American company Apple, producer of computers and personal devices – among others, the famous mp3-player iPod – has entered into mobile business with a video cell phone that has been presented and hailed worldwide with a great emphasis.
In this paper we’ll take iPhone as a fresh case study to update some paths used to study video cell phone (Borrelli, Petullà 2007). It is a phenomenon particularly suited because of its success, that can be understood only at the light of a context including the logic of its technical development and aesthetical aspects, and so inevitably experiential ones, justifying a fully sociological and cultural approach to media study.
Although the great number of interesting cues, we will try to focus our attention on contiguous topics with our previous analysis, using it as interpretative frame.
The iPhone has been presented in US on January 2007 becoming commercially available on June the 29th. Both events have received an enormous attention from international media; they have dedicated much time to illustrate its characteristics as well as folkloristic aspects marked by feverish waits of early adopters, that formed long queues to buy an expensive phone (at least 500/600 dollars for the early versions) as soon as possible.
In Europe iPhone has been presented on September 2007 in England, where it is available from the early days of November, more or less as in France and Germany.
Since then iPhones sold in United States are 1.4 millions and Apple hopes to sell worldwide 10 millions of devices in 2008.
The logic of iPhone
The third generation of mobile communication, UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecom System) – a very global network of intelligent nodes and high speed channels – is the more powerful multimedia platform to experiment and implement media convergence (modality of transmission) and languages (contents) once organized in different forms and domains.
Indeed, UMTS intersects the three most important media of modern communication: wireless (radio), fixed network (telegraph/internet) and audio-visual technology (movie/tv), based all on the most successful service of telecommunication industry, namely telephone.
This fusion of media spheres has happened through a parallel approaching of two terrific phenomenons: mobile telephony (radio-phone) and the raising and incredible world of internet (fixed network/audio-visual contents). Mobile multimedia telephony reveals, therefore, deep roots that foreshadow interesting developments, even if in a very troubled context because of the complex processes and number of actors involved.
The story of video cell phone – and so of iPhone – begins with that of telephone (1876). Effectively, the telephone brings with itself an intrinsic idea of multimediality both in terms of contents and transmission. And even if image transmission could be a real thing technically but not commercially since the second decade of XX century (1927, AT&T), there has been a first “online contents” service in 1893, a telephone system that interposed official and personal communication with music and poetic lyrics.
Tivadar Puskás (1844-1893) invented Telefonhírmondó, a real news, music, sport, entertainment channel realized on telephone line. Activated definitively on February the 15th of 1893 in metropolitan area of Budapest, Hírmondó exceeded six thousands subscribers in a short time, all people connected to receive the world in their own houses: every hour there was a news program while chronicle of sport events was in the afternoon and musicians offered their performances in the evening (Marvin 1994).
The idea to utilize communication technology in aesthetic terms is so deep that also has an antecedent experimentation. In 1881 French engineer Clement Ader, that has implemented the first Bell system in Paris, connected the theatre Operà to a remote audio-telephone room. The room hosted 20 telephone devices that, linked remotely to microphones arranged at sides of theatre stage for obtaining stereophonic effects, allowed live listening to spectacles and musical performances by two telephonic cornets. People alternated themselves in a four-minute listening, and in some evenings attendance reached 4,000 persons. Contemporary magazine, “Revue Bleue”, wrote about “théâtrophone”:
Regarding to impression due to marvellous phenomenon of a remote musical audition, it has something of dreaming and triggering shivers. Sound assumes an idealistic, mystical nature, as it came from another world (quoted in Costa 1999, p. 224).
The pleasure telephone, as Asa Briggs (1977) defined it, or the circular telephone proved how early telephone device was a multiform medium available to accept messages packaged following different structures and “philosophies”, a still “plastic” device opened to social imaginary (Flichy 1995).
The availability to be an “open” tool in terms of content has its own validity also in terms of transmission (one-to-one/one-to-many) and, in that peculiar period, that is true even for other media (Prario, Balbi 2007). If telephone and radio find their specialization respectively in personal and broadcasting communication, “for the 1880-1920 period audio-visual communication mediated by technology was a magmatic but fundamentally unit area: radio was point-to-point and broadcasting, the telephone too […], and also telephoto. It could be supposed the same for television.” (Ortoleva 1998, p.160).
Personal media and telephone
The iPhone is a clear heir of personal communication devices and, in this sense, it finds in two diverse kinds of technical developments. First of all, remaining in Apple’s home, that of entertainment, namely iPod, the lucky portable device used to playback audio-visual files, generally digital materials in specific formats downloaded from archives of own pc and/or internet.
The iPod and generally all mp3-players – that take the name from this particular compress format shrinking digital music in files easily transportable on telecommunication channels and recordable on the miniaturized memories of these portable devices, filiations of Sony’s pioneer walkman (years ‘80) – are apparatuses implemented to allow a fruition of contents that fits personal taste in a fully flexible way because users organize their own palimpsest with files personally selected, bought or exchanged through public and private networks (peer-to-peer, like-iTunes stores, etc.).
Normally, downloading operations need an intermediary link to a pc connected to internet. In conclusion, iPod is a device typically “detachable” but available to establish random and sure connections for updating its own audio-visual materials.
The other more complex technical course is that of telephony. Cell phone, as we know, is the encounter between telephone and wireless technology. Its success, started since the early 90s, related undoubtedly to a greater accentuation of personal communication, consenting vocal contact in mobility by a very small terminal.
Mobile communication cannot only relay on the identitarian evidence of voice but also on a ready and certain individuation/association of cell phone with a specific user-body. Even in this case it has been recovered the early meaning of wireless. Wireless telegraph, the name of early radio, was initially thought just as one-to-one device. In 1902, in the midst of radio technology developments, engineer William Ayrton offered an extremely personal vision of radio apparatus. In his conception everybody could have their personal wireless transmit and receive station:
If a person wanted to call a friend he knew not where, he would call in a loud, electro-magnetic voice, heard by him who had the electro-magnetic ear, silent to him who had it not. “Where are you?” he would say. A small reply would come, “I am at the bottom of a coal mine, or crossing the Andes, or in the middle of the Pacific.” Let them think of what that meant, of the calling which went on every day from room to room of a house, and then think of that calling extending from pole to pole; not a noisy babble, but a call audible to him who wanted to hear and absolutely silent to him who did not (Czitrom 1982, p. 67).
Indeed, that did not remain a pure fantasy because in the early XX century amateur wireless operators entered in the wireless scene following Ayrton’s ideas. “All over the nation thousands of amateurs, many of them schoolboys, constructed wireless receivers and transmitters, mastered telegraphic codes, and claimed the ether for themselves… By 1917 over 8,500 amateurs operated transmitting stations, and between two and three hundred thousand had receiving sets.
A burgeoning cottage industry of electrical suppliers and wireless publications sprang up to cater to the amateurs’ needs” (ibid.). Many constraints – technical, social, cultural, historical and economical ones – prepared radio technology configurations as we have known them.
In conclusion, iPhone blends the “general purpose” personal media of entertainment – asynchronous but opened, more o less indirectly, to network connections – and the always-on synchronous mobile phone opening up itself to multimediality, becoming an hyper-media device linked to internet services.
Convergence and business model
Since 1920 services that have economically sustained tlc/media sectors are fundamentally two. In telecommunication field it is personal communication, with telephone service, to generate 80-90 % of revenues while the other main service for classic broadcasting media (radio, tv) and press is advertising – that is true even for web.
In the early 90s diffusion of personal information resources, a new geopolitical balance, the crisis of industrial model and the need of wider markets have brought in evidence ICT technologies as critical factors to improve productivity and the very processes of production and consumption, opening at the same time the world toward new social and cultural interactions.
The new economy age, that fueled an exponential rising of internet activities between mid-90s and 2000s, was a watershed in media world introducing connection modalities among different information and communication platforms based on digital techniques, opening the road to original intersections and distributions of different languages and forms of communication.
The great success of internet has been an irresistible attraction for mobile communication – a medium that was proposing itself as a whole ICT personal platform couldn’t renounce to interface a so innovative sphere of economical, social and cultural activities. But it was a dangerous attraction in economical terms because – as final troubled phases of that period proved – new information, communication and consumption habits establish themselves slowly depending on complex social and cultural processes, making gloomy the horizon of revenues in a industry that must however invest heavily to implement network technologies.
Moreover, if the value proposition of mobile communication was fundamentally tied to vocal contact, not all players could exploit it in the same way. Incumbents managed better the passage from 2nd to 3rd mobile generation while new comers had to invest starting from scratch, trying to pull away customers with appealing bids for voice services, depressing their revenue margins.
It happened in early months of 2001: expenses to buy wireless frequencies and implement the network to carry on multimedia communications were big but data services didn’t compensate – given the slow penetration/diffusion/standardization and difficulty to define suitable business model – the relative investments, provoking finally the “sboom” of new economy.
Effectively, even now, after seven years from then, the viable business model of tlc/media sectors are based predominantly on voice service and advertising (press, radio, tv, internet).
From this point of view iPhone’s case is exemplary and, at same time, original. One of the most debated point, particularly for European market, is the form of his commercial bid: iPhone is acquirable only combined with one specific network operator with which customer must stipulate a two-year contract. The agreement between network operator and Apple – that wants to maximize its momentary success – fixes even a revenue sharing (percentage depends on the specific national market) on voice traffic generated from customer, and this happens for the first time in the history of telephony.
This kind of rigid delimitation – that tries to guarantee both network operator, that hopes to attract Apple fans, and the producer of iPhone, that compensates with service revenues declining selling caused by the lunch of similar products – is one of the reasons, with the lack of service portability and the limited production of devices, that is delaying iPhone’s worldwide marketing, particularly in a country as Italy where (de)regulation and wireless network developments are highly advanced.
Of course, building a close network ecosystem is a real contradiction so that it is already possible to buy iPhones “un-blocked” by some hackering techniques making devices ready to work with other sim-cards everywhere there is a suitable network – network operators and Apple are reacting in many ways: end of warranty, tracking selling and even offering iPhones without subscribing operator contract but doubling its price.
Finally, contract terms show as time is a critical factor for marketing explaining also the other debatable aspects of operation. The iPhone is in fact a video cell phone that does not use a full 3rd generation standard (utilizing GSM/EDGE network, namely 2.5). To exploit speedily its intuitions meeting as many markets as possible, Apple did not has hesitate to offer a still not-UMTS device that has limited features in terms of network performance.
Convergence and its actors
The iPhone crystallizes in its name the intersection between internet and mobile phone, explaining dynamicity and richness of service range and actors capable to enter in this peculiar context. Although the recent dispute between Apple and Cisco, iPhone term was, curiously, the name of the first internet telephony project leaded by Jeff Pulver in 1995 (Petullà 2002, p. 114).
Finally, Apple has clamorously landed into telecommunication sector – even if in a scheming partnership with tlc operators.
Undoubtedly, its peculiar force is in the field of computering and personal devices; more precisely, in their functional design in terms of hardware/software interface.
As we all know, smart-phone arena is full of important players and it’s easy forecasting that iPhone’s success is not for ever with competitors as Nokia, Motorola, Samsung, LG, HTC, Microsoft and, last but not least, Google, all already lunched to bid or develop similar devices.
Normally, mobile sector was dominated primarily by network operators, that implement and manage services helped by telecommunication manufacturing companies for hardware/software solutions and devices, including mobile terminals. Recently, other players with competences and products coming from different but convergent sectors (for example, tv) are adding.
The arena is rapidly widening beyond historical subjects, attracting in mobile sector even innovative ICT players that hope to insert themselves successfully in the area of add-value services and/or the rich world of advertising – one-to-one or one-to-many communication remains the final target, a closer one at the light of social network explosion.
In a such competition contrasts are inevitable while it is the logic of conflict to establish temporary balances. Network operators, with their strong role as system and service administrator, have always subordinated other participation, often imposing marketing policy that, in the name of “service”, relegated them up to “invisibility”; it’s easy seeing cell phones branded only with the name of network operators.
Yet, making a cellular terminal increasingly complex and updated becomes a hard, challenging task. Besides, a device becoming so personal to live attaching to our body follows the same dynamics that fashion has in human society, suffering selective choices on the base of user taste and lifestyle.
The iPhone in fact begins a new product standard, feature phone, a phone of transition, functionally focusing on those features that at the moment are considerated basic. On the contrary of a hyper-functional but complex smart-phone it remains incomplete, a beta-phone always ready to include future features.
The iPhone device
“Time” magazine has defined iPhone invention of the year. One of the reasons is the shift of contractual force between telephone operators and telecommunication manufacturing companies; after the peculiar agreement with Apple, network operators will have many problems to refuse the same kind of freedom to other players, consequently the sector will benefit of bigger innovation.
Other reason is the ease with which users can finally utilize cyberspace services, synchronizing them with their real time-space needs during normal life – for example, Google maps to find/understand the places of our moves.
Now we can sum up some iPhone’s features, often already inserted in other smart-phone.
From wikypedia: The iPhone is a multimedia and internet-enabled quad-band GSM EDGE-supported mobile phone. Designed user input is accomplished via a multi-touch screen with virtual keyboard and buttons. The iPhone’s functions include those of a camera phone and a portable media player (“iPod”), in addition to text messaging and visual voicemail. It also offers Internet services including e-mail, web browsing, and local Wi-Fi connectivity.
There are several applications located on the “Home” screen: Text (SMS messaging), Calendar, Photos, Camera, YouTube, Stocks, Maps (Google Maps), Weather, Clock, Calculator, Notes, Settings, and iTunes. The YouTube application streams videos over Wi-Fi and/or EDGE after encoding them using QuickTime’s H.264 codec, to which YouTube has converted about 10,000 videos. They are expected to convert the entire catalog by the third quarter of 2007.
The iPhone contains an optimized version of the Mac OS X operating system (without unnecessary components).The iPhone’s version of OS X includes the software component “Core Animation” from Mac OS X v10.5 which is responsible for the smooth animations used in its user interface.
Generally, we can find these features – not the peculiar touch-screen interface, even if it is an old technology – into other commercial smart-phone.
However, iPhone technology has selected and arranged all them in a unique system that, even though jealously focused on Apple’s world, presents itself opened to next evolution, that Apple wants to lead personally, safeguarding its hardware/software environment but requiring the active help of users. Of course, other initiatives are tackling Apple’s position; Google, for example, is leading an alliance among operators, telecommunication industries, software houses, etc., to develop mobile operation system and interface based on open source software, an open platform (named Android) on which everybody would be able to implement and insert own services.
However, hw-sw interface seems the main feature of iPhone – effectively, the phone hides itself completely behind a video screen – and almost all the functions are activated by images managed by touches of fingers.
From wikypedia: interface has one button for the home-page of phone and another small button at top-right for switching between standby position and online mode. Other functions can be activated only using an innovative touch-screen that takes frontal side of phone. Fingers can work together implemented the so called “gestures”, namely combinations of movements – many people remembered futuristic computer interface of movie Minority Report. Gestures are used, for example, to zoom on photos or web pages simply touching the screen with two fingers, stretching/nearing them (zoom in/out) or scrolling pages or lists, sliding and rising finger speedily.
The iPhone itself has an own sensitivity. It has sensors of proximity to turn off display when we take it near our ear, saving energy and eliminating unintentional touches; a sensor to align image, horizontally o vertically, combining with the same orientation of phone; and a sensor to adapt automatically display luminosity with the light of environment.
Undoubtedly, understanding iPhone’s success means to ponder the relationship between human beings and technical objects because aesthetic appeal is here the engine of its extraordinary performance. The old iPods have just learned the lesson, forced to change literally skin in the wake of iPhone aesthetics.
Aesthetics of iPhone
In the auroral stage of a new technology we have much to learn from user reactions and comments of ordinary people. The title given by English journalist Anna Lagerkvist to an article evaluating a possible purchase of iPhone is very clear: UK iPhone: head says ‘no’, heart says ‘yes’ (2007). But it’s easy to find more explicit considerations.
Apple has a gift: producing beautiful things. The Mac, iPod and now iPhone are, first of all, objects of design. Inside, they have more or less the same components of some other digital devices. But iPhone is more then an electronic product: it is a sensorial experience (La Nacion 2007).
“Time” magazine, ready to evidence new popular trends, defining iPhone invention of year evidences its prettiness, the set of small features that make it “usable in a world of useless gadgets” , a device that “speaks your language”. In the world of technology “surface really is depth”. Then, another reason is its “touchy-feely”.
Apple didn’t invent the touchscreen….. But Apple knew what to do with it. Apple’s engineers used the touchscreen to innovate past the graphical user interface (which Apple helped pioneer with the Macintosh in the 1980s) to create a whole new kind of interface, a tactile one that gives users the illusion of actually physically manipulating data with their hands–flipping through album covers, clicking links, stretching and shrinking photographs with their fingers. This is, as engineers say, nontrivial. It’s part of a new way of relating to computers….. Touching is the new seeing (Time 2007).
Historically, aesthetics was engaged to understand the relationship between the separate worlds of human beings, with their specific sensibility, and that of things external to them, above all those appositely built (artistic works) for provoking a reaction and/or establishing a relation that gave a whole meaning of their life context. Now, as happened for architecture and design, this competence serves increasingly of new communication technologies, specifically of synesthetic play stimulated from interfaces.
Throughput mobile communication we have experimented new ways to live technology con-substantially with our common life, and its mobile devices are available for many experimentations, thanks to durable success of vocal contact, for maintaining us always connected to the services of Net. Finally, it is realizing the ancient dream of telecommunication companies, that of managing and spreading the timeless, boundaryless flow of information with, and inside which, a more increasingly part of human (and no-human) activities are developing.
The scenery in which multimedia mobile communication is developing is now peopling of real persons that live in a society more and more informationalized, and that is the stage always longing but never met from the previous generation of video communication (Borrelli, Petullà 2007).
On the other hand, studying creation and features of an early medium can reveal aspects of contemporary mentality that have been lost: according to constructivist paradigm, it is important analysing success and, at same time, failures of technologies given that every medium, above all those disappeared, can reveal either a realized or unrealised idea of a certain society and culture (Prario, Balbi 2007).
As illustrated by different technological innovations, above all in our case from video telephone (see At&t’s picturephone story), technology by itself does not determine a success of a product. Instead, it depends on the level of user acceptance, sometimes even on its “domestication” . In fact, the challenge – and the primary function of a good marketing – is to establish a circularity between technology production and the desire or necessity of its consume.
Dealing with aesthetic side of technology means moving toward user view, focusing on social usages of media, not only those of concrete practices but also of the meanings attributed to them from users and of individual and social representations behind them (ibid.).
In the history of media imaginary dimension has a more relevant role when media are inserted in a competitive market where success depends inevitably on the capacity to hook up the product with a certain goodwill.
The announcement of new technologies starts an automatic negotiation between the scientific and functional reason of their advent and expectations of people regarding to their practical and situational usage, nearer to their interest, to their dwelling (inter-being). Expectations of future that come instinctively from the bottom of ordinary life but even, at the same time, from the top of promotional strategy and, to say, of the “warming” of that medium in order to obtain the consensus of which its affirmation and diffusion need (Abruzzese, Mancini 2007, p. 40).
As we’ll see, aesthetical experience is one of possibilities that we have to grab the more complex play in which we are inserted, and such recognition is part of the felt pleasure. One of its deep effects, Elaine Scarry says, is provoking our “radical decentralization”, the “depotentiation of self, objectivity and realism” opening us to ability of enjoying fairer relationships with others (1999, p. 106-107).
It seems to us that this observation captures very well the potentialities that are implied into aesthetical phenomenon, expecially if we want to reason on our condition of a more increasingly absorption/dissolution in the space-time flows of networks.
In this moment we could be tempted to frame the kind of iPhone users – according to an essay made by Forrester (2004) to classify cell phone users into three main categories (fans, pursuers, fugitives) on the base of Roger’s theory of diffusion – into the first category of early adopters. The fans, generally 16% of users, are ready to use cutting-edge technology. The pursuers (42% of users) love technology that is practical, and using it only when mature, while fugitives, appreciating its ease of usage, take it only if necessary (Prario, Balbi, 2007).
Yet, it seems to us that iPhone’s appealing – that rises chiefly from the peculiar interfacing to data world, a fashion that is spreading on other similar devices – has to be considered in terms of relationship among people, media/technology and society, and aesthetic key is very interesting to grasp its dynamics.
For, as often it has rightly been noted, “we have also to propose the circularity of relationship between means and subjectivity/society: technology makes possible subjectivity and society mutations because these have made possible that one of technology, its usage. Its function” (Tursi 2007, p. 84). And, in this historical period, society “networkingness” is the thing that “marks our body, that outlines our form of life. We are dealing with the modalities in which we succeed to express it, to express ourselves, on how we succeed to feel ourselves in our network society” (ibid., p. 16).
Aesthetics as experience
Recently, two scholars interested to technology, John McCarthy and Peter Wright (2005), recovering John Dewey’s Art as experience (1934), have tried to reason on aesthetic experience as paradigm of the whole technological experience, the chief key to understand its richness maintaining together sensual, emotional plan and intellectual/functional aspects, even at the light of its power to make fully sense to our action.
Therefore, we have to link together felt experiences and the logic of practice to understand worries, enthusiasm and ambivalence of our action participation, putting them in contiguity with ordinary experience, breaking the separation between means and ends, trying to grab our engagement in terms of intellectual and emotional quality.
In this analysis the conception of the experience of pragmatism is seen as useful in its capacity to understand personal experience like an active self that is not only engaged but even active maker of its action spaces. This is a more inclusive vision than that of knowledge because tries to encapsulate a fully relation of people – sensitive, emotional and intellectual – with own physical and social environment, attempting to understand what people do in the world and what the world does to them.
In the wake of anthropologist Victor Turner – “meaning arises when we try to put what culture and language have crystallized from the past, together with what we feel, wish and think about our present point of life” (quoted in ibid., p. 49) – their suggestion is to go beyond cognitivism for describing relationship of people with technology in terms of felt life, made of fears, hopes, imagination, revolt and consolation.
Specifically, we can find a new kind of quality in the relationship between us and computering devices, well defined, for example, in the pionieristic work of Brenda Laurel (1991) – she defined it in terms of “theatrisation”. Computers engage us, demanding our activities in first person and, as in a theatre, invite us to represent action and situation extending our mind, sensations and feelings.
Or, explaining it with Sherry Turkle’s work (1995), who sees in this technological relationship a sort of evolution of three distinctive subcultures (hacker, hobbyist, user), with the first two ones characterized according to modernist technological aesthetics of reductionism and control, offering the possibility to exercise their own virtuosity. Hobbyists have the pleasure of control, of dominating pc but also of speaking to it as a friend, and in this case Apple’s interfaces with icons and windows have been fundamental. Here the process is led by negotiation and not by analytic action. It is an aesthetics of simulation, of playing, a surface of manipulation that wants to ignore underling mechanisms.
McCarthy and Wright, recalling Dewey, speak significantly of “rhythmic dance of aesthetic experience”. Aesthetic experience puts in evidence the rhythm of life, the tension and release of engagement, the feelings of vulnerability when we face needs and desires. The rhythmic flow of life is the base for our experiences of meaning and development of world. The rhythmic dance of resistance and release impregnates the self and world with felt, emotional and expressive meanings. The sensual thread of experience implicates therefore our sensibility toward situation; it is the pre-reflexive and immediate sense of material world having the quality to mediate immediately.
Emotions are a kind of particular experiences. They belong to us engaged in a situation and worried about the move of events toward a result that can be desiderated or disliked. They don’t exist separated from people, situation or feeling of person toward the context – emotions are in fact acknowledgments of needs/desires and of lack of self-sufficiency (Nussbaum 2001).
iPhone and the aesthetisation of information tool
Recently, Lev Manovich (2007), famous researcher of new media languages, has just talked about aesthetics of mobile phones, framing them in the phenomenon of “aesthetisation of information tools” started in the mid of 1990s.
Since then only few people utilized such tools, mainly in the working place establishing a clear separation between this environment and the sphere of “external” activities. But now they are widespread, widening also the range of multimedia communication, and, inside information society, the boundaries of their usage in the different spheres of life – work, entertainment, culture, social life, etc. – are nearly vanished. We often utilize the same machines, the same hw-sw interfaces and even the same applications to cover all the needs. Consequently, aesthetics faces the change responding to it.
The associations with work and office culture and the emphasis on efficiency and functionality came to be replaced by new references and criteria. They include being friendly, playful, pleasurable, expressive, fashionable, signifying cultural identity, aesthetically pleasing, and designed for emotional satisfaction. Accordingly, the modernist design formula “form follows function” came to be replaced by new formulas such as “form follows emotion.” (ibid.)
This process is always in progress. Since the last decade user interfaces followed the rule of invisibility and their success depended on their ability to be transparent, offering a sort of homogeneity for practices and natures felt as separated. But the rise of informational sphere and its continuity and intimacy with our lives put the very interface at the centre of our actions. Regardless of whether the designers realize this consciously or not, Manovich says, today “user interaction reflects this new reality”.
The designers no longer try to hide the interfaces. Instead, the interaction is treated as an event – as opposed to “non-event”, as in the previous “invisible interface” paradigm. Put differently, using personal information devices is now conceived as a carefully orchestrated experience, rather than only a means to an end. The interaction explicitly calls attention to itself. The interface engages the user in a kind of game. The user is asked to devote significant emotional, perceptual and cognitive resources to the very act of operating the device (ibid.).
Manovich indicates just the work made by Apple at the level of software interface, a deeper passage to elaborate aesthetics that appeals/provokes explicitly senses rather than only cognitive processes (OS 9, OS X). With iPhone, we could add, the whole telephone has become an interface. At the same time, even Manovich recalls the concept of theatrisation and of interaction as experience elaborated from Laurel, stretching the meaning of aesthetisation of information products in the wider trend of “experience economy”.
Like any other interaction, interaction with information devices became a designed experience. In fact, we can say that the three stages in the development of user interfaces of computers – command-line interfaces, classical GUI of 1970s-1990s, and the new sensual and entertaining interfaces of post OS X era can be correlated to the three stages of consumer economy as a whole: goods, services, and experiences. Command-line interfaces “deliver the goods”, that is, they focus on pure functionality and utility. GUI adds “service” to interfaces. And at next stage, interfaces become “experiences” (ibid.).
In this last decade mobile phone followed this direction becoming an object that discloses increasingly a dramatic and scenic potentiality, more and more powerful and polysensorial (colours, sounds, vibrations, forms, etc.). This focus on interaction with medium could be even seen as a need to physically recompense the rising trend of living in the immaterial space of network society or as a phantasmagorical underlining of its regained immanence offered by interaction with all life experiences.
But, perhaps, even a way to recall us for reflecting, helped from a fuller sensibility, on the next stage of this passage, toward the next phase, defined by Manovich “aesthetisation of dissapperance”, when computer technologies will be completely integrated in other objects, surfaces, spaces or bodies dissolved in the artefacts of our material existence.
iPhone and the aesthetics of network society
According to Manovich iPhone designers faced successfully the problem to implement ICT personal device actualising the metaphor of “an emptiness but a safe contained, a flexible shell”. He takes the phrase from Supermodernism: Architecture in the Age of Globalization (1998) in which Dutch architect Hans Ibelings, explaining idea behind the conception of new architectural spaces, uses just the English word “shell” to indicate a small and protect space. I can’t resist to evidence that the word “pod” has an equivalent meaning, and seems being the origin of iPod name.
The all words contained in this conflicting phrase recall – for us, inevitably – some characteristics that are marking contradictorily the society we live: mobility, liquidity, flexibility, globality and control desire. New technologies are inserted therefore into that typically human territory – the medium in which we live (Connor 2000) – that is the play of mediation, of our continuity/circularity with external world, a space in which technique has always had a primary role.
In fact, as Mario Costa says, aesthetical interests for media – that tries to overcome the single intellectual-functional plane to catch sensual and emotional relationship with things – is the result of a long research that, above all with artistic avant-gardes, has interrogated, in the modern period, the relationship between art and science at the light of their specific weakening before of acknowledgment that technique is their common groundwork.
Art has always been a sort of aesthetisation of new technologies, and science has tried to remove its origin through the theorization and pure knowledge. On the contrary, we are in
a situation in which humanity recognizes its own origins and ancient essence: the capacity of a technical no-instinctive construction as its specific feature in the scale of human beings, and the double and simultaneous use of technique for the production of material life and satisfaction of an indefinable but native aesthetic need (Costa 1999).
Apple, but even Nokia and the other players of this specific industry, is proposing itself in the typical role of artistic avant-gardes; before of digital images and networks, but generally of techno-science – that affect directly imaginary, forms of culture and the ways of human existence – it is experimenting and preparing a fitter emotive and epistemic “equipment”.
Avant-garde task consists in fact of researching of answers facing adequately the new condition: “from a side, it deals with objective logic of new means, for evidencing aesthetic possibilities to which it permit to access and, on the other side, it deals more generally with the foreshadowing of adaptive models suitable and functional for the changed anthropological conditions …. Splitted from ‘truth’, ‘transcendence’, ‘beauty’ … art has indeed modified its own essence becoming place of preventive domestication of possible existences” (ibid.).
Then, reflection concerns the terms of mediation with the new environment or, if we want to be more precise, with our “virtual excess” as beings with “a body gifted of prosthesis, alive synthesis of organic and inorganic, and computer memory” (Diodato 2005), a virtual body in which it is more evident and effective, thanks to “digital” practices, makingness of our experience of world (Bazzichelli 2006). Digital practices put themselves in an edge zone between sensibility and intellectuality, in which reorganization of our cognitive and perceptive faculties, and even of sociocultural canons, happens.
Therefore, digital practices of electronic and network age become a very social meta-comment that can somehow capture the meaning of new aesthetical-anthropological changes rising in environments that bring new psychological sensibilities (ibid).
The wireless embodied technologies, the rising pervasivity and ibridation among people, activities and smart objects make more central personal experiences and intimate feedback relationships of this reticular world in never-ending redefinition. From a society centred on sight as enchantment to put attention on goods to a society of bodies in which there is a fusion with the objects through tactile and sensual aspects. Senses and objects don’t combat each other anymore – that is the meaning of the “sex appeal of inorganic” (Perniola 1994).
Communication as flesh, culture that becomes body, body that makes itself a thing that feels, installations that pervade us with contact, a virtuality always available thanks its artificiality (Bazzichelli 2006).
In this context “theatrisation” of iPhone interface, the solicitation of different senses, the synaesthetical trespass requiring to our body – that seemed only typical of virtual reality worlds – demonstrates we are appropriating of avant-garde experience.
Aesthetical dimension opens up to a more general and complex meaning, to an artificial body that becomes challenge and desire, a territory of reflection on boundaries, of human self-perception and of environmental perception (ibid.), a body that frees itself from the pure regime of “visual”, dismantling “a representative surface that can subsist only thanks to oblivion and disavowal of practices and happenings” (Costa 1999, p. 247).
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