Thursday, March 14, 2013

The only thing worse than visibility is invisibility

So there I was this morning on my way to work, waiting at a coffee shop in the Hauptbahnhof for my order to arrive when I realised I was surrounded by a group of people who were all staring down intently at little portable glowing rectangles.

Nothing unusual there, of course.

But for whatever reasons (and they're probably partly irrational, I admit) this flashy ubiquity of 'devices'--and the frantic tappey, swipey, scrunchey finger movements that accompany it--somehow gets on my nerves.

I've often thought that if there were some way to make this stuff all'd be a meaningful improvement in our everyday lives.

A few days ago, appropriately enough, I ran across a blog post (via Bruce Sterling's Wired blog) by Timo Arnall on what I discovered was an actual trend: 'invisible design'.

‘The best design is invisible’ is the interaction design phrase of the moment. The images above are from my ever-expanding collection of quotes about how design and technology will ‘disappear’, become ‘invisible’ or how the ‘best interface is no interface’. 

Taking off from my comments at the beginning, this would seem just my kind of thing; however, what is interesting in Arnall's fascinating and informative post are the various doubts he raises about this trendy idealisation of the invisible.

For example:

1. Invisible design propagates the myth of immateriality

We already have plenty of thinking that celebrates the invisibility and seamlessness of technology. We are overloaded with childish mythologies like ‘the cloud’; a soft, fuzzy metaphor for enormous infrastructural projects of undersea cables and power-hungry data farms. This mythology can be harmful and is often just plain wrong. Networks go down, hard disks fail, sensors fail to sense, processors overheat and batteries die. 

The idea that the internet embodies some kind of transcendence of the material (and of all the messy limitations it brings with it) is one of the most enduring and irksome myths that has accompanied it from the beginning, and it's nice to see it get a gentle kicking here.

(In a similar vein, Die Zeit currently has a nicely sceptical take on the naive evangelism of a new internet-driven 'sharing economy' as a viable alternative to Kapitalismus.) 

And, Arnall observes:

2. Invisible design falls into the natural/intuitive trap

The movement tells us to ‘embrace natural processes’ and talks about the ‘incredibly intuitive’ Mercedes car interface. This language is a trap (we should ban the use of natural and intuitive btw) that doesn’t give us any insight into how complex products might actually become simple or familiar.
Invisible design leads us towards the horrors of Reality Clippy. Does my refrigerator light really go off? Why was my car unlocked this morning? How did my phone go silent all of a sudden? Without highly legible systems for managing and understanding all of this ‘smartness’ we are going to get very lost and highly frustrated. The tricky business of push notifications and the Facebook privacy train wreck is just the tip of the iceberg.

There's a lot more of interest in Arnall's post, which I recommend highly.

I hope Arnall is an influential guy in design circles.

At the very least, anything, in my view, which will reduce the frequency with which I have to encounter excited burbling involving words like 'cloud' and 'intuitive'--which probably annoy me even more than the omnipresent glowing rectangles, to be honest--is a good thing.


Geoff Coupe said...

Many years ago (we are talking about the 1970s here), my fellow inmates in the asylum (also known as a computer manufacturing company) were wont to state that the most invisible, and grounded, form of a user interface was to be given the designation of a "FLOOR" system.

It stood for a Fucking Load Of Old Rubbish.

Nothing changes.

John Carter Wood said...

I'm always glad to have my belief in the essential continuities of history confirmed.

Thanks, Geoff!