When I make a mistake, I swoop my left hand forward and my thumb and forefinger press ‘command+z’, and my mistake is undone. I do this without thinking: it’s instinctive, a reflex. There’s something of a pianist in us as we type on black and white keys – the first typewriters were based on the piano – but our fingers’ movement is also like a dance, it’s choreographic: ‘choreo’ (χορεία), dancing; ‘graphy’ (γραφή), writing.
But when I started my new job, and had to use a PC, pressing ‘command+z’ was itself a mistake: this was the Mac shortcut to undo, not the PC’s ‘Ctrl+z’. My fingers tripped and fumbled, and trying to undo a mistake just begot more. The choreography started to become jerky, hesitant, clumsy. I kept accidentally deleting swathes of text, and it took a concerted effort to adjust.
That’s how in tune I was with my Macbook’s keyboard design: I couldn’t stop my ‘command+z’ reflex because the movement was so deep-rooted in my muscle memory. It took a sudden, if subtle alteration to the design to realise just how ingrained it was in my mind—the spacing of keys, their relative positions, the pressure needed to push them. My dexterous dance was choreographed for that design and that design alone.
To engage with digital technologies, we need physical interfaces that, through daily, obsessive usage, begin to feel so natural that we can forget they even exist. Our fingers know keyboard designs so well that new approaches to typing have abandoned the keys altogether. By being so unaware of the keyboard – that boundary between our bodies and machines – our relationships with computers become all the more immersive. A keyboard design that can capitalize on this, that is supple and responsive, ergonomically spaced, and limited to a typical hand-span, will induce an intimacy that can pave the way to dependency. That’s a big deal.
According to tech folklore, one of the first changes Steve Jobs made when re-joining Apple was to take a pen and wrench out certain keys from the iMac’s keyboard, insisting they were superfluous. ‘I’m changing the world’, Jobs allegedly declared, ‘one keyboard at a time’. This anecdote hints at the culture of the Apple design team, which is dedicated to making their products’ physical interfaces with our bodies as natural as possible. The iPod’s iconic click-wheel, offering a comfortable and intuitive method of thumb-scrolling though thousands of songs, is another example, and it was central to iPod’s success.
But this doesn’t just apply to our hands. Other devices have to be in contact with different parts of our bodies, like our ears, and design can influence our receptiveness to that physical intimacy. Apple called their first headphones ‘Earbuds’, evoking the sense that the head was like the sprout of a budding plant; their new name, ‘EarPods’, aligns the product with the entire ‘pod’ range, but simultaneously continues the botanical theme, suggesting plant pods. They refer to the lower part of the head as the ‘stem’, another botanical term, but also describe the headphones’ ‘airflow’, as if it breathes.
The smooth, seamless design reinforces Apple’s biomorphic conceptualisation of earphones. With no visibly attached parts, its manufacturing process is concealed. It looks and feels like an organic form, like the sprout of a plant intimated in the name. This biomorphic aesthetic alleviates the oddity of having an electronic device in your ears, as they hug users’ ears in such a way as to look like they might be coming out rather than going in. This all helps us feel comfortable having them inside their bodies for increased periods of time—permanently, even. And while this may seem like one of Apple’s peripheral products, they’ve shipped close to a billion of them.
Mark Fischer, in his social critique Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Ropley: 2009; p. 24), recounts how a student of his once kept these headphones in his ears even when music wasn’t playing. Fischer theorized that the physical contact provided a sense of security that the ‘entertainment matrix’ is still close:
‘the presence of the phones in the ears or the knowledge that the music is playing (even if he couldn’t hear it) was a reassurance that the matrix was still there, within reach.’
Fischer believes that the physical contact with the headphones was a typical example of a Lacan-via-Zizek concept called ‘interpassivity’, whereby another person or object experiences something vicariously on your behalf; canned laughter is another example. But I see many people with one earphone in their ear with no music, or just the cord wrapped round their ear, suggesting that the physical contact is a source of comfort. It’s as if the long cord that physically connects your head to the device, feeding you music, were a digital umbilical cord.
Almost more than the actual iPod, it was this headphone cord, long and white, that featured so prominently in the original iPod adverts, tying the silhouetted dancers to their devices. This symbiosis, of the music player and the music listener is, like typing, a dance.
Mat Honan recently remarked that ‘looking at someone’s iPod was like looking into their soul’ and it’s easy to see how biomorphic design can help engender the sense that machines are a part of our selves. Steve Jobs always insisted that the iPod should never, ever have an on-off button, because that binary digitality is far too machine-like, and interrupts the constant user-device symbiosis. In a similarly organic impetus, the ‘unibody’ aluminium casing now standard across all MacBooks, whereby the laptop is constituted of one single piece of aluminium, creates a seamless, skin-like quality to its surface. The lack of visibly attached parts is enough to make it look as if Apple don’t build these machines at all, but grow them from mechanical embryos.
The imminent boom in so-called ‘wearable tech’ will place greater pressure on devices to intuitively feel a part of a user’s body. Like the words ‘Earbuds’ and ‘EarPods’, the word ‘wearable’ is itself comfortingly disarming, as if one were speaking of an advanced scarf or hat. The physical design of devices like the Apple Watch, Google Glass, and Oculus Rift – from the holy trinity of Apple, Google, and Facebook – will have to follow suit, and be equally disarming, intuitive, and natural to wear. Speaking of Facebook’s plans with the virtual reality headset Oculus Rift, Timothy Kennett has written for The Inkling that:
‘We will live less in our world, and more in theirs: we will live less in space, and more on the Internet, less as bodies, and more as data.’
In order for this transition to occur, where our psychological and emotional investment transfers from offline to online, wearable tech products need to feel like a part of our bodies such that we never feel the need to remove them.
With Apple’s imminent entrance into the wearable tech market, their recent announcement that superstar designer Marc Newson will be joining their team demonstrates their awareness of how increasingly crucial biomorphic design is becoming. Newsom is famed for his biomorphic aesthetic, epitomized in his 1988 ‘Embryo Chair’. The piece of furniture at first looks like a giant globule of haemoglobin, but also, in light of the title, a growing, floating foetus. Its enveloping shape means that sitting in it feels like you are sinking into it, becoming a part of it.
While this 25 year old chair may initially seem totally irrelevant to something like the Apple Watch, its foetal design is a fitting visual counterpart to our umbilically connected Apple devices, and its intimation of red-blood cells also evokes the most famed aspect of the Apple Watch: heartbeat tracking.
Apple will be seeking to track and record the heartbeats of its users, directly and via various third party apps, for fitness, sexting, frictionless payments and who knows what else. In order for this focal selling point to succeed, users have to feel comfortable with that most inner, intimate pulse, the beating of their hearts, being seismographically recorded by an electronic machine. If Apple can successfully design a watch that feels like it belongs on our bodies, even a part of our selves, we will wear them for longer, volunteer more information, and become increasingly dependent.
As Apple’s CEO Tim Cook has remarked, ‘when an Internet service is free, you’re not the customer. You’re the product.’ With Apple depending upon the success of countless free third-party Apps, Cook’s remark echoes through their endeavours with wearable tech. In order for users to feel comfortable with sharing everything right down to their heartbeats, Apple will be required to make its customers feel an intense intimacy with their watches, so that you can be more easily monetised, making you a more profitable product. Apple isn’t just designing their watch for you; they’re designing you for their watch.
Apple’s logo, of the Biblical bitten apple, is increasingly resonant: their design seeks to make us feel that being clothed with their products is a natural state, and being without them is an uncomfortable nudity. Mark Zuckerberg has openly declared that ‘our mission is to make the world a more open and connected’, in order that more information be shared on Facebook. Tim Cook needs our bodies to become more open and connected, to feel naked without Apple devices. Cook’s mission, like Zuckerberg’s is an elaborate, global-scale breaching experiment. Biomorphic design will be a crucial to that endeavor, and Marc Newson’s appointment indicates Apple’s awareness of this.
When I switched from a Mac to a PC, it was my fingers’ muscle memory that had to adjust; I was the thing being re-choreographed, re-wired, redesigned. As wearable tech seeks to earn a prominence in our lives that verges on a symbiosis, product design isn’t just about the device. It’s also about designing you.