2024: Is it liminal yet?. Umarells versus Wired Magazine. | by Johan Liedgren, Founder of The Liminal Circle. | Mar, 2024


Let’s start with the letter —

Dear Editor,

The aggregate Wired list of suggested purchases for the end of 2023 is cause for both pause and reflection. To be fair, the list of 47 items claims to be for those who “don’t need anything” — but that is the point. Anyone who thinks they have it all should at least reread Goethe’s Faust. Even in general, one is likely hard-pressed to find anything on the list that can put up a real fight against a good book. My first encounter with Wired in the late 90’s saw a smart, feisty and thoughtful camaraderie in a drafty San Francisco editorial studio — always looking for the new, and also for its context and deeper meaning. Perhaps one should not compare apples and oranges: books and technology aren’t necessarily the same. But then again, why not? Wired Magazine should be more than Guns & Ammo loaded with Nvidia.

May I instead suggest more liminal stocking stuffers for 2024 — a year with a world on fire in all ways possible — that offer room for thoughtfulness and space for imagination in our relationship to technology. I don’t want more stuff or subscriptions, nor do I want to be more efficient.

The idea might sound like a love child between Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein, but we do need to find alternatives to the transactional nature that big technology self-servingly favors. For example, Zoom has turned remote work into a low fidelity clutter of corporate isolation; why not a high touch portal for deep and engaging remote conversations? The world’s largest retailer Amazon has to price fix competitors to stay relevant. And with all the long hours put in by some of the world’s most brilliant minds, Google still makes 80% of its money from simple ads. Where are the products that challenge us profoundly? Where is the novelty? Where is the sincere call to introspective or collective adventure? A hint of magic? A glimpse of the sublime? Everything around us is offering efficient transactions and quick answers — very little offers any good questions.

Aristotle suggested in his Poetics that all good stories need to be both inevitable and surprising, at the same time. That combination sounds like a true gift for those who have everything and a great creative brief for product envisioning in 2024. And if that is not for the good folks at Wired to inspire, then who is?

Respectfully — Johan Liedgren, Lisbon

And now, the Umarell!

As promised, here is a very different and far more existential product to fill both stocking stuffers and our liminal hearts: The Umarell.

Most who have heard of the Umarell know him as a 15 centimeter tall red or blue figure of an abstracted retired man with his hands clasped behind his back, often thought of as silently checking other people’s work. The figurine is sold at design stores and museum gift shops in Europe. But its history is very real: Umarells are Italian men of retirement age who spend their time watching construction sites — especially roadworks — in the figure’s stereotypical stance, offering unwanted advice to the workers. The term is employed as lighthearted mockery or self-deprecation.

The term “Umarell” was coined in 2005, and in 2015, the Bologna city council’s “consultative commission for the naming of street” approved the naming of a public square to Piazzetta degli Umarells in recognition of the local fame of the concept — noting with conscious irony that the square was under construction at the time.

Superstuff — an Italian manufacturer of Umarell figurines — promises the little man will “increase productivity” of your digital work site. This of course is much like many other tech products monitoring and analyzing our work without actually helping. This one however, requires no charging, user agreements, or software updates. Other devices, tracking everything from steps to flow-zones, eagerly provide a myriad of correct answers. The Umarell, on the other hand, in its silent but steadfast monitoring of your toil without any preconceived notions or actual data, does something much more profound: it questions everything you are doing.

This is the liminal genius of the Umarell: to lodge a presence into the zone between us and our technology — not with transactional answers and totalitarian platform promises, but with the biggest of existential questions. What are we actually doing, and to what end? The little man isn’t concerned with what is, but wonders what might be. And that is the core premise of liminality — a great question always trumps an accurate answer.

I’d say the philosophical query of the Umarell is the liminal present most of us actually could use to keep the liminal flame burning. A present of presence. It’s also the spirit and attitude we should expect and from a leading publications like Wired who should be covering a world trying to finding its place in technology. Not the other way around.

Johan Liedgren
Founder of the international think tank The Liminal Circle. Award-winning film-director, writer and consultant working with media and technology companies on liminal design strategy, narrative and product development. https://www.liminalcircle.com / http://www.liedgren.com


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