I recently found myself (re)reading Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash for the one billionth time. In it, there is a great passage about “gargoyles”:

“Gargoyles represent the embarrassing side of the Central Intelligence Corporation. Instead of using laptops, they wear their computers on their bodies, broken up into separate modules that hang on the waist, on the back, on the headset. They serve as human surveillance devices, recording everything that happens around them. Nothing looks stupider; these getups are the modern-day equivalent of the slide-rule scabbard or the calculator pouch on the belt, marking the user as belonging to a class that is at once above and far below human society. They are a boon to Hiro because they embody the worst stereotype of the CIC stringer. They draw all the attention. The payoff for this self-imposed ostracism is that you can be in the Metaverse all the time… Gargoyles are rude by definition.”

What’s great about this bit of the book is how concisely Stephenson captures the anxiety about wearables and surveillance. The simultaneously positive and negative societal response to things like Google Glass and even BlueTooth headsets. At once, we are fascinated by the affordances of these technologies for personal use – while at the same time we are repulsed by the lack of agency and sense of disempowerment that comes from people using them around us – and so “marking the user as belonging to a class above and far below human society”.

In public spaces, we’ve come to naturalize that corporations and the government constantly survey us through, for example, ceiling mounted cameras (to the degree that we believe that such actions keep us safe or protect property) – but the thought that a fellow citizen would partake in such dehumanizing activities tends to put those people in a class far below human society. I say these are dehumanizing activities because the can so easily be used to violate our right to privacy – even in public spaces: this can be at work, at a bar, of just out on the street. It’s not possible to know if we are either being recorded by the user or if we are being watched remotely by a nefarious third-party (without the consent or knowledge of the wearer). And the fact that the wearer cannot provide any guarantees about what the device is doing marks them as suspicious at best, and arrogant or even naive at worst (a class far below human society).

At the same time, our fascination with the new affordances of these devices draws us to the wearers of such devices – putting them in a class above. The chosen ones. The explorers. “What’s it like?”, we either ask directly or just wonder.

*In Snow Crash, the CIA has been privatized – hence Central Intelligence Corporation.

Designing Visual Interfaces

Today I am reading Designing Visual Interfaces: communication oriented techniques by Kevin Mullet and Darrell Sano.

Here are some gems

Visual Design attempts to solve communication problems in a way that is at once functionally effective and aesthetically pleasing. (p1)

By communication, we mean the full process by which the behaviour of one goal-seeking entity comes to be affected by that of another through the reciprocal exchange of messages or signs over some mediating physical channel.p1

The goal of communcation-oriented design is to develop a message that can be accuratley transmitted and correctly interpreted, and which will produce the desired bhavioral outcome after it have been understood by its recipient.p2

We refer frequently to a visual language, by which we mean the visual characteristics (shape, size, position, orientation, color, texture, etc.) of a particular set of design elements (point, line, plane, volume, etc.) and the away they are related to one another (balance, thythm, structure, proportion, etc) in solving a particular problem. Any language system defines both a universe of possible signs and a set of rules for using them. Every visual language thus has a formal vocabulary containing the basic design elements from which higher-level representations are assembled, and a visual syntax describing how elements may be combined within that system.

In the context of GUI toolkits, “…most toolkits impose unnecessary design restrictions as a side effect of their own implementation or internal structure.”p4

Basic principles of visual organisation developed through centuries of experience with print media have rarely been applied to the on-screen media, and communication has suffered as a result. p5

On The Origin Of Incomprehensibility

I’m just starting to read On The Origin Of Objects by Brian Cantwell Smith for my PhD. My god! What a bunch of incomprehensible nonsense! The guy is talking about simple stuff (ontology, objects, properties), yet he uses the most convoluted language and metaphors ever. If I ever start writing like that, shoot me! Please. I have refraining from reading overly academic nonsense thus far for my PhD. Really! I don’t agree that you need to adhere to silly academic prose to get your point across. And it really makes me wonder why people make very interesting ideas completely inaccessible. I’m sure that Smith knows what he is talking about, but really! There is no need for this kind of unintelligible garbage:

“… a way to feed our undiminished yarning for foundations and grounding, while at the same time avoiding the reductionism and ideological fundamentalism that have so bedevilled prior fundamentalist approaches.” (p4)

“Bedevilled”? pelase! Anyway, now that I have vented I feel better. If I don’t end up throwing the book out the window in a fit of unintelligible rage, then I will move progressively review each chapter over the next three months. Pease note that I am not the only one that bitches about the complexity of this book, simply do a search for the book title, or look on Amazon, and you will see that I am not alone.