I recently saw Helvetica, a documentary directed by Gary Hustwit about the typeface of the same name — it is available streaming and on DVD from Netflix, for those of you who have a subscription. As someone who studies ubiquitous socio-technological infrastructures (and Helvetica is certainly one), I know how hard it is to seriously pay attention to something that which we see every day. It may seem counter-intuitive, but as Susan Leigh Star reminds us, the more widespread an infrastructure is, the more we use it and depend on it, the more invisible it becomes — that is, until it breaks or generates controversy, in which case it is far too easy. But to actually say something about what well-oiled, hidden-in-plain-sight infrastructures are, how they came to have such a place in our society, and why they won out over their competitors is a notoriously difficult task. But I came to realize that the film is less of a history of fonts, and more of an anthropology of design.
Have you done historical bibliometric analysis of a scientific field or topic area and found that there is a massive increase in research articles after 1990? Are you using ISI’s Web of Science and searching by topic or keyword? If so, don’t make the same mistake I did: these results aren’t because of some sea change or paradigm shift, but rather result from a poorly-documented shift in how ISI began indexing articles after 1990.
I came across this 1996 review published in Entertainment Weekly of The Palace, Worldsaway, and Worlds Chat. These were the first graphical chat programs, a genre which became virtual worlds a half-decade later. The entire article is fascinating from a historical perspective, but the last paragraph in particular shows us how some things really do stay the same:
You may also notice that nobody’s talking, at least out loud. Like all chat software, WC lets you send private messages, but it also enables you to talk in private groups, so there’s no real impetus for public discourse. Besides, most here have one thing on their minds, and it ain’t badminton. The typical experience is stumbling into a room, seeing two avatars nose to nose over in the corner, and realizing — just as at any cocktail party — that three’s a crowd. Bizarre? Sure. Sick? Maybe. A sign of modern alienation? Unquestionably. Yet in a way it’s a relief to know that even in this newest of mediums, there’s a place for the oldest of urges.