Stranger in a Commonplace Land

As I began reading the two introduction essays by Janet Murray and Lev Manovich to The New Media Reader I first was a bit overwhelmed with the length of each.  This immediately made me think of an article that was reverenced in the previous reading, “Is Google Making us stupid?“: was the fact that I initially gawked at so many words and pages a result of my immersion in a world of near-instant informational gratification and 140 character thoughts? The thing is, I have no problems whatsoever reading a 500 page novel, if it’s interesting and indeed there were certainly pieces of each introduction piece that jumped out at me:

All creativity can be understood as taking in the world as a problem. The problem that preoccupies all of the authors in this volume is the pullulating consciousness that is the direct result of 500 years of print culture. – Janet Murray

The concept of defining a unifying model that describes all of creativity is quite appealing to me.  “The world as a problem” seems at the same time both a grossly over simplified, and a perfectly succinct description of creativity  as I see it, and particular to my field of engineering.  Murray than goes on to draw contrasts between “engineers” and “disciplinary humanists” which particularly piqued my interest because I often feel like an outsider looking in when talking to other engineers about humanistic concepts, but also an outsider when trying to explain how I see engineering to “disciplinary humanists”.   The second essay   provided a nugget that helped direct my thoughts on this curious feeling of duplicity

Human-computer interface comes to act as a new form through which all older forms of cultural production are being mediated. – Lev Manovich

Whether we like it or not, this is becoming the reality.  We now get our books, music, movies and even long distance personal interaction mediated by a computer and the interface they provide us.  The thing is, any good engineer knows that if a piece of technology is doing its job, it should be transparent to the user.  While reading both of these essays I found myself thinking: why are we trying to force so much focus on the “new” in “new media”?  Is our doing so an indication that we as engineers still have more work to do to make the current technology transparent (I think we do) or is society so transfixed by “new” technology for some other reason that we are refusing to let it become as transparent as it could be?

Manovich, I think would disagree on that point, at least in the U.S. as one of his arguments for the late start of new media exhibits in the U.S. was in part do to the rapid assimilation of new technology so that it became ubiquitous before we had time to reflect upon its potential impacts.  As I’m writing that I feel myself rethinking my own view, because I don’t want to suggest that we not reflect upon the impact of technology that we now take for granted, in fact I have often felt we need to do much more reflecting, and I agree wholeheartedly that we have adopted some technologies that have drastically changed our day-to-day lives (who plans things in advance any more when you can just text your friends last minute to find out where people are?) that may consequences far extending the superficial sphere of their direct influences (if we don’t plan our days, are we losing our skill at thinking into the future and acting accordingly in general? Are we becoming a species obsessed with living in the moment and unable to live any other way?)

I’m in danger of rambling now, but I now have a better understanding of why I found it difficult to focus on the entirety of both essays.  Everything around each nugget either seemed redundant, overly descriptive, or a distraction from the thought process that had started forming in my head.  If good technology should be transparent to the user, why are we spending so much time worrying about it? And what are the consequences if we don’t?

4 thoughts on “Stranger in a Commonplace Land

  1. “any good engineer knows that if a piece of technology is doing its job, it should be transparent to the user.”

    I am very glad you feel this way. In my study of architecture, and by extension design in general, I see this disappearing act of technology essential. I was wondering if you consider user experience design under the heading of engineering? It is one thing to create a device that allows me to download a book anywhere, but is is another thing entirely to consider the possibilities of a new format of media consumption in terms of the experience of the user. Infinite scrolling is one of my favorites, but is by no means the most revolutionary re-imagining of format on the web.

    • As I understand it correctly a piece of technology that is transparent to the user is one that the user is unaware that they are using. Douglas Adams made the argument that “Before long, computers will be as trivial and plentiful as chairs (and a couple of decades or so after that, as sheets of paper or grains of sand) and we will cease to be aware of the things”
      Would you consider chairs to be a transparent technology? How about the more modern TV? How long until the device I am using to type these words is no longer something I view as a new technology but instead a fact of modern life? Are we already there?

    • I think interface design lies on the interface between engineering, art, psychology and increasingly in our networked world, sociology. I think too often engineers consider their job complete once they have created something functional. I suspect that there is no greater concentration of hostility towards Apple than in the computer engineering department. “There products are over priced, for what they are, you can get the same specs from other companies for a lot less”, is an argument I hear a lot. I think at least some of the people who make these arguments are legitimately baffled why someone would choose to spend hundreds more for “the same hardware” that was available elsewhere for cheaper. So yes, I understand why you ask that question because many engineers don’t seem to see the interface design as part of there job, or even necessarily an important aspect of a product, they don’t seem to quite grok that Apple isn’t marketing computer hardware, they’re marketing a user experience.

      I don’t want to dwell on Apple too much, that’s just seems to be a common sore spot for a lot of people I interact with, and I suspect some of the hostility comes from the confusion as to why clearly people seem to care about what Apple is doing, even though nothing they are doing is incredibly original. Honestly, engineering, or at least the engineering curriculum has been or has become too isolated from the world in which its products are used I think.

  2. I would be interested in hearing who the stranger is in this Commonplace land?

    “Are we becoming a species obsessed with living in the moment and unable to live any other way?”

    I am interested in exploring if a lack of planning and last minute scrambling to put together your plans for the evening or weekend’s festivities is really living in the moment. To me living in the moment is embracing engagement with the present on such a deep level that you are unaware (in the moment) that you are fully engaged with the moment. The moment you realize both your tires just lost traction as you round a curve on your mountain bike is a moment you must fully engage with. If you were contemplative about that moment you would fall. Instead you need to trust your body to simply react. Playing a game of tennis, kissing a woman or man you are in love with, or laughing at a good joke your friend just cracked are times to live in the moment. Has the cell phone and other “new” technologies helped us embrace this attitude? Or have they done something else?

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