The Old New Thing

I’ve been working in “new media” for 10 years now, beginning with The Voyager Company in 1994. Back then, it was all about CD-ROMs and multimedia, and bookstores were turning into ‘media outlets,’ and the press was eating up this “future.” Buzz buzz buzz.

In 1995, I began working on the Web (for Voyager), helping manage one of the first e-commerce sites (what was it we called it then? oh yeah, a “catalog”). I remember when animated GIFs were all the rage, and I made a morphing “A” for the Voyager home page.

I couldn’t stand New York, though, so I moved back to SF, and got work with Studio Archetype, a graphic design company that had drunk deeply of the interactive Kool-Aid. I morphed myself, from a middling Web developer (wrestling with JavaScript and layers when Netscape 4 launched) into an interaction designer. This was 1996, and over the next few years, this mildly freakish obsession of mine turned into the biggest thing since sliced bread. There were fabulous parties, fabulous conferences, travel, etc. etc. And everywhere a DJ spinning. I found myself in the center of a maelstrom, all the time just doing what I wanted to be doing.

I thought about this last Friday night, at the RX Gallery, where a most fabulous party took place following a conference on social media, mobile devices, art, and urban settings. I didn’t attend the conference, so I felt like I was entering a play in the third act. And what a play! Hip artsy bar in an edgy part of town, filled with beautiful young people. It was very much like being a web worker in 1997. Except more gender equitable, and everyone was cuter. Naturally, a DJ spinning.

At some point, I found myself in the loft toward the back of the bar, looking out at all the beautiful people. And I really felt the metaphor, me on the outside looking in on this new wave. And me realizing that I was no longer at the heart of the new and cool thing. In the past, I had just naturally gravitated toward multimedia and the Web, and found myself caught up in The New New Thing. But in this present, I just can’t get worked up about social networking systems, or mobile devices, or some combination thereof. I try, but my eyes glaze over. Instead, I’ve opted to doggedly pursue making things make sense for people, and promoting the business value of this decision. Which feels both responsible and perhaps stodgily corporate.

And I wondered, as I gazed out on the room, have I matured? Or become rigid? Or both?

18 thoughts on “The Old New Thing

  1. ha! i could’ve written this one myself. i started at studio archetype in late ’96 as you were on the way out, ditched layer wrangling for interaction design not long after, and so on and so forth. where do i find myself two weeks ago? an “interactive art” opening at RX Gallery, standing in the back of the bar with my wife – with a can of PBR in hand – looking at all those hipsters! man, you hit a hilarious nerve for me on this one. and yes, i think we’re getting old and stodgy pete. and ‘edgy’ for that part of town is being polite…

  2. Maybe you just need to get some skin in the game? Buy some ridiculous mobile device and try using it for a week? Play with Orkut or something? Easy to get detatched when you aren’t directly involved.

  3. Or, you can look on this from a more mature perspective. Remember the hype trajectory you’ve been through: absurd promises backed by outlandish statistics which turn out to be basically right, but just not as soon as everyone says.

    Whatever comes from “the rapidly emerging fabric of mobile and wireless computing” will probably be boring based on our current expectations, but really exciting after a few more years of doing everything wrong.

  4. You grew up. And so did the web.

    So I wonder what you’ll think of the usability-focused young guns like me that didn’t get in the game until 2000 and don’t give a flying rodent’s ass about that stuff either? You make me feel like such a young Republican, a touch of Alex Keaton if you will…

  5. Andrew, I’m not sure who recently said this: ‘Internet was overestimated in the short run but underestimated in the long term.’ I guess the same goes for many similar developments.

    Peter, remember that Sigchi.nl conference where you spoke? I talked to some of my fellow students there, and here’s what they told me:’ they thought the whole conference was boring, there were not enough examples of revolutionary applications of interaction design and in their eyes the people involved represented the conservative side of HCI….

    Makes me sad to hear that’s the way they see our side of the field.

  6. Philip Evans wrote this in an essay on the internet, quoting Bill Gates who mentioned this in a speech in another context.

    “People tend to overestimate the immediacy but underestimate the profundity of underlying economic shifts.”

  7. you know, the first part of your story utterly resonates with me. but the second part is where it differs (except i was sitting next to you). after getting out of the web world for a year and a half, it has radically changed my interests, and it’s given me the feeling that the very most important interfaces for me are urban: how one gets along with one’s city and neighborhoods, how people forge relationships outside and with technology with one another. it’s vital — so much so that i’ll spend the rest of my life on these issues rather than the business sense of them.

    i chalk that up to being in a weird, wonderful and different place for 18 months. if not for that, i wouldn’t have seen the rest of this stuff.

  8. It was so good to see you Peter – but how come we didn’t talk about this while we were there? How interesting!

    I’ve opted to doggedly pursue making things make sense for people, and promoting the business value of this decision. Which feels both responsible and perhaps stodgily corporate.

    Are you suggesting that folks interested in mobile computing aren’t interested in making things make sense for people?

    And don’t you think it’s interesting (if not ironic) that the entire event, including party-party, was sponsored by Intel? Clearly they think there is a business case (somewhere, somehow) for all of this…

  9. I was in SF in the mid-90s for the “new media” craze as well, and I got sucked into the energy it generated — contributed to a lot of short-lived business plans, went to a lot of networking events (which were actually advertised as nothing more than “networking events”)…. But I found the energy at last week’s Street Talk event to be of an entirely different sort. (Though I don’t know that the after-party at RX was representative of that energy. The average age of the group probably dropped by around ten years when we left the Intel Research Lab and headed for the bar.) I give Eric Paulos — who organized the Street Talk “happening” — much more credit for bringing together a incredibly diverse and interesting collection of folks to discuss the social implications of ubiquitous urban computing. In my mind, the big difference between last week’s event and those new media networking parties is that most people (I think I can safely say) were not there trying desperately to figure out how they were going to make their first million off the latest technology craze. (More than half of the day’s speakers were working at universities or not-for-profit research labs.) When that’s the energy in the crowd discussing urban computing, I’ll feel too old as well — and take a pass. But I don’t think that’s the case at this point.

  10. Hi Jay :-)

    trying desperately to figure out how they were going to make their first million off the latest technology craze

    Eeewww. If and when the urban computing scene takes on that tone, count me out!

  11. To Jay’s post –

    That’s most definitely the kind of energy I’m referring to seeing in the Web scene in 1997, before it was simply a chase-the-money-fest. Groups like Noend were, and are, filled with people who are simply passionate about what they’re doing.

    And that’s something that, looking down at the arty hipsters in the RXGallery, was something I realized I was envious of. Not that I’m not still passionate about my profession, but there was something more raw/pure about the passion of those folks. Young people experimenting with crazy ideas, not really sure what they’re doing, and having a blast doing it. And it was something that 6, 7 years ago I was a part of, and something that now I no longer am.

  12. Dude, now you’re bringing me down. Chalk it up to being at least two beers behind the rest of the crowd at RX. Belly up to the bar, and try to make sure that, at least half the time, you’re not really sure what you’re doing. (We probably are too old to be not sure what we’re doing ALL the time.)

  13. I guess I might have been one of the hip young things there – I had a project at Street Talk, and at the afterparty. Part of what you’re talking about, I think, IS maturation – the good, normal kind. Being raw and crazy and unsure might be fun, but it also might be unsustainable in the long run as a professional and as a person. It’s like a marriage, right?

    I’ve been working on “urban computing” (to use Eric’s term) since 2002. That’s a really short time. And I’m younger than Peter (and, I sense, some other people in this discussion.) Get back to me in six, seven years and if I’m still working in interaction design for urban spaces I’ll probably sound a lot like Peter. And I think that’s a good thing.

  14. Wonderful post, Peter! The notable thing is that you’ve kept your passion for digital media and customer experience and found a set of zones you want to focus on.
    It still amazes me that I’ve been doing *new media* as it was once called for 23 years–when I fell in love with tne Internet there was an web yet, and no jobs for folks who do the kinds of things we do/did.
    Now half the population seems to be persistently connected…digital media/experience is central to many lives.
    Anyway, great post.

  15. Hey Peter,
    I just think you’ve discovered that all the new spiffy technology in the world doesn’t mean a hoot unless people actually find it useful. Given that I need four remotes to manage my TV viewing experience (between the DVD, VCR, and Cable), there is much work to be done in this area. It is a worthy focus.

    By the way, welcome to the old farts club. I think you are now around the age I was when I first met you. How old were you then? 23? It’s great to see your passion channeled so effectively for the benefit of so many people.

  16. Face it: you will get old, you will lag behind the wave more and more until you have to accept that you’re a niche specialist in some tiny area. But who said specialism was bad? We need more specialists.

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