Tuesday 27 December 2011

Digital Artisans

"Digital Artisans" was published in Luxury Briefing in December 2011.


Digital Artisans
by Alexander Gallé

This month sees two interesting acts being debated in the US Congress, called the SOPA (which stands for "Stop Online Piracy Act") and the Protect IP Act. While they're still being debated, it turns out a judge in Nevada has already taken it upon himself to start the most radical repossession of internet domains to date, acting upon Chanel's request to divert 600 domain names from their owners, who are suspected of either selling counterfeits or linking to sites selling counterfeits.

I won't go into the details to describe the futility and absurdity of such actions, since I already covered the subject in great depth in a previous article called "Countering the counterfeits". Needless to say, however, that - whilst they will do some damage to our online freedoms, as well as increase the barriers of entry for perfectly legal new market entrants (thus jeopardising the great contributions to the world that will be made by the next Google or the next Twitter) - these acts, whether right or wrong, will do nothing to stem the tsunami of transformation which started in the early 90s and is very far from seeing its peak...

Indeed, the digital flow is soon going to be a much bigger flow than the one between buyers and sellers of products and services. This is not just a simple rewiring of product distribution networks: the very products themselves which our customers are buying online will soon be nothing more than "embodied data", thanks primarily to the exponentially increasing capabilities of 3D-printing.

3D-printing has yet to receive the amount of mediatic exposure it deserves, considering the huge impact it will have on manufacturing. Simply put, it is the technology that enables 3D object files created on a computer to be "printed" into real, physical objects. This printing can happen at a prototype developer's end, or at a manufacturer's end, or at a final consumer end. There may be a difference in scale, but all 3D-printing processes effectively work as follows: a printer spurts out tiny amounts of raw material, say, a plastic paste or a metal powder onto a base, aggregating more and more material until the object has been created into the shape it is supposed to be. You could think of it like a computerised pottery wheel, only instead of clay pots, the 3D-printer creates anything from furniture to tableware to automobile parts. Need a new lampshade to match your new dining table? 3D-print it. Need a new cylinder or brake pad for your car? Email the part's 3D file to your mechanic and get him to print it out.

Now, it may not be immediately obvious how this will impact the sector. The first result is, of course, that it will open the gates for low-cost prototyping and product development. However, that would just be scratching the surface.

You may remember, in a previous column, I described Belgium as the YouTube of beer: thousands of small producers watching each other's products and methods, looking for ways to improve their own, in constant dialogue with their audience the way music bands are with their fanclubs, without the constricting denomination system you have in, say, Champagne, where the rules of wine production have been set in stone, a protectionist system that is clearly to the long-term detriment of the producers themselves as the rest of the world continues to evolve new and better methods. The result, for Belgian beer, is a constantly evolving, constantly improving aggregate product.

With this in mind, imagine an online space, similar to YouTube, in which producers get to upload 3D files they have created or "mashed up" from other people's designs, and viewers get to comment and enter into a direct dialogue with creators and with each other. After a while, you would get the same kind of memes and internet phenomena we have seen on YouTube and Reddit, only instead of movies, they would be files that are at any moment able to be turned into real, physical objects!

Just as you have very popular creators of video content on YouTube today, who do not need any kind of television deal to "make it big", so you will have a worldwide popular designers creating the kind of products which today require the economies of scale of large established companies to be produced at an affordable cost. In many sectors of manufacturing, the effect will be similar to that witnessed in the music sector, where the direct connection between bands and fans is increasingly turning the big labels into a thing of the past. Here again, the digital medium will have made possible a "retour aux sources" for the luxury sector: a return to the values of individualism and craftsmanship. The digital revolution will have brought about the return of the craftsman, the digital artisan.

Visit the Gallé website at www.galle.com.

Monday 26 September 2011

Luxury Humans

"Luxury Humans" was published in Luxury Briefing in September 2011.


Luxury Humans
by Alexander Gallé

Warren Buffett once made the following analogy:

If you were given a car on your 18th birthday and told it could be whatever car you wanted it to be - the best looking, best performing car - but you were told this was the only car you would ever have, wouldn't you read the manual at least a few times? Wouldn't you look after it obsessively, fix any problems - no matter how small - as soon as they arise? Wouldn't you generally try to keep it clean and functional as long as possible?

Well, now replace the word "car" with the word "body" and you'll know what to do.

The "best looking, best performing" cars are, of course, supercars or luxury cars and it befits a magazine like Luxury Briefing to discuss how they are made.

I'm going to go out on a limb here, and write an essay about the best looking, best performing bodies (including the brain). And, given that my domain is design and technology, I'm going to talk about the ways in which technology can help us arrive at a place where these super-humans turn into luxury-humans.

Let's start with a crude definition of the typical luxury product: longer, faster, better. Luxury cars last longer (Mercedes, for example, typically last over 200,000 km). They are faster than your average car, any supercar will easily beat 300 km/h and go from 0 to 100 in under 4 seconds. They are better built, respond better to the driver, hold the road better, provider a better driving experience overall.

In the context of human bodies, lasting longer means living longer. There are three key technologies that will help us achieve this:

1. cell regeneration, including neurogenesis, which means our brains get to not shrink by the current 30% over the course of our lives. Cell regeneration technology will ensure that the cells our bodies generate when we are 100 are of the same quality as the cells they generate when we are 10 i.e. no DNA damage from mitochondrial exposure and oxidation, and no telomere reduction on cell division. Aside from lasting longer, this means our bodies won't actually age, or at least not at the same rate they do today.

2. body parts replacement. Just as an old luxury car sometimes needs a new carburetor, we may need a new liver that is made-to-measure. The best way to do this is by using our own body's stemcells and grow a new one.

3. nanobots. 40 years ago, your typical computer would have been the size of a large dining hall and had little more power than today's pocket calculator. Today, computers with 1,000 times more power occupy spaces 1,000 smaller. Even a significant decrease in the rate of progress will ensure that, within 10 to 15 years, computers the size of our bloodcells will operate inside our bodies, monitoring and repairing biological damage at the smallest level, fighting viruses and bacteria, complementing and perfecting our own body's immune system.

A faster computer, with a faster connection, allows you to do more, to do more than one thing at the same time, to process more info without having to wait for the processing time itself. Faster bodies means we get to live more in the same amount of time. The idea of enhancing the brain, especially, is very appealing. For example, a combination of chemical and nano-technological processes that would enable you to learn anything at degree-level within just a few days, simply by enhancing the current system of serotonin-based positive neural feedback that forges new links between different neurons and leads us to enjoy learning new things, or by integrating nanobot 'prosthetic neurons' that take over connections between various parts of the brain.

Being better humans is what it's all about. Since the earliest Greek philosophers, we've been looking for ways not just to live better lives, but also to be better humans. Over the last few thousand years, we have effectively been improving our software at an exponential rate, focusing particularly on the information that exists between us in the way of shared knowledge (broadly speaking: culture). It seems logical that improving the human hardware to match the rate of improvement in human software would be the next step in our evolution.

I'm aware that some of these ideas may seem somewhat far-fetched, yet many technologists have put forward estimates that these technologies I have written about here will be available, at least in their early forms, within the next 20 years. If there is one sector where such a timespan sits perfectly comfortably within the bigger picture, the luxury sector is it: many luxury brands have been around for five or even ten times longer. However, there is another variable that will be highly critical for luxury brands, which it hasn't so far: ephemeralization. I mentioned this term in my last essay, but didn't go too much in depth.

The word "ephemeralization" was coined by Buckminster Fuller, who used it roughly in the sense of "doing more and more with less and less until you can do everything with nothing": a gradually smaller and smaller amount of materials and effort are needed to accomplish more and more useful functions. We get better and better at using materials in more sophisticated ways, so we need less and less quantity of materials and effort. A classic example would be that it took Magellan two years to sail around the planet in a wooden sailing ship in 1520. 350 years later it took a steel steamship two months to do the same. 75 years later a plane, made of metal alloys, took 2 weeks to fly around the planet. 35 years later a space capsule, made of exotic metals, takes 1 hour to circle the planet.

Not only can we do more with less, the rate of doing-more-with-less-ness is increasing. There is an acceleration taking place. That acceleration is the reason why the coming 20 years will be far more exciting, but also far more critical for luxury brands than the previous 20: there comes a point where luxury brands will need to transcend the philosophies they've been exploring over the last couple of centuries, where technology will redefine what it means to live a life of luxury, a luxury-human life.

Visit the Gallé website at www.galle.com

Saturday 27 August 2011

Countering the Counterfeits

"Countering the Counterfeits" was published in Luxury Briefing in August 2011.


Countering the Counterfeits
by Alexander Gallé

Having written on a few occasions about the frictions between luxury brands and online companies like eBay and Google over the issue of counterfeiting, I was a little disappointed by the absence of real "digital thinkers" in the debate on the subject held at the FT's Business of Luxury conference in Lausanne, which brought together various parties in the luxury sector to discuss what should be done.

As I see it, there are two ways of discussing the threats and opportunities of the digital revolution.

The first way is to put forward what we think should happen, and argue that "people must do" this or "the government must do" that, in order to get there. Let's call this the "prescriptive view", since it argues what must happen, rather than what will happen. Of course, the chances of it all happening the way we would like are very slim: things rarely happen the way we wish them to, especially if our wishes are framed by a set of dynamics that no longer correspond to the way the world actually works.

The second way is to look objectively at the properties of the different elements in action:

- the properties of networked information

- the properties of digital technology

- the properties of people

- the properties of luxury brands

We then look at the most likely chain of events in order to adapt our strategy. This is the "descriptive view", which this article, ideological views set aside, will aim to adopt.

The descriptive view starts with an analysis of the different properties of networked information itself.

The debate in Lausanne was triggered by a speech, made by Gian Giacomo Ferraris, CEO of Versace, outlining the actions Versace had taken against Google to "cut out links" that take users to websites selling counterfeit goods. 

This approach, I believe, is based on an outdated and false description of what networked information is and of how it behaves, which dates back to a metaphor that was quite popular in the 90s. Back then, we often heard the metaphor of an "information superhighway", a highway on which information runs like automobiles, which served its purpose to some extent: it explained the concept to people who were used to thinking about physical, mechanical things like pipes, electricity cables and motorways. But the problem with such metaphors is that they set one's mind up for a set of relationships that may not exist. If action is then taken to counter a perceived relationship, it will be ineffective and, in the worst case scenario, trigger off unintended consequences.

Networked information doesn't flow in neat superhighways that you can just cut off and redirect. To wrap our heads around the futility of "cutting out links", let's try looking at it as a liquid. Rather than "cutting out" segments of the information superhighway that take users to counterfeit sites, we now see Versace's actions as something more like plugging holes in a leaking bucket.

However, even this metaphor lets us down: information being liquid, the tools that are used to search for information are themselves also liquid, since they are themselves made of code i.e. information. So, trying to plug one hole in the hopes that information will stop leaking is only a momentary fix: it is just as easy to replicate the hole as it is to replicate the information going through it.

We saw this a couple of years ago, when a Swiss bank tried to force the Wikileaks website to close down through the court: within a few days of closing down the site, hundreds of mirror sites were online, hosted in different countries around the world, each containing the same information as the original Wikileaks site. Opening a court case in each separate country was simply unfeasible, and would have been equally futile.

Search engines come two-a-penny nowadays. As we have seen in the music and film industry, people looking for pirated music and videos simply do not use Google. They use one of the thousand sites that search through information storage centres like Megaupload, Megashares, Rapidshare, Wupload, Hotfile, 4Shared, Netload, Mediafire, etc. If they don't want to use the web, they'll use something like eMule or Atlas or any of the other hundred Napster-inspired peer-to-peer applications that allow them to search for files that aren't hosted on the web but on other network users' own computers.

Furthermore, the "cutting out links" approach assumes that the technology used to manufacture and distribute counterfeits today will itself not evolve. This is, of course, the opposite of what is actually happening: the key feature of digital technology is that it enables what Buckminster Fuller called "ephemeralisation": doing more and more with less and less, until eventually you can do everything with nothing. 

The descriptive view continues... Let's look at the properties of people and ask ourselves why counterfeiters are so commercially successful. The answer is simple, when you look people in the eye: counterfeiters are successful because people want counterfeit goods. Or, rather, people want luxury goods at normal goods' prices. 

Is there anything unusual about this? Not really. It's the same force that has been driving all markets since market economics began, leading everyone to continuously sell better goods at lower prices. Moral judgment set aside, it's important to see the forces we are dealing with as they are, not how we would like them to be.

Is there any use advocating that "governments must do more to educate people that buying counterfeits is bad"? Aside from the question of whether governments are any good at educating people, the task itself is like working against gravity. Any economist would argue that the greatest benefits are reaped by those who manage to move mountains at the touch of a finger by letting gravity do most of the work for them instead, thereby producing something people want at the price they're prepared to pay for it. With a bit of thinking outside the box, however, the opportunities for bona fide goods manufacturers are there to be taken. It may mean the redefinition of some brands we currently think of as "luxury", but it'll also mean the birth of many new and better luxury brands.

Change is a necessary precondition of evolution, and evolution is a defining characteristic of the luxury sector. 

I wrote earlier that digital technology enables "ephemeralisation". The definition is worth repeating, not just in the context of counterfeiting, but in the context of what it means to be a luxury brand. Ephemeralisation: doing more and more with less and less, until eventually you can do everything with nothing. With this in mind, let's ask ourselves what it is the luxury sector currently produces. If all that differentiates your product from a cheap counterfeit is the legality of your label, can you really claim that what you are producing is still "luxury goods"?

Let's look at some luxury goods that are not counterfeited. McLaren, for example, produce something so technologically advanced that you just can't fake it. You could probably copy the overall shape of the latest McLaren and stick a 3-litre Alfa Romeo engine inside, but what would be the point? The experience of driving it would be nothing like the original. Bringing leading-edge technology into the product means that a luxury brand can now leverage its philosophy of excellence, to produce something even more unique and special that people will be prepared to pay a premium for. Apple, to give another example, seem to be doing this very well...

Rather than using the law to force digital technology companies to sever their limbs and perform at a lower level than their full potential, luxury brands should embrace them, using their technological power to leverage their own unique qualities, taking luxury to a new level of jaw-dropping amazement and delight, and rediscovering what making a real luxury product was all about to begin with.

Feel free to download this article in PDF format from the Gallé website:

Wednesday 25 May 2011

Bitcoin: a designer's point of view

"Bitcoin: a designer's point of view" was first published in the May 2011 edition of Luxury Briefing, the luxury industry's trade magazine.


BITCOIN - A designer's point of view
by Alexander Gallé

Every now and then an idea comes online that you just know has all the potential to create a huge dent into the fabric of the universe.

Sometimes, the idea and its execution are so perfect that they propel themselves directly into the world, straight to the top. Such is the case of HTML itself, for example, or of hugely successful companies like Google and Facebook, which define new steps in how we interact with information and with each other.

Other times, the idea is there, but its initial form has a weak spot which later gets perfected by like-minded players coming further down the line. Napster was such an idea: it had some weak spots (which led to its downfall), but completely revolutionised the music industry by introducing peer-to-peer filesharing to its consumers, opening up the way for Gnutella, for example, which was already quite popular while the judges were still trying to figure out what Napster's weak spot actually was.

Bitcoin is such a big idea. The only thing we don't know yet, at this point, is whether it is big in its current execution, or whether it just sets the paradigm for other players to play within.

To give you an idea of just how big it is, I'll need to explain a little bit about monetary economics. Please note, no ideological point is made here, just an observation of how a system will exist simply because each individual user within it will see personal benefit in using it.

Now... The key difference between Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek - two free market economists - is that Friedman advocated that, in order to ensure the free market's stability and continuity, government should focus its efforts on the policy of dictating the quantity of money supplied to the market, and its price (i.e. the interest rate set by a central bank).

Hayek, on the other hand, argued that it is illogical to advocate the benefits of the free market but then advocate that the one product everyone sells and buys when they're buying and selling their own goods - i.e. money - should have its own supply and price dictated by a centralised bureau. This, in Hayek's view, was akin to saying that, just because everyone needs food to work, you can have a free market in labour but that you should "stabilise" it by controlling, Soviet politburo-style, the supply of food workers need to perform their labour. Central control of food led to huge famines in the Soviet Union, and central control of money leads to the economic woes we experience in the West. If money is a product like any other, it too should have its supply and prices dictated by the free market.

In other words, Hayek advocated the superiority of a money separated from sovereignty. He had a point: monetary policy is always being advocated to satisfy some other economic goal, rather than simply to ensure that the money itself be as good a product as possible. If money is a product like everything else, its evolution should follow the same evolution dictated by users' feedback and competitors' innovations, just like any other product. If a particular type of money is, as a product, superior to its competitors, it'll be in consumers interest to prefer it over others, until something better comes along. Such superiority can not be achieved if the quality of the product is always compromised by political goals, or by economics goals other than the quality of the product itself.

Enter Bitcoin, the world's first peer-to-peer online currency, which is only a couple of months old. Online currencies have been attempted before, of course: when Paypal started out, the goal was actually to create a private online currency people could use just to buy things online. It's only when site users started enquiring about this other thing - the online payment processing tool Paypal were promising would come soon on their website - that Peter Thiel and his partners decided to put their online currency ideas on the backburner and focus on this opportunity instead.

But nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come, and ten years later it is very clear that Paypal would have never been been as good an online currency as Bitcoin. This, for the simple reason that Bitcoin is decentralised: it's peer-to-peer. Transactions in Bitcoins are done entirely between buyers and sellers, just like cash, not relying on any third party to process the payment. In that sense, it's the closest thing to cash you can have in an online environment. Unlike cash, however, there isn't even a "central bank": the total quantity of Bitcoins is dictated by an algorithm that has nothing to do with a particular country's need to boost exports, support its mortgage-paying voters, or other factors that are nothing to do with the money's quality itself.

There was a time, centuries ago, when all money was peer-to-peer, a time when money's quality as a product wasn't dictated by anything other than the vast number of individual users preferring one type of medium of exchange and store of value over another: gold. Bitcoins are more akin to gold than anything else. The idea that the adoption of Bitcoins would lead to some kind of new gold standard is, however, entirely mistaken: a gold standard is about dictating and maintaining a fixed price between gold and one's currency (whichever one you think of as the numeraire), when the whole point of Bitcoins is that their price will simply be dictated by demand and supply, along with any other competing currencies. As for Bitcoin's security: the encryption systems used are the SHA-256 and ECDSA-256 algorithms, used by the majority of mainstream banks, which would require the invention of quantum computers to be unlocked within a human lifetime - at which point, of course, Bitcoin (or another company) could simply create a quantum encrypted currency.

What this means is that we now have a secure medium of exchange which is designed to be independent of economic motives other than its own quality (which can itself be improved like any software in v.2.0, v.3.0, etc.). It has the same potential to act as an international reference point as precious metals, but is entirely non-physical and usable in online trade. It is designed to be as easy to transfer accross the planet as sending an email, and without any mark-ups to distort its spot price.

Truly a design and technology breakthrough, then, a product in a class of its own. Like any design, however, the only really important measure is how people interact with it. Let's see how it catches on...

Visit www.bitcoin.org

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Wednesday 23 February 2011

Cercle des Grandes Maisons Corses: brand identity and website

Gallé Studio design brand identity for the Cercle des Grandes Maisons Corses, the Corsican hotel and travel services association. The Gallé studio in London presented yesterday the graphic communication (visual identity, graphic charts and website) for the Cercle des Grandes Maisons Corses. The association's marque is a deer on a red background representing the sun. The concept is entitled "U Cervu Rossu" - the red deer itself being a species unique to the island of Corsica which, in the 80s, was in danger of becoming extinct but has since experienced something of a rebirth thanks to the creation of protected national parks on the island.

Le studio Gallé à Londres a présenté hier la communication (identité visuelle, charte graphique et site web) pour le Cercle des Grandes Maisons Corses. La marque du Cercle est un cerf, sur un fond rouge représentant le soleil. Le concept graphique est intitulé "U Cervu Rossu" - le cerf rouge même étant une espèce unique à la Corse qui, durant les années 80, était en voie de disparition mais qui, suite à la création de parcs naturels protégés, a proliféré depuis.

Visit www.lesgrandesmaisonscorses.com
Visit www.galle.com