25 June 2015

Continuous Interfaces

Apple's Continuity technology across devices
Under the contemporary condition of computation the question of the interface requires us to attend to that which in everyday practice we attend to continuously.[1] In this short article I want to think about the way in which the interface as a thin membrane over computational devices is increasingly being stretched across computational devices, objects, practices and processes to create what I am calling continuous interfaces. This has political economic, material and phenomenological dimensions. Here, I focus on the relationship between a computational imaginary related to ubiquitous computing and its important links between design, interface patterns and material technologies rather than its political economic drivers, for example in terms of lock-in, ecological ideas of digital media, and platform hegemony (see Maeda 2015 for discussion of the importance of design as a driver of industry growth and competitiveness), however the materiality of technical devices remains crucial to understanding current technology imaginaries.[2]

The notion of continuous interfaces I am drawing from the concept of continuous computing which has been deployed to talk about the increasing way in which ubiquitous computing is being embedded in devices which are in tension with their environment – for example in Apple's new continuity technology (Apple 2015). The term continuity refers to the unbroken and consistent existence or operation of something over time but also gestures towards a media notion of continuity of broadcast, in the maintenance of continuous action and self-consistent detail in the various scenes of a film or broadcast. Thomson, for example argues that to enable a new area of continuous computing depends on three factors (adapted from Thomson 2015),
  • Physical design
  • Interaction models
  • The ability of the technical device to interact with its environment  
The experience of the surface of computation has intensified in recent years, both in terms of its growth as a mediating technology for social and cultural life, but also in terms of conceptual means for transcending institutional and technical boundaries between different spheres. Current manifestations of continuous interfaces have tended towards individual computing, the passing of a theoretical user interface intentionality across different computational surfaces, for example. But one could imagine a public continuity as a social imaginary which contributes to public culture and an imagined community although there appears to be little work in this area (see Anderson 2006 for a discussion of imagined community).

So continuity as a concept has links between hyper-individualised experiences of computation and closing the gap between different personal devices, and individualised goal-oriented behaviours, that is, instrumental rationality (Berry 2014). This also includes the micro-level of the individualised technologies across which various personal technologies that stretch computation across lives, life histories and sociality. This is a problematic I have argued elsewhere (Berry 2011, 2014) and concerns questions of interoperability, of inter or intra-computation and object-oriented paradigms of intercommunication between technical devices which now appears to have begun to be augmented through design, as a horizon of understanding provided by flat interfaces (Berry 2015).[3]

The requirement for a shared constellation of representations, axiomatic concepts and grammars of interaction requires a complex assemblage of technologies, articulated through code and design, that has characteristics of responsive design combined with a tight coupling between the materiality of the technical device and the articulation of the principles of the design language. The recent turn towards flat design has been manifested in the use of a double articulation of the geometric fundamentals of the primitives of the interface combined with a neo-materialist abstraction of fictional materials from which the interface is imagined to be constructed. The obduracy of the interface is guaranteed through technical restrictions built into the interface toolbox, both in terms of API functionality but also the sophisticated deployment of integrated development environments (IDEs). But there is also a mythic reinforcement through the allegory of a material form that guarantees the conceptual and practical instantiation of interface design, so in the case of Google it is paper, and for Apple it is glass. 

In Berry (2014) I talked about an analytical method of both separating the interface from the underlying code in a depth model of analysis that used the concepts of commodity and mechanism to point to the structural form of computational systems. These were defined as,
  • Commodity: accessible via the interface/surface and providing or procuring a commodity/service/function. Provides a relative stability for the consumption of ends. The commodity is usually articulated at the level of the interactional layer, usually visually, although this may be through other sensory interfaces level.
  • Mechanism: accessible via textual source code, which contains the mechanisms and functions ‘hidden’ in the software (means). This can be thought of as the substructure for the overlay of commodities and consumption. The mechanisms are usually delegated within the codal layer, and thus hidden from the interactional.
This is nonetheless a simplification of the architectural structure of the computer allowing the fundamental dimensions of the the relationship between the interface (commodity) and the code (mechanism) to be brought forward. In relation to an approach to thinking about the interface qua interface, particularly in relation to a method or approach that contributes to interface criticism it might be helpful to zoom in on the interface not only as a thin layer or surface upon computational machinery, but also as a discrete computational form in and of itself. Here I am thinking about the possibility of thinking of the interface as a machine in its own right, in terms of what we might call thin computation that tends to be optimised towards breadth rather than depth in terms of its relationship to the functional properties of the computer, but also in a spatial and temporal dimension.[4]  There is also an important question around the scaler function of continuous interfaces for transcending and scaling down planetary-scale computation to a local and individual scale (see Bratton 2014)

Investigating these developments requires the triangulation of critical approaches to technologies, systems, interfaces, media and culture, but also supplemented with new methods for reading (and perhaps writing) continuity. Some tactics which might be deployed in a continuous interface criticism might include,
  • Disrupting the bluetooth and WiFi antennas that enable the continuity experience. 
  • Connecting and disconnecting new devices into the fabric of continuity technologies. 
  • Connecting devices across platforms, e.g. across material and flat design paradigms. 
  • Overloading the data or computational power to cause glitches to be surfaced in terms of the continuous interface. 
  • Hijacking the public continuity functionality of users' personal technology either to invert the public/private continuity relationship, or to open the black box of such an "invisible" technology.[5] 
  • Hacking the real-time experience of continuous interfaces by slowing down (increasing the latency) of computational translation between material objects.[6]
Continuous interfaces offers not only a conceptual means of thinking about a possible new phase in interface design, but also invites us to think about the way in which one can deploy interface criticism under continuous computing. This helps to disrupt not just the traditional surfaces of computation, but also a growing tapestry of computational moments, objects, glances, notifications and complications that are weaved across the life-world and which we attend to continuously.


[1] This article was prompted by attending the Interfaces: Method and Critique for Designed Cultures conference at the University of Warwick, 24-25 June 2015. See http://cim-interfaces.net
[2] Maeda (2015) argues "I predict large tech companies will place greater attention on design. This is not dissimilar to the automobile industry as it began to mature — the famous point when Henry Ford refused to sell variations in the only color that mattered, compared with GM, which diversified its designs to appeal to larger populations across multiple brands like Chevrolet, Buick and Cadillac with differing emotional appeal. We see it already with Google’s efforts around Android’s enhanced “Material” visual language led by Matias Duarte, eBay’s design leadership efforts led by John Donahoe and IBM’s resurgence in the design space with its new Austin center led by Phil Gilbert"
[3] Design as a theoretical limit for the reconciliation of a highly fragmented computation experience, but also life in postmodern capitalism is interestingly reflected on by Latour (2008), where he argues "today everyone with an iPhone knows that it would be absurd to distinguish what has been designed from what has been planned, calculated, arrayed, arranged, packed, packaged, defined, projected, tinkered, written down in code, disposed of and so on. From now on, 'to design' could mean equally any or all of those verbs. Secondly, it has grown in extension – design is applicable to ever larger assemblages of production. The range of things that can be designed is far wider now than a limited list of ordinary or even luxury goods".
[4] The production of a series of subjectivities constantly overloaded and reinforced through the interface as a temporal object which mediates experience can be captured in the idea of a subjectivity specific to a condition on contextual computing, continuous interfaces and flat design, what we might term flat dasein. That is a minimal subjectivity augmented through environmental and non-conscious cognition from machinic faculties produced via the programming industries and particularly the cognitive-software-design complex of Silicon Valley. 
[5] For an example of a hack of Apple's instantiation of continuous computing is the Continuity Activation Tool, see https://github.com/dokterdok/Continuity-Activation-Tool/
[6] Treating continuity transfers as a logistics network, and selectively slowing down and speeding up the continuity computational objects would be an interesting example of playfully demonstrating the continuity system. 


Anderson, B. (2006) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso Books.

Apple (2015) Connect your iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and Mac using Continuity, accessed 25/06/15,  https://support.apple.com/en-gb/HT204681

Berry, D. M. (2011) The Philosophy Of Software: Code and Mediation in the Digital Age, Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Berry, D. M. (2014) Critical Theory and the Digital, New York: Bloomsbury

Berry, D. M. (2015) Flat Theory, Boundary 2, accessed 25/06/2015, http://boundary2.org/2015/01/27/flat-theory/

Bratton, B. (2014) The Black Stack, e-flux, accessed 25/06/2015, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/the-black-stack/

Latour, B. (2008) A Cautious Prometheus? A Few Steps Toward a Philosophy of Design (with Special Attention to Peter Sloterdijk), accessed 25/06/2015, http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/112-DESIGN-CORNWALL-GB.pdf

Maeda, J. (2015) Weekend Read: Why Design Matters More than Moore, The Wall Street Journal, accessed 25/06/2015, http://blogs.wsj.com/accelerators/2015/05/22/weekend-read-why-design-matters-more-than-moore/

Thomson, B. (2015) Apple Watch and Continuous Computing, Stratechery, accessed 25/06/2015, https://stratechery.com/2015/apple-watch-and-continuous-computing/

31 May 2015

Curatorialism as New Left Politics

It is often argued that the left is left increasingly unable to speak a convincing narrative in the digital age. Caught between the neoliberal language of contemporary capitalism and its political articulations linked to economic freedom and choice, and a welfare statism that appears counter-intuitively unappealing to modern political voters and supporters, there is often claimed to be a lacunae in the political imaginary of the left. Here, I want to explore a possible new articulation for a left politics that moves beyond the seeming technophilic and technological determinisms of left accelerationisms and the related contradictions of "fully automated luxury communism". Broadly speaking, these positions tend to argue for a post-work, post-scarcity economy within a post-capitalist society based on automation, technology and cognitive labour. Accepting these are simplifications of the arguments of the proponents of these two positions the aim is to move beyond the assertion that the embracing of technology itself solves the problem of a political articulation that has to be accepted and embraced by a broader constituency within the population. Technophilic politics is not, of itself, going to be enough to convince an electorate, nor a population, to move towards leftist conceptualisations of possible restructuring or post-capitalist economics. However, it seems to me that the abolition of work is not a desirable political programme for the majority of the population, nor does a seemingly utopian notion of post-scarcity economics make much sense under conditions of neoliberal economics. Thus these programmes are simultaneously too radical and not radical enough. I also want to move beyond the staid and unproductive arguments often articulated in the UK between a left-Blairism and a more statist orientation associated with a return to traditional left concerns personified in Ed Miliband.

Instead, I want to consider what a politics of the singularity might be, that is, to follow Fredrick James's conceptualisation of the singularity as "is a pure present without a past or a future" such that,
today we no longer speak of monopolies but of transnational corporations, and our robber barons have mutated into the great financiers and bankers, themselves de-individualized by the massive institutions they manage. This is why, as our system becomes ever more abstract, it is appropriate to substitute a more abstract diagnosis, namely the displacement of time by space as a systemic dominant, and the effacement of traditional temporality by those multiple forms of spatiality we call globalization. This is the framework in which we can now review the fortunes of singularity as a cultural and psychological experience (Jameson 2015: 128). 
That is the removal of temporality of a specific site of politics as such, or the successful ideological deployment of a new framework of understand of oneself within temporality, whether through the activities of the media industries, or through the mediation of digital technologies and computational media. This has the effect of the transformation of temporal experience into new spatial experiences, whether through translating media, or through the intensification of a now that constantly presses upon us and pushes away both historical time, but also the possibility for political articulations of new forms of futurity. Thus the politics of singularity point to spatiality as the key site of political deployment within neoliberalism, and by this process undercutting the left's arguments which draw simultaneously on a shared historical memory of hard-won rights and benefits, but also the notion of political action to fight for a better future. Indeed, one might ask if green critique of the anthropocene, with its often misanthropic articulations, in some senses draws on some notion of a singularity produced by humanity which has undercut the time of geological or planetary scale change. The only option remaining then is to seek to radically circumscribe, if not outline a radical social imaginary that does not include humans in its conception, and hence to return the planet to the stability of a geological time structure no longer undermined by human activity. Similarly, neoliberal arguments over political imaginaries highlight the intensity and simultaneity of the present mode of capitalist competition and the individualised (often debt-funded) means of engagement with economic life.

What then might be a politics of the singularity which moved beyond politics that drew on forms of temporality for their legitimation. In other words, how could a politics of spatiality be articulated and deployed which re-enabled the kind of historical project towards a better future for all that was traditionally associated with leftist thought?

To do this I want to think through the notion of the "curator" that Jameson disparagingly thinks is an outcome of the singularity in terms of artistic practice and experience. He argues, that today we are faced with the "emblematic figure of the curator, who now becomes the demiurge of those floating and dissolving constellations of strange objects we still call art." Further,
there is a nastier side of the curator yet to be mentioned, which can be easily grasped if we look at installations, and indeed entire exhibits in the newer postmodern museums, as having their distant and more primitive ancestors in the happenings of the 1960s—artistic phenomena equally spatial, equally ephemeral. The difference lies not only in the absence of humans from the installation and, save for the curator, from the newer museums as such. It lies in the very presence of the institution itself: everything is subsumed under it, indeed the curator may be said to be something like its embodiment, its allegorical personification. In postmodernity, we no longer exist in a world of human scale: institutions certainly have in some sense become autonomous, but in another they transcend the dimensions of any individual, whether master or servant; something that can also be grasped by reminding ourselves of the dimension of globalization in which institutions today exist, the museum very much included (Jameson 2015: 110-111).
However, Jameson himself makes an important link between spatiality as the site of a contestation and the making-possible of new spaces, something curatorial practice, with its emphasis on the construction, deployment and design of new forms of space points towards. Indeed, Jameson argues in relation to theoretical constructions, "perhaps a kind of curatorial practice, selecting named bits from our various theoretical or philosophical sources and putting them all together in a kind of conceptual installation, in which we marvel at the new intellectual space thereby momentarily produced" (Jameson 2015: 110).

In contrast, the question for me is the radical possibilities suggested by this event-like construction of new spaces, and how they can be used to reverse or destabilise the time-axis manipulation of the singularity. The question then becomes: could we tentatively think in terms of a curatorial political practice, which we might call curatorialism? Indeed, could we fill out the ways in which this practice could aim to articulate, assemble and more importantly provide a site for a renewal and (re)articulation of left politics? How could this politics be mobilised into the nitty-gritty of actual political practice, policy, activist politics, and engender the affective relation that inspires passion around a political programme and suggests itself to the kinds of singularities that inhabit contemporary society? To borrow the language of the singularity itself, how could one articulate a new disruptive left politics?

At this early stage of thinking, it seems to me that in the first case we might think about how curatorialism points towards the need to move away from concern with internal consistency in the development of a political programme. Curatorialism gathers its strength from the way in which it provides a political pluralism, an assembling of multiple moments into a political constellation that takes into account and articulates its constituent moments. This is the first step in the mapping of the space of a disruptive left politics. This is the development of a spatial politics in as much as, crucially, the programme calls for a weaving together of multiplicity into this constellational form. Secondly, we might think about the way in which this spatial diagram can then be  translated into a temporal project, that is the transformation of a mapping program into a political programme linked to social change. This requires the capture and illumination of the multiple movements of each moment and re-articulation through a process of reframing the condition of possibility in each constellational movement in terms of a political economy that draws from the historical possibilities that the left has made possible previously, but also the need for new concepts and ideas to link the political of necessity to the huge capacity of a left project towards mitigating/and or replacement of a neoliberal capitalist economic system. Lastly, it seems to me that to be a truly curatorial politics means to link to the singularity itself as a force of strength for left politics, such that the development of a mode of the articulation of individual political needs, is made possible through the curatorial mode, and through the development of disruptive left frameworks that links individual need, social justice, institutional support, and left politics that reconnects the passions of interests to the passion for justice and equality with the singularity's concern with intensification. [1] This can, perhaps, be thought of as the replacement of a left project of ideological purity with a return to the Gramscian notions of strategy and tactics through the deployment of what he called a passive revolution, mobilised partially in the new forms of civil society created through collectivities of singularities within social media, computational devices and the new infrastructures of digital capitalism but also within the through older forms of social institutions, political contestations and education.[2] 


[1] This remains a tentative articulation that is inspired by the power of knowledge-based economies both to create the conditions of singularity through the action of time-axis manipulation (media technologies), but also their (arguably) countervailing power to provide the tools, spaces and practices for the contestation of the singularity connected only with a neoliberal political moment. That is, how can these new concept and ideas, together with the frameworks that are suggested in their mobilisation, provide new means of contestation, sociality and broader connections of commonality and political praxis. 
[2] I leave to a later paper the detailed discussion of the possible subjectivities both in and for themselves within a framework of a curatorial politics. But here I am gesturing towards political parties as the curators of programmes of political goals and ends, able then to use the state as a curatorial enabler of such a political programme. This includes the active development of the individuation of political singularities within such a curatorial framework.  


Jameson F. (2015) The Aesthetics of Singularity, New Left Review, No. 92.

08 May 2015

Signal Lab

As part of the Sussex Humanities Lab, at the University of Sussex, we are developing a research group clustered around information theoretic themes of signal/noise, signal transmission, sound theorisation, musicisation, simulation/emulation, materiality, game studies theoretic work, behavioural ideologies and interface criticism. The cluster is grouped under the label Signal Lab and we aim to explore the specific manifestations of the mode of existence of technical objects. This is explicitly a critical and political economic confrontation with computation and computational rationalities.

Signal Lab will focus on techno-epistemological questions around the assembly and re-assembley of past media objects, postdigital media and computational sites. This involves both attending to the impressions of the physical hardware (as a form of techne) and the logical and mathematical intelligence resulting from software (as a form of logos). Hence we aim to undertake an exploration of the technological conditions of the sayable and thinkable in culture and how the inversion of reason as rationality calls for the excavation of how techniques, technologies and computational medias direct human and non-human utterances without reducing techniques to mere apparatuses.

This involves the tracing of the contingent emergence of ideas and knowledge in systems in space and time, to understand distinctions between noise and speech, signal and absence, message and meaning. This includes an examination of the use of technical media to create the exclusion of noise as both a technical and political function and the relative importance of chaos and irregularity within the mathematization of chaos itself. It is also a questioning of the removal of the central position of human subjectivity and the development of a new machine-subject in information and data rich societies of control and their attendant political economies.

Within the context of information theoretic questions, we revisit the old chaos, and the return of the fear of, if not aesthetic captivation toward, a purported contemporary gaping meaninglessness. Often associated with a style of nihilism, a lived cynicism and jaded glamour of emptiness or misanthropy. Particularly in relation to a political aesthetic that desires the liquidation of the subject which in the terms of our theoretic approach, creates not only a regression of consciousness but also the regression to real barbarism. That is, data, signal, mathematical noise, information and computationalism conjure the return of fate and the complicity of myth with nature and a concomitant total immaturity of society and a return to a society in which self-relfection can no longer open its eyes, and in which the subject not only does not exist but instead becomes understood as a cloud of data points, a dividual and a undifferentiated data stream.

Signal Lab will therefore pay attention both to the synchronic and diachronic dimensions of computational totality, taking the concrete meaningful whole and essential elements of computational life and culture. This involves the explanation of the emergence of the present given social forces in terms of some past structures and general tendencies of social change. That is, that within a given totality, there is a process of growing conflict among opposite tendencies and forces which constitutes the internal dynamism of a given system and can partly be examined at the level of behaviour and partly at the level of subjective motivation. This is to examine the critical potentiality of signal in relation to the possibility of social forces and their practices and articulations within a given situation and how they can play their part in contemporary history. This potentially opens the door to new social imaginaries and political possibility for emancipatory politics in a digital age.

24 December 2014


One of the key moments in the composition of the conditions of possibility for a digital abstraction, within which certain logical operations might be combined, performed and arranged to carry out algorithmic computation took place in 1961 when James Buie who was employed by Pacific Semiconductor patented the Transistor Transistor Logic (TTL). This was an all transistor logic for analogue circuitry that crucially standardised the voltage configuration for digital circuitry (0v-5v). This represented a development from the earlier Diode–transistor logic (DTL) which used a diode network and an amplifying function performed by a transistor, and the even earlier Resistor–transistor logic (RTL) based on resistors which handled the input network and bipolar junction transistors (BJTs) as the switching devices. The key to these logic circuits was the creation of a representation of logic functions through the arrangement of the circuitry such that key boolean logic operations could be performed. TTL offered an immediate speed increase as the transition over a diode input is slower than using a transistor. With the creation of the TTL circuitry the logical operations of NAND and NOR allowed the modular construction of a number of boolean operations that themselves served as the components of microprocessor modules, such as the Adder.

I want to explore the importance of signal in relation to the interface between the underlying analogue carrier of the digital circuitry and the logical abstraction of digital computation – that is the maximisation of signal over noise in the creation of a digital signal carrier. It is exactly at this point that the emergence of digital computation is made possible, but also a suggestive link between signal/noise that points to the use of abstraction to minimise noise throughout the design of the digital computer, and which creates a logical universe within which computational thinking, that is signal without noise, or without noise as previously understood as thermal noise, is a constituent of programming practice. This is useful for developing an understanding between notions of materiality in theorising the digital, but also in making explicit the connection between digital "signal" and voltage "signal" or between the possibility of communication of information in a digital system.

At its most basic level standard TTL circuits require a 5-volt power supply which provides the framework within which a binary dichotomy is constructed to represent the true (1) and the false (0). The TTL signal is considered "low", that is "false" or "0", when the voltage is between the values of 0V and 0.8V (with respect to ground) and "high", that is "true" or "1" when the voltage lies between 2.2V and 5V (called VCC to indicate that the top voltage is provided by the power supply, known as the positive supply voltage). Voltage which lies between 0.8V and 2.0V is considered "uncertain" or "illegitimate" and may resolve to either side of the binary division depending on the prior state of the circuitry or be filtered out by the use of additional circuitry. The range of voltages allows for manufacturing tolerances and instabilities of the material carrier, such that noise, uncertainty and glitches can be tolerated. This tripartite division creates the following diagram:

Tripartite division of voltage in TTL digital circuitry

This standardisation of the grammatisation of voltage creates the first and significant "cut" of the analogue world and one which was hugely important historically. By standardising the division of the binary elements of digital computation, in effect, the interoperability of off-the-shelf digital circuits becomes possible, and thus instead of thinking in terms of electrical compatibility, voltage and so forth, the materiality of the binary circuit is abstracted away. This makes possible the design and construction of a number of key circuits which can be combined in innovative ways. It is crucial to recognise that from this point, the actual voltage of the circuits themselves vanishes into the background of computer design as the key issue becomes the creation of combination of logical circuits and the issues of propagation, cross-talk and noise emerge at the different level. In effect, the signal/noise problematic is raised to a new and different level.

18 December 2014

The Sussex Humanities Lab

The Sussex Humanities Lab is a new programme that will seek to position the University of Sussex at the forefront of theoretical and empirical work exploring the purported fundamental re-configuration of the humanities offered by computational technologies. As culture is re-born digital, old divisions that marked out criticism from history, music from paint, image from text, object from performance, have become increasingly problematic - legacies, perhaps, of the mediality of technologies like print and the structures inherited from the medieval university. When cultural production flows through the digital, the boundaries between different media and practices are reconfigured. This new formation calls for us to re-imagine the humanities, and to build fields of study that transcend the computational and the aesthetic, informed by new digital objects of study, rather than by inherited disciplinary approaches. As such, this programme does not merely suggest a newly transplanted digital humanities into the existing disciplinary structures of the university, but rather another digital humanities. One which connects to the theoretical concerns of new media, media studies, critical theory, software studies, digital media, cultural studies and medium theory, whilst continuing to draw on and reconfigure the humanities within a digital milieu. As such, this suggests a turn to critical digital humanities and with it a set of concerns that engage with notions of materiality, medium-specificity, cultural critique, computation, networks, archives, performance, practices, and new computational cultures.

Directors: Caroline Bassett (PI), David M. Berry (Co-I), Sally Jane Norman (Co-I), Tim Hitchcock (Co-I), and Rachel Thomson (Co-I).

/// Launching Sept 2015 ///

13 November 2014

Flat Theory

The world is flat.[1] Or perhaps better, the world is increasingly "layers". Certainly the augmediated imaginaries of the major technology companies are now structured around a post-retina notion of mediation made possible and informed by the digital transformations ushered in by mobile technologies that provide a sense of place, as well as a sense of management of complex real-time streams of information and data.

Two new competing computational interface paradigms are now deployed in the latest version of Apple and Google's operating systems, but more notably as regulatory structures to guide the design and strategy related to corporate policy. The first is "flat design" which has been introduced by Apple through iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite as a refresh of the ageing operating systems' human computer interface guidelines, essentially stripping the operating system of historical baggage related to techniques of design that disguised the limitations of a previous generation of technology, both in terms of screen but also processor capacity. It is important to note, however, that Apple avoids talking about "flat design" as its design methodology, preferring to talk through its platforms specificity, that is about iOS' design or OS X's design. The second is "material design" which was introduced by Google into its Android L, now Lollipop, operating system and which also sought to bring some sense of coherence to a multiplicity of Android devices, interfaces, OEMs and design strategies. More generally “flat design” is "the term given to the style of design in which elements lose any type of stylistic characters that make them appear as though they lift off the page" (Turner 2014). As Apple argues, one should “reconsider visual indicators of physicality and realism” and think of the user interface as "play[ing] a supporting role", that is that techniques of mediation through the user interface should aim to provide a new kind of computational realism that presents "content" as ontologically prior to, or separate from its container in the interface (Apple 2014). This is in contrast to “rich design,” which has been described as "adding design ornaments such as bevels, reflections, drop shadows, and gradients" (Turner 2014).

I want to explore these two main paradigms – and to a lesser extent the flat-design methodology represented in Windows 7/8 and the, since renamed, Metro interface (now Microsoft Modern UI) – through a notion of a comprehensive attempt by both Apple and Google to produce a rich and diverse umwelt, or ecology, linked through what what Apple calls "aesthetic integrity" (Apple 2014). This is both a response to their growing landscape of devices, platforms, systems, apps and policies, but also to provide some sense of operational strategy in relation to computational imaginaries. Essentially, both approaches share an axiomatic approach to conceptualising the building of a system of thought, in other words, a primitivist predisposition which draws from both a neo-Euclidian model of geons (for Apple), but also a notion of intrinsic value or neo-materialist formulations of essential characteristics (for Google). That is, they encapsulate a version of what I am calling here flat theory. Both of these companies are trying to deal with the problematic of multiplicities in computation, and the requirement that multiple data streams, notifications and practices have to be combined and managed within the limited geography of the screen. In other words, both approaches attempt to create what we might call aggregate interfaces by combining techniques of layout, montage and collage onto computational surfaces (Berry 2014: 70).

The "flat turn" has not happened in a vacuum, however, and is the result of a new generation of computational hardware, smart silicon design and retina screen technologies. This was driven in large part by the mobile device revolution which has not only transformed the taken-for-granted assumptions of historical computer interface design paradigms (e.g. WIMP) but also the subject position of the user, particularly structured through the Xerox/Apple notion of single-click functional design of the interface. Indeed, one of the striking features of the new paradigm of flat design, is that it is a design philosophy about multiplicity and multi-event. The flat turn is therefore about modulation, not about enclosure, as such, indeed it is a truly processual form that constantly shifts and changes, and in many ways acts as a signpost for the future interfaces of real-time algorithmic and adaptive surfaces and experiences. The structure of control for the flat design interfaces is following that of the control society, is "short-term and [with] rapid rates of turnover, but also continuous and without limit" (Deleuze 1992). To paraphrase Deleuze: Humans are no longer in enclosures, certainly, but everywhere humans are in layers.

Apple uses a series of concepts to link its notion of flat design which include, aesthetic integrity, consistency, direct manipulation, feedback, metaphors, and user control (Apple 2014). Reinforcing the haptic experience of this new flat user interface has been described as building on the experience of "touching glass" to develop the "first post-Retina (Display) UI (user interface)" (Cava 2013). This is the notion of layered transparency, or better, layers of glass upon which the interface elements are painted through a logical internal structure of Z-axis layers. This laminate structure enables meaning to be conveyed through the organisation of the Z-axis, both in terms of content, but also to place it within a process or the user interface system itself.

Google, similarly, has reorganised it computational imaginary around a flattened layered paradigm of representation through the notion of material design. Matias Duarte, Google's Vice President of Design and a Chilean computer interface designer, declared that this approach uses the notion that it “is a sufficiently advanced form of paper as to be indistinguishable from magic” (Bohn 2014). But magic which has constraints and affordances built into it, "if there were no constraints, it’s not design — it’s art" Google claims (see Interactive Material Design) (Bohn 2014). Indeed, Google argues that the "material metaphor is the unifying theory of a rationalized space and a system of motion", further arguing:
The fundamentals of light, surface, and movement are key to conveying how objects move, interact, and exist in space and in relation to each other. Realistic lighting shows seams, divides space, and indicates moving parts... Motion respects and reinforces the user as the prime mover... [and together] They create hierarchy, meaning, and focus (Google 2014). 
This notion of materiality is a weird materiality in as much as Google "steadfastly refuse to name the new fictional material, a decision that simultaneously gives them more flexibility and adds a level of metaphysical mysticism to the substance. That’s also important because while this material follows some physical rules, it doesn’t create the "trap" of skeuomorphism. The material isn’t a one-to-one imitation of physical paper, but instead it’s 'magical'" (Bohn 2014). Google emphasises this connection, arguing that "in material design, every pixel drawn by an application resides on a sheet of paper. Paper has a flat background color and can be sized to serve a variety of purposes. A typical layout is composed of multiple sheets of paper" (Google Layout, 2014). The stress on material affordances, paper for Google and glass for Apple are crucial to understanding their respective stances in relation to flat design philosophy.[2]
Glass (Apple): Translucency, transparency, opaqueness, limpidity and pellucidity. 
Paper (Google): Opaque, cards, slides, surfaces, tangibility, texture, lighted, casting shadows. 
Paradigmatic Substances for Materiality

In contrast to the layers of glass that inform the logics of transparency, opaqueness and translucency of Apple's flat design, Google uses the notion of remediated "paper" as a digital material, that is this "material environment is a 3D space, which means all objects have x, y, and z dimensions. The z-axis is perpendicularly aligned to the plane of the display, with the positive z-axis extending towards the viewer. Every sheet of material occupies a single position along the z-axis and has a standard 1dp thickness" (Google 2014). One might think then of Apple as painting on layers of glass, and Google as thin paper objects (material) placed upon background paper. However a key difference lies in the use of light and shadow in Google's notion which enables the light source, located in a similar position to the user of the interface, to cast shadows of the material objects onto the objects and sheets of paper that lie beneath them (see Jitkoff 2014). Nonetheless, a laminate structure is key to the representational grammar that constitutes both of these platforms.

Armin Hofmann, head of the graphic design department at the Schule für Gestaltung Basel (Basel School of Design) and was instrumental in developing the graphic design style known as  the Swiss Style. Designs from 1958 and 1959. 

Interestingly, both design strategies emerge from an engagement with and reconfiguration of the principles of design that draw from the Swiss style (sometimes called the International Typographic Style) in design (Ashghar 2014, Turner 2014).[3] This approach emerged in the 1940s, and
mainly focused on the use of grids, sans-serif typography, and clean hierarchy of content and layout. During the 40’s and 50’s, Swiss design often included a combination of a very large photograph with simple and minimal typography (Turner 2014).
The design grammar of the Swiss style has been combined with minimalism and the principle of "responsive design", that is that the materiality and specificity of the device should be responsive to the interface and context being displayed. Minimalism is a "term used in the 20th century, in particular from the 1960s, to describe a style characterized by an impersonal austerity, plain geometric configurations and industrially processed materials" (MoMA 2014). Robert Morris, one of the principle artists of Minimalism, and author of the influential Notes on Sculpture used "simple, regular and irregular polyhedrons. Influenced by theories in psychology and phenomenology" which he argued "established in the mind of the beholder ‘strong gestalt sensation’, whereby form and shape could be grasped intuitively" (MoMA 2014).[4]

Robert Morris: Untitled (Scatter Piece), 1968-69, felt, steel, lead, zinc, copper, aluminum, brass, dimensions variable; at Leo Castelli Gallery, New York. Photo Genevieve Hanson. All works this article © 2010 Robert Morris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
The implications of these two competing world-views are far-reaching in that much of the worlds initial contact, or touch points, for data services, real-time streams and computational power is increasingly through the platforms controlled by these two companies. However, they are also deeply influential across the programming industries, and we see alternatives and multiple reconfigurations in relation to the challenge raised by the "flattened" design paradigms. That is, they both represent, if only in potentia, a situation of a power relation and through this an ideological veneer on computation more generally. Further, with the proliferation of computational devices – and the screenic imaginary associated with them in the contemporary computational condition – there appears a new logic which lies behind, justifies and legitimates these design methodologies.

It seems to me that these new flat design philosophies, in the broad sense, produce an order in precepts and concepts in order to give meaning and purpose not only in the interactions with computational platforms, but also more widely in terms of everyday life. Flat design and material design are competing philosophies that offer alternative patterns of both creation and interpretation, which are meant to have not only interface design implications, but more broadly in the ordering of concepts and ideas, the practices and the experience of computational technologies broadly conceived. Another way to put this could be to think about these moves as being a computational founding, the generation of, or argument for, an axial framework for building, reconfiguration and preservation.

Indeed, flat design provides and more importantly serves, as a translational or metaphorical heuristic for both re-presenting the computational, but also teaches consumers and users how to use and manipulate new complex computational systems and stacks. In other words, in a striking visual technique flat design communicates the vertical structure of the computational stack, on which the Stack corporations are themselves constituted. But also begins to move beyond the specificity of the device as privileged site of a computational interface interaction from beginning to end. For example, interface techniques are abstracted away from the specificity of the device, for example through Apple’s “handoff” continuity framework which also potentially changes reading and writing practices in interesting ways.

These new interface paradigms, introduced by the flat turn, have very interesting possibilities for the application of interface criticism, through unpacking and exploring the major trends and practices of the Stacks, that is, the major technology companies. I think that further than this, the notion of layers are instrumental in mediating the experience of an increasingly algorithmic society (e.g. think dashboards, personal information systems, quantified self, etc.), and as such provide an interpretative frame for a world of computational patterns but also a constituting grammar for building these systems in the first place. There is an element in which the notion of the postdigital may also be a useful way into thinking about the question of the link between art, computation and design given here (see Berry and Dieter, forthcoming) but also the importance of notions of materiality for the conceptualisation deployed by designers working within both the flat design and material design paradigms – whether of paper, glass, or some other "material" substance.[5]


[1] Many thanks to Michael Dieter and Søren Pold for the discussion which inspired this post. 
[2] The choice of paper and glass as the founding metaphors for the flat design philosophies of Google and Apple raise interesting questions for the way in which these companies articulate the remediation of other media forms, such as books, magazines, newspapers, music, television and film, etc. Indeed, the very idea of "publication" and the material carrier for the notion of publication is informed by the materiality, even if only a notional affordance given by this conceptualisation. It would be interesting to see how the book is remediated through each of the design philosophies that inform both companies, for example. 
[3] One is struck by the posters produced in the Swiss style which date to the 1950s and 60s but which today remind one of the mobile device screens of the 21st Century. 
[4] There is also some interesting links to be explored between the Superflat style and postmodern art movement, founded by the artist Takashi Murakami, which is influenced by manga and anime, both in terms of the aesthetic but also in relation to the cultural moment in which "flatness" is linked to "shallow emptiness".
[5] There is some interesting work to be done in thinking about the non-visual aspects of flat theory, such as the increasing use of APIs, such as the RESTful api, but also sound interfaces that use "flat" sound to indicate spatiality in terms of interface or interaction design.  


Apple (2014) iOS Human Interface Guidelines, accessed 13/11/2014, https://developer.apple.com/library/ios/documentation/userexperience/conceptual/mobilehig/Navigation.html

Ashghar, T. (2014) The True History Of Flat Design, accessed 13/11/2014, http://www.webdesignai.com/flat-design-history/

Berry, D. M. (2014) Critical Theory and the Digital, New York: Bloomsbury.

Berry, D. M. and Dieter, M. (forthcoming) Postdigital Aesthetics: Art, Computation and Design, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Bohn, D. (2014) Material world: how Google discovered what software is made of, The Verge, accessed 13/11/2014, http://www.theverge.com/2014/6/27/5849272/material-world-how-google-discovered-what-software-is-made-of

Cava, M. D. (2013) Jony Ive: The man behind Apple's magic curtain, USA Today, accessed 1/1/2014, http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2013/09/19/apple-jony-ive-craig-federighi/2834575/

Deleuze, G. (1992) Postscript on the Societies of Control, October, vol. 59: 3-7.

Google (2014) Material Design, accessed 13/11/2014, http://www.google.com/design/spec/material-design/introduction.html

Google Layout (2014) Principles, Google, accessed 13/11/2014, http://www.google.com/design/spec/layout/principles.html

Jitkoff, N. (2014) This is Material Design, Google Developers Blog, accessed 13/11/2014,  http://googledevelopers.blogspot.de/2014/06/this-is-material-design.html

MoMA (2014) Minimalism, MoMA, accessed 13/11/2014, http://www.moma.org/collection/details.php?theme_id=10459

Turner, A. L. (2014) The history of flat design: How efficiency and minimalism turned the digital world flat, The Next Web, accessed 13/11/2014, http://thenextweb.com/dd/2014/03/19/history-flat-design-efficiency-minimalism-made-digital-world-flat/

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