There is one way to understand another culture, living it. Move into it, ask to be tolerated as a guest, learn the language. At some point understanding may come. It will always be wordless. The moment you grasp what is foreign you will lose the urge to explain it. To explain a phenomenon is to distance yourself from it.
— Peter Høeg, Smilla’s Sense of Snow1
When I was living in the woods for several years in my early twenties, I had very little contact with digital or internet culture. My obsession was The Book. I spent years learning how to use the machines, tools, and materials that are midwife to books: Vandercook proofing and platen presses, guillotines, paper, ink, binding thread, and board shears. Through living in the mountains of North Carolina, a community of craftspeople and a surprisingly high concentration of book makers, I immersed myself in a culture and a language of the book. I became fluent. My books started to get collected by museums and rare book libraries. During the day I’d work in a studio alongside other makers of the book, and at night I’d return to my little dwelling in the woods, to sketch, fold paper, and read about the book’s history.
I began to read Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin’s The Coming of The Book,2 a bright yellow tome that details the impact of printing from 1450–1800. In tumbling through its pages, I became enamored by the lives of people living in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, when a wave of technological change was shaping commerce, behavior, and culture. I read intently about the craftspeople and technologists who were shaping this culture—the papermakers, the goldsmiths-turned-printers, the journeymen who wandered from press to press learning the trade. I deeply envied these pioneers experimenting with printing and papermaking when everything must have felt like new and exciting territory.
Around this time, something else happened. Fast Company, a gift subscription from my father, would arrive once a month at my isolated internet-less treehouse. After several issues, its contents started to pry open another window. I began to read about design, the internet, and start-up culture. I would read essays by Paul Graham on computers at the local library and check out The Design of Everyday Things.3 I became enamored by these designers, technologists, and craftspeople who were a part of an acceleration.
Then it hit me. This continuum of humankind’s relationship to technology—a wave where the velocity of the material accelerates, peaks, and then slows—was a continuum I could locate myself in. Being a bookmaker, I was a craftsperson and technologist, albeit most of the technologies I mastered had peaked and subsequently slowed hundreds of years ago. The crest of this new wave was where I wanted to be.
Our pre-digital ancestors used material artifacts, architectures, and objects to understand their own and other cultures. When I first emigrated to digital, cultural understanding came slowly. It took time to see what was in front of me. The internet is not a place or a material; it is a context. And without material embodiment, I found it difficult to see the architecture and make sense of the digital artifacts. Eventually, this way of seeing emerged, and I discovered that the things we make exist in, respond to, and evolve in that context.
Kurt Anderson, in Vanity Fair’s “You Say You Want a Devolution?”,4 claims that very few advances have been made in material culture since the ’90s. While he briefly mentions personal computing as an exception, his focus remains with the material artifact. What he doesn’t address, however, is how many of the artifacts and architectures have become immaterial and often invisible. And that these invisible architectures and digital artifacts are changing and shaping our culture.
Without materialization, how then can we see or tell others to see digital cultures?
The city of Shanghai feels like it’s continually being born: shopping malls, standing cranes, concrete and steel exploding out of the sidewalks. It’s a city that feels like a metaphor for the internet. I spent my first morning in Shanghai wandering through the Urban Planning Museum, walking around a massive scale model of the city. I watched as young men dusted the white buildings, and workers tiptoed into the center to extract buildings that had been demolished and replace them with the newer structures.
Later in the day, a friend took me to a high-rise to show me the edges of an older Shanghai, one that has mostly disappeared. A tall fence surrounded an overgrown field speckled with a few remaining homes, a tiny pocket of resistors—people who refused to let the government tear down their homes.
Travel, departure, and leaving is how I generate an afterimage of my culture. It’s how I close my eyes and see the halo of the thing that surrounds me. Observing the neglect or absence of a digital platform can be one way to travel outside of them and see the edges. Looking at Flickr feels like staring at that near-empty field in Shanghai. It’s a culture many of us helped to shape, a platform that evolved, grew, and then declined. A few of us still inhabit Flickr, but in the back of our minds we know that at any moment, it could be torn down.
From Web Culture to Cultures
My friend Simon says we talk about the web as if it’s a single thing, when it’s really two different things: the web that provides the data and service, and the web that provides us access through a browser’s interface. I’d add that for the past several decades, the internet has also been our primary context.
This distinction matters as our work shifts from the browser to social and computing platforms. The internet is no longer being experienced as network, culture, and context simultaneously. While we are all still deeply dependent on the network’s data and service layers, the touchpoints, screens, kiosks, and interfaces are situated not only in the browser, but in countless contexts.
Only a few years after starting my work with the web, I took on my first app project while working at the New York Times. No books on the subject had been published, and there was very little relevant information available about designing apps for mobile. Everything had to be learned by looking at other apps, reading the iPhone Human Interface Guidelines, trying to understand patterns, or otherwise immersing oneself in the culture of the app.
There was, and still is, the notion that we can “create once and publish everywhere”. That both the content and the interface are culture-agnostic. However, in ignoring form, or failing to see that platforms are cultures, we ignore the possibility for what we make to be situated within and in dialogue with culture.
Today, as I work primarily on apps for mobile and tablet devices, these projects feel like completely different territory. Different languages, values, behaviors, and new subtle protocols. If you’re making something that will exist within a computing or social ecosystem, whether it’s an app intended for a smartphone or a tumblr blog intended for the tumblr dashboard, the platform is a culture. The information architectures, the interface artifacts, the social objects, have been shaped by us and, in turn, shape our behavior. This is true for the web-as-interface, but what I was bearing witness to in my work at the Times, what we’ve all been participating in, has been a shift from a single dominant digital culture, the web, to an explosion of digital cultures.
If we want what we make to feel relevant, indigenous, and thoughtful, then it’s crucial that we understand cultural differences in order to situate our creations within it.
Listening Noises And Subtle Protocol
One surprise in becoming fluent in Italian was discovering how critical gestures are to the language. A single gesture can communicate an entire idea; gesticulation is a part of the transmission of signals, it’s one of the culture’s subtle protocols. In this way, the conversation is the context, and gestures are part of the interface. They are something that, if removed from the context of the conversation, would not make sense.
In telling a friend about the gestures, she shared that when she was learning Japanese, she had a similar experience during a lesson devoted to listening noises. These noises are subtle sounds you make, tiny intonations in your voice that tell the other person that you’ve heard what they are saying and understand its meaning. And it’s as much a part of verbal communication as the words.
The “like” or the “favorite” is a kind subtle protocol that gives us the opportunity to make a listening noise.
If we are designing for existing platforms, are we looking for and incorporating the subtle protocol native to the platform? Can what we create facilitate listening noises?
As a maker of digital things, I notice when the subtle protocol missing, when a certain interaction model feels outdated, or when good patterns are passed over for less suitable ones. I observe fluency in the voice of the copy, the tone of the content. If I’m truly immersed in a platform, I can tell when the maker was listening.
Hot Sweaty Dialogue
On a platform at the New Jersey airport, several feet in front of people holding small whiteboards scribbled with passengers’ names, a woman stood. She was a little taller than me and had a visible aura. She wore a uniform and welcomed us off our twelve-hour flight from Stockholm. Bleary-eyed and jet-lagged, it wasn’t until I was standing directly in front of her that I realized this woman was a hologram.
There’s a secret devious place inside me that loves work that is stubbornly not digital. I revel in people, places, and forms that are impervious to the link, or whose scope and experience doesn’t translate online. This is not the list-making archivist part of myself, the information architect, or the righteous citizen of this digital community. This is the tiny Anarchist. The Resistor. Deep down, I’m not form-agnostic. In becoming a maker, both of physical books and of digital forms, I’ve learned that content and form are not two strangers that come together with ease and obviousness. They are more like quarrelsome lovers engaged in a hot sweaty dialogue.
Yet I’ve found myself in the last few years experiencing similar feelings when I see an app that feels so effortlessly native, so digitally indigenous, that its intention as a thing would be compromised if it was translated or born as any other form. That it not only justifies itself as an iPhone app or book but does so with ease and elegance. That to incarnate into any other form would be possible, but not optimal.
Found In Translation
My current digital work and play happens across many different cultures. In the next five years, along with the dozens of existing forms we get to choose from, it’s entirely possible we will also have the hologram—or some other yet-to-be born form—to consider as a possible platform for our content, and a site for listening. As mobile devices and computers become smaller and more ubiquitous, our contexts will multiply as well.
Certain kinds of services that were originally only accessible via a browser actually do make more sense as apps. The same can be said about certain content that was previously only contained in books—that it clearly belongs on the network.
As new platforms emerge, it becomes our responsibility to make decisions about the appropriate form. To understand when something should become one form and not another, to elegantly and with confidence distinguish “possible” from “optimal”. And thriving as digital makers means cultivating an ability to see what’s invisible by looking for subtle protocol, making listening noises when we see it, and striving to craft work that is conversational and culturally aware.