The world has been reduced to tiny glowing rectangles; we are all prisoners within.
Before the onset of digital technologies, we used to consume content in different layout sizes and textures. We would read daily news on rough gray broadsheets many times bigger than our faces, and content related to our interests on glossy magazines. We would dive deep into stories on paperback books the size of our palms, and into nuggets of human knowledge on encyclopedias only slightly bigger. We would get up and turn on our radios to listen to chattering DJs, our televisions to watch sitcoms and soap operas. We would reopen dusty photo albums to take a trip down memory lane, and drive to the theater to savor the latest blockbusters. We had all kinds of containers to house all kinds of content. A change in activity also meant a change of device or even location, and therefore a palpable change in mood and mindset.
When digital technologies arrived, we celebrated. Finally, we didn’t have to carry so many things anymore. All our media, from news to movies to songs and books, could fit in one device. No matter what kind of media we fancied, everything was there on the rectangular window of the PC.
Our screens grew more and more powerful, gobbling up many standalone devices along the way. Our magazines, calculators, gaming devices, music players, cameras… they all disappeared into the omnipotent rectangle that eventually shrank into our pockets.
The newfound convenience came at the expense of a more immersive ‘content’ experience. We could not see or touch our content as they were anymore. They were locked behind glowing windows.
Over time, our hardware tried its hardest to disappear into the background. At the same time, our content adapted to fit the screens, as desktop and mobile websites and apps optimized for our fingers. Still, the limited number of screen sizes proved to be a huge constraint.
With the rise of tablets, we got rectangles of all sizes, but the problem remained that the ‘all-in-one’-ification of our content and media made us numb to a change of activity and media form. Because we could do all kinds of things from playing games to watching movies to talking with friends on our iPads, our content lost their unique forms and textures. Because everything could be accessed with mere clicks and swipes, we lost boundaries between our activities. We regressed from the time when different platforms on which our content lay conditioned our minds for the tasks at hand. Digital technology was actually a big step back from the glorious era when the size, shape, texture, and even smell of the material housing our content added so much to the experience.
Skeuomorphism stepped in as a half-hearted attempt to add texture to our smooth, boring rectangles, but all it got was heavy criticism. Standalone devices like e-book readers also sought to bring analogization back, but instead people saw them as incapable one-trick ponies.
What else does the tech industry have up its sleeve?
Unfortunately, we just got more entrenched than ever into the world of screens. Innovation came down to thinner bodies, bigger screens, higher resolutions, and faster processors. Technology has become boring.
The only way to make it exciting again is to liberate our content from their rectangular prisons.
But first, we need to have beyond-the-screen technologies. We are beginning to see them come to life in the form of augmented-reality projections (Sixth Sense), wearable technologies (Google Glass), haptic feedback (Tactus), virtual reality (Oculus Rift), and flexible screens (Youm). It’s also promising to see beyond-touch input interfaces like gesture control (Kinect), voice control (Siri), muscle tracking (Canada startup) and eye-tracking (Air gestures)
These new technologies would not only liberate our content as they were meant to exist, it would make them more powerful than ever. We will get the flexibility and variability of analog materials as well as the convenience and speed of digital devices. It’s the best of both worlds.
Content would no longer conform to a limited array of devices, instead it would be the entire physical world that will conform to them. We no longer have to be prisoners of our screens. Right now, it’s still a dream, but I believe this is the only way for tech to recover from its boring slump and be awesome once more.