Seek was an installation conceived by Nicholas Negroponte and the Architecture group Machine,

Nicholas Negroponte is an American architect and computer scientist who was the founding director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Laborator in 1985 in response to response to the growing role of computers in modern life. He is considered as a pioneer in the field of computer-aided design. The Architecture group Machine MIT (Arch Mac) was a laboratory that meshed architecture, engineering, and computing in a new vision of architectural research and teaching. Architecture Machine Group was active from September 1982 to September 1985

originally shown in the exhibition Software. Information technology: its new meaning for art.

Software. Information technology: its new meaning for art was an exhibition curated by artist and critic Jack Burnham and held at the Jewish Museum in Brooklyn, New York City in November 1970 Acces Magazine PDF here

The installation consisted of a glass box filled with small cubes and a community of gerbils. The inhabitants of this cage-like city are continuously disrupting the position of the blocks, meanwhile a computer-controlled mechanical arm tries to maintain order. The mechanism is programmed to control, analyse and predict the behavior of the gerbils: Once the blocks are moved, a magnetic grappler rearranges their world, gradually learning their living preferences.Watching footage of this tireless machinery progressively made me feel very anxious as I started drawing a parallel with what’s happening on the web today.

Close up of the Installation SEEK at the Software. Information technology: its new meaning for art exhibition

Our web environment has evolved in a large scale feedback loop, where everything is shaped according to the way we browse and scroll through pages. As behavioural tracking systems become easier and faster to implement, they are used within more systems. Throughout the past 20 years, they have continued to become more accurate, more powerful, and widely deployed; giving rise to a new design focus: UX Design.

UX - User eXperience

This practice encompasses a framework of methods placing the user at the core of the design process. Every step is based on a preliminary and continuous analysis of their needs in order to create useful interfaces and provide them with the optimal experience. Everything, even the tiniest movement that we assume not worth mentioning gets measured, recorded and valued. All possible browser events

A browser event is simply the term used in computing to describe an action or occurrence that can be recognized and captured by a web browser. Such as mousevents, Keyboard events, HTML form, pointer events request, scroll requests and more …

are being considered and used to monitor our online behavior.

Navigation heatmpas for example, is one widespread practice used to measure how users consult a webpage. The results of these tracking processes show that users commonly browse the content of a web page in an F-shaped pattern. Accordingly, most websites are now structured following this scheme. It seems to be the best and only way to organise online content. A parallel between the structural divs of web pages and the metal block constituting the living environment of the SEEK experiment is easy to draw. This type of compartmental analysis locks users, but also web makers, in closed templates. This collection and analysis of navigation events becomes the only way of figuring what works and what does not; nothing is truly designed or curated any more, it is simply assumed.

The areas where users looked the most are colored red; the yellow areas indicate fewer hovering, followed by the least-viewed green areas. Other areas didn’t attract any fixations. The abover heat maps show how users read three different types of Web pages. (Google search results, The Guardian Unlimited Home page, and a cosmetic online retailer)

Web analytics and event-tracking tools are therefore used to optimise the ease of navigation influencing the structure of web pages, despite its obvious and direct connection to the content within these structures. Indeed, if we are able to track the time and position where one will stop at a specific part of a web page, we are also capable of linking it to the content behind this element. The analysis of these data enables assumptions on what type of content one might be likely to be interested in; making it possible to provide the user with personalized content once they reload the page. This process has given rise to the already well-known problem of filter bubbles. Users become separated from information that disagrees with their viewpoints or appreciation, comforting them in their own cultural or ideological bubbles. The project Data Selfie from the collective Data X explores the relationship we have to the online data we leave behind. Taking Facebook as a case study, Data Selfie is a browser extension that tries to reveal the profiles we never get to see, but unconsciously create. It reveals what’s happening behind the platform and it is this very unconsciousness that makes this project both ominous and powerful.

Screenshot of the explanatory video of Data Selfie Plugin.

In fact, where in SEEK, gerbils had a direct contact with the technology shaping their environment (they could see the tool and observe the grappler moving the cubes), these types of mechanisms operate in an invisible realm, leaving the user totally unaware of their presence. In his series of essays, Digital Humanities, Anthony Masure used a surprisingly similar metaphor regarding the mechanisms of this design process. Indeed, Masure’s essay concludes with: “Human understanding of UX design is generally limited to a lab rat experiment trying to find is way out of a labyrinth.” Masure, 2017

Overview of the installation Seek at the MIT labs.

Of course, this analogy exemplifies a more complex set of procedures that have gradually conquered our digital environment. The standardisation of the Internet into one conformist structure contains a set of small-scale strategies and actions that have gradually generated a closed circuit. To deconstruct this complex phenomenon, it is interesting to look at the semantic evolution within the discipline of human-machine interaction. Indeed, the vocabulary of Human Computer Interaction (HCI) which has been only growing since its inception now seems to merge into a single direction: UX Design.

Growth in usage of terms (user experience and human-computer interaction) in Google’s Ngram Viewer that cover almost 20M English-language books during 1990 to 2008.

User Experience wording was popularised through Don Norman’s

Donald Arthur Norman is an American Computer scientist and psychologist working in the field of Cognitive science and Usability engineering

self-selected title of User Experience Architect at Apple Computer, Inc. in 1993. Its meaning can be grasped through his own words: “The first requirement for an exemplary user experience is to meet the exact needs of the customer, without fuss or bother. Next comes simplicity and elegance that produce products that are a joy to own, a joy to use. True user experience goes far beyond giving customers what they say they want, or providing checklist features”.

Nielsen Norman Group. The Definition of User Experience (UX). [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 5 November 2018]

Therefore, the users can let themselves be carried away by an experience that was conceived especially for their needs, in which everything is arranged ahead of time, no hindrance, hesitation or questioning.

Norman extends this semantic mutation even further claiming: “One of the horrible words we use is users. I am on a crusade to get rid of the word ‘users’. I would prefer to call them ‘people’. We design for people, we don’t design for users”.

Don Norman at UX week 2008. Adaptive Path” Youtube [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 5 November 2018].

But beyond these rousing words, the backside system doesn’t seem to match this credo. Browsing Nielsen Norman Group web pages,

Nielsen Norman Group. World Leaders in Research-Based User Experience 2018. About Nielsen Norman Group: UX Training, Consulting, & Research. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 06 November 2018].

one does not require a thorough reading to come across terms such as: subjects study, participants, personas, user tracking, inspection methods, which brings the user closer to the rodents enclosed in the glass box than the people terminology coined by Norman.

Incidentally, these “design rules” around usability tend to be more and more standardised by organisations such as W3C

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is an international community working on the development of Web standards. Led by Web inventor and Director Tim Berners-Lee and CEO Jeffrey Jaffe, W3C’s mission is to lead the Web to its full potential.

or ISO.

International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is an independent, non-governmental international organization with a membership of 162 national standards bodies. Through its members, it brings together experts to share knowledge and develop voluntary, consensus-based, market relevant International Standards that support innovation and provide solutions to global challenges

Reading the definitions that these companies give to terms such as satisfaction, efficiency, usability conjures a dystopian overtone (a well-knit consensus where intended-users

Terms used in the 3.1.8-user group of the ISO norm 9241-11:2018 Ergonomics of human-system interaction — Part 11: Usability: Definitions and concepts. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 06 November 2018].

can evolve serenely). ISO advocates usability as following: “Usability is a more comprehensive concept than is commonly understood by ‘ease-of-use’ or ‘user friendliness’. Usable systems can provide a number of benefits including improved productivity, enhanced user well-being, avoidance of stress, increased accessibility” .

Extract from 3.2.6-human-centred design of the ISO norm 9241-11:2018

Everything is designed in such a way that the user is never confronted with a situation of failure. Going as far as setting the terminology used by the machine to address him: “The term use error is used in preference to user error or human error in order to avoid the implied assignment of responsibility for the error to the user.

Extract from Note 5 to entry 3.3.3-use error of the ISO norm 9241-11:2018

The user has become the spoiled child of an easy-to-use, delightful product experience transforming his uses into habits. It is not that the user demands it this way, he now expects it to be: “Content appears and operates in predictable ways. Many people rely on predictable user interfaces and are disoriented or distracted by inconsistent appearance or behavior”.

Name of one category of the page Accessibility Fundamentals defined by the w3C w3c_wai. 2018. Accessibility Principles | Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) | W3C. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 06 November 2018]. Many people rely on predictable user interfaces and are disoriented or distracted by inconsistent appearance or behavior

The web became a framed environment where users don’t blame themselves when they get stuck or frustrated, instead blaming the structure, the machine, the company behind the interface. But what should we think about an environment that prevents us from reassessing ourselves? What meaning can I give to the experience of a situation where everything is already planned for me before I can experience anything?

Forget about front-end and back-end, software and hardware, input and output, web browser, forms, menus and icons. All this is experience now. UX design appears to be a masking process creating a gap between the reality of our technology and what we can see on the screen. The designer Olia Lialina has been making web pages since 1995, and has hindsight on the evolution of its practices. She sees this evolution as a progressive alienation of the user from the technology: "The role of “experience” is to hide programmability or even customizability of the system, to minimise and channel users interaction with the system". Lialina, 2015

It brings the user illusion to such an extent that users believe that there is nothing behind. Built-in to provide direct paths to anything a user might want to achieve: the user is scripted to facilitate their tasks. As a matter of fact, users are evolving in an increasingly technical environment, and became accustomed to delegate tasks to the computer, rather than using it as an extension of his abilities. A problem then comes when the user can no longer even tell what the program’s task is : “In theory, a human being should be capable of following the execution of a program, box by box. However there are so many boxes to check that one is quickly obliged to delegate this task to software capable of translating what you formulate logically into code likely to be executed by an uncomprehending machine…Lassègue, 2018 Isn’t there a balance to be found to keep being aware of how the machines work? Are we giving up our agency for intuitive interactions, comforting structure, and preconfigured experiences?

The analysis of these three guidelines documents confirms to me that there is a problematic vocabulary that needs to be questioned and deconstructed. Inherently, the notion of user experience is not bad. Indeed if the term experience was thought of as the means of receiving information from something through practical contact, It would be an entirely different story. As for term user, it would be important to reinforce its status as a major player of the web, It should be an active role to be taken and not only an alleged one. In that sense, I totally support the view expressed by Olia Lialina : “Being a User is the last reminder that there is, whether visible or not, a computer, a programmed system you use.Lialina, 2015 Moreover, it's interesting to note that there is a distinction between this concept notion in French, between a usager and a utilisateur. Then the subject can be referred to as an usager (the one who seeks a purpose, who operates a tool) rather than as an utilisateur (the one who seeks a utility, who seeks the useful). It is this very nuance that would bring usability closer to its primary humanistic objective of openness and away from what it has become: the alienation of the user.

Close up of the gerbils on the Installation SEEK at the Software. Information technology: its new meaning for art exhibition

Selected bibliography:

-Adaptive Path, 2008. Don Norman at UX Week 2008. [video] Available here: Available here
-B42, 2018. Back Office 2 Graphic Design And Digital Practices. Editions B42.Available here
-Hadler, F., 2018. Beyond UX. Interface critique [online]. 2018. Vol. 01.. DOI 10.11588/ic.2018.0. Available here
-ISO norm 9241-11:2018 Ergonomics of human-system interaction. [online] Available here
-Lialina, O., 2015. Rich User Experience, UX and Desktopization of War. [online] Available here
-Lialina, O., 2012. Turing Complete User. [online] Available here
-Masure, A. 2017. Design et Humanités Numériques. Editions B42
-Norman, D., 2011.Living with complexity, MIT Press.
-Rushkoff, D., 2010. Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age. Soft Skull Press.
-Shneiderman, B., 2017. The Growth of HCI and User Interface/Experience Design [online] Available Here
-Software - Information Technology: Its New Meaning for Art, New York: Jewish Museum, 1970.Available here
-Turkle, S., 2005. The Second Self: Computers And The Human Spirit . MIT Press. Available here
-Vesna, V., 2007. Database Aesthetics: Art In The Age Of Information Overflow. Minnesota Press.