This article accompanies my talk at the TEDx RheinMain Conference “Curiosity“, February 28th. in the wonderful Capitol Theatre in Offenbach. A video of the talk in German language is added to the end of this article (1).

Management Summary

During my research in the fundamentals of user experience design I came to the thesis that of all things modern interactive media lead users back to archaic cognitive patterns of reception and memorization. In other words: modern technology brings us back to our cognitive roots.

Fig 1: Still valid: archaic models

Following this, we should no longer orientate the UX-Architecture concepts only to the cognitive patterns that have been determined by linear media and the mental models of contemporary life. Instead we could address to experiences that are stored in our biological memory since the so-called folk age.

Virtualization Came Long Ago

What are archaic cognitive models? We are talking about thinking and behavioural patterns that originate from pre-industrial cultures and have been since then engrained in our biological memory. The patterns are:

  • Virtuality belongs to our everyday reality
  • Visual language is a rich counterpart of text-based language
  • Nonlinearity is an alternative concept to linearity
  • Storytelling is a powerful knowledge transfer environment

Fig. 2: Virtualization is nothing but an ordinary process

Let’s do a short self-experiment, which I experienced for the first time during a talk of Bruce Brown (2), at the 2nd European Design Conference in Potsdam in 1998 (3). He planted the seed of the idea of natural virtuality which I fully understood not until I became a professor for interactive media systems.

(2) Bruce Brown is Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research at the University of Brighton and a Professor of Design. Prior to this he was Dean of the university’s Faculty of Arts and Architecture and Director of the Higher Education Academy’s Subject Centre for Art, Design and Media.  

(3) “Zukunftsbilder fürs Design, 2. European Design Conference Potsdam”  at the University of Applied Sciences Potsdam, 30./31. Januar 1998

Back to the experiment: How many doors are in the house you occupy? Most likely the answer doesn’t come spontaneously. Instead you move around the house which you envisioned in your mind whilst counting the number of doors. Et voilà: This is virtualization at its best. In this moment the house is only existing virtually. You created it all alone and you did not even need a computer for it.

This ability to virtualize traces back from the pre-industrial times when people had nothing but imagination to store and reproduce knowledge. At that time the place of storing and reproducing memory was the own mind – there were no books, no photos, no mass media. It sounds contradictory, but our biological ability to virtualize – which is something we tend to interpret as an achievement of the cyber age – comes from the lacking of mass media. To top this, I could add that at that time the human being had been producer and medium at the same time. If you reconsider this you might feel petty about that we gave this up easily for the sake of industrial progress – and you are right. But isn’t there something remaining of those abilities, still steering us unconsciously?

No Story – No Knowledge 

Since immemorial times stories have been the essential tool of knowledge transfer. By stories shamans, priests  and knowledge guards preserved the knowledge of families for generations.

The Arab Tale Teller

Fig. 3: The Arab Tale Teller

Even today we are strongly connected to stories. Jonathan Gottschall, the author of the book “The Storytelling Animal”, reports that a human being according to an american study spends 1900 hours per year with stories. This means 5 hours a day. Until they reached adulthood children have spent more time with stories than with anything else, including school.

In fact we are able to memorize things better when they are woven to the golden thread of a story. Memory artists who are able to remember almost endless line of objects or numbers in the right order are spectacular examples for that claim. They apply special mnemotechnics that simply help to connect incoherent facts by a storyline – supported by the imagination of a complex story environment.

Why Not 3 – 1 – 2?

Beyond our distinct ability to imagine reality and our preference for stories, the ability to accept non-linearity as an alternative to our nowadays linear affected way of thinking for me is the most interesting aspect of our biological memory. The invention of printing conditioned us for a linear approach to information for a long time. But there was still a flickering remaining talent to cope with non-linearity. Maybe this is the reason, why people are so fascinated by the nowadays innovative concepts of interactive media.

The North American Nootka Indians lived in the coastal area of British Columbia, which consists of countless islands. Paddling from island to island for the inhabitants was necessary to provide themselves with food. To navigate trough the entanglement of islands, the Nootka used so-called “song maps”. To reach a particular island, the sculler sang an appropriate song. We know similar navigation concepts from the Indigenous Australians (“songlines” or “dreaming tracks”). Actually those concepts are not about sung textual directional advises for existing paths (i.e. nothing like: “Turn left after the big rock, hey-ho”). They are rather about a rhythmic and tonal topological description of regions and their possible routing. To construct the descriptions without any grammatically and semantically interrelated linear text message allows for easy dismantling and reassembling. So, to return home the Nootka sang the songs backwards.

Please, Let’s Sing Again!

Coming along with the machine age, the development and distribution of books and photolithography we externalized our memories. This should forsooth not be an objection against the broad availability of knowledge. But the other side of the coin was a starting erosion process in terms of our personal visual language and ability to tell stories for the sake of adopting mass-compatible standards. So the archaic cultural imprint is fading out constantly but yet still existing.

Fig. 4: Influenced by our biological brain

What’s Next?

At this point you’d think mass media sooner or later are going to repress our pre-industrial born patterns of thinking and acting completely. The prospective cyber age with its constantly innovative interactive media seems to reactivate our archaic abilities. Especially the concepts of Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality and Ambient Intelligence bring virtuality and reality into an experience with immediate and more and more everyday correlation.
To illustrate this thesis, let me present the bachelor project “floating about” of Ann-Kathrin Krenz, Michael Burk, Joris Klause and Jan-Moritz Müller, performed at the Faculty of Media – study course Interactive Media Design at the University of Applied Sciences Darmstadt.

Fig. 5: Scene from “floating about”

Unlike the common belief about computer games “floating about” is an outdoor game, taking place roaming through a city, that allows players to experience a connection between reality and a virtual world. The real world is the urban environment of a city. The virtual world is the digital communication network which is invisibly connected to inhabitants and locations of a city. The game allows for a completely different “navigation“ through a city. It is indirectly connected to the tweets, being published in the area where the player is actually located. The positive or negative character of the published contents influences the game and the perception of the city.

Fig. 6: Project Trailer “floating about”


(1) Here is the corresponding TEDx-Talk in German language.

Fig. 1, Picture Robot (c) Can Stock Foto Inc. / Kiril, licensed at www.canstockphoto.de 

Fig. 2, (c) Andrea Krajewski

Fig. 3, “The Arab Tale Teller” (1833), Horace Vernet , Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons, http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e8/Horace_Vernet-Arab_Tale_Teller_1833.jpg [recalled 2013, March 20]

Fig. 4, (c) Andrea Krajewski

Fig. 5, (c) Jan-Moritz Müller,

http://www.flickr.com/photos/93621068@N08/8507517391/ [recalled 2013, March 20]

Fig. 6, Project-trailer of “floating about”, available from www.vimeo.com/46446320, [recalled 2012, Nov 20]

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