The New York Times Magazine releases their ninth annual Year In Ideas. Really great stuff to look back on – and for looking towards the future.
Here are some of my favourites from Business, Design and Technology categories (the interface doesn’t seem to allow linking to individual ideas. So, if you want to find them on the actual site, you can use the alphabetical browser-sorter interface. Ideas are sorted by the first letter of the idea titles, ignoring “the” – i.e. “A” for “The Advertisement That Watches You”):
The Advertisement That Watches You
“It happens when nobody is watching.” As the tagline on a poster raising awareness about domestic violence, that’s not bad. But it was the poster itself that was truly attention-grabbing — for it brought the issue of being watched (or not) to life.
The poster, placed in a bus shelter in Berlin, was a one-time installation sponsored by Amnesty International. When a person in the shelter was looking at the poster, he saw, along with the words, a photograph of an amiable couple: a stocky, professional-looking man in a blue oxford-cloth shirt, his arm around the shoulders of his girlfriend or wife. If no one in the shelter was paying attention to the poster, though, the image switched: now the man was raising his fist against the woman as she leaned away and protected her face. (There was a slight lag in the switch, so viewers could notice that the poster was changing its image.)
Designed by the Hamburg-based firm Jung von Matt (which bills itself as being in the business of “attention warfare”), the ad worked via a camera attached to a computer outfitted with face-tracking software with a working range of about 16 feet. A Potsdam company called Vis-à-pix created the technology. Jung von Matt described the ad as the first of its kind, and it won a silver prize at the 2009 Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival and a gold prize at the New York Festivals International Advertising Awards.
The technology has since improved, according to Vis-à-pix. New posters can even identify the sex of onlookers. Consider a poster created for the service counters of the rental-car company Sixt: when a man gets close, he is tempted with an image of a limousine; if the customer is a woman, she sees, instead, a spunky Cabriolet. CHRISTOPHER SHEA
The Counterfeit Self
Wearing imitation designer clothing or accessories can fool others — but no matter how convincing the knockoff, you never, of course, fool yourself. It’s a small but undeniable act of duplicity. Which led a trio of researchers to suspect that wearing counterfeits might quietly take a psychological toll on the wearer.
To test their hunch, the psychologists Francesca Gino, Michael Norton and Dan Ariely asked two groups of young women to wear sunglasses taken from a box labeled either “authentic” or “counterfeit.” (In truth, all the eyewear was authentic, donated by a brand-name designer interested in curtailing counterfeiting.) Then the researchers put the participants in situations in which it was both easy and tempting to cheat.
In one situation, which was ostensibly part of a product evaluation, the women wore the shades while answering a set of very simple math problems — under heavy time pressure.
Could other types of fakery also lead to ethical lapses? “It’s a fascinating research question,” says Gino, who studies organizational behavior at the University of North Carolina. “There are lots of situations on the job where we’re not true to ourselves, and we might not realize there might be unintended consequences.”
Good Enough Is The New Great
“Cheap, fast, simple tools are suddenly everywhere,” Robert Capps of Wired magazine wrote this summer in an essay called “The Good-Enough Revolution.” Companies that had focused mainly on improving the technical quality of their products have started to notice that, for many consumers, “ease of use, continuous availability and low price” are more important.
High-definition televisions have turned every living room into a home cinema, yet millions of us choose to watch small, blurry videos on our computers and our mobile devices. Cameras capture images in a dozen megapixels, yet Flickr is filled with snapshots taken with phone cameras that we can neither focus nor zoom. And at war, a country that has a fleet of F-16 fighter jets that can cover 1,500 miles an hour is now using more and more remote-controlled Predator drones that are powered by snowmobile engines.
Lo-fi solutions are now available for a range of problems that couldn’t be solved with high-tech tools. Music played from a compact disc is of higher quality than what comes out of an iPod — but you can’t easily carry 4,000 CDs with you on the subway or to the gym. Similarly, a professional television camera will produce a higher-quality image than a phone, but when something important happens, from the landing of a jet on the Hudson River to the murder of an Iranian protester, and there are no TV cameras around, images recorded on phones are good enough.In February, a music professor at Stanford, Jonathan Berger, revealed that he has found evidence that younger listeners have come to prefer lo-fi versions of rock songs to hi-fi ones. For six years, Berger played different versions of the same rock songs to his students and asked them to say which ones they liked best. Each year, more students said that they liked what they heard from MP3s better than what came from CDs. To a new generation of iPod listeners, rock music is supposed to sound lo-fi. Good enough is now better than great.
Though you may not be aware of it, the technology already exists to create a video screen thin enough — and flexible enough — to fit seamlessly into the pages of this magazine. Ultrathin electronic devices can be built using a special inkjet printer that squirts fine layers of complex compounds instead of ink. When the compounds dry, they leave behind sheer metallic films, which in the right combination could act as thermometers, light sensors, even computer chips. So why haven’t you seen these gadgets yet? In part because they are hard to power: even the smallest lithium-ion watch battery is too bulky.
The solution is to print batteries too. This year, a research team at the Fraunhofer Research Institution for Electronic Nano Systems revealed a 0.6-millimeter-thick battery.
It consists of a stack of metal pastes that act as anode, cathode and electrolyte, bound on top and bottom by carbon layers that collect electricity and deliver it to the attached device. This product can be built right into the device it’s powering, as part of the production process, so there’s no need for an additional assembly line. And the battery can be made as large or as small as needed, simply by printing more of it. The list of possible applications is endless — from bandages that release medication when they sense an increase in body temperature to wallpaper that changes color at the flick of a switch.
We’re not talking megawatts, of course. According to Andreas Willert, one of the researchers, it takes about 15 square centimeters of printable battery to provide the same power as a single watch battery. But 15 square centimeters could be enough to power, say, a blinking magazine cover for a month. The Fraunhofer Research Institution introduced its battery at a nanotech expo in Japan in February. The next step is to open a small production line, which Willert expects will be ready next year. Which means that soon, instead of reading these pages, you might be watching them.
Social Networks As Foreign Policy
The United States has long disseminated information to people living under repressive regimes — think of Radio Free Europe. The difference here is that the content of the information isn’t the important thing; the emphasis is on supporting the technical infrastructure and then letting the people decide for themselves what to say. Communication itself erodes despots’ authority. “The very existence of social networks is a net good,” says Alec Ross, a senior adviser on innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.Outside of Iran, the State Department recently underwrote the establishment of Pakistan’s first mobile-phone-based social network, Humari Awaz (“Our Voice”). More than eight million text messages were sent over it in a little over two weeks. And Ross recently traveled to Mexico with the Twitter chairman Jack Dorsey and other technology executives to help build an electronic system for anonymously reporting drug crimes, which they say they hope will undermine narcotics kingpins.
Instead of 10 blue links to Web pages, real-time search engines interweave video clips, blog posts, breaking news reports and tweets about what some reporter just said on CNN — or TMZ — plus the occasional old link made newly relevant, like a video clip of Jackson’s first public moonwalk in 1983. They rank results by how much social-network buzz each item is getting at the moment.