As a designer in the new millennium, particularly as a product designer of software-augmented objects, I often imbue my work with the influence of the principles, artifacts and icons of modernist design.

So when a few years ago in Gary Hustwit’s documentary Helvetica, Massimo Vignelli – a high priest of modern visual communications – pronounced that in a previous decade, designers ran around like headless chickens because “their minds were completely confused by that disease that was called postmodernism,” I since wondered if I, being a child of that decade, suffered from that very condition, a condition which stands in stark contrast to modernism – that of being postmodern.

There are very few professions in which a colleague might ask you what is new, to which you can reply, “I have finally come to terms with my post-modernity,” and from there have a meaningful conversation.

This exchange happened to me a few weeks ago, an exchange in which I acknowledged the inescapable conclusion. And to my surprise, the ensuing conversation had an unexpected result: it gave me a glimpse into the future of software design.

I would like to share this glimpse, and in order to do so, I will share an extremely shorthand version of three very large and complex ideas: the evolution of the computer interface, Jean Piaget’s genetic epistemology, and Gilles Deleuze’s concepts of arborescence and horizontality – or in simpler terms, the mouse and the finger, the cave painting and the child’s drawing, and the tree and moss.

The mouse and the finger

In my day-to-day work, I lead a team of designers, writers and researchers in developing a new form of touch-based computing. Our employer is a software company in Redmond, Washington. Our common design problem centres on creating new methods and techniques in an area that, outside academia, remains a mostly uncharted frontier.

One of the ways in which we derive the general direction for our work is to employ a principle from postmodernism – more specifically, from post-structuralism: that given a set of phenomena, it is the differences that are the same.

One could argue that touch-based computing – along with other burgeoning input methods such as voice, pen and in-air gestures – comprise a new category of interaction, the so-called Natural User Interface or NUI (pronounced NEW-ee).

The two interaction frameworks preceding NUI are the Graphical User Interface or GUI (pronounced gooey) whose physical manifestation is the mouse, and its predecessor, the Command Line Interface, a solely text-driven framework of control and command through the keyboard.

To help us figure out how to think about NUI, our team often looks to the differences between the Command Line and GUI. From these differences, we derive solid direction for NUI in areas of perception, control, flex-ibility, user behavior, and the barriers between use and intent.

One of the most senior researchers on our team worked during the introduction of the mouse in the mid-80s , and he says it is fascinating that the challenges and shortcomings users encounter today by touching a horizontal screen are the same as with the then-new-fangled mouse of twenty years ago.

It is the differences that are the same. (Although the mouse was invented in 1964 by Douglas Engelbart at Xerox PARC, I am referring to the introduction of the mouse as a widely-available product.)

In other words, our team performs a kind of trend forecasting using a principle of poststructural thought to invent a new medium. This notion gets a bit more interesting when we apply this principle to an idea from the renowned child psychologist Jean Piaget, an idea known as genetic epistemology.

The cave painting and the child’s drawing

Scientific knowledge is in perpetual evolution; it finds itself changed from one day to the next. As a result, we cannot say that on the one hand there is the history of knowledge and on the other its current state today, as if its current state were somehow definitive or even stable.

The current state of knowledge is a moment in history, changing just as rapidly as the state of knowledge in the past has ever changed and, in many instances, more rapidly. Scientific thought, then, is not momentary; it is not a static instance; it is a process. More specifically, it is a process of continual construction and reorganisation.

Jean Piaget, Genetic Epistemology (1970)

Jean Piaget claimed that he was not a child psychologist, but instead, an observer of history through developmental biology – it is this comparison of changes that embodies genetic epistemology. Genetic epistemology suggests a parallelism between the developments of human knowledge throughout the ages with the formative psychological processes in individuals.

Genetic epistemology is about the macro and the micro. Many of Piaget’s experiments dealt with children’s drawings. Piaget observed that the ways in which children draw – in other words, represent their experience – evolves as a child gets older.

These transformations bear striking similarities with the historic development of artistic depiction – from cave paintings to medieval illustration to the introduction of perspective, chiaroscuro, and ultimately the conceptually-driven, non-figurative arena of contemporary art.

In more simple terms, the shifts in how humanity visualised thinking across centuries is analogous to the shifts a child goes through in how he or she represents the world through drawing. It is the differences that are the same.

As we look at how human-computer interaction has developed during the last century, we find a similarity with Piaget’s idea. That parallels can be drawn between the major stages in the history of philosophy – formism, mechanism, contextualism and organicism – with the way computer interaction has developed as well, from command line to GUI to NUI. The interesting point here is that the shift from GUI to NUI reflects similar characteristics in the movement from modernism to the postmodern.

The tree and moss

Modernism is considered a reaction to the Age of Enlightenment whose values centred on science, logic and reason. All this cool scientific reasoning ushered in the chaos of the early twentieth century which included a global depression and two world wars.

Throughout this turmoil, a longing for timeless truths, values, and principles started emerging through various media. Modern art, literature and architecture reflected aesthetic systems that strove for clarity in both intent and execution.

While there are many definitions of postmodernism, one suggests that having followed modernity, postmodernism is about the rejection of totalising concepts that act as the centre of contemporary social thought.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.

William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming

In this vein, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, two post-structuralist philosophers, have asserted that the way we think about knowledge is based on tree-like structures whether we think of the parsing of a sentence or describing the bonds of a molecule, these trees replicate modern values by imposing order and hierarchy.

This quality is known as arborescence. Deleuze and Guattari assert that a more suitable view of knowledge is not the tree but the rhizome. This term from botany refers to phenomena such as the Spanish moss or crabgrass. While a tree is vertical and grows from a centre, a rhizome is horizontal and has no centre. A rhizome can be separated into constituent parts and still live.

As we think about software and computing experiences, we are on a cusp that is similar, a cusp that applies more broadly to product design in general. Current systems are highly arborescent. The metaphors we use in software today employ vertical hierarchies – think about folder and subfolders, or tree menus.

The shift we see today is towards a rhizomatic framework, one of horizontality, one that is de-centered. What does this look like? Think of mobile telephone applications.

Applications are being broken down into smaller and more discreet experiences. It is the user that can mix and match these capabilities in a kind of bricolage of experience. This decentralisation of utility is the future of not only software design but of product design in general.

Software is just an early indicator of such trends because it mirrors the kind of epistemological values of a time, our time, the postmodern era. Why? Because it is the differences that are the same. 

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