Wednesday, April 9, 2003

Design and control

Via peterme, Marc Rettig's excellent presentation on interaction design history. (Molly - why didn't I meet him at SXSW?)

Not to gloss over a comprehensive and really well-illustrated history, but I was most interested in his characterisation of the shifting relationship between humans and machines. Early machines needed to be controlled: they were designed "against misuse... and abuse." Then there was a "shift in focus from controlling the computer to using applications and tools, trying to make it so people [had] to adapt less to use the machines’ capability." This, in turn, "eventually led to a professional emphasis on people doing a task rather than 'a tool with good controls'." And now, "after twenty years of trying to help people perform tasks, we realized success depended on expanding the scope of view. Most good work now includes context of use, characteristics of individuals, patterns of life."

It reminded me of something that Marc Weiser and John Seely Brown wrote about calm technology:

"First, by placing things in the periphery we are able to attune to many more things than we could if everything had to be at the center. Things in the periphery are attuned to by the large portion of our brains devoted to peripheral (sensory) processing. Thus the periphery is informing without overburdening. Second, by recentering something formerly in the periphery we take control of it… Technologies encalm [sic] as they empower our periphery… The result of calm technology is to put us at home, in a familiar place."

As I've written elsewhere, their definition of ubiquitous computing (and I think equally applicable to this sense of interaction design) seeks to bring computers to "our world" (domesticating them), rather than us having to adapt to the "computer world" (domesticating us). But such simple dichotomies incorrectly assume there is an easy distinction to be made between the virtual and the actual, human and machine.

If a goal for the modern interaction designer is to provide for a pleasant, or possibly seamless, user-centred experience, we are still seeking to control the machine, to design against misuse and abuse, to make it more amenable to our desires. In designing for users, we tend to privilege them and demote the computer. We actively create the subjects and objects of design, and we don't allow them to switch or blend.

So actually, I'm not sure design has really changed all that much. Most days, I suspect we actually have some deep-rooted cultural fear of being overtaken, or consumed, by our machines, and that this fear moves design in strange ways. Code has always been about control, and when we design code, we always design particular types of control.

If we didn't distinguish so clearly between humans and computers, we might see how we also control people in our attempts to control the machine.

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