Digital Decay + Digital Boredom

On 23rd of January-2020, I had been invited to give a presentation at Bakken & Bæck, and publicly reflect on the topic of Digital Decay, for their DDD event series. The following text includes my .. well, reflections (explicit version).

So, when we speak of digital decay, I must admit that although I somehow feel like a total stranger to its poetics, I can’t deny the fact that I’ve been grooming my thoughts about it for a long time now. For the event, I decided to share some of my recent project approaches, where digital decay played itself out as a phenomena.

What do I do? Let’s click here and check out my website. In my bio, it says that I’m a true DDD: designer, developer, and de thinker. A question I often ask myself is: Am I really (any of those)? I assume it’s a relevant question for us all, and I often wonder how often do we ask ourselves: to what extent are we anything at all?…So, I’d like to reflect on my online personas in relation to digital decay.

Let’s start with the designer in me. If ever I was one seriously, it was when I designed a product called Walky-Worky in 2018. Coming from the context of an art academy, I tried to illustrate something relevant to digital decay, in a very blunt and conceptual way. Let’s remind ourselves again: Walky-Worky is a working table designed to distract the user from the computational working experience, until the user decides to stop working. Long story short.

What Walky-Worky means by to-stop-working is to close the MacBook (other laptops allowed), as if saying “NO” to the information received from the info-sphere (but mainly Facebook, Instagram, and other distractive social medias). Why did I want to stop the information from entering the user’s brain? I didn’t know exactly why, but now I know that I was trying to prevent passive consumerism of information, dependancy on various feeds, losing track of physicality in actual spaces, lower attention span, and other ‘evils’ of the digital world. As Walky-Worky was my graduation project, I had to follow certain institutions’ rules in order to graduate, and one of them was to plan the showcase of Walky-Worky. For the installation, I made and scattered different layers of information about the concept (In how many different ways can you describe the product’s function?), which were installed in different spaces of the academy.

Walky-Worky as an installation

Walky-Worky as a text Walky-Worky as a commercial in the canteen Walky-Worky as a banner

I basically created my own info-sphere (strictly about one product); showcased its repetitiveness, which I was hoping would eventually lead to the user’s information overload. If consumption and overload go hand in hand, this was also true in Walky-Worky’s case: with its constant presence, it became a slightly uncomfortable product to know about. Its success was hiding behind the hidden annoyance it created in others (who perceived it). That’s as far as I got with the physical/spatial designer in me. We can call this era of mine: a physical decay inspired by the digital.

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The next me is that of a (web)developer. After Walky-Worky, I decided that it’s time to upgrade my spatial thinking and move the design of information to the digital spheres–>contextualize it a bit. Overnight, I became a Javascript web-developer, thanks to BSSA-the bootcamp school in which I spent three, intense months of coding blog applications, in order to warm myself up for a web maintenance career. Luckily, the web-maintaining position never arrived, so I could choose which web-dev role I wanted to have when creating things for online existence. Of course, I became a front-end web developer and decided to work with artists/creative workers only. I was lucky to have worked with people who were aware of my amateur and un-professional skills, and who allowed me to build accidental bugs in their websites. ***(Unfortunately, the bugs have been fixed by now, so there are not examples to include in here. Feel free to imagine them.) ***

What I’ve learned from bugs and non-maintenance of a website, is that they don’t bother as much, once the websites have been announced to exist online –> to the broader audience. The most crucial aspect of having a website was to announce that one has a website attached to one’s practise. But if that’s the goal, how much attention is thrown at the usefulness/importance of the information?

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Now, as de thinker in me is where it gets a bit complicated. In the beginning of my web-development journey, I wasn’t much aware of the hierarchy of information which exists in the digital. The reason why I didn’t pay attention to it was due to consuming reasons behind my interaction with everything online. Studying websites over time cleared out the division behind their purposes. I started to distinguish between commerce-oriented websites + those in flux/experimental. Being more of a flux+poetics-oriented web-developer and working with artists mainly, what I’ve noticed in the last year is an increase of web commercialization, and this as well, applies to the creative sector. Most creatives want header-body-footer kind of online presence, with a hamburger menu which doesn’t look like a hamburger; or split scrolling for more simplicity. The abundance accumulated by online tools and platforms designed for us to craft our artistic online presence (such as Wix, SquareSpace, Cargo Collective and so on) is generic. They all sell similar features/options, which we have no time to de-code or personalize. At the same time, with the popularity of these tools and their infinite offer of limited design (which seems unlimited), it’s hard to imagine other purposes of web-development, other than those of selling/representing/documenting. And that is for me, the definition of digital decay: digital boredom of digitally consuming constantly the same.

Looking at the web-development through the lens of architecture (my actual BA studies): where the hierarchy of information exists, and social life takes place, I cannot stop wondering why web-development can’t behave the same. What I’m thinking of is a living website (not a social network), full of bugs which will later be fixed and replaced by new bugs, or websites full of descriptive exhibition texts which will later be deleted and replaced by a gif, because the owner/user one day woke up and suddenly decided that it’s not about literal representation of the happening, but the feeling one is left with after the happening. (In other words, why can’t web-creation also be a tool for artistic expression?)

I somehow believe that if the context is in constant flux, the website of the context should also represent the flux.

Anyhow, what was unfortunate was that Martin La Roche’s presentation was prior to mine, during which he showed a website which killed my concerns about the current + mainstream web-development trends. How else can we archive art + build museums online (and without having user’s purchase of the ticket, as the main goal of online interaction)?

 

What is the idea behind Walky-Worky?

On 17th of November, 2018, I had been invited to give a presentation at Forum Design de Paris about my graduation project called Walky-Worky. The following text is what I read out loud from my smartphone, due to fear of public improvisation.

“Goodday everyone, my name is Maisa Imamović, and I am here today, to introduce you to Walky-Worky, also known as my graduation project.

I graduated this summer from Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, and I only mention the institution because it was a very interesting context to develop the idea of Walky-Worky in. Interesting in terms of stress, and a very specific stress.

In the academy, especially during the graduation year, students struggle with the pressure to fulfil and meet the expectations of authorities, more than with the stress of meeting their own expectations and goals. Some of the main questions are: Will the project fit to the graduation show? Will it attract the audience? What’s next? Something about this observation was telling me that the idea of education/learning, is somehow cut off from students in graduation year, and that most of that time is spent on making a project which is convincingly “sellable”. So it should fit to the graduation show, it should attract audience, and what’s next depends on how much the project follows this criteria. Creativity in this case, further takes the form of a product during the year. Being creative in this case, means working, similarly to 9-5 regime, except that the students are the ones who pay for it, instead of getting paid to graduate. That’s some brief introduction to the context, from a personal point of view, and I think it’s important to mention as it was an initial point of my project.

I think that it’s also important to mention what I think about the context. Where I stand is somewhere much against capitalisation of creativity and ideas, specifically leading to work-overload, and probably over-production, but also the killing of the orgasmic urge to create, and the killing of crucial reflection during the process.

While being in the same position of graduating, I decided to make a product from the beginning, just to avoid the resentment I would feel, if someone else would classify it as such (during the graduation show). I made a working table which I would give away to students to have a working experience with it. Along with the table, I’d give them a questionnaire to fill out after their experience, and the collected information soon took a form of a data archive.

 

Here is a more serious image of the archive.

This is what the information turned into: a general overview (of data).

Data Overview

After some time of collecting experiences, students became users, and I really started to feel as if I am inventing a product of the year.

The very first Walky-Worky looked like this:

The very first prototype of Walky-Worky

On the picture, you can see that it’s quite practical, it traps the user within itself, and even brings the hard-working experience to the next level. That’s also why it’s called Walky-Worky, you walk and work at the same time.

However, it was a very clumsy prototype, and almost dangerous as well. The legs were shaky, and the plate would be a heavy one if it would fall, so the users started working very consciously and cautiously on it. Besides complaints, in the “other remarks” section of the questionnaires, users were advising me to fix the problem, and even drew details of how to do it.

I collected 30 experiences from 30 users, in 5 months. After mapping and summarising the returned information from questionnaires, it was clear that everybody wanted to have a comfortable working experience. Now, what did that tell me? Not only that we are so used to comfort in our consumer culture, but also that users demand full comfort during their working activities. It’s a double yes-situation: 1 yes to comfort, 1 yes to work work work. And since these working activities were over-performed endlessly within an art academy, I easily came to a conclusion that the users were contributing to maintain this product-dependent society. (By working hard on a project which will end up being seen as a product)

I am not a big fan of full comfort, or constant work, so I decided that I don’t want them to work efficiently and comfortably. I started to design an interruption within the table, inspired by the coincidence of table’s shaky legs. This is what the table turned into:

new Walky-Worky

You can see that it became a wearable object, and quite heavy. A bigger trap than it used to be.

Next to it, I made a campaign video to justify my design choices, so that the audience wouldn’t question my decision so much, but rather question if it’s a necessary product, or if it would actually work. Let’s watch the video:

You might have guessed that the video was inspired by top-shop commercials. There’s a societal crisis chapter, telling us that something is definitely wrong with how we live our lives, there’s the solution chapter in which the product is obviously the god of this situation, and then there is a crisis solved chapter in which the product is trying to convince more than it works to actually fix the problem. This is only the trailer version of it.

So the ridiculousness from top-shop commercials further inspired Walky-Worky to also be presented absurdly, because it exists mainly to be questioned: why would anyone be interested in buying Walky-Worky were it to be massively produced on the market? I further wonder if the same question could apply to many other products and ideas today? Especially the ones that promote full efficiency, alternatives, solutions, and a better tomorrow? Walky-Worky does the same, except that it offers a designed struggle/ a discomfort, probably not something that the user would become dependent on.

To be honest, I would be very happy if Walky-Worky would actually be put into practice because it does function perfectly as a distractive tool. But, in such a structured and comfort-driven society, nobody seems to be ready to chill a bit from work, or let the struggle be a comfortable part of one’s life.

Here is how Walky-Worky looked during the graduation show:

 

So, I will conclude my thoughts on Walky-Worky by saying that it exists to question the context it derives from. Educational institution is one example, Walky-Worky is meant for all context where work is done.

And finally, before offering hope as a solution, I will end this presentation with a question:

 

And I will also end it with my answer, because I think it’s important to explain the irony I find myself in, which is: proposing a non-productive practice while being a maker at the same time. Certainly, my making doesn’t end here, my next design will be a DJ chair; because I still have an urge to distract people, or DJs from over-working; and then once I accomplish that and the majority has nothing to do, we can start talking about why making or designing is actually important in today’s times when objects are the ones who design our ideas instead of vice-versa. (Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley said that, and I agree with them)

In fact, I lied when I said that I will end it there, because I actually want to end with a book recommendation. If you also sometimes think that your ideas are not yours truly, but a cause of much stronger forces, sometimes called products, a book by Maurizio Lazzarato called Signs and Machines (capitalism and the production of subjectivity of course), is your friend.”