Texto contexto Por Clara Piazuelo
Why we are Writing a Manifesto on the User Interface in the Digital Context
Are we aware of all the interfaces that we use on a daily basis? Do we know how to decode the ideology behind them? How do they influence the construction of our identities? How do they condition our interactions with others? How do they generate economic value? Is it possible to design an ethical interface? Can we make the invisible visible?
When we decided to write a manifesto, the idea was to start a conversation and explore these questions further. All good conversations include questions as well as answers and diverging opinions. And at the end of a really good conversation, you feel as if you’ve been journey in which you’ve experienced something about the world that you would not have imagined earlier.
The Manifesto was our aim, but also our point of departure and the compass that has guided this collective research through the readings, workshops, and roundtables that we’ve organised as part of the PIPES_BCN project, which began in November 2013 as part of a broader investigation within the European project Participatory Investigation in Public Engaging Spaces (PIPES).
In Barcelona, Hangar, in collaboration with the UOC, decided to produce a multidisciplinary conceptual framework to reflect on interfaces, rethink their design and models of use, and stimulate the creation of more open and collaborative interfaces. The research is influenced by semiotics, science and technology studies, media studies, software studies, and actor network theory. Some key references when it came to writing the first drafts of the Manifesto include Interface Criticism: Aesthetics Beyond the Buttons (Christian Ulrik Andersen, Soren Bro Pold), The Interface effect (Alexander Galloway) and Evil Media (Matthew Fuller, Andrew Goffey).
As we immersed ourselves in all the readings and references that explore interfaces from a critical perspective, we went through a stage in which interfaces became a critical tool through which to rethink reality.
Thinking in terms of interfaces means adding a layer of complexity, trying to decode things beyond their obvious meanings, and sharpening our perception of the limits of everything that mediates our interactions. Then we began to see interfaces in everything around us. Language as interface, skin as interface, public space as interface, bathrooms, a gameboard, a map, a gynaecologist’s speculum... everything was interface and, of course, when everything is interface the concept becomes so broad that it dissolves and becomes inapprehensible.
The interface is indeed a vast concept that extends beyond the bounds of the physical and the virtual. To avoid diluting the focus of the research, we decided to delimit the field. And while it is possible to extrapolate many of the points in the Manifesto to all types of interfaces, here we are referring specifically to the user interface in the digital context.
We could have chosen a form with fewer connotations than a manifesto, or simply compiled a series of texts around the object of study, but precisely because the research we are carrying out emphasises the political power of interfaces we wanted to come up with the textual structure that was most appropriate to the ideas we wanted to transmit.
We chose the manifesto form because it is away of protesting or reclaiming. A manifesto aims to engage the person who reads it, and publicly challenges the dominant discourse, proposing an alternative. As such, it is a political tool. While one of the main problems of today’s interfaces is the fact that they tend to mask conflict, a manifesto does just the opposite; it deactivates clichés and expresses specific values that question the status quo.
If a manifesto were an object it would be a megaphone; if it were food it would probably be a little bit too spicy; and if it were a person, it would be the one who always puts up her hand to raise awkward questions and contradictions.
This manifesto includes many voices, but there are also many silences. The exercise in synthesis and consensus that was required in order to draft a text collectively has not favoured nuances and complexity. As such, the Manifesto should be read as a hypertext with links to other texts that complement it and that continue to unravel some of the ideas set out in these fifteen points.
Some manifestos to take into account before writing an Interface Manifesto
The genealogy of manifestos is fuzzy, and there is no consensus on its defining characteristics. The genre is so broad that it includes very diverse kinds of texts, from a customs declaration of the goods carried on a ship to a political programme to overthrow the dominant system, by way of a whole tradition in the arts that began with the avant-gardes – of which the Futurist Manifesto (1909) is probably the paradigmatic example.
Some of these manifestos were written within 20th century utopian movements (Dada, Situationism, punk). But if we zoom in on examples that question our relationship with technology from a critical perspective, we see that they have proliferated over the past few decades. This trend has gone hand in hand with the new technology boom and the advance of post-capitalist society, with its cynicism, its new forms of immaterial labour, and the network culture.
One of the first manifestos to introduce critical thought in the design field was The First Things First manifesto published in The Guardian in1964, and signed by over four hundred graphic designers and artists. The text was a reaction against the opulence of Great Britain in the sixties, and aimed to radicalise design, which its signatories claimed had become vague and non-critical. Drawing on the ideas of critical theory, the Frankfurt School, and the counterculture at the time, it claimed that design is not neutral and value-free. It attacked consumer culture, which is only interested in buying and selling things, and defended the humanist dimension of graphic design.
The emergence of the Internet and new communication technologies inspired several manifestos that defended the idea of cyberspace as a new, much more flexible space that, in its very newness, offered the possibility of reinventing certain notions and categories. In 1985 Richard Stallman wrote the The GNU Manifesto (1985)to explain and define the goals of the GNU project, a Unix-type operating system based on open development, free distribution, and a commitment to remain true to those values as it evolves. This text is considered the cornerstone of the free software movement. Along similar ideological lines, the Mozilla Manifesto [Mozilla Manifesto https://www.mozilla.org/en-US/about/manifesto/details/],ets out ten principles based on the idea of the internet as a global public resource that must remain open and accessible, and invites people to contribute to the project.
A year after Stallman’s Manifesto, Loyd Blankenship aka “The Mentor” wrote The Hacker’s Manifesto (1986),(1986), also known as “The Conscience of a Hacker”, a short essay written after the author’s arrest. It is considered one of the key works of hacker culture, a true hacker guide with an ethical position in regards to piracy that defends altruism and the idea that technology should be used to expand our horizons and to try to keep the world free. Another founding text of the internet age is the New Clues Manifesto,linked to the techno-utopianism that developed in the United States as part of the “dot-com” culture of the nineties. Its ninety-five theses about the impact of the net on companies, workers, and consumers defend the idea of the internet and markets as a conversation. Although it is certainly an interesting example, particularly because it is an open source document designed to be shared and reused – the manifesto is available on GitHub and has been updated for the past fifteen years – it suffers from a somewhat uncritical approach to the neoliberal ideology that underpins the new economy.
One of the most visionary texts of this kind is Donna Haraway’s "Manifiesto para cyborgs. Ciencia, tecnología y feminismo socialista a finales del siglo XX" Originally published in 1985, it reflects on human-machine relations and predicts many of today’s conflicts that are, in part, a consequence of the invasion of new technologies. Haraway uses the metaphor of the cyborg to describe a post-gender work inhabited by hybrid beings, with no clear boundaries between the organic and the mechanical, the material and immaterial, and different sexual identities. Technological interfaces also make it possible to invent identities. Haraway writes: “This chapter is an argument for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction. It is also an effort to contribute to socialist-feminist culture and theory in a postmodernist, non-naturalist mode and in the utopian tradition of imagining a world without gender, which is perhaps a world without genesis, but maybe also a world without end. The cyborg incarnation is outside salvation history. Nor does it mark time on an oedipal calendar, attempting to heal the terrible cleavages of gender in an oral symbiotic utopia or post-oedipal apocalypse.”
Haraway’s text was a crucial influence for the cyberfeminist movement, which picked up some of the strategies of the 1920s avant-gardes, such as the concept of utopia and the manifesto form. It paved the way for the 1991 Manifiesto ciberfeminista para el siglo 21, for example, which defends the use of information and communication technologies on the internet as a strategy by which to destabilise the patriarchal system. Along similar lines, the “100 antítesis”, was a kind of anti-manifesto written in the framework of the First Cyberfeminist International in 1997, which describes every thing that cyberfeminism is not: it is not a border, or ideology, or tradition, and it does not only have one language.
To conclude, I would like to mention two recent manifestos that have been particularly inspiring due to their critical approach to the use of technology. On one hand, Critical Engineering Manifesto (2011-2014)originally written in 2011 by three media artists, claims that our techno-political literacy is challenged with every technological advance, considers that engineering shapes the way we move, communicate, and think, and that it is the work of the critical engineer to study and exploit this language, exposing its influence.
Meanwhile, the Manifesto for a Post-Digital Interface Criticism written by Christian Ulrik Andersen and Soren Pold, directly tackles the subject of digital interfaces from a critical perspective, and its theses clearly influenced our research.
The abundance of published material, and in particular the existence of a critical manifesto on the subject of digital interfaces, made us question what we could contribute to the debate.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the reasons for using the manifesto form is that we wanted to emphasise the “ideological” aspect of interfaces at a time when they are tending to seemingly vanish and to be perceived as a neutral space.
But the challenge we have taken on, and our contribution to this field, is not just to write a manifesto and a series of accompanying texts, but to develop an interface prototype for the actual manifesto.
On 16 and 17 May 2015, a group of people gathered at Hangar to work intensively on the Manifesto Sprint, namely: J. L. Marzo, Tere Badía, Pau Alsina, César Escudero, Jara Rocha, Andreu Belsunces, Quelic Berga, Laia Blascos, Mario Santamaria, Femke Snetling, Rosa LLop and Clara Piazuelo.
During those two days, participants engaged in different workshop dynamics designed to pool the ideas that each one had developed individually in their texts. Through a physical display that linked the texts to the fourteen points of the manifesto, we were able to see the web of relationships. And we used the tablet for designing icons developed by the ICONUU project to experiment with the interface and study it, applying the theoretical knowledge generated in the course of our research.
The other workshop dynamics focused on imagining the final format of the Manifesto. One of our concerns was to ensure that it would have a real impact, and not remain solely on the discursive level. In order to move from words to action, we took each point of the manifesto and came up with a series of actividades, actitudes y acciones for developing a proactive critical relationship with interfaces. These actions were classified in four typologies: poetics (P), awareness (A), change habits (H), change the world (w)
Finally, participants agreed to upload and organise the information on this wiki, which is an open interface and a useful way of disseminating the teamwork and knowledge stemming form the project.