In HTML, a hover (or a:hover) is one of four pseudo-classes that can be added to an anchor. Links have two anchors, a source and a destination. The markup for a link defines them both. A new link can be expressed as a:link. Once it’s been visited, it can be expressed as a:visited. The moment of clicking the link can be expressed by a:active. Approaching the link, nearing it, can be expressed with a:hover. Unlike new and visited links, hovering leaves no visible trace and creates no visible record. It’s a game of peek-a-boo. For a moment, the page reveals something more about itself than it has first expressed. At this moment we glimpse some key vulnerability — what it would like you to do, what you could do, what it thinks you want, what it wants you to want.
We used to point at what we wanted with a mouse or a trackpad, including the verbs to thread it all together with meaning. This PRINT that. This SAVE that. This LOAD that. This this this this BOOKMARK. Pointing required confirmation, and it created a delay. I’m pointing at you, you said. You’re pointing at me, it said back. Correct, you said. That all took a moment. In that time, it was easy to change what we were pointing at, or decide not to point at the verb that would make the pointing real. To hesitate. To reconsider. Across the room, you might glimpse someone, who might furtively look back for a moment. Suspended for a moment. Verbs, however, are literal. Once verbs were involved, you were involved. You’d made a choice.
In the age of touchscreens, though, the hover state has started to disappear. Touchscreens use direct manipulation. Here, there is no confirmation necessary because there’s no distance. No one knows you’re watching. You’re invisible. Then, suddenly, your touch signals a presence, a desire. It feels more immediate to you, but the touchscreen is in the dark. It has nothing to tease you with, to hint at, to make you want, because it doesn’t know you’re there. And crucially, it’s mute. No verbs. Not this ROTATE that, just a gesture. Not this CLOSE that, just a gesture. A mouse grazed. The touchscreen gropes. Instead of a softshoe, there’s a cartwheel. Instead of acknowledging the screen, the new illusion is attempting to dematerialize it.
This is an understandable progression. Perhaps it’s the course we’ll stay with. Nevertheless, I will miss catching a reflection in the shop window late at night. Watching ripples on the water after someone’s been sitting by the lake. Feeling the breeze kick up all of a sudden and then fade away, leaving the world silent and still. Not gestures I’ve made, but momentary, vivid, fleeting apparitions that inhabit an unknown space. On a screen, images might fade up over columns of text like ghosts only to disappear again. Grave faces in black and white might colorize and and glint back at you. A cursor might swing like a flashlight in the dark, never coming to rest. Day-glo gradients might twist like kaleidoscopes on a cracked display. I might skim the surface of words and find worlds upon worlds. I might see my breath and gasp, for a moment, at the invisible made vivid. If interactive technology really is a branch of cinema, as technologist Ted Nelson insists, I hope the show’s not over.
But energy moves around. As I write this, the Democrats and Republicans are in a standoff, with the US government in a state of temporary shutdown. At some point, there will be some kind of resolution, though not necessarily a lasting one. For now, though, the story is about the standoff. Standoffs are interactions that precede real choices. Each side attempts to signal to the other what could happen, but communication is oblique and obscured. Earlier versions of this standoff linger in the background like a haze. The two sides sit in an unnatural state of suspension. They are not flying high or standing still. They are circling each other. They are hovering. You can never hover forever.
To celebrate the Cooper-Hewitt’s iteration of Graphic Design: Now in Production exhibition on Governors Island in 2012, co-curator Ellen Lupton organized a panel discussion that included Michael Bierut, Alice Twemlow, and me. I was delighted to take part. AIGA/NY has a full video of the discussion here. My comments are below. — RG
I was so pleased to be invited by RGD Ontario to speak at their annual Design Thinkers conference, held in Toronto from 2-3 November 2011. They encouraged me to tackle any subject I wanted to, and, though I considered many options, I was most excited to to continue investigating the use of metaphors in design, particularly in the design of interfaces, which was a topic I had started thinking about in earnest earlier in the spring. That investigation was prompted by reasons I discuss in the talk, but there is some shared territory between this talk and my essay “I am a handle" for the Bulletins of the Serving Library. That essay came first and is the more literary effort; this talk both refines and adds to the essay’s thinking, but it’s a bit more nuts-and-bolts.
One thing I was happy to see was how many other speakers at Design Thinkers — including Craig Mod, Christian Schwartz, Jessica Hische, Robert Wong, and even the great George Lois — reflected on this topic, directly or indirectly, through their own talks.
As I was preparing the talk the world also said farewell to the incredible Steve Jobs, and I think much of what I’ve described here represents a study of some of the lessons I have learned from his astounding work and legacy. It’s also interesting to note how quickly things change. In 2011 the debate around skeuomorphism and realism in user interface design was raging; posting this now, the debate has moved to the subject of flatness. The final part of the talk, which is not included in this video, was to touch on this “life cycle of metaphors,” which I argue become more common as they become more networked. Verbally, this cooptation of the original metaphor results in new buzzwords. Visually, the same operation results in new styles. For Apple, removing the buttons people were used to using on their cell phones meant rendering new buttons that were “so good you could lick them” — a surrogate that was good enough to click. As people have become more comfortable with the flat surface of the phone, however, buttons need no longer signal that same candy-curved surface in order to afford clicking. As Jobs himself noted to the New York Times when the original iPhone was released, not only had he removed buttons, he had overhauled the very operation of clicking-to-act with the principle of direct manipulation. “In [old] systems,” he noted “users select an object, like a photo, and then separately select an action, or ‘verb,’ to do something to it.” However: “There are no ‘verbs’ in the iPhone interface.”
My thanks again for RGD Ontario for the opportunity, inspiring occasion, and good company.
This talk was given at the Tishman Auditorium, The New School as part of the event “Project Projects Project Projector,” sponsored by AIGA/NY. As a prompt, Adam, Prem and I were asked to speak about how our passions informed our practice. My comments about “computational poetics” (for lack of a better phrase!) follow below.
I want to start with this familiar image of Google auto-complete. It’s interesting how the web is a kind of machine for generating and organizing text — you put text in, you get more text out. And there are algorithms that structure the text output, so when you make a search, you expect something specific to happen as a result.
Here’s a website we made last year for an exhibition at Harvard that takes its name from Dante’s famous epic poem — it has a different kind of search bar.
You input text, but the field doesn’t behave as you’d expect — rather than searching the site, it searches the entire web. And rather than behaving consistently, its behavior changes, cycling through a series of searches from Google Images…
…to an Italian translation of your search phrase.
This isn’t anything new — machines have always changed the behavior of text, and the creation of a new tool often alters the usage of an existing one.
This text was commissioned by Dexter Sinister for The Serving Library. It was originally delivered as an iChat “lecture,” from a studio in Manhattan to a library in Banff, Alberta, on 11 August 2011 at 12:32 PM Mountain Time.
I am a handle, writing you with the same software that is writing me.
When I carry one idea over to meet another, it’s a metaphor I’m making.
This class took place in January 2012 during RISD’s Wintersession period. A website documenting the students’ coursework is available here. The results of the class are also described in my talk Unbuilding.
To have big, we need small. To taste sweet, we need sour. To see a letter, we need the space around it. Identity is a study in contrasts; our character is made as much by the things we’ve chosen not to do as by the things we’ve done.
More than seven years ago, I taught the fall semester of senior thesis at Parsons School of Design in New York. It was the first of two thesis semesters for my students — I would help them to frame their ideas and initiate a few key projects in the fall, and they would complete their work and install their show in the spring.
I taught in the spring as well. Unlike thesis, my course that semester was an elective studio for seniors. Many of the students I had in the fall also signed up for my elective in the spring. Enrollment in the two classes was nearly identical.
But the class had changed. Fatigue and frustration had started to set in among the group. Students described feeling uninspired and unsure of what they were doing. As a gesture of understanding and solidarity, I retitled our studio “Antithesis,” which, if nothing else, might help to lighten the mood.
This is my third Wintersession course, and I’ve noticed that the dark days of January can produce a similar effect at RISD. Year after year, I join you at a piviotal point: not starting out anymore, but far from finished. In spite of its joking tone, Antithesis 1 was a great success; this year, I thought I’d give it another try.
… it’s a funny thing to take a trip, you almost never come back the same. Have you ever been tempted to get on the wrong flight? When you arrive at the airport, you check in for your flight to Helsinki but consider going to Venice instead. There’s a strong wish to react to life’s present situation, to swap one circumstance for another.