improved interface design, not instinct

13th June, 2008

I don’t work with freshman much, but because I’m in a new technology department I’m on committees that think about curricula development in regard to incoming undergrads.

Having taught an intro to electronic media and culture course a few times over the years I have often mentioned to colleagues that I observed what I understood to be a yearly increase in the general familiarity with new media among each new group of freshman.

I’ve been one of those people in meetings praising the potential for inspired digital works among younger people based on what I understood as their increasingly fearless assimilation of new gear across a broad spectrum of devices – from laptops to cell phones to digital games.

As someone who has believed that cross-media projects (like A.R.G.’s) contain enormous creative potential I extrapolated that these younger students with their bold, pan-media savvy would soon come up with all sorts of hybrid, cross-media projects revealing latent creative and critical potentials within the sea of networkable consumer electronics and socially networked cohorts that would blow my mind.

I’ve become wary of making predictions because I don’ think I’m any good at it, and trying to see things as they are right now seems more practical and, frankly, interesting.

I think that younger consumers are being introduced to new electronic media via increasingly better/friendlier interfaces (hardware and software) carefully designed for their demographic, enabling them to jump into things much faster than younger consumers, in general, would have been able to do in earlier years.

In speaking with a friend about this yesterday I’ve come to the opinion that for those of us who’ve been learning new gizmo skills since the 90’s the method of learning by oneself via the manual is passé – and quite probably an impediment to acquiring mad sk11z on new devices. Manuals today seem to be afterthoughts produced by other companies who may not actually have any more experience with the devices they’re writing about than the person who just bought the thing.

Today’s style involves powering up, and following ‘intuitive’ icons and gestures, and chatting with friends about how to do various things – very social. Gizmo assimilation has a pronounced social bonding aspect built right in, a very different style from the lonely hacker struggling through manuals, and peculiar keystroke combinations, etc.

Earlier devices seemed to be designed for geeks, current devices are designed for kids. That is not a bad thing.

In any case, and getting back to young minds and technological fluency: learning how to make a device do what it’s built to do is essential to make full use of the thing. Doing something conceptually interesting and/or aesthetically engaging or challenging is an essential next step for any artist/designer in digital media, and, to some people, an extremely important step culturally.

Some of you are thinking and doing along these lines. I wish more of you would.

I’m not sure whether the improved interface design is making it any easier at all to conceive of, and make interesting projects, and I don’t see improved interface design, market research, and advertising campaigns as any proof of a developing ‘instinct’ among young people for new technology that suggests anything more than increased sales of specific items.

A fragment of William Carlos William’s ‘Ivy Crown’:

Just as the nature of briars
is to tear flesh,
I have proceeded
through them.
Keep the briars out,
they say.
You cannot live
and keep free of
briars.

Children pick flowers
Let them.
Though having them
in hand
they have no further use of them
but leave them crumpled
at the curb’s edge.

At our age the imagination
across the sorry facts
lifts us
to make roses
stand before thorns.

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