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Beauty and Behaviour at SXSW

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HeyHuman's Dan Machen on why the future of technology needs to be about more than aesthetics

Beauty and Behaviour at SXSW

I saw a mirror made of wood today. We shared a great talk by Urban Matters Inc. who were an interesting mix – an architect, Shagun Singh and a (very) creative technologist, Rick Lin. Artists both. What was special about their talk was that they came at technology via aesthetic. Simply put, they code stuff beautiful.

One of their projects represented the noise of traffic in NYC – visually via LEDs. Their other – WIP project – was on the virtual telepresence of people on different floors of a building: people were represented by fibre optics. The mirror made of wood (by Dan Rosen) was in a hotel lobby. It was interesting that is was primarily made as an art piece over the option of being photo realistic.


It used motion sensors and blocks of wood to represent people’s movement. What I loved about the talk was the speakers’ appreciation of the role of beauty in behaviour. As Apple continues to prove, there is demonstrable value and power in beauty. Human beings love it. Always have, probably always will.

My one point of constructive critique is behavioural. While the talk today was a meaningful reflection on the discourse of beauty and technology, it felt to me like one ingredient was missing: a behavioural change agenda. Maybe it’s just me, but if a physical technology project can be both beautiful and good for people, then its intrinsic value is exponentially greater.

This was evidenced brilliantly in VW’s Fun Theory project where, for example, giant, fun piano stairs got people to climb stairs more; (with the intent to make people healthier). Awesome.


 “A thing of beauty if a joy forever” from John Keats’s poem Endymion is usually read as a straightforward assertion that any beautiful thing gives unending pleasure. Writing this on an Apple Macbook, I literally and figuratively buy that, but there’s the rub – over time, I believe pleasure in technology will mature and evolve to come from two things.

Beauty and behavioural change.

If something is beautiful and helps us be better people, then that’s got to be preferable, valuable and differentiated right? I like to think so. But then you look at a 10,000 dollar Apple watch and think maybe the actual human truth is that people are always gonna be about ‘dat status’. True for cavemen (and women), true for us perhaps.

Time will tell.

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