Living on the Network

The week in January when Apple announced the iPhone, I went from an ecstatic reverie of secular futurism to feeling pretty let down. The problem wasn’t what the iPhone didn’t do, the “features” it lacked. The thing was thrilling—a beautiful object, crystalline in its realization, revolutionary in its interface—and of course I wanted one. But I had mixed feelings about what it represents.

The iPhone epitomizes the larger movement in the shape of digital products today: industrial design is all about making containers for bandwidth, bringing form to the threshold between the physical world of our bodies and the digital world of the network. Yet in a single stroke of product and interface design, the iPhone nearly wiped away that threshold altogether. Its touch screen eliminated the need for buttons, its cellular connection eliminated the need to be anywhere in particular, and its form suggested that we’re nearly able to replace objects with flat slabs. But should we? The digital network has been socially transformative—and that’s a fact worth celebrating, not smoothing over be-neath a smudge-proof screen.

I’m surprised how quickly this moment has arrived. It’s only in the last ten years that we have begun to live on the network—if not sitting in front of a computer, eyes locked on the screen and fingers on the keyboard, then with a cell phone by our sides. In the process, we’ve happily given up the barriers to entry, all that “dialing up” and “logging in.” Similarly, the objects we use to access the network are dematerializing, not only in minimalist iPhone-like ways, but also into an invisible network cloud, a phenomenon known as “ubiquitous computing.” Phones, cars, televisions, and credit cards are all communicating among each other more and more, while showing their antennae less and less. Even at the scale of the city, we have stopped building our biggest antennae as monuments, like Toronto’s CN Tower or Seattle’s Space Needle, and instead try to hide them out of sight. The popes of Renais­sance Rome celebrated miles of unseen water aqueducts with exuberant fountains, and—given the hype—you’d think that’s what digital objects would be today: baroque fountains at the end of the vast network of bandwidth. But they’re subtler than that, as if ignoring all these interconnections enhanced their aura of magic.

Which can be fun and useful. The digital world is increasingly operating on our behalf, in physical ways. Cars no longer need keys, and tollbooths no longer require you to stop. It’s been a dozen years since the design firm Razorfish declared that “everything that can be digital will be digital,” and we’re definitely getting closer. I’ve been playing around with Z-Wave, a new home-networking standard, like Wi-Fi but for light switches and thermostats. What seemed absurd at first—I was doing fine turning my lights on and off by myself, thank you—soon became pleasant, then inevitable. Once a few lights dim automatically when the TV goes on, all the others start to seem hopelessly analog. The gap between the computer—all hopped up on bandwidth—and the lamp next to it became oddly wide. I can send a text message to New Zealand from my cell phone, but I still have to stumble in the dark to turn on the light. The network cloud remains patchy, uneven.

But as the network increasingly fills in, form becomes separated from function. Ubiquitous computing “is hard to see literally,” Adam Greenfield writes in Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing. “When even a space that is entirely empty may in fact contain—to all intents, may be—a powerful information processing system, we can no longer rely on appearances to guide us.”

Which makes this a strange moment to be an industrial designer, professionally engaged with how our physical connections to the network should look and feel—and also explains why some of the most compelling design is explicitly and critically addressing its place on the network head-on. Some of it is deliberately playful—more symbolic than useful—like the Availabots, by the London-based designers Jack Schulze and Matt Webb. Little plastic figurines that plug into your computer, they stand at attention when a specific IM buddy comes online, and slump when she goes away. (And in theory they look like that buddy.) They are meant to be “a physical representation of presence,” as Schulze and Webb put it.

But other designs make their sense of “presence” political—like the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project’s XO computer, designed by Yves Béhar. At the edge of its goofy green case, two little rod antennae perk up like cartoon rabbit ears, accentuating, even anthropomorphizing, the laptop’s connection to the network—a particular kind of network. The XO creates “mesh” systems that self-organize so that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Each XO can extend a wireless signal to others, even when turned off, rather than having to rely on a centralized hub. Those prominent antennae boost the wireless network range by a half-mile, but they also remind the laptops’ kid-users that their bandwidth is quite literally a social construction.

The XO’s graphical user interface, designed by Lisa Strausfeld’s group at Pentagram, makes the same point. It goes beyond the usual “desktop” metaphor, incorporating a “zoom lens” approach that switches perspectives, like the Eameses’ documentary Powers of Ten. Two of the views, called “Friends” and “Neighborhood,” show the laptop’s relationship to other laptops, to an Internet connection, or to the classroom servers that OLPC’s boosters hope will be a cost-effective replacement for textbooks. It’s all meant to make the kids self-conscious about how they’re working on the network. “There were a lot of almost ethical decisions about what it means to have your computer on the network,” Strausfeld says of the design process, “but for the most part, the model is built on sharing.” The XO celebrates the metaphorical power of the network, not just its bandwidth. And by making the kids as much the network as their laptops are, it also suggests a very different digital future.

But generally we’re at this odd historical moment when we’re living ­mostly—although not quite totally—on the network, but the network is ­mostly—not quite totally—invisible to us. I feel this every day on the subway, when the train bursts out of the dark tunnel onto the Manhattan Bridge and into the glittering light above the East River. A few moments later, in the corner of my cell phone’s screen, a tiny red arrow begins to flicker as it snaps onto the network. On a crowded train at rush hour, the same thing is happening a thousand times over, as each of our phones reaches out to the grid. I like to imagine it as a silent invisible analogue to the Fourth of July fireworks that fill the same sky. Really, you wouldn’t notice—but I think we should.

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