Lev Manovich on Wed, 16 Dec 1998 17:57:47 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Digital Constructivism: HCI and Contemporary Style

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

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 net.art 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? 

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