chapter excerpted from HandBook by Jean-Benoît Levy / Studio AND// Lars Müller Publishers


    In Fritz Lang’s 1926 movie Metropolis, Freder, the main character asks, “It was their hands that built this city of ours, father. But where do the hands belong in your scheme?” His father answers, “In their proper place – the depths.”

    Today, we still live among countless disembodied servants, assistants and workers that we only see as “interfaces”. We walk by them, drive in them, play with them and communicate through them. We hold them, control them and talk to them. Or is it them talking to us?

    Mechanical language is conceived by humans. Machines, physical or digital and languages, spoken or codified, are the defining factors of modernity. This language comes in the form of words, signs and pictograms that turn into a stream of com-mands forever adaptive in the context they are meant to serve.

    Language is intrinsic to the survival of all systems and as such it has an autonomic momentum that may already exist beyond our grasp.

    Machines, like humans, are meant to touch and to be touched, so they come with hands, a reassuring reflection of ourselves in an attempt to convince us of their existence as avatars of the workers they have replaced. Hands are attached to bodies; therefore they also reaffirm the presence of the machinery they belong to.

    Graphical interface is on everything: remote controls, computer screens, ovens, cars, airplanes and buildings. And it is everywhere on our physical sphere and our infosphere.

    Like machines and devices, interfaces are pervasive. They clone each other, always appearing in the same shapes and forms.

    Interfaces seem to always be on: they hum, click, vibrate, ring and crunch, and when they seem passive, they are still engaged. Whether on or off, they continue to convey in their own machine language. In their own silent way, for better or for worse, interfaces tirelessly tell us how to use them.

    This language, like the machines, is intrinsic to countless functions that we run through each day. Like the machinery that it speaks for, it is industrial by nature. It uses the same forms of stillness and shapes of coolness.

    No matter what our interpretation may be, these machines and devices do express their humanity through language and in doing so, they make the impossible claim to become social entities. These billions of iconic hands are ambiguously alive like a population busy doing their best to guide and show and tell by pushing, pulling, pressing, lifting and swapping.

    Pictograms, by design, do not attract attention, yet they are highly visible, clear and decisive. They are shorthand narrative, but it would be wrong to mistake it for a primitive language. Good pictorial instructions have to rely on sophisticated syntax in part because people can easily be confused by diagrammatic communications but mostly because such language is intended for an international reach. It is the one global language we all share, a reminder that it was primarily inspired 50 years ago by the rise of transportation and international travel. Today, technology, economy, culture and language are all pulling us into the challenges of globalism.

    Standardization comes at a cost. We often resent machines that make us translate what at first glance will look like hieroglyphs. In the first second, we curse, we scratch our heads and we look around to check that no one can witness our state of confusion. We soon recognize human forms that reassure us of the machine’s good intentions.

    Good pictograms are economical shapes with minimal but perfect detailing. They reflect the essence of the devices on which they exist: square or rounded steel and plastic. They are required to exist on background of eggshell, matte, or other non-glare finish.

    Pictograms are momentous signs: given their contexts, they can have drifting connotations. A shape not only tells us how to operate a machine, but it stands ready for additional interpretations – mobility, corporate absolutism, urban myths, design culture or simply a sense of compli-city, as if a friendly agent was literally standing guard next to us. And because hands are sexless we can unconsciously attach them to our preferred gender.

    Iconic representations have never tried to be realistic instead they attempt to transcend the physicality of their subject. Pictograms, like the machines they live on, have no personality, no desires, no opinions and no emotions. They are odorless, voiceless and colorless. They blend into millions of other pictograms that we pass by each day.

    As we increasingly hear about artificial intelligence, post-humanism and transhumanism, efficiency seeks the elimination of all friction: will hands disappear? Beyond their role as semantic devices, hand pictograms are an opportune commentary that, for so many centuries, our hands have been used to complete mechanical and repetitive gestures, the same gestures that have been taken over by machines.

    The few gestures that remained in the control of humans were to “handle” the pumping of gas, the counting of bank notes and the punching of metro tickets. It is these last activities that pictograms are representing.

    The first tool was a hand and the last tool deserves to be a hand, but what happens when tools escape our grip to become mere buttons? We still need to grasp and hold objects in order to make contact with the physical world, so we intently hold our computer mouse to touch information, we obsessively hold our cell phone to talk and now we choose our iPod as dancing companion. These devices are holding our hands and, if anything it is our eyes doing the touching.

    Increasingly, machines will become more intimate with us, to, one day, become a part of us. Then, as we pass through the machines around us, it will be the ones within us that will be doing the talking, the demands, the negotiations, the background checks and the handling! Until this “humachine” day, we will continue our casual and innocent encounters with the world of signs and pictograms. If we can invent and master the right language, we can conceive that the day all functions are taken over by machines, we will inherit our hands as the ultimate tool, the one of inter-human communication._ea2006

also by Erik Adigard: de Photoshop á Google / 10 thoughts on the desktop