THE GHOST IN THE MACHINE ~ 12th APRIL, 2007
“Reality employs simple elements to create increasingly complex systems, yet reality never permits the complex systems from losing their dependency on the simple elements.”1 Our most primal devices, which facilitated our survival and secured our evolutionary position, have been undermined in the modern evolution of computer technology. Early design mandates ensured the development of techno centric interaction, the human user relegated to a default position, to contend with an imperfect system of human-machine interactivity. Consideration for the capabilities and potential needs of the human user, the natural rhythms and subtle nuances that connects the user on a crucial emotional level, are only just entering the field of interface design. “Emotions, we now know, change the way the human mind solves problems—the emotional system changes how the cognitive system operates.”2
The complexity of human emotion, multifarious and dynamic, is positioned to dramatically enhance the manner of communicative interaction. Our relationship to and with the machine is evolving again, this time in a direction of relevance, with the human user back in the mix. Our motions and emotions, gestures and nuances may soon play a consequential role in the re-definition of interactive behaviour between the human user and the computer. The search for a technology that embraces a human sensibility continues as we probe the digital world for a metaphoric presence, the ghost in the machine.
EVERY COMPUTER WRITES A STORY
We are surrounded by machines. Our most minor requirements to the most complex tasks are negotiated in a technological language. In some circumstances our knowledge of this mechanistic contribution is negligible, but more and more we are drifting into an environment shaped by a new reality, engaging in a daily routine of interaction and reliance on computer technology. It is hard to even imagine a pre-digital world, a time and place shaped by a diminishing time and space. As the new language writes us a new reality, we are faced with having to realize the crux of our situation, asking ourselves the obvious and universal questions of what, where, when, and how will we factor into the new equation, which calculates the sum of the relationship between man and the machine.
My first contact with the computer was a Macintosh Classic. It had 2 MB Ram and a 40 MB Hard Drive, all for the modest price of $300.00. I acquired it from a family member, and on the drive to his house to pick up the machine, I remember dreaming about the things I would be able to accomplish — manage my business and household finances, schedule appointments, and surf the Internet. The computer was elegant and self-contained, sitting on his kitchen counter waiting for its new owner. I soon unloaded the new technology onto my kitchen counter, attached the power cord and with great anticipation, switched the machine on. Feelings of liberation and efficiency enter my mind, a sense that I was in business and in control with the press of one button — or so I thought. I had no firm idea of how I was going to access the software to perform the tasks I had dreamt about. Or even how to find out what software was installed. The computer had not come with written instructions, the manuals long since forgotten.
A friend of mine was working at Dalhousie University at the time. She reassured me that Macs were intuitive, that you did not need an instruction manual. In less than five minutes I had a crash course on how to understand the user interface, which compared to today’s interface standards, seemed sparse and minimalist. Over the coming weeks, I asked just about anyone I came into contact with if they owned a computer. What type? What software did they use? Did they go on the Internet? As for the Internet, I had heard people discuss it, bragging about how they communicated online with their friends, sending emails to relatives all around the world, all the while trying to understand a whole new language like where you surfed, blogged, and visited chat rooms. I was captivated by the thought of what this micro world would look like. To accommodate my business needs, I enquired after a suitable choice for a modem, only to be bombarded with another layer of indigenous language. It appeared that I needed a 28.8, which was the standard modem… but the new one’s were 56v but not everyone could support that. This turned out to be the speed of the data that passed through the modem from the ISP to your computer. Then more acronyms like IP, DNS, POP, and FTP. It also turned out that my Mac Classic had too small a memory and was not even capable of going on the Internet. In fact, I had acquired an artifact, the new technology already obsolete.
My first contact with the Internet came when a local ‘New Media’ company was looking for advice and ultimately some leadership in the direction for a new venture, an Internet Radio Station. To satisfy my research requirements I quickly accessed a compatible computer at the only local Internet Café, the Ceilidh Connection. My first contact with the social world of computer users was not what I had expected. Pictures of wild-eyed drunken Internet warriors and gamers lined the walls, the carpet sticky with the menu fare of quick snacks and alcohol. There were eight desktop computers hugging one wall, and another six scattered about the premises. In the window there were a few empty tables where patrons could take a break from the constant tapping of the keyboards. My access to the Internet came with a commitment from the menu, appetizers and entrees equating into time on line, and all this only after I had officially become a member. My plate of nachos bought me a half hour of online time, and I entered a new world of imaginary, language, iconography, action and reaction. I needed a password to access the browser Netscape Navigator, to navigate for information using a search engine, using features such as bookmarks and favourites. I used my nacho time to research radio stations but returned to the café shortly after to satisfy my growing curiosity. I found it very difficult to navigate through the enormous amount of visual stimuli that confronted me when I landed on a web page. It was difficult and irritating at times to communicate with the interface. My interaction with the machine was getting personal. I could sense my blood pressure rising, my palms getting sweaty — I was becoming hostile towards the computer. I quickly came to understand that I was not alone, that feelings of aggravation and anxiety were all too common. “One side effect of today’s technologically advanced world that it is not uncommon to hate the things we interact with. Consider the rage and frustration many people feel when they use computers.”3 What dynamic forces were at work to allow a machine the opportunity to provoke such an intimate and high degree of emotional response from the user? How can the combination of such disparate elements as the man and the machine, incite a virtual riot that has resulted in the endless design and redesign of the system?
My initial curiosity with computer technology developed into a career, and over the past eight years, I have been a practising web site designer and developer. My web design has been used by a wide variety of people, representing a plethora of different skill levels in the use of computer technology. My work as an instructional designer for online distance education courses at Dalhousie University has exposed me to the numerous challenges faced by undergraduate and graduate students, professors, and university support staff when using computer interfaces. Online courses should enhance teaching and learning. A visit to a web site should be defined as ‘user friendly’, resulting in a productive and positive experience. Contrary to this, we are faced with cluttered information, ambiguous instructions, wearisome interactive models, and blatantly bad design. Regard for the human user, our nuance and needs, has been elapsed. The machine operator has come to play a subservient role, forced to contend with an imperfect interactive system, a slave to the technology. In the evolving narrative of the human and the machine, we can only glimpse a faint outline of the form of the collaborative function, the two characters and their roles remaining in a state of flux, defined by a dynamic struggle for user compatibility and acquiescence.