Difference between revisions of "Interfaces: ¿estandarización o estándar-acción? Por Jorge Luis Marzo"

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='''Interfaces: ¿estandarización o estándar-acción?'''=
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='''Interfaces: Standardization or Standard-Action?'''=
==Por Jorge Luis Marzo==
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==By Jorge Luis Marzo==
  
  
¿Qué dirían los marcianos al vernos operar aplicaciones cuyos botones representan “varitas mágicas”, “cubos que arrojan líquidos”, “lazos para atrapar animales”, “esponjas”, “gotas de agua”, “gomas de borrar”, “cuentagotas” o “tampones”? ¿se reirían? ¿pensarían que tales metáforas son genialidades por lo fácil de su interpretación? A la vista de lo que los guionistas y escritores de ciencia ficción se han imaginado, no parece probable que los extraterrestres se lo tomaran muy a guasa, ya que pocos de estos autores han podido traspasar el umbral imaginario de los GUI con los que nos hemos dotado cuando se imaginan a hombrecillos verdes o metálicos. Acaso la excepción sea Stanislaw Lem y los interfaces siempre erróneos del piloto Pirx <ref>Lem, Stanislaw, 1991. “La patrulla”. En Relatos del piloto Pirx. Traducción al castellano de Laura Krauz: 2013. Madrid: Alianza, pp. 55-88.
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What would aliens say if they saw us running applications with buttons that represent “magic wands”, “buckets pouring liquids”, “lassoes to catch animals”, “sponges”, “drops of water”, “erasers”, “droppers” and “ink pads”? Would they laugh? Would they think that these metaphors are ingenious because they are so easy to understand? Going by what science fiction writers and screenwriters have imagined, the aliens are unlikely to laugh about it, given that few of these writers have been able to go beyond the imaginary threshold of the GUIs we have created when they imagine little green or metallic men. An exception may be Stanislaw Lem and his tales of Pirx the pilot with his malfunctioning interfaces <ref>Stanislaw, L. 1979. “On Patrol”, in Tales of Pirx the Pilot, English translation by Louis Iribarne, NewYork:Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.</ref>. Naturally, we could quickly argue in favour of the power of domestic metaphors and the notion of consistency, which appears to be immovable once it has been deployed. But what if the aliens saw those buttons as a sign of the unstoppable force of a social magma that refuses to submit to certain updates? The “magic wand” may be a silly detail, the result or reflection of what engineers in the seventies had in mind in regard to the stupidity of the users they were designing for, with their promises of simplicity, readability, and browsability. But it may also be one of the “acts” or “verbs” in which social groups come together in order to avoid being totally broken in.  
</ref>. Naturalmente, enseguida surgen las apelaciones a la fuerza de las metáforas domésticas, o a la noción de consistencia, que una vez desplegada parece, en principio, inamovible. Pero, ¿y si los marcianos vieran en esos botones la fuerza ineludible de un magma social que no desea plegarse a determinadas actualizaciones?. Puede que la “varita mágica” sea un chorrada, efecto o espejo de las elucubraciones de los ingenieros de finales de la década de 1970 sobre la imbecilidad de los usuarios en los que pensaban, con sus promesas de sencillez, legibilidad y explorabilidad. Pero también puede que se trate de “actos”, de “verbos” en los que la vida social se conjuga para no ser completamente amaestrada.
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La gente, en general, es enormemente reacia a cambiar: ¿es eso bueno, malo?. El escritor Joseph Conrad, marino él y por lo tanto conocedor de un mundo muy sujeto a procedimientos estandarizados, decía que “al hombre occidental le repelen las explicaciones”: no desea aventuras técnicas ni morales que cuestionen lo que ya sabe y sobre lo que ha construido su ilusión de seguridad. Es precisamente en el mundo naval donde podemos nutrirnos de una gran cantidad de fuentes genealógicas si deseamos trazar la historia de los interfaces y de su estandarización. Y lo que descubrimos es que los aparatos tanto de utillaje (hardware) como de despliegue de información visual no siempre se estandarizaron porque fueran acaso los mejores, sino porque sencillamente permitían no cambiarlos demasiado a menudo. Decía el contralmirante británico John Narborough, desquiciado ante la falta de entusiasmo de sus marineros (de finales del siglo XVII) a la hora de adoptar los criterios cartográficos ideados por Mercator en 1569 (un siglo antes): “Desearía que todos los navegantes dejaran de viajar guiados por cartas falsas y que navegaran con la carta de Mercator, que va de acuerdo con la verdad de la navegación; pero es asunto difícil convencer a cualquiera de los viejos navegantes de que abandone su método empírico basado en la carta plana; a pesar de que se les muestre el mapamundi, insisten en hablar de sus viejos sistemas” <ref>Crone, G. R., 1953. 'Historia de los mapas. Traducción al castellano de L. Alaminos y J. Hernández Campos. 2000. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, p. 138.</ref>. A finales del siglo XV, apunta J. H. Parry, un navegante competente ya podía ir a tientas por el mundo con confianza razonable. Durante el viaje podía hacer cálculos bastante precisos de la posición de su nave, o de una costa o isla que acabara de descubrir. Sin embargo, no podía puntear en una carta con la misma precisión estas posiciones y los rumbos que llevaban a ellas: “Esto no se debía a ignorancia o falta de habilidad entre los cartógrafos marinos, sino que era más bien resultado del conservadurismo técnico de un oficio distinguido y acreditado. La arraigada excelencia de la carta portuguesa, en el campo donde había sido creada, obstaculizó los cambios técnicos que se necesitaban para confeccionar las cartas de otras zonas inmensamente mayores” <ref>Parry, J. H., 1974. El descubrimiento del mar. Traducción al castellano de J. Beltrán. 1989. Barcelona: Crítica, pp. 213-214.</ref>. Lucas Janszoon Waghenaer, piloto holandés que hizo mapas e instrucciones náuticas muy fiables a finales del siglo XVI, por primera vez con mareas y con indicaciones de sondeos, escribió que “lo que un hombre [...] ejercita, busca y observa por sí mismo, se asienta más rápidamente en la memoria que lo que aprende de otros.” Así, incluyó 36 páginas de instrucciones, entre ellos un diagrama indicando cómo encontrar la fecha de luna nueva sin necesidad de calendario o efemérides, una lista de las estrellas fijas y su uso, la declinación del Sol y la utilización de la misma, cómo encontrar la marea de todas las costas y cómo debía el navegante utilizar su propia carta personal <ref>Johnson, D. S., Nurminen, J., 2007. Historia de la navegación. Traducción al castellano de A. Delgado, V. Fajardo y B. Nonell. 2008. Barcelona: Planeta, p. 252.</ref>. Por lo que parece, Waghenaer se preocupó por una forma muy moderna de exploración, pero también de la paradoja que la acompaña: a partir de unas directrices generales, hágase usted mismo el sistema de exploración, registro y visualización de los datos, pero al mismo tiempo, tenga usted presente cómo van a entenderlo y usarlo los demás. En pocas palabras... “a ver cómo arreglamos esto de la estandarización entre lo suyo y lo de los demás”.
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Generally speaking, people are tremendously resistant to change. Is that good or bad? Polish-born writer Joseph Conrad, who was a sailor and thus familiar with a world subject to standardized procedures, claimed that Western man cannot abide explanations: we do not want technical or moral adventures that cast doubt on the certainties on which we have built our illusion of security. As it happens, we can turn to the world of ships and sailors for numerous genealogical sources that can help us chart the history of interfaces and of their standardisation. And what this history tells us is that in the case of both tools (hardware) and systems for displaying visual information, standardization did not always mean choosing the best option, but simply following a strategy that did not require frequent changes. Driven to despair by his sailors’ reluctance to adopt (in the late 17th century) the cartographic principles devised by Gerardus Mercator in 1569 (a century earlier), English naval commander Rear-Admiral Sir John Narborough said: “I could wish all Seamen would give over sailing by the false plain Card, and sail by Mercator's Chart, which is according to the truth of Navigation; But it is an hard matter to convince any of the old Navigators, from their Method of sailing by the Plain Chart; shew most of them the Globe, and yet they will walk in their wonted Road.”<ref>Crone, G. R., 1953. Maps and their Makers. Herts: Premier Press, p. 116.</ref>. According to the historian J. H. Parry, by the fifteenth century a competent sailor could already feel his way around the world with reasonable confidence. While at sea, he could quite accurately calculate the position of his ship, or of an unfamiliar coastline or an island he had just discovered. But he could not plot these positions, and the routes that led to them, on a chart with the same level of accuracy. “This was not the result of ignorance or lack of skill among marine cartographers, but rather of technical conservatism in a distinguished and well-established craft. The entrenched excellence of the portolan chart, in the area where it had been developed, hindered the technical changes needed for charting other and vastly larger areas.” <ref>Parry, J. H., 1974. El descubrimiento del mar. Traducción al castellano de J. Beltrán. 1989. Barcelona: Crítica, pp. 213-214. </ref>. Lucas Janszoon Waghenaer, a Dutch chief officer who produced very reliable nautical charts and instructions in the late sixteenth century – the first to include water depth and tidal variations – noted that the things a man practices, seeks, and observes first-hand become embedded in the memory more quickly that the things he learns from others. As such, he included 36 pages of instructions, including a diagram that showed how to calculate the date of a new moon without the need for a calendar or almanac, a list of fixed stars and their uses, the declination of the sun and how to use it, instructions for calculating the tides of any coastline, and how a sailor should use his own personal chart <ref>Parry, J. H., 1974. The Discovery of the Sea. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, p.153</ref>. It would seem that Waghenear took an interest in a very modern form of exploration, but also in the paradox that goes with it: use a series of general guidelines to make your own system of exploration, record-keeping and data visualisation, but don’t forget to think about how others will understand and use it. In short... “Let’s see how we can work out this standardization thing between my thing and everybody else’s.
  
Sin embargo, la estandarización de interfaces de usuario como el astrolabio y su posterior actualización en el sextante, y más adelante la palanca provista de un muelle en el telégrafo, el altavoz y el auricular del teléfono, o el volante del automóvil, tuvieron una difusión relativamente rápida, cuando no inmediata al menos en las tecnologías nacidas en el siglo XIX: los interfaces propuestos fueron pronto adoptados por los usuarios de aquellas tecnologías y se mantuvieron prácticamente incólumes durante el tiempo en que estuvieron vigentes. ¿Qué es lo que hace que un interface sea adoptado socialmente y que otro encuentre resistencias? ¿Sus mejoras respecto a modelos anteriores? Vemos que no siempre es así. La eficacia técnica no parece ser siempre la condición por la que algunos sistemas se imponen a otros: es lo que Bijker, Hughes, Pinch o Law llamaron ya hace años “ingeniería heterogénea”: “el modo en que los grupos sociales constituyen un entorno social juega un papel crítico en la definición y solución de los problemas que surgen en el desarrollo de un artefacto” <ref>Bijker, W. E., Hughes, T. P., Pinch T. J. (eds), 1987. The Social Construction of Technological Systems. Cambridge: MIT Press. Ver el capítulo de John Law, “Technology and Heterogeneous Engineering: The Case of Portuguese Expansion”, pp. 105-128.</ref>
 
. Más allá o más acá del determinismo tecnológico, existe una cosa de una fuerza a veces descomunal: la gente. Son los usuarios los que, más veces de las que pensamos, deciden estandarizar unos procedimientos, incluso a costa de los criterios “oficiales” del artefacto; lo que en la realidad analógica ocurre, por ejemplo, con los “caminos del deseo”, senderos creados con el tiempo por el uso de los vecinos de los espacios públicos (jardines, parques, etc.), ajenos a los caminos señalados oficialmente. Quien se enfrente a esos modelos, que se prepare para el fracaso, o en todo caso, para la tensión permanente, porque ¿no son cada vez más los usuarios de videojuegos que se ponen de acuerdo no sólo para proponer nuevos interfaces en determinados productos, sino que incluso se alían en campañas de acoso y derribo para llevar a cabo sus objetivos, logrando en no pocas ocasiones doblegar a las empresas?
 
  
Uno de los casos más paradigmáticos para encarar esta cuestión es el teclado QWERTY. No nos detendremos aquí en el estudio de este caso -el de la imposibilidad de cambiar el teclado estándar en la mayoría de países desde su concepción en 1868-, ya ampliamente tratado en la literatura científica correspondiente. Desde el ensayo de P. A. David en 1985, y su interpretación de cómo un teclado diseñado para corregir un defecto formal de la máquina de escribir de entonces y que daba como resultado la disminución de su eficacia funcional, hasta las más recientes aproximaciones que cuestionan aquella interpretación <ref>Ver David, P. A., 1985. “Clio and the Economics of QWERTY”. En The American Economic Review, vol. 75, no 2, mayo de 1985, pp. 332-337. Hay traducción al español: 2006. “Clio y la economía del Qwerty”. Traducción de Mario Piñera. En Revista Asturiana de Economía, no 37, pp. 23-31. Ver también Lewin, P., 2002. The Economics of Qwerty: History, Theory, Policy: Essays by Stan J. Liebowitz and Steven E. Margolis. New York: New York University Press.</ref>, lo importante es que ningún proyecto de transformación del teclado ha sido posible, ni en los años 1920 con la propuesta DVORAK, ni cuando Don Lancaster ofreció un teclado para televisor en 1973, ni con la aparición de las PDA en los años 1990 y poco más tarde los móviles inteligentes. ¿Por qué diantres seguimos con un teclado pensado para 10 dedos en dispositivos que operamos con los dos pulgares? ¿Es realmente posible que propuestas de diseño de teclado para móvil como KALQ, que ofrecen una aparente solución al problema, aumentando la facilidad de digitación así como la velocidad de escritura en un 34%, puedan llegar a tener éxito? <ref>The KALQ Keyboard es un proyecto elaborado desde 2013 por la Universidad de St. Andrews, The Max Planck Institute for Informatics y Montana Tech para el sistema Android.</ref> En pocas palabras, ¿no es también la estandarización un proceso por el que la gente simplemente no desea ciertos cambios –más allá de los de orden habitualmente estético-, sometiendo así a una terrible contradicción a todo el constructo económico y teleológico montado alrededor de la creatividad y el diseño técnicos? ¿Qué decirles a ingenieros eléctricos o industriales, a programadores o diseñadores gráficos, cuando todo el día están siendo interpelados sobre sus potenciales y quiméricas oportunidades de ser creativos en un entorno de una “gran volatilidad”?
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Nonetheless, the standardisation of mechanical user interfaces such as the astrolabe and its updated version, the sextant, the lever with the spring mechanism used in the electrical telegraph, loudspeakers, telephone headsets, and steering wheels, happened relatively quickly or sometimes even instantly, at least in the cases of nineteenth century technologies: the interfaces proposed by designers were quickly adopted by the users of those technologies, and remained practically unchanged during the whole time that they were in use. Why is one interface adopted by society while another encounters resistance? Is it because it is an improvement on earlier models? We know that this is not always so. Technical efficiency does not always appear to be the condition that leads some systems to prevail over others. According to what Bijker, Hughes, Pinch and Law called “heterogeneous engineering” years ago, “the social groups that constitute the social environment play a critical role in defining and solving the problems that arise during the development of an artefact.” <ref>Bijker, W. E., Hughes, T. P., Pinch T. J. (eds), 1987. The Social Construction of Technological Systems. Cambridge: MIT Press. See the chapter by John Law, “Technology and Heterogeneous Engineering: The Case of Portuguese Expansion”, pp. 105-128.</ref>
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But aside from technological determinism, there is something else that can have enormous power: people. More often than we realise, users themselves decide to standardize procedures, even at the expense of “official” procedure. An example of this phenomenon in the analogue world is the so-called “desire paths” that are created over time by people taking routes (often shortcuts) other than the official constructed paths in public spaces (gardens, parks, etc.). Anybody who tries to go against these actions should be prepared to fail, or at least to be in a constant state of tension. For example, an increasing number of gamers get together not only to propose new interfaces for certain video games, but to pool their energies in harass-and-destroy campaigns to achieve their aims, often bending companies to their wills.
  
El físico James C. Maxwell, uno de los padres de la noción moderna de interface como campo de conocimiento en sí mismo, se maravillaba de la simplicidad interficial del recién nacido teléfono: “El locutor habla al transmisor en un extremo de la línea, y al otro extremo de la línea el oyente pega su oído al receptor y escucha lo que le dice el locutor. El proceso en sus dos extremos es tan exactamente similar al anticuado método de hablar y escuchar que no hace falta ninguna práctica preparatoria por parte de ninguno de los operadores” <ref>Gleick, J., 2011. La información. Historia y realidad. Traducción de J. Rabasseda y T. de Lozoya, 2012. Barcelona: Crítica, pp. 192-193.</ref>
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One of the most paradigmatic cases in this sense is the QWERTY keyboard. We won’t go into details of the problem – the impossibility of changing the standard keyboard in most countries since it was designed in 1868 – given that it is widely discussed in relevant academic literature. From P. A. David’s 1985 essay on how the keyboard was designed to fix a design fault in typewriters at the time but reduced its efficiency, to more recent approaches that question David’s interpretation <ref>See David, P. A., 1985. “Clio and the Economics of QWERTY”, In The American Economic Review, vol. 75, no 2, May 1985, pp. 332-337. See also Lewin, P., 2002. The Economics of Qwerty: History, Theory, Policy: Essays by Stan J. Liebowitz and Steven E. Margolis, New York: New York University Press.</ref>, the key thing is that no attempt to change the keyboard has come to fruition. Not the DVORAK proposal in the 1920s, not Don Lancaster’s “TV Typewriter” in 1973, and not the introduction of PDAs in the nineties, followed by smartphones a little later. Why the devil do we still use a keyboard designed for ten fingers in devices that we operate with two thumbs? Will proposals for mobile-specific keyboard designs, such as KALQ – which apparently solves the problem and increases ease of use and typing speed by 34% – end up being successful? <ref>The KALQ Keyboard is a project for the Android operating system that has been under development since 2013 at St Andrews University, The Max Planck Institute for Informatics, and Montana Tech.
. ¡Qué naturalización ofrece el interface!: no te das cuenta de que lo usas. Cuanto más se asemeje el procedimiento a la vida misma, más la vida se parece al instrumento.
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</ref> In short, doesn’t standardisation also have to do with a process by which people simply don’t want certain changes, other than the usual aesthetic ones? And doesn’t this terribly contradict the whole economic and technological construct around technological design and creativity? What should we be saying to electrical and industrial engineers, programmers, and graphic designers who are constantly under pressure to make use of the potential, chimerical opportunities to be creative in a “highly volatile” environment?
  
Esta correspondencia es la quintaesencia del relato que desde los años 1980 se cultivó entre las nociones de interface y transparencia en especial en el marco de los primeros años de la expansión comercial de Internet, por ejemplo en ''The Knowledge Navigator'', una ficción videográfica encargada en 1987 por el entonces Director Ejecutivo de Apple, John Sculley, quien había escrito un libro titulado ''Odissey'' (inspirándose en la película ''Odisea en el espacio'' de Stanley Kubrick -1968-), que finalizaba con la idea de un “navegador del conocimiento” universal y unipersonal. Sculley deseaba ilustrar el interface del futuro, más allá del ratón y los menús, en el marco de un proceso evolutivo hacia una relación simbiótica entre utensilio y usuario tendente en última instancia a la desaparición misma del interface gracias a su naturalización en la transparencia. El interface devendría tan natural que dejaría de estar presente. Según Nicholas Negroponte, gurú aquellos días de la vida digital y de la promesa biotecnológica, y quien dio extensa noticia del proyecto, el secreto de un diseño de interface verdaderamente perfecto -como el que auguraba Sculley- radicaba en que “desapareciera” (''make it go away'') <ref>Negroponte, N., 1995. Being Digital. New York: Vintage, p. 93.</ref>. Esa era su verdadera naturaleza estandarizada. ¿Qué mejor estandarización –se imaginaban estos sacerdotes- que la no se ve?
 
  
Así, la estandarización pasa indefectiblemente por una cadena de funciones condicionada por el último eslabón: que el usuario pierda el miedo a explorar, pero, ¿a explorar el qué? En la década de 1990, en plena expansión de la informática ofrecida como electrodoméstico ''do-it-yourself'' y como utensilio de creatividad productiva -más allá de sus aplicaciones comerciales-, proliferará toda una batería de referencias a la exploración, tanto en términos de metáfora de usabilidad como de imaginario biocomunicacional. En referencia a la usabilidad, la exploración se construyó en términos de ''consistencia'', “aquello que permite a la gente transferir su conocimiento y habilidades de una aplicación a otra” (Apple, 1992). La consistencia de los ''Graphic User Interface'' (GUI) se argumentó gracias a la estandarización de los procesos de usabilidad, lo que proyectaba una mayor explorabilidad de los sistemas en la medida en que también se estandarizaban los mecanismos de anulación de acciones no deseadas (''undo-cancel''), un elemento sustancial para difundir los GUI entre usuarios inexpertos.
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The physicist James C. Maxwell, one of the fathers of the modern notion of the interface as a field of knowledge, was amazed by the interfacial simplicity of the first telephone: “The speaker talks to the transmitter at one end of the line, and at the other end of the line the listener puts his ear to the receiver and hears what the speaker said. The process in its two extreme states is so exactly similar to the old-fashioned method of speaking and hearing that no preparatory practice is required on the part of either operator.”<ref>Gleick, J., 2011. The Information. A History, a Theory, a Flood, (London: Harper Collins)</ref>
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. The interface has an amazing naturalising effect! You don’t realise you are using it. The more the procedure resembles life itself, the more life resembles the instrument.  
  
La cadena formada por “usabilidad + consistencia” fijaba un estándar operativo que debía facilitar que los usuarios, una vez habían reconocido el procedimiento de uso de una aplicación o de un sistema, no tendrían reparo en aceptar voluntariamente la aproximación a aplicaciones o sistemas similares, siempre y cuando tuvieran la certeza de que realmente funcionaban igual, esto es, que podían deshacer la órdenes dadas. Mientras en los interfaces de utillaje (hardware) -por ejemplo, los de conducción de un automóvil (volante, pedales, palancas)-, la cuestión residía en la estandarización de un modelo de aprendizaje y uso, por el cual una vez conducido un coche ya los conducías todos, en los interfaces gráficos informáticos, la estandarización pasaba también por una definición unificada del usuario: potenciales idiotas que, sobre todo, anhelaban deshacer sus continuos errores. Para conducir, necesitas pasar un examen oficial regulado por la autoridad. Para “conducir-te” en la pantalla digital, no hay examen, más allá de tu amor propio, de tu curiosidad y de tus inclinaciones productivas, que siempre vienen protegidas por el Ctrl+Z.
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This relationship is at the heart of the narrative that developed from the eighties onwards in relation to the interface and transparency, particularly in the framework of the early years of the commercial expansion of the Internet. There was The Knowledge Navigator, for instance, a fictional video commissioned in 1987 by Apple’s Executive Director at the time, John Sculley, who had written a book entitled Odyssey (based on Stalney Kubrik’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey), which ended with the idea of a universal “knowledge navigator” for individual use. Sculley wanted to illustrate the interface of the future, beyond mouse and menus, in the context of an evolutionary process towards a symbiotic relationship between user and machine, ultimately tending towards the disappearance of the interface as a result of its transparency and subsequent naturalisation. The interface would become so natural that it would no longer be there. According to the digital life and biotech guru Nicholas Negroponte, who wrote extensively on the project, the secret of a truly perfect interface – like the one Sculley promised – was to “make it go away”.<ref>Negroponte, N., 1995. Being Digital. New York: Vintage, p. 93.</ref>. That was its true standardized nature. What better standardization – these high priests imagined – than the one you do not see?
  
La explorabilidad, por consiguiente, es el valor último por el cual los dispositivos digitales se han estandarizado. No obstante, en otro lugar ya nos preguntamos hasta qué punto han sido los GUI el vehículo de estandarización o más bien ha sido el medio pantalla el que lo ha permitido <ref>Marzo, J. L., 2012. “La colonización de las pantallas. Sobre la exposición Pantalla Global”. En www.soymenos.wordpress.com</ref>
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So standardization invariably involves a chain of functions conditioned by the final stage: to make the user lose his fear of exploring. But of exploring what? In the nineties, when computers were being marketed as a kind of do-it-yourself household appliance and a tool for productive creativity – beyond its commercial uses – there was a proliferation of a whole range of references to exploration, as a metaphor of usability and in relation to the imaginary of biocommunication. In terms of usability, exploration was linked to the “consistency” of interfaces that would allow people to “transfer their knowledge and skills from one application to any other.(Apple, 1992) The argument in favour of the consistency of Graphic User Interfaces (GUIs) was based on the standardization of usability processes, which promised greater system explorability based on the standardization of a function for deleting undesired actions (undo-cancel), which was crucial for disseminating GUIs among non-expert users.  
. Desde luego, todo es una cuestión de control, de “prognosis”. Que el radar –''monitor'', del griego, “el que advierte”- acabara siendo expresión gráfica de las computadoras, algo dice, pero que fuera el televisor el que tomara el mando dice aún más. Cuando a principios de los años 1980, la tele doméstica tuvo que competir con el VHS, la consola del videojuego y las primeras CPU, lo que pasó es que el televisor se independizó de la televisión, adhiriéndose infinitamente a todo cacharro que se pusiera por delante. El televisor –desde entonces llamado ''pantalla'' para diferenciarse de aquello que había en la sala de estar- colonizó el mundo y se convirtió en la plataforma para que todos los GUI fuera exactamente iguales: iconos simples desplegados en cascada o mediante todo tipo de variantes siempre que se ofrecieran como archivos navegables. La estandarización no fue otra cosa que la conciencia de que la comunicación con las máquinas (o sea, con otros usuarios) se basaba en los archivos. Usted es un archivo, admítalo, forma parte del archivo. Así que se trata de hacer un archivo agradable y comprensible, que, en definitiva, no se vea. La pantalla y la navegabilidad por el archivo –''anytime, anywhere''- son los principios rectores de la estandarización. Los GUI son en realidad un tema secundario, un efecto. Lo realmente importante es que la causa aparezca “sin importancia”. La explorabilidad se define, por consiguiente, en la ausencia de exploración de las causas para así facilitar la exploración de los efectos.
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Si usted va a comprar una lavadora, el vendedor vendrá a decirle ante sus dudas sobre si adquirir ésta o aquella: “ésta tiene muchos botones y ''displays'', pero si se rompe, la reparación le costará el doble, ya que hay que reprogramarla, tiene que venir un técnico especializado, etc. Aún peor, puede que la máquina de lavar siga intacta y lo único que falle sea el software del ''display''. Mire usted, la otra, sin tanta pantalla, funciona igual de bien”. La estandarización responde a menudo a la mera estandarización estética ofrecida por la tecnofilia, por la cual el rigor, la automatización y la seguridad se mide en números, iconos y despliegue de funciones; en la ilusión de un control biotécnico. Me contaba un vendedor de lavadoras que cuando le dice al cliente que no hay una directa correlación entre los ''displays'' digitales de información y el rendimiento real de la máquina, la gran mayoría de ellos concluyen: “Sí, la verdad, es que tantos gráficos y funciones me vuelven loco. Sobre todo quiero la que funcione mejor”. El proceso de interfacialización del mundo que nos rodea no es meramente un mundo mejor, sino acaso un mundo más estetizado, pero ¿quien fija el canon estético o funcional?. Si las “varitas mágicas” hacen lo que pido, ya me está bien; si las lavadoras funcionan igual con dos botones que con una pantalla llena de signos cambiantes, ya me conviene. “Me está bien a mi”, ya se encargarán las empresas de adaptarse: “a ver cómo arreglamos esto de la estandarización entre lo mío y lo de los demás”.
+
The “usability + consistency” chain set an operating standard in which users who had understood the procedure for using a particular programme or system would then have no qualms about voluntarily exploring similar programmes or systems, as long as they were sure that they really worked in the same way. In other words, that they would be able to undo the orders they gave. While the question of hardware interfaces – such as the interface for driving a car: steering wheel, pedals, hand gears – simply had to do with a learning model in which once you learnt to drive one car you could drive all cars, the standardization of computer graphic interfaces also meant generating a unified definition of “users”: potential idiots who wished to undo their constant errors above all else. Being able to drive requires you to pass an official exam regulated by the authorities. But you can “drive yourself” on a digital screen without passing any exams, aside from your self confidence, your curiosity, and your productive inclinations, which are always protected by Ctrl+Z.
 +
 
 +
Explorability is thus the ultimate value by which digital devices have been standardized. Nonetheless, there is still the question, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, of the extent to which GUIs – as opposed to screens – have been the channel for standardization. <ref>Marzo, J. L., 2012. “La colonización de las pantallas. Sobre la exposición Pantalla Global”. En www.soymenos.wordpress.com</ref>
 +
Of course, it is all a matter of control, of “prognosis”. The fact that the monitor – from the Greek for “he who warns” – has ended up being the graphic hardware expression of computers is significant. And the fact that television took the lead is even more so. When domestic television had to compete with VHS, video game consoles and the first CPUs in the early eighties, the TV set broke free of television as a medium, attaching itself infinitely to all devices that came near. The TV – which became known as the “screen” from then on to differentiate it from the TV set in the living room – colonised the world and became the platform that made all GUIs exactly the same: simple cascading icons or variations, always presented as browsable files. Standardization was simply the awareness that communication with machines (that is, with other users), was based on files. You are a file, admit it, you are part of the archive. So the idea is to make an agreeable, easy to understand archive, which is essentially invisible. Screens and the ability to browse through the archive – anytime, anywhere – are the governing principles of standardization. GUIs are actually a secondary matter, an effect. The really important thing is that the cause has to appear to be “unimportant”. Explorability is thus defined in an absence of exploring causes, in favour of exploring effects.
 +
 
 +
If you go to a store to buy a new washing machine, the salesman will come and answer your doubts about which model to choose: “This one has a whole lot of buttons and displays, but if it breaks down it will cost twice as much to fix, because it has to be reprogrammed, a specialist technician has to come, etc. Worse still, perhaps the washing machine is fine and only the software for the information display is broken, but even so you can’t use it. The other one without all those screens works just as well.” Standardization is often simply the aesthetic standardization stemming from technophilia, in which rigour, automation, and security are measured in numbers, icons, and the display of functions; in the illusion of biotechnical control. A washing machine salesman once told me that when he tells customers that there is no direct correlation between the digital information displays and the real performance of the washing machine, they usually say: “The truth is that all those graphics and functions drive me crazy. I just want the one that works best.” The “interfacialization” of the world that is going on around us is not just about creating a better world, but perhaps a more aestheticized world. But who determines the aesthetic or functional cannon? If “magic wands” do what I ask them to, that’s good enough for me. If a washing machine with two buttons works as one with a screen full of changing symbols, that’s fine. That suits me, the companies can go to the trouble of adapting: “let’s see how we can fix this standardization between my thing everybody else’s.
 +
 
 +
What is really behind the relationship between the transparency, illusion, simplicity, consistency, domesticity, explorability, standardization, and interconnection of interfaces? Who responds to whom, about what?
  
La relación entre transparencia, ilusionismo, simplicidad, consistencia, domesticidad, explorabilidad, estandarización e interconexión entre los interfaces, ¿a qué responde, en realidad? ¿quién responde a quién y sobre qué?
 
  
 
<references ->
 
<references ->

Latest revision as of 15:54, 26 November 2015

Interfaces: Standardization or Standard-Action?

By Jorge Luis Marzo

What would aliens say if they saw us running applications with buttons that represent “magic wands”, “buckets pouring liquids”, “lassoes to catch animals”, “sponges”, “drops of water”, “erasers”, “droppers” and “ink pads”? Would they laugh? Would they think that these metaphors are ingenious because they are so easy to understand? Going by what science fiction writers and screenwriters have imagined, the aliens are unlikely to laugh about it, given that few of these writers have been able to go beyond the imaginary threshold of the GUIs we have created when they imagine little green or metallic men. An exception may be Stanislaw Lem and his tales of Pirx the pilot with his malfunctioning interfaces [1]. Naturally, we could quickly argue in favour of the power of domestic metaphors and the notion of consistency, which appears to be immovable once it has been deployed. But what if the aliens saw those buttons as a sign of the unstoppable force of a social magma that refuses to submit to certain updates? The “magic wand” may be a silly detail, the result or reflection of what engineers in the seventies had in mind in regard to the stupidity of the users they were designing for, with their promises of simplicity, readability, and browsability. But it may also be one of the “acts” or “verbs” in which social groups come together in order to avoid being totally broken in.

Generally speaking, people are tremendously resistant to change. Is that good or bad? Polish-born writer Joseph Conrad, who was a sailor and thus familiar with a world subject to standardized procedures, claimed that Western man cannot abide explanations: we do not want technical or moral adventures that cast doubt on the certainties on which we have built our illusion of security. As it happens, we can turn to the world of ships and sailors for numerous genealogical sources that can help us chart the history of interfaces and of their standardisation. And what this history tells us is that in the case of both tools (hardware) and systems for displaying visual information, standardization did not always mean choosing the best option, but simply following a strategy that did not require frequent changes. Driven to despair by his sailors’ reluctance to adopt (in the late 17th century) the cartographic principles devised by Gerardus Mercator in 1569 (a century earlier), English naval commander Rear-Admiral Sir John Narborough said: “I could wish all Seamen would give over sailing by the false plain Card, and sail by Mercator's Chart, which is according to the truth of Navigation; But it is an hard matter to convince any of the old Navigators, from their Method of sailing by the Plain Chart; shew most of them the Globe, and yet they will walk in their wonted Road.”[2]. According to the historian J. H. Parry, by the fifteenth century a competent sailor could already feel his way around the world with reasonable confidence. While at sea, he could quite accurately calculate the position of his ship, or of an unfamiliar coastline or an island he had just discovered. But he could not plot these positions, and the routes that led to them, on a chart with the same level of accuracy. “This was not the result of ignorance or lack of skill among marine cartographers, but rather of technical conservatism in a distinguished and well-established craft. The entrenched excellence of the portolan chart, in the area where it had been developed, hindered the technical changes needed for charting other and vastly larger areas.” [3]. Lucas Janszoon Waghenaer, a Dutch chief officer who produced very reliable nautical charts and instructions in the late sixteenth century – the first to include water depth and tidal variations – noted that the things a man practices, seeks, and observes first-hand become embedded in the memory more quickly that the things he learns from others. As such, he included 36 pages of instructions, including a diagram that showed how to calculate the date of a new moon without the need for a calendar or almanac, a list of fixed stars and their uses, the declination of the sun and how to use it, instructions for calculating the tides of any coastline, and how a sailor should use his own personal chart [4]. It would seem that Waghenear took an interest in a very modern form of exploration, but also in the paradox that goes with it: use a series of general guidelines to make your own system of exploration, record-keeping and data visualisation, but don’t forget to think about how others will understand and use it. In short... “Let’s see how we can work out this standardization thing between my thing and everybody else’s.”


Nonetheless, the standardisation of mechanical user interfaces such as the astrolabe and its updated version, the sextant, the lever with the spring mechanism used in the electrical telegraph, loudspeakers, telephone headsets, and steering wheels, happened relatively quickly or sometimes even instantly, at least in the cases of nineteenth century technologies: the interfaces proposed by designers were quickly adopted by the users of those technologies, and remained practically unchanged during the whole time that they were in use. Why is one interface adopted by society while another encounters resistance? Is it because it is an improvement on earlier models? We know that this is not always so. Technical efficiency does not always appear to be the condition that leads some systems to prevail over others. According to what Bijker, Hughes, Pinch and Law called “heterogeneous engineering” years ago, “the social groups that constitute the social environment play a critical role in defining and solving the problems that arise during the development of an artefact.” [5] But aside from technological determinism, there is something else that can have enormous power: people. More often than we realise, users themselves decide to standardize procedures, even at the expense of “official” procedure. An example of this phenomenon in the analogue world is the so-called “desire paths” that are created over time by people taking routes (often shortcuts) other than the official constructed paths in public spaces (gardens, parks, etc.). Anybody who tries to go against these actions should be prepared to fail, or at least to be in a constant state of tension. For example, an increasing number of gamers get together not only to propose new interfaces for certain video games, but to pool their energies in harass-and-destroy campaigns to achieve their aims, often bending companies to their wills.

One of the most paradigmatic cases in this sense is the QWERTY keyboard. We won’t go into details of the problem – the impossibility of changing the standard keyboard in most countries since it was designed in 1868 – given that it is widely discussed in relevant academic literature. From P. A. David’s 1985 essay on how the keyboard was designed to fix a design fault in typewriters at the time but reduced its efficiency, to more recent approaches that question David’s interpretation [6], the key thing is that no attempt to change the keyboard has come to fruition. Not the DVORAK proposal in the 1920s, not Don Lancaster’s “TV Typewriter” in 1973, and not the introduction of PDAs in the nineties, followed by smartphones a little later. Why the devil do we still use a keyboard designed for ten fingers in devices that we operate with two thumbs? Will proposals for mobile-specific keyboard designs, such as KALQ – which apparently solves the problem and increases ease of use and typing speed by 34% – end up being successful? [7] In short, doesn’t standardisation also have to do with a process by which people simply don’t want certain changes, other than the usual aesthetic ones? And doesn’t this terribly contradict the whole economic and technological construct around technological design and creativity? What should we be saying to electrical and industrial engineers, programmers, and graphic designers who are constantly under pressure to make use of the potential, chimerical opportunities to be creative in a “highly volatile” environment?


The physicist James C. Maxwell, one of the fathers of the modern notion of the interface as a field of knowledge, was amazed by the interfacial simplicity of the first telephone: “The speaker talks to the transmitter at one end of the line, and at the other end of the line the listener puts his ear to the receiver and hears what the speaker said. The process in its two extreme states is so exactly similar to the old-fashioned method of speaking and hearing that no preparatory practice is required on the part of either operator.”[8] . The interface has an amazing naturalising effect! You don’t realise you are using it. The more the procedure resembles life itself, the more life resembles the instrument.

This relationship is at the heart of the narrative that developed from the eighties onwards in relation to the interface and transparency, particularly in the framework of the early years of the commercial expansion of the Internet. There was The Knowledge Navigator, for instance, a fictional video commissioned in 1987 by Apple’s Executive Director at the time, John Sculley, who had written a book entitled Odyssey (based on Stalney Kubrik’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey), which ended with the idea of a universal “knowledge navigator” for individual use. Sculley wanted to illustrate the interface of the future, beyond mouse and menus, in the context of an evolutionary process towards a symbiotic relationship between user and machine, ultimately tending towards the disappearance of the interface as a result of its transparency and subsequent naturalisation. The interface would become so natural that it would no longer be there. According to the digital life and biotech guru Nicholas Negroponte, who wrote extensively on the project, the secret of a truly perfect interface – like the one Sculley promised – was to “make it go away”.[9]. That was its true standardized nature. What better standardization – these high priests imagined – than the one you do not see?

So standardization invariably involves a chain of functions conditioned by the final stage: to make the user lose his fear of exploring. But of exploring what? In the nineties, when computers were being marketed as a kind of do-it-yourself household appliance and a tool for productive creativity – beyond its commercial uses – there was a proliferation of a whole range of references to exploration, as a metaphor of usability and in relation to the imaginary of biocommunication. In terms of usability, exploration was linked to the “consistency” of interfaces that would allow people to “transfer their knowledge and skills from one application to any other.” (Apple, 1992) The argument in favour of the consistency of Graphic User Interfaces (GUIs) was based on the standardization of usability processes, which promised greater system explorability based on the standardization of a function for deleting undesired actions (undo-cancel), which was crucial for disseminating GUIs among non-expert users.

The “usability + consistency” chain set an operating standard in which users who had understood the procedure for using a particular programme or system would then have no qualms about voluntarily exploring similar programmes or systems, as long as they were sure that they really worked in the same way. In other words, that they would be able to undo the orders they gave. While the question of hardware interfaces – such as the interface for driving a car: steering wheel, pedals, hand gears – simply had to do with a learning model in which once you learnt to drive one car you could drive all cars, the standardization of computer graphic interfaces also meant generating a unified definition of “users”: potential idiots who wished to undo their constant errors above all else. Being able to drive requires you to pass an official exam regulated by the authorities. But you can “drive yourself” on a digital screen without passing any exams, aside from your self confidence, your curiosity, and your productive inclinations, which are always protected by Ctrl+Z.

Explorability is thus the ultimate value by which digital devices have been standardized. Nonetheless, there is still the question, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, of the extent to which GUIs – as opposed to screens – have been the channel for standardization. [10] Of course, it is all a matter of control, of “prognosis”. The fact that the monitor – from the Greek for “he who warns” – has ended up being the graphic hardware expression of computers is significant. And the fact that television took the lead is even more so. When domestic television had to compete with VHS, video game consoles and the first CPUs in the early eighties, the TV set broke free of television as a medium, attaching itself infinitely to all devices that came near. The TV – which became known as the “screen” from then on to differentiate it from the TV set in the living room – colonised the world and became the platform that made all GUIs exactly the same: simple cascading icons or variations, always presented as browsable files. Standardization was simply the awareness that communication with machines (that is, with other users), was based on files. You are a file, admit it, you are part of the archive. So the idea is to make an agreeable, easy to understand archive, which is essentially invisible. Screens and the ability to browse through the archive – anytime, anywhere – are the governing principles of standardization. GUIs are actually a secondary matter, an effect. The really important thing is that the cause has to appear to be “unimportant”. Explorability is thus defined in an absence of exploring causes, in favour of exploring effects.

If you go to a store to buy a new washing machine, the salesman will come and answer your doubts about which model to choose: “This one has a whole lot of buttons and displays, but if it breaks down it will cost twice as much to fix, because it has to be reprogrammed, a specialist technician has to come, etc. Worse still, perhaps the washing machine is fine and only the software for the information display is broken, but even so you can’t use it. The other one without all those screens works just as well.” Standardization is often simply the aesthetic standardization stemming from technophilia, in which rigour, automation, and security are measured in numbers, icons, and the display of functions; in the illusion of biotechnical control. A washing machine salesman once told me that when he tells customers that there is no direct correlation between the digital information displays and the real performance of the washing machine, they usually say: “The truth is that all those graphics and functions drive me crazy. I just want the one that works best.” The “interfacialization” of the world that is going on around us is not just about creating a better world, but perhaps a more aestheticized world. But who determines the aesthetic or functional cannon? If “magic wands” do what I ask them to, that’s good enough for me. If a washing machine with two buttons works as one with a screen full of changing symbols, that’s fine. That suits me, the companies can go to the trouble of adapting: “let’s see how we can fix this standardization between my thing everybody else’s.”

What is really behind the relationship between the transparency, illusion, simplicity, consistency, domesticity, explorability, standardization, and interconnection of interfaces? Who responds to whom, about what?


  1. Stanislaw, L. 1979. “On Patrol”, in Tales of Pirx the Pilot, English translation by Louis Iribarne, NewYork:Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  2. Crone, G. R., 1953. Maps and their Makers. Herts: Premier Press, p. 116.
  3. Parry, J. H., 1974. El descubrimiento del mar. Traducción al castellano de J. Beltrán. 1989. Barcelona: Crítica, pp. 213-214.
  4. Parry, J. H., 1974. The Discovery of the Sea. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, p.153
  5. Bijker, W. E., Hughes, T. P., Pinch T. J. (eds), 1987. The Social Construction of Technological Systems. Cambridge: MIT Press. See the chapter by John Law, “Technology and Heterogeneous Engineering: The Case of Portuguese Expansion”, pp. 105-128.
  6. See David, P. A., 1985. “Clio and the Economics of QWERTY”, In The American Economic Review, vol. 75, no 2, May 1985, pp. 332-337. See also Lewin, P., 2002. The Economics of Qwerty: History, Theory, Policy: Essays by Stan J. Liebowitz and Steven E. Margolis, New York: New York University Press.
  7. The KALQ Keyboard is a project for the Android operating system that has been under development since 2013 at St Andrews University, The Max Planck Institute for Informatics, and Montana Tech.
  8. Gleick, J., 2011. The Information. A History, a Theory, a Flood, (London: Harper Collins)
  9. Negroponte, N., 1995. Being Digital. New York: Vintage, p. 93.
  10. Marzo, J. L., 2012. “La colonización de las pantallas. Sobre la exposición Pantalla Global”. En www.soymenos.wordpress.com