STRUCTURE IN SEARCH OF MEANING
John Maeda, the acclaimed head of MIT Media Lab’s Aesthetics and Computation Group (ACG), has published a book summarizing seven years of experimentation in digital interactive media. It’s a recollection Maeda announces that the Group has been disbanded and followed up by a new one, the Physical Language Workshop.
The aim of the ACG was to practically research the creative aspects of code and coding, or should we say, their artistic potential. Maeda and ACG are interested in what code can express, beyond just doing something. What transpires from the short introductory texts by Maeda and his selection of works is a concern for a combination of poetics and practicality, which is perhaps best summarized by the title of a work by one of his students: ‘Structure in search of meaning’. In this 2001 exercise by Simon Greenwold, “synonyms are connected in chains and orthogonal meanings are spawned as new graphs in this confused swell of information that ponders the meaning of a single word.” In short, it is something similar to Thinkmap’s Visual Thesaurus, only less interactive but at the same time more expressive of the swirling associative nature of verbal language when used by humans, that is.
The meaning of this exercise probably resides more in the way its code is written than in its formal outcome. In other words, the underlying structure defines ‘meaning’ in a very specific way (along the lines of “the nearest synonyms, or synonyms of synonyms”), whereas the image that this system generates is rather incidental. A problem is that, in a book, you cannot experience the workings of the code, however much Maeda tries to find ways of layering illustrations to suggest the processes they depict.
The book may be one of the most sophisticated interfaces ever invented for mediation of information, but it is not an interactive medium. It has been said a zillion times in reviews of books about digital interactive works, but in the case of Creative Code, this is a serious problem. Whether I’m a dedicated coder or just an interested reader, I want two things with most of the projects described in the book: see how it’s made and see how it’s handled. Of course you can trace back quite a few of the works and exercises mentioned in the book to the media.mit.edu website, or the websites of the respective designers, but still: the book refuses to serve as an interface in this respect. Which I think is a serious flaw.
This is in many ways a difficult book. As an editor, I would have found it daunting to structure it (and would have probably structured it differently ;-), as a reader, I am torn between the linearity of the narrative (an overview of what the Aesthetics and Computation Group was about) and the hypertextuality of the examples and captions. Maeda’s introductions and his students’ essays are telling me something general, which I can understand and relate to; the examples on the other hand, are trying to show me something specific, which often eludes me because I cannot experience it or look at the details. So, a strange thing happens: the texts become specific compared to the examples, which act as illustrations on a rather associative or more or less randomly symbolic level. The result is a degree of vagueness that I find regrettable for a book that obviously tries to be more than a coffee-table display of past successes.
In one of the essays, David Small remarks: “Information design, on the whole, has not kept pace with graphics technology. I think the problems we will face in the next five to ten years will be mostly due to the lack of a common visual language.” This is as true for book editing, design and production as it is for digital media. The book needs to evolve as well, and find new interfaces to other media based on a similar research into “a common visual language”. In the case of this book, I think Maeda and ACG would have better communicated the gist and importance of their ideas which in my view is incontestable , had they concentrated on a few central examples, and elaborated these in detail, with links to interactive versions on-line. I would suggest this as a field of research for Maeda’s next endeavor at MIT, the Physical Language Workshop: how to make the printed page a natural and technologically stable ally to on-line digital media, and vice-versa.