A couple of days ago, Addy Dugdale observed a paradox:
One of the things that excites people most about technology is that it is seen as a gateway to the future. So how does that explain the recent glut of lo-fi adverts, software, and user interfaces that seem to be being spewed out by so-called hi-tech companies?
Addy offers into evidence a Rube Goldberg ad from Google Chrome. Very low fi indeed. It show tests begin performed on the speed of Chrome versus the speed of sound, lightening, and a potato being fired from a gun. The lab looks like a mechanic’s garage in the 1950s. It is manifestly the world of an enthusiastic amateur pretty much flying by the seat of her pants. It’s all very duct tape and “there, that should hold it.” This is the kind of lab where you really only feel comfortable in full body armor.
Addy’s right. The paradox is palpable. On the one hand, we have digital perfection, a search engine that returns millions of results with great speed and precision. On the other hand, we have a world of improv and accident where anything can happen and usually does.
We have seen this paradox before. Sara Winge pointed out a couple of years ago that many of her friends who work in the digital world spend some of their spare time works on projects by hand. There is additional evidence everywhere, including magazines like Craft and now a book from Make editor Mark Frauenfelder called Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World.
Addy gives us this useful glimpse of another cultural producer of this Lo-Fi effect for which I’m grateful. (I hadn’t seen it before.)
The high priest of lo-tech sensibility is, without doubt, Michel Gondry, whose devotion to the handmade and hand-drawn knows no bounds–don’t forget, he directed a episode of Flight of the Conchords, starring the ultimate amateurs, Bret and Jermaine. Gael Garcia Bernal’s character Stephane in The Science of Sleep, whose set design was part Rube, part craftsy, says this: "I think people empathize with what I do, because it comes from here [my heart]." Gondry’s 2008 movie Be Kind Rewind explores the whole hand-made theme. A viral for the Tomorrow Awards, a competition that celebrates technological excellence in advertising is pure Gondry.
I think there are three drivers of this paradox.
The first is a simple nostalgia. That 50s laboratory was a nightmare of inefficiency. Indeed, in the 1950s nothing worked especially well. The mechanical world was shot through with imperfection and accident. Thanks to several factors, now it works pretty well. And because human beings are in our very souls contrary, ungrateful creatures, we now hanker after the world we have lost.
The second is a wish for a kind of groundedness. As the world got digitized, the grammar of everything was now beautiful organized and streaming 1s and 0s. There almost no moving parts on my iPad. It operates with silent precision. So there is something kind of wonderful about tech with seams, levers, nice, big dials and moving parts.
Digital products are silent and slightly accusatory. They give nothing away about their internal operation, because frankly, they seem to say, you wouldn’t understand it anyhow. Naturally, we love the Italian, nearly operatic, full disclosure of Lo-fidelity tech that discloses not just what it does but how it does it. This is candor we can believe in.
Now that we can buy a video camera capable of very high fidelity, we like the imperfections of the Fisher-Price PXL2000, aka PixelVision, aka KiddieCorder. Actually, something in us requires the imperfections of the PixelVision. (And that’s why it was one of the cult objects of the 1990s.) Now that we can capture a perfect image, the PixelVision seems to promise a larger, poetic truth. In a world of post mechanical perfection, we love the the actual, the manual and the mechanical. It grounds us. It lets us back in. Most important, it flatters us. (It appears to care what we think, and for this small concession we are deeply grateful.)
Third, and here we must reverse fields entirely, we love the Lo-Fi aesthetic because it is a pretty good symbol of what the world is now. The new tech world may be rational, exact, dependable, reproducible. But the cultural effects are entirely opposite. They profuse, individual, unpredictable and all a great big muddle. Using the new technologies our culture is decentralized, distributed and busted out all over. It proceeds with scant regard for editorial direction and elite control. We are in the phrase created by Errol Morris, now Cheap, fast and out of control. We have many players and an immense number of plays. Indeed, Morris’ title seem to take on unintended significance precisely because it feel like it captured a world where everything was happening all at once.
In this world it is as if we all occupy our own little laboratories. We have the knowledge and the means of production that would only have to come to us if we has signed up as full time film makers, journalists, academics. And now that we live outside these institutions, we are very largely flying by the seat of our pants. I spend a good deal of time tapping the big dial of laboratory instruments, wondering if this reading, so interesting, is reliable. I am, as we all are, Victorians authorized to produce new kinds of culture by the conviction that, “hey, if you us, who, if not now, when?”
This aspect of the Lo-Fi aesthetic isn’t nostalgic or compensatory. This aspect is tapped into what our culture is now. We have the feeling that at least metaphorically our future is going to look very like this past.
Dugdale, Addy. 2010. Lo-Fi Design is Conquering the World of Tech. Fast Company. June 10. here.
Frauenfelder, Mark. 2010. Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World. New York: Portfolio.
McCracken, Grant. 2006. The Artisanal Trend and 10 Things that Define it. This Blog. November 6. here.