I remember my father sitting by the kitchen table, a soldering iron at his side and a toaster in front of him, casing open. This was in the late eighties, and my dad, who studied engineering, would use his basic knowledge of electronics and mechanics to fearlessly try and take on any broken piece of equipment around the house.
There were once distinguishable elements that made up an appliance: An interior mechanism, that gave the product its function; A skin to cover and aestheticize it, and give it its cultural context; and an interface – be it switches dials, buttons or sliders – to connect the two. They all had an inherent tactility, derived from their volume, texture, production methods, ergonomics and aesthetics. An electronic mechanism would consist of an architecture of soldered cables, water-tower like transistors, switches, spiraling coils and other curiosities, creating a miniature, yet vividly three-dimensional urban landscape of electrical interactions connected to speakers, or motors, or heating coils, with a circulation that could be traced to indicate its inner workings. Over it, the skin of textures and material, curves and corners, parting lines and snaps, colors and shades – a casing designed to expose the mechanism where needed for human interaction, and to hide it where it was unnecessary.
And as corridors between the two, the interface – the distinct sound of a switch, the direct touch through a button, as if through a glove, with the interior mechanism, with electricity itself, the sense of voltage control in the slider or dimmer. They were carefully chosen and affected the design no less the interior architecture, in numbers and in choice of element – a dial for a scaled choice, a switch for binary functions, etc. these three elements – mechanism, skin and interface – made products that were readable in functionality, tactile and direct. With their physical volume, we dared to try and understand them.
If my father would venture today to open up an electrical appliance he would probably gather almost nothing of its inner working. Only gilded lines of a cryptic graphic pattern cover a thin green plastic sheet, sporadically dotted with chips smaller than a fingernail. A piece of digital electronics is at the heart of almost every electrical product we buy, and leaves us hopeless in understanding its operandi. And anyway, it’s not worth our while. It is cheaper to replace a full electrical component then to fix it. In a smartphone, if your front camera stops working, it will be thrown alongside a speaker and proximity sensor, perhaps also an earphone jack, and replaced in its entirety. Cameras, speakers, microphones, transistors and microprocessors have grown extremely small. Flatness, as if the work of a graphic designer, now engulfs the interior mechanism.
The interface is transformed as well, and while its sensuality is emphasized, it is virtual, and its tactility is all but gone. Touch interfaces, voice commands and motion tracking have replaced switches, remotes and joysticks. A slide of the finger on a smooth glass surface which receives a virtual feedback, tricking our mind into believing in its materiality, is as close as it gets to the old interfaces, while in effect it is as sterile a feeling as senses can sense.
And the skin, the surface sandwiched between the too, flattens as well, and an anonymous transparency seems to be its trajectory, as if it is the only way to contain the omnipotence of its ever-growing virtual content.
As the three converge, we are left with an omni-surface, one that is only steps away from becoming the complete product. This surface to come is no longer a skin, designed to cover and present a facade, it is the object, in all its two-dimensional glory. In the not-so-distant future, we may no longer be required to see depth, there will be no Z-axis. Only surface.
But within this two-dimensional boundaries immense depths are unrevealing. In this virtual landscape, old questions that have been lost in flatness arise again: Functionality and ergonomics, semantics and tactility, experience and usability. In this new world, where we can no longer fathom neither the mechanics nor the electronics of the digital product, we are left with trusting them, turning our gaze to things we can cope with. So applications have taken the role of products, and design is renamed UX. The clear technical platform and immense power of these computerized products sets possibilities with functions much more understandable than how they are made possible. We, it seems, have stopped trying to understand how things work, but only how to communicate with them, and as such, we are losing our interest in physicality.
But the world within this flattened surface is becoming a black hole. It is collapsing the material environment, drawing into its boundaries more and more once physical products: notebooks and clocks, radios and cameras, picture frames and levels, switches, flashlights, sound systems and libraries, to name a few. The scales between the physical and digital backdrop are far from balanced, in constant shift towards the virtual landscape. the surface is swallowing the third dimension into its midst, reflecting back its two-dimensionality into the physical world. We accept its boundaries as axioms, as new rules of nature.
Perhaps within this new no-man’s land lies promises of new horizons for undiscovered tactility, of once impossible products, volumes and sensations. Perhaps the digital will cross the gateway of the surface, to conquer new territories in our analog surroundings. But i doubt my son will ever find me so fearlessly fixing an electric product as my father did.
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Arthur C. Clarke. 1973