The Bourne Aesthetic

“The difference between something that can go wrong and something that can’t possibly go wrong is that when something that can’t possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair.”

–Douglas Adams

I’ve been trying to get this from draft to published for almost six months now. I might edit it later but for now, what the hell. It’s about James Bond, Jason Bourne, old laptops, economies of scale, design innovation, pragmatism at the margins and an endless supply of breadsticks.

You’re in, right?

Bond was a character that people in his era could identify with:

Think about how that works in the post war era. The office dwelling accountant/lawyer/ad man/salesman has an expense account. This covers some lunches at counters with clients, or maybe a few nice dinners. He flirts with the secretaries and receptionists and sometimes sleeps with them. He travels on business, perhaps from his suburb into Chicago, or from Chicago to Cleveland, or San Francisco to LA. His office issues him a dictaphone (he can’t type) or perhaps a rolling display case for his wares. He has a work car, maybe an Oldsmobile 88 if he’s lucky, or a Ford Falcon if he’s not. He’s working his way up to the top, but isn’t quite ready for a management slot. He wears a suit, tie and hat every day to the office. If he’s doing well he buys this downtown at a specialty men’s store. If he’s merely average, he picks this up at Macy’s, or Sears if he’s really just a regular joe. If he gets sick his employer has a nice PPO insurance plan for him.

Now look at Bond. He has an expense account, which covers extravagant dinners and breakfasts at the finest 4 star hotels and restaurants. He travels on business, to exotic places like Istanbul, Tokyo and Paris. He takes advantage of the sexual revolution (while continuing to serve his imperialist/nationalist masters) by sleeping with random women in foreign locations. He gets issued cool stuff by the office– instead of a big dictaphone that he keeps on his desk, Bond has a tiny dictaphone that he carries around with him in his pocket! He has a work car — but it’s an Aston Martin with machine guns! He’s a star, with a license to kill, but not management. Management would be boring anyways, they stay in London while Bond gets to go abroad and sleep with beautiful women. Bond always wears a suit, but they’re custom tailored of the finest materials. If he gets hurt, he has some Royal Navy doctors to fix him right up.

In today’s world, that organization man who looked up to James Bond as a kind of avatar of his hopes and dreams, no longer exists.

Who is our generations James Bond? Jason Bourne. He can’t trust his employer, who demanded ultimate loyalty and gave nothing in return. In fact, his employer is outsourcing his work to a bunch of foreign contractors who presumably work for less and ask fewer questions. He’s given up his defined benefit pension (Bourne had a military one) for an individual retirement account (safe deposit box with gold/leeching off the gf in a country with a depressed currency). In fact his employer is going to use him up until he’s useless. He can’t trust anyone, other than a few friends he’s made on the way while backpacking around. Medical care? Well that’s DIY with stolen stuff, or he gets his friends to hook him up. What kinds of cars does he have? Well no more company car for sure, he’s on his own on that, probably some kind of import job. What about work tools? Bourne is on is own there too. Sure, work initially issued him a weapon, but after that he’s got to scrounge up whatever discount stuff he can find, even when it’s an antique. He has to do more with less. And finally, Bourne survives as a result of his high priced, specialized education. He can do things few people can do – fight multiple opponents, hotwire a car, tell which guy in a restaurant can handle himself, hotwire cars, speak multiple languages and duck a surveillance tail. Oh, and like the modern, (sub)urban professional, Bourne had to mortgage his entire future to get that education. They took everything he had, and promised that if he gave himself up to the System, in return the System would take care of him.

It turned out to be a lie.

We’re all Jason Bourne now.

posted by wuwei at 1:27 AM on July 7, 2010

I think about design a lot these days, and I realize that’s about as fatuous an opener as you’re likely to read this week so I’m going to ask you to bear with me.

If you’re already rolling out your “resigned disappointment” face: believe me, I totally understand. I suspect we’ve both dealt with That Guy Who Calls Himself A Designer at some point, that particular strain of self-aggrandizing flake who’s parlayed a youth full of disdain for people who just don’t understand them into a career full of evidence they don’t understand anyone else. My current job’s many bright spots are definitely brighter for his absence, and I wish the same for you. But if it helps you get past this oddly-shaped lump of a lede, feel free to imagine me setting a pair of Raybans down next to an ornamental scarf of some kind, sipping a coffee with organic soy ingredients and a meaningless but vaguely European name, writing “Helvetica?” in a Moleskine notebook and staring pensively into the middle distance. Does my carefully manicured stubble convey the precise measure of my insouciance? Perhaps it does; perhaps I’m gazing at some everyday object nearby, pausing to sigh before employing a small gesture to convey that no, no, it’s really nothing. Insouciance is a french word, by the way. Like café. You should look it up. I know you’ve never been to Europe, I can tell.

You see? You can really let your imagination run wild here. Take the time you need to work through it. Once you’ve shaken that image off – one of my colleagues delightfully calls those guys “dribble designers” – let’s get rolling.

I think about design a lot these days, and I realize that’s about as fatuous an opener as you’re likely to read this week so I’m going to ask you to bear with me.

Very slightly more specifically I’ve been thinking about Apple’s latest Macbook, some recent retrospeculation from Lenovo, “timeless” design, spy movies and the fact that the Olive Garden at one point had a culinary institute. I promise this all makes sense in my head. If you get all the way through this and it makes sense to you too then something on the inside of your head resembles something on the inside of mine, and you’ll have to come to your own terms with that. Namasté, though. For real.

There’s an idea called “gray man” in the security business that I find interesting. They teach people to dress unobtrusively. Chinos instead of combat pants, and if you really need the extra pockets, a better design conceals them. They assume, actually, that the bad guys will shoot all the guys wearing combat pants first, just to be sure. I don’t have that as a concern, but there’s something appealingly “low-drag” about gray man theory: reduced friction with one’s environment.

– William Gibson, being interviewed at Rawr Denim

At first glance the idea that an Olive Garden Culinary Institute should exist at all squats on the line between bewildering and ridiculous. They use maybe six ingredients, and those ingredients need to be sourced at industrial scale and reliably assembled by a 22-year-old with most of a high-school education and all of a vicious hangover. How much of a culinary institute can that possibly take? In fact, at some remove the Olive Garden looks less like a restaurant chain than a supply chain that produces endless breadsticks; there doesn’t seem to be a ton of innovation here. Sure, supply chains are hard. But pouring prefab pomodoro over premade pasta, probably not.

Even so, for a few years the Tuscan Culinary Institute was a real thing, one of the many farming estates in Tuscany that have been resurrected to the service of regional gastrotourism booked by the company for a few weeks a year. Successful managers of the Garden’s ersatz-italian assembly lines could enjoy Tuscany on a corporate reward junket, and at a first glance amused disdain for the whole idea would seem to be on point.

There’s another way to look at the Tuscan Culinary Institute, though, that makes it seem valuable and maybe even inspired.

One trite but underappreciated part of the modern mid-tier supply-chain-and-franchise engine is how widely accessible serviceable and even good (if not great or world-beating) stuff has become. Coffee snobs will sneer at Starbucks, but the truck-stop tar you could get before their ascendance was dramatically worse. If you’ve already tried both restaurants in a town too remote to to be worth their while, a decent bowl of pasta, a bottle of inoffensive red and a steady supply of garlic bread starts to look like a pretty good deal.

This is one of the rare bright lights of the otherwise dismal grind of the capitalist exercise, this democratization of “good enough”. The real role of the Tuscan Culinary institute was to give chefs and managers a look at an authentic, three-star Tuscan dining experience and then ask them: with what we have to hand at the tail end of this supply chain, the pasta, the pomodoro, the breadsticks and wine, how can we give our customers 75% of that experience for 15% the cost?

It would be easy to characterize this as some sort of corporate-capitalist co-option of a hacker’s pragmatism – a lot of people have – but I don’t think that’s the right thing, or at least not the whole picture. This is a kind of design, and like any design exercise – like any tangible expression of what design is – we’re really talking about the expression and codification of values.

I don’t think it’s an accident that all the computers I bought between about 1998 about 2008 are either still in service or will still turn on if I flip the switch, but everything I’ve bought since lasts two or three years before falling over. There’s nothing magic about old tech, to be sure: in fact, the understanding that stuff breaks is baked right into their design. That’s why they’re still running: because they can be fixed. And thanks to the unfettered joys of standard interfaces some them are better today, with faster drives and better screens, than any computer I could have bought then.

The Macbook is the antithesis of this, of course. That’s what happened in 2008; the Macbook Pro started shipping with a non-removable battery.

If you haven’t played with one Apple’s flagship Macbooks, they are incredible pieces of engineering. They weigh approximately nothing. Every part of them seems like some fundamental advance in engineering and materials science. The seams are perfect; everything that can be removed, everything you can carve off a laptop and still have a laptop left, is gone.

As a result, it’s completely atomic, almost totally unrepairable. If any part of it breaks you’re hosed.

“Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer – that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” – Steve Jobs

This is true, kind of; it depends on what you believe your scope of responsibility is as a designer. The question of “how a device works” is a step removed from the question of “how does a person engage with this device”; our aforementioned designer-caricature aside, most of us get that. But far more important than that is the question of how the device helps that person engage the world. And that’s where this awful contradiction comes in, because whatever that device might be, the person will never be some static object, and the world is seven billion people swimming in a boiling froth of water, oil, guns, steel, race, sex, language, wisdom, secrets, hate, love, pain and TCP/IP.

Our time is finite, and entropy is relentless: knowing that, how long should somebody be responsible for their designs? Are you responsible for what becomes of what you’ve built, over the long term? Because if you have a better way to play the long game here than “be a huge pile of rocks” you should chisel it into something. Every other thing of any complexity, anything with two moving parts to rub together that’s still usable or exists at all today has these two qualities:

  1. It can be fixed, and
  2. When it breaks, somebody cares enough about it to fix it.

And that’s where minimalism that denies the complexity of the world, that lies to itself about entropy, starts feeling like willful blindness; design that’s a thin coat of paint over that device’s relationship with the world.

More to the point, this is why the soi-disant-designer snob we were (justly and correctly) ragging on at the beginning of this seemingly-interminable-but-it-finally-feels-like-we’re-getting-somewhere blog post comes across as such a douchebag. It’s not “minimalist” if you buy a new one every two years; it’s conspicuous consumption with chamfered edges. Strip away that veneer, that coat of paint, and there are the real values designer-guy and his venti decaf soy wankaccino hold dear.

Every day I feel a tiny bit more like I can’t really rely on something I can’t repair. Not just for environmentalism’s sake, not only for the peace of mind that standard screwdrivers and available source offers, but because tools designed by people who understand something might fall over are so much more likely to have built a way to stand them back up. This is why I got unreasonably excited by Lenovo’s retro-Thinkpad surveys, despite their recent experiments in throwing user security overboard wearing factory-installed cement boots. The prospect of a laptop with modern components that you can actually maintain, much less upgrade, has become a weird niche crank-hobbyist novelty somehow.

But if your long game is longer than your workweek or your support contract, this is what a total-cost-accounting of “reduced friction with your environment” looks like. It looks like not relying on the OEM, like DIY and scrounged parts and above all knowing that you’re not paralyzed if the rules change. It’s reduced friction with an uncertain future.

I have an enormous admiration for the work Apple does, I really do. But I spend a lot of time thinking about design now, not in terms of shapes and materials but in terms of the values and principles it embodies, and it’s painfully obvious when those values are either deeply compromised or (more typically) just not visible at all. I’ve often said that I wish that I could buy hardware fractionally as good from anyone else for any amount of money, but that’s not really true. As my own priorities make participating in Apple’s vision more and more uncomfortable, what I really want is for some other manufacturer to to show that kind of commitment to their own values and building hardware that expresses them. Even if I could get to (say) 75% of those values, if one of them was maintainability – if it could be fixed a bit at a time – I bet over the long term, it would come out to (say) 15% of the cost.

Late footnote: This post at War Is Boring is on point, talking about the effects of design at the operational and logistical levels.

11 Comments

  1. Posted September 20, 2015 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

    So, you said “it’s painfully obvious when those values are either deeply compromised or more typically just not there at all”, but that seems to be misleading. The values and principles are always there, they may just be not the ones you want them to be. For Apple, in particular, the values seem to be “smaller, lighter, part of your life (as opposed to a thing on its own), and just works”. Nothing in there talks about maintainability or upgradeability, and lo, MacBooks and iPads and iPhones are neither maintainable or upgradeable. But wow, do they ever just work in a way that their competitors don’t, and it seems like the general populace agrees with those values, despite how poorly they perform in the long term.

  2. Posted September 21, 2015 at 1:07 am | Permalink

    Replace “hardware” with “software” and your post is about open & linked data.

    Yes, there is such a thing as data design and repairable data.

  3. Robert
    Posted September 21, 2015 at 5:15 am | Permalink

    “ISV” workstations are where it’s at now if you’re looking for high-end performance and reliability. The only gap then is the operating system!

  4. Miles
    Posted September 21, 2015 at 6:11 am | Permalink

    I have to say, your description of That Guy Who Calls Himself a Designer had me in tears. 10/10.

  5. Eric
    Posted September 21, 2015 at 7:06 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the fine read, Mike.
    I hope you write more about the Bourne Aesthetic. I think this concept has legs and makes me think about other films… Was the first Mission Impossible remake somehow the Gen X version? Tom Cruise is betrayed by “the man” and his Baby Boomer dad, so he goes rouge/cynical, gets his buddies to help him sneak into the financial system and still pull out the benefits of 90’s capitalism because they know how to use a laptop. What about Terminator 2? Maybe it represents the out-moded working class family with divorced parents/absentee father, always on the run from a ever advancing technocratic capital, staying alive because they can stay lean, wield violence and befriend a mean-looking biker who still takes on the patriarchal role of self-sacrifice. Interstellar seems to offer a model that seems of the time: In a world of global environmental / social / financial crisis + real-estate bubbles and a seemingly exponentially rising cost-of-living… which remote state (Montana? North Carolina?) or country (Uruguay?) can I move my family to in order to survive these giant waves of change circling the globe on some cyclical pattern I can’t discern. Is there a way to send messages back to the past to tell my previous self to avoid the mortgage crisis and/or by Bitcoin at $0.1?

  6. mhoye
    Posted September 21, 2015 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    Blake: Yeah, I tweaked the wording there a bit after your comment, but I was trying to get at the idea that “we need to ship a laptop, Apple is making a successful laptop, let’s try to ship something like that” just isn’t going to work if you don’t actually understand what Apple is actually aspiring to, rather than just manufacturing. You can’t cargo-cult your way to coherent moral framework, much less a world-class product.

  7. Posted September 21, 2015 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    I worked at OG about 25 years ago. It might surprise you to know that, at that time, everything (sauces, meatballs, pasta) was made from scratch on premises. The only exceptions I can think of would be the Italian sausage and the birthday (er, occasion) cakes.

    In my mind, it’s the same story as the rise and fall of both Circuit City and Best Buy – both related to the interest and depth with which management imbues authenticity into what they do.

  8. mhoye
    Posted September 21, 2015 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    Minor disagreement here about whether or not “we need to make money this quarter” is a value or not. I don’t think so.

  9. Anonymous
    Posted September 21, 2015 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    The problem with Bourne is he never comes out of his shell $!

  10. PJ
    Posted September 21, 2015 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    I also feel this worry at many levels: Hardware, OS, software…

    I run openWRT routers because though I can’t mess with the hardware (usually), I *can* get the most out of what hardware is there, and having the source code means it’s fixable.

    I use PC hardware because it’s standardish and interoperable – multiple choices for cpu, motherboard, case, coolers, video, keyboard, mouse, drives, etc.

    I use Linux or Cyanogenmod because they’re fixable and extendable and I’m willing to trade a “secure” walled garden for the wild west of a free market.

    …but it takes being a major geek/gearhead to pull this off.

  11. Matt Whisenhunt
    Posted September 22, 2015 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    “the world is seven billion people swimming in a boiling froth of water, oil, guns, steel, race, sex, language, wisdom, secrets, hate, love, pain and TCP/IP.”

    Maybe the most profound thing I have read all year.

    Thank you.