Nadie nos dijo que había más botones Por Quelic Berga

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Reflexions for Deciding to Go Under, or Nobody Told Us There Were More Buttons

Part 1: We are living in a realized virtuality, and we travel through interfaces

We are part of the first generations to embark on this fascinating adventure. We have enjoyed the privilege of being among the first users to experience, discover and inhabit the net. And many people have euphorically praised this revolution.

n1996, for instance, Sherry Turkle gave a TED talk to launch her new book, and she was soon on the cover of Wired Magazine[1] praising the virtual world’s power to develop our personalities and social capacities [2] It is surprising to see how quickly we have made the change. My parents met in an analogical world, with no mobiles or internet. Now, meeting somebody involves seeing their profile, following them, and sniffing out their traces on the net. The fact that we can access all this information, that we have overcome the limits of distance through telecommunications, and achieved immediacy of communication from almost anywhere in the world, has changed who we are and how we behave. We have huge amounts of information at our fingertips, and we increasingly rely on the recommendations of algorithms and software systems. In fact, if my parents had met today, the role of cupid would probably have been played by an algorithm capable of predicting a high level of compatibility between them. But as Sherry Turkle wrote in 2012, the quality of their relationship by this time would probably be so mediated by short messages, fragmentation, technology, and the “lack” of time, that their capacity to empathise may have been compromised. Sixteen years later, Turkle’s discourse had turned around, and she now warns that younger generations are losing certain social skills. Sure we want to be connected, but just enough to feel that we are not wasting time or risking too much. I wonder whether I would even have been born in this scenario.

We have moved from a tangible, solid, physical environment to a much more fragmented and flexible environment based on information. Multitasking is in fashion, sharing is in fashion, being popular is in fashion. We are enjoying a time of intense interaction between humans and machines. And it all happens through human-designed interfaces.

This text reflects on certain aspects that can help us to avoid floundering and going under, or at least think about how to take them helm and generate a bit of debate. Welcome aboard.

Welcome aboard.


Design is emotional

An interface is the interactive layer between a person and a machine: the movement of our fingers gliding over a glass surface, for example. Buttons and icons. Graphic and tangible interfaces are the parts that we can see and touch in this world we are immersed in. The interface is the contact surface between the computer bits (0s and 1s) and our wishes... and it is a designed space.

Design is emotional – visceral, as Donald Norman puts it.[3].

It is curious to note that design always appeals to our feelings: we can like it or it can bother us, it can seem friendly or violent, discreet or rude; sometimes it can even seem that there is no design at all, it seems neutral or invisible. But it is inevitable, it is there. Design has connotations, and although it sometimes presents itself as rational or neutral it always speaks to our senses and perceptions, it always evokes feelings that subtly or explicitly affect us.

Interfaces always involve design because they are the structure and form of whatever we interact with. Marshall McLuhan said that the medium is the message, and the graphic user interface (GUI) is now the medium for many of our messages.

Interface design includes disciplines such as usability and user experience design. In this world increasingly full of design and of interfaces, we are often considered “users”, but this is an arguable term. It is not an asymmetrical relationship; we are also inhabitants of the net, citizens of a global village, creators and generators of relationships [point for the manifesto]. We create things by using them; each step is a decision. We set the course, we are the navigators. The net exists thanks to our participation, and our participation is enhanced and mediated by interfaces. It is up to people like you and I to decide whether we become inhabitants or users of the net.

Faith, drugs, and lies

Over time, certain habits are normalized. And new dynamics are generated, often at vertiginous speeds. Below, three texts in a more literary tone.


Every day I pray and I recharge my batteries

Finally, a religion for all! Omnipotent, omnipresent, and formless. Oracles, bits, and a lot of faith.

New entities manage the lightness of our being. With them, we negotiate a world that is pleasant, happy, and free. We don’t think they have imposed it on us, we simply worship them. We make donations and offerings, we faithfully defend them in the name of progress, liberty, and wellbeing, and we use them every day.

It is a religion of telecommunications towers on the altars of cities, of small rosaries of coloured buttons that we religiously carry in our pockets all day long. We are guided by new oracles, predictive algorithms, statistics, and big data.

We follow its postulates: popularity, effectiveness, productivity, transparency, and lots of gigabytes. A mix that promises we will not feel lost.

The heroes who try to stir up this delicious system from within have been persecuted by powerful governments. Heretics are punished, publicly shamed on the mass media and social networks. Because we are the pious believers that, consciously or unconsciously, want the system to work like this. We have to be and wish to be devoured by this new faith.

We play at being critical using the system’s tools, we enjoy the illusion of freedom and of many, many, updates.

We are happy, we live through interface, and we charge our batteries every day.

[fragment of the work in progress God(fe)]


I’m on a new drug... iSurf

I belong to the big corporations, they are my suppliers, my dealers. I need them, but above all, I love them!

I’m lost in this postmodern world... but I was born into an analogue environment. My parents tried LSD, I started with TCP/IP.

I see through pixels, I love through interfaces, I live on the net.

The limits of my identity have shifted. I am a represented being, now I am weightless, now I am data.

My ego grows: I am bigger than myself, I don’t fit in my body.

I can’t stop editing my past, uploading myself, updating and filling in new profiles, sharing my importance and hiding my impotence.

- Sorry, my body is empty, but I can show you all my avatars -

I have given away all my data, slowly losing my faith in freedom. I was never quite sure what I was doing.

I am so high that I can act while barely moving. I am a tireless explorer, I can’t stop.

I’m on a new drug... iSurf

[fragment of the project iAm http://iam.caotic.net]


Lies

In 1984, Apple broadcast a legendary ad during the Super Bowl. It started with a grey set, in which citizens were under the regime of Big Brother. Fortunately, a chirpy blonde young woman dressed in sporty clothes appeared, dodged the anti-riot police, and smashed the huge monitor that watched over us all. The ad concluded with a portentous voiceover: “On January 24th, Apple Computer will present Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like Nineteen Eighty-Four”.

They were launching a personal computer with a revolutionary interface that allowed users to understand without having to understand... We loved it. That’s the power of things that work without requiring much thought. Twenty years later Apple would become one of the world’s largest companies, filling our pockets with touchscreen devices equipped with fingerprint readers, geolocation and webcams that can analyse our facial expressions.

We all like things that are simple, elegant, and easy to use. But I think that we also like sincerity and honesty. I’d even venture to say that we like to be tricked and seduced, but what are we willing to sacrifice in exchange?

HSome interfaces are designed to favour interactivity, while others are designed to generate addiction[4], . Some tools promote freedom, others promote control.

We need more singular interfaces; interfaces for people who are lazy, shy, or don’t like to boast; for people who are slow or live quietly; for weirdoes, for radicals, for poor people and for free spirits.

If art is of any use, it should be used to make us more sensitive, better educated, and more conscious: more human. Design won’t make us free, nor will advertising or technology. Only people like you and I will make us free.

Part 3: Seeing the tree... and the forest

Graphic interfaces are designed by humans, and they often communicate through metaphors on different levels, from the icons and users that we interact with to the spatial arrangement and order and the basic metaphor of the interface. There is no real recycling bin in your PC, you do not have 530 people following you, and you didn’t save anything on any cloud. But these conventions help us to understand certain processes.

As we will see below, this use of metaphors is sometimes an advantage and sometimes a nuisance. In any case, it is worth paying attention to the layer of metaphor. A particular tool, operating system, or digital platform usually follows a single metaphor, and we are usually happy about this. For example, the famous bitmap image editing software called Photoshop is based on the metaphor of a photo lab (hence its name), but users don’t really develop photographs, or retouch with paintbrushes, or use masks. It is all computing. But it makes sense to us. How does the photo lab metaphor affect painters who choose to use Photoshop to create their works? They find they can access new options such as adjusting brightness and contrast, but perhaps they miss having a more intuitive palette (as in traditional painting) for mixing their pigments. In an interesting article[5] Olav Bertelsen and Soren Pold discuss the possible cultural consequences of the fact that contemporary writers of poetry, songs, stories, and creative writing in general find themselves using a tool – the ubiquitous Microsoft Office – that follows the metaphor of an office, the business world, and productivity. It is technically feasible to add a function to suggest rhymes, or musical notation, or to write along a line that is not uniformly straight, but it does not fit into the idea of office work. How does this affect the way you write?

This text is an invitation to pause and think about the tools we use, and about the metaphors they are based on. Observation activates our capacity for abstract thoughts, to make comparisons, and to understand many things that are crucial for surviving in a forest of screens, cables, and creatures of all kinds. By paying attention to this new landscape we will be able to enjoy the adventure, and to see the tree, but also the forest.


Fight or dance?

If we want to understand the playing field and the rules of the game, we need to be aware of the metaphors we use every day. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson write about things that are seemingly obvious but can enlighten us and offer us an insight into our own reactions if we look at them from a different perspective. Their book Metaphors We Live By[6] describes, among other things, how “conversation” in some cultures follows metaphors of war: we win an argument, we prepare a communication strategy, or we force the other party to give up their position. These metaphors are useful of course, but they are not the only ones that would work. What if the prevailing metaphor were dance? Would we harmonize opinions? Would we discuss at a pleasing rhythm? Would we imitate or alternate each others’ tones? What seems clear is that the power of metaphors affects the way we interact, but we are not always aware of them.

As interfaces are normalized in our everyday lives, more and more metaphors appear and consciously or unconsciously influence the way we inhabit the net and interact with each other.

Singular interfaces

In Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice[7] Janet Murray argues that it is important for designers to bear in mind that the net is not simply a container in which to automatically place things from the real world. New ways of doing things emerge on the net, and there is no need to use metaphors from other contexts. This use of familiar metaphors can obviously be a practical way of helping novices to understand certain things. Hence the success and propagation of the desktop metaphor with its recycle bin popularised by Apple in 1984. But is the desktop metaphor exhaustive? Don’t we do things with our computers that we couldn’t do from a real desktop? And even more interestingly: users in 1984 didn’t know what a computer could do, but do 2014 users know how a filing cabinet in a real office works? Murray claims that designers working in this new environment should use the metaphors of the medium, in order to avoid impoverishing or misinterpreting it.

If we look at the evolution of interfaces we see that there have been many different kinds in the early years. We were learning to create them, testing them, and making discoveries. It was quite eclectic. But over the last two decades interfaces have been unified and homogenised, and at the same time there has been a boom in apps and markets. As John Maeda wrote, the new craftsmen of 2020[8] will be subtle, painstaking programmers who will create original interfaces. Let us defend these singular interfaces that use innovative metaphors, that don’t follow the masses, that question the interface from the position of the interface itself. We want open interfaces-in-progress, interfaces made for and by left-handed users, interfaces that allow us to go in different directions: in short, interfaces that enrich us.


Code is poetry

Adults often ask young children whether they prefer arts or sciences. I could never see the point. The meter of poetry is pure maths. The aesthetic beauty of chemical reactions is beyond doubt. Logic cannot exist without poetics or discourse, and discourse cannot exist without a structure. Perhaps what they were really asking us is whether we prefer to rely on logic or intuition. But do we really have to choose?

In 1996, John Maeda opened a new department called the Aesthetics + Computation Research Group at MIT Media Laboratory, where he developed a programme that against all odds tried to escape from icons! It was a called Design By Numbers. It appeared unsuitable for artists and creative people, but its aim was to prove the opposite. Maeda was trying to get away from the desktop metaphors popularized by Apple in 1984 and still used today by most software. He wanted to “reveal the aesthetic beauty and power of computation (and math) to artists and designers”[9] given that “code is not purely abstract and mathematical; it has significant social, political, and aesthetic dimensions”.[10]

Code is poetry and culture. It is a logical language, but also subjective and cultural. By using code instead of icons we can combine many more possibilities and lessen the burden of visual metaphor. The smartest approach is probably to learn to use both graphic and text-based interfaces, in the just measure.

Nobody told us there were more buttons

Who writes code? Based on what cultural assumptions? Manovich[11] writes that in the nineties computers went from being specific tools (calculator, text editor, photo editor, and so on) to a cultural filter, and gradually become a way of interacting, creating, thinking, and living.

So we should bear in mind that interfaces are designed with metaphors, that design has emotional baggage, and that metaphor always reflects cultural codes. That we now live with numerous devices, and through their interfaces. These devices and their interfaces are so psychologically powerful, says Sherry Turkle, that they not only help us to do things, they also transform us.

More and more people are taking an interest in these ideas from very different perspectives, because they are shaping our present and our future.

Becoming aware of what lies behind design, just by looking and asking ourselves what would happen if it were different, if it were based on a different culture or paradigm, will help us to be freer and more conscious. We can continue to enjoy the experience of living online and accept the game, but, as my mother would say, choose your friends carefully ;)

There are oceans of buttons and ways of doing things. How can we design interfaces that make us more human, less addicted, nobler, and calmer? As inhabitants and designers, it’s up to us to determine the quality and evolution of this new environment.


  1. McCorduck, P. (s.d.). Wired 4.04: Sex, Lies and Avatars. Recuperat 11 maig 2015, de http://archive.wired.com/wired/archive/4.04/turkle.html
  2. Turkle, S. (1997). Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (Reprint edition). New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
  3. Norman, D. A. (2005). Emotional design: why we love (or hate) everyday things. New York: Basic Books.
  4. Grosser, B. (2014). What Do Metrics Want? How Quantification Prescribes Social Interaction on Facebook. Computational Culture: a journal of software studies. Recuperado de http://computationalculture.net/article/what-do-metrics-want
  5. Bertelsen, O. W., & Pold, S. (2004). Criticism as an approach to interface aesthetics. En Proceedings of the third Nordic conference on Human-computer interaction (p. 23–32). ACM Press.
  6. Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors We Live By (2nd edition). Chicago: University Of Chicago Press
  7. Murray, J. H. (2011). Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice. The MIT Press.
  8. Maeda, J. (s.d.). Your Life In 2020. Recuperado el 21 de abril 2015, de http://www.forbes.com/2010/04/08/john-maeda-design-technology-data-companies-10- keynote.html
  9. Greenberg, I. (2008). Processing: Creative Coding and Computational Art (1st 2008 Corr. printing 2008 edition). Berkeley, CA : New York: Apress.
  10. Montfort, N., Baudoin, P., Bell, J., Bogost, I., Douglass, J., Marino, M. C., ... Vawter, N. (2012). 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press.
  11. Manovich, L. (2002). The Language of New Media (Reprint edition). Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.