It’s a geek cliché to wax lyrical about Star Wars. The George Lucas films, not the American über-space-weapon programme. And yes, I’m going to, about the first three films, but just a little bit, because those are the films that informed my sensibilities as a proto-geek. What those films opened my eyes to was the concept of the Used Future, and more than just an epic battle of good versus evil — this was a visual contest, a codified aesthetic war representing two apparently competing positions on technology: the seamless and the seamful.
Up to the point at which Star Wars blasted its way into my consciousness, sci-fi in general had been a unified vision of smooth surfaces, gently bleeping LEDs and spacecraft hewn from single lumps of some magical space-dust-repelling material with single-palette interiors. Space Command had tendered that brief to iKEA2042 and they had done a sterling job. Communicators and torch-surgery wizywigs at the ready, set to blend.
The Empire vs the Rebellion
And then came Star Wars and the incredible work of legendary production designer John Barry. Both he and Lucas were looking for a different vision of the future, one from long ago and far away. Against the smooth, shiny, sleek, depersonalised, modular and inscrutable design of the Empire was the Rebellion; lived-in, mismatched, scruffy, scarred and showing its age and heterogeneous heritage.
This was the aesthetic of the Used Future. Its origins were visible before Star Wars, in John Carpenter’s student film Dark Star and the Russian sci-fi classic Solaris. And before either of these, the books of Robert Heinlein were frequently set in futures already lived in and starting to decay. In the wake of Star Wars, its influence was immediately apparent in Ridley Scott’s genre-defining Alien series and the geek beacon Blade Runner.
What Lucas and Barry reinvented was the future as some mythic, inaccessible place. In the Rebellion’s asteroid-marked fleet was a floating city that revealed its origins, carried its past with it, mended and repurposed. It was in the truest sense a vision of Jane Jacobs’s successfully layered environments (Jacobs’s best-known work on urban planning, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was published in 1961); a place where new ideas used old buildings.
There’s a Death Star in your pocket
In its democracy, albeit ‘led’ by a Princess sporting a Danish-pastry-inspired hairdo, this was a self-organising system, its parts a network of random, bolted-on technology and the organic, past and future. Inside the Empire was a terrifying vision of anonymous, helmeted crew who were only button-pushing passengers. The Rebellion, conversely, was populated by spot-welding Wookies, chatty droids, humans and humanoids of indistinct but varied alien origin smoking hookahs together, and every flight was an opportunity to hack into a security door or jumpstart a hyperdrive. This was an environment rich with technology but in flux, open, evolving with the people, droids or aliens using it.
One of the most defining scenes in Star Wars Episode VI — Return of the Jedi (1983) is a shot of the moon-like super weapon, the Empire’s Death Star, under construction. In that moment it’s possible to see the complexity beneath the minimalist modernist skin of simplicity and control.
I think we might be at a Death Star moment in technology right now — if we haven’t already passed it — because there’s a Death Star in your pocket or your handbag and it’s Wi-Fi connected.
Keeping it simple…
There has been a relentless drive toward a cult of simplicity in design over the past five decades, since the widespread adoption of the ten principles of ‘good design’ laid down by the German industrial designer Dieter Rams. Good design is unobtrusive and honest, concentrating on the essential, the pure, the simple. These are the principles that have guided the greats, with Steve Jobs and Apple’s current Senior Vice President of Design, Jonathan Ive being almost certainly the most well known. Simplicity is by no means easy to achieve; it is about refining a thing to its most efficient and effective baseline. There is something in the simple that appeals to our cognitive miserliness; in other words, easy is good.
At SXSW in 2013 the pervading mantra was ‘the best design is invisible’, and Samsung designer Golden Krishna was amongst those calling for the adoption of ‘the best interface is no interface’; ‘let the tech do all the work with minimal input from the user’; ‘it’s the birth of the #NoUI (no user interface) movement’.
This is the principle behind ‘invisible’ tools such as the Mercedes-Benz keys that open the car’s doors without having to be taken out of your pocket; or the Nest thermostat, which uses automatic pattern learning to “learn the temps you like” (note the usage of the shortened version of the word temperatures, because that’s just too much of a mouthful and not efficient). Although the Nest system has a very user-friendly interface, with a reassuringly big dial for manual adjustment, it’s a good example of the invisible and visible working in parallel.
…but at what cost?
Within the #NoUI movement the drive is to get ‘users’ through the required steps to achieve something as efficiently as possible, with as little friction and as much fluency as possible. Removing unnecessary steps from a process may well be a good thing, but complexity and complicated are two different things, and making something complex appear simple raises alarm bells.
Good design should, according to Rams, be honest: “It does not make a product appear more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.”
A smartphone is not a simple piece of technology. Touchscreens are not simple technology. Nor is wireless communication. So where might this kind of ‘simple’ design be leading us? To a dangerous place where a smartphone or tablet is a magical black box of tricks and wizardry, where the internet is a ‘series of tubes’ and ‘the cloud’ is such a lovely sounding thing it surely has nothing to do with windowless bunkers stacked to the gills with hard drives and defended with barbed wire. We are reaching a point where the design of the interfaces between us and some powerful and useful technology has become surface and simple and opaque; the cult of simplicity is hiding its workings from us and turning technology into magic.
Don’t worry your pretty head about it
There’s a new family of apps dubbed ‘ambient sensing services’, which include services like PlaceMe and Highlight. They are ‘invisible’; PlaceMe uses every sensor in your smartphone to gather data on your daily activities and location; it’s a personalised tracking system, the practical applications of which are still being explored. Highlight scans people around you and checks their online profiles; if anyone seems like a fit or shares an interest then it tells you. These apps don’t require you to do anything beyond installing them. They pull all the data they need from the mobile phone’s sensors and fill in the gaps with cloud-based data. They are active as long as your phone is.
Another example of this type of passive user experience is Google Now, which uses your past history of searches to predict and serve up information it thinks you might find useful: “The right information at just the right time. See helpful cards with information that you need throughout your day, before you even ask.”
Google Search, with its super-simple interface, is a prime example of the invisible at work. The terms Google uses in its algorithms are semantic — they have meaning assigned by the knowledge databases Google taps into. Wikipedia is one of those knowledge banks. A 2011 survey by the Wikimedia Foundation found that only 8.5% of the edits made to content are made by women — what does that do to the bias of available information?
Button pushing passengers
The processes involved in the filtering are a mystery to me, as is the information that is filtered out. There is no ‘alternate view’ switch to see what was judged to be inappropriate. The manipulation of information and filter bubbles is on Georgia Tech’s list of emerging cyber threats of 2013 (It’s also what inspired YossarianLives!, the metaphorical search engine).
I hate to be a humbug about this, but I do not enjoy magic shows. I always want to know how something works. I don’t like to be fooled and the spectacle leaves no lasting impression on me the way that a thing truly experienced, touched or learned does. I do not want to be a button-pushing passenger.
This magical, opaque technology is set to pervade more and more of our environment, through a network of sensors and wireless devices, creating a plastic and programmable landscape of ambient, invisible intelligence. So is this the moment to decide between Empire or Rebellion, seamless or seamful?
Show your workings
In a 2001 magazine article, Jane Jacobs commented on the way the machinery of the past had been painted to show the way that it worked, making it even more ‘self describing’ than many products used to be. She recalls:
“I used to like to go to the railroad station in Scranton [Pennsylvania] and watch the locomotives. I got a big bang out of seeing the locomotives and those pistons that moved the wheels. And that interested me how they were moved by those things and then the connection of that with the steam inside and so on. In the meantime, along had come these locomotives that had skirts on them and you couldn’t see how the wheels moved and that disturbed me. And it was supposed to be for some aerodynamics reason, but that didn’t make sense. And I began to notice how everything was being covered up and I thought that was kinda sick.” Metropolis Magazine, March 2001
Under the guise of ‘streamlining’ design we took our eyes off the workings, disconnecting our brains from the mechanics of the world around us. We reduced interaction to surface and a series of effects.
Access vs ownership
I am infuriated by the fact that I can’t get the back off my iPhone without breaking it or voiding a warranty. Even if I did take it apart I’d still be largely befuddled by the purpose of the bits inside. The phone’s innards being too small or too complex for me to interact with is an inevitable consequence of the evolution of the technology, but the interface does not need to be so streamlined that I become entirely unaware of the workings inside.
Streamlining has also led to sealing and closing off access to the internal workings of some of the objects we ‘own’. It is still illegal to jailbreak, or unlock, a mobile phone in the United States, something the Unlocking Technology Act is trying to address. While we own the thing, we do not necessarily own access to the thing. Nor do we necessarily own access to the data that is being collected and stored on the thing, or gathered and stored externally from the thing. The meaning of the word ‘ownership’ surely becomes elastic when what you own is the shell and what you rent is the proprietary inner workings.
Purposefully, or unintentionally, restricting access or understanding to how something works affects our ability to interact meaningfully with it. As self-described ‘Critical Engineer’ Julian Oliver explained at the Eyeo festival in 2012, if we can’t describe it, how can we talk about it? It puts us, he said, in a “children’s book reality” where we are dependent on “folk terms” like ‘cloud’ to describe real-world scenarios.
Trial and error
The ideology of seamlessness has a real-world impact by concealing socio-political reality. Oliver’s submarine cable map makes visible the invisible supply network of the internet. It turns an abstract “series of tubes” pumping the internet into homes in South America into the concrete reality of a privately owned company, in this instance Telefónica, owning and controlling the supply of the internet to millions.
In presenting an unbroken and consistent front end, seamlessness takes out the layering of systems over physical products, over companies and the people who work within them; it renders flat something that has great depth.
Clouds don’t break down, but hard drives do. In the persistent myth of immateriality, seamlessness also offers a vision of faultless capabilities which the technology can’t always deliver on. This is particularly pernicious when it’s accompanied by the phrase ‘user error’ to describe unexplained hiccups.
Easy is pleasing, but difficult is better
If we remove all moments of friction we remove the creative impetus, the moment that we identify and solve a problem. We remove ourselves from the equation and we surrender to other people’s solutions. There’s a fundamental question of agency here. In a seamless design are myriad decisions and choices made by the designer, by the company that funds the product development and distribution, by the marketing team that defines who the user is and what they expect them to do with the product.
The ease with which our brains take in and process information sits on a sliding scale, from fluent to disfluent. If I let word processing software correct my spelling I’m experiencing fluency: I can happily bash away with my bastard monkey hands, because every word will be checked and autocorrected for me. Turning spellcheck off would lead to disfluency — less happiness, but a more engaged brain, which would eventually lead to my becoming a better speller. The more disfluency encountered, the better prepared the brain is to encounter cognitive and physical obstacles.
Research tells us that this is why verbal pauses, marked by ‘ums’ and ‘errs’, are actually moments of disfluency. Verbal indicators of cognitive roadbumps, they’re the moments when our brain is pausing to process, to check a fact, to invent a lie. It’s a tick that demonstrates the mechanism is working. There’s also an important brain/body connection. A study by Susan Wagner Cook, assistant professor of psychology at the university of Iowa, revealed that in a class of eight-year-olds, using gestures during algebra lessons tripled the likelihood of recall.
The role of play
In his book The Hand, neurologist Frank Wilson offers up the theory that humans became the dominant animal because we took to two legs instead of four, allowing our hands to develop as tool manipulators. As our manual dexterity increased, so did our brain function. We got smarter, survived and then dominated because we learned to use our hands and our hands taught our brains in a cycle of co-evolution.
Our hands are key to our exploration and manipulation of the world around us. In object play, children experiment with physical objects; they put them in their mouths and taste them, trying them out for purposes other than their marketed use. Through stacking brick towers that fall down, children learn about cause and effect, and they also learn to be problem solvers. Children in play mode are natural makers and learning machines.
So where does a world of interaction with technology mediated through finger swipes and thumb taps — or eventually eye movement, or simply thought — leave us? Limited in our physical interaction with surfaces that require us to do little more than tap, are our brains going to de-evolve? In the web 2.0 design mantra of ‘don’t make me think’, are we going to create paths of fluency so adept at nudging and fielding our brains that we experience no disfluency at all?
The practice of object play doesn’t lose its purpose when we ‘grow up’; it’s as valid and important to adults as it is to children. Pressing buttons, clicking a mouse and stroking the surface of a touchscreen phone just isn’t cutting it. True happiness lies in translating what we see online into real-world action — even if it’s just making that recipe you bookmarked last week.
Making a change
The Maker movement is a reaction against this voluntary de-skilling and outsourcing of our cognitive functions. It’s also a reaction against the removal of touch, of digital dominance, to a place where both are equally utilised. Making things is about getting your hands dirty, touching, feeling, grasping and wielding. Going beyond the surface. Utilising digital for the researching and seeking of information and the amazing design potential of software packages (like CAD), then making something tangible. And in the case of technology, this can mean making robots, creating products with 3D printers, hacking together devices with open-source tools and constructing something new from shared knowledge.
There are maker fairs held across the world every year. The first, in 2006, attracted 18,000 people; in 2012 that number was 165,000. The Maker movement is the Rebellion. As well as harnessing our natural, if lazy, tendencies to be problem solvers and tool swingers, it’s also about closing the gap between us and the technology that inhabits the world with us. And it embraces all forms of makery, not just those on the technology side.
The makerlabs and hackspaces springing up in cities around the world give access to fast, flexible and customisable production means. The movement is away from mass-produced and centralised and towards niche, ad hoc and in-your-own-home, with economics at the core. The ideal is to develop a robust commercial model or a product that scales up. Limited runs and custom modifications are perfect for small, self-identifying niches. Shopfronts are websites like Etsy and Fab, where everything from furniture and fashion to craft and jewellery is curated. Makers are visible individuals whose products come with stories. Collaboration is key: people post how-to guides, ask for advice, form networks and communities.
Knowledge, pleasure and design
Above all else the Maker movement is optimistic and positive. Rather than complaining about something that doesn’t seem right, it’s about doing something that makes it right. It’s against apathy caused by a loss of control. It’s about regaining and maintaining a sense of agency, imagination, enthusiasm, focus and determination. I’d argue that there’s something in the Maker movement’s adoption of seamfulness that is of value to all design. It’s about celebrating how things work, about depth of interaction over surface.
Dieter Rams also advocated design that “makes a product understandable”. The product itself expresses its function; it is self-explanatory. Rather than removing the requirement for understanding, that understanding is built into the product. It’s the machinery painted with its own instructions that Jane Jacobs lamented the loss of.
The furniture designer Konstantin Grcic said in 2007: “A machine is beautiful when it’s legible, when its form describes how it works. It isn’t simply a matter of covering the technical components with an outer skin, but finding the correct balance between the architecture of the machine… and an expressive approach that is born out of the idea of interaction with those using the object.”
I don’t know whether Grcic ever watched Star Wars, but at this year’s Salone del Mobile in Milan he presented his version of Achille Castiglioni’s iconic Parentesi lamp, using a flat LED light source that slides up and down a steel cable and rotates 360 degrees — beautifully simple, ‘good’ design with not a single hidden component part.