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.

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