Achieving a State of Trans

Brenda Laurel is chair of the graduate media design program at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. Co-founder of Purple Moon, a girl-centric, girl-empowerment media company, Laurel also recently edited the MIT Press anthology Design Research: Methods and Perspectives.

Brenda Laurel is chair of the graduate media design program at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. Co-founder of Purple Moon, a girl-centric, girl-empowerment media company, Laurel also recently edited the MIT Press anthology Design Research: Methods and Perspectives. She also authored the wonderful Mediaworks pamphlet Utopian Entrepreneur, which is a relatively quick and crucial read.


Sandy Stone, founding director of the Advanced Communication Technologies Laboratory and the convergent media program of the department of radio-TV-film at the University of Texas at Austin, introduced Laurel, commenting that they first met over Farraday’s grave in the 1960s and proclaiming that Laurel “rides a magic surfboard over every new thing that comes along.” Dating themselves slightly — but not really — with references to Atari, Activision, and Interval Research (now Comcast, believe it or not), and “watermelon seeds,” the two provided a chummy, chatty introduction to SXSW Interactive‘s opening remarks. What follows is a partial transcript of Laurel’s talk.

This is about achieving a state of trans and what we’re doing in our interactive medium. Architects discovered a long time ago that they weren’t about designing buildings, they were about designing spaces. That’s about where we are in interactive media. It’s spread out over PCs and phones, RFID tags, VR, etc. We’re blurring across the landscape.

In the short journey of human-computer evolution, there are some distinct landmarks. But our field has blossomed. We’re transmedia, transmodal, and transformative. We’re on the verge of a growth spurt that will take us into the transpersonal realm. I want to point at some growth vectors that will lead to a state change.

Remember when multimedia was new? I’m old enough to remember when I thought we were talking about big, hot, and black Bell & Howell projectors. That’s not what we mean. Brands infect like viruses from print to Web to billboards to spacecraft. What once would have been a licensed property is now more likely to be part of a transmedia whole.

When my students and I design transmedia properties, we think of media strategy, And the model-view-controller metaphor of Smalltalk still works. We start with a world, or a bible, and we think of media types as paths or vectors through this media world. Some are fat. And some are narrower. Media have different interactive, social, and economic potential. We’re looking to design a whole property that meets all of our goals.

Media have different affordances — narrative, interactive, evocative, provocative — and matching media to intent and orchestrating them in combination is the essence of transmedia design. This example from one of my students used clothing to represent what seamstresses in third-world countries get paid for every seam. Another student embedded braille in the alphabet as a transitional step for adults suffering macular degeneration. He applied graphic design principles to the use of braille.

We consider social activism to be the most muscular way of designing media. We want to engage our sociocultural and geopolitical situation as activist designers and design aggressively and mindfully to expand human agency and well-being. Transmodal design helps take us beyond the modalities that we’re used to.

Physical agency in virtual or physical space is the most potent form of engagement. We’ve been engaging in space for some time, but what’s new is the incorporation of the virtual space. There’s an old truism in interactive design that the computer should be a nice environment for human actors. But there’s been a shift to thinking that people need to accommodate the computer.

The idea of virtual reality was that technology would engage the people directly. By wearing a dataglove, you could navigate the virtual space. In Placeholder, we tried to get the whole body into the act. In VR, you had a disembodied hand. What we did was pretty sneaky. No one had a body in our world. All you had was points of light representing your hand. And if you wanted a body, you had to choose.

Let me change the tone for a minute. I want to talk about transpersonal psychology. In the Western world, we know transpersonal psychology got its start with Carl Jung. More than anybody else, Char Davies has explored the use of transpersonal psychology in virtual reality.

Now let’s talk about transformative design. Consumers expect fantastic, superficial stimuli. And designers who don’t want to participate in the spectacle have to design wonderful stuff, but we want to transform consumers into active citizens. We try to predict and accommodate those changes. But what we do is framed by and transformative of the context in which we do it. In evolutionary terms, this is called the Baldwin effect. By living, beings modify their environment, creating a new fitness landscape. Along comes the Bowerbird, who learns that he can build nests to attract mates. In human terms, steel beats the hell out of bronze. But steel requires not just the skills to create it but the skills to take care of it.

In informational architecture, there are new social topologies. One example is Amazon. You can have 50 million reviews of a book you might never find in a bookstore. MoveOn is another example, creating a new fitness landscape for politics. And Sims Online models new social behavior. Sims Online buds genre communities.

Just as in psychology, a transpersonal approach is transforming our relationship with technology. Listen up. We start with single cells. Then we get multicellular organisms, mitochondria, which are absorbed symbiotes. Is this starting to sound like human culture or the industrial revolution? This is a simple state machine. We recognize representation, interpretation, and action. Now cultural evolution impends more seriously on physical evolution, our own version of the Baldwin effect.

With the advent of interactive media, we can begin to create virtual environments in which other people can be agents. Human consciousness takes place largely in an environment created by our own acts of intention. Although McLuhan’s theories are wonderful, this is something he did not see. Media have agency.

The future of America and the global world are inexorably intertwined. We have a responsible as designer citizens to make a difference. But we’re building us a retirement home. As mitochondria, we may simplify and shed many of our many cares, but we will lose our judgment. That’s what the spectacle is trying to take away from us.