November 06, 2013

Interaction Topics Responses

These were originally my responses to a series of readings we did in a class I took in the spring of 2012 called Interaction Topics. I'm reposting them here for posterity and also because I still think a lot of these things. They're slightly edited for tone and clarity. Each section represents a week, a theme, and a set of readings. Sometimes the references will be unclear. But that's ok.

I. (I wrote more than I expected to)

The Rhizome. A state of multiplicity. Of constant connection. No beginning, no end. Constant middles. Infinite Plateaus. What an apt metaphor for the Internet, especially considering its similarity to the Tree, which is one of the most fundamental computer science concepts. What does a Rhizome look like? Perhaps something like the network maps depicted in Else/Where.

In a system with no beginning and no end, where everything is constantly in the middle, how do we make sense of it all? This, I believe, is the Fundamental Problem of the Internet. With information overload, the question becomes then, What do I pay attention to? If everyone can put out a blog post then who do I read? If everyone is a photographer then whose do I look at?

This is the problem Yahoo and Google were solving in the 90′s and early 00′s, and it’s still a problem today. We’re saturating the cloud with data about ourselves; what we eat, who we talk to, what we wish to know. All so that when we search Google for “Beetle” it can tell that I’m not an entomologist and I’m just looking for a new car.

All the readings address the Fundamental Problem of the Internet in different ways.

Mapping. In the early days of the web the best people were focused on making sense of the endless network the same way Amerigo Vespucci and his contemporaries mapped the globe in the Age of Exploration. The earliest Yahoo, essentially a Yellow Pages for the Internet, was a map. Maps, as van Weelden points out, allow us to “extrapolate from what we know to what’s possible, what’s not yet accomplished”. This was the goal of the early solutions. To brace ourselves for the coming information revolution.

Now that the spaces have been mapped the problem is where to go. Of course this problem exists in the physical world as well, but that problem is solved by talking to real people. There are sites that solve the Fundamental Problem of the Internet using real people, too: AirBnB, and Reddit come to mind. But you can’t equate this digital problem to its real world equivalent because the two spaces are unequivocal (There’s a lot more to say about this, but that’s later).

Vannevar Bush was wise enough to envision Wikipedia back in 1945; 10 years before Tim Berners Lee, the de facto creator of the Internet, was even born. He uses existing technologies to describe a future solution to a problem that didn’t even really exist. According to Nathan Shedroff, technological innovation is limited to what we can imagine, and what we can imagine is limited to what exists. This is why Bush’s device doesn’t have hard drive storage or connectivity outside the desk. This is why in 20 years Minority Report will look silly and short-sighted.

Bush’s attempts to solve the Fundamental Problem of the Internet are largely in line with the way the Internet works today, in most realms. His thought process goes that, as the ease of access to information decreases, so does the effort required in accessing the specific information one is looking for. This has served us well in the past few years. I can now do more research than anyone ever could before, in a fraction of the time. Does it help me find a good restaurant to eat at or a good movie to watch? Probably. But it could be better.

Lastly I want to talk about Borges’s library. The piece presents a unique point of view on the Fundamental Problem in that it seems to embrace it rather than try to provide a solution. The speaker of Borges’s piece mentions with contempt how “thousands of greedy individuals abandoned their sweet native hexagons and rushed downstairs, upstairs, spurned by the vain desire to find their Vindication”. While they are fruitlessly attempting to find the one book in the infinite library, Borges’s speaker understands it cannot be done. Instead, he savors the information available to him, insisting that nothing is nonsense, and reveling in the mysteries that lie in front of him rather than those that could be waiting far away.

II. What is this

The reading about spectacle confounded me although I did perceive a general point: Our society has been moving towards one that is obsessed with what he calls Spectacle. Observing. It ties well into the Paul Elliman reading about screens.

“The sky was the color of television tuned to a dead channel.” Neuromancer comes up a lot when discussing technology because of Gibson’s unbelievable foresight. It’s quoted in Elliman’s screens reading and I think it represents what Debord is trying to say with Spectacle: screens and screen-related activities have taken over our life, subsume us all, and make us dead. The color is simply ‘dead’. And this describes our society as well, Debord says. As does Gibson, in a way.

Krauss’s grid reading was interesting although I couldn’t place its purpose. What struck out to me most was the reading of the grid as “pure relationship”, and its relationship to the concept/topic of infinity we touched on with Borges last week. These two ways of thinking, centripetal and centrifugal, are also intriguing in how they could be applied to today’s web interfaces.

I can’t help but think of Metro when I hear this discussion about the Modernist obsession with grids. Recently there was an iPad app that made a lot of buzz, called what else but Grid. It was a spreadsheet that aimed to rethink spreadsheets. I think in this new world full of information overload and screen-based media, grids will become ever more ubiquitous.

III. The Internet is Changing Our Brains

One thing I immediately connected with was the aptness of John Wheeler’s metaphor, quoted by Roy Ascott: This new era of telematic culture is like quantum physics. Somewhere along the line we realized that we could no longer merely observe things. That observing alone can fundamentally alter the thing we are observing, and that we are always participants.

That, I suppose, is the common thread between these readings. New forms of communication have arisen; What are the consequences?

Christine Rosen thinks things like Facebook are changing the way we interact with people. The way we treat relationships. And I agree. Facebook isn’t merely keeping in touch with people; nor is it just a more convenient way to communicate.

what do you do with a “friend” who posts inappropriate comments on your Wall? What recourse do you have if someone posts an embarrassing picture of you on his MySpace page? What happens when a friend breaks up with someone—do you defriend the ex? If someone “friends” you and you don’t accept the overture, how serious a rejection is it?

This was especially poignant to me. These are new questions. If this doesn’t prove that our relationships with people are different now, I don’t know what does.

The question now becomes, “Who cares if it’s different?” This is the natural evolution of human society. Technological inventions beget cultural innovations which makes us behave differently.

In my mind, there’s no point worrying about what in the future might be different. Take the iPhone, for example. Most people would agree that the iPhone is an innovation that has changed the way we act and interact. But what innovations have enabled this? Touch screens? Ubiquitous, perpetual, Internet connections? Relentless yet intelligent marketing? Vastly superior user experience design? None of those things are even remotely new. The iPhone changed everything because it was all of those things together, and essentially in the right place at the right time.

This is beginning to get irrelevant. Sorry. But my point is that the changing future is less consequential than it may seem. Things just happen. And yes that’s not particularly insightful, but I prefer to think of it this way then to get bogged up in “designing for the future human”, or whatever they feed us in Global Issues. (Not that that’s inherently wrong, it’s just not something I strive for.)

IV. Praxis

First we have Benjamin Mako Hill and his antifeatures, a word that I will most definitely be using from now on. A few interesting things have been happening lately. The foundations on which we built traditional distribution models are shifting. The Internet is a post-scarcity place. People are still figuring out how to deal with that. Some people add layers and layers of security and anti-piracy features and who knows what, adding cruft and unnecessary restrictions on users. Right now i’m reminded of an episode of The Angry Beavers, in which Norb and Dag both receive gigantic, almost two-story high packages: in one, an elaborate model train set; in the other: a few thousand packing peanuts and an air-freshener. This is the state of software today. We’re used to old packaging models. We don’t need them anymore. They’re obscuring the real product.

Next Douglas Bowman says goodbye to Google because of what he calls a data-driven environment. Now I’m sure nobody would enjoy deploying a whole A/B test just to determine whether or not to have a 2 or 3 pixel border. But at the heart of Google’s approach is exactly what the next reading is about: Conditional Design. This manifesto, which is more or less a redefinition of current design practices, was pretty revelational for me. Let’s no longer define design by our output. Let’s define it by our process. In the end, who cares if you make websites or newspapers, apps or mobile apps. From my experience, there is too much emphasis in the industry on output. “Let me see the websites you’ve made,” the representatives from Etsy tell me. No, they don’t want to see my video games, or my infographics, or my print design (for a search engine’s branding or the iPad version of a newspaper). As if the skills to make any of those things were different. In the end, the constraints of the material or the medium are a craft, learned over time. Learning to design conditionally is the real skill.

The last 3 readings all blended together to me, being that they were all about misuse. Design Noir: let’s take all these products and really push the limits of what emotions they cater to. Not unlike film noir does, let’s get away from the cookie-cutter mass-appeal of the rest of Hollywood. This made me rethink Panopticon a little bit, taking into account Taylor’s comment. We probably already look at pretty horrible things. What if we made that information public?

The Art of Misuse and Visceral Fascades…they were the least accesible to me, but they have interesting messages about technology: open it up and let people see what’s inside. Technology today is complicated. It’s 50 years of people building on top of other people’s work, at a rate never before seen. How can we expose these inner workings and examine them? Not in a ‘let’s explain how this works’ kind of way, but almost: what secrets are you keeping?

V. What’s in an interface?

Web 2.0 had such a … specific aesthetic. What’s the aesthetic of the next generation of the web?

This is. The stuff mentioned in the readings (except Lauralee Alben’s, which is from the 90′s). It’s not so much an aesthetic as it is a philosophy: content first. no frills. give the user what they want. Microsoft’s Metro Modern UI provides an addendum: be authentically digital. No skeumorphs here. CSS has at its core the box model. So everything in Metro Modern UI is a box. Simple.

Let’s start with ‘Heart of Interaction’. Although this is from the 90s, and the examples are almost cringeworthy in retrospect, Lauralee Alben provides a good message for would-be interaction designers (a term which I was unaware even existed then): be human above all else. Empathize. My designing for Usability teacher will stress that this is all that is necessary, really. And what a smart message it is. If you care about what your users want, you spend time doing those things and not adding “visual pollution”, as Jasper Morrison would say.

“There’s a lot of good design going on…but unfortunately it’s heavily outweighed by what can only be described as visual pollution…designs with nothing more in mind than getting noticed”. That’s the full quote. Whoah does that pack a punch. I think it’s a good summary of how a lot of web designers or interface designers feel today. I think Morrison and Fukasawa take this idea to the extreme; that objects should not be more than what they are; that they need not fulfill any function other than what they are expected to. That’s super normal: doing exactly what is expected so well that we forget to expect anything else.

A few weeks ago we talked about the aesthetic of flatness. I think this is where that comes from. The third dimension is overrated now. It’s not “authentically digital”. It’s not necessary to convey content.

What’s really interesting to me is whether this idea is here to stay or whether it’s just another fad. I have a feeling that, like Swiss “International Style”, it will soon become another aesthetic that people try to stay away from, but its philosophical underpinnings will be remembered.