After last week’s discussion about the differences between turning away in books and looking on while reading online, I’d like to talk about interface a little more, and specifically about the interface of my phone. Now, while I don’t want to get too technical about updates and simply end up glorifying some products over others, I will say that I chose a Samsung Galaxy S4 because I was under the impression that I was going to be getting a user interface that was designed by Google and Samsung in partnership. Something about partnership made me feel more comfortable with the product as opposed to the apple monolith, the Iphone (also because the Samsung was cheaper).
However, since taking this class on the materiality of the digital text, I also started to view my phone as something that was modifiable rather than as a static medium. In fact, Android phones are celebrated for their customization as well as their openness of their product. This leads me to my point about user interfaces in the age of the android phone. Whereas Apple has established the GUI from the beginning, Androids can be lifehacked. Something like a cross between lifestyle and or DIY, lifehacking – which is a website as well as a verb – appears to be a kind of dialogical relationality between subject and object, user and interface that promotes play, tweaking, and messing around with code. It also takes the investment of time and effort, something that most people would not associate with smartphones. Smart implies an intuitive relationship that already understands what you need. But the difference between Android and Apple seems to be that the latter presents you with a lifestyle that appears tailor-made, ready out of the box, and thus seamless and united; Android, on the other hand, allows for an openness and a labour that reproduces the labour of handwriting, that it takes time to master but it is itself an important part of forming complex and interesting relationships between yourself and the text. As Piper states,
But in focusing solely on the outcome of commonplacing, we overlook the value of the labor of commonplacing, all that time spent copying other people’s words with our hands. (There is a humorous moment in [Steven] Johnson’s piece when he suggests that digital texts appear “broken” if they cannot be copied. It never seems to occur to him that he could copy out the words on the screen by hand.) The point of commonplacing is not just combination, but repetition and, by extension, internalization. In copying the words of another writer word for word, early modern readers were learning how to internalize those words so that they could use them later on, in new ways and in new settings.
Piper’s point about the emergence of writing and copying can be applied to the problems of the aesthetics o GUI as well. While I may be typing on an Apple MacBook Air at the moment, I am fully aware and am now more determined to move away from Apple’s model of commonplacing the “user-friendly” interface. This flattens out while it also establishes for itself a consumer that belongs to a lifestyle and class of people that can afford to enter into the Apple family. Smartphones currently are products of privilege, while I think that an increase in lifehacking may bring about the rise of perhaps more affordable or perhaps even more hackable products. This is to say that User Interface may in fact be dictating to you more than you
This all comes up because I have recently updated my Galaxy S4 to the newest OS, Kitkat 4.4.2. Now, I didn’t necessarily like the update, because the aesthetics of the former clash with the latter. The new Kitkat features a transparent bar at the top of the screen that reinforces the kind of virtuality and suspended quality of what is in front of you, reminding you that can swipe at any moment into a lush and colorful portrait where you can manipulate information as if it were air.
And, for some reason, the update really just stops there. Samsung’s version of Kitkat only breaks off a piece of the bar, leaving you with the desire for more than the outdated navy blue navigation menu from the days of the now-stale gingerbread.
While the points may seem to ramble on in this post, I would like to sum up for you what they all have in common: the update. Not only must we update our technology every so often, but so must we continuously update its software and interface. The update contains within it the potential of a renewed aesthetics that is absolutely tied up in the discourse of every discrete product (Samsung, HTC, Nexus, Apple, etc.). On the same note, the incompleteness of the update also opened up for me – and, therefore, possibly for others – the realization that I can update the phone myself, that I can essentially take part in the lifehack of my interface and at least have a choice in how in the mediation between myself and my phone. What we do not realize is that there is a labour and an internalization of that labour that goes on every time we lifehack our phones. This differs from the purchase of new apps, which are themselves a microcosmic product of the macrocosm of the smartphone operating system: both need updating, and both need a user. Without these two, smartphones would then become merely black mirrors. Smartphones are only as smart as the intelligence with which we imbue them. The update, then, is a site upon which the user can capitalize on its relationship to the machine, just as long as they realize that the update can come from somewhere beside the developer.