Our Environment as an Information Carrier
Picture this: it’s 40,000 years ago, and you are an early Homo sapiens. You are standing on the savanna. Look around you. What do you see? No billboards, no traffic signs, no logos, no text. You might see grassland, a stand of trees, a bank of clouds in the distance. You are in a kind of vast, unspoilt nature reserve. Are you feeling wonderfully relaxed yet? Don’t be mistaken. Unlike the woodland parks where you sometimes go walking of a Sunday, this is not a recreational environment. This is where you live. You must survive here, and the environment is full of information that helps you to do so. An animal you are going to pursue has left tracks in the sand. Are the berries on that tree edible or poisonous? And that birdsong: does it mean there’s going to be a storm and winter is on the way? Or are the silly birds just singing for their own enjoyment? You can’t be sure: you have to interpret it all. And you are good at that. So good that you have succeeded in surviving in this environment.
Let’s return to 2007. You are an average Western human being. You are looking at a spreadsheet or a Word document on a computer screen, trying to figure out what’s going on. It is said that we live in an age of information. Although it is unclear what exactly this means, many of us suffer from wrist, back and neck pain. The copying, transformation and exchange of data is a daily job. Many have made this their profession. These people call themselves ‘knowledge workers’ (which is in fact a fancy term for ‘data pusher’, a bit like someone calling themselves a sanitation engineer when they’re actually a janitor).
All of us, then, have been born into a world full of abstract technologies and systems. We are forced to adapt to them in order to survive. Berries, grassland, birds and clouds have long since ceased to be the things we need to read in order to survive. Insofar as these elements still exist in our environment, they have taken on a recreational role. Instead, we live in a world of screens. We use these flat rectangular objects to inform ourselves about the state of our world. Computer-monitor workers are the assembly line workers of the 21st century. We use screens to check our e-mail, screens to monitor safety on the streets, screens to follow fashion; our scientists use screens to explore the outer limits of the universe and to descend into the structures of our genes. A painful truth: many of us spend more time with computer monitors than with our own friends and families.
Screens were originally found only in offices, but nowadays the screen virus has spread to fast-food joints, railway stations, public squares – more or less all public space is filled with them. This is done in the name of information, advertising, art and entertainment. According to Dutch government guidelines, a knowledge worker may spend a maximum of six hours a day working at a monitor. I don’t know to what degree they took into account exposure to garish LED screens on the street when they formulated this rule. Personally, it gives me a nasty feeling when after a long day of knowledge work, on my way home or during a night out, I am once again forced to look at a screen hanging randomly in public space (screens featuring Windows error messages particularly distress me). The really brutal thing about screens is that they seldom enter into a relationship with their environment. And they are isolated, draining elements that do nothing but try to seize our undivided attention and turn our environment into a Swiss cheese of realities (screens are even more obtrusive than, say, posters, which stand still and have a light intensity that is linked to their environment).
Perhaps you expect me to start arguing now for screen-free public space. But that is not what I am out to do. The merging of virtual and physical spaces is an inevitable development, and we should welcome it. After all, remaining seated in front of the computer, stiff from RSI, is no alternative. If we are charitable, we can look at the contemporary screen virus as a transitional phase – a growing pain, if you will, of the information age. Tiling our environment with screens is an extremely literal, and on top of that rather unimaginative, way to introduce virtuality into the physical world: simply piling it on where seamless integration was what was wanted.
It is said that we live in an information age; that is, we have a big problem with information management. Evidently, the manner in which we make information available is not sufficiently joined up with human perception, or more precisely, human bandwidth. This, too, can be explained as a growing pain. In the past, the reproduction of information was technologically complicated, so people were forced to adapt to the existing possibilities. Today, the duplication of data has become extraordinarily simple. It is high time we adjusted its presentation to suit human beings’ needs.
The million-dollar question is: How do we integrate all those indispensable information streams into our environment? Besides the fact that we can learn a lot from old nature, where information is present in a well-integrated way, I think we can learn from the decorative world. For centuries, people have been utilising decorative patterns, indoors and out, with the aim of improving and giving an identity to the atmosphere around them. The primary goal is not information but aesthetics. What happens if we start looking at every pattern in our environment as a possible information carrier? Look around you, wherever you are. Try to recognise all of the forms and patterns in the space. The flowered wallpaper, the humming of the air-conditioning, the fish in the aquarium, a shadow on the wall. Do you realise how few of the patterns in our environment are being used as information carriers? Information overload? What information overload? The so-called information society has barely scratched the surface of our human bandwidth!
I wish to argue for information decoration, which means seeking a balance between aesthetic and informational quality. Information designers are usually inclined to place the message at the centre of our field of attention (to make sure it comes across). Did no one ever tell them it was impolite to always come straight to the point? We humans have evolved precisely to attend to information at the edges of our field of attention, and when necessary transfer it to the center ourselves.
Of course, information decoration is not always appropriate. Some messages (such as fire alarms) are too urgent to work subtly into the wallpaper and must be brought to our attention unambiguously. Information decoration lends itself primarily to the kind of data we wish to have available at all times but to be able to ignore: the online status of my friends, the traffic update, the weather forecast, the number of unread messages in my inbox. I want to emphasize that information decoration is more than just making data look better: it requires a genuinely new information model. Traditional information theory usually advises against things like ambiguity and repetition. In information decoration, these factors play an influential role, because ambiguity and repetition are classic aesthetic means of achieving interesting images. The big advantage of information decoration is that if it’s not informative, it’s still decorative. That’s more than you can say for most contemporary carriers.
Is this the future of our environment as an information carrier – feeling as if you’re being pounced on by a lion at every street corner? No thank you. ‘Attention’ is the scarcest resource in the information age. There is still sufficient space at the edges of our field of attention; let us utilize our human bandwidth sensibly. Our environment was previously made up of objects; now it consists of information. When architects design buildings, they will have to consider to what degree those buildings function as information carriers (if they neglect this, they run the risk of LED screens being attached to the buildings in due course). I want new wallpaper. I want new furniture. I want a houseplant that has something to say. Paving stones that show me the way. Trains that blush before they take off. When autumn comes, the street will be littered with flyers.
Information Decoration: Our Environment as an Information Carrier. by Koert van Mensvoort, published in Gerritzen, (ed.) Artvertising: The Million Dollar Building (2007), Idea Books, ISBN 978 90 811655 18