In an influential special issue of Scientific American appearing in 1991, the computer scientist Mark Weiser wrote of the challenges in integrating computers to “the natural human environment” such that they “vanish into the background.” Though not quite a theory of user interface design, Weiser’s notion of “ubiquitous computing” remains definitive in its vision for computing as a pervasive but unobtrusive element of the human experience.
So, when earlier this month Apple announced the end of skeuomorphism in iOS — the use of real-world objects and textures as visual elements — at the annual World Wide Developer’s Conference (WWDC) in San Francisco, it was a significant shift in the praxis of computing. In a speech noted by TechCrunch and Motherboard as unusually dismissive of Apple’s previous commitment to user interface elements that mimic the appearance of familiar objects — brushed chrome, pebbled leather, green felt, yellow lined paper — Craig Federighi, senior vice president of iOS software, held no punches in expressing the obsolescence of his predecessor Scott Forstall’s vision. “Look! Even without all that stitching, everything just stays in place,” Federighi cawed.
The idea that computer interfaces should mimic elements of the corporeal world is fundamentally less a matter of aesthetic philosophy as it is a practical matter, a visual scheme which holds computers accountable to the world that preceded them, the world familiar to the uninitiated user. The very idea of a graphical user interface, a layer of software mediating the code-human interaction, relies on this question of aesthetic representation, with early iterations of such interfaces at Stanford and, later, at Xerox’s PARC, developing the “windows” scheme that remains in use to this day. PARC also pioneered many other familiar elements, including icons and check boxes, and famously invented the mouse, which was allegedly lifted by Apple after Steve Jobs visited PARC in 1979.
What’s interesting about Apple’s shift away from Forstall’s very particular school of operating system skeuomorphism is that it associates the failure of an entire idea — that operating systems ought to mimic the function of objects in the physical world — with a very particularized notion of that idea. After all, it’s easy to hate the Forstall-era vision that Apple packed into iOS, with its ersatz green felts, aggressive leathers, and tacky notepads. (The font used in the Notes app was always especially mystifying to me, given Jobs’s renowned typographic fastidiousness.) But rather than give up entirely on the idea of using everyday objects as visual cues in their operating system, Apple might have considered finding more interesting skeuomorphic alternatives. That Apple thinks now is the time to destroy the oldest idol in the world of visual computing smacks not of foresight but of arrogance.
Skeuomorphism itself predates computing — the term originated in the 19th century — and simply refers to the idea of vestigial functions in aesthetic design. In an article on the topic published yesterday, The Economist cites the computer scientist Dan O’Hara’s example of “pottery jugs from Zaire, the handles of which are shaped in imitation of handles of traditional jugs customarily made of cord.” The idea of vestigial function is a useful one when we consider current trends in visual culture. A quick assessment of America’s cultural lodestars, from San Francisco to Brooklyn, reveals an aesthetic obsession with a particular vision of authenticity, a sensibility firmly grounded in historical precedent.
Accurate or not, old-timey fonts, whimsical Victorian etchings, and a reliance on “heritage” materials in everything from fashion to construction reveals a deeply conservative visual culture — despite what might be going on at the Museum of Modern Art or the New Museum (or, perhaps more provocatively, as a reaction to it). This isn’t to say that these are visual cues to be replicated in operating systems, but the observation reveals something altogether more basic, that the things elemental to our latest sense of visual comfort remain very old.
This fact doesn’t require a knee-jerk reaction in the world of contemporary operating system design, merely an acknowledgment of our perpetual sense of visual vertigo in the face of an ever-shifting paradigm of human-machine interaction. And these machines will always exist with reference to another, older world — as Mark Weiser wrote in the aforementioned essay, computer interface design, unlike the problem of virtual reality, aims to construct “a map, not a territory.” This isn’t a new thought. Vannevar Bush, an engineer, inventor, and early theorist of the age of mechanization, covered this very topic for The Atlantic Monthly in 1945, observing: “Our present languages are not especially adapted to this sort of mechanization.”