One thing that is central to think is how technologies, and more specifically interfaces, shape our modes of perception and interaction, and thus our everyday reality, through their “narrative” and ways of representation. It is a vast topic, so this short article will focus on Apple’ s GUI (Graphic User Interface) evolution to parallel it with the evolution of the representation of space in Western art, and, hopefully, draw some conclusions, and even more desirable, open some questions.
In 1984 Apple launched the first Macintosh personal computer with the Graphic User Interface, and with it, its first operative system with a Ridley Scott’s commercial inspired by George Orwell’s 1984 and featuring the now pervasive “desktop narrative”, or metaphor: this narrative constructs the fiction of one’s computer as a continuation of a “material” desktop, in which the users have folders to keep his/her documents, a dustbin to through trash away, etc. Before that time, one had to be able to program, to write strings of code, to be able to interact with the computer. If it is true that the desktop narrative is more user friendly, it is also true that it is a fiction: there is no “dustbin”, no “folders”, no “documents” behind the interface, but strings of code that are translated by the computer in zeroes and ones. The user performs a quantity of ‘fictitious’ operations as if s/he were using elements in an office, and has no idea whatsoever of what the computer is actually doing. A part of the problem with this is related to the issue of open-source vs. paid software; namely, one has to have some specific knowledge on programming to operate with Linux and this does not make things so affordable in terms of time or capacities to everyone, but Macintosh or Microsoft “hide” to their users how the system works, and eventually how to fix it, or improve it. Linux is a free software and the result of the cooperation of thousands of users/hackers that improve the system by using it. This subject has been deeply developed by Neal Stephenson in his article “In the Beginning was the Command Line” (1999).
This article intends to address the other part of the problem thinking it in terms of representation: representations that are generated by the social and material conditions of the current historical moment, and that are simultaneously, shaping the ways of perception and thought. The geometrical perspective as a system of representation of three-dimensional space could be created only during the Italian Renaissance, but, it has shaped the way in which the Western world perceives, and produces the representation of space since then, in every field. In fact, this is especially evident in the evolution of the representation of any kind of narratives in the digital realm. As Lev Manovich (2001) would put it, what one chooses to represent, and how, privileges one vision of the world among many, so this choice can be more or less conscious, but it is never innocent, and even less innocuous.
So, going back to Apple, the company launched the GUI in 1984 featuring an interface that conveyed what can be called a “modernist aesthetic”, clear and functional, avoiding any illusionism: the user could interact with the computer through black on white rectangles (then called “windows”), there was no pretension of imitating volumes, or shadows, in the “buttons”, for example. A “note pad” was a white rectangle where one was able to write, but it wouldn’t be the yellow “notebook page”, with lines, and margins, as it then would be the “Notes App” in the iPad’s iOS. Thus, the desktop metaphor was communicated through icons with more or less schematic representations of the dustbin, the folders, etc.
As the operative systems were updated, and eventually improved, the will of “illusionism” begun to grow. In the Mac OS8 launched in 1997, for instance, apart from the colour, the dustbin already has some volume, and the buttons on the calculator, have a shadow. It is still pretty synthetic, so to speak, but there is already the intention to represent three-dimensional objects. In C.S. Peirce’s semiotic terms, it could be said that there is a passage from a symbolic to an iconic representation in the interface: whilst in the first versions the relationship of the representations (signs) with the referent maintained some salient traits but where non necessarily similar, in the later versions the realism was significantly increased, so as to allow a direct recognition of the object represented. It is only then that a desktop icon coincided with the semiotic one.
If the OS1 corresponded to the stage of the use of the hierarchical perspective in the history of painting (Medieval), in which the objects were represented according to their importance and meaning, and not searching for a realistic feeling of the three-dimensional space; the OS8 is closer to the Renaissance, and the invention of the linear perspective by Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) and of its scientific codification by codification Leone Battista Alberti (1404-1472). But, as it is well known, the perfection of this technique did not stop there, and from what is known as High Renaissance, and later Mannerism, the artists working in Italy looked for a kind of massive display of their technical skills and through them, to the representation of extreme, and impossible, spaces. This is considered to begin with the extremely complex positions of the ignudi at the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo.
One of the key traits of Mannerism, apart from the showing off of great virtuosity, is the displacement of the most significative action in relation to the theme to a secondary spot, or even to the background, in the composition, as for instance in the Incendio di Borgo (1514) by Raffello Sanzio at one of the Stanze Vaticane.
Very often the subject of the composition was hard to decipher, and the depicted spaces and figures were incoherent or highly distorted, as for example, in La Madonna dal collo lungo (1534-1540) by Parimigianino, or Allegoria del trionfo di Venere (1540-1545) by Bronzino. Therefore, in a certain way, mannerist representations tend to take away the attention from what is important to confusing, highly fictitious and distorted sections of the composition.
The interesting part is that, following the previous line of thought, from Mac OSX onwards appears what can be easily identified as the “mannerist period in OS’s”. If Mannerism in painting had its own reasons of being, and cannot be judged as right or wrong, evil or good, nor is Mac OS’s, but when it comes to an interface through which potentially ALL our cultural productions are being filtered today (cinema, music, texts, communication, etc. etc) (Manovich 2001: 75), this at least is less innocent, and should be considered carefully. One of the most useless, and mannerist features that OSX introduced is the amplification and deformation of the dock; the dock also has, still today, some “depth” and it “reflects” the program icons on it. While all these “ digitally virtuous” details can be more or less interesting, or aesthetically pleasant, for each individual – such as the Madonna dal collo lungo could seem too deformed for some, or, on the contrary beautiful, for others – they certainly distract from what is really happening behind the interface.
However, the new iOS7 for iPhone, iPad, etc. goes back, in many of its features, to the original “modernist” GUI interface: there are no more “fake” sense of depth conveyed through shadows in buttons, for example, every icon is schematic, giving almost exclusively just the necessary information to recognize it, no mimicking of yellow notebook pages; in fact, even if the icons are colorful, most of the apps that come with the iOS are almost monochrome. The aesthetics of the graphic design has been more than careful, but in a certain way, the previous “mannerist” versions have been simplified and limited almost to their functional needs.
Of course, the old dichotomy, which is an important part of the issues advanced here, remains: the relationship between interface and database. If the appearance of the interface has been stripped off, not all, but at least many of its illusionist, distracting details in favor of a more transparent one; still, there is an interface that makes opaque what is actually happening in the database, the most constitutive part of the machine. How can be this tension solved? Is it really where the new operating systems’ design is heading? Why? While it would be interesting to figure out these questions, this is of course not enough…To be continued.
Manovich, Lev; 2001; The Language of New Media. Cambridge (MA): MIT Press
Stephenson, Nail; 1999; “In the Beginning was the Command Line”. http://www.cryptonomicon.com/beginning.html Accessed: September 1, 2013.