Decimating Design

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I’m part of the generation that grew up on the first wave of cyberpunk, from movies like Blade Runner and television shows like Max Headroom, to countless books and graphic novels. There’s a lot to be said about how this work may have influenced our attitudes and philosophies, but one of the things that always caught my eye, probably because I was so young, was the visual motif of television/computer screens everywhere. The idea of being able to walk someplace and literally be unable to escape those screens was incredibly appealing to me, and as I saw computer technology rapidly evolve in those years (and got to witness less dystopian versions of that motif, like the computers and screens on the Enterprise-D in Star Trek: The Next Generation), I couldn’t wait to see that future of electronic ecstasy.

By the time I turned twenty-five, though, that whole thing had lost its appeal to me. Yes, I saw some stuff from Japan that looked like what I’d had in mind, but after Rudy Guiliani transformed Times Square into his version of Neo-New York City in the late nineties, it was such a repugnant celebration of the worst of capitalism that I found it far more perverse than the old adult entertainment shops that used to line those streets. Especially after the 09.11 attacks, I got more and more concerned that those screens were being used to keep people in a constant state of fear, and those concerns have only grown over the past eighteen years.

Now that flat-screen monitors and televisions are so cheap, and Internet access is so ubiquitous, this technology is infiltrating our lives more and more. At first, I just saw some basic electronic signage go around the University of Toledo in my last years as a student there, but then fast food restaurants started using the same kind of signage in place of their old menus above the cashiers’ heads. This stuff started becoming standard in high-end department stores, then grocery stores, and now it’s tempting to feel like a place is old-fashioned and quaint if they don’t have at least one flat-screen device constantly blaring news and special offers at everyone there.

The irony, of course, is that most of this stuff has gotten to the point where it feels like background noise to a lot of us. Now that we have our own personal Internet-connected flat screens in our pockets that we can take out whenever we want, and look at the stuff that matters to us (whether important emails or breaking news or funny YouTube videos), all the visual noise created by these large screens can often go unnoticed. Whenever I’m on the campus where I teach, I have to make an effort to look at the digital signage that’s in every building, even as it still, in its way, fulfills an old childhood dream of mine.

I haven’t totally given up on the idea of having “beautiful screens” around me, though. This often manifests in me looking through the catalogues of the biggest digital signage companies, like Four Winds Interactive, just to admire the designs they come up with. (I think that many of us who worked in website design in the nineties were trying to come up with stuff like what you see today from these top-tier companies, designs that are at once both highly useful and visually gorgeous.) When I’ve had the time, though, I’ve sometimes tried my hand at making the screens that I own — my smartphone, my tablet, and even my television — look and function as well as the best of the screens I’ve seen online.

Back when I got my first smartphone in 2010, this wasn’t such an easy thing to do, but as this decade went on, a number of different apps came out on the Google Play Store to help users of Android devices design their own homescreens. Android widgets already helped a lot with that (and I don’t get why Apple continues to force the users of their devices into just seeing app icons on their homescreens), but with the addition of customized launchers that let you literally start with a blank homescreen and build from there, as well as apps that enable you to custom-design your own widgets from scratch, you could make the homescreen of your dreams without needing to know the high-level programming necessary to create Android apps from scratch.

It wasn’t long before whole communities of amateur and professional designers were popping up, showing off their own attempts at making phone screens that looked like stuff out of our childhood dreams. (Here’s just a few examples of the kind of stuff that people came up with.) I only ever got the chance to tinker with these tools on my smartphones and tablets, but I think I had more fun making my own screen designs than I ever had with any game or other app I downloaded. More than just creating things that were useful to us, we were creating true works of art. That was incredibly fulfilling to a lot of us.

As my older phones and tablets have started to bite the dust, though, I’ve often found that the design apps I used to use are no longer available on the Google Play Store. (This actually started when an app that let me turn my television screen into its own news-and-weather display via my ChromeCast, a la the Marriott GoBoard, disappeared out of nowhere.) I had to replace my phone earlier this year when my old one started having serious issues with charging, and I just got a new tablet, and both times I’ve tried to get those old apps onto my new devices, I’ve found more and more of them just can’t be downloaded ever again.

There are all kinds of issues involved here, including the fact that I’d paid for a lot of these apps and now I can’t use them any longer — the recent controversies surrounding Microsoft closing their ebook service and not letting users keep the books they’d bought helped bring some of them into the mainstream — but more than feeling ripped off over losing access to apps I paid good money for, I’m just sad now. Especially as other developers haven’t stepped up to fill the void left by these apps disappearing, it feels like we’re giving up on this idea of taking our smartphones and tablets to new levels of beauty and functionality, and just accepting the limited number of design options available to us through the default Android OS and the widgets we can still use. Even as these devices continue to grow in terms of sheer power, they’re losing these customization options that really turn them into works of visual art, and allow users to create the information devices they dreamed up when they were little. That just doesn’t seem right.

With as crazy as the world’s getting, maybe fewer people care about all these screens looking nice, as long as the devices do the bare minimum of what they need to do. Just like with schools and governments cutting arts programmes and funding, though, I think we stand to lose a lot by not promoting the idea of making these small parts of the world around us more beautiful. The worst part is that we already had the tools to make that happen, but now those tools are being taken from us as these apps disappear from the Google Play Store. Whatever is causing these disappearances, if something can’t be done to stop them, then at least someone should try to replicate those old apps, so we can once again start making our current world a little more like the world of our childhood dreams .

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