Lots of chewy goodies in this thoughtful long thing from Christopher Butler. I need to sit with it for longer, perhaps, before I can get the best of it—it is very much a designer’s view of things, and while Some Of My Best Friends Are DesignersTM, it’s a perspective which, in order to see properly from it, I have to wrench my metaphorical neck around some. So this is mostly me bouncing bits of it off of bits of my own schtick, and trying not to spend more than half an hour doing so*. Let’s see how we go…
After an intro in which he talks about the way in which certain objects acquired early in life become a sort of synecdoche gateway to technological devices as a more general category, Butler starts riffing on a couple of pages from Massive Change by Bruce Mau, which I infer to be a very significant turn-of-the-millennium industrial design text. Butler quotes a bit where Mau talks about “the Interface” as the site of a reduction of systemic complexity to a much smaller suite of functions that require much less expertise to understand and use.
The concept of the Interface is an important part of the trialectic model of sociotechnical change that sits (unloved, it seems, by anyone other than its creator) at the heart of my PhD; I’m not going to fool myself that Mau is talking about exactly the same thing, but given I used the term to define the things that get plugged in to infrastructures in order to manage their unstructured plenitude of potentiality, it sounds like we’re pretty close.
(I’m also reminded of the best summary of design as a discipline I ever heard, which—though she claims, with endearing and typical modesty, not to recall ever saying it—was given to me by Anab Jain of Superflux: I don’t think I’m paraphasing excessively if I say it was basically “design is the process of making decisions about which decisions the end user gets to make”.)
Butler comes off the back of Mau’s interface ‘graph with this:
From the view of twenty years ago, the solution to complexity was complexity dressed up like simplicity. A better machine was one that replaced three and still “just worked.” Our expertise about humans suggested that we wanted to do more with less and our knowledge of engineering was able to deliver that.
But twenty years of increasingly technological everyday life has me reinterpreting Mau’s words on the interface.
Now, when I read of the need for technological solutions to complexity, I think less of gathering power at my fingertips and more about getting distance from it. When I think about the delight in experiencing a finely crafted object, I think less about features and more about feel.
That’s a really interesting distinction, one that I wouldn’t have thought of making myself… indeed, I feel (perhaps because I am a non-designer?) that gathering power at the fingertips and getting distance from it are not necessarily distinct. This may be a misinterpretation on my part, but the metaphor of the finely crafted object (Butler uses the example of musical instruments further up the page) speaks much more clearly to me regarding simplicity*; I think Butler’s use of power as synonymous with features (this is a post about digital tech, after all) is maybe foxing my metaphorical mapping a bit, here.
But then we move on to convergence, the phenomenon of the one device (i.e. the smartphone) eating the functions of all the others (cellphone plus laptop plus MP3 player plus plus plus):
In 2003, the idea that a music player, a phone, a computer, and a camera would all be the same object small enough to fit in your pocket was a dream worthy of pursuit. In 2023, it isn’t the object that is the problem, it’s the world that object has created around it. It’s a world of perpetual access and persistent distraction, of vamping and voyeurism, of want and waste, of noise and never being alone. That one little object wraps us in an inhuman aura that we are socially-pressured to deny as a luddite metaphor. But it is there. It’s invisible, but it may as well be a mechsuit. The world we make now is for living like that.
But it doesn’t have to be. It wasn’t always.
Our identity as humans-who-compute is probably irreversible. But our experience as slaves to the everything machine can be changed — should be.
Which, after all, is the more appealing metaphor to wrap oneself in — a mechsuit or a bubble universe of one? Which affords the greatest mobility? Which is most pliable to the growth of the interior — to the person inside?
Again, another metaphor that’s uncannily close to one of my own: I have talked about infrastructure as a kind of collective hazardous-environment suit many times over. (But I’m not trying to stake a claim on the idea, to be clear; after all, I think I came up with it as a development of someone, maybe Geoff Manaugh, describing the city s a battle-suit, and really almost all of my infrastructural metaphors are extensions—pun not entirely unintended—of Donna Haraway’s cyborg.)
I have also argued repeatedly that infrastructure is the unacknowledged precondition of design decisions, and I think there’s a sense that some of what Butler is getting at here might be easier to parse (at least for me) if infrastructure was brought more explicitly into the picture… because to be honest, “a world of perpetual access and persistent distraction, of vamping and voyeurism, of want and waste, of noise and never being alone” is the sort of poetic summary of the metasystem that I’d love to drop in talks, but never quite manage to pull off on the day. And that’s the thing, isn’t it? The Interface (in my cosmology, at least) is the functional access port we have to the metasystem of Infrastructure… and while the concept of “power” is much more literal in my cosmology, it still feels like we’re talking about the same problem when it comes to convergence, at least in some respects. (Multisystem dependencies don’t seem to crop up in this Butler piece, but they’re there by implication.)
And look, now we get computing-as-infrastructure, just without so many words:
We could live in a world where computing is a public works — where terminals to central processing work like telephones used to. You can pick them up or put them down, but nothing inside of them is yours. But we don’t live in that world. As soon as the first computer booted up in the first home, the computer became a personal object. And when an object becomes personal, it is difficult to leave it behind. We want it with us.
Perhaps that one thing — a simple desire for a personal machine — set us on the course we have followed since. Not Moore’s Law, not Capitalism, but personhood.
My argument is not so much that the desire for the personal device results in the current tech paradigm, but that the desire for what I call excession—which is to say, the quantitative or qualitative improvement of the function performed or enabled by the device, which can take place across many different parameters, and often on more than one at a time—results in the production of new interface designs for the market, whose increased demands on the underlying system (due to their tendency to stretch the rules and regulations governing said system to breaking point) are what necessitates the thing we call “growth”. There is definitely an individualism to this, but I’m not sure I would go so far as to call it personhood. (But again, I am not a designer!)
Then there’s a chunk which dovetails neatly with last week’s post on worldbuilding:
While I wait for the real world to shift in its personal machine culture, I’d be happy to see that happen in fiction first. All of my good examples are old! Contemporary science fiction is still replete with design fictions. But as sophisticated and believable as they have become — I’m especially thinking of the foldable of Westward — they’re products. Regardless of the imagined economic conditions of these futures, the same old material supply chain and assembly line manufacturing seems to be at work. Show me someone making something of their own. Show me an imaginary imagined device in an imaginary world.
This is exactly what I meant, too. Like, I agree with Butler here, I want to see “someone making something of their own”, see “an imaginary imagined device in an imaginary world”… but that’s way beyond design fiction, that’s full-on worldbuilding. That’s context, that’s infrastructure, that’s sociotechnicality.
And a final thoughtful outro bit:
Perhaps the days of personal machines are over. Maybe the complexities that Mau and his cohort wrote about are not safely reducible. Maybe we can’t decomplexify the world of things. Maybe. And if we can, I wouldn’t dare imagine it could happen quickly.
But if we can, where do we start? What do we look at? What do we use again, despite there being sleeker, faster, frictionless options available? What limits do we embrace so that we can re-balance the human with the machine?
Per Joseph Tainter, the standard response to overly complex systems (and perhaps the only feasible one) is to bolt on a new layer of complexity to manage it; otherwise you’re stuck in the old but very powerful analogy of trying to rebuild the airplane while it’s aloft with a full complement of passengers. Systems do sometimes nonetheless become radically less complex, but those are what we tend to think of, historically, as civilisational collapses.
But that needn’t seem like quite so grim a prospect as it initially sounds. As the better historians are at pains to point out, things don’t change a huge amount for the vast majority of people in periods of civilisational collapse, or at least not quickly. Those who have experienced the maximally frictionless lives enabled by that civilisational system will really feel the shift pretty severely; those who have been greasing the skids, less so.
So my answer to Butler’s rhetorical question is: I think there’s a lot to be said for reverting to less complex, more frictional and unconverged technologies, and I note that we seem to have taken very similar steps toward doing so in our own lives.
(In the name of autocritique, though, I also note that “tech sabbaths” and such are the sort of thing that doesn’t seem to appeal outside of the western bourgeoisie, who are after all—and yeah, this includes me—very much the ones with most to lose in a civilisational collapse; we can sense the madness of the emperor, the grift in the imperial machinery, and we have a sense of the fragility of things as they stand, even though—and also precisely because—we are caught in the web of those things that are so fragile.)
But the question of where to look, that’s easy: we have to look beyond the devices, beyond the interfaces. We have to look at the infrastructure. That’s the hidden complexity; that’s the distanced power.
Trouble is, the only way we have of looking at infrastructure is through infrastructure… and that’s been the case for longer than either Butler or I have been alive.
[ * — Well, fifty minutes? That’s within Dan Hon levels of acceptable error in planned time investment on a blogpost or newsletter, and if that’s not an industry standard, then it probably should be. ]
[ ** — As someone who just bought a Morgan AC20 because I wanted a valve guitar amp with the minimum of bells and whistles (not to mention the minimum of volume), the simplification of complexity was definitely a deciding factor. If you want features in a guitar amp, then you probably go with a Kemper or some other modelling system… but perhaps guitar amps aren’t a great example here, because even within that world there’s a considerably vocal contingent who decry the hipster obsession with valve amplification as a pointless anachronism, and say we’d all be better off sticking our favourite pedals in front of a Roland Jazz Chorus and stopping with the pretense that we can hear electron-field overtones that oscilloscopes struggle to show. And, y’know, the JC is a good amp! But even if my valve overtones and tonewood sustain are fictions that have been developed to relieve me of my money, I’mma stick with them. Turns out you can know what the commodity fetish is, but still be enraptured by its magic. Who knew? ]