Texting is so wildly popular, it’s hard to believe that cell towers weren’t originally designed to support SMS. 100% of Millennials text, and more than 8 trillion texts are sent every year. But the idea of text messaging was born in 1982, eight years before the first text (“Merry Christmas”) was even sent.
Friedhelm Hillebrand and Bernard Ghillebaert, the visionaries behind SMS, wondered if they could take advantage of the downtime in cell towers, when no signals occurred. They saw that they could transmit small bursts of information if they optimized them for the existing telephone system.
In other words, SMS was a byproduct―a side effect of a system intended for something else.
We could think of this as a happy accident. Penicillin, X-rays, and Viagra are similarly known for their creators’ “Eureka!” moments. But these were discovered because their creators understood the materials and resources they were working with―not because an epiphany occurred from nowhere.
The Great British CAKE-Off
This same kind of idea-transfer happens often and quickly in IT. For example, the BBC’s research and development group has been testing how online content can respond to the user’s environment and personal needs, not just device.
Their Cook-Along Kitchen Experiment (or CAKE) lets you program details about yourself (your comfort level in the kitchen, number of guests you’ll feed, and kitchen and pantry items) before the cooking program begins. That way, your instructions will always be relevant to your situation. Then the program will pause itself when you undertake each step so you have time to follow instructions.
Imagine using CAKE on an Echo Show. A microphone could pick up ambient noise (a blender, water from the faucet, etc.) and adjust the volume or pause the program exactly when you are completing each step. In this way, responsive design extends beyond web pages and browsers.
Violins & programming languages
Work in IT moves so quickly that it’s hard to fully grasp every material, resource, or product on the web. But when we do dive deep into learning a language or device, it becomes easier to understand its affordances and limitations―not just what it affords or how it’s limited.
For hundreds (if not thousands) of years, apprentices have learned a material’s affordances and limitations, then applied that knowledge to their craft. For example, violin makers learned which types of wood produced the best pitch; artists studied how the grid informed perspective; and construction engineers learned which materials endured harsh weather patterns.
Most people don’t devote their lives to a single field today like they did in the past. But there’s an advantage to that: We can jump between ideas, materials, and fields much more easily. It’s possible the next telephone-to-text jump can come from anyone who’s driven to learn a bit more about the web, a device, or language.
Many thanks to Joschi Kuphal and Brian Suda, who organized and raised these ideas in Material, a conference devoted to the theoretical possibilities of the web.