The Tools that Shape Us

I like to reflect on the evolution of science, technology and human culture. I have an avid interest in archeology, general science, quantum physics, art, music, dance, drama, and all other human endeavors. In every one of these fields, it is the questions which interest me, not the answers. “Dare to ask the question!”

Technology is contributing to a kind of cultural blindness. People get lost in the tool and forget the maker. Do you know that oil paint was once cutting edge technology? When you think of a great painting from the past, do you think of the material he used or of the painting? Technology is important only in whether it works or not. The artists in the Renaissance who used the cutting edge technology of the day did experiment with it, and sometimes they failed; Da Vinci’s Last Supper fell off the wall because he tried to combine oil paint with fresco. Other times, the experiment succeeded; the “mixed” technique of egg tempera and oil paint resulted in some of the most long lasting and beautiful paintings ever produced.

My particular interest is in culture, so I find it very interesting how our tools change us. Just think of the evolution of the button. It seems that the button started out in ancient Roman or Egyptian times as a type of clasp, perhaps to fasten a cloak. Later, in the pre-Industrial Age, people used buttons to fasten their ankle boots. They even used a tool to help them do this: a button hook. In the Machine Age, the button was used to start or connect equipment using electricity.

CD ROM, early web, and kiosk interface design introduced the first virtual button: these graphics were made to look like a familiar mechanical or electrical button, so that people new to interactive design (everyone) would get the idea that they were supposed to “push” them. They were designed to look pushed in when on and even sometimes read “on” or “off” to indicate their state. This use of the familiar to introduce the new has psychological and practical ramifications for the savvy interface designer. This is how we “push the envelope” of culture, design, language and human interaction.

What is the similarity in all forms of the button from early prehistory to current use? It is this: that the function / expectation of the button has always been to “fasten” or “connect” two things together, whether it be the sides of your Roman homespun wool cloak, or to bridge one virtual page to another. The pages on a contemporary website are connected together by the virtual button, just as the sides of one’s nineteenth century shoes were fastened or brought together with the buttons of the day.

Today, buttons can be anything, and the audience has grown in sophistication with the designer. In effect, a good designer “teaches” the user what is interactive in a subtle manner. Javascript introduced the “rollover” effect on the web, but it was first introduced years before on CD and on kiosks.

Copyright 2007 Aliyah Marr


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