Gmail: Art and Design?

[6 April 2006]

By Gregory Trefry

What does the painfully oblique term “art” and the wincingly detailed phrase “human-computer interaction” have to do with one another?

Every morning I turn on my computer and log into what I consider to be one of the finest pieces of interactive art I have come across in the last several years. I spend the whole day logged in, staring at the intricacies of the design, considering the ways in which this piece of art has begun to inform and shape my thoughts on the very idea of communication and memory. So successful has it been that this one piece has generated a school of other pieces exploring similar avenues. And at the end of the day I log out of Gmail with an almost wistful reluctance to part with the clarity and moral order laid out by its design.

Now, many people would argue that Gmail in no way qualifies as art. Some days I might tend to agree. Gmail is a work of design, conceived of by a cadre of elite designers and engineers at Google, including Kevin Fox (who designed much of the user interface) and Paul Buchheit (one of the key engineers). Gmail is human-computer interaction at its best. But on other days, such as today, I will staunchly argue that Gmail is a work of art, in much the same way architecture is art or game design is art or Warhol’s silk screens are art. They are the product of individuals who envision the world in a particular way and conceive a tool to help us see and share that vision. Unfortunately, the art world only considers more prototypical art pieces when considering net art, and thus misses out on some of the more effective work produced on the Internet.

I’ll explain. But first, let’s take a little detour through the more traditional world of “real” art.

The best thing about the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Biennial (its bi-annual survey of the art world) is not the art on display, but the hand-wringing. Every two years publications from ArtForum to the New York Times trot out the same cranky missives asking, “Will the Whitney get it right this time?” Can the curators possibly reflect the mercurial state of the art world, a world predicated on its proud inability to be defined, while also bringing to a wider audience art of lasting import? The inevitable answer delivered every two years is: you’d have to be delusional on par with Don Quixote to even try.

But then the world would be a much duller place without the joy of chasing windmills.

So where is the art world now? Well, we all know painting is dead. Or at least we thought it was, but apparently the reports of its demise were greatly exaggerated. Painting is alive again, spotted dining at Jean Georges in Manhattan after putting in a hard day’s work entertaining the throngs at the Whitney’s 2004 Biennial. Since then painting has been playing it cool, enjoying its resurgence and reinvigorated attention. Who would have thought in this media-saturated age slapping some paint on canvas would still be such a popular way to express yourself? But tradition is a hard windmill to catch and slay. And painting has the very long legs of tradition carrying it forward.

Net art, poor medium, never really established tradition. Since the early days of the Internet, artists and designers have been experimenting with computers and networks as their new canvas. From the OS hijacking experiments of jodi.org to the source code and interface inversions of Mark Napier’s Shredder, artists have found exciting ways to not only question how we interact with computers, but also produce beautiful aesthetic experiences. Six years ago, the Whitney’s dramatic inclusion of a number of net art projects in the 2002 Biennial seemed to herald the arrival of a new art form into acceptance. Some featured pieces even made it into the larger public conscious. Josh On and Futurefarmer’s They Rule, a piece railing against the small clique of individuals sitting on the boards of major corporations, was a fantastic piece of polemic art, as well as interaction design. It made the rounds on the e-mail carousel, and is still widely referenced to this day. But in general, the birth of net art turned out to be rather stillborn. Four years later, Internet art appears rather moribund. The form has been riddled by problems.

First, how do you sell something that the paradigm of art demands be unique, but is really just a piece of infinitely reproducible source code available on the web? Second, net art felt too much like either design or concept art. Once one person tested out a concept, any further exploration along those lines felt like copying. This inability to iterate and explore aesthetic paths cut off the crucial exploration of the styles and aesthetics of the art form. Essentially, one artist got one shot at an idea. Third and perhaps most importantly, a lot of it was crap. The art relied on interactivity. Producing a compelling, interactive experience is quite difficult. Users often give up at the first sign of incomprehensibility. And new forms of interaction can often be inscrutable. This often led to incomplete experiences. Too often pieces demanded more time and patience of viewers than, say, a painting might. Of course these are just the growing pains of a new form. Lately, screen and net art has enjoyed a resurgence. Communities like those congregating around the Java-based Processing application created by Casey Reas and Ben Fry have begun to more fully explore the aesthetics of generative and procedural screen-based art, producing some truly beautiful works.

But to limit what we deem art to simply visual experience cuts out a lot of truly interesting work and possibly the future of art. They Rule was successful for more than just the message it espoused. In using and interacting with the piece, the viewer learned to think in terms of nested connections and structures. A user would click on a company revealing a circle of board members. Clicking on any one of the board members showed other company boards that person also served on. Even a few clicks quickly revealed a web of interconnections. Enthralled users were able to create and save their own snapshots of these webs. They Rule popularized this interaction scheme of interconnected nodes. The interaction as much as the content shaped the way people thought. Today some of the most interesting interaction schemes are being deployed in pieces and products outside of traditional bounds of art. Sites like Flickr (which uses community and metadata to re-imagine the nature of photography and identity) or games like World of Warcraft (which provide an entire world and social structure for players to engage with) are changing the way we think. These products stand in atypical places, straddling design, architecture, and even art.

Gmail is one of these cases. Gmail radically rewrites not only e-mail, but the very way we organize our thoughts. It introduces two interesting concepts to e-mail: keywords and conversations. Both of these concepts reflect as well as shape the way we organize information in our heads.

Keywords are much more flexible than folders. Folders are extremely didactic. An item can only belong to one folder at a time. This reflects a physical reality but not a mental reality. We create folders to organize and say, “This information belongs here, with this idea.” But often times a piece of information straddles different ideas. We read a book about baseball, but then actually mention that book in a conversation about economics, tying a concept absorbed in one domain into another domain. In allowing you to apply multiple keywords to the same e-mail, Gmail admits that our ideas are not neat and trim. Our memory allows for multiplicity, with an experience sloshing around in our brain leaving residue wherever it goes.

Keywords and taxonomies are, of course, nothing new. Blogs use them, news articles too are tagged. But Gmail’s use of keywords is far more effective and interesting. It is tightly bound with our communication; they effectively erase the organizational paradigm of folders so entrenched previously.

Tugging at the flexibility of keywords is the more strident organization of messages into conversations. Like an Internet forum, Gmail organizes individual e-mails into strings of related e-mails. Threading simply combines each e-mail with the same subject heading into one line in your inbox. The message is accompanied by a number denoting how many messages reside in that thread of conversation. It’s one of those ideas so brilliantly simple that it’s a wonder no one thought of it before. When I first logged into Gmail and beheld this function, I was overcome with the same feeling I received when I heard “Miss World” by Hole for the very first time. As Courtney Love belted out, “I’ve made my bed, I’ll lie in it,” I was immediately moved by the song and struck dumb wondering why no one had ever thought to use that phrase in a song before.

Threading the messages is fantastically functional. It is absolutely invaluable if you subscribe to busy e-mail listservs. Those 50-message long volleys about the best falafel in Greenwich Village can now be deleted with a single click. It is also more logical when considering how we actually hold a conversation. No message exists in a vacuum, but rather as part of a dialog. Collecting those pieces of dialog into one string establishes and reinforces continuity. Yet at the same time conversations are weirdly restrictive. Your messages may eventually change topic, but they will remain part of the same conversation. This spurs you to consider the very definition of a conversation. If you begin the evening with a friend talking about the Federal Reserve’s latest rate hike and two hours later find yourself railing about how you would never want to own a dog in the city because you hate the idea of picking up dog poop with your hand, are you having the same conversation? Or have you merely shifted topics? What if you saw a movie in between? Does that constitute a break in the conversation? With Gmail, when you reply, the program does not even offer a field to change the subject line. You can of course click a link and change the subject if you wish, separating the new mail from the conversation. But it’s a bit unnatural. This extra step seems to be exhorting us to order our thoughts more tidily. Gmail is saying to you, “This is a conversation, not a message. It’s ongoing and related, not singular and disconnected. You will think of this message as part of that conversation.” This line of thought eventually becomes baked into our mental organization. Now when I look at an inbox in another e-mail program, all of those repeated subject lines seem messy and scattered. In fact, Gmail makes me want to order other pieces of information in my life in a similar way; I almost wish the books on my shelf could be bound together under the heading that inspired me to buy different groups of boos: “Oh, yes, here’s the series of books I bought when I thought I wanted to be an urban planner.” Gmail’s conversations espouse order as a moral good.

But is it art? Do these subtleties convey intent and meaning? Yes, they definitely convey meaning. Nothing is without intent or meaning. Despite being designed by a software development team at Google, Gmail is shot through with meaning. Do you think those four silly colors in the logo are accidental? No, they connote a vision, even a set of politics. Of course Gmail has an agenda. Politics are built into the very code of the Internet. You could argue that software code is our new architecture. It shapes and defines our experiences. The code, from its grammar and syntax on a low level to the functions it allows on the interface level, can be flexible or didactic. It can encourage you to think and express yourself in new ways, or it can shepherd you towards specific conclusions. Hell, as I write this, Microsoft Word keeps correcting my English, shaping my very sentences and thoughts to match the grammar algorithm running in the background. In his book Protocol, New York University professor Alex Galloway examines the very politics of code and the way that software code reflects and defines control. Do we want our applications to be free and flexible, do we want Frank Lloyd Wright-esque visions of function, or do we seek Fascist façades connoting power? Ideas are baked into the very way an application allows you to use it.

Gmail is not exactly a free and flexible application. It is splendidly designed, providing a perfectly suitable replacement for desktop-based e-mail applications. Built using the Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX) protocols, Gmail functions much faster and seamlessly than most webmail programs. The browser makes calls to the database without reloading the page each time. This allows it to do simple things like autofill an address as you type—something a normal webpage does not. Google has also recently bundled their new instant messenger service into Gmail—a nice feature, but only really useful if you have a lot of friends using Gmail. There is of course the ever-growing storage space too. As of this writing you can store up to 2708.68 MB of information in Gmail. That’s a lot of e-mail. Google’s idea is that you will never have to throw anything out. Gmail seeks to become the repository for all of your communication. It becomes your memory.

This can be great, but it forces you to conform your version of memory and conversation to Google’s. While the conversation and keyword features are excellent and a truly innovative way to consider continuity and mental organization, they force the user along a specific path. There is much hand-wringing around the Internet about whether Google is the benevolent force they have posed as. I doubt they are. But I doubt they are evil either. It is a company composed of individuals who have developed a particular view of the world and are sharing that view through interesting human-computer interaction design projects. They take views of cognitive science and use technology and design to elaborate their vision for the world. Of course they are trying to make money, but who isn’t? Whether you agree with them or not, you have to admit projects like Gmail force you to think. In Gmail they have designed something that can truly alter your perception of the world, and in my opinion that’s about as good as art gets.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/060406-gmail/