This is a rant about our unhealthy fixation with straight lines as it pertains to who we are as makers and software designers. Bear with me - this is hard to explain.
We have aesthetic values that are childlike. If consciousness is the synthesis and evalution of reality in real time then we are barely conscious; barely able to see the way the world really works and instead making toy castles that invariably fall down. There are examples all around us of our naiveté:
Your 400 dollar iPad cannot stay upright on a table by itself.
There is precisely one seating posture in coach.
A few seconds on a piano have to be stolen: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8kSm3XRFY34. Jaywalking is illegal.
We love white walls but cannot bear to put nails into them.
We still don’t really understand what makes a piece of digital media sticky.
Here we are interface designers, in the land of infinitely receding UI; the design minimalism that kills skeuomorphism and any kind of cognitive handles whatsoever.
Meanwhile, our reflexes lean towards the warm fuzzy of the familiar. In the effort of expression and capital letter Progress, design wants us to push our boundaries, and so we collapse, helpless in an awkward and unknown space. All of the affordances, gnarls, bumps, obstructions, entanglement that nature seems to cherish in her perversity are eschewed by humanity. Or so we are told.
My 2 in 1 Swiffer Sweeper Wet Jet handle is a bright neon green plastic. After unfolding itself, it twists and fits nicely into position as a pole with a lightweight and oh so fragile pad, on a swivel for ultimate ease of use. We gently massage a new sani-wipe with absorbtion pockets into the v-shaped slots, slap it on our ceramic, or bamboo or stone floors and off we gleefully glide. As little work as a woman can possibly do, but the goal? Total annihilation of anything unruly, unholy, unhealthy, unwanted.
In our work, our love-lives, our sexual escapades, we aim for things go smoothly and to be graceful. To slip past, slide over, not get caught. Never get tangled. In essence we want our journey through this mortal coil to be easy. And so, it would appear as if all of our efforts are to disentangle, perhaps even to disengage.
Be it semantically, cognitively or physically, we surveyed our spaces with the intellectual equivalent of a sandblaster - using it to smooth away any perceived blemish in any and all of the things that we touch.
In case you didn’t know, dreads are out. Hair conditioner is in. Our thinking is unilateral. We want one way and that way to be the right and holy way.
It’s the new minimalism, a harsh mistress that selects always for less, a lady who never pays more that she has to. Reductio ad absurdum. Occam’s chainsaw.
Bron Taylor writes, in Radical Environmentalism, on the rules we have in place already for the establishment of a religion based on nature. He calls them The Basic Laws of Ecology.
They are The Law of Diversity The Law of Interdependeance The Law of Finite Resources The Law that a Species must have precedence over the interests of an individual.
But the real world is different - it is "Interrupted Falling Down". A totally different philosophy:
Nature doesn’t get dirty, never has to be cleaned. Nature’s nature is filthy. Nature doesn’t have to be managed or swept, washed, smoothed. Everything in nature is already entangled. Nothing seems to ever be permitted to fall to a minimum energy state. Entropy says everything wants to come to rest; yet paradoxically the pursuit of entropy leads to “interrupted falling down”. Drop two blocks in a natural system and odds are one of them will come to rest first and interrupt the other from its local energy minima. Drop a few power cables in a box and come back half an hour later - you’ll find that they’ve managed to tie themselves into a knot such that you cannot retrieve one alone. Walk too quickly and your shirt sleeve will manage to get caught in a door handle, or your coat button in somebody else's purse string (often if not always leading directly to a first date then marriage).
The law of this universe seems to be that one must thread one’s way with thoughtfulness. To flow from space to space smoothly; like a trapeze artist; with a rhythm requires constant untangling. Move too fast and you pull part of the past with you, there is a limit to speed. The universe has a love for engagement, it never seems to want to let go, and if so only reluctantly, longingly, holding the edge of the fingertip like lovers do in parting.
In fact it’s quite possible that this entanglement is what led to life in the first place; some hapless proto RNA entangled in some confused way with some pre-biotic long chain polymer. In the simple pursuit of a minimal energy state these organisms were seduced into a dance that became life... almost letting go but never quite... like joining some kind of inarticulate mafia.
It’s possible that this entanglement is what we call gravity; more matter near each other probing the possible interactions and slowing down time in their very vicinity.
It could be that entanglement itself is the fundamental law of the universe and other things that we think of as fundamental are merely side-effects.
Of course in nature all “things” are actually one thing. The universe is a single seamless whole. You, your computer, your desk, your floor, the building you are in, the hill your building. These are not distinguished from each other - they are all just one continuum; smoothly flowing into each other without boundary. Partitioning is a subjective human behavior. As humans we often look at a problem space and partition it into observable blobs. We look at the local entangled clusters and we call them “things”. And our conceit is that those things are distinct from one another; even though they often have almost as many relationships between them as they do internally. Humans themselves are natural, yet our vision reduces our world to digestible portions and we get that confused with the world itself.
Modern cognitive psychology (George Lakoff, Eleanor Rosch and crew) recognize these conceits and recognize the arbitrary nature of our framings. But it is just a nod towards reality rather than truly imbibing that reality. Again we are only pointing, declaring and describing. Cognitive psychology is a still a discipline, still a system. We still partition, we still divide. We still look under the metaphorical streetlights for the lost quarters because the light is better there - even though the quarters were dropped elsewhere.
We architect our own co-dependence.
We mesh ourselves with our machines in a tamagotchi gesture-like-symbiotic-loop.
The nuclear power plants we built would all go critical if we suddenly disappeared. Unhappy indeed.
They say that if all humans disappeared tomorrow that nature would quickly reassert her dominion. The white straight walls would become laced and filigreed with creepers and be pulled lovingly towards the earth. Airplanes and their smooth hulls would become coral reefs. But the way we build - we build as if we are going to be babysitters forever.
We can’t even make a phone not want to impel itself to a sudden death on the hard smooth concrete. Everything we make is suicidal. Perhaps only to show us how fragile our regimented and stable dream machines are.
Nature would emplore us to sashay, to bump hips, to slide across the floor and grab a few other people at the same time in a conga line.
Nature want everybody to trip and fall into the pool, wedding dress and all and be none the worse for wear. Soaking wet we put one satin shoe on a rung and pull ourselves up the ladder, only to grab a drink out of someone’s hands, rub mascara from our eyes and smile at the audience.
If we want things to remain as they are then we are as ants; we have to constantly babysit things. Things become our attentive focus - our whole lives, we don’t look up. Things need to be held, coddled, wrapped in other things. Protected from each other. Sorted, catalogued and tagged. Put away. Not only physical things but our ideas too - we compartmentalize, interpret, buffer and bound. And there’s a loss there. Certainly the universe can be bounded in a nutshell but who wants to live there knowing of broader spaces?
Who really wants to have to constantly keep things apart all the time?
Who wants to build for things that have to be nursed and babysat lest they go critical?
We build systems that can’t interact with each other, that need an external affordance imposed, a special stand or bolt or glue.
We build for an ideal that needs our constant attention; as if we are surrounded by caterwauling children.
Instead let us make a conscious choice to re-empower the thing with some basic ability to entangle with other things. They say dirt stimulates the immune system. That plane flights expose business travellers to more cosmic radiation damage and thus actually exercise their bodies anti-cancer response. What we need is more dirt; more mess, more clusterfucks, more things going wrong and bumping into each other. We need to build such that things can lean on each other, can have repose without our attention, can be their best gnarled selves. We need to learn to live with gnarl.
Perhaps iPads could be uneven - perhaps they could interlock against an equally uneven table, or the side of a monitor. Perhaps airplane seats be riddled with accidental knobs and branches so that you could jam a leg into them or an arm or a head into something less than a mannequins restful pose.
Dropping phones could actually be good for them instead of bad, perhaps airplanes could become a great way to meet people and socialize rather than a tour of a procrustean coffin. Walls might not need nails. In effect, we might not need so many walls. Then we’d find that life is more like days off; when everything seems to be full of serendipitous and spontaneous interactions - where nothing slips past without a struggle - where the interaction itself and the relationship forged is the actual point.
What we need is not more design but a loosely drawn sketch of what anti-design; deliberate obstruction, deliberate jarring and jerkiness, might empower us with. It would make us work harder, make things connect better, map better to a reality that is actually not reducible. And finally what we need is to be more like artists and less like designers. More mayhem, less order. More mess, less local order.
This is the city for it. San Francisco is riddled with mischief and merriment. From Santacon to pianos in parks to Ephemerisle to The Glint to Freespace.io to Camp WhereFooBarTipsy. Though themselves quite structured, they nonetheless disrupt the norm. Give us any collective civic act that fosters a self-reflective disruptive moment that helps one break free of an unexamined life. We seem to be a city full of artists in the truest sense of the world - cultural critics, cultural producers, who pick at the threads - often humorously.
Culture jamming. Absurdism. Cacophony. Surrealism. Tools for bursting us out of an unhealthy fixation on clean lines.
Imagine we all were artists for a day, spent a day drawing, or spent a day making a mess, working with our hands unconsciously and not our brains consciously. What would our software, our hardware, our structured design aesthetic reflect then?
Entropy and Art have a relationship. Art posits itself as reflective, an attempt at a system of upsetting, discussing, dissecting and entangling the current dominant cultural landscape. Cause + Effecting culture to branch and reform, to spin and cluster. To fuckup. To be more entangled. To slow entropy.
We might even discover that art isn’t subjective but is an objective real thing; an observable trait of the universe like say fractals or physics. What we called studies in math, in physics, in systems theory may actually just be studies in art. In how things intertwine and tangle, how things don’t move forward smoothly by themselves but erratically. We reach for one thing and we find it is often dragging ten other things we didn’t really think we wanted but found we needed.
A music video by an artist named Phoenix: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OePvsCfKHJg Similar to a Rube Goldberg machine....again with everything attached, everything in a long chain of happenstance, each gesture affecting another...entangled, responsive.
- a collection of thoughts brought to you by Anselm and Paige