As we move further into a world where we engage with our iPhones as much as the people around us, a world where modern design is often technologically interactive and new materials are forged through both science and nature, it’s abundantly clear that the way we engage with space, and each other, is changing fast. While we work towards understanding a new post-internet status quo, there’s one question at the core of understanding how we should be engaging technology in design and in life, and it’s surprisingly simple: what is communication?
That’s the central question that artist, designer, and futurist engineer Jamie Zigelbaum attempted to answer in a recent talk hosted by AIGA/NY and the Museum of Arts and Design. Zigelbaum, who serves as the director for multidisciplinary studio Midnight Commercial, outlined how changing technology essentially revolves around a core notion of communication and human engagement. Starting with a quote from computer scientist Alan Kay—“technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were born”—Zigelbaum theorized that technology is no longer a solution to problems in design, but an assumption, or a building block towards a final product (proving that notion, Zigelbaum pointed to Google word tracking data showing that while usage of the word “technology” has risen steadily since the ’60s, use of the word “machine” has decreased, indicating that technology has become less about the machinery we use and more of something we simply think of as integral to our everyday lives).
Beginning with examples of early computers (a Turing machine, the Atanasoff–Berry computer from 1937, the ENIAC model created in 1946 at the University of Pennsylvania), Zigelbaum made the point that what changes isn’t the computer (which, despite becoming smaller and more usable, is essentially still a Turing machine) but the interface—where humans and tools merge.
No longer conceived of a sort of “butler,” computers (and technology in general) actually extend our humanity.
Yet Zigelbaum was quick to raise Marshall McLuhan’s point that while media extends, it also amputates, using the example of Google Maps—an obviously helpful tool, but what have we lost by not getting lost?
So what does that mean for designers? In a sense, they must become technology interpretors, negotiating the communication between where we must move forward to, and how successfully we get there.
“The best interface we ever made is the air between two people speaking,” Zigelbaum said, reminding us that interface and communication are essentially the same.
All design then, whether it’s a consumer product, a public space, a retail location, or an advertisement, is a conversation we can have with and through technology.
One clue as to how we can interpret tech now that it’s no longer a bunch of behemoth machines filling entire rooms, but something that’s in and around us all the time, is to understand how human bodies actually interact with their environments and translate that into how we interact with technology. As Zigelbaum said, it’s about “translating human intent into a machine.” In fact, that translation has been a main thrust of the designer’s work, from an arrow icon that moves files to different machines, to interactive pixels, to an interactive Minority Report-like computer screen. One of the reasons why Google Glass hasn’t taken off, he theorized, is because it hides human intent, thus cutting off communication between people.
Understanding this “legibility” (the importance of technology where one’s purpose is clearly demonstrated to others) is key in designing for the future. This, said Zigelbaum, is “architecture for cyborgs,” terraforming a new world where technology is physically and seamlessly integrated into life. “As designers,” he said, “we have some control over what we create and what we leave behind.” That’ll be an interesting conversation to have, one that will keep designers—and futurists—busy for a long time.