In the Digital Age, the Medium Is the Muse

by Alex Mangiola


When USA Today launched in the early 80s, much was made of its TV-shaped newspaper boxes. The paper promised to synthesize news in much the same way TV does – with short stories, easy-to-consume content, and plenty of bright hues. In many ways, USA Today clung firmly to the adage that the medium is the message. Call it gimmicky, but it worked.

Jump ahead 30 years to the digital age and it’s interesting to see how far the internet has crept into the physical world. The medium, in other words, is changing the way we communicate – online and off.

The increasing appearance of the visual language of digital technology and the internet in the physical world – the blending of virtual and physical – is not new. And lately the writer, artist, and technologist James Bridle has been documenting the notion through a series of talks and an ongoing project best captured through the New Aesthetic blog. The concept (Bridle insists it’s not a movement) also gained wider attention following a panel at the SXSW conference in early 2012.

What’s perhaps most interesting about the ideas captured by the New Aesthetic is not only the notion that we all have a very human need to validate things in the physical world, but also that, when taken out of context, our digital lives can appear oddly beautiful and inspired, or sometimes simply absurd and even grotesque. Take Google Book, a project by a couple of UK designers that provides a Google image for 21,000 words in the English dictionary. As one of the designers put it, the book is “an unfiltered, uncritical record of the state of human culture in 2012” (about half the book consists of revolting medical photos, porn, racism and bad cartoons).

When you lift the veil of technology what is left behind can surprise us, or it can give us something as modern and beautiful as the Pixel Couch, created by Cristian Zuzunaga, a graduate from the UK’s Royal College of Arts. Sometimes it’s simply art, as expressed by Ben Grosser in ‘pixel study,’ a mixed media piece that interprets the smallest elements in a display device with crude and almost childlike simplicity.

The New Aesthetic is also ushering in what may be the next big thing in branding. Check out this great article in Fast Company, which features a logo design for TU Me, a social networking app for the iPhone by Spain’s Telefonica. The logo draws inspiration from how touch-screen swipes are represented in instruction manuals, and challenges the notion that a logo needs to be a physical mark, when it can instead be simply represented as a series of gestures.

In much the same way a designer can look at a typeface and tell you what kind of computer operating system generated it, some architects can look at a building and tell you which version of Autodesk was used to create it. And so it goes for how the digital world shapes our self-expression.

Ian Bogost, a researcher, designer, and professor at Georgia Tech, summarizes the influence of pixels on our visual language best. In The Atlantic earlier this year, he classifies pixel art and data visualization as “the worldly residue that computers have left behind as they alter our lived experience.”

As we usher in 2013, it is clear that the internet is out of the box. The “real world” may never be the same.