[nothing week 9] reading response: Notes in Justification of Putting the Audience Through a Difficult Evening

This week, we read “Notes in Justification of Putting the Audience Through a Difficult Evening” by Wallace Shawn. I read up a little about the context of this essay — it was in response to the way people reacted to Shawn’s play,  Aunt Dan and Lemon, about a young, sick girl, influenced by a charismatic family friend to support Nazism. The New York Times reviewer from that time writes, “I can’t remember the last time I saw a play make an audience so uncomfortable, and I mean that as high praise.”

The essay discusses how we enjoy watching film and other media about historical figures we know to be evil, like slave-holders or Hitler, because we enjoy a sense of superiority in knowing that we would never have supported them if we lived in that time period. Shawn challenges this idea, saying that the clarity of time-passed gives us “over-confidence” that we are somehow morally better and smarter than the people who lived back then. There were lots of things that were convincing and refreshing about Hitler, and of course those people who supported him at the time could not see into the future at the atrocities he would commit.

Reading this, the parallels to our current election are pretty obvious, as a lot of people have been comparing Trump to Hitler for the same reasons. If the worst case scenario happens, will our great-grandchildren (assuming they exist after the climate apocalypse) look back at us with the same feeling people currently have for those that stood by and let Hitler win?

The piece is a good reminder that we’re naturally easily influenced by the narratives created by people close to us, or by the media we consume. “Intellectual clarity seems to be a very important weapon in the fight against evil, although ‘clarity’ is of course a very difficult concept to define,” Shawn writes. “I think staying awake rather than falling asleep when people are talking to you is an important component of the definition of clarity.” This line reminds me of the thing people say these days: “Stay woke.”

 

[nothing week 8] einstein’s dreams and projection mapping

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Without knowing anything about the book going in, I enjoyed reading the first few sections of Einstein’s Dreams. It reminded me a lot of Invisible Cities, in using small vignettes to explore a specific idea, or a version of an idea. Although it’s ostensibly about time — and the different possible ways time could work or exist in our universe — it seems to be more of a reflection on humanity and about people. More about philosophy than about physics, which is a little different from what might be expected from a book with “Einstein” in the title.

One of my favorites was “26 April 1905,” which is the one depicted in the illustration above. It describes a world where “time flows more slowly the farther from the center of earth.” As a result, in fear of old age and death, everyone lives at the top of mountains, and rich people build tall stilts for their houses. Only a few adventurous people visit the valleys and swim in the rivers down below. In contrast, those at the top “have become thin like the air, bony, old before their time,” defeating the whole purpose.

This vignette is very proverb-like, maybe even a little too on the nose. But even so, I thought it was an effective story.

My other favorite was “3 May 1905,” describing “a world in which cause and effect are erratic.” I found the examples and questions it raised to be quite interesting:

A man stands there just now, absently emptying his pockets and weeping. Without reason, his friends have abandoned him. No one calls any more, no one meets him for supper or beer at the tavern, no one invites him to their home. For twenty years he has been the ideal friend to his friends, generous, interested, soft-spoken, affectionate. What could have happened? A week from this moment on the terrace, the same man begins acting the goat, insulting everyone, wearing smelly clothes, stingy with money, allowing no one to come to his apartment on Laupenstrasse. Which was cause and which effect, which future and which past?

In this world, artists thrive and scientists have no power. The reason this example is interesting, I think, is because there is some truth to it that already exists in our world.

I worked with Jamie on our two projection mapping projects this week. The first one we made was having snow fall between two squares:

The second was a spinning pizza in a box. This one was particularly hard to capture in a video with my phone camera, so it’s kind of dark, but you get the idea.

[nothing week 2] Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees

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I was not familiar with Robert Irwin’s work before reading these excerpts of Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees (which is a great title, by the way), but I felt very much that I want to after doing so. It’s always challenging to properly translate something in a visual medium to text and properly convey what the piece is actually like, and photographs (especially photocopies of photographs) do an even worse job.

But I think the reason why Irwin’s work came across as so compelling in the description is due to the mysterious nature of what he’s trying to create, which is more than just beautiful objects to look at. I was really intrigued by the “energy” he describes in the experience of his work. The way the pinprick sized dots of opposite colors he applied in “The Dots” would cancel each other out visually and create a strange feeling in the viewer is really fascinating.

The way we often think about the purpose of art is that it makes us feel something, but it’s usually in terms of a specific emotion. In painting, the normal interaction is that we look at the paint on the canvas, which move us to think about something and then possibly have an emotional reaction. What is interesting about Irwin’s work is that he uses different techniques to make us feel. Instead of allowing our minds respond to the work, he seems to approach it almost body-first. Due to the optical and sensory illusions he creates, our bodies have involuntary responses that lead to an emotional response.

I also enjoyed reading about the way his work transitioned over time, and how it wasn’t about trying to explore some specific theme, but just about taking things one step at a time until what he had already made didn’t serve him anymore.

I hope I’ll be able to catch a show sometime soon.

[live web week 1] Response to “Living on a Stream: The Rise of Real-Time Video”

This week, we read Steven Levy’s “Living on a Stream: The Rise of Real-Time Video,” and were tasked with betting for it or against it. Levy says that in 10 years, over half of the videos we watch will be in real-time, while his friend Kevin Kelly bets that it will not be true.

It’s funny that Levy uses the app Color as his example of what the future will hold, as Color notoriously turned out to be one of the biggest and most embarrassing start-up failures in recent memory. Technology changes fast and is often quite unpredictable, which is one of the points of the piece, but the unpredictability factor works against the author, even just four years later.

Of course, I’m sure that if Levy wrote the article now, he’d cite Twitch as his top example, the popularity of which is certainly real and points to some kind of trend. I don’t know if I’d still bet on his side, though. I think there are some things that are suited for live consumption, like news, sports (and other competitions), award shows, pageants and panda cams, but most of the things that are happening in real-time are just not that interesting to simply watch as they’re happening. Improved streaming quality and technological advances don’t make mundane things compelling.

But I do think that if video chat is within his definition of “real-time video,” then maybe he does have a point. We enjoy looking at the faces of our friends and family as we speak to them, and that is an area that I think could overtake simple phone calls if the technology improves. Also, once video-conferencing gets even better, I’m guessing more employers would be willing to have employees that work remotely if there isn’t much of a loss in productivity.

In general, though, I’d go with Kelly.

[pcomp week 3] Design meets disability reading & observation

from the Alternative Limb Project
from the Alternative Limb Project

This week’s reading was Graham Pullin’s Design Meets Disability, discussing both objects explicitly used to counteract a disability, like prosthetics, as well as objects used by people of all abilities that have varying levels of inclusiveness. Glasses are cited as an example of successful design for disability, to the point that people don’t consider poor eyesight a disability because glasses have transitioned from being medical devices to fashion accessories. This reminds me of Norman’s phrase, “Attractive things work better.”

I appreciate this perspective in the context of physical computing. If we’re designing for the human body, it’s important to take into consideration the ways in which people’s bodies and abilities are different, and to not take any particular ability for granted. I think it’s neat to see examples of things designed specifically for, say, wheelchair users, but also to see products that keep different preferences of usage in mind (a clicking sound and sensation, for example.)

(A small note on the examples: it was fun to see Nick’s Bricolo because we used to work together at my old job before ITP!)

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For my observation assignment, I decided to watch people use the entrance to the subway. More specifically, I watched them use the Metrocard slider that collects their fare.

NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - JANUARY 13:  A person swipes a metrocard in New York subway station on January 13, 2014 in New York, United States. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) declares that MetroCard the subway rapid transit system is going to change until 2019. (Photo by Bilgin S. Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

According to the MTA, people swipe in about 1.7 billion times a year. That’s a lot! I’ve probably done it a thousand times myself.

That said, it’s certainly not perfect. My assumption is that people who are accustomed to the system — understanding which way to swipe and the specific speed at which you swipe — can move through pretty quickly within 3 seconds or so with no problem. But tourists, anyone that has insufficient fare on their Metrocard or any other Metrocard problem, or people that move too slowly I predict will have trouble with the machine.

I watched people use the machine at Union Square because there’s a lot of activity there, and locals and tourists alike.

I noticed that the people using the machines generally fell into three groups:

  1. Confident and experienced users who got through with no problem
  2. Confused users who had problems, likely tourists
  3. Confident users who had a problem with their card

The first group was the majority of users who moved through the system quickly. The second group usually approached the machines slowly and often in groups, and would often swipe too slowly or too quickly, receiving the “Swipe card again at this turnstile” message. They would try again and again until it worked. This usually would take something more like 10 or 15 seconds.

The third group actually ran into the most trouble. People who were experienced and confident moved forward with the speed of someone who would get through in a couple seconds, but were halted by the machine abruptly if the card didn’t work. Sometimes they would almost run into the turnstile because the momentum was carrying them forward. Other times there were almost collisions with people behind them, especially if they had to turn back to refill their card.

In the case of insufficient fare, people had to go back to the machines to refill them, which could take up to a few minutes.

Developing the correct motion to swipe in a way that the machine understands is a skill that improves with practice. This is probably one reason why most other (and more modern) subway systems around the world use a tapping system, which seems to be easier for anyone using the machine, even if they’ve never done it before.

The way to solve the insufficient fare problem seems to be harder. It’s not an issue of not informing riders of how much fare is left (since it’s on the display when you swipe in), but people forget that they need to refill even if during the last ride they knew they ran out. It seems to be an issue of when riders are notified that they need to refill, which should ideally be when they walk into the station and not when they’re already at the turnstile.

A shorter term solution might be to design the space around the turnstiles in such a way that people can quickly exit the turnstile area if they need to, so it’s not a crowded bottleneck.

 

[video & sound week 1] Plagiarism, originality and remix readings

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This week in Video & Sound we read and watched four pieces of media: Jonathan Lethem’s The Ecstacy of Influence: A Plagiarism; b) On the Rights of the Molotov Man: Appropriation and the Art of Context; c) Allergy to Originality and d) Kirby Ferguson’s Embrace the Remix. The common thread between them all is the idea that no art or work is truly original or creative, and that this isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s inevitable, and it should be celebrated because we progress collectively through the efforts of the past.

Ferguson’s talk cites a quotation from Henry Ford: “I invented nothing new. I simply assembled the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work.” And, as Lethem writes, “Finding one’s voice isn’t just an emptying and purifying oneself of the words of others but an adopting and embracing of filiations, communities, and discourses.”

I agree with the sentiment that our culture stands on the ability to borrow and remix ideas, and that openly acknowledging our influences as artists or inventors is important. But I’m also sympathetic to the people whose work gets “stolen” as well. Ideally, we could live in a world where everyone openly admits to using other people’s work and happily allows anyone to use theirs as well. But because it’s so difficult for artists to make a living to begin with, our flawed copyright laws sometimes serve as the only kind of protection they have for their income. It’s hard to fault an artist for feeling protective in an imperfect system, which is why I found Susan Meiselas’s rebuttal sympathetic and a necessary perspective.

 

[pcomp week 2] The design of everyday objects & physical computing’s greatest hits

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This week we read two works by Donald A. Norman: the first chapter of his book, Design of Everyday Things, and  his essay, Emotional Design: Attractive Things Work Better. The first rails against everyday objects that are poorly designed, by which he mostly means difficult to understand and confusing to use. He cites numerous examples, like doors that don’t make it clear whether you should pull or push, the thermostat in his refrigerator, and now-almost-obsolete landline telephones.

Scissors, Norman says, are an example of a well-designed everyday object because their affordances, constraints and mappings allow you to easily form a conceptual model in your mind of how they should be used, even if you’ve never done so before.

His essay is a response to some criticism in his book that makes it seem as though he values usability over all else in design—beauty, in particular. His response clarifies that it’s not what he was trying to say, and that designing with people’s emotions in mind is equally important.

These readings make me wonder about the cultural influences in what makes something considered easy to use, or beautiful. I was recently in Japan, a land well-known for its design and usability of everyday objects. As a non-Japanese speaker, some things were easy for me to understand: a basket under your restaurant chair for putting your purse, for example.

Others were not. Many ramen restaurants have you order via machine rather than telling it to the waitstaff (pictured above). The idea is great, but I unfortunately lacked the cultural knowledge or reading ability to figure parts of it out—like how you have to put your money in first before pushing the buttons for your order, and that you have to hit the change button to get change at all at the end.

You only have to give any modern 3 year-old an iPad to see how much culture determines whether or not something is easy to use, so I wonder what kind of cultural assumptions are in the background for a person to understand how to use something as seemingly straightforward as Norman’s scissors.

The final reading this week was Tom’s blog post, Physical Computing’s Greatest Hits (and misses). It’s intimidating and inspiring at the same time to see all the types of projects that can be made with physical computing. What I like in particular is a sense of playfulness about most of them. We don’t necessarily have to create world peace with our designs—making someone smile can be a good enough reason to make something.

[pcomp week 1] What is physical interaction?

After reading the first two chapters of Chris Crawford’s The Art of Interactive Design and Bret Victor’s A Brief Rant on the Future of Interaction Design, the question “what is physical interaction?” reminds me of another question I’ve been trying to answer a lot recently, which is “what is ITP?” With both, it seems that the more you think about it and the more you try to come up with a solid answer, the more inadequate your definition feels.

Crawford addresses this subjectivity, but nonetheless puts forth a definition of interactivity as a conversation “in which two actors alternately listen, think, and speak.” He describes interactivity as something that exists on a continuum rather than in absolutes, and defines it also by what it is not: reaction and participation, for example. Upon first thought, a conversation makes sense to me as a starting point for thinking about how to define interaction. A conversation isn’t static or predictable; it’ll change and adapt according to what each participant says in each turn. Sounds interactive to me!

But does it still count as interactive if there are no humans in the conversation? The video above showing two AI chatbots talking to each other is certainly a conversation (as well as a pretty cool piece of digital technology), but I wouldn’t classify it as interactive because people are not a part of the actual interaction. At least until we consider robots as people, which as far as I know, hasn’t happened yet.

Victor’s rant, similarly, encourages us to consider people when designing for interactivity. This is where the physical part kicks in. His blog post rages against the prevailing vision of the future that’s entirely screen-based, or as he calls it, “Pictures Under Glass.”

“We live in a three-dimensional world,” he writes. “I believe that our hands are the future.”

Physical interaction necessarily involves the body. Of course, as Victor argues, hands are under-considered as tools in design, but we should also think about the ways we can use other parts of the body to creative physical interaction. And to consider this in terms of sense, what else can we use besides touch? It’ll be interesting to design for interaction by sound, sight, smell and taste too.

What makes for good physical interaction? Maybe it’s what McLuhan considers to be “cool media,” or something that requires more active participation on behalf of the person or user to get something out of it. Or maybe it’s the other way around—something that gives you a wider array of output depending on how you interact with it. Like the way that light switch that turns the lights on and off is less of an interactive experience than a dial that allows you to change your lights to all colors of the rainbow.

But does more interaction mean good interaction? Does it make it a better interaction if you end up with stronger feelings about the experience? Or does that just make it better art? Maybe, the best physical interaction is one where the output is an experience tailored completely uniquely to your input, like a conversation. (Between humans.)