Sorry for the delay in getting this up on the site. I had some technical difficulties. -GS
Throughout “Contexts and Practicalities,” Christopher Stein runs through the importance of environmental factors and access to resources for a software (or ITP or digital) project. Throughout the text he highlights the importance of context (for him: Why, What, Who, Where, When, and How) and the practicalities of how the (software) project will the realized, which he outlines through the snazzy foursome of Build, Buy, Beg, or Borrow.
Through the 5 W’s and one H, Stein points out the essential, but perhaps overlooked, aspects of a digital project that should be worked through before beginning: Why is this being made: What is it? Where will it roll out and through what hardware? When will the production take place and how long will it take? And How will people implement it and take advantage of its function?
The 4 B’s, by contrast, discuss not the planning but the process of making the product and the means through which it will be realized: building your own custom platform/software; buying something off the shelf, using free; “begging” by using free, already developed tools, such as those offered by Google; or “borrowing” someone else’s work in the form of open source programs already in existence that one can customize to suit the project’s needs.
Stein concludes by highlighting user-centered design and embracing a process-oriented form of project management, where contingency and change is built in to the mindset and execution of the project, and, like a good academic assignment, future work is scaffolded on top of previous work completed and given flexibility to change per the exigencies of the project.
Although catchy to the point of self-help or how-to cliché, these alliterative groupings highlight ways of thinking, and planning, through the material conditions of a digital product and the contingencies of process. Also vital, to both Stein and many of the articles he links to, like Ethan Marcotte’s Responsive Web Design, is the role of the user, on whom discussions of good design focus. Another feature of the content Stein mentions , including Jason Santa Maria’s A Real Web Design Application, is the need for better design tools that more accurately simulate the digital medium of the Internet, since many apps that are in current use are tethered to an analog model of display and final product (i.e. graphic design and a material, paper (or something like it) medium). Essential to both the user-centered design and the aesthetic and functional flexibility of the web as medium is the notion of responsiveness—a rather radical acceptance of contingency and failure—even to the point of dialogue or relationship between user and product—that is more akin to laboratory work and the scientific method than it is to other design fields like architecture or typesetting. Perhaps this has to do with the relatively low-stakes nature of how we use some technology—for entertainment or to make our lives easier—rather than liveable (as in, our computer is not going to cave in and fall on us, like a roof, or collapse, like a suspension bridge). Not sure how much I actually mean that last sentence, but it might be worth thinking about.
This piece got me to thinking about the power of creation and design, and the ways technology is tethered through its materiality and origins in typesetting and graphic design to a past that sets the boundaries for what the final product is, or can be. Programming (and coding new software) and its design corollary are bound up in the creation of new worlds–new realms of existence and representation–whose appearance is not mandated by the materiality of the world, even if it is very deeply tied to the materiality through which the software could be displayed and used. A web page doesn’t need to look like a “page” at all—it could be something entirely different, if we could unhinge our minds enough to think about the function, purpose, and effectiveness of what we are trying to do, make, or convey.
Or, on the other hand, what if the materiality of display and hardware really does limit what kinds of software we can make and how we use it. What if the unlimited imagination of the Internet is actually quite bounded with our sensory experience of the world, the phenomenology of being (and/or using a computer).Would this be an instance of not as free as we think we are? Or too limited by the preconceived notions of our daily lives to be able to create a freer, more open design and aesthetic? And are these two things at odds? A story on WNYC a few weeks ago discussed the way reading on a screen changes our ability to read on the page—to the extent that our endurance to read for an extended period of time is impaired? This is not to say that reading on the internet makes you illiterate, but that it does change how our brains and eyes take in information, at the expense of other media and technologies if we don’t practice those, as well.