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1998.12.15. - Lev Manovich, Digital Constructivism: HCI and Contemporary

Subject: Digital Constructivism: HCI and Contemporary Style
From: (Lev Manovich)
Date: Tue, 15 Dec 1998 20:59:29 -0800 (PST)

Lev Manovich
Digital Constructivism: HCI and Contemporary Style

In my exchange with Geert Lovink I called for Europeans to bring high style to HCI interface, creating Prada and Versage interfaces, and/or "art house" interfaces (Fellini, Greenaway).

THIS WAS A MISTAKE! I WAS BLIND! Let me try to correct this.

The current HCI is really THREE generations behind other areas of consumer culture. So we are not ready for Prada on the desktop yet.

Let us review the history of modern design (and society) to see why this maybe the case. This histor can be conviniently narrated as three *dialectical stages.

Stage 1 [Thesis] Modern design is born together with a consumer society in the 1920s. It was also the way to let the people swallow the ugly but economical industrial objects. "form follows function" was the ideology to do this. At the same time, the 1920s and the few decades which followed were characterized by mass societies: uniformity in ideology, lifestyle, ideas. Ford car in the West, Red flag in the East. In other words: every citizen got the same design (both for her objects and ideas). As Henry Ford put, one can have a model T in any color as long as it is black.

Stage 2 [Antithesis]
Break up of mass societies. From a single choice to multimple choice. Individualization which begins in the 1960s and reaches its extreme in the 1980s. By the 1980s we got design labels, extreme individualization, theatricalisation of subjectivity. In short, everybody trying to look different. In fashion this is Gucci and Versage (the later, not suprisingly, is the darling of Russians, who are still psychologically recovering from the mass society era).

Stage 3 [Synthesis]:

The previous stage got too much, so the 1990s brought "no-style" style -- a refusal to wear recognisable labels, to stand out, to be a [consumer] subject. As the article in last Sunday (December 13, 1998) New York Times magasine puts this, "they [the new generation] reject exposing the subjectivity that is revealed when one piece of stuff is prefered to another...The private living space has taken on the guise of objectivity: neutral, value-free, as if this were a found space, not an impeccably designed one. The word outside, meanwhile, has become subjectified, rendered into a changing collage of personal whims and fancies." (page 66).

Nicely put. (Although in theory one should not wear designer cloves at all, third stage does have its own designers such as Helmut Lang. Or look at the post-industrial, post hi tech, post cozy interiors promoted by Wallpaper magazine.)

Now lets apply this to HCI:

HCI seems to belong to the era of mass society [1920-1950s], before the 1980s and the 1990s: General Electric TV soaps, Communist Party logos stamped everywhere. Every computer user is looking at the same icons and is greeted by the same Windows logo every time the machine is started. The little customization you can do ("Customize my Desktop...") only renders the monolithic design more obvious. Sure, in communist high school the girls could vary the length of their skirts few inches.

So, when I called in my dialog with Geert for Prada interface I wanted to bring HCI into the 1980s. But the real question is: just as Communists thought that it may be possible for a society to jump from a feudal system into communism, bypassing capitalism, can HCI design jump directly from the 1930s into the 1990s? Or maybe even 2000s?

How would "no-design," anti-subjectified interface look like? Like Shulgin's and Jodi's pages? Yet, Jodi interface pretty quickly became a label, now to be found on Web art sites everywhere. Shulgin almost became a label with Form Art, but then he wisely escaped from into music.

And while we are on the subject, what is this business with everybody having their own *individual, *subjectified Web page? The 1980s resistance to 1930s Microsoft Empire? Can't we do better?