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Form Follows Information, by Eduardo Navas

Image source: Mashable

In January of 2009 I wrote two brief entries, “On Content and Form: 2009 Forecast” and “Further Reflections on Content and Form in 2009,” which evaluated the difficulty that developers are encountering with the constant change of delivery devices.  Since then, there appears to be more interest in having constant access to information than on the devices themselves. I also noted the possibility that consumers may develop fetishes for hybrid devices like the iPhone.

Yet, as we move on to the second half of 2009, the actual subject of analysis is becoming more apparent: the screen.  It is the aesthetics of the screen, a vessel of simulation, of make believe, of simulacra proper that is turning out to be the recurring device in all media.  From the early days of film on to television, and currently the computer and its supplementary devices, including GPS systems, text readers such as the kindle, portable DVD players, and of course the iPhone, the screen has played a defining role in the ongoing expansion of global communication.

The screen’s never-ending evolution, then, is what needs to be considered carefully in order to understand how media is changing with the growth of network culture.  The challenge in this acknowledgment is that our familiar window for entertainment and communication, while always a comfortable rectangular format of malleable dimensions, has no actual stable material form; it keeps shifting at an ever increasing speed; and because of media’s dependency on the screen, developers need to change their approach to product development.  This also means that content providers need to rethink their relation to media delivery, whether this be print, or online.

As I also previously noted in the first of my previous entries, for some time now the black box has been the subject of much speculation.  Because the private sector is ultimately interested in the bottom line, the development for a “one stop” media device that can be assessed with concrete numbers has been highly sought after.  In this regard, as also noted in my previous entries, Henry Jenkins, in his book Convergence Culture, argues that the black box will never be created, and that we have a lot of black boxes already showing up in our living rooms.  These black boxes are able to do more, but more importantly (and more troubling) is that they are developed to be disposable, in order to keep up with the of production of newer devices.  This appears to be a cycle that is best professed in Science Fiction films.  Let us note a few examples that make the screen the most stable fetish which also resists fixed materialization.  This will help explain how content perhaps should be produced and dissemated in the future.

In the 2008 animated film Wall-e, the screen is ever-present in multiple forms.    It is first introduced with a familiar Apple iPod, which Wall-e, the small robot protagonist, enhances with a magnifying device that allows him to view the footage at the size of an average LCD monitor.  This is merely a hint of the pervasiveness of the screen to be experienced throughout the rest of the film.  Once Wall-e makes it to the Space station called Axiom (where humans who survived the apparent deterioration of earth due to contamination are living passively), he encounters overweight people who move around in anti-gravity chairs equipped with a screen that no longer needs an actual surface.  The screen is actually projected into thin air, at a short comfortable distance for the user to view the content. Other screens are introduced throughout the film, including wall size projections, but none of them demand to be acknowledged as actual objects.  They are merely floating interfaces deliberately designed to be seen through.  In this case we can note that the material object is disappearing in Science Fiction.

Similarly to Wall-e, Minority Report, released in 2002, offers multiple screen configurations. Throughout the film images are projected on the walls of empty buildings, as well as inside retail stores, not to mention the subway; people even read the newspaper on a transparent portable screen tablet that is periodically updated with breaking news.  But this is not new by any means; the screen has been disappearing for some time now.  We could go back to a scene in Star Wars released in 1977, in which Luke Skywalker, when cleaning R2D2, accidentally activates a holographic projection of Princess Leia.  Extending the aesthetics of the hologram, Minority Report actually develops its plot around 3-D projections into thin air of the hero’s wife and son, which he views repeatedly throughout the film.

In 2009 the film GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra again presents the screen in multiple forms, but this time it is taken a step further as telepresence is implemented as a natural element of the story.  The viewer is led to understand that at the time that the story takes place (which according to the film is always present day) holographic communication is common at least within the military and elite global companies.  The Holographic image introduced in Star Wars, which was pivotal in Minority Report, becomes ubiquitous in G.I. Joe, where people not only communicate with others across the world with holographic technology, but also interact in the remote place as though they were physically there, walking and touching people.

What is evident in G.I. Joe is that there is no screen, only a virtual presence.  This is the future of the screen.  It is bound to disappear; ideologically speaking, it already has.  What these examples demonstrate is that the screen whether we are aware of it or not is implemented as a disposable form designed to be seen through and most importantly to be constantly exchanged for newer and supposedly more efficient models.

The question for content producers is, how will the constant reconfiguration of the screen affect information delivery?  This question is linked to a more immediate concern of the media industry: the crisis of print media, which I argue is only a transitional step to the next stage of global cultural production, in which constant and efficient accessibility to information will be the prime concern.

While the screen may not be evolving into a hologram projection any time soon, what is to note is that the aesthetics of such simulation is already in place.   In the recent months there has been photoshoped screens developed around apple products.  In particular, the apple tablet, and the Macbook Touch, have been fetishes for some time, to the point that places like Mashable have repeatedly featured speculations of these apparently mythical devices.  Apple neither confirms nor denies the existence of the tablet, which may work to their benefit, because when people create their own fantasy devices, developers can evaluate the wishful manifestations with real potential for a new product.  But what is more important and of direct interest for this analysis is that the mythical apple tablet and Macbook Touch are essentially simulation screens.  Like the iPhone they have no actual key board.  Instead they offer a simulation: a touch pad on which to type as though one were using an actual computer keyboard.  This deliberately points to the simulation that has been promoted in films for some time, like the ones mentioned above: the disappearance of communication devices into thin air.  The challenge then is to evaluate this trend and try to consider how it will affect content delivery.

If form followed function during the twentieth century, this is no longer the case for the twenty-first.  In 2009 form follows information.  The key for future implementation will be to focus on the production of devices that are verstile enough to keep up with the never-ending changes of information delivery.  The iPhone may be the best example of this trend.  However, it is not successful necessarily because of its design, or its possibility to become a fetish (which it is for many users), but because it allows and encourages for constant widget applications to be developed by third parties.  This enhances the usability of the iPhone, and makes it an always relevant device, entirely defined by screen aesthetics, quite intimate with the sensitivity of the hologram.  There are no buttons to push: it is all simulation.

Content production has become formless due to this shift in delivery devices, and is currently prepared to be distributed in various formats because developers understand that content gains value according to the intensity of its circulation.  The issue for corporations is how to turn such circulation into revenue.  Perhaps a constructive answer beyond the bottom line can be found in a new economy dependent on constant redistribution that will not automatically lead to monetary results, but cultural value that can become speculative income.

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