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Review of “Inventing the Medium. Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice”

Inventing the Medium. Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice
by Janet H. Murray
MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.
2012
ISBN: 978-0-262-01614-8
496 pp.

On several occasions over the last few years I have asked new students in digital design to identify and describe the assumptions made in the design process of the touchscreen smartphone. When I ask them what the smartphone would have looked like had it been invented in Denmark where we live, they always look puzzled, but then I ask how the touch screen interface works in a country where lots of people bike even on cold winter days and where it often rains. At this point, even though not all smartphones are designed in sunny California, the students immediately understand what implicit assumptions are and what it means to question one’s own or someone else’s standpoint. This is their first meeting with a critical approach to digital technolgies, as well as with what education can and must do. Basically, the smartphone case is a very low-key example of how to expose the premise on which conventions are built.

Questions similar to this came up when I read and pondered Janet Murray’s most recent book “Inventing the Medium”. Not because the book’s examples were all designed for the Californian climate but because of the premises that seem to be woven into its general argument.

Presenting a framework for the digital medium and how to design for it, this is an ambitious book both in scope and in size (over 400 pages excluding an extensive glossary). In order for me to be able to assess the impact of “Inventing the Medium” and in order to review it properly, I should probably have used it as course material. Although Murray writes that it is relevant to all who work with digital media, it is first and foremost a textbook aimed at educators and students. It is developed in close connection with the programme in Digital Media at Georgia Tech, where Murray has been since 1999. Evidently, Murray’s students do well and she thanks them for providing insights from a variety of world-leading IT-companies. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a good fit for all (types of) digital media programmes. Neither does Murray make such a claim but after reading this book it is evident to me that similar looking educational programmes can need different methods and ‘mindsets’. Somehow, this also depends on which markets students are thought as being part of.

I haven’t used it for teaching but it has been on my list of books to consider as textbook since it was published. So as I read it, I kept pondering if this book would be useful for me in class if and so, for what purpose? Which actions and reflections will it foster amongst my students? How will they learn about what digital technology can do? And what might they think that their role in a digital culture might consist of, regardless of if they will be developing hardware or software and regardless of if they are already users of digital technologies on a professional or personal level. In other words, how does this book help me create the conditions in which they can become skilled, thoughtful and critical participants in the future shaping of digital artifacts, services, objects or experiences? My students need to know many of the same things as Murray’s but they will also be different candidates simply because of the differences in the societies they are part of and that they will help in shaping – even in a globalised world. And this is part of the premise for this review: will it work in my context?

Arguing that the digital medium lacks genre-conventions and consequently also design-conventions and that this is needed for the medium to become fully mature, the book rests on the vocabulary established in Murray’s “Hamlet at the Holodeck” (1997). Here, Murray introduced and developed four properties of the digital medium – the procedural, the participatory, the encyclopedic and the spatial – that in various configurations create or afford three abilities: immersion, agency, and transformation. In what Murray names a “humanistic approach to design”, the goal of the book is to develop more coherent media conventions based on these fundamental properties. They have been combined into a framework and method for “exploiting” and “maximizing the affordances” of digital artifacts (p. 87) and this book proposes that they form the basis of the design or invention of the medium. Thus, the idea of what characterises the digital medium is intact from “Hamlet” to “Inventing the Medium”, which is comprised of 13 chapters divided into five parts, each devoted to explaining, exploring and advancing one of the framework’s dimensions and to combine them into four foundational types: tool, machine, companion, and game. To Murray, this work is the designer’s task but, more importantly, it is also a collective task: together we must strive to make the digital medium more mature in the “larger cultural project of inventing the medium” (p. 21). With variations, this idea of a larger cultural project is repeated throughout and must be considered one of the core statements of the book as a whole.

What this book seeks to do is figure out universal ways of analysing and thus building digital artifacts – Google, YouTube and games, amongst others, can be looked at through the same parameters or affordances. And by doing this, we will also understand how digital artifacts differ from each other through the four traditions of computer science, HCI, information science, and visual design (mostly information visualisation) thus allowing us to build on all four when designing or inventing the medium.
I see advantages in this model based approach to analysing – it is a structured way of getting students to understand how applications and services (artifacts, in Murray’s terms) are both similar and different, and how even though they are built on the same technologies, they can be compared in various ways. I also see the advantage in this approach because most students crave that which they can formalise: models are many a student’s best friend. But the world, as well as computing, is messy and incongruent and maybe this is why it it relatively easy for large corporations to sell us their seemingly unmessy ecosystems.

All models are reductive and in the reduction lies both their power and their weakness. Here, the simplicity of having four aspects describing the digital artifacts available to us eventually excludes other perspectives. You either buy into these categories (and thus the book) or you do not. This is obviously a consequence of every attempt to categorise and create universal models (even if they are flexible) but it also means that as a teacher, I need to figure out if I buy these premises or not, and I need to try to figure out what buying into the mindset will bring with respect to those projects my students will eventually do both during and after their time at university.

Indeed the most successful aspect of Inventing the Medium is that it argues for learning by ‘doing’ the digital medium: by producing it and by analysing concrete examples. Included are plenty of examples (at least one per page, ranging from a fascinating map from 1869 over Amazon’s interface to the first Xerox Star computer) to investigate further as well as several design explorations or exercises at the end of each chapter.
These design explorations are good: adding concrete practice to the theory or argument presented in each chapter, they range from being concerned with conceptual design thinking to pseudocode and many of them are excellent and inspiring, even if you don’t agree with the central premises of the book. For instance on p 80 where students are instructed to analyse and reconstruct the algorithm and the rules controlling a computer game (e.g. Tetris) thus working with algorithms and the inherent structure of computers on levels that are both very concrete (reconstruct the algorithms) and abstract (structured pseudocode and not actual code). This particular exercise then also leads to a discussion about the role of the interactor and about agency. I can easily see how many of these exercises will work well in a class setting, making students realise that computers have particular (but not magic) ‘minds’.

I completely concur with Murray when she states in the Introduction that computers “provide the loom on which we can weave the fabric of human culture” (p. 19). At the risk of being too dogmatic this is, however, also a point that I believe should be put differently. Because – especially in an education context – I would also like to challenge my students to alter the loom (to stay with Murray’s metaphor) or at least to envision it differently. This ‘loom’ – or let’s call it technology from now on – can and should be considered changeable; I consider it part of my students’ task to challenge any supposedly static form by preferably taking it apart and rebuilding it. And my teaching should help them figure out how to do so. Technology (especially the highly manipulable digital technology) thus becomes more than something we can learn how to understand and master to perfection. Students should not only strive to ‘weave’ to perfection but they should also always be able to ask themselves whether the tool should still be a loom and whether weaving is even a craft worth pursuing further.

So even when I sympathise with Murray’s project of making a textbook for design teaching that incorporates several traditions and even when I agree that computing is also (perhaps even primarily) a humanistic discipline, I started having doubts already at around page 20 as to whether I find it useful for my purpose. Firstly, I do not agree that the digital medium is not yet mature. Yes, design conventions change often but this to me has nothing to do with immaturity but everything to do with a technology that develops and transforms in close connection with the digital or computational culture it is deeply embedded in. For all I know it may never settle into known genres. Secondly, to me as an educator, the most important thing to teach students is that they need to continue this challenging of technologies and design trends. They need to never be satisfied with programmatic conventions and instead if not oppose then at least realise the premises on which they are built.

Murray never writes the opposite – that the digital medium should never be challenged – but there are very few (if any) examples of how conventions are challenged. Rather, the examples primarily serve to show how the properties and affordances can be seen in various forms in existing artifacts, thus showing that Murray’s categories are suitable for characterising the digital medium.

My main problems with “Inventing the Medium” are thus that I disagree with what seems to be the premise of the book: that there aren’t any conventions yet, that we need to create conventions, and that – more importantly – students need to learn these (admittedly broad) conventions so that they can design for them, which to me means conform to them. I’d rather have them explore, challenge and expand the limits of what is possible with digital technologies. In a way, this is also what Murray states on p. 29 when she updates Donald Norman’s notion of an affordance to becoming a “cultural bias” that should “become the subject of active choices rather than passive acceptance”, but I wish the book had been more radical. Students are very good at translating themes from extreme examples to everyday artifacts, but it is harder for them to do the opposite. So to me, the ideal textbook should exemplify the radical and make exercises that would have students explore the everyday in light of the radical. This is related to the four traditions that Murray draws upon; I wish there had been one parameter and thus an underlying tradition that was less functionality oriented and more oriented towards discussing the degree to which a given artifact challenges existing norms or concepts. For example, I am not sure how to fit projects like Seppukko (http://www.seppukoo.com/), Transparency Grenade (http://transparencygrenade.com/), or the video games by Molleindustria (http://www.molleindustria.org/) to name a few, into Murray’s framework, but I find these projects important – in the classroom as well as for the culture we are all shaping. The closest we get to this genre is probably Ian Bogost’s “Oil God” referenced on p. 154 as one example of a simulation game and Josh On’s website “They Rule” on p. 245.

I share many of Murray’s thoughts on the importance of knowing what a computer does and how it “thinks”; if students are to become good designers of future digital artifacts, they also need to know what is underneath the surface of the interface. They need to know the material of computing. But it seems that Murray and I disagree on what this material is and not least why students should learn about it. In my view, students need to learn about this in order to be able to challenge it – to be critical of its affordances and properties, to utilise terminology Murray draws upon. In Murray’s view – or at least in this book – it seems that that knowledge needs to happen so that students can think ‘with’ the medium. Murray’s professional blog seems to point in the same direction and holds an interesting statement on what designers need to know about programming “every designer should learn enough programming to be able to understand […] the key architectural principles that make for good design: information abstraction, modularity, and encapsulation. So I would encourage any designer with a desire to learn programming to become as expert as they can at it because it will help them to think procedurally and to understand the plasticity of the medium.”

I completely agree that designers should know the principles of programming in order to be able to design (for) it. I would even take it further: it is important that everyone, not only designers, know how the computer ‘thinks’ and ‘acts’. Digital literacy should be an important part of contemporary “Bildung” just as reading, writing and other essential skills are. But where I wish this literacy to happen because that will expand the potential for critical actions in contemporary democracy, the message of “Inventing the Medium” seems to be that it is necessary to understand the plasticity of the digital in order to maximise the potential for immersive, transparent and functional experiences. Obviously, I am being polemic in this reading, but even so, to me such a response is the logical consequence of phrases like “graphical design should be in the service of interaction” (p. 79). For most everyday purposes, Murray is probably right, but on the other hand it is exactly this focus on “in the service of” the functionality of the digital that makes so few students question the implicit assumptions of the technologies around us. And if they can’t do it, then who can? And if we’re not teaching them that, then who will?

Bio
Lone Koefoed Hansen is Associate Professor at Aarhus University in digital design and aesthetics. Her research lies at the interface between art, culture and digital technologies and it focuses on how we might analyse and understand digital technologies (and computer science and engineering practices) through the lens of art, design and critical theory.

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