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Book reflection: Rich Gold’s The Plenitude

April 3, 2012 1 comment

my Rich Gold style portrait of Rich Gold


Rich Gold “authored” The Plenitude: Creativity, Innovation, and Making Stuff in 2007, four years after his premature death. Rich created things for organizations that included Xerox PARC, Mattel, and Sega. The book was drawn together by his colleague John Maeda and his wife Marina LaPalma from extensive notes, drawings, and other materials created by Rich. “The Plenitude” refers to the stuff in the world created by people—an early example from the book exemplifies its scope and complexity through the thousands of things in a kitchen, from utensils, to appliances to manufactured food items. The book discusses four disciplines that “have created about 95 percent of the Plenitude”, seven patterns of innovation common to the disciplines, and a great many examples that probe the nature, morality, consequences, and future of the Plenitude.

I first read The Plenitude in 2009, when I was looking for books to use as a common book for my NSF-sponsored Research Experience for Undergrads (REU) program. Steve Harrison, one of Rich’s colleagues at PARC, pointed me to the book. (One of his favorite Rich Gold metaphors is his “wet-damp-dry” model for the field of human-computer interaction.) It immediately struck me as a highly readable book, but one that students could pick up at many times during their careers for reflection—a great book for undergrads considering possible career paths. It was short and highly visual, but rich in discussion topics.

my Rich Gold style representation of Rich Gold's creative hats

In his book, Rich describes four creative hats that he’s worn, corresponding to his four core disciplines of art, science, design, and engineering, arranged in a matrix. His many talks resulted in two very different reactions: people walking up to the matrix and pointing to their place on it, and an insistence by people that it was not possible to position themselves on the matrix as they cannot be “put in a square in a box”. It was similar to design/science/engineering models used by many others (including me) to reflect about technology—and it’s been a source of tension and progress in the human-computer interactions community of late.

Rich also outlines seven shared patterns of innovation that he describes as common methods across the four disciplines: necessity is the mother of invention, it’s a thing of genius, the Big Kahuna, the future exists, colonization (find the unowned; package it; sell it back), stuff desires to be better stuff, and change the definition. Rich provides definitions and examples for each: e.g., Weiser’s ubiquitous computing vision is a Big Kahuna, expensive video baseball games (compared to virtually free real baseball) exemplify colonization.

There are lots of other examples that I’ll let the interested reader cover. But Rich closes the book with a quote from his PARC colleague Stu Card that bears repeating: “We should be careful to make the world we actually want to live in.” Seems like a good closing!

Categories: Book reviews