Picture this: rewind 40,000 years and you are an early Homo sapiens. You are standing on the savanna. No billboards, no traffic signs, no logos, no text. You are in a kind of vast, unspoilt nature reserve. 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 pursuing 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 have to interpret it all. And you are good at that. Good enough to survive in this environment. Let’s return to the present. All of us have been born into a world full of abstract technologies and systems. We are forced to adapt to them in order to survive. We live in a world of screens. We use screens to check our email; 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.
We spend more time with our computer screens than with our families. Screens were originally ☐☐☐☐☐ 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 the information society. Personally, it gives me a nasty feeling when after a long day of knowledge work, I am once again forced to look at a screen hanging randomly in public space. The really brutal thing about screens is that they seldom enter into a relationship with their environment.
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. 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. Tiling our environment with screens is an extremely literal and additionally rather unimaginative, way to introduce virtuality into the physical world: simply piling it on where seamless integration was the original intention.
It is said that we live in an information age. 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. The 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 utilizing the 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 screen in our environment as a possible information carrier? Try to recognize all of the forms and patterns in the space. The flowered wallpaper, the humming of the air-conditioning, a shadow on the wall. Do you realize how few of the patterns in our environment are being used as information carriers?
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. 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 news, the traffic update, 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. In information decoration, 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. 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. 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 departing. When autumn arrives, the streets will be littered with flyers.