Author: Antje Mayer
This conversation took place in Vienna in July 2010 on the occasion of a seminar of the German media scientists, media artists and architects Monika Fleischmann and Wolfgang Strauss (both working at the Fraunhoferinstitut and elsewhere) as part of the master-class in Crossmedia Design & Development at the Danube University Krems.

Wolfgang Pauser was born in Vienna in 1959, He studied philosophy, art history, and law, graduating Dr. jur., and since 1992 he has been a freelance essayist focusing on the themes of consumerism and everyday culture as well as visual art, design and architecture, with many contributions to exhibition catalogues, books, journals and cultural journalism, including in DIE ZEIT, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Süddeutsche Zeitung and Die Presse.
Since 1995 development of cultural-scholarship product analysis, consultancy work for corporations and advertising agencies; market development, for example for WMF, Rolf Benz, Swarovski Optik, Aspern AG, Perlinger, Tyrolit, EZA, KSV, ORF, Brionvega, Seleco, Verbund.


Wolfgang Pauser

The Internet is dying out

In future we will no longer have to understand machines, because they will learn to understand us. Wolfgang Pauser, the Austrian philosopher, columnist for the ZEIT and author of many books, is concerned with consumerism, everyday culture and the new medi

In 2006 the American scientist Jeff  Han invented the multi-touch screen – in the whiz-bang time range of computers basically an age-old invention, already envisaged by MIT Media Room in 1976-1978. More than fifteen years later, screen tapping received a fresh boost from the iPhone. Does the touchscreen have more development potential than people first thought?
The touchscreen did not establish itself at the first attempt and became practicable only in combination with the iPhone, which means on a very limited, small screen, accessible to only one person at a time. The first-generation touchscreens were set up for private use. It was felt to be unhygienic to grab at a surface already fingered by many others. We had all taken aboard the idea that glass should not be tapped...

...groping around with other, strange things is in any case a taboo in our broader culture...
Exactly, the little iPhone, which might be called a privatisation of the touchscreen, was able to reduce ‘fear of contact’ in the most literal sense: it is perfectly all right to go smearing your fingers all over your own property without embarrassment.
 
Typing on a keyboard is still much more practical, however, not least for unhindered use. Blind people can’t feel where their fingers are touching. Why has the iPhone been such a success in spite of that?
What makes the iPhone so seductive is a combination of three things: the act of touching, the new menu design and of course the apps. My smartphone still works conservatively, with hierarchically structured menu trees. You can click on them at best, but not push them around with your finger, stretch them, make them smaller, arrange them to suit yourself and jiggle them, as you can on the iPhone. On the iPhone the menu sequence is intuitive, sensual and individually sortable, in spite of its great complexity. The apps and the arrangement of the menu are what makes touching and shifting meaningful in the first place.

It is only in German that the mobile telephone is called a “Handy”. Is the iPhone the first mobile telephone that really deserves this name?
Indeed. The iPhone is an attachment to the body. It has a very simple form, a black box, containing innumerable different machines, functions and technologies. Like a prosthesis. But: with its form the iPhone indicates that it wants to be a screen rather than a hand. In terms of design history the iPhone is primarily a celebration of the touchscreen, and therefore of the visual. But future interfaces will be spread over several organs, no longer limited to just one organ. Interfaces will multiply and complement each other: if linguistic control is imprecise, movement can add clarification. Gesture complements eye movement and so on.

Man is human primarily because he walks upright so that his hands are free. Is there a parallel to be seen here with the “hand focus” in the history of computers?
There is a very good book by André Leroi-Gourhan, Gesture and Speech (Cambridge, Massachusetts & London: MIT Press, 1993), where he brings together research results from prehistoric archaeology, neuropsychology, comparative anatomy, evolution studies, linguistics, aesthetics and the history of technology to make a multi-facetted history of human development, reaching the conclusion that the role of the hand has a had a great influence on the development of the brain. His thesis suggests that the hand will have a role to play in directing the world in the future as well. The ergonomics of appliances will continue to be strongly based on the hand rather than on the eye, like the iPhone.
 
Isn’t the screen you touch snow of yesteryear? What do you think of such technologies as Electro Field Screening, i.e. touch-free technologies?
I think the touchscreen has no longer any potential for the future. Ways to control machines will shift to other kinds of interaction, involving gestures or speech for example. At present we are experience both a revival of the touchscreen and its end. The mobile phone of the future will no longer have a screen and will not necessarily have to be controlled with a fingertip, but also with gesture or speech. The latter is working better and better. My mobile phone will work like a projector, being projected onto an available surface, such as this wooden table. Movement sensors permit it to become a touchscreen. Mobiles that project a keyboard onto a surface, which is activated by movement sensors, already exist. Why should you carry a heavy pane of glass around with you if you can basically use any surface near you as a screen?

Does that mean that the iPad is already obsolete when it has hardly reached the market?
I think formats like the iPad will be around for a long time yet, because they are a kind of ideal ergonomic form for certain sitting and reading positions, for example on a sofa – very pleasant to use. Such book-like flat interfaces will remain.

Aren’t interfaces in general dying out?
Interfaces will no longer exist in future, or rather everything will be an interface. The real world and the Internet will no longer interact through a medium but grow together into a unity. Then everything will be Internet, which is why the word “Internet” will die out: fish don’t need a word for “water”. Then everything is Internet: a chair, this table, an ashtray and a glass. All things, media and people will communicate with each other, representing each other mutually and for each other’s sake and embedded in the network that will become a total realm of interconnection.

But that is a bit frightening, too. Won’t we humans then become more and more things, media and machines?
No, on the contrary, we once had to learn the language of machines, today machines are learning to understand our (body-)language. Everything is moving towards digitalisation, while interfaces give us analoguisation. We no longer have to make commands abstract between the human, the body and the machine. That is a piece of artificial intelligence, which teaches machines to read and understand human body-signals. Neither do I believe in the danger of the “see-through man”. The problem of a reduction in privacy can be easily solved with technology. I mean, for example, a little wheel on your mobile which makes it easy for you to select simply and easily between five stages of privacy.

What is new is that in addition to voluntary control, involuntary control will grow in significance?
Yes, that is happening in the field of market research. There you can see the technology of eye tracking or motion tracking, which can be used for directing specific offers. But apart from marketing it can also be used for your own interests, in order to bring about changes in your environment: the light mood in a room, the volume of your music, the temperature of your heater.

What will the mobile phone of the future look like?
The next short-term development phase will be that I no longer take up the messages I call up on my mobile on that tiny screen, which is clumsy. In future the mobile phone will still be mobile, but the output point will be stationary. It will automatically detect where there is an interface opportunity close to where I am, whether that is the television set in my living room or the closest computer screen in my office or a projector, which will be standing around everywhere in future.

If the output device is outsourced, I suppose the mobile device will also look different?
Yes, my mobile will be a contextualising and selection tool between my user body and the other media providers in my surroundings. It will only have to create contacts. But in future these functions could also be distributed over various hardware objects: localisation of the body, for example, could work through a surgically implanted chip, which also establishes my identity. Projections can be sent to lenses. Control through language becomes more highly developed, sensors translate spoken commands by recognising the articulation of the face muscles. As far as control through thought is concerned, good progress is being made.