no.31 vol.8 spring 1999

What your see is what you think

The release of Netscape's source code has gives designers the chance to reinvent the way the medium looks and feels. The 1st International Browserday, an international student's competition in Amsterdam, has prompted several proposals for a new generation of thinking software.

Are they like cars – there are a lot of them, but they basically do the same: getting you somewhere –, or like countries – a passport from one may get you in trouble while visiting another? Incongruously, Browsers, the tools that allow you to ‘travel’ the Internet, incorporate aspects of both. If the Internet is considered to be a digital superhighway, then browsers are vehicles that transport you along the information residing at the crossroads. Like cars, they come in different makes, each with their own peculiarities, qualities, defaults and faults. But browsers are also ‘national’ in the sense that they impose their language and customs on their ‘inhabitants’ and visitors - the websites made according to their particular standards and the users accessing them.

But regardless of analogies, browsers are new technology, and this time ‘new’ really means: unprecedented. Although the name suggests a familiar act, that of leafing through a stack of papers, it is actually quite difficult to precisely formulate what they do, or allow you to do. ‘Surfing’ the Web is another metaphor that only skims the surface of what is happening behind the screen in terms of searching, finding, accessing, displaying and navigating the information processed through the Internet. Simply put, browsers are electronic machines that - ideally - can display a wide range of computer based products, generated by a great variety of software on different platforms. The interesting - and problematic - aspect of browsers is that they epitomize what Allan Kay said of computers in general: “It's a whole new way to deal with relationships between ideas.” Both in terms of searching, processing and displaying, browsers, together with the sites they give access to, combine operations and characteristics of earlier technologies, such as library and catalogue, kiosk and vendor, newspaper and headlines, bulletin board, tv, radio, magazine, book stack... But more importantly they allow for hybrids of all these in ways that are truly novel. From the UNIX based text only browsers to Netscape's or Explorer's latest products laden with software helpers and plug-ins, the programs have swiftly developed into more than just neutral applications.

The design agenda for these applications, that may very well be challenging operating systems in the near future, has until now been primarily set by software developers. But recently, graphic designers and artists are being drawn to the possibilities of the application, especially since Netscape released the source code of their browser, enabling others to build on the existing technology and develop it further into more varied directions. In the wake of Netscape's move, the Amsterdam based Society for Old and New Media De Waag, in April last year, held a design competition for (graduate) students of graphic and new media design to make proposals for a new generation of browsers. It seemed an exiting endeavour for the internationally diverse group of young designers from three Dutch art and design academies: to reinvent the browser by going to the root of the system, not just re-designing its visual appearance. Ultimately, the most sophisticated proposals for the competition went much further than that - though mainly in a conceptual manner. Obviously, to design a fully functioning browser from scratch (or even from Netscape's source code) would take much more than what a graphic designer can cope with within a couple of months. Still, the results of De Waag’s ‘First International Browserday’, 38 in all, were at the least amusing comments on the idiosyncrasies and shortcomings of existing browser and internet technology, and at best highly thoughtful concepts of what the technology could become.

In the first category we find such cute little applications as the “Wachtkamer” (waiting room) browser by Madelinde Hageman, trying to cheer up the seemingly endless moments spent in idly watching a stalled screen before actually accessing data on the web. Or the “Kitchen Browser”, by Daria Holme and Julia Born, which humorously overstates the possibilities for customising the application's screen real estate. In a more serious vein are the designs that address the visually oppressive nature of standard browser interfaces. A. Galia’s “Full Screen Browser” is concerned with making the application as invisible as possible when its tools are not directly needed. The most radical in this respect is “Browser 4.0”, by Anneke Rijnders: a “basic browser kit” from which the user can install the buttons they want on the desktop (i.e. hidden beneath the surface of any website accessed), where they appear only on mouse-over. Conceptually elegant as this solution to cramped screens may be, the functionality is problematic: the places most likely to put - and memorise - your buttons, will often be the places for a site's own navigation too, which may result in conflicting commands...

In a joint statement, six of the contestants addressed the necessity for designers to become involved in designing browsers: “Designers create web sites within the existing frame of the browsers which are created by programers. It is essential that designers are able to decide on their own framework. We feel that this is an issue that deserves attention...” Modest as this intention may sound, it did get the designers to mingle with the affairs of the programmers. The most developed concepts submitted for last year's Browserday all involve a merging of browser and search engine that on the surface resembles the way ‘push media’ gather information to the assumed tastes of their users. But whereas quite a few proprietary browsers tend to turn their users into desperate electronic junkmail victims, browsers like those of Vanessa Borcic and Hjordis Thorborg, Ian Borcic and Luna Maurer, and Joes Koppers intend to make their engines into veritable ‘extensions of the brain’, as McLuhan would term it.

The most interesting aspect of these designs is that the browser not so much thinks for you, but thinks like you. That is: associative, balancing concentration and absent-mindedness, argument and serendipity, focussed reading and distant gazes. They all address not so much the display of information and the navigation through it - which is assumed to be dealt with mostly by the designers of the individual websites -, as well as the ways in which the user finds and combines the sites they're interested in, broadening and narrowing the selection at will, or a random. This means that the core of the proposed browsers is an integrated search engine that, in most cases, continually works in the background, finding information connected to the user's input.

In Ian Borcic’ and Luna Maurer’s Untitled Browser, for instance, the application's continuing search can result in the display of “all sorts of information in the form of still and moving images, sounds and text,” fragments drawn from sites that the search engine has stumbled across while making what Dickens would call ‘links of association’ around a site the user has accessed. “It is in fact a ‘live broadcast’,” the makers say, “a program that the user can just sit down in front of and watch until they see something that grabs their attention.” A graphical representation of these links shows them as ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ blocks, mapped around the user's actual position.

In L/TM by Vanessa Borcic and Hjordis Thorborg the user starts off by typing in a few search terms triggering the browser into “providing associative links”, related words, that may or may not be selected and stored. A kind of self perpetuating thesaurus of synonyms and related terms, this “Transient Memory” will keep churning out associations that will slowly appear and, unless selected by the user, disappear on the screen. When stacked in the “Long Term Memory,” the associated catchwords will form a library of their own that, when clicked, serves up ‘previews’ of sites that match the links. L/TM, say Borcic and Thorborg, “is a constantly evolving, growing, and changing ‘organism’, in the image of the brain.”

Kreis (German for circle), by Uta Eisenreich, translates a related brain metaphor into an interface that organizes the accumulated information on the Web in “thematic, or semantic, fields.” Eisenreich: “In these semantic clouds or clusters, certain threads of meaning can be followed, other connotations or meanings that are not momentarily important can be deleted. Thus the meaning of the search word can be modelled or defined, so that the process of searching becomes more efficient.”

The intimate conceptual link between both the user's and the browser’s searching and finding operations brings about a rethinking of the fundamentals of what it means to ‘surf the web’. Putting aside for the moment the very real software problems their ideas give rise to, the designers mentioned here try to conceive of an environment that operates as closely as possible to the way a human being (not a computer) would access a combination of a library and a bookshop. Well developed library catalogues allow for searching different categories - from single titles to ‘semantic fields’ - simultaneously, whereas ‘browsing’ a bookstore often results in serendipitous, accidental, discoveries (for instance, the book one actually, but unconsciously, wanted was next to the book one was looking for).

A balance between pointed and random search is also central to the winner of the First International Browserday, Joes Koppers. His Browser, its maker states, “is based on the principle that the more you look, the more you get. Expansion until you get something interesting.” Counteracting what Koppers sees as the narrowing strategies of existing browsers, based on filtering and customising, Browser follows the user as they scan the screen at mouse point, serving up window after window of small previews of randomly accessed sites, until the user starts concentrating on something specific. At that point, sensed by the application as a result of diminishing mouse movement, this ‘zap state of browsing’ will change into a more concentrated ‘layer state’. In this state, new links and information will be offered in different ‘windows,’ layered transparently on top of each other, to allow for overview and comparison, until the user decides to ‘zoom in’ on a particular site, at which point Browser can be switched off completely to make way for the site's own design. “The principle behind this,” Koppers stresses, “is that content providers should begin investigating the possibilities of the medium. The browser itself should be nothing more than an invisible intermediary. A medium, not an interface”.

Thus, while addressing the fundamentals of users’ interfacing with the World Wide Web, Koppers and his colleagues also indicate the necessity for new software and design solutions. Much of what is taken for granted in their proposals is currently quite beyond any existing application's reach, and the kind of ‘associativeness’ that inspires most of these designs calls for an editorial sophistication in terms of cataloguing the information ‘out there’ that is (still?) highly imaginary. But, laboratory experiments as they are, these browsers do indicate what Kay’s “new ways to deal with relationships between ideas” may look like. And they make us aware that, in terms of what we can expect of a browser’s characteristics and functioning, we ain’t seen nothing yet.

The second International Browserday, themed ‘Operating Systems’ took place on Thursday 20 May, at Paradiso, Amsterdam.

max bruinsma