Mobile Gothic: a flight of fancy

I’ve always found it strange that Eric S. Raymond chose the cathedral as his metaphor for closed development in free software, because the construction of our great medieval cathedrals must have been a very open process.

Passing peasants were doubtless discouraged from picking up a chisel to hack at the nearest stone, but Gothic buildings like York Minster and Strasbourg Cathedral were certainly the work of many hands, over many generations – not generations of software but generations of people. They were in very public beta for longer than Google News.

And so in chronicling the exciting changes we’re about to see in the mobile user experience it seems appropriate to turn to John Ruskin, Victorian art critic, social theorist, and owner of a magnificent beard.

As the father of the Arts and Crafts movement, Ruskin must now be counted great-granddaddy of the Maker Faire. He spent much of his life railing passionately against mechanisation and industrialisation built on classical principles, and for a sense of humanity and imperfection that he nostalgicly saw embodied in Gothic architecture.

What has this to do with iPhones, Nokias, Androids and WinMos? I think it’s this: the mobile user experience has, hitherto, been top-down, governed by repetitive strictures, managed and manageable by a technocratic elite. But classical perfectionism is unsustainable, and must soon give way to a more vibrant gloriously chaotic Gothic.

The fragile, beautiful iPhone stands like 14th Century Venice on the cusp of this change. Barbarians from the Internet are at the gate.

In The Nature of Gothic, Ruskin defines and prioritises six characteristics of Gothic, belonging both to the building and the builder:

The building The builder
1. Savageness Savageness or Rudeness
2. Changefulness Love of Change
3. Naturalism Love of Nature
4. Grotesqueness Disturbed Imagination
5. Rigidity Obstinacy
6. Redundance Generosity

Come with me now to the heights of fancy, as we apply each of Ruskin’s Gothic elements to the language of the mobile user experience.

1. Savageness

“You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both. Men were not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels, and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them.”

The craftsman as hero is a consistent motif in Ruskin’s artistic and social theories. To him, mechanisation and division of labour dehumanise workers, enslaving them to execute exactly the specifications of others. The only way to recapture the humanity in labour is to put the designer back in touch with the tools of the craft and to unleash the creativity of the maker.

To Ruskin this liberation was a Christian duty, and the anonymous medieval stone mason was the archetype: working under general direction on a piece of the whole, but free to add his own flourishes, faults and foibles. The resulting imperfections are not just a price worth paying but a joy to behold, the mark of humanity in the work.

I believe that this is the delight of the web. After several decades of increasing professionalisation, specialisation and stratification in software development, the web offers a set of tools – HTML, Javascript, the browser – that are simple yet powerful enough for anyone to wield the chisel. That is not to say that we don’t need master masons to think bigger and work finer than the rest of us. Those chisels in the wrong hands can still result in atrocious user experiences.

But simple, ubiquitous development tools are what makes the web what it is, LOLCats and all. Those tools, if they’re not already here, are coming soon to a mobile phone near you, empowering many more people – savages or not – to create their own experiences. I think John Ruskin would be rolling his own widgets.

2. Changefulness

“I have already enforced the allowing independent operation to the inferior workman, simply as a duty to him, and as enobling the architecture by rendering it more Christian. We have now to consider what reward we obtain for the performance of this duty, namely, the perpetual variety of every feature of the building.”

“Changefulness” is a word to conjure with, a tension embodied: a state, of being full of change; a state of being, full of change.

Look up at the bosses that stud the ceiling of a medieval cathedral. Each performs the same structural and decorative functions as part of the building. But no two are the same. The more you look the more they repay your gaze with detail. The bosses change across space and time. When the roof of the South Transept of York Minster burned down in a fire the Church was inspired to crowd-source replacements.

For bosses, think icons. No not those icons. These icons – designed by different hands, stacked and restacked by the actions of users, they bring change and changefulness to the mobile user interface. Vision Mobile even predicts a feudal system on your idle screen. It doesn’t have to be icons; other forms will evolve but the changefulness, the capability of perpetual novelty, marks out the interface as Gothic.

Classical design cannot do this. It has repetition but never change. Classical has elegant forced symmetry that makes sense in the design review but not in the usability lab. Creativity is reserved for centrepieces where it is crippled with the fear of failure. At Robert Adam’s Nostell Priory, near Wakefield, blank lumps of stone jut out of a perfect Palladian facade. In two hundred years, no one has had the guts to make a mark. Now the National Trust owns Nostell Priory in perpetuity, perhaps they could do us an oak leaf, or a QR code or something? It wouldn’t happen to a Goth.

3. Naturalism

“… so soon as the workman is left free to represent what subjects he chooses, he must look to the nature that is around him for material, and will endeavour to represent it as he sees it, with more or less accuracy according to the skill he possesses, and with much play of fancy, but with small respect for the law.”

For Ruskin this was all about foliage – how the textbook representations of nature in Roman capitals lacked lightness, truth and life and how the Gothic sculptor “could not help liking the true leaves better”.

While the mobile user experience may sometimes bring representations of nature to us, I think its more important role is in being with us in the natural world, augmenting not replacing reality. This is a very different role for the internet-enabled mobile device compared to the internet-enabled PC.

And with this role of enhancing nature, the mobile acquires affordances that make it a part of the natural world. It knows where it is, and which way up it is. It responds to our gestures. Its user interface has gravity and bounce that the technocrats would deem irrelevant but that the user finds delightful.

4. Grotesqueness

“The tendancy to delight in fantastic and ludicrous, as well as in sublime, images, is a universal instinct of the Gothic imagination.”

Leave the HTC Touch HD‘s weather app running on a rainy day and the screen mists with droplets. Then wipers appear to clear them away.

Turn up the volume of BBC iPlayer. Like Nigel St Hubbins’ amp, it goes up to 11.

Mobile experience is going to be fun to make and fun to use. Sometime crude, sometimes ugly, but often surprising and delightful.

5. Rigidity

“… I mean not merely stable, but active rigidity; the peculiar energy which gives tension to movement, and stiffness to resistance, which makes the fiercest lightning forked rather than curved, and the stoutest oak-branch angular rather than bending, and is as much seen in the quivering of the lance as in the glittering of the icicle.”

Ruskin compares the Egyptian and Greek buildings which stand “by their own mass, one stone passively incumbent on another” with limb-like Gothic vaults and traceries under “an elastic tension and communication of force from part to part.”

The articulation of the parts of the mobile user experience is a key to its success, which is why we talk a lot about flow, about seamless user experience, but it often sounds vapid. Ruskin reminds us that there should be angles, there should be tension and change as we move from one mode to another. In the previous era of mobile design we tended to smoothe over the gaps by applying surface decoration over blocks “passively incumbent” on one another. In the Gothic era the parts must work together under stress, vaulting the user towards the achievement of their goals.

6. Redundance

“The years of his life passed away before his task was accomplished; but generation suceeded generation with unwearied enthusiasm, and the cathedral front was at last lost in the tapestry of its traceries, like a rock among the thickets and herbage of spring.”

“No architecture is so haughty as that which is simple,” writes Ruskin. To him, simplicity is an imposition, an insistence by the building and builder that they and they alone know the truth and demand our attention. Gothic’s mass of decorative accumulation is a sign of its life and its humility.

… which encapsulates this final feature of the Mobile Gothic user experience, a profusion of content, services and possibilities which make the infrastructure melt away. I think this is the quality, above all, that has been missing from the early phases of mobile. Too often simplicity was achieved by taking stuff away to leave just a narrow, comprehensible range of options. The coming mobile internet, and the iPhone with its apps for this and apps for that, promise empowerment by the opposite route: making everything imaginable intuitively possible.

I don’t think we’re there yet, but the chisels are there for the taking. Mobile Gothic. It’s the future.

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