a reactionary ramble re: Chris Crawford, Bret Victor.
I’ve often thought about interaction in a similar vein as Crawford—that “interaction” is an exchange that involves listening and offering back. It’s a form of relationship-building that involves no small degree of trust and learning.
Written language, books, video, software. These are ways that we interact with each other, indirectly, at scale. These flat abstractions are our dominant ways of getting knowledge, outside of people. And they tend to be fairly “passive” ways of interacting. Probably more engaging than a rug, but still. Crawford would argue that deeper learning is cemented through doing. From an educational thought point-of-view, I appreciate how constructivist that sounds.
Victor’s Stop Drawing Dead Fish presents a similar frustration as his Brief Rant. It describes how so much of intellectual activity these days is “just the body hunched over a rectangle.” Even this past week, for me, I’ve mainly been reading and writing to learn.
Also, scrolling, scrolling, scrolling…
Victor notes, visions are important. And as Crawford emphasizes, definitions also (but not too much). I like thinking about how we privilege certain definitions of concepts, and what that does to people’s imaginations. If you think about “work”; if you think about “intelligence”; a huge part of how those things look in our imaginations now includes some kind of rectangles. It privileges more passive media, and this kind of low-level interaction.
These points in our imagination matter. Not only do they define innovation, but also they affect how people see themselves when they can and can’t access the dominant technology.
So, what’s beyond flat-land? What are some possible answers to Victor’s plea?
I don’t have a solution either. It doesn’t make sense to abandon one path over the other. We’ll have to decide for ourselves where certain formats make more sense, instead of assuming digital defaults. Like Victor noted, screens are not the best and also not the easiest thing. And besides— does it always make sense to make things as frictionless as possible, as noted in Crawford’s analysis of HCI?
A professor of mine noted, “A guitar is quite a cruel interface.” But this doesn’t mean it’s ineffective, or a lousy interaction. Guitars require getting used to, but in return they can be expressive, and rich.
(I remember this examples especially since I had just started teaching myself guitar then. Slowly and painstakingly!)
People are complex interfaces too. So are cities. We’ve just spent so much time learning them. I don’t know if computers are inherently more challenging than either other these things.
I come from a design background where we prioritize “easiness” and “intuitiveness” in our software for the masses. At least in my old job, we often imply that the user was frantic, impatient, dumb. We had to optimize our design like interface baby food. Which makes sense, if the only thing you have to differentiate yourself from your frantic competitors is your on-boarding experience.
Is that what we want interaction design to be?
I don’t want to diminish ease of use. But I also want to be extra careful that prioritizing “easy-to-use” does not strip away potential opportunity for interesting new things. I don’t think computers always need to “be like the real world,” or “be like humans,” if that’s our familiar territory for interactivity. Skeumorphs help ease concepts, but we’ve always been able to go further.
New interactions—ones that respect, challenge, or humor the body—could offer us a richness of imagination. They could encourage new kinds of literacy. There’s something about diverse sensory interaction that can affect us more emotionally.
I once met a woman who only learned to read at age 21, because of a severe dyslexia. When she finally picked up reading, it was through dancing. Up until that point, she had internalized this idea that she was stupid, or wrong, because she didn’t have the same linear relationship with knowledge that many people did.
To her, I wonder if reading gave her the same kind of pain that interacting with computer abstraction gives some people. Maybe it felt like grasping at something that could not respond and didn’t care to listen.