A fish can’t judge the water
In her short essay “A fish can’t judge the water”, Femke Snelting gives a modern take on a couple of classic communication theories, by asking: “do we use software to think?”
She presents a simple metaphor of a chef using a spoon as an extension of themselves, giving them an extra dexterity and sense that aids them in the task of cooking. To continue the metaphor further, she is asking us to imagine how much harder the task might be if the tool were not available, and would this then change what type of cooking the chef might attempt?
“Could we understand what software does to our work and working patterns without being able to step away from it? What if our work is not only made with, but also through software? What if our work IS software?
Can we think ourselves outside it?”
Reading this brief essay I was reminded first of Marshall McCluhan’s famous meme “The medium is the message”, and more directly the research done into Linguistic Relativity, the “Sapir-Whorf” Hypothesis that language shapes and guides thought.
While catchy, I find “The medium is the message” to be reductive, and not conducive to a nuanced understanding of the way media, technology and society interact and influence each other. Instead I believe research into Linguistic Relativism is a more appropriate lens through which to approach both this essay and the wider question of “does the software we use influence the thought and behaviour of the users.” I think this is an interesting question, with several different areas which we can look at to gain insight.
Let’s start with operating systems (OS). Installed on virtually every consumer computer, tablet and smartphone, they provide the window through which we access all things digital. Despite open source software gaining in popularity, the percentage of users making use of Linux and other open source OS packages is minuscule compared to the percentage of users who access their digital lives through 3 major companies, Apple (iOS, MacOS), Microsoft (Windows) and Google (Android).
The latest iteration to Apple’s operating system iOS (12) brought in an interesting feature which focuses on the issue of user “wellbeing”. “Screen Time” has been developed to both track the amount a user is using their device and also, most importantly, put limits on the amount of time the user can actually use the phone.
Screen Time tracks a user’s device usage stats, and is able to put hard limits on certain applications usage amounts.
The tools have become so intrinsic to our day to day life we are now programming in limits to how much we should use them for our own health. It will be fascinating to see if this function is primarily used by parents to limit their children’s use of their phones, or if adult users activate this on their own phones. There is something profound in the admission that we might need external help – an intervention – in this case from a benevolent operating system, to tell us when we’ve had too much device time for that day.
In this youtube video, a user explains how existing software Blender 3D benefits from a completely reworked interface, found in the Blender for Artists software package. The new interface doesn’t change any of Blender’s original functionality, but by simplifying the layout makes it a much more productive tool for new users.
Creative software applications often explore new ideas in UI and UX design, to break down the barriers between the creator and the computational process they seek. Popular open source 3D software Blender is incredibly powerful and has been built by a collaborative community of 3D artists and programmers, and has a particularly unique interface. From my perspective, working professionally in 3D animation and design, the design choices governing Blender’s UI are often baffling and work against the functionality of the software. It would seem I’m not alone in feeling this way, as there has been developed a parallel release of Blender entitled “Blender for Artists”. The functions of the software are identical, it is the same set of instructions, with a completely different and much more accessible interface.
Music software is full of interesting UI and UX experiments, that vary wildly from the skeuomorphic to the abstract. On one end of the scale, is an app called Reason, which is a multi-purpose synthesiser. The interface has been modelled on the many real-world synths that it emulates (Skeuomorphic) and contains many windows like this:
Both of these programs, Reason (left) and MaxMSP (right) create music. Slightly different approaches.
On the other end of the scale is a program like MaxMSP which eschews real-world analogs and instead opts for an interface much more like one used by a circuit designer. It provides a neutral platform through which a variety of content can be created, from musical compositions to real-time interactive audio-visual installations.
In their article Beyond Skeuomorphism: The Evolution Of Music Production Software User Interface Metaphors, authors Bell, Hein and Ratcliffe explore similar themes to Snelting, however they do not discount the value of a well designed interface as a starting point:
“A software interface is not a neutral intermediary between the user and the work; it guides and shapes the final product, especially when the user is inexperienced. Software interfaces do a great deal of implicit teaching, and indeed may be the only instructor that some musicians ever encounter.”
They postulate that interfaces will outgrow skeuomorphic iconography as the technology matures and more users come into the field without legacy hands-on knowledge of the synths and instruments that are being recreated digitally. Instead they look towards innovations in the game technology space, including hardware devices like Wii remotes and VR, as a foreshadowing of what is to come for audio production.
For me the part of Snelting’s essay is most interesting and resonates is where she focuses on her passion for Open Source software:
“..it is a luxury to find other experiences than those we were used to.. We like to cross boundaries but we don’t want to erase them. We traverse different worlds, we do not make them the same. In fact, we are interested in everything that shows up in the cracks.”
As a creative who traditionally hasn’t used, or paid much attention to the Open Source spirit or ethos, I find this especially compelling.