Wednesday, June 29, 2016

A Plastic Object without any Temporal or Geographic Information

If you are not already familiar with the writings of Ethan Zuckerman, let me introduce you. He is a director in MIT's Media Lab and has a wonderful blog, My Heart's in Accra. He doesn't write often, but when he does, it can introduce quite an expansion into your thinking. My favorite post of his, Desperately Seeking Serendipity was how I was first introduced to his work.

I wish I had found his blog earlier since just a month before that post, he had written about white Monobloc chairs. And as expected, he had an unusual take on them:
"Fifteen years ago, one of my jobs at Tripod was managing our abuse and legal teams. With several million webpages hosted on our service, some of them violated our terms of service and hosted pornography. That wasn’t a bit problem – we deleted pages that violated our TOS. But when we encountered pages that might be hosting child pornography, we had a more complicated procedure. We copied files to floppy disk (remember, it was 1996!) and mailed them to our regional FBI office, along with information on the IP address the user in question had signed up from.

One of the best guys on my team went to Boston for a week to train to become a “confidential informant”, so he could testify if we’d found evidence in a child pornography case that went to court. Curious guy that he was, he asked whether the information we were providing – the IP address signed up from – was helpful in building cases. Sure, he was told, but not as useful as the information in the photos. Almost every detail in a photo held information about the time and location the photo was taken. The shape of electrical outlets, labels on any consumer products, fabrics, clothing all were clues as to whether a photo was taken in the 1970s or last week, in Sweden or Schenectady.

Virtually every object suggests a time and place. The Monobloc is one of the few objects I can think of that is free of any specific context. Seeing a white plastic chair in a photograph offers you no clues about where or when you are. I have a hard time thinking of other objects that are equally independent of context. Asking friends to propose a similar object, most people suggest a Coke can… but I can tell you that Coke is presented very differently in different countries, in glass bottles as well as cans, with labels in local languages. The Monobloc offers no linguistic cues, no obvious signs that it’s been localized. Wherever you are, it’s at home."

An object so common that its presence tells you nothing.

If another such object exists, it would have to have the following characteristics:
  • A simple, fundamental design
  • Easy and cheap to make
  • Sold and used around the world
  • Made by multiple companies

To the average person (including me), an AK-47 would be potentially such an object. It meets the first 3 requirements above, but it is only produced (so far as I know) by one company. That means that there likely have been small design changes over the years that can provide some clues to time. So I've struck out. Anyone else want to suggest something?

Previous Years

June 29, 2016 - Resonance in Plastics and Metals

June 29, 2011 - BPA Followup (2/2)

June 29, 2010 - Tapes in Space

June 29, 2010 - Pretzel Logic from the Supreme Court


Anonymous said...

Very interesting. I have been trying to think of such an object for an hour and surprisingly I can't come up with anything.

Anonymous said...

Here's a link that you might find interesting...

Anonymous said...

About twenty years ago, those chairs went from calcium carbonate -filled plastic compounds to neat resin. If the image were sufficiently high in resolution, you might be able to detect sink marks in the newer vintage chairs that were less evident before that switch.

John said...

@Anonymous (assuming you are the same person posting all three of the comments, not that that is important at all...)

Can you assure me that ALL manufacturers of said chairs went from CaCO3 filled to neat PE resin? If not, then we have the same problem as before.

I think the real problem about "tracebility" is that the "chair" has a very simple fundamental design that allows anyone to easily make a functional equivalent. And that means that the manufacturers could set up shop in anywhere on the planet (or even Mars) and still have an effective factory. And since there seems to be an appetite for the product across the globe (well, maybe not Antarctica, but I would love to be proven wrong), tracking any given chair to any given manufacturer to any particular time period seems to be a nightmare.

Anonymous said...

No. @2:24 is a different Anonymous. My company used to make calcium carbonate -filled compound for that application before it migrated away. I never know what's considered proprietary, hence the anonymity ... though since I'm typing this at work, there goes the anonymity.

j.t.delaney said...

White monobloc chairs are not really so uniform or neutral. There is a variety of different easily distinguished designs. A photograph with a monobloc chair in it tells you at the very least that it was taken sometime after 1967, and specific molded shapes can be used to narrow ranges of dates further.
Materials have histories, and weathering can show itself in surfaces. A chair stored outdoors long term at the equator is going to age differently than one stored in Lapland. Dirt and dust will show up well on a white background, and surface contamination can also give clues; it may not be part of the chair in the platonic ideal sense, but it seems like it shouldn't be ignored, either.