My morning newsfeed presented this Christian Science Monitor story on the work of MIT professor Nicholas Makris – titled “Study reveals the accidental origins of the violin”. Accidental, my arse! My lazy Sunday morning breakfast of fatty fried egg on toast with herb cracked olives was disturbed. I was moved to respond.
Just because an MIT professor of Mechanical and Ocean Engineering found after-the-fact scientific explanation (see below*) for the evolution of the “f” shaped holes found in most violins, how on earth does the author of the article, Joseph Dussault, arrive at the absurd conclusion that “the violin’s distinctive, f-shaped sound hole came not as a result of human ingenuity, but rather a series of random mutations”. Really!? There is nothing “random” about intuitively driven design decisions! They are the epitome of human ingenuity!
Through a series of design iterations made over centuries, violin designers and makers arrived at a form that is immensely pleasing to the ear (when expertly played, of course) – this alone is evidence of stunning ingenuity. No accident. They made violins that sound great, on purpose! The great master violin families – Amati, Stradivari and Guarneri – drove the violin form by the same intuition that drives all great designers. They sought what pleased them…what FEELS best. To know what felt best, they relied on their own finely tuned listening faculties as the ultimate sensing and measurement instruments. They applied their craft to innovate forms that felt better to themselves, and to the musicians and music lovers they served.
This is the essence of design. It’s what designer do. We seek forms that are not just pleasing in their own right, but deliver an experience that FEELS right in it’s totality. Gains in scientific knowledge that underpin design decisions are of tremendous assistance and importance. Science and it’s practical partner, technology, provide the springboard from which we leap. But there is nothing that substitutes for our sense of how things FEEL. We apply our practiced ability to find forms that produce a particular feeling, for ourselves, and by empathic extension, for the users of the things we design.
So, what about the Cyborg?
A little later while on my bike ride through Berkeley’s Wildcat Canyon, I listened to a podcast – Invisibilia’s episode titled <a href="www navigate to this site.npr.org/programs/invisibilia/”>“Our Computers, Ourselves”. The sun filtered warmly through the tree canopy on an balmy warm winter morning.
Hosts Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller present the intriguing question ”Are computers changing human character? Is our closeness with computers changing us as a species?” In a series of stories (that I recommend you listen to yourself) they explore situations in which human capability and experience is enhanced by computer technology. They talk at length with Thad Starner, a pioneer of “computer augmentation” who has worn a computer continuously since 1993 and has applied his expertise at Google’s Project Glass wearable computing project.
Their question: “Is that good or is that creepy?”
Clearly, the state of the technology today is a little creepy. Whether computer augmention is good or bad in the long run, is unknowable. Many have opinions – but the answer is unknowable. However we do know something about it’s design trajectory.
Like the violin, wearable computers and other augmented reality technologies are here to stay. Like the violin they will continue to evolve in application and design over hundreds of years. Designers at every stage of development will be driven to translate what FEELs right to them and the users they serve into forms these technologies take. With design ingenuity I have little doubt that computer augmentation experiences will emerge that will be tuned to the human psyche, just as the form of the violin is tuned to the human ear. The ingenuity of designers to make intuitive leaps from what is unknown to what can be felt will ensure that over time, even technologies as “creepy” as Glass will evolve to something as beautiful as a violin.
* Here’s what Nicholas Makris and his team discovered about the shape of the evolution of the design of violins: “The researchers found that a key feature affecting a violin’s sound is the shape and length of its “f-holes,” the f-shaped openings through which air escapes: The more elongated these are, the more sound a violin can produce. What’s more, an elongated sound hole takes up little space on the violin, while still producing a full sound — a design that the researchers found to be more power-efficient than the rounder sound holes of the violin’s ancestors, such as medieval fiddles, lyres, and rebecs.
The thickness of a violin’s back plate also contributes to its acoustic power. Violins carved from wood are relatively elastic: As the instrument produces sound, the violin’s body may respond to the air vibrations, contracting and expanding minutely. A thicker back plate, they found, would boost a violin’s sound. (from MIT News’ “Power efficiency in the violin” by Jennifer Chu)