NY Times – The Year In Ideas

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.

Afterward, given ample time to check their work, they reported how many problems they were able to answer correctly. They had been told they’d be paid for each answer they reported getting right, thus creating an incentive to inflate their scores. Unbeknown to the participants, the researchers knew each person’s actual score. Math performance was the same for the two groups — but whereas 30 percent of those in the “authentic” condition inflated their scores, a whopping 71 percent of the counterfeit-wearing participants did so.Why did this happen? As Gino puts it, “When one feels like a fake, he or she is likely to behave like a fake.” It was notable that the participants were oblivious to this and other similar effects the researchers discovered: the psychological costs of cheap knockoffs are hidden. The study is currently in press at the journal Psychological Science.

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.

Printable Batteries

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

In August, after the suppression of Iran’s pro-democracy protests, officials in Tehran accused Western governments of using online social networks like Twitter and Facebook to help execute a “soft coup.” The accusation wasn’t entirely off-base. In Iran and elsewhere, this year showed the growing importance of social networks to U.S. foreign policy.Long before the protests in Iran started, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees U.S. civilian international broadcasting, had in place software to counter censorship in countries like Iran, so people could better access the blogosphere. And the State Department financially supports agencies that make it easier for Iranians and others to surf the Web. After the protests began, the State Department asked Twitter to reschedule a maintenance outage so the activists could continue to spread the word about their movement.

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.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has written about the efficacy of samizdat in undermining the Soviet Union, sees a similar dynamic at work here. “The freedom of communication and the nature of it,” he has said, “is a huge strategic asset for the United States.”
Web Searches In Real Time

When Michael Jackson moonwalked off this mortal coil in June, the outgoing King of Pop unwittingly ushered in a new era on the Internet: the age of real-time search.If you wanted the scoop on what had just happened that day, the place to look for it wasn’t Google News, which featured hours-old stories from The Associated Press and other news wires. The sites to hit were goofy-named start-ups like Topsy, OneRiot and Wowd. These companies crawl social networks like Twitter and Facebook to show you what people are saying right this second and, just as important, what they’re linking to.

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.

By the early afternoon of June 25, a top result on most real-time search sites was a repeatedly updated blog post by two Los Angeles Times reporters who had access to gossipy first responders and City Hall staffers dealing with the Jackopalypse. Most people outside L.A. most likely wouldn’t have thought to go to latimesblogs .latimes.com for confirmation of Jackson’s death. But once enough social-network users found the post and began linking to it, the real-time search sites floated it to the top.Six months later, real-time search is one of the hottest subjects in Internet business, despite the field’s lack (surprise!) of a proven way to make money. Microsoft includes traffic from popular tweeters into the search results on its heavily marketed Bing site. Twitter is improving its real-time tools at search.twitter.com. And Google, oddly late to the game, says it is working on integrating real-time updates into its search engine.

Read all the ideas here!

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One thought on “NY Times – The Year In Ideas

  1. Hi there! I know this is somewhat off topic but I was wondering if you knew where I could get a
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