Catching mice and buses

Catching mice

Last week I grappled with our awareness of interfaces, suggesting that the invisible interface belongs to the future, not the present. But Heidegger has got me reconsidering. Dourish’s disappearing computer mouse example is particularly convincing (109). As I write and edit this blog post the cursor flits between sections I’m working on. To do this I’m constantly manipulating my mouse, but my focus is devoted to the writing; “that which we concern ourselves primarily is the work” (Heidegger 99).

I don’t feel immersed in the “world” of the computer screen, yet as I perform the task of writing I am absorbed enough to take for granted my manipulation of the mouse. If anything I’m immersed in the task. I’m so caught up in editing text that the mouse’s mediating role gets edited out.

Catching buses

Can we apply “ready-at-hand” and “present-at-hand” to technology that we don’t physically manipulate as tools, like “real time” timetables (RTTs)? After all, these are equipment in the sense that they are “something in-order-to” estimate time of arrival (Heidegger 97).

Conversely, my experience of Auckland’s RTTs suggests they are something in-order-to frustrate. It’s always fun waiting ten minutes for a bus that, the RTT assures me, is constantly “DUE: two minutes”. This inaccuracy turns the technology into an obstacle, exposing the relationship between task and technology. “The context of equipment is lit up,” and the RTT becomes “un-ready-to-hand” and thus present-at-hand (103-105).

However, if the RTT is accurate, it becomes ready-to-hand. If the bus is due in two minutes, and arrives on time, I don’t really think about the RTT itself. I’m focused on the task: catching the bus. So does the RTT withdraw into an “unconscious but accessible background to our activity” (Dourish 100)? This thought has much relevance to calm technology futures, but also our ready-to-hand media environments in the present.

Interfacing with calm technology

Can technology become naturalised if it is enmeshed in environment and behaviour? I raised this question last week in relation to everyware, and it is worth considering again using an interface approach.

There is some disagreement about the status of image-based interfaces as environments in this week’s readings. Drucker discusses the screen interface as a “mediating environment” that influences how we experience media (10). However, it is not an environment that we look through or inhabit to perform tasks in (9, 13). Conversely, Nusselder understands interface as a “virtual environment” that fulfils a desire for immersion and immediacy that natural surroundings cannot provide (although simulation may also reveal the “opacity of media” and thus hypermediacy) (28-29).

I agree with Galloway (39-40) and Drucker that speaking of interfaces as windows or doorways to an immersive cyberspace unhelpfully separates interfaces from the rest of our lived environment. If, as Christopher Noessel suggests, interface constitutes “all parts of a thing that enable its use” then are we not always aware of the interface and its enabling function?

But what happens to the interface in a calm technology situation? If the aim of calm technology is make technology so unobtrusive that interfaces blend into the woodwork, technology “risks falling out of media altogether, becoming as naturalized as air” (Galloway 25). Media multiply, but our awareness of mediation diminishes (Bolter and Grusin 1999, 5).

In Her technology hasn’t disappeared entirely, (as Neal noted, technology needs to disclose itself at some point in order to work), yet earpieces and voice interfaces are so ubiquitous and functional that they become part of the wallpaper of everyday life for the film’s characters. If we don’t readily recognise individual technologies as being separate from the environment and everyday behaviour, do we interpret the environment as the interface?

If this is too much futurology, ponder this: If we, as Mark Deuze contends, already live in media today, does the environment at large become an interface? I hope to return to this question in later weeks.

The nature of everyware


Inside Sagrada Familia

Inside Sagrada Familia

Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia is a well thought out marriage of form and function, an example of Antoni Gaudi’s architecture that Gerhenfeld et al. would have us apply to our homes to get the contained technology working together in harmony. What the authors neglect is the way that Gaudi incorporated cues from nature to achieve this: columns branching like trees, spiral staircases inspired by falling seed pods. When the sun filters through the windows you feel a sense of forest-like natural beauty, despite the fact you are standing inside a very substantial man-made church.

Whilst the form of everyware does not have to mimic an organic object like a tree, the intention certainly seems for it to feel natural, encapsulated in the idea that “planet earth will don an electronic skin” (Business Week quoted in McCullough 8). Extending Greenfield’s Mastercard PayPass example (28), last year’s Visa payWave advertisement provides an intriguing proof of concept. The ad repeatedly shows the payWave technology, ensuring that you can recognise it, yet the hubbub caused by the cash carrying customer suggests that no one is aware of the technology until its disrupted. It’s enmeshed in environment and human behaviour (26-27). It’s naturalised.

In reality, can technology be so pervasive that it becomes not just taken for granted, but invisible, even natural, as Greenfield and Visa hint at (28)? Lewis Mumford’s assertion that technology is natural is one thing, whether we see and experience it as natural is another.

PayWave is still too much of a new novelty for me. I’m too aware of it. A more integrated system, like Gerhenfeld et al. present, could do the trick, but is Internet-0 simple enough to bandage itself when problems occur (Does payWave go down as often as eftpos machines?)? For now I’m happy amongst the trees… pillars… trees… pillars…