Since the birth of the web, programmers, web makers and designers have been working towards interfaces as a mode of access in order to democratise access to a worldwide information space. This objective raises a paradox between accessibility and loss of agency. Today, the gap has widened between an increasingly technical web environment, and an oversimplified access. Our web interfaces are based on an obfuscation of their programmatic layers: the current web design trend maintains that a practical system should not require the user to have to understand anything of the back-end system as this is too specialized to burden them with. Hence, we are witnessing the overthrow of a system initially created to augment human intellect Engelbart, 1962 and enable us to share and exchange knowledge, into a system that alienates, shapes and narrows our possibilities of action.
This thesis states that the opening of a service does not necessarily go hand in hand with the centralization and abandonment of its right of control. It also advocates that this is time to reconsider the global guideline of usability. Don’t get it wrong, this is not about motivating users to learn programming. Rather, the perspective is that of filling a lack of knowledge of its nature and structure coming from its absence from the world of representations, as Roberto Gimeno carefully advocates : “Everyone could not become a computer scientist. On the other hand, we are all users. As a result, it is crucial to be conscious of what a computer is, how it works, what its limits are, and what it can do for us.”
Discussion between Buellet, S., Gimeno R., & Renon, A., 2018. To see or to read, The pedagical Legacy of Jacques Bertin; Back Office n°2, Thinking, Classifying, Displaying, B42, Paris
In the first essay, an analogy of the Seek installation allows us to reflect on our status as web users. Our web environment adapts and changes to better serve and reflect us. Looking at the actual mechanisms of this process, it reveals that the enhanced user experience would not be possible without constant tracking and measurement of our behavior through all kinds of sources and sensors. In fact, our online actions and gestures reveal our intentions and reactions. The way they are analyzed and used to please users, allow web companies to shunt information they guess their users will like to see.This inadvertently isolates users into fixed structures and content limited to their preferences. Analysing guidelines of this process, such as the ones from W3C, Norm ISO or the Norman Nielsen group, revealed that today the initial ambition of accessibility is hard to distinguish from implicit motives of tech-business models, all of which is based on an implicit and invisible mechanism. These documents shows that they are based on cognitivism foundations whose flawis that they reduce the human experience to a series of behaviours (persona modelling, use scripts, etc.).
In the second essay, an analysis of small technical evolutions demonstrates that instantaneousness and effectiveness are considered as inherent concepts of usability. Small changes in our interfaces are guided by the policy of the instantaneous machine. As a result, the functioning of our technological objects becomes unreadable and imperceptible. Interactions are becoming more and more distant from the reality of how machines work. However, these transition events are not noise but information in all respects. They should be preserved allowing us to understand our actions and to remember that we are in fact using a computer.
The third essay is an investigation of how optimisation technologies are reshaping designer and publisher decision-making process and the Web itself. The business models of the majority of website are based on mining data from users accessing information online. An analysis of the widely used practice of A/B testing reveals how behavioural user data is used in specific contexts and what the potential ethicall pitfall of this data-driven practice are. Moreover, this statistical base is a detriment to design processes and its inabilty to allow for the conception of interfaces as a whole transform the role of the designer to a superficial layer.
“One thing about which fish know exactly nothing is water, since they have no anti-environment which would enable them to perceive the element they live in.” McLuhan, 2001. This metaphor drawn by Marshall McLuhan perfectly reflects the intentions of my role as a designer within this research and the forthcoming design project: To create awareness through “anti-environments” that will shock users into seeing the web environment as a figure, rather than as the invisible ground. It aims to open up on how user interfaces can be a playground for subjective, ironical, experiments, and critique by reversing engineering.
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