In The Mobile Book by Smashing Magazine, Josh Clark says,
“A crucial step of designing a forward-looking touch interface is to identify how to reimagine your information and data as a physical object.”
On the surface, this is an important observation. We have been growing more and more adept at designing for our mouse-and-keyboard internet world, but that is quickly changing. The last couple of years has begun to show deep cracks in the landscape of what sorts of devices users are viewing our content on, and Clark’s quote is extremely insightful in outlining one of the key ideas that needs to shift as we design our websites and applications.
I agree with all that, but if you’ll indulge me, I want to explore a question that’s a bit more on the metaphysical side, a bit more “big picture”.
What is information?
When you take a step back from the internet, what is it? If you strip away all the visual elements—the images, the layout, the typography, etc.—what’s left? What is the content that we’re wrapping up in all this interface design and sending through the cables and wifi signals? It’s our thoughts.
I think, therefore, information.
Initially, humans merely spoke to each other, revealing their thoughts to one another via conversation. Once the words were spoken, they were lost. They could be repeated, sure, but those words in that conversation, in that instant, were gone for good. With written word, suddenly those thoughts became immortal. So now, outside of ephemeral human conversations, we have these ghost-like conversations that are always possible. Once something is written down, it becomes half of a conversation that is always waiting and available to be entered into whenever a willing reader steps into it. And ever since then, it created the medium on which these half-conversations exist. Rocks in caves, scraps of tree bark, long scrolls, pages of books, and now on glowing screens.
We’ve been having these conversations through pages for a long, long time.
The printing press and type-writer mechanized the writing process, so we got used to a keyboard to speak through. Then, instead of typing with ink onto paper, we split that medium into glowing screens and computer memory. Memory is immaterial at this point. But now, these screens are taking on an almost infinite number of sizes and dimensions and resolution. The screens no longer simply display our thoughts that we’ve typed, they respond when we touch them.
So, back to Clark’s quote. The information or data he mentions is just our thoughts, our half of a conversation. Whether it’s advertising, editorial or entertainment, the information on these screens is one person’s or a group of persons’ thoughts. Thoughts are inherently NOT physical objects. The content on our sites or applications, minus the visual containers it comes in, is immaterial.
My question is, can we do what he suggests? Can we strip away the medium on which our users are consuming our information and envision our content as something physical?
I think it is possible. But it will not be easy, nor will it be simple. Physical objects inherently have physical properties. If our information has color, it will be inaccessible to someone who is blind. If our information sounds soothing, it will go unheard by our deaf users. If our information can be grabbed, it will be out of reach of some of our users that have lost or do not have control of their limbs, etc. As we step courageously into this quickly-approaching, mobile-saturated internet world, we have our work cut out for us. Audio, touch-screen, motion-sensing, facial recognition, camera input… the list of ways that users can interact with our information, our thoughts, is ever-growing.
I think Clark is right, about re-imagining our information as a physical object. But because our content is actually not physical, and only becomes physical when it is displayed, rendered, spoken through some kind of device, we will need to acknowledge that the closest physical object our information will ever resemble is water, filling the container that holds it in ways unique to that container.
How do we abstract our thoughts—our content—from whatever types of containers it might someday fill?