I don’t really care if Brenda Laurel got Attic drama “right,” because thinking about networked human-computer interaction as drama (“to do or act”) and “enactment” (to represent through action) opens up so many creative and important possibilities. Our “make” for today was to identify a current example of human-computer interaction that has most or all of the six elements (action, character, thought, language, pattern (melody) and enactment), and I had a hard time finding an example of computers as theater that surpassed the power and creativity of the David Bowie exhibit I exerienced in Chicago last fall. Continue reading “Reality Fix”
I caught a glimpse of the orange sign on my way to the conference hotel. “David Bowie Is.”
“I am going,” I promised myself.
Best. Decision. Ever.
Even if you are too young to remember Ziggy Pop, or cringed through the “Let’s Dance” era, this exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art is worth whatever it takes to get you there — especially if you found yourself reading Brenda Laurel (1) this week for the New Media Seminar.
Because experiencing David Bowie Is puts you right into the middle of a drama that is organic, whole, collective and unique. Like the pioneer-master of the multi-media spectacle it honors, the exhibit integrates, re-mixes, and poaches creative juice from the breadth of human culture and wealth of digital technologies. It abounds in cool artifacts: the letter documenting David Jones’ decision to change his name to David Bowie to avoid confusion with David Jones the Monkee, Brian Eno’s EMS Synthi AKS synthesizer used for the recording the album “Heroes”, handwritten lyrics, and costumes — the amazing technicolor dreamcoats, moonboots, and kabuki inspired pants. And of course there is video — lots of video — clips from famous performances, interviews, session tapes, highlights from Bowie’s film and stage career (including a wrenching clip from Elephant Man and a haunting scene from The Prestige). But what makes the installation so powerful is the modality of its execution, which is both collective and highly personal.
Groups are admitted to the exhibit every thirty minutes, and each person receives a player and headset at the entry. Push the green button and off you go. But this is much more than the self-guided audio tour one can take in any number of museums these days, because the players are wireless receivers that sync your physical location in the room to feed in the audio that goes with what you are seeing. (2) As you approach the screen where Space Oddity is playing, the soundtrack appears and gets louder in your headset — AND it is synced perfectly to Bowie’s lips on the video. Stand near the other people hearing, “This is ground control to Major Tom” and you can feel them savoring the chorus, lost in their own space, or smiling at the two little girls in pink uggs rocking out at knee level. Take a few steps to the side and the soundtrack shifts. Space Oddity fades away and as you look at the display case you hear a different song, or a narrator providing background for the artifact. Step up to the recessed video a bit further on and hear Bowie describe the development and use of the Verbesizer, the computer program he developed with Ty Roberts to generate and re-order random phrases into lyrics. Want to go back and hear quasi-alien-alienated Bowie singing while you contemplate a gorgeous glimpse of Earth from space? No problem. The receiver picks up the right audio feed as if by osmosis.
It will take you at least ninety minutes to make your way through the entire exhibit. You will savor every immersive, personal-dynamic, media-is-the-message moment. I promise. You are together and alone, experiencing David Bowie.
(2) For a more technical description of how the audio works and a more detailed review of the exhibit click here.
This week my post-seminar musings circled back to our discussion about what we expect of our computers and how we understand and imagine them. I found thinking about what exactly what we mean by “interaction” pretty interesting. I’m going to duck the whole question about how good or bad Brenda Laurel is on Aristotle and focus instead on the issue that Janine raised when we were talking about agency and computers.
There’s much that resonates with me in Brenda Laurel’s definition of agents as “entities that can initiate and perform actions” (p. 569). Thinking about my computer, or my ipad, or my Iphone, I definitely see a potential there for performing actions, a potential that is realized countless times over the course of any given day. Initiation is a bit more complex, but it seems to me that when I tell Siri to send a text to Alan, “she” initiates the action by executing the program that calls up the text window and then “asks” me what I want to say in that text. I don’t think I have a theory of mind about Siri. I do expect “her” to interact with me so that we can successfully accomplish something I couldn’t do by myself. And at some level it does feel like I’m engaging a cognitive entity when I use my phone. But because I know that Siri is a suite of programs and technologies that can’t make associative leaps independently of what her programmers gave her, I understand that her limits are absolute – she cannot be “trained” to quit confusing “Alan” with “Ellen.” She does know that Alan is my brother because she was programmed to ask “what is your brother’s name” the first time I said “send my brother a text.” But when I asked her to send a text to my mother, she asked what her name was, and when I told her she replied: “there is no Bonnie in your contacts.” I’m pretty sure that the next time Siri gets an upgrade there will be an association between “mother” and “mom” somewhere in her code, but this is not something that Siri can develop (initiate) on her own. At the end of the day, she is the creation of her programmers and designers. In some sense of the word she is “organic” – that is complete and more than the sum of her inter-related parts. But she is not unique. My Siri is just like your Siri and every other Siri out there, even if she does call me “Amy.”
But you can interact with her. I liked Janine’s assertion that computers are technologies or tools that help humans accomplish specific tasks, but not entities with which we interact. We both thought about how the concept of “interaction” squared with what we think about humans’ use of other technologies. I suggested cars, skiis, and a cello, and Janine proposed a broom. I agree that brooms do not have agency. But you might be able to make a case for agency and interaction with skiis, and certainly with a cello.
After class I also thought about how we understand our interactions with some animals (where the “theory of mind” issue is often invoked to deny animal agency). Dogs, for example, can certainly initiate and perform actions. They do things for us that are beyond our solo capabilities (herding sheep, finding a lost child). And mine have never confused Alan with Ellen or not known who “mom” was. They continue to learn over the course of their lifetime, without a software upgrade. They are also unique individuals, a claim that can be made about cellos (and flutes) as well. All flutes might have the same components, but each has its own feel and sound. Musicians make music with their instruments. Through breath and/or touch they animate the flute to create something exquisite and unique. The performer might initiate the breath or the touch, but it is the synergy between the breath, the fingers, and the flute that creates the sound we recognize as music. Of course instruments are technologies in some ways, as are some animals at least some of the time.
I feel like I should write something about human-computer interaction in terms of ANT (Actor Network Theory) but am going to end with Sim Ant as a reminder of the connections between cognition, play and agency – as well as the generational differential we’ve talked about before in terms of how we respond to emerging digital technologies. Here’s Will Wright’s description of the development of Sim Ant and the game’s connections to animal culture:
“The next game I did was called SimAnt; it was actually based on the work of Edward O. Wilson, who is the premier myrmecologist in the world. He had just published this very large book called The Ants18 that won the Pulitzer Prize that year. Ants have always fascinated me because of their emergent behavior. Any single ant is really stupid, and you sit there and try to understand what makes it tick. If you put a bunch of these little stupid components together, you get a colony-level intelligence that’s remarkable, rivaling that of a dog or something. It’s really remarkable, and it’s like an intelligence that you can deconstruct. Ten- and fifteen-year-olds really got into SimAnt; it was really successful with that group. Most adults didn’t play it long enough to realize the depth of ant behavior and mistook it for a game about battling ants.”