Gummy World: Thoughts on the Graphical User Interface

The world can be divided into two basic categories: people who like chocolate, and people who like gummies. Chocolate is serious, sexy, and secretive. Gummies are fruity, cheerful, and transparent. Whereas chocolates are often shaped as simple cubes, bars, and domes, gummies masquerade as worms, sharks, strawberries, coke bottles, teddy bears, cartoon characters, and more. Gummies promise a bright world of postmodern illusion, while chocolates imply a dark modernist sublime. It looks like the gummy people were behind the visual design of Apple’s OSX. In place of the flat, pixel-based icons of Apple’s old-school interface, our screens now quiver with translucent, 3-d blobs. Prone to technological inertia myself, I have delayed my own switch to OSX for as long as possible. Finally, this spring, I converted my laptop to OSX, while keeping my basic workstation lodged in the static comforts of OS9.

The old-school desktop doesn’t pretend to be real; it is a metaphor for a desktop that pays a knowing nod to the banality of the workplace. The original trash can, for example, has a sense of humor (it is obviously and unapologetically a symbol of a garbage bin, not a “real” one). In contrast, the updated dock features a photographically rendered wastebasket, straight out of the Office Depot catalogue. (Someone should ask Karim Rashid to design a gummy one.) In place of the tiny, turning watch that tells you to wait in OS9, we get a happy pinwheel in OSX that looks like one of those giant lollipops from the beach or the circus. Everything in Gummy World (even waiting) is supposed to be fun.

The gummies in the dock are so eager to please, they move, twitch, and inflate when your mouse comes near them, pleading for attention like girls desperate for a dance. (The old interface expects the user to make the first move.) Many of the animated behaviors in Gummy World are quite wonderful, however. The dialog boxes that “shake their heads” to say “no” provide an ingenius and unmistakable visual cue, and the way files minimize into the dock like the silk scarves of a magician is both poetic and unambiguous.

Gummy World reflects a simulationist point of view, whereas OS9 employs a schematic, abstracted attitude. In the 1960s and 70s, cultural critics described the rise of a simulationist aesthetic; they witnessed a mind-numbing “society of spectacle” that was replacing the intellectual abstractions of modernism. Writers such as Guy Debord and Jean Baudrillard described simulation as a semiotic sedative that had replaced the world of direct physical experience with a dominion of signs

For many cultural critics and producers in the 1980s and 90s, the rise of new forms of digital media meant that simulation would continue to dominate our experience of technology. But whereas Debord and Baudrillard viewed simulation through a dark and distopian lense, a new generation of authors greeted it with sparkling enthusiasm. For example, Janet Murray’s 1997 book Hamlet on the Holodeck celebrates immersive, hyperreal simulations (Disney theme park rides) as the triumph of simulation and the pinnacle of artistic achievement, where spectators suspend disbelief and lose themselves in a fantasy world of ersatz sensations.

The juicy, bulbous icons of Gummy World aspire to postmodern artifice and illusion, in contrast with the flat and obvious bitmaps of OS9, which, like modern works of painting, film, or furniture, call attention to their own concrete constructedness, announcing their status as human artifacts.

Yet OSX, for all its luminous simulationism, ends up delivering a transparency of a wholly different order. OSX is the first Apple operating system to be based on Unix, a more or less “open source” code that can be explored and modified by a user equipped with sufficient skill (and inclination) to do so. Such users choose to bypass Gummy World altogether and speak directly in the language of the Machine, peeling away the illusionistic skin of the desktop to reveal a command-line architecture as transparent as a Calatrava bridge.

As my colleague Yoram Chisik explains it, “There is a cultural divide between those who cherish their knowledge of arcane commands and those who just want their computers to be obvious so they can figure out stuff without having to bang their heads against the wall.” Regardless of the style of its icons (abstracted or illusionistic, static or animated), any icon-based desktop interface hides the structural language of the machine. In terms of surface aesthetics, OSX simply amplifies a narrative that was set into motion by the early GUIs and became the basis of the Apple interface (and was then imitated by Windows).

Does the “improvement” of digital media necessarily mean the pursuit of increasing levels of realism, with ever-mounting levels of detail and ever more complete and exagerrated spectacles? Making things more bright, shiny, and animated does not necessarily make them better, but giving them new structural intelligence and transparency does. Art and design can trigger mental images as well as retinal ones, critical ideas as well as special effects. The designer often acts as an editor, choosing what not to say and what not to show.

Myself, I’m not ready for command-line communication with my Mac. I still do love chocolate, but I am also learning to crave the sweet-and-sour sensibility of Gummy World.

On the critique of simulation, see Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Detroit: Black and Red, 1983); and Jean Baudrillard, “Simulacra and Simulations,” in Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings, Mark Poster, ed. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988), 166-84. On digital media, see Janet Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997). On the evolution of the GUI, see Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997). Special thanks to Yoram Chisik.

Essay by Ellen Lupton, originally published on AIGA Voice, July 16, 2004.