Final Project – Word Processor Art

Monday, May 5th, 2014 by contromal

Hey guys! Here is my Artist Statement from my final project and the resultant products:

Theoretical Grounding and Artistic Purpose

​The standardization of “user-friendly” and its seemingly invisible presence teaches man through inculcation to respond to his machines’ prompts. Our culture accepts the incredibly specific role “creators,” the makers of machines and their programs, design for consumers of computers. Nietzsche writes that “our writing tools are also working on our thoughts” (qtd. in Kittler 200). Users engage particular programs for prescribed purposes and anticipate a predictable type of product. It is through disobedience to these learned behaviors and responses that I draw attention to media in my final project. I compose visual images (comprised of words) in a program not intended for that purpose (Microsoft Word). By breaking from the expected form, which would resemble something quite similar to what I am writing now, I ask the audience to scrutinize how machines, especially the graphical user interface (GUI) of computers, influences the consumer’s utilization of computers. In particular, my project questions how machines influence users’ thinking and how the “user-friendly” inhibits creativity. When the user manipulates a program in ways not intended by its creators, in many ways, he fights the limitations of the GUI. The process dissembles the notion of “user-friendly” as a transparent influence over a product and reveals how media shapes the author, his creative imagination, and his invention.

​When Steve Jobs introduced the Apple Macintosh in 1984, he designed his product with “user-friendly” in mind. The Macintosh was the first personal computer marketed specifically for the masses. This computer features a GUI, which allows the user to initiate computer processes by using a mouse to navigate the visual images on a virtual desktop, in lieu of textual commands. In a blog post excerpt from the second chapter of her book Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound (University of Minnesota Press 2014), Lori Emerson outlines the effect of contemporary GUIs on the consumer. She points to the accepted and prevalent model, originating in the Macintosh, as a point of man’s exclusion from the functions of the machine, which the user accepts because of his illusion of
control. She writes that:

user-friendly’ now takes the shape of keeping users steadfastly unaware and uninformed about how their computers, their reading/writing interfaces, work let alone how they shape and determine their access to knowledge and their ability to produce knowledge. As Wendy Chun points out, the user-friendly system is one in which users are, on the one hand, given the ability to “map, to zoom in and out, to manipulate, and to act” but the result is a “seemingly sovereign individual” who is mostly a devoted consumer of ready-made software and ready-made information whose framing and underlying mechanisms we are not privy to. However, it’s not necessarily the GUI per se that is responsible for the creation of Chun’s “seemingly sovereign individual” but rather a particular philosophy of computing and design underlying a model of the GUI that has become the standard for nearly all interface design. (Wendy Chun qtd Emerson 2)

Modern personal computers rely on the popularized GUI model to cultivate the consumer’s superficial relationship with the product. Instead of the user imagining what a computer might do and programming it to do so, he surveys the list of available, ready-made programs and uses one for its intended function. A user, for example, might not understand how a search engine like Google shapes his experience of information. This user might equate a search on Google to searching the entire internet (or the entirety of human knowledge, for that matter). Because of this assumption, he remains unaware of websites Google excludes from its database and oblivious to how Google presents and privileges information. Furthermore, the user gains access to this database by responding to the keyword prompt Google’s search engine requires. The “user-friendly” design shapes how the user searches and filters his experience of information. In spite of the seemingly infinite expanse of information presented, the program limits the creativity of the user and the diversity of the resulatant information. Emerson explains that “Without a fully open, flexible, and extensible architecture, the home computer becomes less a tool for learning and creativity and more a tool for simply ‘handling information.’” “User-friendly” transforms into to a tool of unquestioning passivity. Its systems stifle originality. The system allows users to control, access, and move information, but it trains the user to react to prompts. The user composes on word proccessors, calculates in spreadsheets, and draws in Paint. And, since the use of these machines saturate our society (at this exact moment, I have a PC, a tablet, and a smart phone within three feet of me), it is natural that the habit of interacting with these machines increasingly influences users’ cognitive processes and patterns.

The term “user-friendly” is of course loaded and slippery. It derives from consumer desires and creator requirements. Consumers want to be masters of their machines without feeling dumb or discouraged. Moreover, many resist investing the time, energy, or attention it requires to become experts. Computer corporations devote themselves to creating “user-friendly” devices, which make the consumer believe that they control their product and that the device empowers the consumer. Creators construct the glossy illusion of “user-friendly” with intense labor. In a 1995 issue of Forbes, an article entitled “New Hope for Computer Illiterates” cites the general manager of IBM personal systems division Richard Thoman’s estimate that one in three personal computers taken home “fails.” This overwhelming failure rate motivated creators of personal computers to improve how the consumer both interacts with computers and anticipates interacting with computers. Kelly Stapleton, leader of one of Microsoft’s “usability” think-groups cited in “New Hope,” says that her research division works towards understanding what types of frustrations “novice” users encounter while computing. She relates that “We found surprising things, like people doing budgets in the word processor rather than a spreadsheet because the spreadsheet was too intimidating” (89). The article stresses that “It’s not enough to establish standards so that different parts of a computer system can talk the same language. You have to get inside the mind of the consumer and figure out how to make that language intelligible to him, too” (89). In order to achieve “user-friendly,” programmers watched consumers through one-way mirrors, product teams met for tens of hours with computer-using families, and companies fluxed telephone support lines. Creators devoted themselves to discovering how average consumers consume computers and designing computers which speak and are understood.

Creators trumpeted the “user-friendliness” and transparency of their machines, which came increasingly under criticism as “novice” consumers bought their way into personal computing. “New Hope” laments the “unfriendliness” of computers still experienced in 1995:
Mail merge lets Microsoft Word, the company’s popular word processor, add names and addresses ‘instantly’ to a form letter. But there’s nothing instant about mastering the feature: Walking a perplexed user through mail merge typically takes 30 minutes. Computer pros might have laughed off such problems a few years ago, when most computers sat in offices that had in-house help. But now that the personal computer business is moving to the home market, murky, quirky software and hardware can lose a customer forever. Some marvel that consumers keep on buying, despite their disappointments. (88) The economic impetus of “user-friendly” certainly gained momentum in the 1970s and 1980s, but the battle against “murky, quirky software and hardware” waged on through the 1990s. It continues today. The threat of losing consumers, through a not-so-transparent GUI model, drives the development and determines the marketability of a machine.

In order to create a system, which more efficiently runs (one that is “user-friendly”), the system of variables must be closed. Creators needed to standardize the production of computers and their componenents and relegate man to his place as just another interchangeable part in the system. This concept, although cultivated in computing in the 1980s and 90s, has been an element of how man experiences media for as long as media has existed. Systems of writing, paper, and writing utensils standardize written language. Man, as consumer, becomes increasingly passive in his mediatic participation, espeically as systems become more complex. In Jonathan Crary’s essay “Techniques of the Observer,” he discusses Sir David Brewster’s kaleidoscope, which was invented in 1815. According to Crary, Brewster views “productivity and efficiency” as essential to this visual machine (22). More importantly, he considers it a “mechanical means for the reformation of art according to an industrial paradigm” (22). Evolving visual and industrial technologies require man to play a specific part in the functioning of the machine. No longer the maker, man becomes an element of the machine. Crary justifies this move by applying Marxist theory to elucidate human-machine relationships, “In the factory, Marx contended, the machine makes use of man by subjecting him to a relation of contiguity, of part to other parts, and of exchangeability… the apparently passive observers of the stereoscope and Phenakistiscope were in fact made into producers, by virtue of specific physical capacities, of forms of verisimilitude” (33). By becoming necessary not to the functioning, but to the purpose of the machine, man becomes part of the machine itself. He continually embraces illusions, which deceive him into thinking he maintains control: “An apparatus openly based on a principle of disparity… inevitably would give way to a form that preserved the referential illusion more fully than anything before it” (Crary 35). Man depends on the illusion of natural, human privilege to structure his consumer existence. For our current society, the ways in which consumers want and expect the quick, accessible, and “user-friendly” still denote man as a component of the machine. We become increasingly dependent on technologies as self-explanatory extensions of ourselves and lose sight of what exists external to these tools.

The theoretical grounding for my project centers on Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media. In a chapter entitled “The Medium is the Message,” he writes that “…the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium. The content of writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of print, and print is the content of the telegraph” and “Indeed, it is only too typical that the ‘content’ of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium” (10, 11). My project attempts to unearth McLuhan’s “character of the medium,” by disrupting the seamless, ubiquitious nature of personalized computing, which reinforces the normalized mode of the GUI. The ever-present PC, in many ways, parallels the presence of the typewriter in the 1960s and 1970s, which led artists to experiment with the gridlike form of mechanical type to create typewriter art, which called into question the form and influence of the medium itself. Emerson writes that the pervasiveness of the typwriter had made it “invisible to its users. It is precisely at the point at which a technology saturates a culture that writers and artists, whose craft is utterly informed by a sensitivity to their tools, begin to break apart that same technology to once again draw attention to the way in which it offers certain limits and possibilities to both thought and expression.” My project imitates the hacker-typewriter artists Emerson discusses.

In my compositions, I draw attention to the limitations and requirements of the computer as media and the word processor as a program. I ask the reader to consider how the visual images I construct, along with the words that assemble them, strengthen or undermine comfortable and familiar interfaces. Niebisch requires that the ‘abuse of media’ requires one to “(ab)use media technologies… in the system in a way not intended by hegemonic powers” (9). To this end, my conceptual poetry reassembles advertisements, articles, and instruction manuals in the two dimensional shape of the lauded product on the pages of a word processor. Visual and rhetorical devices, meant to seduce the user into placidly dismissing the limitations of technology or the influences of media, interact with the user in this new construction, which takes shape in a program not intended for prose-like compositions. These difficult-to-read compositions emphasize the presence of a GUI in the “user-friendly.” They are a product of the program in which (and artifacts from which) they were composed. If the observer interacts only superficially, casually observing the image with no interrogation of the words, the item remains “user-friendly.” However, as he transitions to an active reader of the project, he must work to discover what occurs underneath the most accessible interface.

Like the typewriter art of the 1960s and 1970s, the intent of my art is to draw attention to the the media of the composition. My work disobeys the prompts of the GUI to emphasize the idea that pre-packaged programs elicit conditioned responses and stifle genuinely creative uses of computing devices. I do not suggest that personal computing would be better off without a GUI. However, I hope that my work points to the creative space negelcted by blindly accepting a supposedly invisible interface and encourages consumers to acknowledge how media influences their thoughts and creations.

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Also, as I was working with transferring my compositions, some of them were “glitched” by the new interface! I would love to extend my project to explore these types of images. Here are three exciting ones:

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