Digital denies the past. Why do we ignore nostalgia and context online?

Despite architecture being a common sight in the nomenclature of digital user experience design, it’s rare that I come across practitioners in my field of human-centred design that take either inspiration or education from the work of our cousins designing in the built environment.

For some six years now I’ve had it in mind to call out this naivety and invite discussion about what this means in our profession. I can say 6 years (nearly 7) because that’s how long ago it was since Kevin McCloud gave the RIBA Trust Annual Lecture [available on Vimeo]. It’s a lecture that has stuck in my mind all this time for how vividly he discussed the role of context in architecture, it was a concept so profoundly lacking in digital (information/user experience) architecture in 2010 and is still absent today.

Context is part of the story, nostalgia is another. Nostalgia is woefully underrated in digital design, you’ll find examples of it being used of course – particularly in social environments where the sharing of memories in photographs, memes, music and culture are commonplace or perhaps in the preservation of the earliest video games. The benefits of nostalgia are not to be underestimated in enhancing our social connectedness, improving our self-regard and comfort. Of course it can be used negatively (false perspectives and alignment with nationalism in both the Brexit and Trump campaigns) but in general terms, it’s a benign pleasure. Etymology ties it to the house and home, from the Greek nóstos (homecoming) and álgos (ache) and in this spirit, we might look to the work of Tsuruta Architects with their beautiful House of Trace to start our journey unpacking what this means for digital. Trace makes clear the delineation between the existing space and the Victorian history and in doing so draws attention to both. You can read the makers’ marks in the mortar of the Victorian brickwork or the laser-routed ply of the new. It’s a house that celebrates patina, cracks, the mundane extension it once wore and the bold new materials and spaces that define its current incarnation.

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House of Trace, Tsuruta Architects. Photo: Tim Crocker

If I may, I’d invite you at this point to think about the possessions in your life. A notebook you might use, a leather chair. A favourite pair of jeans, even the scuffed and aged treads on your stairs, a jewellery box, garden tools or a suitcase battered from a hundred baggage carousels. Items like these appreciate in value as they age. Maybe not monetarily (though this is certainly true in some cases) but certainly in what they mean to us. Even functionally, we like things that have broken-in in some sense, that have a well worn but reliable behaviour. Contrast this with the technology in your life. From the unboxing onward our digital products are perceived on a downwards trajectory. A dented corner, a cracked screen, these are items that deteriorate, not patinate. Even when their functionality is, like the well-worn chair, intact, we care so little for them that we’ll seal them in cellophane and ship them off for a paltry cashback or simply dump them unceremoniously. Truthfully these are places and products within which we will have spent considerable time and invested equal parts emotion. It might be the phone you made a life changing call on, a camera you took a defining photograph with, a piece of software on which you designed or listened to something personal or profound. In both a literal and figurative sense, digital does have memory – arguably more so than those battered jeans. I fully appreciate I paint with broad strokes here: a pair of marathon-worn shoes are sentimental to one, a scrap-heap invitation to buy new ones to another, but if you accept the general premise that we have a distorted value of history in digital then we might move to consider our online experiences.

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Scuffs, turned corners and finger marks tell a story, adding context and value.

The artist William Morris founded the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings in 1877 because he saw a future where our architectural heritage was being swept aside or clumsily restored, asserting as he did that “As good buildings age, the bond with their sites strengthens. A beautiful, interesting or simply ancient building still belongs where it stands however corrupted that place may have become. Use and adaptation of buildings leave their marks and these, in time, we also see as aspects of the building’s integrity.” We acknowledge the contribution made by the barn, the guildhall, the corn exchange, the coaching inn, the gate house, the packhorse bridge. We preserve in aspic (how needlessly pejorative that term has become!) that which we feel defines the context of our environment. Our towns, cities, villages and streets are rich with the complex layers of history and the people who have moved through them. This complexity adds depth, regardless of your penchant for steel and glass, thatched roofs or Georgian symmetry. What could be more empathetic and ‘user-centred’ than the streets of downtown Boston, a layout that owes its muddled honesty to the movement of cattle to pasture? We do not appear to have carried this through to our digital age; least, not to anything like the same degree.

In the digital arena, there is no surprise when designers and planners are asked to redesign a complete experience from scratch, tabula rasa. Briefs are rich with all-encompassing disdain for the current site, products or applications. Even when the scope does not extend as far as a full teardown, even the discrete and specific jobs are almost exclusively seeking to retain little to nothing of the incumbent. Furthermore, these briefs are so intent on the new that the presentation of historic context is done so only to tell the team what is not wanted. Digital is throwaway.

A significant part of the 6-year delay in writing this post has been in my nagging feeling that there’s a really good reason why the analogy (and therefore the nexus between the two types of architecture) is broken, that I’m missing a really obvious point as to why we design digerati behave in such a way. I’ll start with technology here. Technology depreciates in a way in which buildings don’t. Sure, materials deteriorate and, over time, things will break but, in simple terms, when someone creates a new way of opening a door, it doesn’t stop the door at your house from working. Standards in construction have changed, you can’t get sign-off for 1930s electrical wiring, for example, and modernisation for safety and future compatibility is essential, as it is online. Backwards compatibility and more mature approach to obsolescence in code can still draw strong parallels in architecture. A stonemason can still use centuries-old techniques to join a crumbling facade to a new building, a joiner can restore a timber framed barn with spliced green oak. Equally, there could be is a requirement for skilled artisans of deprecated languages to develop for our digital realms. What of design and aesthetics? We might improve functionally on an Elizabethan window, however, it’s not inconceivable, in fact, it’s more often than not the case, that we retain them in spite of their limitations, for their aesthetic and – I can’t stress this enough – for how they make us feel. In doing away with what love (however clouded in nostalgia) and in undervaluing these intangible feelings, we risk marching robotically to a banal and derivative digital world where we find little more than emotionless efficiency. Donald Norman’s Emotional Design is approaching 13 years old and I profoundly wish more designers paid attention to the visceral and reflective elements of design whilst they rush to tell us about their behaviour-led approach.

In simple terms I want us to throw away less of our digital heritage. I want to provoke a conversation (if not a debate) about how we might make use of that which adds texture and heritage to our online experiences. Nevertheless, what are the interactions, the patterns and structures that we could preserve and incorporate in the new? Where are the echoes of past behaviours and the people that use our sites? What are the iconic, seminal elements that define the brands and places we interact with? It might be the Google search box, the Daily Mail‘s ‘sidebar of shame’, the iconography of Airbnb. To be clear, this is not about archiving and preservation. It’s not archive.org or slideshows of interfaces gone by, this is living history, contextual inspiration and the fusing of interesting, beautiful and usable experiences within the inexorable desire to create in platforms and devices.

To return to the physical world, fair criticism might be levelled at our low-effort veneration of our architectural past. A cursory drive around the suburbs of Britain is all it takes to see clumsy pastiches of architectural epochs, anachronistic conceits like bricked-up windows, fake chimneys, concrete ‘Kent peg’ tiles, Doric columns. There’s no accounting for taste nor the application of contextual consideration in new design. However, our built environments are governed in a way digital is not, we have town planners and conservationists, we have some keen to retain a facade, others to slavishly recreate the past, at great scale. There is no corresponding planning authority or Grade Listing for our online environments and the risks of aesthetic carnage are even greater online as the barrier to entry as a designer is lower than that of the architect. Misguided design decisions, the lack of guardianship and our human nature to seek the path of least resistance will naturally tempt many to simply copy and produce uncanny replicas akin to a  Tudor mansion in a Chinese town. Our only defence is the financial, as digital environments get ever more complex and integrated the cost of a clean slate becomes that little bit harder to justify but only so long as those involved still have skin in the game. The rapid turnover of staff often means that there is a happy corporate amnesia for such historic investments.

I have spent a large part of the past few months working on a full redesign of parkrun and, in the coming months, this site will launch into a community of runners and volunteers many of whom will be intimately familiar with a site that has been in place for many years. It’s a site that, although aged and with many idiosyncrasies, is much loved and efficient for those familiar with it. It’s been a fundamental part of the work undertaken by Dare’s Experience Planning (UX), Design and Engineering teams to understand what of those experiences must be maintained and how they might be upgraded without losing the soul and efficiency of the previous incarnation.

Perhaps it is in the physicality of our future digital environment that we will finally see the blend of old and new. It’s taken 7 years and the maturation of technology like Alexa and Siri, an ecosystem rich in connected devices and applications to get to a point where I feel comfortable in painting a picture of a world where our familiar objects age through the hybridisation of technology: a classic car with voice activated navigation, our photo albums with face recognition a much-loved HiFi bridged to every piece of music ever written. I can’t help feeling this isn’t quite enough, however, and in time our future selves will look back with disdain at our wilful ignorance and disdain for the earliest efforts of our architects and artisans in creating places for us to live, work and play.

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Thorington Hall, Suffolk, demolished 1949. Image: Tiger Aspect Productions & Lost Heritage.

I found myself listening to Sir Roy Strong’s Desert Island Discs recently on a long, contemplative walk in the hills, I wonder if we need our own digital version of the Destruction of the Country House, the most obvious response to which would be to dismiss our digital heritage as being the rudimentary experiments of an immature industry, quite unlike the grand country houses Sir Roy was drawing the nation’s attention to at the V&A in 1974That may be so, but I cannot help but feel we have all too easily ignored both the lessons of our architectural purges and the powerful role that context and nostalgia play in enhancing and making sense of our digital lives. As this excellent piece by Matthew Beckett notes, the Destruction exhibition was part of a chain of such as the Gowers Report on Historic Houses, Grade listings and the frameworks for appreciation and preservation that ensure we are rightly forced to think of heritage in the built environment. This chain started post-WW2, an environment where, much like today, the forces of a desire for innovation, optimism and the new were in conflict with those who didn’t see the sense in flattening everything the Luftwaffe hadn’t had the opportunity to finish off.

Here then is one great opportunity to apply lessons from the past, reusing code, visual design, tone of voice or interactions. We should, for example, be unafraid of whimsical skeuomorphic elements that connect us through shared memories and learned behaviours. Although it’s not easy to conceive of how, I’m inspired by the portfolio of reuse on Dezeen and how this might lead us to reimagine old digital devices and experiences in new ways. The success of The Design Museum’s celebration of the construction and relocation-to the former Commonwealth Institute is inspiring.

And that’s ultimately all this post is intended to be, an opportunity to provoke and inspire conversation of what it is to value context and nostalgia in digital, to think less about purges and redesigns and more in terms of work that responds to and reflects the experience of the people that built it and use it.

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