Before CES: history & cultural criticism

Amid this week’s wanton gadget-lust furiously fueled by fanboys on Engadget and Gizmodo (among other tech-savvy blogs–and yes I admit I frequently peruse said sites for guilty pleasure!), I just can’t help but wonder about the truly historically revolutionary game-changers of the days of yore, in terms of digital interaction design. Bold creations and moments that all interaction designers would do well to learn more about and dig deeper into their origins, motivations, and subsequent evolutions, to gain a humbling respect and appreciation of the progenitors of today’s “hotness”, and also to gain a healthy sense that nothing is truly new but instead variations of common themes: enhancing humanity, maximizing efficiency, reducing inconvenience, extending cultural patterns, etc.

For example, just consider…

** Vannevar Bush’s Memex device concept when it was first introduced in an essay published in The Atlantic Monthly (not some insular gadget ‘zine! :-)

** Ted Nelson’s Xanadu project (which feels quite a bit like Google’s ambitious–almost hubristic– attempt to “organize the world’s information”) which in its genesis introduced the term “hypertext

** Apple’s HyperCard software for creating nonlinear, interactive, hypertext ‘experiences’ well before Flash or Ajax…and the app known as Storyspace for creating/publishing hypertext projects, thus inciting a revolution of hypertext literary development.

** William Gibson’s landmark description of “cyberspace” in Neuromancer as a “consensual hallucination…A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity.”

But also, what about the cultural and literary criticism surrounding the creation of such objects? Beyond the tech specs and feature battles, surely there’s some culturally sagacious interpretations of the value of yet another smartphone with touchscreen interactions? Or having a Web browser literally built-into a printer? Or having automotive dashboards that sync with your mobile apps and sense your destination, with Go Walla support and Loopt friend finding abilities? Surely interaction designers can help stage a deeper investigation into the cultural, humanistic value of such techno-fetishistic contrivances, if there is indeed any?

The recent feverish rumors of an Apple iTablet suggest bold possibilities for hypertext/media that could truly revolutionize a dying industry — magazine publishing. Business model innovation for sure, combining iTunes style pricing with Google AdSense ad models, etc. But more powerful I think is what this will do for a new generation of digital literacy–fundamentally changing the way we “read” text, really becoming hypermedia in a novel, engaging form beyond just a slick laptop or 27″ HDTV screens. This concept video by Time Inc showcasing the possibilities for Sports Illustrated is quite tantalizing in that regard.

In the end it would be nice if more attention were spent by today’s digerati and nascent auteurs on the groundbreaking things that demonstrate history (writ large, against the canvas of Vannevar, Nelson, HyperCard, SmallTalk, Newton, etc.) and contained the seeds of cultural prominence, lending themselves to worthy criticism, and thus raise the bar for intellectual discourse about modern technological creations. Not ephemeral, vacuous “wow look at the new shiny shiny!” droning on about flash-in-the-pan features whose relevance barely reaches the end of a meaningless gagdet post that’s only skimmed…to flip to the next gadget post.

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