21.45, Monday 21 Jun 2004

I was chatting to my mum the other day about the day she got the lino salesman round with his book of tile-effect, brick-effect and patterned flooring. It was probably vinyl, not lino, but that's not important. We needed something for the floor that was easy to clean and pretty tough, so carpet wouldn't do, and it was lino or tiles. Tiles were harder.

Lino's not bad. I quite like lino. The catalogue was full of lino that looked like different tiles, complete with grouting pattern and texture, and that's the kind my mum liked. I said it was stupid, and was quite rude about it as I remember (my mum agrees). I was 14. If she wanted tiles, I said, she should get tiles. Things that pretend to be other things are stupid. It should be proud to be lino.

It's the first time I remember articulating that particular aesthetic, and it's one that's really strong with me today. I demand a kind of product honesty.

I was also quite rude about gas fires that are made to look like log fires, around the same time.

I still don't really understand why people want things that pretend to be other things. Here are some. Fire flickers in an appealing way, wood crumbles to ashes and spits. A rotating red bulb under semi-transparent plastic molded to look like logs is just dumb. Now maybe if it was proud to be a rotating red bulb under etc, that would be fine.

There's a nice word in Hayles' How We Became Posthuman: Here I want to introduce another term from archaeological anthropology. A skeuomorph is a design feature that is no longer functional in itself but that refers back to a feature that was functional at an earlier time. The dashboard of my Toyota Camry, for example, is covered by vinyl molded to simulate stitching. The simulated stitching alludes back to a fabric that was in fact stitched, although the vinyl "stitching" is formed by an injection mold. Skeuomorphs visibly testify to the social or psychological necessity for innovation to be tempered by replication. Like anachronisms, their perjorative first cousins, skeuomorphs are not unusual. On the contrary, they are so deeply characteristic of the evolution of concepts and artifacts that is takes a great deal of conscious effort to avoid them. [p17]

I started this thinking I'd be able to lead some campaign against skeuomorphs in product design, but now I think again it's not really correct. That vinyl stitching on the dashboard is funny. It's cool. It tickles me. As long as it's not too much like stitching though. The Aibo's good because although it looks like a dog, it doesn't clearly isn't a dog in some very upfront ways: It dances. Being programmable and upgradable are features. It's not ashamed to be a robot (though I would like to see a true-to-the-medium robot).

The log-effect gas fire on the other hand seems embarrassed that it's gas powered. The glowing red light isn't a skeuomorph, it's false advertising. It's lying with affordances and expectations.

In Gibson's The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, the chapter "The Theory of Affordances" opens, I have described the environment as the surfaces that separate substances from the medium in which the animals live. But I have also described what the environment affords animals, mentioning the terrain, shelters, water, fire, objects, tools, other animals, and human displays. How do we go from surfaces to affordances? And if there is information in light for the perception of affordances, is there information for the perception of what they afford? Perhaps the composition and layout of surfaces constitute what they afford. If so, to perceive them is to perceive what they afford. This is a radical hypothesis, for it implies that the "values" and "meanings" of things in the environment can be directly perceived. Moreover, it would explain the sense in which values and meanings are external to the perceiver.

The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. The verb to afford is found in the dictionary, but the noun affordance is not. I have made it up. I mean by it something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment. [p127]

I'm going to leave a number of points unexplored in Gibson's concept of affordances, because they're too large to do justice to here: That objects afford many uses (some seats also afford throwing) completely disrupts the hierarchy of products and modes we live with. That surfaces visually encode the affordances, the root of our spectacular world.

I'll just pick up on instead how, in the world humanity was forged, affordances emerged from embodiment and habit and object surface (shape, properties such as strength: anything measurable without being embedded in actual use).

Now there's something to be said here about how we learn to read the surfaces of objects, and what our expectations are (certain expectations are hard-coded, of course, in body shape). Since Gibson's already made the point that affordances don't belong in either body or environment but are in some sense emergent from both, let's take the same approach to expectations and cognition and get rid of the body-environment divide completely.

From Clark's Natural-Born Cyborgs: [...] a prime characteristic of transparent technology is their poise for easy use and deployment as and when required. Daily, unreflective usage bears this out. As you walk down the street, you are accosted by the familiar cry of the temporarily watchless. "Excuse me, sir, do you happen to know the time?" Asked this question on a busy street, most of us will unhesitatingly reply, even before consulting our wristwatches, that we, we surely do. [...] For you do know the time. It is just that the "you" that knows the time is no longer the bare biological organism but the hybrid biotechnological system that now includes the wristwatch as a proper part. [...] Perhaps, then, you may be properly said to know the time before you actually look at your watch--just as you can be said to know the date of the moon landing even before actually retrieving it from your biological memory. [p41]

A just-right story. Time-knowledge as extelligence.

Anyway, where was I going with this? You know, I've no idea. Objects have functional surfaces; they also have visual surfaces; we're hard-wired to assume there's a correlation between the two (we live in a spectacular world). We learn the exact correlation, but following Clark we can delegate learned knowledge back onto our actual experiences of what's behind those visual surfaces.

A log-effect gas fire, a thing which pretends to be another thing, is not only a free-loader on my pleasant recollection of open fires, but actually corrupts the community of open-fire-ness in my experiences that sits behind the flickering-red visual surface. It's a liar that, by lying for its own success, damages the rewards for behind honest in any future product that has a choice of pretending to be an open fire.

I guess I'm talking about a kind of social capital of product design, mediated by our learning, experiences and response to these products, and the decisions faced by anyone who designs the visual surface of products to communicate the functional surface - whether they're designers or marketing folk - are much the same we experience every day in queuing for a bus or giving way at road junctions.

Another step on the road to a system of non-human ethics. Manners, at least.