Usefulness Be Darned!
Steven M. Johnson’s new book, PATENT DEPENDING: ARMBRELLA, SOFA SHOWER, UNZIPPED FLY ALARM AND OTHER ESSENTIAL PRODUCTS. is a collection of work done between 1984 and 2016. It consists of old work, mostly, he insists. But much of it will be new to most of you. I asked Johnson to talk about his penchant for inventing these un-ventions. His answers are revealing in a philosophical way. He did admit, however, that he wants do another book, including a large section about seniors, detailing their furniture, autos, buildings, use of adjuncts and aids (including motorized wheelchairs and motorized furniture to get around). “I find infirmity amusing,” he says. “But alas, I am averse to getting an agent, am reluctant to do crowdfunding, and even though my thinking and drawing skills remain intact, I feel stuck in my desire to do another book but don’t know what to do next. Age will be and is taking over, so if I don’t act on this soon, I won’t be able to do another book.” For now, we’ll enjoy this one.
You are the master of incredibly absurd yet somehow conceivable inventions. In Patent Depending (which sounds like an adult diaper) you create scores of impossible possibilities. Have you ever made an invention that worked to serve mankind? My published work barely conceals my skepticism about consumerism, which I regard as a fairly recent phenomenon historically. Consumerism is made possible by the extraordinary capabilities of ever-improving technology. I seem to prefer to show off my silly talent than to be helpful toward mankind. My ability to generate new ideas, that I concoct without bothering to pay attention to their usefulness, requires a kind of special abstracted mood of lateral thinking that I fear would slow down or halt if I decided I needed to make something that is helpful to mankind. The internet, especially after the invention of the World Wide Web, along with the emergence of a stunning array of new tools for designing new products, has greatly sped up the exchange of ideas. My “usefulness” in a crowd of sincere, highly trained designers has limits, so I just stick to making jokes mainly.
Whether or not they have social value, your inventions are satires of our age. What are you trying to tell mankind about the age in which we live? I sometimes become annoyed or at least nervous when people like my work, telling me such-and-such is a “great idea.” All I am doing is showing off a technique for idea generation. What comes out often surprises and pleases even me. It sometimes feels as if modern man is an unwitting victim of technology, which moves so fast, as if with its own urgency. It is not too hard too predict, to some degree at least, future products, especially if there is an apparent need already. All that is required is improved microprocessors to make a particular product possible, for example. When people line up or sleep on the sidewalk overnight to get the latest iPhone, then it is apparent that technological advances are creating new “necessities.” It is interesting to watch how needing a particular thing has become so important these days.
I spend time wondering about efficiency, which is an almost unexamined value that exists as the goal for product innovation aside from matters of style and changing cultural whim. I wonder when I see, for example, how humans—so soft, squishy, delicate and vulnerable—are no match for new crowd-controlling tanks and devices that can make a person dizzy, confused, or need to vomit. Though the First Amendment in the U.S. Constitution supposedly guarantees the right of assembly, it is more efficient to force people to assemble where their voice cannot be heard, where they are not making too much noise, and where their movements are controlled. I think about this a lot.
If you had one (OK, two) inventions that would really be put into market (and even succeed), which one(s) would it (they) be? This is difficult to answer! Most of my inventions are designed as jokes, conceived on purpose to be purposeless, or designed with a counterproductive outcome or awkwardness in mind. I am going for satire or humor most of the time. But since you asked, I think I would love to help design a line of home furniture that you can hide or sleep inside. The hyper-wealthy among us, the 1% that Bernie Sanders railed about that have earned most of the income lately, must surely live in fear of home invasion. A handsome dining room cabinet, if large enough, could conceal a tiny sleeping space! I think my Add-A-Room concept has merit. The tiny home would be not much larger than those moving pods seen on suburban driveways, but would plug into a home’s water, electrical, internet and sewer lines and could be delivered to the home, hooked up, and ready for a visit by grandma, or if permitted, for rent by a college student. It could be leveled and hooked up to the home’s utility connections within 20 minutes.
Just out of curiosity, how the hell do you think of these? Sure, some are riffs on the obvious (like bras) but how about “consuming food at home”? In the chapter in the latest book titled “Consuming Food at Home,” there is a two-page spread of types of dining-ware that do not currently exist. Twenty-eight new tools for dining are shown, as well as five new kinds of plates that are designed to keep food from slipping off the plate. The origin of these designs can probably be traced to scoldings and childhood fear of using the wrong fork at a formal family dinner gathering. To think up 28 new dining tools, I simply formed the statement in my mind that there are too few tools as compared with the actual, sometimes complex needs for mashing, organizing, holding in place, gripping, sucking on, or masticating food. For example, I included a spoon with a hole at the lips that connects to a bladder in the handle. With this useful dining tool, you can vacuum up and store soup, and then release it into the spoon one bladderful at a time.
I have what I might call a Catch Me If You Can complex. In the movie, based on a true story of a man who posed and passed as a physician, college lecturer and airline pilot, there is the idea that we are all pretending we are an expert at something or other, and that it is possible to master to some degree any field if we stop worrying about our credentials, training, and so forth. I pretend to myself that I am a product designer, and then proceed to design products. No one can stop me, since I have no boss, no editor, no budget, no deadline and no requirement that the product actually works or that it helps mankind!
If the world had a chance to sample your wares, would we be in a better place? Or is it enough to see them in the rough? I think they would be amusing as objects in a museum, maybe even funnier than they are as drawings.
An inventor of whimsical objects, Philip Garner had his cartoon depictions appear in the same issues of Road & Track magazine in the early 1980s as I did. I considered him the master at this foolish trade, but I am no slouch at it. He was invited on “The Tonight Show” several times because he had actually built some of his silly concepts, and the audience and Johnny Carson loved them. His Better Living Catalog, published in 1982, showed those among his intentionally foolish products that he actually had made as shoes, furniture, etc.
Only a week or so ago, journalist Thomas MacMillan wrote how prophetic some of my drawings had been in Public Therapy Buses, Information Specialty Bums, Solar Cook-A-Mats and Other Visions of the 21st Century. His article appeared in a new section of New York Magazine online called The Vindicated.
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