The New North (3)

Image: poster Paris 68 (anonymous)

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4.1 Artificial design
In 1726, Jonathan Swift published Travels into several remote nations of the world. On the island of Lagado, the former surgeon A. Lemuel Gulliver is demonstrated the working of a ‘writing machine’:

It was Twenty Foot square, placed in the Middle of the Room. The Superficies was composed of several Bits of Wood, about the Bigness of a Dye, but some larger than others. They were all linked together by slender Wires. These Bits of Wood were covered on every Square with Paper pasted on them; and on these Papers were written all the Words of their language in their Order.” Because assistants are turning forty bars, the wood cubes hapahazardly form word combinations which are assessed according to their meanings. Ultimately, the sentences created will form ‘a compleat Body of all Arts and Sciences’.

Swift’s satire is directed at the idea that creativity is governed by coincidence and that machines can be creative.

The Lagado writing machine is a remarkable prototype of a database publishing system. Linguistically speaking, there is a depth structure of words (the database) that is accidentally transformed into a surface structure of sentences. The structure of the language having been simplified, the result becomes quasi profound and pseudo creative.

In a graphic sense, the machine makes use of a grid. Words have been organised in such a manner that, on a grid, they can be varyingly combined into sentences. Such a systematic unlinking of form and content leads to flexibility, effciency, and the prevention of technical solutions for the layout problems of newspapers and encyclopaedias.

Grid and pattern aided design is a subsection within programmatic design. In Programme entwerfen (1968), the designer Karl Gerstner presents examples of a programme as a grid, as photography, as a computer graph, as movement, literature, music, architecture, as a production process, method, and as a design for the future. Karl Gerstner wrote:

Programmatic design stands for a generally accepted design principle. It doesn’t only apply to typography (undoubtedly predestined for it), or – in a wider sense – to the reach of geometry. It applies unrestrictedly to the range of the visible. Unrestricted, because all elements are periodically programmable, i.e. according to wish. There is no dimension, proportion, shape, or colour, that can’t continually be transposed into another element. All elements occur in series, or rather: in groups.

The Dutch tradition of programmatic design runs from Paul Schuitema, Otto Treumann, Wim Crouwel, Jurriaan Schrofer, Karel Martens to Hans Kruit, Petr van Blokland and the artist Peter Struycken, who wrote:

When I interpret my work as the creation of structures I wish to indicate that I start with the choice of a number of rules, applied to shapes and colours. They determine the place of visual elements in a plane or in a space and their change in time. The rules are logically formulated in the form of a computer programme, meaning: free of judgment, unambiguous, and without inherent contradiction.

The programmer Kees Thijs, who cooperated with Peter Struycken, added:

It will be obvious that a great many artistic expressions will not lend themselves to this kind of approach. There will have to be an underlying structure, with predetermined, possibly dynamically to be influenced interrelations.

The relationship between computer programmes and languages is being studied within computer linguistics. Remko van Scha, a specialist in this field, answered the post modernists: ‘Those who really believe that the palmy days of expressive art are over, can’t object to passing art on to science.’ According to him, the application of architectural styles by means of computer programmes can lead to a ‘mathematical random architecture’:

To this day, automatic design programmes work within frameworks that, in a formal sense, are limited and conventional. But that limitation can be abandoned. We can work on programmes which, like current design software, take their functional decisions as wisely as possible, through systematic argumentation based on explicit specifications. But which also incorporate the principles of generalistic random art and take their stylistic decisions as randomly as possible. They operate in terms of a stylistic diagram which they have first generated by randomly selecting from the entity of all stylistic options; and, subsequently, they have that stylistic diagram dictate all formal decisions inasfar as these do not result from functional requirements. The integration of automatic architectural design and random art algorithms: artificial architecture.

The composer and musicologist David Cope developed an artificial composing method. The creativity of a composer consists of the repeated arrangement of the same material, according to David Cope. To support his opinion, he wrote the programme EMI (Experiments in Musical Intelligence) which analyses the structure of music and generates new compositions. First, the computer dissects a number of compositions of one composer into sections of a number of measures whose function in the musical structure is noted down. Next, he joins the sections with the help of a ‘random choice-generator’ into Mahler’s eleventh or Mozart’s 42nd.

APALO (Automatic PAge LayOut and typographic decisions) presents a more commonplace application of software and linguistics. This programme was developed for the automatic layout of Web and magazine pages. A team consisting of computer scientists, linguists, and designers revealed part of the graphic design grammar, and the result is that APALO can take independent layout decisions as regards ‘content’; for instance: type size and the spatial organisation of a page.

In Jakobson’s diagram the question ‘Can a computer design?’ centres specifically on the poetic function. Douglas Hofstadter, a specialist in cognitive science, said about the translation of poetry:

I would find the idea hard to stomach that one could incorporate an extremely mysterious, purely human characteristic in its full complexity into a superficial computer programme. For the translation of poetry we can’t do without a mental model of the world around us, and as long as computers don’t have such a model at their disposal, each translation programme will continue to deliver pathetic performances.

The poet Robert Lowell stated that in poetry the message can’t be separated from the code. That’s why – in a translation – the preservation of the poetic function is more important than the reconstruction of the form:

Strict metrical translators still exist. They seem to live in a pure world untouched by modern poetry. Their difficulties are bold and honest, but they are taxidermists, not poets, and their poems are likely to be stuffed birds.

Nico Frijda drew attention to the general abhorrence at the idea that man is a kind of machine and that computers can develop human skills:

This resistance still exists, despite the fact that today’s machine is totally different from yesterday’s. It’s about data processing now, not about toothed wheels or hydrostatic pressure. (…) I believe that computers don’t really think. However, one has to admit that the differentiation between real and not real, between the data processing of a computer and a human’s thinking, has become wafer-thin. Even flimsier than between a Rembrandt and those Rembrandts that have recently been recognized as fake Rembrandts.

4.2 Decentralisation
In 1964, Marshall McLuhan wrote that automation – as opposed to mechanisation – leads to decentralisation and integration:

The restructuring of human work and association was shaped by the technique of fragmentation that is the essence of machine technology. The essence of automation technology is the opposite. It is integral and decentralist in depth, just as the machine was fragmentary, centralist, and superficial in its patterning of human relationships.

In 1973, Wim Crouwel said:

The days are nearly over for a design that leads to permanent changelessness (…) Each individual may claim a greater influence on decisions as regards design. The handling and the production of objects must be critically watched, also when the producing is done by architects, designers, constructors, and designers, who are the so-called qualified creators and originators of those objects.

Wim Crouwel had a new role in mind for the designer as a ‘design planner’, but for a long time his ideas were impracticable.

By now, digital media and networks have permanently disrupted the balance of power in the ‘information chain’. All over, hierarchies are replaced by heterarchies, and bureaucratic procedures by self-organising principles. The Turkish bazaar, biological systems, and the stock market are the new metaphors. A corporate identity is no longer a closed, graphic hierarchy with a manager at the top, but an open network in which all those involved are urged to contribute. Marketing communication no longer preaches from the pulpit, because – in the prophetic words of Marshall McLuhan – ‘Propaganda ends where dialogue begins’. Also the designer is tumbling from his pedestal. John Habraken wrote:

The myth of the ‘master designer’ who decides everything mistakes legitimate authority – based on experience and expertise – for a disastrous desire to control the design process.

William Butler O’Connor, a producer of digital media, has observed a change from a culture focusing on experience into one focusing on expression. He described a process in which individuals break away from the producers of the professional culture to look for the interactivity of experience and expression. The receiver becomes a ‘prosumer’ who consumes and produces information in a continuous process of interaction. Derrick DeKerkhove stated:

For me interactivity only becomes interesting when it becomes fluid and continuous, not when it’s step-wise. The real meaning of interactivity is: you have a relationship with that environment. (…) Today we don’t want our machines to obey us, we want them to respond, which is part of the inversion man/ machine. This response is a new mirror, one which we need more than others. It’s the mirror of our feelings; the mirror of our inside.

As a reaction to the decentralisation of the design practice, Derrick De Kerckhove suggested the replacement of ready-made solutions by the designing of tools, themes, and systems that enable the receiver/ user to interactively find his own solution. For the field of activity of Crouwel’s shape planner, he uses the term ‘meta-design’.

Tailored production and service, or ‘customisation’, are closely related to interactivity, an ‘expressive culture’, and meta-design. The magazine Business 2.0 stated that customisation was one of the driving forces behind the ‘new economics’:

Information is easier to customize than hardgoods. The information portion of any good and service is becoming a larger part of its total value. Thus, suppliers will find it easier and more profitable to customize products, and consumers will begin to demand this sort of tailoring.

An example of customisation is karaoke, with which adults can again experience the pleasure they gained from their colouring-books. With the slogan ‘A little bit of your own and a little bit of Maggi’, Maggi, the soups brand, produces a basic soup product, which the consumer has to finish himself.

When customisation is related to information, form and content are systematically disconnected. The company NetObjects supplies software in which the automatic building of a website, database publishing, and interface design are integrated. Standardisation of the content and connected structure enables people to employ various styles arbitrarily with the help of the Styles Editor application. The name ‘Styles Editor’ unintentionally refers to Susan Sontag’s ‘stylisation’ concept.

4.3 Vernacular design
The English term ‘vernacular’ is used in the social line of linguistics and corresponds to the meaning of ‘dialect’. Tom Paulin, editor of The Faber Book of Vernacular Verse, stated:

The problem with the term ‘dialect’ is that it has a certain archaic, quaint, over-baked remoteness that really belongs in the dead fragrance of a folk-museum.

That’s why Tom Paulin chose ‘vernacular’, which expresses a nuance that does not exist in Dutch. He clarifies the meaning with the help of the opposition between the traditional status of Latin and colloquial language:

Latin belongs to institutions, committees, public voices, print; against that Parnassian official order, the springy, irreverent, chanting, quartzy, often tender and intimate vernacular voice speaks for an alternative community that is mostly powerless and invisible. (…) I have no wish to sentimentalize orality, only to notice that the vernacular imagination distrusts print in the way that most of us dislike legal documents. That imagination expresses itself in speech and feels trammelled by the monolithic simplicities of print, by those formulaic monotonies which distort the spirit of the living language.

By interconnecting grammar and industrialisation, Ivan Illich extended the ‘vernacular’ concept and applied it to matters and activities associated with the cultures of the crafts and the vernacular, for instance: knitting and street soccer. He worked out a contrast between the culture of the crafts, the amateurish, and social on the one hand and the industrial, professional, and commercial on the other.

A number of years ago, I studied the relation between vernacular and professional design together with some students. During one week the students gathered A-4 sheets in Amsterdam. In these sheets people were called on to look out for missing pets. Often these messages were copied, hand-written felt cries from the heart, with a drawing of their missing dog or cat. Some of them recalled the posters of Paris in ’68. The limited means, the straightforwardness, and the emotions determined their form. We made a choice from the collection, which the students used as sketches for ‘professional’ designs. In the following weeks the students’ frustration became almost tangible. The professional code escaped the original message, like two magnets with like poles. Even though one design may have been better than another, not a single one of these approximated the eloquence of the original. We found that there is a form of graphic communication that is better off without designers. In those cases the vernacular code is more effective than the professional one.

What also struck us was the conventionality of the A4 sheets gathered. Not one message tried to be original or innovative to distinguish itself. The study of the crafts, the vernacular culture, showed a similar pattern.

It is paradoxical that the communication industry now has open systems at its disposal in which information, as a commodity, can be replaced by vernacular information. Basically, the industrial need of (professional) standardisation has been removed. De-skilling, expressive culture, interactivity, and meta-designing create the conditions for a polyphonic design culture in which users have the final word and profit, and the community spirit can find a fresh balance.

A problem however is that the tradition of handicrafts and their amateurish stylisation of information has largely disappeared. The missing pet sheets and the hand-lettered boards in farmyards are more or less its last remnants. Without a tradition, the development of a shabby imitation of professional design threatens – instead of an orientation on people’s own culture.

‘When we switch off our television sets, we once again become private persons’, De Kerckhove said. But do we still know who we are? Illich referred to a Canadian research in the 30s, which estimated that of every ten words a twenty-year-old man had heard, only one word reached him as a member of a group or part of a crowd. Fifty years later, it is the other way around: nine out of ten words are directed at a crowd or through loudspeakers. He wrote:

I am concerned with discussing the structural difference between a colloquial tongue which is the result of my absorbing what people really say to each other with meaning, and a language which people get from actors, who with great phoney conviction declaim what speech-writers have written for them.

When someone has got stuck in life, the Flemish say: ‘He has lost his North’, suggesting that that person has lost his sense of orientation – on his own past and future. I love this expression. To me, ‘the North’ here suggests something of the utopian: we can focus on it, but we will never be able to reach it. Similarly, I believe that the aim of this project can never be realised, in other words: is unattainable. But I do regard it as the beginnings of a search for the right direction.

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