funny drawing of a pair of baggy shorts whose seat inflates to become a stool, and an unsettling image of a chair that seems to support itself on crutches. Lupton has gathered these pictures to prepare for an exhibition titled "Skin: Surface and Substance in Contemporary Design," which is scheduled to open at the museum next April.

"At many times in the past designers have looked to biological or organic forms for inspiration," Lupton told me. "What's different now is that the thinking is less humanist, more cyborg. It's not about creating forms that are comfortable for the body, or of celebrating the natural ... Many women and men nowadays give at least some thought to cosmetic surgery. The idea is to be natural, only better."

Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.

Remarkable Designers: Karim Rashid (Canoe, January 27, 2001)
An interview with Karim Rashid. Posted by a Canadian news and entertainment Web site.

The creator of one particularly arresting item recorded in Lupton's files—and of many arresting objects elsewhere—is Karim Rashid, a prolific young designer of furniture, lighting, and other products, who lives and works in New York. Rashid's designs are both respected by his peers and wildly popular. You've probably seen his colorful plastic Garbo wastebasket, but he has also been commissioned by various high-end companies to design everything from champagne glasses to clothing to store interiors. Rashid's Chromazone Table, which caught Lupton's attention, exists only in prototype now, but Totem, a New York gallery, plans to produce and sell it in limited numbers. The table has a high-tech laminate surface, a sort of artistically sensitive Formica top. When you place your hand on it, the heat of your body creates a visible, subtly shaded corona on the tabletop. If you place a steaming mug of coffee on the table, it will generate all the colors in the rainbow. Rashid does not plan to have the table be able to scream if something that threatens permanent damage is placed on it, but no doubt this could be engineered. Even in its silent form, this is a table that lets you know how it is feeling.

Rashid is convinced that almost everything in our lives will soon be "smart," and he is working to make that vision come true, developing designs for a world in which we won't know where the body ends and the machine begins. He designed the table, he told me recently, in order to enable a real-world object to compete with the seductions of the digital world, which he believes have decreased people's sensitivity to what they experience directly. As if to prove his point, our conversation took place by e-mail.

Rashid's table is primitive in responsiveness compared with another project of his that he mentioned: clothing that will react to its wearer's moods, while incorporating temperature controls, databases, and telecommunications capabilities. Much of the technology for such "smart" clothing already exists. As part of a Navy project to create computer-driven body armor, engineers at Georgia Tech have found a way to knit a flexible computer into the fabric of a shirt. The version of this Smart Shirt that has been licensed for production uses its computer power to monitor its wearer's health and location, and it is being marketed primarily to police and fire departments for officers on duty.

Its information-storage and data-processing capacities could potentially be used to make people into walking libraries, with vast amounts of information even closer than their fingertips. Already about a thousand technicians who work for Bell Canada, Federal Express, and other companies are wearing sophisticated computers designed as vests, complete with tiny head-mounted display screens positioned a few inches in front of their eyes. It seems inevitable that such devices will become less bulky, more powerful, less expensive, and more stylish. The introduction in Europe by Philips and Levi Strauss of a line of wearable electronics—essentially sportswear with wires integrated in the design and special pockets for Philips telephones, digital audio players, and other gad-gets that can be operated from a single remote control—suggests that this once visionary idea is moving toward the marketplace.

But perhaps a technologically enhanced second skin will prove to be only a transitional stage. Rashid, for one, believes that the next step after smart clothing will be even more amazing: smart people. "I see technology being embedded in our bodies so that we become digital within ourselves," he said. "We can interface by touching our skins, almost like having keyboards and chips planted under our skin—or by neural-triggered synapses where our minds control the technology and devices." Implants are, after all, the ultimate portables.

The mind boggles. The body shudders. The stomach turns. The next time I upgrade my computer, I wonder, will it involve surgery?

But since I'm old enough to remember Hemo the Magnificent, I'm old enough to remember those who predicted that I would be running to the supermarket in a helicopter and that my front porch would be equipped with a ray that could kill any germs that threatened to cross the doorstep. There is a long tradition of overselling the future, and those who call themselves visionaries—designers prominent among them—rarely envision that anything will go wrong. A pessimist by nature, I am certain that sooner or later the brilliant mind of the Smart Shirt will start to unravel, the self-healing computer will contract a flu it can't shake, and the color-changing table will turn an ugly shade and stay that way.

Designers can't guarantee that the brave new world will work. Indeed, making things work isn't really their job. What they do is make us feel, help us understand, allow us to sense how things can be useful. Even Rashid, who makes ambitious claims for the role of design in culture, says that designers will be little involved with what he terms "the banalities of problem-solving." Certainly this was true for earlier generations of design visionaries. Their role was not to make the future function but to show where we were going, and to make us feel good about it when we got there.