Staring into Rectangles
If a spaceship filled with advanced alien life forms ever covertly visited Earth in order to study humankind, they would immediately take note of our obsession with rectangles.
Whether on the go or safe at home, we're always looking into them. Our homes have glass rectangles so that we can look outside. Our rooms have wooden rectangles that we can swivel in order to enter and exit. We have metal rectangles level with the floor, upon which we can set out food and drinks, or books whose folded rectangular sheets enable us to escape into fantasy worlds.
We have other, even more interactive rectangles, as well—televisions and computers and telephones—that allow us to educate and/or entertain ourselves any time we want.
It seems that we never tire of seeing them, but why?
Perhaps it's because we can manipulate the way they look. In the early 1900's, rectangles often had rounded corners, an aesthetic choice meant to convey a sense of safety (since round edges appear less dangerous than sharp ones). Rounded corners were everywhere, from items whose corners being rounded would actually increase safety (e.g., handheld mirrors) to items whose corners being rounded would not matter in the slightest (e.g., photograph frame mats).
When the Information Age exploded into existence, rounded corners were still a big deal for quite some time, manifested in everything digital. Computer screens had rounded corners, as did television screens...but then something funny happened.
A new Internet movement began in which rounded corners were suddenly looked down upon. Website thumbnails began to flaunt sharp corners in order to complement the newest thing that had become all the rage: interfaces designed on a grid.
Rounded corners became a thing of the past. People had finally realized that sharp edges within a digital interface were not at all dangerous. In essence, humans had finally learned to embrace the digital interface as an inherently nonphysical medium, with its own set of rules separate from those previously attributed to physical ones.
It's funny how UX designers have debated rounded corners so much, when other aspects of interfaces have much more intense health ramifications. Even if we're not using doors or tables or windows, we humans sure do stare at digital interfaces a lot. Studies show that we spend 90% of our waking hours staring at these rectangles of artificial light, and across the past few decades, healthcare professionals have famously dismissed the idea that interface usage is bad for our eyesight.
The problem is, interfaces like the ones we're now used to have only been around for a short time. We won't know the health ramifications of staring at smartphones all day for forty years straight until they have actually been in existence for forty years. Remember how cigarettes were labeled harmless until scientists began to perform decades-long studies on them? The prognosis looks bleak for up-close interfaces. (How many new eyeglass prescription updates have you endured since purchasing your first computer?)
In the future, designers and engineers will work together to cure eyestrain, with interfaces that we don't just look into; rather, we will look through interfaces. In other words, interfaces will transform from being frames (e.g., a smartphone), to being windows into a digital realm.
Heads-up displays will evolve into more and more integrated displays until eventually, one will be able to look through an interface in order to experience it. LED-backlit displays will be replaced by more organic systems.
Maybe these interfaces of the future will cause the opposite of eyestrain; perhaps eyesight-integrated 360-degree panoramic interface displays will be engineered to exercise the eyes, reshaping them and improving their efficiency in the process.
Simply put, rectangles will disappear as interfaces become seamlessly integrated with eyesight. These new interfaces will be the new thing, but 'cutting edge' sounds inappropriate, especially considering that the whole point of rounded corners evolving into straight ones was to imply that digital interfaces (even when displaying sharp corners) are physically harmless.
Instead, we'll simply say that this next logical step after straight corners—integrated interfaces, i.e., no corners at all—is futuristic.
The absence of rectangles poses an interesting question, though.
In the past, analog technology has always influenced digital technology. Skeuomorphism is the concept of designing digital items to resemble their real-world counterparts (e.g., a rotary phone icon to signify that a specific smartphone button can be used to dial phone numbers).
In the future, when rectangular interfaces evolve into borderless interfaces, will analog objects follow suit?
Will doorways disappear? Will the edges of windows and tables and books somehow fade into their surroundings? Will everything end in gradients of decreasing opacity?
Or will all of these things simply vanish, being replaced with digitized versions? Will digital experiences all be monopolized under one virtual reality app that, when logged into, will offer any activity you may seek?
It's difficult to predict. From the first cuneiform tablet to the newest e-Reader device, rectangles have been an integral part of human life for thousands of years. Perhaps rectangles are so ingrained in humanity that they will only disappear physically, while their conceptual purpose—to illustrate the line between a medium and its surroundings—will live on forever.
Thus, as stated before, interfaces of the future will become portals rather than frames, and will be looked through rather than looked at. Accordingly, we need to learn to embrace all rectangles of the present day, because—whether analog or digital, transparent of opaque—they are windows into other worlds, whereas the future may replace this rectangle-laden life with one big, seamless, 'digi-log' experience lacking the escape now offered by these beautiful rectangles we know and love.
In fact, the only rectangle humans are guaranteed to be able to experience, no matter what year it is, is the conceptual rectangle representing the bounds of your eyesight. Rectangles are everywhere, even ingrained into how your vision works.
Thus, if you think about it, the only way to escape rectangles is to close your eyes. Every time you blink, your life is devoid of rectangles. Every few seconds, you escape a life of rectangles. Maybe that's why you never get tired of seeing them.