Saturday, 22 January 2011

Representation is chunky and clunky

I've been thinking lately about simulation and representation and stuff in all sorts of ways. One thing that has struck me is the way that science fiction shows used to make the surface appearance of future technologies extra clunky, chunky and cumbersome in order to make them look at once more familiar to the viewer and at the same time more technical and unfriendly. A complex surface appearance is a placeholding sign for the imagined internal physical contents of fictional technological objects. By making an object look easier to deconstruct with a screwdriver, attention is drawn away from the fact that if you were to take these objects apart you'd find nothing inside. It's funny now to watch Star Trek because the laptop computers and datapads they use are far bulkier and fussier in appearance than the ones we use today, but I don't think this is just an act of foolishness and shortsightedness on the part of the set designers. The process of miniaturisation in consumer electronics was already well underway when Captain Janeway first sat in front of her huge, plastic machine with a cup of black coffee... did I remember rightly that she claims that replicated coffee doesn't taste as good? That's a whole other blog entry right there... the replicators on the set of Voyager are also hilariously overburdened with buttons for something that operates via voice recognition, and even voice recognition is too cumbersome a way for a machine to interface with a decision that is governed to a greater or lesser extent by personal habits and nutritional chemistry (at this point I realise that my science speak is terrible :,( ). I think all this buttoning-up of appliances is a deliberate attempt at representation. Even though the claimed referent doesn't exist yet, what was really being represented is present-day technology, which at the time was bulky and button-laden.

In 2009, the year of the iPhone 3G, along came the dollhouse chair, with its smooth, modernist stylings and relative scarcity of buttons. The dollhouse chair has its own canonical design story. Originally many wires and sticky pads were needed to connect it to an active - still used when the technician wants to demonstrate their domination and psychological invasion by means of the sign of physical invasion. But then Topher Brink, the awkward yet somehow enigmatic user-friendly science guy (swoon) comes along and declares that all these wires are unnecessary and can be replaced by some sort of ultraviolet light or something. I dunno, I wasn't paying attention to the science speak. As technology gets more miniaturised and individual appliances take on more functions, their designs become less intrusive. In consumer electronics these designs are deliberately multivalent, best expressed in the iPhone, which doesn't look like anything in particular because it can do almost anything at all. In science fiction, rather than having multiple purposes, clean, designed objects have one purpose that is only embodied for the duration of the relevant activity. Following this, the purpose fades away, leaving an empty space with no particular use inscribed onto it. What better example than the dollhouse chair, which routinely fills people with purpose and then empties them again, telling them simply to 'be their best.' Now here I am in 2011, trying to be my best in a polysemic, multivalent environment where I can no longer just push the right buttons and get moving towards my 'home,' like Janeway. At least the coffee is good.

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