When we think of our smart phone or tablet, the first thing that comes to mind is the screen. The interface between us and what can feel like the rest of humanity. With a quick tap we can be on the phone with our parents, or check if that shirt we liked is finally on sale. Our phone is a photo album, our personal correspondence, it can even be a line of credit. However, looked at another way, it’s a piece of plastic and metal. “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” this is not a pipe, René Magritte painted on his famous work The Treachery of Images. Similarly, our smart phones are not themselves the indefinite number of things we can do or comprehend, they are conduits through which we communicate meaning, a piece of cognitive and symbolic technology. Even that isn’t quite accurate, the smart phone, is a collection of a diverse array of components working in combination to become a “cognitive artefact.” (1)
Under both a figurative and literal microscope, the smart phone becomes more and more difficult to define and understand. The wide range of purposes for which this device can be used seems to stretch at Arthur’s first principle of technology which states that a technology is “a combination of components to some purpose.” (2) When the purposes of a technology become increasingly diverse, does that mean that we should be looking at our device as a collection of technologies? The slick screen that initially felt like a portal begins to seem like the placid surface of a unfathomable lake, the kind that inspire myths about mysterious monsters. Rather than dive into what is sure to be a frigid water, a majority of consumers prefer idle by the shore or perhaps row across the surface. Deep exploration becomes the domain of specialists, probably with special equipment and training. Or to step away from the analogy, our device becomes “black-boxed” as we become confused by the complexity.
This raises another question, why does the average consumer become confused by the complexity of their smart phone? Norman writes in Living with Complexity, “modern technology can be complex, but complexity by itself is neither good nor bad: it is confusion that is bad.” (3) One possible reason for the confusion is suggested by Lev Manovich in Software Takes Command where he describes the lack of historical record documenting the creation of contemporary culture software. (4) Who designed each piece of software and hardware? Why was it built in a certain way? How was it built? The blame for this lack of historical knowledge Manovich places on economics, and the way that irrelevant or outdated technology disappears. There is no culture of nostalgia that encourages the historical reverence a different cultural historian might feel for an old movie. (5) While Manovich is drawing attention to the lack of cultural scholarship around software, he is also drawing attention to the way the general public does not have insight into the making of the programs they use everyday. The names of the critical engineers and designers are not public knowledge in the way those collaborating on a film are. Economics could also explain this. In a free market, competition requires a great deal of secrecy around corporate products. This explanation, however, does not explain why open source programs, of which there are many that perform the same functions as the branded corporate products, are still viewed wholistically, except by those technologists with a keen interest. Another economics driven answer might be that products, in order to be effective, need to improve their customer’s life in some way. No one wants a product that makes them frustrated or unhappy. The inner workings, the complexity, is therefore hidden to the extent possible so that the product is simple and comfortable. This explanation helps illustrate why the underlying programs and components are hard to access, but it also posits that the confusion caused by our complex technologies is something inherent and to be avoided. Instead, consumers interact with these programs in specific ways, ways that were intended by the designer.
The design of our smart phones is key. We see the screen and we move our fingers over it in such a way that we are able to access different functions and derive different meanings. We understand the information because the phone was designed to communicate. “When we deal with the electronic world where everything is invisible, we are at the mercy of the designer to provide us with hints and clues as to what is going on,” writes Norman in Living with Complexity. (6) The designer provides a conceptual model, which helps us to “transform complex physical reality into workable, understandable mental concepts.” (7) In other words, we know our mail resides in the mail app of our phone, while our pictures can be accessed by clicking on the icon that resembles a camera. We have mapped the dimensions of our phone in such a way as we can make sense of all the different functions our phone performs. However if we were to open up our phone and stare at its parts, the reality of our phone would be so at odds with the picture we hold in our heads, as to be indecipherable without further study.
Rather than spend the time and effort to bring those dissonant versions of our phone into alignment, the majority of consumers prefer to keep it simple: it works, or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t work, it needs to be someone else’s problem.
1. Norman defines cognitive artefacts as “Those artificial devices that maintain, display, or operate upon information in order to serve a representational function and that affect human cognitive performance.” Donald A. Norman, “Cognitive Artifacts.” In Designing Interaction, ed. John M. Carroll, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 19.
2. Brian Arthur, The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009), 32.
3. Donald A. Norman, Living with Complexity, (Cambridge:: The MIT Press, 2010), 4.
4. Lev Manovich, Software Takes Command, (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013), 39.
5. Lev Manovich, Software Takes Command, (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013), 40.
6. Donald A. Norman, Living with Complexity, (Cambridge:: The MIT Press, 2010), 39.
7. Donald A. Norman, Living with Complexity, (Cambridge:: The MIT Press, 2010), 37.