Mitigating the ugly field

There’s a lot going on with this picture

I took it in the window of Jessops on New Oxford Street. It’s a canvas print of a bit of copy that’s got the border and filter of an Instagram photo. It made me think of this, from Robin Sloane’s Fish: a tap essay;

And so, the connection to this.

“I love this picture, so I’m going to print it all big and special (and on a material that’s pretty forgiving to low-quality iPhone snaps).”

To love something on the internet today is to… print it out? That doesn’t feel right.

Oh, except there are things like Newspaper Club, and Little Printer, and Stickygram, and Moo, and Magcloud, and ohmygosh… this is a thing.

“It is always 4 PM; it is always tea-time”

I enjoyed (loved, even) Venkat Rao’s series of articles dealing with Future Nausea and Manufactured Normalcy. I am 100% sure I don’t get all of it. If you haven’t read it you should go and read it, now, because I’m about to make a proper hash of explaining my understanding of it…

Much of our contemporary experience exists in a space that has remained essentially unchanged since the 15th century. This is ‘normal’.

‘Normal’ encompasses most lived experience. ‘Normal’, in Rao’s description, means flying across the oceans and riding a chariot feel broadly similar; you are in a safe, contained space, experiencing little of the potential the circumstances could provide.

There are also things that are not ‘normal’. From the tech perspective, these are the sort of things edge futurists love; jetpacks, motorbikes that turn into helicopters, robot companions.

They’re outside of ‘normal’. They may stay there, they may wilt and die, they may yet become part of our everyday experience. But for the latter to happen the field of normalcy needs to expand and swallow the product/experience.


In that process, edge futures are changed and made ‘normal’. Through that lens, Big Dog becomes an evolutionary stage of the robot companion that might help normalise it by making it a shade more pet-like.

Thus we live in a continuous, stretched 15th century.

Ugly Field

Except there’s this

Why is that still sitting wrong in my head?

So, the normalcy field isn’t always expanding towards all new things. It leaves some things behind and lets them hang around, forever outside of ‘normal’ (Where is my NFC iPhone? etc). There’s a wobbly bit, where we try things out.

The ugly field; the weird bit between ‘normal‘ and future.

I think it’s the place lots of my friends work. The ugly field is full of stuff that’s next to normal, but not quite there. It’s Nike+, Roombas, QR codes, scrobbling and lifetracking, and, yes, print on demand. It’s not hacking projects together – they’re all still individual edge futures – but it might be hackspaces (shared community project/skillswap centre) or studios.

The ugly field is full of things that are designed to operate at scale. It’s not a place for “it works for me” but it might be a place for prototypes, and what it generates might be considered a prototype for ‘normal’.

But Matt, what about that damn canvas?

Oh, right. That canvas. Yeah. That’s a wobbly, ugly line, right there. That’s a thing trying to bridge the gap between our weird edge future of personalised twitter snowmen and the ‘normal’ of filters on photos in friend feeds. Making things out of stuff from the internet.

It’s just so admirably direct, that line of copy. It’s make these things you love more real and show you love them and mean you love them but, you know, shorter.

(I saw another wobbly, ugly line today; Roo’s (actually terrific) Inky Links, another attempt to find a use for a QR code. There are loads each week.)

I’m wondering if finding ways of mitigating the ugly field is really what’s at the heart of copywriting for the web; cushion these weird experiences in ways that feel familiar. Make your journey through the internet feel more like fetching something from the larder than watching maths fetch code and ideas from a big metal box on the other side of the world (“Oh, sorry, I’m afraid the page you’re looking for isn’t here…” etc).

Implicit in the wondering is the questioning; should I do that? What happens if I don’t use a metaphor? What if we don’t pull back to that design pattern? I dunno.

(In the meantime I’d like to remind you that these words are pixels traveling faster than you understand, and that I thought of them before buying a nice winter coat at some point in your past.)