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kottke.org posts about Ian Bogost

Imagining a Covid-19 Pandemic Memorial

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 25, 2020

Covid Memorial

Even though we’re still in the midst of it, The Atlantic commissioned three designers/artists to design hypothetical Covid-19 memorials. Ian Bogost writes:

So this might seem like a strange time to imagine memorializing the pandemic in a formal way. A premature time. Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial was conceived in 1981, six years after the United States had withdrawn from the conflict. Michael Arad and Peter Walker’s 9/11 memorial broke ground at the site of the World Trade Center in 2006, almost five years after the attacks.

But there are downsides to waiting. A traumatic event is an author of its own memorial; as a famous anecdote attests, when a Nazi soldier asked Pablo Picasso if he had made Guernica, the famous painting the artist created during the month following the Luftwaffe’s bombing of its Basque namesake in 1937, Picasso replied, “No, you did.” The feelings, facts, and ideas available during a calamity dissipate as it ebbs. The temptation arises to contain tragedy in a tidy box, closing the book on its history.

Each of the three ideas is intriguing in its own way. I liked how Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello (who made those border wall teeter-totters last year) explained their thought process (which Rael elaborated on here).

Quarantine has limited our ability to use smell and touch for communion, so she and Rael became interested in finding a way to replicate the experience. That’s where pennies come in: Copper is an antiviral — a quality with obvious symbolism in the moment — and one that evolves over time, developing a patina as it interacts with water and air. So the pair latched on to it as a material.

Rael San Fratello’s first idea was a pragmatic one: a traditional memorial made of copper molded into a bulbous, organic wall. The copper material would invite the touch lost to quarantine. Outdoors, it could develop a green or purple patina. “If touched constantly,” San Fratello said, “the patina might never occur, and the memorial will remain shiny.”

See also the design for a pandemic memorial already in the planning stages in Uruguay.

The Paradox of Preparation

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 16, 2020

Coronavirus, social distancing, exponential growth, flatten the curve, pandemic, immunocompromised — those are just some of the concepts related to COVID-19 we have had to come up to speed on over the last few weeks. We should add the “paradox of preparation” to that list.

The paradox of preparation refers to how preventative measures can intuitively seem like a waste of time both before and after the fact. Most of us don’t stop brushing our teeth because the dentist didn’t find any cavities at our most recent checkup, but with larger events that have effects more difficult to gauge (like COVID-19, climate change, and Y2K), it can be hard to spur people to action. From Chris Hayes:

A doctor I spoke to today called this the “paradox of preparation” and it’s the key dynamic in all this. The only way to get ahead of the curve is to take actions that *at the time* seem like overreactions, eg: Japan closing all schools for a month with very few confirmed cases.

That was in response to Dr. James Hamblin:

The thing is if shutdowns and social distancing work perfectly and are extremely effective it will seem in retrospect like they were totally unnecessary overreactions.

Epidemiologist Mari Armstrong-Hough made a similar point earlier on Twitter:

You won’t ever know if what you did personally helped. That’s the nature of public health. When the best way to save lives is to prevent a disease rather than treat it, success often looks like an overreaction.

Preparation, prevention, regulations, and safeguards prevent catastrophes all the time, but we seldom think or hear about it because “world continues to function” is not interesting news. We have to rely on statistical analysis and the expert opinions of planners and officials in order to evaluate both crucial next steps and the effectiveness of preparatory measures after the fact, and that can be challenging for us to pay attention to. So we tend to forget that preparation & prevention is necessary and discount it the next time around.

The good news is that while unchecked epidemics grow exponentially, another thing that can also spreads exponentially is behavioral norms. The basic expert advice on how we can slow the spread of COVID-19 in our communities is pretty unambiguous — wash your hands, don’t touch your face, maintain social distance, self-quarantine, etc. — and so is the huge potential impact of those precautions on the number of people who will get infected and die. To help overcome the paradox of preparation, let’s continue to spread the word about what the experts are urging us to do. Because if we don’t, there might be a lot fewer of us around in a month or two.

Update: In the same vein, Vaughn Tan writes:

This means that any effective actions taken against coronavirus in the few days before the epidemic curve shoots upward in any country will always look unreasonable and disproportionate.

By the time those actions look reasonable and appropriate, they will be too late.

And Now Is the Time to Overreact Ian Bogost in the Atlantic:

The idea that an extreme reaction, such as closing schools and canceling events, might prove to be an overreaction that would look silly or wasteful later outweighs any other concern. It can also feel imprudent; just staying home isn’t so easy for workers who depend on weekly paychecks, and closing is a hard decision for local companies running on thin margins. But experts are saying that Americans can’t really over-prepare right now. Overreaction is good!

It’s hard to square that directive with the associations we’ve built up around overreactions. Ultimately, overreaction is a matter of knowledge-an epistemological problem. Unlike viruses or even zombies, the concept lives inside your skull rather than out in the world. The sooner we can understand how that knowledge works, and retool our action in relation to its limits, the better we’ll be able to handle the unfolding crisis.

Michael Specter writing about America’s weakened public-health system for the New Yorker:

Few people have trouble understanding the purpose of public education or public housing: they are tangible programs that, at least in theory, are designed to improve our lives. Public-health accomplishments, however, are measured in an entirely different way: success is defined by what is prevented, not by what is produced. This creates an odd psychological dynamic.

When public-health programs are successful, they are invisible, and what is invisible is almost always taken for granted. Nobody cheers when they remain untouched by a disease that they hardly knew existed. That makes it easy for shortsighted politicians to deny long-term realities. And that is what they almost always do.

Mister Rogers’ “Look for the Helpers” Was Not Meant for Adults

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 30, 2018

In a piece for The Atlantic, Ian Bogost argues that Mister Rogers’ “look for the helpers” advice for tragic events was intended for preschoolers and that “turning the reassuring line for children into a meme for adults should make everyone uncomfortable”.

Once a television comfort for preschoolers, “Look for the helpers” has become a consolation meme for tragedy. That’s disturbing enough; it feels as though we are one step shy of a rack of drug-store mass-murder sympathy cards. Worse, Fred Rogers’s original message has been contorted and inflated into something it was never meant to be, for an audience it was never meant to serve, in a political era very different from where it began. Fred Rogers is a national treasure, but it’s time to stop offering this particular advice.

I touched on this briefly in a post a couple of weeks ago:

Fred Rogers often quoted his mother as saying, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” That message was directed at young children who he wanted to help feel secure. For us adults, Rogers might have encouraged us to exercise more moral courage and become those helpers, not just look for them. The world today could use more of that.

(via @davidzweig)

The myth of Apple’s great design

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 13, 2017

In the Atlantic, Ian Bogost takes on the accepted view that Apple has great design, calling it “the biggest myth in technology today”.

At base, such a claim seems preposterous. In 1977, the Apple II made the microcomputer useful and affordable. In 1984, the Macintosh made the computer more usable by the everyperson thanks to the graphical user interface. In 2001, the iPod fit a music library in a pocket. In 2007, the iPhone made computing portable (and obsessive).

But if Apple designs at its best when attending closely to details like those revealed in the construction of its spaceship headquarters, then presumably the details of its products would stand out as worthy precedents. Yet, when this premise is tested, it comes up wanting. In truth, Apple’s products hide a shambles of bad design under the perfection of sleek exteriors.

While I find this piece to be hyperbolic, it hints at where Apple’s design is weakest. Apple is great at designing products but less good at designing the connections between these products and the rest of the world.1 iPhones, iPods, and iPads are great, but you have to go through iTunes to manage their contents. As Bogost notes, the power cords and chargers for their products are often bulky and awkward…you can’t even charge the newest iPhone using the newest Macbook Pro without a separate adapter. Who makes all the apps that people want to use on their iPhones to chat/connect/flirt/collaborate with their loved ones? Facebook, Snap, Google, Slack…not Apple, who initially wasn’t even going to provide a way for 3rd parties to build apps for the iPhone. Almost every attempt by Apple to build services to connect people — remember Ping?! — has failed. Even iCloud, which promised to unite all Apple devices into one fluid ecosystem, was plagued for years with reliability problems and still isn’t as good as Dropbox. How devices, apps, and people interconnect are far more important now than in 1977, 1984, and even 2007, when the iPhone was introduced, and Apple could stand to focus more of their design energy on that experience.

  1. Another way of saying this is when it comes to design trade-offs, Apple prioritizes the integrity of the device over other considerations.

Limits are fun? Limits are fun!

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 12, 2016

Play Anything

Play Anything is a forthcoming book by game designer and philosopher Ian Bogost. The subtitle — The Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games — provides a clue as to what it’s about. Here’s more from the book’s description:

Play is what happens when we accept these limitations, narrow our focus, and, consequently, have fun. Which is also how to live a good life. Manipulating a soccer ball into a goal is no different than treating ordinary circumstances — like grocery shopping, lawn mowing, and making PowerPoints — as sources for meaning and joy. We can “play anything” by filling our days with attention and discipline, devotion and love for the world as it really is, beyond our desires and fears.

Reading this little blurb, I immediately thought of two things:

1. One thing you hear from pediatricians and early childhood educators is: set limits. Children thrive on boundaries. There’s a certain sort of person for whom this appeals to their authoritarian nature, which is not the intended message. Then there are those who can’t abide by the thought of limiting their children in any way. But perhaps, per Bogost, the boundaries parents set for their children can be thought of as a series of games designed to keep their lives interesting and meaningful.1

2. This recent post about turning anxiety into excitement. Shifting from finding life’s limitations annoying to thinking of them as playable moments seems similar. Problems become opportunities, etc.

3. Ok, three things. I once wrote a post about bagging groceries and mowing the lawn as games.

Two chores I find extremely satisfying are bagging groceries and (especially) mowing the lawn. Getting all those different types of products — with their various shapes, sizes, weights, levels of fragility, temperatures — quickly into the least possible number of bags…quite pleasurable. Reminds me a little of Tetris. And mowing the lawn…making all the grass the same height, surrounding the remaining uncut lawn with concentric rectangles of freshly mowed grass.

What I’m saying is, I’m looking forward to reading this book. See also Steven Johnson’s forthcoming book, Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World.

  1. I don’t know about other parents, but 75% of my parental energy is taken up by thinking about what limits are appropriate for my kids. (The other 25% is meal-planning.) What do they need right now? What do they want? What can I give them? How do I balance all of those concerns? What makes it particularly difficult for me sometimes is that my instincts and my intellect are not always in agreement with what is appropriate. What is easiest for me is not always best for them. This shit keeps me up at night. :|