The aesthetics of technology

Different technologies have different kinds of aesthetics, and they affect us in various ways, whether we are particularly fascinated with technology or not.

The easiest technologies to understand on an intuitive-emotional basis seem to be those that involve physical processes. Objects rotating, moving, being lifted and displaced, compressed, crushed. Gases and liquids being sent around in conduits, mediating force and energy. In short, the technology that has its foundation in classical mechanics.

If these are easy to get a feel for, it would probably be in part because an understanding of mechanical processes has been of use to us throughout history, and also before the advent of civilisation. An intuitive understanding of things such as momentum, acceleration, gravity has no doubt benefited mankind and its ancestors for a very long time.

It gets trickier when we get to the more recent technologies. Take electricity to be an arbitrary watershed. We have no intuitive idea of what electricity is, apart from the fact we might be afraid of thunder. Electricity has to be taught through the abstract idea of electrons flowing in conduits, a bit like water in pipes (to name one of many images being used).

And then there’s analog and digital electronics, integrated circuits, semiconductors and so on, where intuition has long ago been left behind. We are forced to approach these things in a purely abstract domain.

Yet, when our Mp3 players, game consoles, mobile phones and computers do things for us, we are left with a sense of wonder. Our minds, always looking for stories and explanations, want to associate the impressive effects produced by these devices with some stimuli. With a steam engine, it’s easy to associate the energy with pressure, heat and motion, all of which are well understood on a low level. With a mobile phone, not so much. A lot of very abstract stories have to be used in order to reach anything that resembles an explanation, and still it doesn’t reach the essence of the device, which might be in its interplay between radio transceivers, sound codec chips, a display with a user interface and software to drive it, a central CPU, and so on, together with, of course, the network of physical antennas and their connectivity with other such networks. Is it too much to suppose that the human mind often stops short of the true explanation here? That we associate the effects produced by the device with what we can touch, smell, see and hear?

This is of course the point where many computer geeks worldwide start to feel a certain affection for the materials that make up the machines. Suppose that we are in the 1980’s. Green text on a black terminal background. A particular kind of fixed width font. The clicking of the keyboard. The dull grey plastic used to make the case. All of these things can acquire a lot of meaning that they don’t really have, because the users lack a window (physical and emotional) into the essence of the machine. The ultimate “disconnected machine”, to relate to my field, is software.

This brings up questions such as: how far can we as a species proceed with technology that we cannot understand instinctively, how can we teach such technology meaningfully and include it in democratic debate, and how can we use people’s tendencies to associate sensory stimuli with meaning and effects in a more meaningful way? – for instance, when we design hardware and software interfaces.

Category: Philosophy, Software development | Tags: , , , , , 2 comments »

2 Responses to “The aesthetics of technology”

  1. Chris

    I think it’s interesting that the manifestation of the abstraction you’ve noted regarding computers shares many similarities (including this manifestation’s name) with our natural method of communicating the workings and structures of those physical objects: language. Language represents our species’ ability to form abstractions themselves, and perhaps language models as closely as possible our brain’s internal representation of physical objects and concepts.

    Of course we communicate with machines with languages, and those languages have experienced a trend — as you’ve noted — of abstraction from low-level functionality to high-level functionality. It seems to me each successful iteration brings that computer language a little closer to our natural human language. Perhaps this trend will continue until our machines can successfully interpret natural human language.

    Imagine instead of an IDE, a “programmer” simply explains to his machine what he wants done (on as high or low of a level he chooses), and the machine responds with questions (if it necessarily needs anything clarified) to determine exactly what the programmer wants. Maybe “programming” would simply entail a conversation with a completely subservient reflection of a human mind.

  2. johan

    An evolution from programming languages into natural languages is an interesting idea to ponder. I’m not sure if it’s likely though. Some thoughts:
    1) As computers permeate more and more of society and our social/industrial/recreational processes, will there also be an opposite pull, a tendency for human/natural language to become more like a formal language (programming language)?
    2) Programming languages today are basically fancy ways of interacting with the turing machine/lambda calculus model. But we don’t know what the fundamental model of the human brain is, if indeed there is such a model. The human brain may be able to stretch to simulate or work with the computer model, but can the computer stretch to simulate/work with the brain model? A fundamental AI question.
    3) A machine that was programmable through a dialogue, like the one you described, might have to be familiar with the programmer in some ways, and know what that programmer usually means when he/she uses certain expressions. Would teamwork still function well if the program is programmed in this kind of style? Would people be able to discuss a program and share an understanding of exactly what it did? Would there be a canonical representation?

    In short, I think it’s unclear that a programming language that mimicked a natural language closely would be a much better programming language, but it’s an excellent topic for speculation.

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