Disappearing Technology, Cultural Interfaces

Some thoughts on Mark Weiser’s ubiquitous computing/disappearing technology, and the move to a more cultural approach to user experience and user interfaces. In my PhD work, I draw upon cultural studies and other ‘humanities’ disciplines to approach human-computer interaction. Therefore, I often think about the role of technology within culture, and how everyday use of technology actually becomes part of that culture.

In 1991, Weiser wrote that “the most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.” In the years after, he continued to elaborate on that idea by introducing concepts like ‘ubiquitous computing’, ‘embodied virtuality’ and ‘calm technology’ to describe a new computing paradigm in which computing tools are not in the center of attention – unlike most technologies that share the ‘basic flaw’ of making the computer visible.

Weiser originally envisioned three – interacting – types of devices: tabs, pads and boards. While this was a future vision in 1991, in 2013, some of Weiser’s predictions have materialized – to some extent. Roughly, the concept of small tabs can be compared to today’s smartphones, and the paper-sized pads to tablets. Currently, only boards are not part of today’s consumer technology (yet). However, all this technology has not pushed computers into the background. According to Paul Dourish, Weiser envisioned a world in which computers would be nowhere to be seen, but computation would be everywhere. However, this is clearly not the case today. What, then, has gone wrong? How has the evolution of technology turned out different from Weiser’s vision?
While Weiser’s vision around invisible and calm technology has been taken up as a praiseworthy goal by several researchers, Dourish does point out some difficulties with the concept. Invisibility is at odds with current HCI practice, in which design has taken up a more prominent role. The concept of ‘design’ is opposed to invisibility, as design is essentially about the expression of values, and about communication. Obviously, one cannot engage with something that is invisible.

Dourish points out these difficulties, and describes the idea of invisible interfaces as ‘conceptually misleading’. He proposes embodied interaction as an alternative, stressing the shifting relationship between user, technology and context, between technology and social settings, and stressing the physicality of interaction. The concept of the invisible interface is too simplistic: it ‘demonizes the interface, and abandons altogether the idea that the interface might mediate user action’. He argues that this mediation is central to interfaces, and that most proponents of invisibility actually argue against the inflexibility and rigidity of user interfaces. However, solving this problem by doing away with interfaces altogether is a step too far.

A Different Take on Invisibility: Interfaces as Cultural Expression

While true invisibility is not the solution to inflexible interaction with technology, technology is becoming invisible in another, more metaphorical sense. As technology becomes more ubiquitous and embedded in daily life and culture, the interfaces themselves become a part of that culture. Steven Johnson already wrote about this shift as early as 1997, in his book Interface Culture: ‘We will come to think of interface design as a kind of art form – perhaps the art form of the next century.’

Since the 2000s, the gap between technology on the one hand and art and culture on the other has become narrower. Innovative musical instruments such as Tenori-On, digital artistic installations such as Maeve, and even consumer technology such as the iPhone no longer draw attention to the technology itself. Instead, through their (interaction) design, they communicate values to their users that go beyond efficiency or ease of use. Smartphones are as much about fashion as about technology (see, e.g. the latest iPhone 5c commercial), and interacting with the Maeve installation is clearly a cultural activity, embedded in the 2008 art biennale in Venice.

As technology and interaction design increasingly moves towards art and culture, it becomes relevant to treat interaction design as a cultural form in itself. This awareness of interaction design as a cultural form has caught on in recent years. Whereas Johnson complained in 1997 about a lack of an appropriate language to describe interaction as a cultural form, interaction criticism has filled this gap, drawing on the humanities, cultural studies and philosophy.

On the one hand, technology has become invisible to some extent, as foregrounding cultural aspects backgrounds the technology. On the other hand, interaction criticism foregrounds the interaction design through in-depth analyses of the design’s implicit values and implications. While Mark Weiser’s vision of invisible technology hasn’t caught on as he anticipated, the closing gap between technology and culture has created something of a paradox: it makes technology more invisible, but makes the interaction design itself, as a cultural form, more visible.


5 thoughts on “Disappearing Technology, Cultural Interfaces

  1. Interesting points there JD. I couldn’t help thinking about Joep Frens’ rich interactions (http://www.richinteraction.nl) – you could call these skeuomorphisms of functionality taken for granted in digital devices. I tend to get the idea that we value certain interactions because of their cultural heritage, for instance – when a button on an amplifier is heavy to rotate, the equipment is high quality. So I understand that our technological devices are becoming part of culture, but on the other hand there is a tendency to explicitly make digital actions analogue (again). Just wondering how that relates to the statement you’re making.

  2. janderboven

    Hey DdR – thanks for commenting. I think you could indeed say that we value some interactions ‘because of their cultural heritage’, as you put it. You could say that different sorts of knobs and dials we’ve grown accustomed to have become part of our general (cultural) ‘interaction dictionary’. They’ve indeed become new metaphors we live by, so to speak.
    In fact, it is especially striking to me how fast this interaction dictionary tends to be updated with new interactions. For instance, I’m thinking of swipe gestures that are being re-/mis-used in commercials as diverse as Ambi Pur air fresheners, and Peugeot cars. These products have little or nothing to do with the digital interaction patterns that are used in their commercials. It seems that they have become common, taken-for-granted metaphors, much like those discussed by Lakoff & Johnson.
    What might be different with these metaphors is probably that they are ‘temporary’ metaphors – more or less easily replaced with other, new interaction metaphors. I’m not sure whether in the seventies/eighties, things like old-school telephone dials were appropriated and re-used in the same way as gestures are being re-used these days. That would make an interesting study, I think…

  3. I’m still thinking about an analogue system and the perceived interaction qualities. I think an audio system would be a good example. High end audio systems have these typical ‘large, heavy’ knobs and controls. This is reflected in products like the Griffin Power mate or the Monome Arc. I have the feeling that heavier knobs
    The study you’re hinting at, would that be something along the lines of comparing between:
    – A physical volume dial
    – A skeumorphic visualised dial on a tablet
    – A ‘flat’ dial on a tablet
    – A gestural interface
    Would be good to do such a test with various age groups and see what their perception of quality of the system is.

  4. janderboven

    Dries, the study I was hinting at was more something of a comparative study of e.g. commercials from the sixties until today, comparing to what extent metaphors taken from interaction with (analog/digital) products pop up in completely unrelated products… That would be a ‘diachronic’ study, if you like.
    However, your proposal of a synchronic study of various interaction methods and the influence on perceived quality would also be very interesting. That would be complementary to Frens’s work, isn’t it?
    BTW, I don’t think I can completely agree with one of Frens’s starting assumptions: the fact that interactive products have three properties – form, interaction and function. Is that a standard way of looking at things for ‘designers’? It seems that such a distinction decontextualizes a product from any real-life usage… In that sense, I think those properties can be really limiting?

  5. Absolutely agree that they are limiting, and I am a strong believer of the importance of taking contextual elements into account. The properties are indeed the typical ones that have been going around within the industrial design scene, since the Bauhaus movement etc. On the other hand, what Frens is doing reminds me of Stolterman’s concept-driven interaction desing research (http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07370020903586696) using propositions as translations of theory and thereby eliciting reactions. But you are, what I’m concerned, absolutely right to question the contextual relevancy of the work. The study I briefly touched upon could be a way to reflect on these contextual elements.

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