Monday, March 7, 2011

Jonathan Harris

Jonathan Harris does it all. Computer programmer, charming nerd, thoughtful designer, motivated humanitarian, he makes every other twenty to thirty year-old feel like we've done nothing significant or remotely exciting in comparison to his work. Initial thoughts of the AIGA talk? Shit he's young. Next thought? Wow, his work is impressive, and his attitude toward his work (the internet, the way humans interact with the web, computer programming) is even more impressive, kinda overwhelming, and unexpected.

Harris is a programmer and a designer, and most importantly, a human. He dives into the purely rational, orderly, everything has a place and a right and wrong, every bug can be eventually traced to a source, programer. On the other hand, he wants things to be beautiful, wants to feel emotions with his body rather than the very cerebral and mind-talk interactions he has with his computer. He says this duality is difficult, he must make an extraordinary trade off as to be either a great programmer and a bad human being (distinct and unable to fully compartmentalize his work in the real world among other people), or a bad programmer and a great human being.

One of his most impressive piece of work was this program he developed for a show for MoMA that compiled all of the online dating statistics from all the online websites on the internet into this interactive design program that communicated all the different feelings and thoughts from these websites on an hourly basis. This is program, however, the design is exquisitely beautiful, he portrays each human within these balloons (pink for women, blue for men), these little isolated beings who are in the search for a complete match. Not only does the program mathematically determines matches, it is even more impressive in its endearing, and shockingly human gestures. His portrayal of information makes us think deeply about us as humans because online dating websites, which allot a few hundred characters for its participants to describe themselves, get to the root of who these humans are, what they want, and what they are about, and therefore are a pretty interesting snap shot of our society today.

Harris compares the internet today as an adolescent, someone who's at the stage of growth where things can go very right or very wrong. He says that the elimination of the individual has occurred. The internet is also very much like this condo that everyone has a room in, everyone can have one, free of charge now a days and even websites offer everyone some sort of personalization, but every room is different, no matter what pictures we tape onto our walls. He says that a few dozen geeks, all male, mind you, have the ability to really design and decide for the rest of us, these computer programmers who, like Harris, have difficulty removing themselves out of their fake, beautiful rational world, and relate to other human beings (let along interact with them!), have the ability to create what our internet looks like today and tomorrow. Harris understands how scary this is, for a few to decide for all. And for a few dissociative humans to decide what our internet, our still growing adolescent internet, will be tomorrow.

Harris asks designers whether or not our work is benefiting our audience, not on a design level, but more importantly, a human level. Is our work doing something to help our fellow humans become better humans? Have we contributed to this overall goal?

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