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last push in the last two days, just did a spell checking

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Title: Tangible tools
Date: 2016/12/31
### Colm O'Neill
#### student number: 0901273
Thesis submitted to: the Department of Media Design and Communication,
<br>Piet Zwart Institute,
<br>Willem de Kooning Academy.
In partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts in Fine Art and Design: Media Design (49114):
Adviser: Marloes de Valk, Second Reader: Aymeric Mansoux.
<br>Rotterdam April 2017
Title: Dissertation introduction
Title: Thesis introduction
Date: 2017/01/01
# introduction :
This thesis speaks of modern graphic design. It is written from a personal perspective on the field, and on how I think it is understood. I feel like graphic design has become to be understood as purely utilitarian. A decorative function of communication. With this text, I follow an intuition that misunderstandings of what graphic design is come from the ways it is practised, on computers, with computers and for a computer based existence. I believe misunderstandings exists inside and outside the field, but this thesis will concentrate on my perceptions as a designer from within.
This thesis deals with modern graphic design. It is written from a personal perspective on the field, and how I think it is understood. I feel like graphic design has become understood as purely utilitarian. A decorative function of communication. With the text, I follow an intuition the misunderstanding comes from the ways it is practiced, on computers, with computers and for a computer based distribution. I believe this misunderstanding exists inside and outside the field, but this thesis will concentrate on my perceptions as a designer from within.
Researching this feeling requires the investigation of three main points; firstly, the notion of craft. How can craft be defined, and how has it's understanding changed with the the adoption of general purpose computers as tools. Secondly, a dive into the existing confusion between efficiency and efficacy in software tools. Efficiency being an avoidance of waste, efficacy being the ability to produce a desired effect. The interchangeability of these two notions lead me to understand the nature of some software tools, how they interface with me, and how that interfacing effects the use and understanding of the tool. Lastly, the learning curve of alternative interfaces is considered, what the payoff of a more invested relation to software tools may be, and what I believe is at stake when interfaces try to disappear.
Researching this intuition requires the investigation of three main points; firstly, the notion of craft. How can craft be defined, and how has it's understanding changed with the with the adoption of general purpose computers as tools. Secondly, a dive into the confusion between efficiency and efficacy in software tools. Efficiency being an avoidance of waste, efficacy being the ability to produce a desired effect. The interchangeability of these two notions lead me to understand the nature of some software tools, how they interface with me as a user, and how that interfacing effects the use and understanding of the tool. Lastly, the learning curve of alternative interfaces is considered, what the payoff of a more invested relation to software tools may be, and what I believe is at stake when interfaces try to dissapear.
I'm developing the opinion that for graphic design not to be seen as a simple utility, designer themselves must change their relations to their practice and their tools, so the secondary thematic of this text is interfacing —as an active verb. I refuse to accept the constructs that show the digital world as totalities, I believe I must see them as wrappers and conventions that masquerade as solutions to problems. Interfaces are a type of dialog. While developing this text, the realisation that the dialog was not neutral became clearer and clearer. With the setting of graphic design, I'll consider what it means to be an end-user.
The secondary thematic of this text is interfacing —as an active verb. I refuse to accept the constructs that make up the digital world as totalities, I rather see them as wrappers and conventions that masquerade as do-all solutions. I think the field of graphic design needs to adapt to being practiced on computers. Too often my tools try to mimick the physical traditions instead of harnessing the potential that computation can bring to graphic design. The industry must go beyond the digitally illeterate positions that industry standard software keeps it's users in. By this I mean that the access to digital litteracy is shared between softare makers and software users, but as a user I think I have much more to lose than software makers do.
"The computer world deals with imaginary, arbitrary made up stuff that was all made up by somebody. Everything you see was designed and put there by someone. [...] There are so many ideas to care about, and with ideas comes the politics of ideas." (Ted Nelson, 2012)
Title: Chapter 1 — Defining ‘craft’
Date: 2017/01/02
# Defining ‘craft’
### Traditional craft
I begin with craft because it is how I think of graphic design. It was, before the accessibility of personal computers, a craft that was manual, and was understood as so in that time. I'm calling traditional crafts the ones that were done with by hand, with hand tools, with no electricity, that involved learned skills to produce real objects that could be handled. I wonder what the positions of labor, making, and craft are in practices that now no longer produce tangible objects. How is craft defined? I will look into why many of the notions of traditional craft are not directly transposed to digital practices, but core elements of craft are still present, and newer, equally interesting ones, have emerged. Today's work environment has changed. It is vastly different to the places in which traditional crafts used to take place. With this I'm wondering if a historical pattern of dividing steps and sub-steps of traditional craft into specific tasks, into jobs, is not happening again. Is a new class of computer workers appearing, one that could become a digital proletariat? And if so, does it follow that the understanding of digital craft includes a guild of digital artisans and masters?
In ‘The Craftsman’, Richard Sennett[ref] (Professor of Sociology and the Humanities, author of [non-excl] ‘Together’, ‘The Conscience of the Eye’ and ‘Practicing Culture’)[/ref] defines craftsmanship as: « an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake ». As comforting as it is to think of craftsmanship as a basic human impulse, while still in the prologue, he states his two main theses: firstly « all skills, even the most abstract, begin as bodily practices; » secondly « technical understanding develops through the powers of imagination ». Aside from these, Sennett's major argument is for the need for a social order for the development of craft. He states that an ancient ideal of craftsmanship is “joined skill in community”. Medieval workshops provided a communal atmosphere and social structure that guided the development of skill through “authority in the flesh” as opposed to knowledge “set down on paper”. There is an implicit authority in the workshop, a social order that values the “quality of skill” over “occupation of a place of honor”. The workshop binds people together as it forms a community of masters and apprentices. Quality and ethical codes of work are transmitted through such communities (and the guilds they are part of) ensuring continuity while also allowing for creative developments through partnerships and communal participation. The medieval workshop (at least, the western understanding of) began its demise with the Renaissance separation of art and craft. This separation emphasised the individual and her/his creation of “art” over communal development. The workshop became an inferior social space reserved for a lower class of society.(Sweeden, 2009)
In ‘The Craftsman’, Richard Sennett[ref] (Professor of Sociology and the Humanities, author of [non-excl] ‘Together’, ‘The Conscience of the Eye’ and ‘Practising Culture’)[/ref] defines craftsmanship as: « an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake ». As comforting as it is to think of craftsmanship as a basic human impulse, while still in the prologue, he states his two main theses: firstly « all skills, even the most abstract, begin as bodily practices; » secondly « technical understanding develops through the powers of imagination ». Aside from these, Sennett's major argument is for the need for a social order for the development of craft. He states that an ancient ideal of craftsmanship is “joined skill in community”. Medieval workshops provided a communal atmosphere and social structure that guided the development of skill through “authority in the flesh” as opposed to knowledge “set down on paper”. There is an implicit authority in the workshop, a social order that values the “quality of skill” over “occupation of a place of honor”. The workshop binds people together as it forms a community of masters and apprentices. Quality and ethical codes of work are transmitted through such communities (and the guilds they are part of) ensuring continuity while also allowing for creative developments through partnerships and communal participation. The medieval workshop (at least, the western understanding of) began its demise with the Renaissance separation of art and craft. This separation emphasised the individual and her/his creation of “art” over communal development. The workshop became an inferior social space reserved for a lower class of society.(Sweeden, 2009)
At the turn of the 19th century, burgeoning industrial capitalism was built on a foundation of a combination of techniques and new scientific technologies.[ref]It's hard to know where to start any historical narrative. I'm not aiming for the following to be an exact or all encompassing one, instead, I follow a [thread left by Bernard Stiegeler in an interview on a perspective of contributive economies](https://vimeo.com/32540487) [(rough translation linked here)](http://tangible.tools/stiegler-on-contributive-economies.html). My interest is to study this history to understand how craft came to be, to effectively understand and contextualise the proposals I make later. I am aware that the broad aim of this first section will present the reader with omissions and unpacked notions.[/ref] This combination enabled extremely high levels of production, by, not only, but importantly, enhancing productivity (Stiegler, 2012), something we will come back to in chapter 2. History shows how in this change, peasants become proletarian, and brought class separation into the working sphere. Industrial capitalism is followed by consumerist capitalism in the 20th century.[ref]The notion of consumerism, is likened to Fordism at first, not to be confused with productivity capitalism which supposes the proletarisation of the producers the workers, that then become proletarian, who then would lose all of their professional know how.[/ref] In the consumer capitalism model it's not only the workers who lose their know how, the effects and the loss extends to the consumers, who don't lose knowledge, but need to consume goods as part of a new *lifestyle*. This historical context does not yet speak about software directly, but I believe that reviewing this trajectory is important in order to speak later about what the possibilities of craft within software are.
......@@ -16,15 +13,15 @@ Malcolm McCullough[ref] (Professor of Architecture, author of [non-excl] ‘Digi
### Machines
Machines are central to industrialisation and the symbols of automation and taylorism. Sennett explores their implications (replicants and robots) for craftwork. Machines were created for large-scale production, gradually threatening the necessity for the most skilled laborers and increased the number of semi- or unskilled workers. Machinery exists for the sake of eliminating unskilled, noisome tasks, but problems arise when they oppress and replace high-cost skilled labor. Instead of workshops, the new working communities were steel mills and factories, and as such a new social structure was adopted, carrying different assumptions of appropriate work conditions as well as knowledge and authority (Sweeden, 2009). The industrial age introduced an unprecedented abstraction of work, in which the motion of tools was powered by machines, and their manipulation became indirect. Soon, the means of production became too extensive to be handled by the individual craftsman. (Broeckmann, 2001)
I will now re-align these elements to delineate my understanding of machine / computer practices as craft. A first point of interest is the hand, the movement and the manual action. In traditional craft, manual and conceptual skills, in a *certain coordination of hands, eyes and mind*, are brought together, combined, to directly manipulate real objects. As I earlier noted, machines have come into this harmony and detached the coordinations. A by-product of detaching and unbuilding coordination is that it is hard to tell experts from novices, the machine has a single way of doing. This de-coordinating is a key element that explains why it is complicated to view digital practice as a craft; it's making and it's result can never be put in hand, it is intangible therefor it simply appears unrelatable.
I will now re-align these elements to delineate my understanding of machine / computer practices as craft. A first point of interest is the hand, the movement and the manual action. In traditional craft, manual and conceptual skills, in a *certain coordination of hands, eyes and mind*, are brought together, combined, to directly manipulate real objects. As I earlier noted, machines have come into this harmony and detached the coordinations. A by-product of detaching and un-building coordination is that it is hard to tell experts from novices, the machine has a single way of doing. This de-coordinating is a key element that explains why it is complicated to view digital practice as a craft; it's making and it's result can never be put in hand, it is intangible therefor it simply appears unrelatable.
For further confusion, digital practices also seem as if they all start and end on the same virtualisation apparatus. Our computers today are general purpose tools, they are not at all dedicated to isolated tasks, they attempt to do everything, to handle everything. In this universality, we can't easily consider any specific objects or matters if we are not ourselves familiar with them. Such a system, a universal and immaterial tool, is good at creating confusion. Materiality within computers and software is based on analogy: a major portion of application software interface relies on analogies. Throughout the spectrum of software, we are asked to draw on our understanding of the physical world. Software design relies on resemblances to files, folders, documents, desktops, copying, pasting, paint buckets, wastebaskets, pencils which perform actions that rely on our understanding of manual actions in the real world. McCullough is more generous than I am in his view of materiality, and moves from hands, eyes and (hand-held) tools to representational and technological questions of symbols, interfaces and constructions. But to undo the complexity of the digital handling of craft, I believe there is a need to reevaluate the constructs in the sphere of analogy and abstraction. It is possible to rebuild appreciation by contextually and historically reviewing representations, symbols and interfaces. It is imperative do this in order to regain appreciation for digital craft. It might be that I no longer operate directly with hands, but digital craft relies on an ideological reference to manual handling. Handling things, handling tools, handling constructs, handling objects. All of these are still as interesting and skilful as ever, as long as we stay aware of them in their current abstracted states and aware of the software designers who shape their parameters.
### Objects and seam(s/less)
Still, object must be mentionned. Be they physical or virtual, the core of the subject matter is the same for a crafts-person. Abstracted objects are fundamental to the making, they are the digital crafts-person's building blocks. *Whether direct or indirect, what matters is manipulation.* (McCullough, 1996) So it was not initially clear how Sennett's second thesis[ref]« technical understanding develops through the powers of imagination »[/ref] could be understood in the world of software. But with a more flexible notion towards the construction of the virtual objects manipulated in digital craft it can be possible to return the value of the cognitive procedures, and imagination. I used to think of a specificity of software being that it is made by people attempting to solve a problem or facilitate a specific task. The software maker building towards that unique and specific task, rarely crossing other fields or lines of work, making for an ultra tailored solution that, theoretically I did not imagine to be an interesting stimulus for imagination. The notion of object though, and Sennett's second thesis indirectly infirms that old though, places the emphasis on the software maker needing not only to communicate the solution that was imagined, but the methods and constructs that this solution depended on. If and when this communication happens, then I believe that software can be a great means for applicable imagination.
Still, object must be mentioned. Be they physical or virtual, the core of the subject matter is the same for a crafts-person. Abstracted objects are fundamental to the making, they are the digital crafts-person's building blocks. *Whether direct or indirect, what matters is manipulation.* (McCullough, 1996) So it was not initially clear how Sennett's second thesis[ref]« technical understanding develops through the powers of imagination »[/ref] could be understood in the world of software. But with a more flexible notion towards the construction of the virtual objects manipulated in digital craft it can be possible to return the value of the cognitive procedures, and imagination. I used to think of a specificity of software being that it is made by people attempting to solve a problem or facilitate a specific task. The software maker building towards that unique and specific task, rarely crossing other fields or lines of work, making for an ultra tailored solution that, theoretically I did not imagine to be an interesting stimulus for imagination. The notion of object though, and Sennett's second thesis indirectly infirms that old though, places the emphasis on the software maker needing not only to communicate the solution that was imagined, but the methods and constructs that this solution depended on. If and when this communication happens, then I believe that software can be a great means for applicable imagination.
I see software as a space for work that is extremely tailored. If I can imagine computer programming as a sort of building by adding, manual craft is in opposition, which I tend to think of more as a sculpting of pre-existing materials. When an program that enables a virtualised practice is built, the construction model is the opposite of the manual craft. The developer must consider what the premises of the practice are. She/he must develop an understanding of what the craft is, and how it can be interpreted by a computer. Then, by building, begin to answer all the needs of the (interpreted) craft. Even when done properly this is only half the battle, the communication that gives access to this program must then be engineered. Access to the end user. More than half of this work is the interface.
Interestingly, McCullough posits that *it is the task of engineers to abolish the existing limitations of technology —in so far as they do not form necessary creative constraints— and to develop less obtrusive and increasingly transparent technical tools for the creative designer* (McCullough, 1996). In this instance, it is important to understand ‘transparent’ is meant as making tools invisible and seamless, trusting their entire build, settings and attitudes to engineers. This is something I wholeheartedly disagree with. He implies that I should be passive regarding the engineer's decisions in the design of their tools. I do not believe that engineers are to be dismissed from developments, not at all, but it is not an engineers task to develop transparent tools, or less obtrusive methods, in fact, I believe the opposite. I believe there is value in obtrusivity.[ref]Obtrusive does not have to mean ‘pestering’, there is a balance that can be found here. Notably, the idea of ‘calm technology’ details an interaction designed to occur in the user's periphery rather than at the center of attention. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calm_technology[/ref] Obtrusive procedures force the me to be aware of all the steps and required to perform a task, I becomes aware of the parameters the engineer has set up but they can set the values and balances. If I, as a user, as a maker, am reviewing digital practices, then it is also time that I adopt attitudes of a (traditional) crafts-person for my own self, and for my work. Having the perspective of an engineer and a user in the way that the former aims for transparency to better the latter's practice is a tangent that makes way for more proletarisation, and continues history's breakdown effect on craft.
Aside from this disagreement, I do think that it is necessary to widen McCulloughs thoughts regarding Computer Aided Design[ref]CAD (Computer Aided Design) is the object of McCulloughs study. The software tools I'm talking about for graphic design used to somewhat fit into this category, but as they have developped recently, they no longer do.[/ref] to other spheres of software action. I struggle to think of utilitarian —as opposed to design oriented— software that does not have a type of root in some sort of craft. Even the most mundane computer tasks like file sorting, can have ways of doing that are the result of *the desire to do a job well for its own sake*. If it didn't then we would have to ask operating system makers for alphabetical sorting, date sorting, logical directory structures, etc. There is a need to rethink what craft is today, towards digital craft, where the computer is both the primary tool and environment. We have indeed lost physical tangibility, bodily actions and certain ways of imagination, but there are still enormous opportunities for the development of skills deriving from these re-imagined techniques, not to mention potential for the field itself if it could integrate computation and programatic attitudes. McCullough calls this an ‘abstracting craft’ meaning a craft that has dependencies on its own practice, but also on capacities of abstraction. This points to the departure of craft, when it gets turned into software, it becomes something significantly different, something that needs craft-skills to be practiced somewhat abstractly before they produce objects. The congnitive process is displaced.
Aside from this disagreement, I do think that it is necessary to widen McCulloughs thoughts regarding Computer Aided Design[ref]CAD (Computer Aided Design) is the object of McCulloughs study. The software tools I'm talking about for graphic design used to somewhat fit into this category, but as they have developed recently, they no longer do.[/ref] to other spheres of software action. I struggle to think of utilitarian —as opposed to design oriented— software that does not have a type of root in some sort of craft. Even the most mundane computer tasks like file sorting, can have ways of doing that are the result of *the desire to do a job well for its own sake*. If it didn't then we would have to ask operating system makers for alphabetical sorting, date sorting, logical directory structures, etc. There is a need to rethink what craft is today, towards digital craft, where the computer is both the primary tool and environment. We have indeed lost physical tangibility, bodily actions and certain ways of imagination, but there are still enormous opportunities for the development of skills deriving from these re-imagined techniques, not to mention potential for the field itself if it could integrate computation and programmatic attitudes. McCullough calls this an ‘abstracting craft’ meaning a craft that has dependencies on its own practice, but also on capacities of abstraction. This points to the departure of craft, when it gets turned into software, it becomes something significantly different, something that needs craft-skills to be practised somewhat abstractly before they produce objects. The cognitive process is displaced.
......@@ -3,7 +3,9 @@ Date: 2017/01/04
# The user, the learning curve
Requesting that an interface become more open in the programs that it uses implies greater investment from the user. It would become necessary for a user to learn the basic procedures enabled by the interface. Such an interface method expects the user to have some motivation towards learning the ways of computers and information systems. Learning this somewhat invisible material/procedure that the software system is comprised of is not always *easy* or necessarily always logical, but a payoff of the learner's investment is a much greater agency across the spectrum of computation. Following are some examples of interfaces that strike a balance between usability and visible seams.
I find myself stuck between the effects of solution providing software and interfaces: I identify primarily as an end user of software, but graphic design has lead me to web design, and with it, web development, so I now also identify with the second category of "parties involved in the configuration of software": curators.[ref]i.e. the end-user-facing entities that integrate software structured as services into their own operations (they include so-called enterprise customers). Curators pick and choose which services to use with implications for their end-users. These curators can be IT departments, local web development teams or individual developers;(Gürses and van Hoboken, 2016)[/ref] (Gürses and van Hoboken, 2016) My work as an independent graphic designer and website developer involves the choice and implementation of pre-existing tools and processes for others to publish their content. But the more I do work as curator/middle-man, the more responsible I feel for the digital literacy I expect of the end-users I produce (for). This leads me to question the potential for the acquisition of this kind of literacy, with regards to people (customers/collaborators) who spend a lot of time on computers despite my services.
Requesting that an interface become more open in the display of the routines/programs/packages that it uses will require greater investment from the user. It would become necessary for a user to learn the basic procedures enabled by the interface. Such an interface method expects the user to have some motivation towards learning the ways of computers and information systems. Learning this somewhat invisible material/procedure that the software system is comprised of would not be *easy* or necessarily directly logical, but a payoff of the learner's investment is a much greater agency and situation across the spectrum of computation. Following are some examples of interfaces that strike a balance between usability and visible seams.
![_playGnd](../images/_playGnd.png)
<figcaption>This interface called _playGnd enables the creation of 3d objects that can be easily embedded on web pages. The tool proposes to start with the graphical user interface, but each value that is changed or tweaked automatically updates in the code view that is flush left on the screen. This dual attitude of code and interface shows the user how each object is encoded and reflected by the interface, in the code. It's a great tool for learning the 3D web languages. (accessed March 2017) </figcaption>
......@@ -14,19 +16,18 @@ Requesting that an interface become more open in the programs that it uses impli
![Firefox's 3d HTML view](../images/firefox3D.png)
<figcaption>This 3d view is a feature inside the web inspector that is built into the Firefox web browser. Hypertext Markup Language is a way to tag portions of text for hierarchy of a document. The Browser can then read the markup and visually render the hierarchy that has been encoded. Web inspectors let users and website makers review how their html is being interpreted by the browser. Firefox takes this one step further by offering this 3d view of the html document, by layering enclosed and nested items over one another. The 3d view lets you click on the different visual layers to see what the element stack is, displaying HTML exactly how the browser reads it, but letting the user look at a third dimension rendering, for clarity and understanding.(accessed March 2017) </figcaption>
I find this type of interface extremely interesting and nourishing. These examples follow many of the established communication and interface conventions, but offer alternative positions, informing the user of the computer language and proceedings, augmenting the interface to be an exploratory, interesting object in itself. To this point I've been advocating more verbosity and transparency in interface. The examples above highlight the potential of an interface as a tunnel through abstraction layers. They make space for interfaces to become exploratory, wherein some elements are present purely to inform, for browsing purposes, I use the term browsing here in much the same way as [Adele Goldberg does in the presentation documents for one of the first graphical user interfaces; Smalltalk](https://youtu.be/AuXCc7WSczM?t=1m32s): in which browsing is emphasised because “too often we think of computers as being very precise machines, in which we have to very precisely say I want this or that and you get it back, exactly what you asked for. But the nice quality of a library [browser] is that you can walk around looking for something specific, but as you do that, you find other things, and that's what browsing is all about.” (Goldberg, 1979)
Goldberg and Smalltalk were prolific during the early 80s, a period when the computer was no longer reserved only for scientists or engineers. Personal computers were thought to extend towards other fields, other crafts could benefit from computational power. The work of Goldberg and Alan Kay (a fellow researcher within the Learning Research Group at Xerox PARC) on graphical user interfaces was never meant to obfuscate code, to hide it from the user, as it is on other commercial computer systems today, it was meant to augment the code to help you program. Windows and Apple, whose commercial activity was spawned from the work at Xerox, chose to ignored the metamedia concept (detailed below), instead, simply imitating old media. Movies, Music and books would eventually become .mov, .mp3 and .pdf on the computer, not all that different from their analog counterparts (Briz, 2016). In contrast, for Goldberg and Kay, the computer was an active medium which could “respond to queries and experiments, so that the message may involve the learner in a two-way conversation. This property has never been available before except through the medium of an individual teacher. We think the implications are vast and compelling [...] a new kind of medium would have been created: a metamedium, whose content would be a wide range of already existing and not-yet-invented media.” (Goldberg and Kay, 1977)
I find this type of interface extremely interesting. These examples follow many of the established communication and interface conventions, but offer alternative positions, informing the user of the computer language and proceedings, augmenting the interface to be an exploratory, interesting object in itself. To this point I've been advocating more verbosity and transparency in interface. The examples above highlight the potential of an interface as a tunnel through abstraction layers. They make space for interfaces to become exploratory, wherein some elements are present purely to inform, for browsing purposes, I use the term browsing here in much the same way as [Adele Goldberg does in the presentation documents for one of the first graphical user interfaces; Smalltalk](https://youtu.be/AuXCc7WSczM?t=1m32s)[ref]https://youtu.be/AuXCc7WSczM?t=1m32s[/ref]: in which browsing is emphasised because “too often we think of computers as being very precise machines, in which we have to very precisely say I want this or that and you get it back, exactly what you asked for. But the nice quality of a library [browser] is that you can walk around looking for something specific, but as you do that, you find other things, and that's what browsing is all about.” (Goldberg, 1979)
Unfortunately, it is hard to find many embodiments of the working methods for interfaces Goldberg and Kay set out in 1977. Teaching and learning is not a concern for modern interfaces. I am concerned by this lack of focus for learning as I find myself stuck between the effects of solutionist interfaces. In that light, a simple overview of the structure of the “parties involved in the configuration of software, services and it's [...] implications on the world” is helpful. These are: “1) developers and operators, i.e. the parties who develop software, architect services and operate the cloud infrastructure. Typically, service operators themselves use other services for development and may integrate services into their offering to their customers; (2) Curators, i.e. the end-user-facing entities that integrate software structured as services into their own operations (they include so-called enterprise customers). Curators pick and choose which services to use with implications for their end-users. These curators can be IT departments, local web development teams or individual developers; (3) End-users, i.e. the individual users, consumers, employees, workers, students, patients, audiences, who are affected by the structuring of software as services.” (Gürses and van Hoboken, 2016)
Goldberg and Smalltalk were prolific during the early 80s, a period when the computer was no longer reserved only for scientists or engineers. Personal computers were thought to extend towards other fields, other crafts could benefit from computational power. The work of Goldberg and Alan Kay[ref]a fellow researcher within the Learning Research Group at Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre[/ref] on graphical user interfaces as they conceived them was never meant to obfuscate code, to hide it from the user, as it is on other commercial computer systems today, it was meant to augment the code to help you program. Windows and Apple, whose commercial activity was spawned from the work at Xerox, chose to ignored the metamedia concept[ref]a new classification of medium imagined by the Learning Research Group, whose content would be a wide range of already existing and not-yet-invented media.[/ref], instead, simply imitating old media. Movies, Music and books would eventually become .mov, .mp3 and .pdf on the computer, not all that different from their analog counterparts (Briz, 2016). In contrast, for Goldberg and Kay, the computer was an active medium which could “respond to queries and experiments, so that the message may involve the learner in a two-way conversation. This property has never been available before except through the medium of an individual teacher. We think the implications are vast and compelling [...] a new kind of medium would have been created: a metamedium, whose content would be a wide range of already existing and not-yet-invented media.” (Goldberg and Kay, 1977)
Within this structure, I am the middle-man, the curator, and it is from this position that most of the development of my thoughts around the communication issues within interface have been spawned. My work as an independent graphic designer and website developer involves the choice and implementation of pre-existing tools and processes for others to publish their content. But the more I do work as middle-man, the more responsible I feel for the digital literacy I expect of the end-users I produce for. This leads me to question the potential for the acquisition of this kind of literacy, with regards to people (customers / collaborators) who spend a lot of time on computers despite my services.
Unfortunately, it is hard to find many embodiments of the working methods for interfaces Goldberg and Kay set out in 1977. Passing information from the background to the foreground is not a concern for modern interfaces.[ref]A subculture of computer enthusiasts sharing configuration files, dot-files, the parameters with which they have configured their software does exist, and is vibrant. Example: https://gitlab.com/sandorczettner/dotfiles/tree/master In this sense, an view of interfaces being tunnels through abstraction layers is very much alive.[/ref] I rarely see instances of interfaces considering the task of teaching. I am concerned by this lack of focus for knowledge transfer. So I identify the concepts of experience and seamlessness to be responsible for the lack of literacy mentioned above. The result of these notions is that these interfaces end up looking like one another and adopting one an other's characteristics. Consistency is actively encouraged as a way ‘*for users to be able to transfer their knowledge and skills from one app to another. The principle of consistency holds that an app should respect its users and avoid forcing them to learn new ways to do things for no other reason than to be different.*’ (macOS Human Interface Guidelines, 2017) However, this statement relies on the assumption that previous apps have gotten everything right and that all the knowledge that users need exists already. The fact that it discourages alternate approaches limits diversity. Diverse interfaces are necessary in order to promote diverse approaches to different practices. If all methods become and feel similar, it stands to reason that operations/outcomes will become similar. The term consistency is one amongst many others within these guidelines: Forgiveness, Aesthetic integrity, Metaphors, Mental models, all of these principles are documented and spoken of as singular ways to make software interfaces. They exist within the world of macOS, which openly states that it believes that technology should be transparent. In opposition to this, my vision for better communications within interfaces relies on visible seams. When OSx says transparent, they mean to make the components of an interface invisible. I believe the opposite needs to happen, that we must make models that are heterogeneous, and build interfaces that make some homogeneity for functions. The confrontation in the video below makes these visions clearest, in the words of the company itself:[ref]for offline readership: this video puts two conversations in parallel, one being a snippet from Marshall McLuhan's lecture The medium is the message (1977) that detail how the "the hidden aspects of the media are the ones that should be thought". The second is a portion of an advertisement run by Apple when promoting their tablets. The speech here says: "We believe technology is at it's very best, when it is invisible."[/ref]
These notions of experience and seamlessness seem to be responsible for the lack of literacy mentioned above. The result of these notions is that these interfaces end up looking like one another and adopting one another's characteristics. Consistency is actively encouraged as a way ‘*for users to be able to transfer their knowledge and skills from one app to another. The principle of consistency holds that an app should respect its users and avoid forcing them to learn new ways to do things for no other reason than to be different.*’ (macOS Human Interface Guidelines, 2017) However, this statement relies on the assumption that previous apps have gotten everything right and that all the knowledge that users need exists already. The fact that it discourages alternate approaches limits diversity. Diverse interfaces are necessary in order to promote diverse approaches to different practices. If all methods become and feel similar, it stands to reason that outcomes will become similar. The term consistency is one amongst many others within these guidelines: Forgiveness, Aesthetic integrity, Metaphors, Mental models, all of these principles are documented and spoken of as singular ways to make software interfaces. They exist within the world of macOS, which openly states that it believes that technology should be transparent. In opposition to this, my vision for better communications within interfaces relies on visible seams. When OSx says transparent, they mean to make the components of an interface invisible. I believe the opposite needs to happen, that we must make models that are heterogeneous, and build interfaces that make some homogeneity for functions. The confrontation in the video below makes these visions clearest, in the words of the company itself:
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Apple inc encourages consistency for ‘user to be able to transfer their knowledge and skills from one app to another’ in their interface guidelines. They seem to confuse interface knowledge and computer literacy repeatedly with this attitude. One may be able to re-use an interface trick between one app and another, but this is only ported conventions, not actual knowledge or skill. The consequence of the consistency of the interface conventions that are nurtured is regularity and therefor, a sense of comfort. I believe that a comfortable, regular interface destroys a propensit for digital literacy. Comfort means that everything has been taken care of for the user, and she/he has absolutely no questions to answer or to ask regarding the procedures. Comfortable interface accomplishes the task of disappearing completely and leaves no space for experimenting (apart from interface conventions) the literacy of digital practices and crafts. Apple is not the only company that works in this way, but they are the most successful at the moment, and in my network, unfortunately the most present.
Clearly, a learning curve does exist, and a certain knowledge becomes a dependency, which is inevitable if a more heterogeneous mix of interfaces is to surface. Facing the learning head on can be daunting, I believe this to be the case because of how many of the computer proceedings choose to happen out of sight. This learning can appear overwhelming because there are no clear boundaries to computer literacy. One subject leads to the next, and no doubt depends upon other components to function. But I'm strong in my belief that investing time towards computer literacy is rewarding. Exploring the backgrounds of software systems often reveal histories and narratives that are fascinating and thought-provoking. Being more familiar with what happens behind the scenes, or under the hood has often brought me to understanding the componentry of my computer, and that most of these components are usable individually. A vision of how my (design) tools function and the structure they are built on makes me aware of alternatives procedures and able to consider occurrences where I might not need the full-fledged tool. Being able to interact with software componentry leaves me with transportable knowledge across situations and tasks. This knowledge means I'm able to think with parameters in mind and I'm able to conceptualise in adjustable environments. The derivations of this understanding loops over to become the methodologies and inputs for next projects. And my imagination does get stimulated by technical understanding (McCullough, 1996).
I would be remissed not to mention that digital literacy, like any literacy, is best acquired around enthusiasts, in communities that take pride in the subject matter. The groups of people that gather around the Linux operating system[ref]or other Unix-like free and open-source development and distribution models[/ref] use and make programs with the ideals of digital literacy at heart. Understanding componentry, in this model, is much easier and accessible, because these procedures are written about, thought about, developed and celebrated in a commons that brings the understanding of software and computer systems as an active vibrant culture.
Title: Dissertation conclusions
Title: Thesis conclusions
Date: 2017/01/05
# Conclusions
With this dissertation I attempt to understand the factors made and that make software plainly utilitarian. The economic dimensions always seem omnipresent as an uphill battle, but I'm too exited about the potentials of computers and software to give up on the fight for “cultural software” (Lev Manovich, 2011). Moreover I'm motivated by movements that question the political and social elements that are translated into the technical domain. "The computer world deals with imaginary, arbitrary made up stuff that was all made up by somebody. Everything you see was designed and put there by someone. [...] There are so many ideas to care about, and with ideas comes the politics of ideas." (Nelson, 2012)
The questions that drove this thesis have been addressed from my personal experience. I feel very strongly about my field becoming functional utility because I believe in the power of a visually shaped message. It confuses me that the majority of the graphic design I observe in the public, executed by professional shape givers, is not more interested in it's position in relation to the politics of the tools it is created out of. During my training in art school, I used to get frustrated with my peers and I coming to similar visual resolutions to the assignments we had. It became clear after a few of these occurrences that, while we might have had different interests and background cultures, we were receiving the same assignment, from the same teachers, out of the same workshops; and we responded to these assignments with influences from the same lectures, the same blogs, same magazines; then we resolved them with the same tools (and similar methods in said tools, as we had been thought these tools together) on the same computers. Finally we all went to the same print shop and did our final cuts and bindings in the same ‘technical’ room, before assessments. I'm explaining this frustration because I think a lot of what was happening during graphic design school is happening in today's professional design world too. Trends will be trends and influences weigh differently from place to place, but my reoccurring feeling is that a lot of the bits of graphic design I see nowadays tastes the same as the next. It feels similar. It's not unthinkable that these designers would have had similar influences, or followed similar trends, but the taste and the feel I'm talking about comes from composition and from shapeliness. It's like all this design was made on the same grid, or had to abide to the same template. It's like all the production had to conform to the same guidelines, bordering on the line of subliminal. My cynical belief is that this is true, because it is an almost sure bet that these designers have worked within similar environments, within similar influences, with similar design tools, on very similar computers. The consequence of all design looking the same is that it all gets read the same way. Serving the same pictorial facture over and over means that the audience views in comparison, not in difference. This shortcuts to a view of graphic design that is a regularised transaction.
I hope to have addressed indirectly the situation of computer illiteracy and made a stance for what we users should be demanding. I am simply weary of interface constructs that seem to make the learning of the behind the scenes elements harder because they have no reason, and therefor make me think that there may be a hidden agenda in these practices. This suspicion is probably more often false than true, but is a growing concern stemming from “the Agile Turn”(Gürses and van Hoboken, 2016). Confirming this statement is not an area I want to research, for fear of what I might find, but the example of ways in which lack of functional computer knowledge is leveraged for a solutionist financial gain occur very often online and across digital services. They offer something for free, but get a lot more out of the data that is harvested from their user base. These are reasons why I advocate for wider spread knowledge of the functioning of information systems. Meanwhile, in and for all of this the *learning* aspects are key, and it is with the ideas of learning and spreading knowledge that I stay motivated.
To state this opinion clearly: I am not holding the position that every human must learn computer architectures and programming languages. What I am calling for are interfacing methods that do not aim for seamlessness, that reveal their parts, toggling between heterogeneous and homogeneous displays, and that trust their users as equally smart as the software builders. I do not believe that everybody must be on similar technical levels of understanding computer technologies either, but I do think that a broader and better understanding of all of the types and all of the layers of abstractions that are needed for computers and networks to function is, in my opinion, a valiant way forwards.
I think the similar compositions and similar shapes come from the defaults and presets the used tools have. Somehow the mould and the cast are identicals, and that ends up being just OK. I'm quite confused and disenchanted by this state of affairs, but I do believe that interesting graphic design can be restored. It can be rebuilt by looking at what it involves to make graphic design today. The re-identification as crafts-people as opposed to sequencers is the first point. Understanding how craft has changed, how tools have changed it, and what it means to practice with abstracting / abstracted tools and understanding the politics that surround these tools is a second point. Seeing that ‘industry interests’ are not to be taken for granted, and that efficiency and speed actually have costs. The costs constitute the third and broadest point of this thesis, about learning curves and their payoffs.
In short, I am not holding the position that every human must learn computer architectures and programming languages. What I am saying is that interfacing methods should be helpful, reveal their parts, toggle between heterogeneous and homogeneous displays, and that trust their users as equally smart as the software builders. I do not believe that everybody must be on similar technical levels of understanding computer technologies either, but I do think that a broader and better understanding of the types and the layers of abstractions that are needed for computers to function is increasingly important. I also believe that the need for a certain digital literacy extends beyond professional practitioners. The powers of information technologies, information systems are all around us and the examples that show us how their use and existence embodies specific politics, become forms of governance, arise daily.
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* McCullough Malcolm, 1996. Abstracting Craft: The Practiced Digital Hand. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
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Title: Bibliography
Date: 2017/01/07
* DiSalvo Carl, 2012. Adversarial design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
* Galloway R. Alexander, 2012. The interface effect. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
* McCullough Malcolm, 1996. Abstracting Craft: The Practiced Digital Hand. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
* Morozov Evgeny, 2013. To Save Everything Click Here. London, UK: Penguin books.
* Sennett Richard, 2008. The Craftsman. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Title: Acknowledgements
Date: 2017/01/08
I would like to thank Marloes de Valk, Aymeric Mansoux and Steve Rushton for their writing support. The body of tutors at the Piet Zwart Institute, Master in Media Design and Communications for feedback and project development. Open Source Publishing for their energy, welcome and flexibility. Finally, my family and parents for their enablement, encouragements and support.
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