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“INTERFACES OF THE REAL”: SEMANTIC DISCOURSE OF OBJECT AND CONSUMPTION IN INTERACTIVE PRODUCT DESIGN 1

R. Ateş GÜRŞİMŞEK Haliç University (Res. Asst.), İstanbul-Turkey İstanbul Technical University (Msc. Student), İstanbul-Turkey e-mail: agursimsek@gmail.com Abstract Semantic investigations of the contemporary product forms (which are generally mentioned as the outcomes of computerized culture), evolution of design processes with reference to these new forms, and the reflections of these paradigms on the cultural structure create promising expansions for the researcher as emerging fields of design research. The development of information technologies and social interaction apparatuses have been a strong motive behind the formation of modern consumer culture, since information itself has become a new consumption utility. Thus, the structural and semantic shift from physical object to representation, from productsystems to information architecture and from user (consumer) to co-author has also reallocated the role of designer. This article explores the major promises and contributions of interactive new media applications to design research field by focusing on three key concepts of design: product, designer and user - the recent connotations of which require the involvement of metaphorical and representational associations with the conventional social structure. However, these connotations may also refer to diverse signifiers within this original context in order to form a genuine language of new media. It is intended to figure out the evolutionary patterns of the alteration in their semantic conditions; by investigating the distinguishing features of computerized media and virtual objectsystems, identifying their involvement in the product design field and outlining the consequences of this identification on socially structured system of values. Keywords: Product Design, New Media, Interaction Design, Object, Product, Consumption, User, Representation, Semantics

Introduction Virtual spaces, digital binary-coded objects and interactive media applications became increasingly popular topics of discussion within popular culture, and of academic discourse within various fields of research – including visual culture, design and media studies, and so on. Since each field discusses the subject matter from different (and subjective) points of view, it is evident that a solid academic discourse on interactive products and mediums should also be argued from a designer perspective; mainly because the social comprehensions and developing definitions of contemporary product forms would re-structure the product design profession, as well. The basis of these conceptual changes in the structure and the definition of design profession may be investigated through a range of focal points; through the essence of the objects of study or the method by which users interact with them as well as the involvement of these new paradigms to design process itself.

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EAD07: 7th International Design Conference (European Academy of Design and Izmir University of Economics, April 2007, Izmir-Turkey)


Digital technology has contributed to the emergence of new roles for the designer according to the nature of his interaction with the media. The designer today interacts with, controls and moderates generative and performative processes and mechanisms. Information has become a ‘new material’ for the designer. (Oxman, 2005: 242) As Oxman discusses how digital technology has affected the design process and the materials that are employed by the designer, it is also meaningful to propose another dimension of discourse – an expanded view that involves the outcomes of the design process (the products) and the consumption sequence of these outcomes by the users through similar technologies but different tools. It is critical to investigate the life-cycle of interactive products with a broader perspective - including different steps of design, production, reproduction and consumption- mainly because the roles of conjectural participants –designer, author, producer, user, consumer, etc. - and their definitions may coincide or overlap during the whole process. In this text, the intricate nature of contemporary object-consumption cycle will be explored by investigating the essential features of digital objects and virtual environments; their connotative resemblances and distinctions from our existing codes of representation and the methods by which we interact with them. “New Media” and “New Media Object” A new medium is new only until it is established and no longer new; but since any usage of a medium is based upon communicative conventions, a new medium is somewhat of a contradiction. By defining the medium as “new”, we acknowledge the transitory stage of integration of our current analysis, limited though this may be by its temporal frame. (Brody, 1999: 135) Studying new media and the new object requires focusing not on a specific time period or a set of technological developments but considering the social motives and conventions of its evolutionary pattern; mainly because a significant amount of the definitions and connotations are borrowed (or evolved) from the cumulative library of ontological classification. The most noticeable and authentic contribution of contemporary “new media” would be proposing new conceptual features (such as interactivity, customization, ambient intelligence, etc.) and environments to enhance user-product interaction through various computerized media (Software interfaces, Cyberspace, Virtual Reality, etc). Manovich (2001: 20) offers a rather reasonable description for New Media and New Media Objects as: ‘Translation of existing media sources – including graphics, moving images, sounds shapes, spaces and texts – into numerical data accessible by computers’. What Manovich aims to emphasize in this brief description would help us to formulate a semantic discourse on the nature and background of digital objects and virtual environments as the outcomes of a cumulative genealogy. However, considering how rapidly the information technologies develop and spread worldwide, the need for an updated and expanded description persists to exist constantly. First of all, it would now be considered as a limited explanation to mention New Media only as a translation of existing sources, since a new cultural layer of global information networks seems to be established and it is capable of producing its own products and paradigm sets without solid linkages to material signifiers. This argument should not be interpreted as “new media objects do not have referential links to already existing systems” but should assist us to comprehend this new layer of existence as an internally consistent and coherent system of production, interaction and consumption. New media products are now capable of being produced by the means and tools of new media


appliances; by using the methods and interaction styles that are employed by the system; and within this very system in which all these elements exist separately. “What you do in your computer stays in the computer!” seems to be a quite reasonable expression for an average IT user. Gürşimşek (2006: 90) proposes an updated description with reference to Manovich’s as ‘Creation, storage, classification, accessibility, manipulation and distribution of binary-coded media objects through pre-programmed algorithms’ to include further features and processes of contemporary New Media. Considering the improvement of cyberspace (and information networks), computerized new media applications and the digital object as contemporary stages of modern ontological classification, we may attempt to examine the essential features and characteristics of these conceptual fields with regard to their evolutionary patterns and connotative values that are employed during the process. Therefore, I will focus on the methods of reproducing and/or representing the virtual objects; interaction styles and roles of participants in interactive product systems; and social reflections of these phenomena on conventional design, production and consumption theories to understand the patterns of progression in their semantic conditions. Principles of New Media As we have an updated description of what new media is with reference to Manovich’s statements, an investigation of the essential principles and characteristics of his New Media debate is necessary to build a solid discourse on. As outlined in Gürşimşek (2006: 91), these principles are stated in Manovich (2001: 27-49) as following: •

Numerical Representation: new media is fed by binary coded visual information, whether these materials are created inside the media system or converted from analog media. By numerical representation, new media objects become programmable. Input is sampled and quantified to transform the data to a comprehendible format by the medium. Modularity: This is referred as the fractal structure of new media object. Unlike the modularity in the product design, this modularity may contain contextually irrelevant pieces of objects to create a meaningful whole because all elements may still remain their individual identities. These elements are also composed of digital objects (pixels, polygons, NURBS, etc) so the context may change although the object keeps its originality. Automation: This principle mainly aims to reduce the need for constant human control over interfaces. This is a low-level automation compared to Artificial Intelligence concept. Generation of responses in computer games according to certain behaviors of players may be considered as an example to automation of HCI over the software. Variability: This principle is mainly associated by the first two and is also thought to correspond with the “postindustrial logic of production on demand and just in time delivery” The concept of variability also comes with “customization”, which defines the logic of our post-industrial society. Customized interfaces or smart HCI modules should not be thought separately from the expectations of modern consumers. This may provide key clues about how new media and popular culture are associated, and how one drives the other mutually.


Transcoding : The computer has to represent the information in its own specific way and the user can also access to the material in this specific method. All cultural data must be “computerized” to be in the field of new media.

In the light of these statements on the nature and structure of new media, the formation of a comprehensive discourse on object-consumption relationship in this context becomes more feasible. What is noticeable in Manovich’s theory is that the new media is a structurally autonomous system which has its own functional associations and methods to create entities. However, it will also be discussed in the next chapter that a requirement for references to existing functional associations and metaphorical relations still maintains to exist. Therefore, an extensive design research study should investigate the genealogy of new media with reference to both conventional ontological classification and its promising new paradigms. Visualization of the Virtual Object Even though we mentioned the “new object” as an original and exclusive type of existence, it would be unreasonable to claim that it has no reference to previous conventional models whatsoever. Within a broader perspective, it is evident that the interaction between the subject and object is a mutual progress. While the subject (the user, spectator) monitors or interacts with the object (the product, system, world) through a medium (sense, screen, interface), the object reveals itself as an image that is appropriate to the conventions of the specified medium. The quality of the image affects the perception and consequently improves (modifies) the expectations of the subject; thus results in a continuous processing of the medium which is based on upgrading the means of preceding mediums.

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The cumulative development in the formation of an authentic language for the new media is frequently nourished by re-interpretation or adaptation of the existing conventions to the new environment. This may be mentioned as one of the major reasons of why we still have the symbols of “My Computer” on our “Desktop” in MS Windows©, or how we are using (almost) identical versions of usual VCRs to launch digital media documents. Given that the representations of material objects are still employed in contemporary digital media, we can argue that the need for formal resemblances and references are essential for the users of the new medium to metaphorize this new existence and recognize it as a new cultural layer. Only after this new paradigm is socially comprehended, its genuine language becomes the primary motive why ‘our memory technologies tend to define the very way we metaphorize our lives’ as Brody (1999: 139) states. The roots of this representational phase in the development of a new language may be observed not only through objects but also through spaces and environments within New


Media. Mitchell (1999: 116) focuses on the setting and conditioning of the Cyberspace locations in the earlier versions of information networks and points out how they were arranged to resemble the primitive urban settlements. It is noticeable that the virtual locations are categorized and identified according to their themes or contents within the network and particular interactive search engines are involved to assist the users to find their way inside the system on their own. Significant categories are classified and designed in a way that an average user may satisfy specific needs effectively; such as information sources, chat spaces, leisure areas or business sites inside the network. The nature of these conceptual, visual or functional indications may either be interpreted as consequences of postmodern notions ‘parody’ and ‘pastiche’ as outlined by Fredric Jameson (1982: 114); or as a matter of ‘persistence’ within conventional spatial metaphors employed by Cyberspace with reference to Mitchell (1999: 126). In every respect, it is visible that some sort of psychological attachment in the virtual environment to its material existence has been required by the users to start a definitive/perceptive process. What causes a person to intuitively act as if she’s in a tangible environment within Cyberspace has usually been these spatial metaphors and representations of the “real world” as interaction tools or components. The critical aspect of the subject matter, for both software and product design fields, is the fact that various professions and research fields are now participants of this complex and intricate context. The paradigm sets of each field are visible within a common medium. With the involvement of interactive technologies in end-user products and of metaphorical references to physical product systems in user interfaces, the extensions of creative professions have widened to utilize different perspectives. Not only are the classifications of objects and forms a new subject of discourse, but also the roles of participants and their identities have new expansions for contemporary design research. Identifying the User (…) The spectacle's externality with respect to the acting subject is demonstrated by the fact that the individual's own gestures are no longer his own, but rather those of someone else who represents them to him. The spectator feels at home nowhere, for the spectacle is everywhere. (Debord, 1994: 10) The discourse on the identity of the user in product design - and as its counterpart, of the spectator in visual media – has its reflections in the psychoanalytical and social theories. As in Lacanian terms, an individual’s self realization requires an image of “the other”, a mirror stage that the infant may observe himself as “the other”; and ultimately an external figure which fulfills the unity of the symbolic order of reality. Thus, we position our own existence consistent with how we metaphorize this order, looking from outside towards how we would like to be included (Žižek, 1992). Given that contemporary visual media provides us with images of external reality by the use of it own means, we may take the discourse on identity one step further, by including interactive media. Subsequent to written text, the invention of photography (as a method of instantaneous still imaging) and cinematography (by capturing and presenting movement-image) were both breakthroughs in the progression of society’s visual regime. It is a common topic of discourse that our perception of reality shifted towards photographic images; and then to cinematic intervals (time captures). Now, with the interactive media reorganizing our mental models by spatializing time-images within an information network structure and providing us a virtual autonomy inside, an individual can actually look through the eyes of the other. Moreover, he can control the actions of this


imaginary-other to manipulate the whole reality-setting. Manovich points out this phenomenon by suggesting an updated version of Althusser’s concept “interpellation” and stating: ‘The cultural technologies of an industrial society -cinema and fashion- asked us to identify with someone else's bodily image. Interactive media ask us to identify with someone else's mental structure’. (Manovich, 2001: 61) As mentioned above, the freedom of the user and the level of her control over the interactive medium is a limited and virtual form of autonomy. For Mitchell, one major reason of this limitation is the system’s requirement for “persistence”, or the stability of the system’s key features and its final condition whenever the user needs the same utility from the product. To provide a certain loyalty to the virtual product or environment by the user, a similar type of psychological attachment to the material product is needed by the software, as well. The ability of interactive systems to afford customization and personalization proposes a whole new role the user, a partial and restricted authorship that allows her to manipulate particular features of the virtual object or the interactive elements of a physical product. Another significant method of creating psychological attachment to the virtual environment or system is by creating metaphorical, symbolic and/or arbitrary representations of the user as designated personas, avatars, etc. Given that this secondary character (the imaginary other) is a part of the system, the limitations and restrictions of his actions are legitimized since the user –subconsciously and voluntarily- assigns his representational persona to operate for himself inside the virtual environment. This is a similar kind of legitimization which may be argued within physical tools and material products; however the virtual objects’ function is generally representational and based on conveyance of information more than being a physical body extension (Anders, 1999: 73). At this point, we may consider the mouse cursor (the arrow) that is generally employed in user interfaces as a clear example of metaphorical electronic body extension; as its main function is to aim (point) and shoot (click) at the specified virtual object. The cursor on the screen is the user’s representational self to which he assigns a definite amount of authority inside the system. What's more, the cursor is a noteworthy example of another particular debate; the construction of an original language for the new media, the connotations of which exceeded the primitive metaphorical references and formal resemblances to corresponding material signifiers. In the title of his foreword to Peter Anders’ book Envisioning Cyberspace, William Mitchell asks an important question: ‘Who Put the Space in Cyberspace?’ (Mitchell, 1999: x) – A question that criticizes the way we define this new environment with metaphors and conventional references between existing mediums. With a careful observation, one can notice a significant paradigm shift in visual culture: the shift from planar perception that is based on the culture of the screen (or painting and, then, photography as its ancestors) to a spatial autonomy that is introduced with the development of interactive systems and the global information networks. As Anders argues in his book with reference to Mitchell, we should consider this spatial recognition as a medium, not as another metaphor (Anders, 1999: 74); all the representational figures and structures would be shaped within this new model. Taking this paradigm shift into account as a strong motive of cultural transformation, we may propose a discourse on the restructured identity of the user as a co-author of the mechanism; and consequently, on the definition of consuming the virtual object as a re-production process. Consumption of the Virtual Product


Aside from its conventional definition as the utilization of economic goods (sources, materials, services) to satisfy needs, modern consumption is assumed to have wider connotative values. The consumption habits of the modern society are shaped not only by primitive physical requirements but also by the means of symbolic exchange and a social system of ideological values. Enjoyment is enjoyment for one’s own benefit, but consuming is something one never does alone (this is the illusion of the consumer, meticulously sustained by the whole of the ideological discourse on consumption). One enters, rather into a generalized system of exchange and production of coded values where, in spite of themselves, all consumers are involved with all others. (Baudrillard, 1996: 78) For the modern individual, consumption of utilities is a method of constructing a certain sense of identity; what’s more, it is also a way to express this identity within the social system of coded values. As stated by Bocock (1993), consumers specify their utilities within paradigm sets that are comprehensible by others to differentiate their individual identities. Thus, a generalized system of symbolic exchange is required for the consumers to participate and communicate through utilities. Virtual communities and –as a broader set– Cyberspace are economic utilities, too. Moreover, they provide their participants with wider and more heterogeneous platforms to express themselves and offer them new grounds to consume within. What’s relatively more abstract and theoretical in post-modernist consumption model is apparently manifested in New Media theory – the shift from ownership to participation, and from consumership to co-authorship. This is to say, By launching and using software, surfing through world-wide web or downloading a document, an individual initiates a genuine cycle of utilization, consumption and reproduction through virtual artifacts. Considering the fundamental component of these artifacts –the electronic signal– we may state that new media objects are essentially variable and infinitely reproducible. The limitations of variability and customization are dependant not only on the means of technical reproduction but also on the range of possibilities the designer prefers to offer to the user. Modern software applications are able to modify their system features including user preferences, language modes, intensity of details, visual/functional complexities and behaviors of the interface on specific actions of the users. For instance, contemporary web pages and computer games can be programmed to contain alternative file sizes and detail levels by analyzing the connection speed, CPU power or the abilities of the users. (Gürşimşek, 2006: 95) The existence of such extensive possibilities to customize, personalize and manipulate the structure of the systems would present new responsibilities and roles to the consumer, too. While the interface or the virtual environment allows its consumers or participants to modify the system elements and features, there ought to be regulations or distinctive tasks for users to sustain an essential feature, as what Mitchell calls “persistence” of the virtual environment. He mentions the primitive versions and the development of MUDs (Multi-user Domains) and MOOs (MUD Object-oriented) to point out how the reinterpreted concepts of property and ownership in Cyberspace maintain the enforcement of conventions and persistence. (Mitchell, 1999: 126) It is evident within this crucial statement that the construction of symbolic exchange in virtual environments may lead us to refer to them as new domains of modern consumer culture.


However, one fundamental distinction of digital artifacts obliges us to revise our conventional theories on the relations between “object and consumption”. As mentioned above, the digital objects and systems are built on binary coded algorithms and transcoding of existing analogous sources to electronic signals. Therefore, the possession and consumption of these objects require the process of digital reproduction; such as downloading a document indicates creating an identical copy to your personal computer. Unnoticed by the average user, the system downloads web-pages while surfing through internet, creates temporary files to preview a picture or a text file, and constantly operates its memory to create backups for sustaining the system’s persistence. By all means, the consumption system of new media depends on a consistent process of reproduction and re-distribution. Thus, if we could say –by revisiting W. Benjamin’s inspiring essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”- that ‘the presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity’ (Benjamin, 1997: 125), we would notice that this is an era in which the need for the original is subdued by the existence of the hyper-real. The process of reproducing the representations of the “original” had shifted our paradigms on object, production and consumption socially. Based on this hidden dependency of interfaces and virtual mediums, the borders between conventional definitions of producer (designer, author) and consumer (user) becomes blurry. Most users are now capable of downloading or creating documents, modifying their visual, formal or structural elements; and ultimately, redistributing them through information networks or a variety of mobile devices. Contemporary software tends to include more and more personalization options, filters, plug-ins or updates everyday. Even task-specialized applications (image and video editing, web design, document sharing, office software, etc.) are now designed for the average user to comprehend and use with minimum effort and proficiency. Ultimately, the modern consumer culture of hyper-reality defines its own consumers as both the target and origin of its own presence. Conclusion As outlined in this text, a new culture of hyper-reality has emerged with the introduction of interactive media and virtual environments as utilities of social consumption. This new cultural layer is formed upon the conceptual processes of reproduction, utilization and consumption of the images (representations) of physical reality as they are transposed to a new context and associated with each other through exclusive interaction patterns of new media. Consequent to the developments in information technologies and the growing involvement of interactive product systems in product design market as “consumer electronics”, the conventional paradigms of design profession and design research would require a structural renovation to consider its contemporary expansions. The emergence of such terms as ambient intelligence, end-user programming and system design within design terminology shows us that this paradigm shift is already leading the field to a more complex and interdisciplinary state. The conventional concepts of design knowledge and design tools became new materials for the designer, ever since the consumers ought to be equipped with the freedom of customizing, modifying and, what’s more, creating their consumption utilities. On the other hand, the responsibility of constructing a persistent and effective product system is still burdened with the designer as he is the most active medium between technology and its users. At this point, referring to the outcomes of professional design act as “product systems” seems reasonable; in view of the fact that dominant motivation of contemporary design field is to create and


manage life-styles through object systems rather than to produce and trade individually designed artifacts. Only through their incorporation with cultural system of symbolic exchange, the improvements in information technologies and social communication media may shape cultural conventions. The reflections of such a mutual relationship may be observed through a critical analysis of the developments in contemporary new media; With standardization of digital data formats, introduction of global information networks, establishment of structural and formal internal networks between consumer products and emergence of mobilized communication devices, the main concern of modern design culture is shaped within the integration of information and interaction technologies to daily-life effectively. Since digital media has a standard structural language –binary coded algorithms- and shared platforms to function within –programming languages, operating systems and user interfaces-, the possibilities of customization and personalization are determined mostly by the efficient usage of these sources. Although these possibilities are implied to the consumers as a form of autonomy, the management of virtual environments and on-line communities has already turned out to be a profitable market for global commerce. With constant tracking of users’ certain actions and behaviors, consumption habits, system performances and even geographical locations, on-line corporations may offer user-specific functions, visual languages, messages, and cognitive/subliminal advertisements that imply the idea of their individual sovereignty on-line. Ultimately, modern society is progressing through the domination of a new cultural paradigm – a world of countless individual consumers living inside a simulacrum of ideological Global Village (Žižek, 2002) who perceive the external reality as a physical form of information architecture. What is critical for design research of the Cyberspace Era is to determine its fundamental position within the emerging cultural formation, develop original definitions and connotations for this promising specialized context to help build the authentic language of new media.

References ANDERS, P. (1999) ‘Envisioning Cyberspace: Designing 3D Electronic Spaces’, NY: McGraw-Hill. BAUDRILLARD, J. (1996) ‘System of Objects’ NY: Verso. BENJAMIN, W. (1997) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in du Gay, P., Hall, S., Janes, L., Mackay, H. and Negus, K. (ed.) Doing Cultural Studies: The Story of Sony Walkman, London: SAGE Publications. BOCOCK, R. (1993) ‘Consumption’, London: Routledge. BRODY, F. (1999) ‘The Medium is the Memory’, in Lunenfeld P. (ed.) The Digital Dialectic: New Essays on New Media, Massachusetts: MIT Press. DEBORD, G. (1994) ‘The Society of the Spectacle’, NY: Zone Books.


GÜRŞİMŞEK, R.A. (2006) ‘Future Directions in Product Semantics: New Media Objects and Cyberspace’, Design and Semantics of Form and Movement – Conference Proceedings, pp. 90- 97. JAMESON, F. (1983) ‘The Antiaesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture’, Seattle: Bay Press. MITCHELL, W.J. (1999) ‘Replacing Place’, in Lunenfeld P. (ed.) The Digital Dialectic: New Essays on New Media, Massachusetts: MIT Press. MITCHELL, W.J. (1999) ‘Who Put the Space in Cyberspace?’, in Anders, P. Envisioning Cyberspace: Designing 3D Electronic Spaces, NY: McGraw-Hill. MANOVICH, L. (2001) ‘The Language of New Media’, Massachusetts: MIT Press. OXMAN, R. (2005) ‘Theory and design in the first digital age’, Design Studies Vol. 27 No.3, May 2006, pp. 229- 265. ŽIŽEK, S. (1992) ‘Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture’, Massachusetts: MIT Press. ŽIŽEK, S. (2002) ‘The Matrix: Or, the Two Sides of Perversion’, in Irwin, W. (ed.) The Matrix and Philosophy, IL: Carus Publishing

“INTERFACES OF THE REAL”: SEMANTIC DISCOURSE OF OBJECT AND CONSUMPTION IN INTERACTIVE PRODUCT DESIGN  

“INTERFACES OF THE REAL”: SEMANTIC DISCOURSE OF OBJECT AND CONSUMPTION IN INTERACTIVE PRODUCT DESIGN, presented at "EAD07: 7th International...

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