Mark Hurrell.


The anti-social web

07 October 2011

It is tempting to see the internet as the ultimate fulfillment of the ideals of modernism – after all, the world wide web seems the perfect embodiment of Paul Otlet’s 'Mundaneum'. Also, when you look at it from a strictly formalist viewpoint, the whole visual landscape of the internet is made up of exactly those elements that most people seem to associate with International Style: templates, grids, sans-serif type, the specific use of 'empty' space, flush-left ragged-right columns. Even the use of all-lowercase letters in text messaging can be seen as stylistically linked to International Style. But still — we would say there is one fundamental, crucial difference between the print culture of modernism and the digital culture of the internet. In our view, print is still a more public medium. If a poster is hanging in the street, it is seen by every passerby in more or less the same way. Sure, the interpretation of the poster will differ from person to person, but by and large, the poster itself will appear in roughly the same way to every viewer, regardless of his/her class, race, gender, age, personal preferences, etc.

This is different on the internet, where websites and pages conform themselves instantly to cater to the personal tastes and preferences of the individual viewer. Google search results change from person to person, the advertisements that clutter online profiles are specifically targeted toward the viewer, etc., etc. This makes the online environment ultimately an individualistic, isolated experience, despite the promise of 'being connected.' It also makes most online activity a somewhat unadventurous, undialectical affair, as you only will be confronted with stimuli that are algorithmically curated for you, based on what large corporations (such as Facebook and Google) expect you to want to see. Whereas, within the context of the street, you will be confronted with information that is not specifically intended for you — posters you might not immediately understand, slogans you might disagree with (or not), kiosks carrying newspapers that are not necessarily tailored toward your specific lifestyle, book stalls displaying secondhand books expressing conflicting opinions. In our view, it is this notion of print culture within the urban environment that offers the most dialectical, and therefore most modernist, experience. So it’s exactly that idea that we try to explore most in our work. And, as paradoxical as it may sound, it is this theme of modernist print culture that is also one of the main subjects of our online presence — whether it is our actual website or our Facebook group.

Experimental Jetset, Printmag

As much as I want to read Experimental Jetset’s opinions as just another reactionary criticism of modern communication from a traditional practitioner, I think they’ve touched on something uncomfortable about the way the internet has evolved as content medium. As the first liberated, democratic communication platform it has the potential to introduce us to a broader range of ideas & experiences than tradional media could ever provide, but in practice the sheer quantity of content online totally exceeds human mental bandwidth. The only way to manage the endless flow of information is to filter it down, with the bizarre result that reading a physical newspaper exposes me to a far wider & more eclectic range of experiences than browsing that same newspapers website - even though the website contains many more stories. The physical newspaper selects a wide range of stories to appeal to a wide audience, whereas on the website I get to choose the type of stories that I think I want to see. Instead of broadening my horizons, I’ve narrowed them.

But wishing away a technology is pointless (and ignores all the benefits that connectedness has brought), so Experimental Jetset’s focus on print as a reaction to the internet is really only interesting when considered alongside their use of Facebook. Rather than printed media being a safe default, they appear to be using posters and Facebook in much the same way - making tightly contained nuggets of content and then deliberately placing them within messy, social contexts far outside of their control. This is in direct contrast with most web content, which by technical-neccessity is architected context-first (although there are exceptions to this, such as RSS).

This physical contextuality is part of what makes the iPad such a satisfying way to consume digital content. Even though interacting with the iPad is still a closed-off, personal experience, the device can break that isolation by being handed between friends in a way that’s impracticle with a traditional PC. Taking the concept of a social interface for consuming digital content even further, this recent prototype by the NYTimes encourages multiple users to explore the digital paper simultaniously on a single device, even allowing them to exchange articles. It may not be a feasable product right now, but it’s exciting to see interaction designers starting to reclaim internet-connectedness as a social, communial experience.

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