Sunday, November 2, 2008

From: Modern Life and the Univernacular

Jessica Helfand

Minimize difference. Maximize reproducability. Make it easy, accessible, understandable to all. This is the univernacular, ultra-homogenized and distinction-free, the international language of the status-quo. Indeed, as the boundary between public and private dissolves further into the untamed wilderness of our modern sensibilities, the degree to which design can be used to articulate any distinctions remains highly questionnable. Identity—whether it is understood to be private, as in the identity of an individual, or public, as in the identity of a place—is riddled with ambiguity. Stripped of the physical references that define self and site, gender and geography, we drift in a peaceful (if monotonous) no-man's land of intangible relationships and dematerialized transactions. Screen names masquerade as real names. Jargon replaces language. Hieroglyphs and buttons proliferate. We locate one another through a mysterious wayfinding system of numbers and letters, keywords and bookmarks, abbreviations and acronyms, random punctuation slicing and dicing through run-on sentences. It's a loopy lexicon of dot-this and slash-that and e-everything else, that's about as qualitatively informative about the "places" you are visiting as a pre-fab suburban development.

So we click. Scroll up. Page down. Life on the screen becomes a rigorous, Cartesian journey from East to West, up North, down South. It's an aesthetically simplistic, curatorially ill-defined flip book, in which four-dimensional experience is forcibly retrofitted to conform to the unforgiving parameters of two-dimensional representation. "Life" in this new "public" realm is physically constrained and programmatically curtailed by the economics of space (via screen) and time (via bandwidth) and, increasingly, appears largely predisposed to adopt the broadly accepted cultural bias opposing idiosyncrasy or individuality or anything that dares challenge the essential rules of the system itself. Fast and easy and mass produced—this is the "space" we inhabit, the "landscape" we peruse, the "environment" we are helping to build.

And we are cowards, because we are doing so little to change it, to question its lack of innovation, to challenge the ludicrous banality that characterizes its essential mass appeal. Instead, we hide behind creatively engineered pedigrees – calling ourselves "strategists" and "consultants" and, God help me, "information architects", when we are really just graphic designers. And despite being graphic designers – despite being in the business of two-dimensional representation – we continue to talk-the-univernacular-talk while we perpetuate the hackneyed assumptions and pretentious misconceptions that do so much to frame this culture, yet do so little to advance our profession.

Today's great technological euphemism for privacy is customization: its philosophical premise lies in the notion that technology can be responsive to an individual's taste and needs, its insatiable appetite for retail therapy. Customization may be personal, but it is also propaganda: it makes "you" the brand! Indeed, the sudden ubiquity of the prefix "my" on Websites around the globe – MyYahoo, MyEbay, MyNavelGazingWebCam.

So distinctions are passé. Conformity rocks. As we all hold hands and sing another refrain of "We Are the World" how nice that we can sleep soundly knowing there is a place for everything, and everything is in its place. It is so easy. After all, everything "looks and feels" so much like everything else!

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