Spring 2001

Space is not the place

Doors of perception

11-13 November 2000<br>Amsterdam

They used to say that the geeks would inherit the earth. Somehow it doesn’t look so likely these days, now that the dotcom career ladder has become distinctly rickety. Even assuming it stays upright, programmers don’t often make good executive material. Certainly, code is one of the structuring facts of twenty-first century life, and those who know how to manipulate it are not going to find themselves out of a job in the foreseeable future. But the class of programmer-kings predicted by pundits has not emerged.

Still, the new economy presents undeniable challenges in understanding and handling information flow that geeks looked uniquely placed to address. If programmers aren’t going to switch from tweaking databases to structuring corporate strategy, then who is?

Step forward the designer, latest candidate for imminent earthly dominance. At “Doors of Perception 6”, the avowed theme of “Lightness” played second fiddle to the feeling that the designer’s star was very much in ascendancy in the information world. There was an undeniable mood of confidence, given voice by Rick Robinson, “chief experience officer” at Internet strategy consultants Sapient. Designers, Robinson argued, were now found not at their monitors typesetting the company brochure, but in the boardroom, heading up strategy and innovation departments – in other words, calling the shots.

The presentations at “Doors” were rich with evidence supporting Robinson’s case. As Ole Bouman, editor-in-chief of Archis magazine pointed out, designers and architects have been thinking about flows (of data, people, things) since the very beginning. Now, suddenly, they are in demand in designing for a whole new mode, this so-called “space of flows”, in which the effective architecture of information is held to be of critical importance. This metaphor of space is today’s paradigm for understanding information, and those who have specialised in understanding ways to manage our experience of it are naturally coming into their own.

In Hani Rashid’s presentation of his architecture firm Asymptote’s recent project for the New York Stock Exchange (an impressive “theatre of operations” for the floor of the exchange), we saw precisely how an architect’s approach to usability could translate into the virtual space of the market – a “space of flows” par excellence. For Rashid, information technology is changing the way in which we conceive of and engineer spatiality, allowing Asymptote to rework principles of architecture within the datasphere.

Lisa Strausfeld of InformationArt showed off her information visualisation work for Quokka Sports, a live race viewer for its Championship Auto Racing Teams. In the innovative interface Strausfeld produced for interpreting race results, we saw an approach that again, showed the strength of a designer’s understanding of information systems, simultaneously aesthetic and functional.

This “space of flows” is something of a frontier for the designer, as John Thackara, conference organiser and “first perceptron” (his humorous term) intimated in his introduction to the event.

“In this new ‘design space’”, he said, “real and virtual, matter and information, co-exist. The space of flows is where communication networks, and physical networks – matter and information – interact . . . Design thinking, combined with the Internet, can reshape production processes – even the entire structure and logic of an industry.”

Thackara is, of course, uniquely placed to ring the changes in the design industry. Having recently left the Netherlands Design Institute to produce the “Doors” conference as a private event, he stands at the epicentre of the information design mafia, which comprises the Royal College of Art’s Computer Related Design (CRD) unit, the NDI, MIT’s Media Lab, as well as companies such as IDEO and NCR’s Knowledge Labs. His introduction hinted at the huge amounts of capital flowing into the information design community, producing new institutes such as IVREA in Italy, and a new information design institute at the University of Minnesota.

Little surprise, then, that a mood of salubrious optimism permeated “Doors 6”. Yet in the middle of it all, one found time to wonder how long it might last. Speaker Stewart Butterfield, a new-media designer, founder of the 5k design project and a self-confessed “winner in the dotcom lottery”, confided to me his view of the space metaphor as “a bogus way of describing information.” It is difficult to disagree. “Cyberspace”, “virtual reality”, “the space of flows” – all these terms suggest spaces somehow apart from the everyday world.

Perhaps designers’ and architects’ new-found role as chief strategists of the information economy will only make sense for as long as this rickety spatial metaphor holds – and perhaps not. But cyberspace, the granddaddy of information-as-space metaphors, has been notable by its absence from new media conversations of late; it is not at all clear that this, as Butterfield asserts, is because the idea is so entrenched in our thinking that we don’t need the term any more. If I were asked to give the “Doors” design mafia any advice, it would be along these lines: focus on thinking beyond the “space of flows” as a space apart – it’s a conception, along with the term which underlies it, that’s on its way out. Refuse to make Wendy houses for new media to play in. Design us a way out of the tired spatial metaphor. You’ll be designing your way back down the corporate hierarchy – but the rest of us will be a lot better off.