Lev Manovich, in The Language of New Media, charts the concurrent development of modern media and computers. In the 1890s, he notes, when the still image was put in motion, people all over the world “found it irresistible” (23). Manovich speculates that “the increasingly dense information environment outside the theater” overwhelmed the consciousnesses of people living in that era — the occasional retreat into a dark theater was a therapeutic respite for many.
In Windows and Mirrors: Interaction Design, Digital Art, and the Myth of Transparency, Diane Gromala and Jay David Bolter describe the multiplicity of media forms that constitute experience for us in today’s world (66). They propose that reflective, mediated interfaces provide the most sensible, responsible, and desirable response to multiplicity. We do not need to “look through the experience to a world beyond, but rather…right at the surface.”
People crucially need help dealing with, processing, and thriving in the environment of information overload that is modern life. Contemporary design theorists and cultural critics offer insight not only into the modern condition but also into the possibilities design might offer for helping make sense of the world and finding ways to prosper in it. Increasingly, design thinkers are working to find ways to situate people in the center of design — thinking closely about context and the locus of meaning. Through a careful positioning of the individual participant/user in a designed situation, the anxiety-inducing conditions of modernity can be tempered into manageable, sensible, meaningful experience. This is the task of design in the present age.
John Thackara, in his book In The Bubble: Designing in a Complex World, recounts an article from Britain’s The Guardian: a patient with a personality disorder was having great difficulty understanding his diagnosis, even with the assistance of his family doctor and the local health team. Soon he discovered, to his relief, that the Internet provided him a vastly helpful source of personal advice and information. “It’s very difficult to explain the sense of relief…Yes, I had a serious mental health difficulty, but…I soon realised millions of people over the world were struggling…Suddenly I didn’t feel quite so alone” (120).
This anecdote captures the transformation of one individual from anguished and overwhelmed to calm, cool, and contextualized. The community this man located and to which he connected through his dealings on the Web helped him sort through an out-of-control emotional reality and find a situated way of being.
There is a profound tension between modernity’s complex, multi-layered experience and the most pervasive forms of mediation, which seem to imply that truth needs no mediation at all. This latter idea is what Bolter and Gromala refer to as the Myth of Transparency (49) — the idea that synthetic experience should steer as close to original experience as possible. Bolter and Gromala argue that purely transparent design experiences do little to help us make sense of multiplicity.
Stemming from longheld painterly traditions emphasizing realism (which have percolated through the history of design), the Myth of Transparency is employed too frequently by designers to buttress the common assumption that interfaces should remain essentially invisible to a user. The “desktop” metaphor employed by the standard Graphical User Interface is design’s “prime expression” of this desire for transparency, Bolter and Gromala say (41). "The task of the GUI is to convince the user that the computer is her desktop" (44). A user “thinks she is opening a folder by clicking on it, but her clicks are really launching a series of computer instructions to fetch binary data from memory or the disk, convert that data into a graphic form, and display it on the screen as the "contents" of the folder" (43).
Further, in the standard GUI, information is accessed through windows, which encourage a “looking-through” the interface into the realm of truth beyond. The problem with windows is that they do little to further a looker’s sense of where she stands in relation to the world she encounters. Rather than placing the individual at the center of experience, windows remove people from the heart of being by fixing their positions as onlookers, capable only of receiving fixed, established truths from afar.
Bolter and Gromala offer a counter paradigm of design as mirror. They contend that design can reflect a user’s needs and wants — indeed selves — in all their complexity (74). Bolter and Gromala show that total transparency is not only impossible to achieve (hence the myth), but undesirable and problematic as well. New mediums, in particular digital interfaces, reflect whether we want them to or not. We should embrace this condition and design interfaces that call us into active relationships with information, recognizing that meaning is created and the world becomes real in the moment of experience and engagement. "Digital interfaces…reflect the user in context…the most compelling interfaces will make the user aware of her contexts and, in the process, redefine (them)" (27). This is, in Thackara’s term, recognizing the flow — the stream of complexity in which we may either sink or swim. Design should aspire to provide us with rafts and paddles, showing us where we are and equipping us to survive the whitewater.