Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 9#1 Norbert Bolz 1 Jan 1998

The user-illusion of the world (1)

on the meaning of design

Mundus vult decipi, goes an old moralistic saying: the world wants to be deceived. This is especially valid today. We could hark back to Nietzsche: bring on the beautiful illusions. Yet simulacra, as such would have it, don't actually deceive: they seduce. And seduction is a surface effect.

I don't believe that any of the post-modern manifestations have abandoned this surface. And these bottomless surfaces are now teaching us to trust our senses once again. Modern perception did indeed delve into the profundities; it exposed and tore away the veil of appearances. Yet today we look for the meaning of the surface, as well as the meaning within the surface. Anyone who elevates shopping to a lifestyle embodies the disintegration of the ideologies, of the great narratives and world views. Ideologies are now nothing more than costumes, props from the junk-room of history. You could say that post-modern identities shimmer in the superficial circus of consumption and the kaleidoscope of the new media.

It is precisely this world to which I would like to address a design-specific consideration here, my background thesis being that in the vast spectrum encompassing everything from communications technology to entertainment electronics which we refer to as multimedia, the products being sold are not only tools, but drugs, fetishes and games as well. Some have realised this already, and thus we hear Apple Computer's former CEO Michael Spindler saying We need graphic interfaces which are not only user-friendly, but which make people addicted, like drugs do. Like Nintendo does.

These gadgets, these electronic toys of postmodernism are, in Hermann Sturm's precise words, prostheses of the no-longer-understood. They are giddy admissions of the defeat of objectivity. Thus, the notion of 'use' long ago ceased to be sovereign and self-evident. We all live in the voluntary slavery of the user. To put it less poetically, we subjugate ourselves to what we don't understand in order to use it. Much like in the worlds of economics and politics, in today's world of technological objectivity, we have to replace understanding with consent. Mercifully, the user surfaces hide our devices' logical depths from us. Design is no longer the conscience of things; it's become user-friendliness.

In simple terms, user-friendliness means functional simplicity in the face of structural complexity, i.e. easy to operate, but hard to understand. A product's intelligence consists precisely of its ability to conceal this chasm of inscrutability. Use thereby emancipates itself from comprehension. Anyone who still talks about intelligent design now means that a device's use is self-explanatory. Yet this explanation does not lead to understanding, but rather to smooth functioning. So to put it stereotypically, user-friendliness is the rhetoric of the technology which consecrates our ignorance. And this design-specific rhetoric now provides us with the user illusion of the world.

The notion of mechanisation is always invoked when one wants to characterise unreflected executions. Here the spirit of mathematics reigns supreme, as mathematics is largely procedural, i.e. it thinks for itself. And it is precisely in this spirit that people are now working on intelligent technologies which, in the jargon of America's high-tech institution, are called 'things that think.' More and more, the things that need to be thought are being thought by things. Technology functions without consensus, and functioning technology can't be disturbed.

This initially sounds threatening, yet in fact it's a condition of survival for advanced civilisations. Modern cultures can only function when people don't want to know things 'too exactly,' and are satisfied with drawing conclusions from what has already been thought. What's meant here is the spirit which has developed into technologies and institutions. It's the only thing that enables us to survive in a world where the only thing for certain is that the future is uncertain. 'Uncertainty absorption,' as sociologists call it.

So our civilisation could, if it needed to, do without intelligent people, but not without things that think. In other words, it's not the things that people think, but rather the things that spare them from having to think, which allow civilisations to progress. Philosopher A.N. Whitehead saw this clearly decades ago: Civilisation advances in proportion to the number of operations its people can do without thinking about them. Society, then, presupposes mechanisation, and does so at the expense of today's much-beloved 'nature'. But this mechanisation is hidden behind the user's trust. In other words, technology makes harmless ignorance possible.

I'm of the opinion that all of our contemporary culture's identity crises result from the demands of a new man-machine synergy; terms such as 'interface' and 'user surface' attest to this. The human being is no longer a user of tools, but rather a relay switch in the media syndicate, engaged in a circuit.

This explains, rather conclusively, design's inexorable advance into all spheres of life. Everything Design was an ironic title from the critical consciousness magazine Kursbuch, and it plainly hit the mark, because design is the fashioning of interfaces between people and systems. Today there are more and more things we need to be familiar with without ever actually understanding them. And thus the design of the user surface, which is supposed to shed light upon the darkness of the Black Box, becomes all the more important. This is also known as Interface Design.

In retrospect, we can say that the world of design was still harmonious as long as designs could still be oriented towards the obvious use, and the forms could still be oriented towards the recognisable function. Yet in the age of microelectronics, we are becoming surrounded by Black Boxes to which there is no longer any intuitive access: every household knows the common desperation occasioned by the foreign language of operation manuals. We've long since parted ways with the relationship to the object - no, the relationship to the world - which Heidegger so precisely called 'readiness-to-hand.' Objects which possessed the quality of readiness-to-hand were those which presented themselves only when they were to be used, and which, precisely for that reason, never became conspicuous as objects. Contrast this to the VCR or the PC.

When you buy a computer, you're not only buying a piece of hardware but also, and above all, a bundle of software - with the promise of user-friendliness. By no means does this imply that the user is supposed to understand what it does, but rather that it will spare him any irritation. A user-friendly computer allows me to forget that I'm working on a computer: its interface design protects me from the post-human technology of the digital. In a simple analogy, you can drive a car your whole life long without ever having to look under the hood a single time. And you can definitely work on a computer your whole life long without ever even having to peek beneath the user interface.

In other words, the secret of the computer industry's success has to remain a secret. That's why they sell the digital as if it were analog. And this is also what the buzzword 'user-friendliness' really means. In a similar context, the sociologist Schelsky spoke of the 'delusion of familiarity' - a rather nasty yet wonderfully precise term. We recognise the little analog pictures, yet digital coding remains a mystery to us. The icons which have become so popular since Apple's Macintosh put them on the user surface are, in the light of day, nothing more than disguised digitality. Even virtual realty is a digital simulation of the analog. So in simple terms, user-friendliness means functional simplicity in the face of structural complexity - easy to operate, but hard to understand. And computers are hereby imbued with something magical.

See for continuation of this text: The user-illusion of the world 2