Interface @ the Powerhouse Museum

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of visiting the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney to check out the exhibition Interface: People, Machines, Design. Featuring both retro and recent consumer products (primarily from Apple, IBM and Braun), the exhibition focuses on the significance of consumer products in our lives today. More importantly, it illustrates the strong emotional connection that we develop with such products, due to the marriage of effective industrial design, iconography and typography. Ultimately, for a technological product to be successful, it must tell a story and be clear, simple and accessible to as many people as possible.

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My wonderful girlfriend, Natasha, was kind enough to attend with me and watch me giggle with glee as I surveyed the numerous exhibits. My Apple zealotry has (of course) infiltrated her life, and I’m pleased to say that she enjoyed it as well. 🙂

As we toured the rather small exhibition, it became clear that the space itself was constructed to reflect the products featured; everything was minimalist, considered and ordered chronologically, showing the influence of early democratic design by legends like Braun’s Dieter Rams through to today’s ubiquitous smartphones and tablets.

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The exhibition does a wonderful job of tracking the history of modern industrial design. Take for example the history of Braun: on the one hand, the Nazis’ Volksempfänger (people’s receiver) radio was used to restrict radio signals from outside Germany; in the post-war period, Rams’s Weltempfänger (world receiver) was a challenge to this former dark time, opening up to foreign frequencies and ushering in welcoming, open design.
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The original Macintosh ushered in a new era for personal computing. With the inclusion of a graphical user interface (GUI) and mouse (first implemented together by XEROX PARC), Apple popularised a new way of interacting with computers that was easier and inviting for everyday people. You didn’t have to be an enthusiast to use it.

It was fantastic to see the history of Apple laid out so well, obviously by people who understand the significance of the personalities involved beyond Steve Jobs. Jony Ive, Helmut Esslinger, Susan Kare… all were mentioned appropriately.

I would highly recommend this exhibition to just about anyone. If you own a smartphone (which you do), it’s amazing to look back and appreciate the immense change that occurred during the 20th century, and the change that continues to occur every day. We take our digital products for granted, along with the empowering connectivity they facilitate. There has never been a better time to be alive.

Rather than bang on forever, it’s best to give you some links to find out more.

To view more photos of the included products, head over to my Flickr page.

For even more information about the exhibition and the specific products, visit the museum’s website.

What Is Accessibility?

Social media encourage online participation, interactivity, connection and access through a variety of devices every day (Dreher, 2012). Goggin and Newell (2007) describe digital technology as a ‘texture’ of how we think, feel and communicate. Prior to undertaking BCM310, a subject during my study at the University of Wollongong, I was unaware of the social exclusion that digital media can create for people with disabilities. There is a great range of medical and pharmacological technology that aid those living with disabilities (Goggin and Newell, 2007), but digital media (and many other technologies) are often slow to meet their needs, only tailoring to the broader, ‘non-disabled’ community.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the organisation responsible for establishing global Internet standards, with 66 guidelines for website design and instructions for technical implementation (Green and Huprich, 2009). One of the Consortium’s primary goals is to make the benefits of the Web “…available to all people, whatever their hardware, software, network infrastructure, native language, culture, geographical location, or physical or mental ability” (W3, 2012). Some organisations have adopted W3C-recommended inclusive technology. Apple, for example, has integrated screen-reading and voice capabilities into their Mac OS X and iOS operating systems (Goggin and Newell). Social media, however, have been slow to adopt such technology. Perhaps the most perplexing example is Twitter, which is often regarded to be the simplest of social networks. Twitter’s interface, for those with visual impairments, can be complex to navigate. To combat this, however, developers have created a site called ‘Easy Chirp’, an alternative site that allows users to login with their Twitter accounts, and use a simpler interface, with larger fonts, easier navigation between tweets and coloured highlighting for selected items. Screenshots comparing the original Twitter interface and alternative Easy Chirp can be seen below.

While a positive example of technological adaptation for those with disabilities, Easy Chirp has its flaws, such as a lack of sans serif fonts. In addition, the lack of accessibility improvements in Twitter itself, and the need for a third-party solution further proves the lack of insight and innovation in redesigning online user interfaces to aid those living with both physical and mental disabilities (McLellan, 2011).

References:

  • Berkeley, 2009, Educational Technology Services, retrieved 07/04/2012, from http://ets.berkeley.edu/images/apple-accessibility-logo?size=_original.
  • Dreher, T., 2012, Digital Social Inclusion: Focus on Disability, BCM310, Emerging Issues in Media and Communication, delivered 2 April.
  • Easy Chirp, 2012, martinfeld Timeline, retrieved 08/04/2012, from http://www.easychirp.com/app/tweetroll.php.
  • Goggin, G. and Newell, C., 2007, ‘The Business of Digital Disability’, The Information Society, Vol. 23, pp. 159-168.
  • Green, R. and Huprich, J., 2009, ‘Web Accessibility and Accessibility Instruction’, Journal of Access Services, Vol. 6, pp. 116-136.
  • McLellan, P., 2011, ‘Web Accessibility’, Master of Arts Thesis, IT Leadership Graduate Program, The College of St. Scholastica.
  • Twitter, 2012, martinfeld Timeline, retrieved 08/04/2012, from https://twitter.com/martinfeld.
  • W3, 2012, About W3C, retrieved 07/04/2012, from http://www.w3.org/Consortium/.

This post was written originally as part of the undergraduate BCMS course at the University of Wollongong.

iPay. iLearn.

Image: Amber Hunt, 2010

Today, information is king. We are now witnessing the boom of digital ‘cognitive capitalism’, where information and education are bought and sold with great ease. Cognitive capitalism, however, has existed for centuries within the institution of the university. Tertiary institutions have held at their “…centre the highly-credentialed content expert who generates individually-authored print documents fully protected by copyright” (Miller, 2009, p. 147). Copyrighted materials have been offered at a high price in the form of textbooks, and more recently, through online subscriptions to journal article databases that have been paid for before they even reach students. Miller (2009) describes the university as ‘frozen in time’, a prehistoric world almost completely separated from the effects of globalisation and democratising technology.

In the last 25 years, the ‘ivory tower’ of the university and associated publishers has worsened, as they have become high-technology, low-skilled industries driven by economic growth and Fordist expansion (Dyer-Witheford, 2005, p. 71).

Global publishers now potentially face a challenge with Apple’s entrance into the textbook market. Apple now sells interactive, multimedia textbooks (US$14.99 each) in its iTunes-based iBookstore, featuring powerful annotation tools. Apple also offers a new application called iBooks Author, which enables independent authors to create and sell content without the need for a publisher.

Whilst Apple’s new foray into textbook production and distribution does empower students and authors, it still exhibits cognitive capitalism. For example, iBooks textbooks may only be sold through the iBookstore, and are limited to the proprietary iBooks e-book format (Reid, 2012). Reid (2012) asserts that the technological industry is begging for standardisation.

Universities and publishers need to exit the ‘ivory tower’, and move beyond the archaic media and distribution channels of textbooks and journal article subscriptions. They must, however, exercise caution before adopting a potentially worse proprietary environment that controls students, scholars and authors alike.

References:
  • Dyer-Witheford, N., 2005, ‘Cognitive Capitalism and the Contested Campus’, Engineering Culture: On The Author as (Digital) Producer, New York: Autonomedia, pp. 71-93.
  • gearlive, 2012, Apple Introduces iBooks Textbooks, retrieved 01/04/2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z6HeyTldraw.
  • Hunt, A., 2010, 3 Ways You Can Manage Your Debt – Quicken Loans Online, JPEG, retrieved 31/03/2012, http://www.quickenloans.com/blog/ways-manage-your-debt.
  • Miller, R., 2010, ‘The Coming Apocalypse’, Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture, Vol. 10, No. 1, Duke University Press, pp. 143-151.
  • Reid, C., 2012, ‘iBooks 2: Reinventing Textbooks or Lulu on Steroids?’, Publishers Weekly, Vol. 259, Iss. 4, New York, p. 1.

This post was written originally as part of the undergraduate BCMS course at the University of Wollongong.