form+zweck 22:
Tangibility of the Digital - Die Fühlbarkeit des Digitalen


Jörg Petruschat

A Short History of Tangible User Interfaces (TUIs)


In contrast to animals, to which existence happens, we humans must also still do something for survival: only some of the processes which safeguard our lives go on without reflection, while attractions, both external and internal trigger them and we feet an animal desire, so to speak, when they are implemented. "Animale est automata" says Descartes.
Because only a minimal part of human survival is assured by self-running behaviour, central nerves provide our actions with a clear model, in accordance with which we can move our limbs, sensors and effectors. We call that consciousness. Compared to the automatic behaviour of evolution to date, acting consciously is a considerable expenditure of time and energy. However, so that we don't shy away from this expenditure and just abandon ourselves to animal idleness and functional desire, we have learnt to develop a particular joy in the use of our consciousness and also in using perceptions to perform successfully. We call that beauty and the actions which we take and which go beyond habits: poetry.

However, as consciousness operates on the animal platform, idleness always triumphs over all poetry and all beauty in the end. This victory has two consequences. The first one consists of the fact that we store the poetry and the beauty which we feel in doing in objects. First of all, that has the advantage that something which has happened to one person can also be shared with everybody else. However, this also has the consequence that poetry and beauty proliferate explosively. Therefore, as a work attests to the beautiful thoughts of its creator, the poetry which has coagulated in it must be reawakened. This reawakening of beauty is in itself a poetic act, as we have to try to awaken it in what others have consciously felt, by approaching their works. In this way we can become similar to the creators of these works and an analogous world full of poetry and beauty will come into existence.
So that idleness didn't get the short end of the stick with all of this commitment to poetry or so that society didn't fall apart because of unbounded creativity, speech and style were introduced to repress this chaos which was created socially. Both convert that which is poetic, beautiful and unusual into habits and routines.
The second consequence which humans have drawn from the victory of idleness over poetry and beauty is not always to be beautiful, poetic and experienced oneself, but simply to let others do what is necessary for survival. That is the prelude to domestication and slavery. An appropriate arrangement provided needs a sign from the finger and the desired process takes place. This is the origin of the digital world: the Latin "digitus" means "finger" and we associate a mathematical world with it, not merely because counting was done on the fingers in ancient times, but because these fingers still stand for a concrete reality.
We can have the comfort of commanding especially any living creature that is well-trained, tamed, bred and ferruled. Some time later, the invention of switchgears and driving mechanisms made it possible to put women or other animals that were just as inanimate as indefatigable stands in the place of more experienced craftsmen.. Flood barriers and turnbuckles ensure that routines are saved and allowed to proceed discretely. This is how dams, locks, clocks and calculators function: they are mechanical, electrical and electronic. In the 17th century, the state was planned like a gigantic machine where royal commands were carried out (or should have been carried out) by the subjects by means of cascades of subroutines.
I will call the strategy of conveying the beautiful and the poetic objectively and overcoming idleness, craft work and the strategy of allowing what is integrated (life and energy) to proceed routinely and discretely in order to satisfy idleness, I will call command processing work.

Unfortunately, command processing work could not honour the promise of idleness. Soon enough its diabolical character was revealed.
Because in the meantime conquering idleness through poetry and beauty became easier and easier, because craft work wandered into the realm of equipment, as soon as it became a matter of routines, which made everything easier. Command processing work which was supposed to satisfy idleness, gained in complexity and a lack of clarity, with every routine which had been turned into a technique.
To master this lack of clarity and this complexity, we invented administrative systems and later, bureaucracies and operating systems and understood over time, that the value of command processing work where possible does not reside in the achievement of idleness, but in the fact that each command which activates a routine, embodies this routine exactly as a command. We understood that command processing work was not just tables of activating mechanisms, but tasks full of symbols in which the world of real routines is brought to the fore. In command processing work, reality is not merely treated as an idea, as in every narrative, but as a real possibility, as a virtual reality. If someone were to develop a device which processes all the symbols for the routines which are our reality, as a command processing task, he could create (virtually), all reality which once was, is now and (insofar as it is based on routines) will ever come again.
But where should these devices, to which all reality is possible, lead us humans? One path is predetermined by our idleness. If command processing tasks are too elaborate for the fulfilment of desires, then the desire which has already been fulfilled must take the place of the command, or in short: paradise, a domain in which the fulfilment of desires requires no commands. Such a paradise requires only one: forbearance, patience and perseverance in doing nothing, as we must be able to wait until a desire (elsewhere) became so hackneyed, that the number of times it was fulfilled widened in scope. Soon a paradise like this is a space which is crammed with odours and noises, not to say: stench and din and all the other intrusive aspects of fulfilled desires. Although anyone who enjoys these blessings must develop little poetry to do so, in order to invoke for himself what was invested elsewhere in the fulfilment of desires, his own life quickly appears to be dreary. Because consciousness, which was given to us so that we could act and think poetically and beautifully, continues merely to doze away (thus completely free from doing things manually). If we can't give up being human, because our unhappy consciousness drives us to ever more alluring attractions, in order to keep our bodies alive at least passively by means of the animal desire for idleness, the second path emerges, and is revealed by the gadgets for recombining routines and producing what has long since been improbable. If we could be successful in making the administration of command processing work, into a business which would employ the consciousness and the body without merely tiring both of them, adventurous times could begin on the other side of fulfilled desires.
At that point we remembered the poetry and beauty of craft work which was almost totally resolved in techniques. 
If we were successful in making command processing work into craft work, an obstinate area would emerge above the routines, free for making individual combinations of them. This area of obstinacy has been called a tangible user interface for a few years now.
This area is limited by craft work which is suspicious of poetry and capable of beauty, powerful command processing work full of routines and subroutines and a paradise which we shouldn't renounce for animal reasons (with all our desire for poetry and beauty).