Desire in Context

Rich Gold, The Red Shift

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University October 11, 2002

Engineers often conceive of their work as solving problems usually by reorganizing the physical world, or in the case of computer science, by writing a program that alters a receptive machine. The literature is replete with methods for finding such solutions along with metrics for their efficiency, economy and completeness. But what exactly is the definition of a problem the supposed target of all this activity? Where do problems come from, what is their nature and is there a way of understanding them that will positively impact, not only what we consider a worthy solution, but what we consider good engineering? In this talk I will propose the definition for a problem as a desire in a context and look at the process of engineering through this useful, if slightly flawed, lens. One difficulty in this definition lies here: while most engineers are comfortable with the idea of context, desire is usually relegated to the domain of the designer. This broader definition, desire in context, conflates what are often treated as two distinct cultures.

Rich Gold is an engineer, artist, designer, writer and cartoonist who brings together ideas and methodologies from different disciplines to create stuff for people to enjoy. He was a co-founder of the League of Automatic Music Composers, the first network computer music band (1975). He invented the award winning Little Computer People program (Activision, 1984) which was the first artificially intelligent human you could buy. At Mattel Toys he managed the PowerGlove home VR project (1989) and designed many other interactive toys. For ten years he was a researcher at Xerox PARC (1991 2001) on the Ubiquitous Computing Project. He also set up and managed the PARC Artist in Residence Program (PAIR) and the Research in Experimental Documents (RED) Group which combined art, science, design and engineering to create Evocative Knowledge Objects. He currently is consultant working on the future of reading and knowledge exchange.


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