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Leaving this mortal coil

Google has been rolling out redesigns of its major web services, like Gmail and Google Reader, and like a docile citizen of the Internet, I’ve been waiting for my eyes to adjust and for my hands to quit directing the mouse to places where buttons used to be. It’ll happen. Sooner or later.

What I find fascinating is that the design changes that keep catching my eyes off guard seem to be more than updates to look and feel. They seem to embody a shifting focus or philosophy on Google’s part.

The new designs seem just enough divorced from any 3D metaphors to leave me feeling unanchored. I no longer look through digital windows or at pages on a digital desk. There aren’t enough edges for those things to exist any more, and what edges there are on the page are flat and insubstantial enough that my eye can’t interpret them as edges. They’re just lines. Even suggestions of the existence of friction (like the bumpy edges of messages that you could “grab” to drag) are gone.

What’s left is a denial of the physical. We’re not in Kansas any more. We’re not even “navigating” the digital world any more. Little by little, Google has stopped shipping information down to our world. Little by little, Google has started asking us to give up on gravity and friction and join it in the ever-shifting, edgeless, 2D existence of the digital cloud.