BERG London Changed My Life

9 September, 2014

I’m at Tiny’s in Southeast Portland, a few blocks from the ongoing XOXO festival. Talking Heads’ This Must Be The Place is playing on the cafe stereo. Earlier this week a CAT scan revealed that a 24 year old Chinese woman has no cerebellum. The cerebellum is how the brain receives input from the rest of the body. It’s also usually involved in fine motor skills, language, and regulating fear and pleasure. Apparently, lacking one, she learned to walk and talk a few years late and suffered from some dizziness, but was otherwise totally cognitively normal. It’s Sunday afternoon.


I first heard about Berg sometime in 2006 around a year after I started working as a professional programmer. Somewhere online I encountered Availabot, their design for a USB-connected chat presence puppet.

Availabot tracked the IM presence of one of your contacts and then stood up or fell down to indicate if they were online. It worked through a clever spring-loaded mechanism inspired by retro push puppet toys. My mom had a collection of French push puppets from her youth in Paris. So I’d grown up with them but also thought of them as exotic, a part of my childhood just a few degrees alien from my peers.

These two guys, Jack Schultze and Matt Webb, had taken a tiny technical detail and spun it into a surprisingly delightful toy – a toy that took a seemingly sui generis component of digital life and connected it to a rich cultural tradition of puppetry and play and mechanical wizardy.

This might seem like a small thing now, this clever bit of connected-object design, but for me, it was a revelation.

Less than a year earlier, I’d been working in a French patisserie as a day job while I played in a band and helped run a non-profit music festival. I’d learned to program to help distribute my band’s music online, but the more I did it professionally, the more I felt a divide between my two selves: on the one hand, the engineering me that solved problems and worked for people and built web apps and got paid and, on the other, the artist me who made things like albums and drawings and weird paper mache mountains.

Before Berg, I saw these two selves as irreconcilable. Maybe one day I’d support myself with art and slough-off the technical work. Or maybe I’d eventually grow up and have to give up the dream of making art for a living. Availabot and Berg’s other projects showed me it was possible to synthesize these two sides of myself. In particular their way of talking about their work, of putting it in the context of science fiction and urbanism and cybernetics showed me that design and technology could be cultural invention. Their example gave me permission to let these two sides intermingle and form some third weird thing that was more me than what the world expected of me.

With this new permission the horizon of my technical interests rapidly spread beyond the immediately practical. Here’s a sketch I made around that time:

My technical interests imagined as a field of stars

The striking thing to me looking back at this – beyond the embarrassed hilarily of seeing XML, microformats, and the semantic web on there – is the minor role played by Ruby on Rails, my actual day-to-day tool at the time and the only technology with which I had any appreciable skill. This was an aspirational picture with the right side particularly leaning into Berg (and ITP) territory.

It didn’t take long for this new perspective to start changing my life. Before the end of 2006 pictures of actual Arduinos start showing up in my feed. A year later evidence of my Berg-inspired project to track and map the rollout of Portland’s municipal wifi program shows up (in the form of excellently dated early cell phone photos):

Free municipal wifi can at Weidler and mlk

A year later I’d been admitted to NYU ITP. Two years later I met Matt Jones at FOO. A year after that I was flying back and forth to London, contracting for Berg.

Beautiful Seams and Newbergs

Earlier this week Berg announced that they’re shutting down. I was surprised at how hard the news hit me. Part of that impact was surely the role they played in my personal development. But there’s also a wider mourning at the loss of what they represented within technology.

The Berg announcement came the same day Apple announced their watch. And, more generally, it comes in the context of an industry zeitgeist that’s obsessed with pushing computation and connectivity out into more categories of physical products. And, in fact, this is exactly what Berg had been working on in their final incarnation as a connected products platform startup.

Technology, and particularly computation, matters to me exactly because it can be a medium for cultural invention and personal expression, a “bicycle for the mind” in Steve Jobs’ famous phrase. Many of the great founding figures of our contemporary computational world, from Ted Nelson to Seymour Papert to Doug Engelbart to Alan Kay imagined computation in this way, as a tool for the liberation and augmentation of human creativity.

The Apple Watch, on the other hand, positions computing chiefly as a good way to sell a luxury accessory. And many “Internet of Things” startups imagine computing as a way to make better products, better washing machines, thermostats, and smoke detectors.

None of these are inherently unworthy goals, but to my mind they are shoddy replacements for the broader vision of augmenting human creativity and culture that lies at the heart of my idealism about computation. It’s hard to see where you fit a “bicycle for the mind” in an Apple Watch or a “smart” thermostat.

Berg was one of the few outposts in the Internet of Things scene that was obviously rooted in the Nelson/Papert/Engelbart/Kay tradition. They were clearly dedicated to bringing that spirit of “computational idealism” to hardware, that same something in the Availabot that struck me back in 2006 and gave me permission to be simultaneously a technologist and an artist or, better yet, something new between the two.

In the week since the announcement I’ve been to a few private gatherings of varying size in the spirit of “pour one out for Berg”. But Juha van’t Zelfde hit on the best way to commemorate their work. On Twitter, Tim Maly proposed we hold a BERG memorial conference to be entitled “Beautiful Seams”. van’t Zelfde responded thusly:

Beautiful Seams: towards newbergs