In 2015, Google released an experimental software plugin for its Chrome browser called Tone. The small tool is remarkable in its peculiar approach for overcoming the obstacles posed by the incompatabilities of modern communication devices, operating systems and network protocols. The browser plugin makes it possible to exchange online content with others in a shared physical space (like a class or meeting room) through sound. It allows to broadcast the URL of any web content as a uniquely encoded sound snippet over the speaker of one’s computer. Any other machine within ear-shot, running Chrome with the plugin activated and listening, is thereby promted to open the respective web link. The reliablility of the transmission depends on the volume of the speaker and the distance of the listening machines, but also on ambient sounds or the orientation of computers relative to each other. It’s even said to work over phone and video calls. As its developers note in a blog post: “Tone behaves like speech in interesting ways”. Although the generated sound itself is cryptic, the auditory mode of sending data affords a somewhat comprehensible and approachable form of interaction. You can instantly hear how loud your message is sent, you might have to send it again, a bit louder this time, to reach everyone in the room, move your machine closer towards the listeners, or interrupt conversations to allow for a successful transmission.
Google’s Tone is a geeky, odd and crudely ingenious workaround for a seemingly simple problem: to make computer devices of different fabricators share a small piece of data, despite all the incompatibilities and frictions between different operating systems, security settings, networking standards and dozens of other layers of system design. Against the often pretended immateriality of digital data flows, the tool’s quirkiness illustrates, that the hardware and software politics of digital technology, in a very material sense, present a resistant and impermeable design obstacle. It highlights incompatibility as a radical and persistent condition in technology design, that not even Google seems to be able to tackle on a fundamental level. Here, the peculiar browser plugin is not necessarily presented as a model obstacological design solution. But, remarkably though, rather than playing into the prevalent rhetoric of seamlessness, which implicitly haunts all visions for a smart networked future, Tone probes a design strategy that acknowledges, or even surrenders, in face of the utopia of seamless connectivity across manufacturers, platforms, services, and devices. At the very least, it exhibits a more playful interpretation of seamlessness, that exploits the very seams of technology to render them all the more visible, palpable, or in that case, audible.
Seamful design, in that sense, presents a design attitude, that takes into account the uncircumventable stubbornness of technical infrastructures, the sedimented politics of the already-designed, and the messiness of people’s desires, behaviours and capacities for opportunistic use. Instead of fostering passive operation, seamful design might mean to look for opportunities to involve people in the functioning of their digital devices and services, by offering users resources for appropriation, mis-use and self-determined meaning-making. Seamful design might look for ways to give users control and feedback of a system’s models and representations of their activity and to render visible and actionable the various grids people are enmeshed in in their daily life. It strives to create openings and exploits of socio-technical seams as points for reflective engagement with the politics of technology design. Instead of pushing forward the delusive and over-simplified ideal of smooth connectivity and invisible operation, cultivating ambiguity and seamfulness appears as a much more challenging, genuine and emancipatory attitude towards designing digital technologies and interactions. It starts from the always ever existing clutter of infrastructures, protocols, devices, and technical ecosystems as well as the rich and unevitable messiness of people’s lived experience. As an obstacological strategy, seamful design advocates the design of technology that (beautifully) gets in the way.
The strive for seamlessness in technology design is as elusive as it is illusionary, if not conceptually and politically questionable. The indefinitely promised convenience of frictionless compatibility between all our digital devices and services undoubtly appears attractive. But with technology companies that cherish proprietary software and hardware ecosystems, these visions don’t seem to be in the best hands. After all, the work towards open standards and technologies remains an ever more necessary counter-design effort. Thus, seamful design offers just one possible notion for reframing technology design attitudes, careful not to be misunderstood as a justification to simply put up with bad design.
Moritz Greiner-Petter is a designer based in Basel, Switzerland. He is junior researcher at the Institute of Experimental Design and Media Cultures (IXDM) at the FHNW Academy of Art and Design Basel where he develops a PhD project on interface design as critical practice.