Renzo, Renzo, Renzo…

I’m just back from a visit with Michael Young’s superbright R&D team over at the New York Times, and it was a total treat.

Michael and Nick Bilton demo’d Shifd for me, the application which took top honors at the London Hack Day that Mr. Coates organized (/”organised”). Shifd is one of those ideas so transcendently clever you immediately see how it would fit into your life: it basically allows you to transfer content from your desktop machine to your mobile device and back again, delivering it via the most appropriate channel. It’s actually easier to use than it is to explain, and I have to tell you, I could have used it today. Among all the other cool things they’re working on, this is one project I definitely hope they get the budget to scale up properly.

It was a thoroughgoing pleasure meeting Michael and Nick and their teammates Alexis Lloyd and Amy Hyde, but you just know I was geeking out about the building, too – about its birch-tree-and-moss atrium, about the hushed and almost reverential four-storey newsroom, about its much-hyped adaptive environmental-management systems, and especially about Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin’s brilliant installation Moveable Type.

Hansen and Rubin’s piece is really quite, quite good. It uses a loop of cleverly-posed algorithms to pull snippets of content from the enormous Times database, then displays them one-by-one on a corridor of old-fashioned monitor screens. Sometimes the rule specifies content including numbers, so you get a wash of factoids and statistics, most of them vaguely but perhaps unsurprisingly bleak; at others, the piece will cull its texts from sentences starting with “I” or “You,” or even letters to the editor.

Now, there are a lot of pieces like this one, generically. You’ll find something along similar lines just about anywhere a news, search or intelligence organization has a high-profile, public-facing lobby. But Moveable Type succeeds where every installation of its ilk I’ve encountered fails: it got me thinking about just what “news” is, about what kinds of symbols we use to quantify, represent and understand the world we’re immersed in, about how truly rare is the “difference that makes a difference.” Your first reaction to Moveable Type is glee, but it gets pretty heady if you pause to think about it for even a moment or two – and it’s worth pointing out that a lot of this power seems to derive from note-perfect interaction design, especially in the registers of sound design and typography.

Y’all New Yorkers and sundry visitors should go see it now, though, because something tells me that the whole area may be cordoned off before too long: Renzo Piano’s vaunted building, it turns out, sheds ice like a five-star mofo. We sat in the comfortable cafeteria, watching chunks of ice half the size of plateglass windows sail down to their shardy doom on the street below, and all that kept running through my head was the single word liability.

Apparently, the entire block surrounding had to be shut this morning. You just can’t do that in that part of town whenever it snows – for chrissakes, that’s Port Authority! I predict lawsuits, recriminations, heartbreaking spin-off effects (like real-estate developers and their pet architects retreating still further into conservatism), but most of all, stopgap buffer zones being thrown up around the shaft anytime the temperature drops below 35.

At any rate: thanks to Michael for the invitation, double thanks to Younghee for the introduction, congratulations to the Shifd team on your Hack Day victory and to Ben Rubin and Mark Hansen on your lovely intervention…and Renzo, give me a call if you need a good lawyer.

One response to “Renzo, Renzo, Renzo…”

  1. Andrew says :

    Wow, Shifd is killer. In the video, those guys look kind of like they were up all night building it. :-)

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