Exploring the intersection of technology and humanity

A conversation with artist and designer, Brendan Dawes.

Brendan Dawes explores the interaction of objects, people, art and technology using a mix of analog and digital materials. He’s created playful, thought provoking work for himself, as well as Airbnb, Twitter, Google, Mailchimp, and many others.

It’s overwhelming to think about the amount of data we create and process every day. Do you think this has an overall positive or negative effect on people?

Nick Lum, founder of BeeLine Reader

The problem with the creation of data as we go about interacting with the services we use everyday is it’s unseen. All this data is being collected yet we can’t actually see it being collected because it’s not a physical thing. Imagine if your phone physically leaked a substance when you used Facebook, the Web, an app or pretty much anything else. You’d be quick to stem that leak, like you would a pipe leaking water. Yet we largely don’t pay it any attention because it has no effect on our day or us because it’s invisible and not a problem we immediately need to attend to—out of sight out of mind. So no, at a surface level it doesn’t seem to effect people, but of course deep down, those running these systems know how powerful all this data is and can be used to manipulate us, without us knowing it’s even happening, unless we really start to pay attention. I have mind to make device that would physically leaks data. I think I’ll add that to my list of future pieces of work!

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Can you talk a little bit about the idea of “permission”, and how it plays into your work?

Brendan Dawes:  Six Monkeys  (Nim) - commissioned by Mailchimp

Brendan Dawes: Six Monkeys (Nim) - commissioned by Mailchimp

The problem with the creation of data as we go about interacting with the services we use everyday is it’s unseen.
— Brendan Dawes

Probably my best example of that is the wall-mounted switch you can use to turn off the Internet that I created for Mailchimp. When people saw that they first said “oh yeah, this is so obvious”, followed by “where can I buy one?” Of course switching off the Internet can be done now, without any special device, but when you put a dedicated switch on the wall, it makes it really easy—giving people permission to do it, just like turning a light switch on or off. I once wanted to make a thing called a Numbrella. You could carry it around with you and whenever you needed to you could put the Numbrella up and it would create a small portable Faraday cage so nothing could get in (or out), so you could be cut off from the digital world. Flight mode does the same, but nobody uses it for that, whereas the Numbrella would have one purpose—reminding you to switch off and just enjoy the company of the people you’re with or sit down and take a moment to think and observe without interruption. I’m very much into the idea of putting the NO into Notification—I don’t have a single notification on my phone. I decide when to look at it.

How do you make a business case for the importance of play?

Brendan Dawes: Happiness Machine

Brendan Dawes: Happiness Machine

I’m in a lucky position in that I never really have to as the clients that come to me know my work and what I’m about and it’s often that sense of play they want from me. Occasionally, lets say when messages have travelled down the food chain, I have to make a case for a moment of interaction that I feel is feel fundamental to the experience, and very occasionally I loose that battle. Such was the case when I did a reworking of the Happiness Machine for a US client, and at the last minute they asked to have the whole thing on a timer so people no longer had to press a button to a get a happiness receipt. I argued it was nowhere near as good as an experience—there was no longer a feeling of anticipation or any reward for an action. They didn’t listen and the end result was a less than good experience. I still got paid but I had to chalk that up to experience.

I also love to learn new things and do things I don’t know how to do. I just never get complacent about any of it.
— Brendan Dawes

Was there ever a time that you were intimidated by technology? Or have you always been comfortable with it?

I’ve always been comfortable with it ever since I plugged in the Sinclair ZX81 my Granddad bought me on Boxing day in 1981. I can’t really explain why but the structure of code, or the way code is constructed makes sense to me. I think I see it as an aesthetic, architectural thing rather than code. I see it as an object that has a shape and a size and in my head I can begin to work out the parts that shape is made of. I also love to learn new things and do things I don’t know how to do. I just never get complacent about any of it. I’ve never really understood the idea of the expert. How can you be an expert when you’re on a constant drive to learn and improve?

Do you have the same impulse to archive and sample items exclusively in the physical world? Do you consider yourself a collector (or pack rat) of physical artifacts?

Brendan Dawes:  Doris Le Bot  - Commissioned by BRIGHT for Twitter France

Brendan Dawes: Doris Le Bot - Commissioned by BRIGHT for Twitter France

As I get older I buy a lot less things, but of those things I try to buy the best or at least things made to last. I’ve just recently bought my first Vitsoe 606 shelving system designed by Dieter Rams and I use it every single day when I’m putting orders together for my little brand Produced for Use and it is completely wonderful in not only its utility but its invisible nature. I’m actually trying to surround myself with less, not more. That said, I do have things that are purely there to remind me of other times—objects that trigger memories or past experiences. Over the years I’ve made physical digital objects around these themes of memory or ways to resurrect memories from an archive, be that tweets, emails or other things.

Do you find it personally more difficult to throw away a physical object or delete a digital file?

I’m actually quite ruthless when it comes to disposing of things. I used to have a box of lanyards of all the conferences I’ve ever spoken at. Then one day I just got rid of them, freeing up space in the office. I never looked at them anyway, so I don't miss them, and the free space is liberating. As for digital, well that’s different because it doesn’t take up the same amount of physical space as well, physical things, so I have a large archive of all my work and everything I’ve ever made, on an external drive, backed up remotely. I have actually thought about creating a large object, made of concrete, with an embedded hard drive to put my old work on—to show the weight of these digital things. Then again I’d need to store it somewhere.

Do you have any fears that people in the future will become too digital-reliant, and therefore somehow less human?

I’m not someone who wears rose-tinted spectacles who thinks it was all so much better back then. I was there, it wasn’t.
— Brendan Dawes

I don’t think its clear cut either way. You could argue that people are talking a lot more because of social media, text messages and the like. Of course whether anything they’re saying is worthwhile is up for debate, but actually society was actually built on gossip, not just large grand visions. The two work together. So I’m not someone who wears rose-tinted spectacles who thinks it was all so much better back then. I was there, it wasn’t. Yes sure, the pace of life is so much faster and more pressured now, which is why I try and counteract it with slow things, such as writing in my notebook each day, or just sitting on a park bench. I do look in dismay when couples in a restaurant stare into their phones instead of each other, but on the flip side there’s apps like Curio that bring to me interesting stories and articles that add to my knowledge of the world. How is that a bad thing? It’s of course about balance, and I’m constantly trying to work on that balance.

MP3 or vinyl?

Brendan Dawes:  Plastic Player

Brendan Dawes: Plastic Player

I love my vinyl, but I also love discovering new music on Spotify. With vinyl I love the anticipation when you place the stylus down and wait for Julie London’s smoky vocals to creep out from the speakers. Yes vinyl is technically inferior compared to a CD, but that distortion that we hear as warmth—well there’s something that speaks to us, that we can’t quite explain, which defies any kind of logic. Listening to Getz/Gilberto on vinyl is vastly better than any form of digital. It’s those indescribable, analogue qualities that to me at least speak to us as human beings. Combine that with the best of what digital offers and things get interesting.

To learn more about Brendan Dawes, visit http://www.brendandawes.com/