Information as a decorative material, digital jewelry

Over the last year I've spent a lot of time thinking about the esthetic possibilities of information processing (see my recent presentation on information as a material). The relationship between information and creative expression has long been a personal interest (I was doing "computer art" as an undergrad in the late 80s), but lately it's become a more concerted effort to understand the esthetic design possibilities of data.

We are already largely surrounded by information that's being used as decoration. TVs in bars are just as much a kind of wallpaper as they are sources of knowledge. Similarly, much information visualization is just as much about creating beautiful visual experiences as enlightening analyses. Much modern visualization actually sacrifices informational clarity for visual impact. An easy criticism would be to say that such info porn is the product of frustrated artists forcing their creative visions through a medium that's not made for it, like poets writing ad copy. I suspect there's truth to that, but it's an oversimplification. The reality is that many people are exploring the boundaries of what is required to create meaning using computational tools and for every elegant original visualization there have to be a thousand incomprehensible rats' nests of words, colors and lines.

Moreover, many people (including me) find these data rats' nests visually compelling, which points to the fact that there's something else going on. Data-driven visual and audio projects regularly produce beautiful experiences that have little to do with informational content. Because these experiences are created using computers, there still seems to be an inherent cultural expectation that the information must be meaningful, or the experience is somehow invalid. I can't count how many digital projects I've seen trying to justify their use of computers by linking a lush esthetic experience to some kind of knowledge creation. Their explanations often seem tacked-on.

This kind of pseudo-informational esthetics does a disservice to esthetics and to information.

I want to let go of the fiction that because digital information processing is involved, there has to be some kind of functional end result. There doesn't. We use stone to hold up building, but we also carve beautiful statues from it.

Moreover, in between a material being used purely functionally and purely esthetically there's a vast region where it's doing some of both. This is functional esthetics is the realm of design, and what I decided to explore more concertedly in the last year. ThingM's BlinkMs are a tool for easily creating esthetic experiences from data, treating RGB LEDs as visual manifestations of data bits, and giving people a tool for literally creating Ben Cerveny's luminous bath (his metaphor for living in a world of information and divided attention--a set of ideas that's closely linked to Morville's Ambient Findability). In addition, they're explicitly designed for pure esthetic expression.

In addition to making BlinkMs we're also exploring what it means to create products that are functional, but use information as a purely decorative element. Things that are not art, but use information (specifically interactive electronics) to make them beautiful, without trying to justify the use of electronics in a functional way. In other words, we're exploring what it means to create a kind of digital jewelry for the home.

We'll be showing some of our ideas very soon. Stay tuned.

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You might find it interesting to connect with return of ornament in contemporary architecture, much of which is digitally designed and then milled, cut or 3D printed. In architecture, designers focus on the formal possibilities of it, but there's no reason it shouldn't cross over with what you're thinking of as "information as decoration. You should look at the work of Ben Pell (with his studio, PellOverton -- his approach to ornament and technology is more thoughtful than that of some of his contemporaries (Mark Gage, Hernan Diaz-Alonso).

From a more academic perspective, my classmate Pep Avil├ęs is writing a dissertation on the history of ornament and its connection to its modes of production. One of my professors, Spyros Papapetros, is also working on the history and theory of ornament.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Mike Kuniavsky published on July 22, 2010 11:53 AM.

Information is a Material (dorkbot talk transcript) was the previous entry in this blog.

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