Clearly, understanding the digital interface as a “material” with “qualities” is going to be very important in our ability to design a language of interaction design. What are some of the material qualities of the digital interfaces you use?
This question got me thinking, and my initial comment to Jeff’s post somehow turned into this long post. Some qualities I perceive of digital interfaces…
fast and dynamic — a book is static, while a webpage changes over time. Video, audio, hyperlinks,…not only do they ‘move’, but we can search and navigate them. And we can do it quickly.
fluid and adaptable — Physical materials are difficult to shape, often requiring expensive and difficult tools. With pen and paper, a mistake means I have to start all over. With word processors, I can easily correct mistakes. More importantly, I can cut and paste to reorganize my thoughts. I can get my thoughts recorded faster when I type. Word processors support that old ways of writing, as well as many new ways of writing. I can even write macros, more complicated tools to aid me in writing. Some of the most important and popular digital interfaces are best thought of as tools that facilitate and encourage the creation of unique and diverse products (which signifantly includes more digital tools).
cheap and abundant — software and the internet run on energy and material hardware. Still, in a digital world, things are cheap and abundant. Unlike the physical world, in a digital world one costs the same as many; I can make perfect copies for free. And I don’t need to throw anything away. Rooms full of physical information can be stored and accessed on a single computer, or distributed throughout a network of computers. Cheap and abundant changes the way we think about and use our materials.
What qualities do the rest of you see in digital interfaces? What general qualities do they possess? What are some interesting particular qualities of particular digital interfaces?
Thinking about the qualities listed above led me to some other ideas.
What is a useful level at which to talk about materials and qualities?
We think of “burnable” as a quality of wood, not of atoms which compose it. So is “fluid” a quality of digital technology, or is it a quality of the particular software or interfaces that we’ve constructed from digital technology? Digital technology has multiple levels that we are comfortable talking about: hardware, algorithmic, software, interface, network,… This seems to be at least part of what Lowgren and Stolterman are getting at when they talk about digital technology as a “material without qualities”. Bits, like atoms, certainly seem to have this property of being fundamental building blocks of diverse and complex forms with emerging qualities that can’t be found or anticipated in the individual parts. However, the digital interface level, which Jeff suggests in his question, certainly seems like a useful level at which to talk about the qualities of a digital material.
What can’t we do with computation?
We’re making all sorts of crazy things out of bits. Computation allows us to create and use digital interfaces that are dynamic, fluid and cheap. It sometimes feels like digital can make anything is possible. But, even as computers become faster, cheaper, and more easily manipulated, it still has limitations. For one, we can’t (yet) manipulate atoms in the same ways we can manipulate bits; we can’t do things in the phsyical world that we can do in virtual worlds (and vice versa). What are some fundamental limitations of computation? What possible uses of computation haven’t we thought of yet?
What radical things do these qualities allow us to do and how do they change us?
Digital is an appropriable medium. This is probably what excites me most about it. Text and television are often used to push information onto the consumer. Network and digital technologies are used as much for pulling, filtering, sorting, mixing, creating, and producing content as they are for pushing it. The distinction between consumer and designer is often not so clear. Digital is a medium of active creation, not just passive consumption. In many ways, this results in the creation of much more richness, diversity and opportunity. Which is a good thing? And what are the negative effects of ubiquitous creation over consumption?
Another radical aspect of a digital world is that materials and copies are free. Consequently, time, attention, and creativity can appear to be the only resources that are scarce. Is this the direction that digital worlds are headed? What is life like inside (and outside) this type of world? Will our physical world approach this scenario of material abundance, as we learn to control atoms in ways similar to how we now are controlling bits?
Digital also question our conceptions of reality. We are drawn to software because it is powerful (it’s dynamic, fluid, and abundant). We have certain powers and experiences in “simulated worlds” that we don’t have in the “real world”. What implications does this have? What happens when we start to prefer virtual experiences over physical experiences?