Death by design

Wonderful image and set of slides describing some of the reasons multitasking is a myth and how the interfaces we design may be literally killing people (during a mobile outage in Dubai cat accidents dropped by 20%).

Thanks to Ian Sommervile for sharing this on twitter.

a radical design for mobile telephony

We are all aware of the phenomenal growth in smartphone and tablet use.  However, these are often designed with the needs of media and internet access above plain telephony.  Touch screens do not have tactile feedback leading to mistyping, especially problematic when using touchtone-based phone services, for tablets especially, the form factor is far from optimal, … and try answering your phone call quickly by sliding your finger across the screen!

There are solutions.  A recent gigaom post “Here’s why tablets (yes, tablets!) will replace the smartphone” suggested that hands-free headsets were already common, hence reducing the brick-to-the-ear effect.  This of course does not deal with the key pad, but there are some solutions to this using the vibrator motor to give simulated tactile feedback, and various technologies are in development that will (in time) allow tactile features to be programmed onto the screen (e.g. see “Mobile tactile tech gets physical“).

Over a slightly longer time frame we can expect smart materials to develop to the point that concept pieces such as Fabian Hemmert’s Shape-Changing Mobiles will become possible.  Instead of being a fixed shape not only will your tablet screen be able to develop solid buttons of all shapes on demand, but will potentially become travel mug, long-haul flight pillow or angle grinder.

The trouble is that not only are such technologies some years off, they are also tinkering at the edges, attempting to fix piecemeal some of the fundamental flaws of smartphone and tablet technology when it comes to telephony.  Clearly a more radical approach is required.

While Bluetooth headsets are effective, they tend to suggest call centre rather than cool, a single device would be preferable.  In addition this should ideally include some form of miniature key pad to facilitate typing telephone numbers (more extensive tasks such as address book management can be performed on the full-size tablet screen, especially if this is augmented with tactile feedback). Furthermore, for times when it is inconvenient to carry your full size tablet and it is in your handbag, rucksack or its custom wheelie bag, the perfect telephony attachment should also have a small additional screen to view the number you are dialing.

As a result of extensive research into user needs and in the spirit of the information appliance, the single purpose device optimised for a a single purpose, I have devised the perfect device: small, yet not too small to be lost, pocket sized so that it can be easily accessed when you receive a call, tactile, exploiting the deep understanding of the physicality community and knowledge from writing TouchIT. It will connect via Bluetooth to your existing smartphone/tablet and of course via WiFi or (in premium models) using 3G/GSM direct to mobile networks if you accidentally leave your smartphone at home.

I plan to demonstrate my early prototype at the forthcoming Physicality 2012 workshop, where Fabian will be giving a keynote.

Alt-HCI open reviews – please join in

Papers are online for the Alt-HCI trcak of British HCI conference in September.

These are papers that are trying in various ways to push the limits of HCI, and we would like as many people as possible to join in discussion around them … and this discussion will be part of process for deciding which papers are presented at the conference, and possibly how long we give them!

Here are the papers  — please visit the site, comment, discuss, Tweet/Facebook about them.

paper #154 — How good is this conference? Evaluating conference reviewing and selectivity
        do conference reviews get it right? is it possible to measure this?

paper #165 — Hackinars: tinkering with academic practice
        doing vs talking – would you swop seminars for hack days?

paper #170 — Deriving Global Navigation from Taxonomic Lexical Relations
        website design – can you find perfect words and structure for everyone?

paper #181 — User Experience Study of Multiple Photo Streams Visualization
        lots of photos, devices, people – how to see them all?

paper #186 — You Only Live Twice or The Years We Wasted Caring about Shoulder-Surfing
        are people peeking at your passwords? what’s the real security problem?

paper #191 — Constructing the Cool Wall: A Tool to Explore Teen Meanings of Cool
        do you want to make thing teens think cool?  find out how!

paper #201 — A computer for the mature: what might it look like, and can we get there from here?
        over 50s have 80% of wealth, do you design well for them?

paper #222 — Remediation of the wearable space at the intersection of wearable technologies and interactive architecture
        wearable technology meets interactive architecture

paper #223 — Designing Blended Spaces
        where real and digital worlds collide

Open HCI course website live

The website, HCIcourse.com, went live last week for the (free!) open online HCI course I posted about a few weeks ago (“mooHCIc – a massive open online HCI course“).  Over the summer we will be adding more detailed content and taster material, however, crucially, it already has a form to register interest.  Full registration for the course will open in September ready for tyhe course start in October, but if you register at the site now we will be able to let you know when this is available, and any other major developments (like when taster videos go online :-))  Even if you have already emailed, Twitter messaged or Facebook-ed me to say you are interested, do add yourself online in case the combination of my memory and organisation fails :-/

not forgotten! 1997 scrollbars paper – best tech writing of the week at The Verge

Thanks to Marcin Wichary for letting me know that my 1997/1998 Interfaces article “Hands across the Screen” was just named in “Best Tech Writing of the Week” at The Verge.  Some years ago Marcin reprinted the article in his GUIdebook: Graphical User Interface gallery, and The Verge picked it up from there.

Hands across the screen is about why we have scroll bars on the right-hand side, even though it makes more sense to have them on the left, close to our visual attention for text.  The answer, I suggested, was that we mentally ‘imagine’ our hand crossing the screen, so a left-hand scroll-bar seems ‘wrong’, even though it is better (more on this later).

Any appreciation is obviously gratifying, but this is particularly so because it is a 15 year old article being picked up as ‘breaking’ technology news.

Interestingly, but perhaps not inconsequentially, the article was itself both addressing an issue current in 1997 and also looking back more than 15 years to the design of the Xerox Star and other early Xerox GUI in the late 1970s early 1980s as well as work at York in the mid 1980s.

Of course this should always be the case in academic writing: if the horizon is (only) 3-5 years leave it to industry.   Academic research certainly can be relevant today (and the article in question was in 1997), but if it does not have the likelihood of being useful in 10–20 years, then it is not research.

At the turn of the Millenium I wrote in my regular HCI Education column for SIGCHI Bulletin:

Pick up a recent CHI conference proceedings and turn to a paper at random. Now look at its bibliography – how many references are there to papers or books written before 1990 (or even before 1995)? Where there are older references, look where they come from — you’ll probably find most are in other disciplines: experimental psychology, physiology, education. If our research papers find no value in the HCI literature more than 5 years ago, then what value has today’s HCI got in 5 years time? Without enduring principles we ought to be teaching vocational training courses not academic college degrees.
(“the past, the future, and the wisdom of fools“, SIGCHI Bulletin, April 2000)

At the time about 90% of CHI citations were either to work in the last 5 years, or to the authors’ own work, to me that indicated a discipline in trouble — I wonder if it is any better today?

When revising the HCI textbook I am always pleased at the things that do not need revising — indeed some parts have hardly needed revising since the first edition in 1992.  These parts seem particularly important in education – if something has remained valuable for 10, 15, 20 years, then it is likely to still be valuable to your students in a further 10, 15, 20 years.  Likewise the things that are out of date after 5 years, even when revised, are also likely to be useless to your students even before they have graduated.

In fact, I have always been pleased with Hands across the Screen, even though it was short, and not published in a major conference or journal.  It had its roots in an experiment in my first every academic job at York in the mid-1980s, when we struggled to understand why the ‘obvious’ position for scroll arrows (bottom right) turned out to not work well.  After a detailed analysis, we worked out that in fact the top-left was the best place (with some other manipulations), and this analysis was verified in use.

As an important meta-lesson what looked right turned out not to be right.  User studies showed that it was wrong, but not how to put it right, and it was detailed analysis that filled the vital design gap.  However, even when we knew what was right it still looked wrong.  It was only years later (in 1997) that I realised that the discrepancy was because one mentally imagined a hand reaching across the screen, even though really one was using a mouse on the desk surface.

Visual (and other) impressions of designers and users can be wrong; as in any mature field, quite formal, detailed analysis is necessary to compliment even the most experienced designer’s intuitions.

The original interfaces article was followed by an even shorter subsidiary article “Sinister Scrollbar in the Xerox Star Xplained“, that delved into the history of the direction of scroll arrows on a scrollbar, and how they arose partly from a mistake when Apple took over the Star designs!  This is particularly interesting today given Apple’s perverse decision to remove scroll arrows completely — scrolling now feels like a Monti Carlo exercise, hoping you end up in the right place!

However, while it is important to find underlying principles, theories and explanations that stand the test of time, the application of these will certainly change.  Whilst, for an old mouse + screen PC,  the visual ‘hands across the screen’ impression was ‘wrong’ in terms of real use experience, now touch devices such as the iPad have changed this.  It really is a good idea to have the scrollbar on the left right so that you don’t cover up the screen as you scroll.  Or to be precise it is good if you are right handed.  But look hard, there are never options to change this for left-handed users — is this not a discrimination issue?  To be fair tabs and menu items are normally found at the top of the screen equally bad for all.  As with the scroll arrows, it seems that Apple long ago gave up any pretense of caring for basic usability of ergonomics (one day those class actions will come from a crippled generation!) — if  people buy because of visual and tactile design, why bother?  And where Apple lead the rest of the market follows 🙁

Actually it is not as easy as simply moving buttons around the screen; we have expectations from large screen GUI interfaces that we bring to the small screen, so any non-standard positioning needs to be particularly clear graphically.  However, the diverse location of items on web pages and often bespoke design of mobile apps, whilst bringing their own problems of inconsistency, do give a little more flexibility.

So today, as you design, do think “hands”, and left hands as well as right hands!

And in 15 years time, who knows what we’ll have in our hands, but let’s see if the same deep principles still remain.

September beckons: calls for Physicality and Alt-HCI

I’m co-chairing a couple of events, both with calls due in mid June: Physicality 2012, and Alt-HCI.   Both are associated with HCI 2012  in Birmingham in September, so you don’t have to chose!

Physicality 2012 – 4th International Workshop on Physicality

(Sept.11, co-located with HCI 2012)

Long awaited, the 4th in the Physicality workshop series exploring design challenges, theories and experiences in developing new forms of interactions that exploit human physical interaction with digital technology.

Position papers and research papers due 18th June.

see:

Alt-HCI

(track of HCI 2012, 12-15 Sept 2012)

A chance to present and engage with work that pushes the boundaries of HCI.  Do you investigate methods for inducing negative user experience, or for not getting things done (or is that Facebook?).  Maybe you would like to argue for the importance of Taylorism within HCI, or explore user interfaces for the neonate.

Papers due 15th June with an open review process in the weeks following.

see: HCI 2012 call for participation  (also HCI short papers and work-in-progress due 15th June: )

CSS considered harmful (the curse of floats and other scary stories)

CSS and JavaScript based sites have undoubtedly enabled experiences far richer than the grey-backgrounded days of the early web in the 1990s (and recall, the backgrounds really were grey!). However, the power and flexibility of CSS, in particular the use of floats, has led to a whole new set of usability problems on what appear to be beautifully designed sites.

I was reading a quite disturbing article on a misogynistic Dell event by Sophie Catherina Løhr at elektronista.dk.  However, I was finding it frustrating as a line of media icons on the left of the page meant only the top few lines were unobstructed.

I was clearly not the only one with this problem as one of the comments on the page read:

That social media widget on the left made me stop reading an otherwise interesting article. Very irritating.

To be fair on the page designer,  it was just on Firefox that the page rendered like this, on other browsers the left-hand page margin was wider.  Probably Firefox is strictly ‘right’ in a sense as it sticks very close to standards, but whoever is to blame, it is not helpful to readers of the blog.

For those wishing to make cross-browser styles, it is usually possible now-a-days, but you often have to reset everything at the beginning of your style files — even if CSS is standard, default styles are not:

body {
    margin: 0;
    padding 0;
    /*  etc. */
}

Sadly this is just one example of an increasingly common problem.

A short while ago I was on a site that had a large right-hand side tab.  I forget the function, maybe for comments, or a table of contents.  The problem was the tab obscured and prevented access to most of the scroll bar making navigation of the middle portion of the page virtually impossible.  Normally it is not possible to obscure the scroll bar as it is ‘outside’ the page. However this site, like many, had chosen to put the main content of the site in a fixed size scrolling <div>.  This meant that the header and footer were always visible, and the content scrolled in the middle.  Of course the scroll bar of the <div> is then part of the page and could be obscured.  I assume it was another cross-browser formatting difference that meant the designer did not notice the problem, or perhaps (not unlikely), only ever tested the style of pages with small amounts of non-scrolling text.

Some sites adopt a different strategy for providing fixed headers.  Rather than putting the main content in a fixed <div>, instead the header and footer are set to float above the main content and margins added to it to mean that the page renders correctly at top and bottom.  This means that the scrollbar for the content is the main scroll bar, and therefore cannot be hidden or otherwise mangled 🙂

Unfortunately, the web page search function does not ‘know’ about these floating elements and so when you type in a search term, will happily scroll the page to ”reveal’ the searched for word, but may do so in a way that it is underneath either header or footer and so invisible.

This is not made easier to deal with in the new MacOS Lion were the line up/down scroll arrows have been removed.  Not only can you not fine-adjust the page to reveal those hidden searched-for terms, but also, whilst reading the page, the page-up/page-down scroll does not ‘know’ about the hidden parts and so scrolls a full screen-sized page missing half the text 🙁

Visibility problems are not confined to the web, there has been a long history of modal dialogue boxes being lost behind other windows (which then often refuse to interact due to the modal dialogue box), windows happily resizing themselves to be partly obscured by the Apple Dock, or even disappearing onto non-existent secondary displays.

It may be that some better model of visibility could be built into both CSS/DOM/JavaScript and desktop window managers.  And it may even be that CSS will fix it’s slightly odd model of floats and layout.  However, I would not want to discourage the use of overlays, transparencies, and other floating elements until this happens.

In the mean time, some thoughts:

  1. restraint — Recall the early days of DTP when every newsletter sported 20 fonts. No self respecting designer would do this now-a-days, so use floats, lightboxes and the like with consideration … and if you must have popups or tabs that open on hover rather than when clicked, do make sure it is possible to move your mouse across the page without it feeling like walking a minefield.
  2. resizing — Do check your page with different window sizes, although desktop screens are now almost all at least 1024 x 768, think laptops and pads, as this is increasingly the major form of access.
  3. defaults — Be aware that, W3C not withstanding, browsers are different.  At very minimum reset all the margins and padding as a first step, so that you are not relying on browser defaults.
  4. testing — Do test (and here I mean technical testing, do user test as well!) with realistic pages, not just a paragraph of lorem ipsum.

And do my sites do this well … ?

With CSS as in all things, with great power …

P.S. Computer scientists will recognise the pun on Dijkstra’s “go to statement considered harmful“, the manifesto of structured programming.  The use of gotos in early programming langauges was incredibly flexible and powerful, but just like CSS with many concomitant potential dangers for the careless or unwary.  Strangely computer scientists have had little worry about other equally powerful yet dangerous techniques, not least macro languages (anyone for a spot of TeX debugging?), and Scheme programmers throw around continuations as if they were tennis balls.  It seemed as though the humble goto became the scapegoat for a discipline’s sins. It was interesting when the goto statement was introduced as a ‘new’ feature in PHP5.3, an otherwise post-goto C-style language; very retro.


image  xkcd.com

books: The Nature of Technology (Arthur) and The Evolution of Technology (Basalla)

I have just finished reading “The Nature of Technology” (NoT) by W. Brian Arthur and some time ago read “The Evolution of Technology” (EoT) by George Basalla, both covering a similar topic, the way technology has developed from the earliest technology (stone axes and the wheel), to current digital technology.  Indeed, I’m sure Arthur would have liked to call his book “The Evolution of Technology” if Basalla had not already taken that title!

We all live in a world dominated by technology and so the issue of how technology develops is critical to us all.   Does technology ultimately serve human needs or does it have its own dynamics independent of us except maybe as cogs in its wheels?  Is the arc of technology inevitable or does human creativity and invention drive it in new directions? Is the development of technology now similar (albeit a bit faster) than previous generations, or does digital technology fundamentally alter things?

Basalla was  published in 1988, while Arthur is 2009, so Arthur has 20 years more to work on, not much compared to 2 million years for the stone axe and 5000 years for the wheel, but 20 years that has included the dot.com boom (and bust!), and the growth of the internet.  In a footnote (NoT,p.17), Arthur describes Basalla as “the most complete theory to date“, although then does not appear to directly reference Basalla again in the text – maybe because they have different styles.  Basalla (a historian of technology) offering a more descriptive narrative  whilst Arthur (and engineer and economist) seeks a more analytically complete account. However I also suspect that Arthur discovered Basella’s work late and included a ‘token’ reference; he says that a “theory of technology — an “ology” of technology” is missing (NoT,p.14), but, however partial, Basella’s account cannot be seen as other than part of such a theory.

Both authors draw heavily, both explicitly and implicitly, on Darwinian analogies, but both also emphasise the differences between biological and technological evolution. Neither is happy with, what Basella calls the “heroic theory of invention” where “inventions emerge in a fully developed state from the minds of gifted inventors” (EoT,p.20).  In both there are numerous case studies which refute these more ‘heroic’ accounts, for example Watts’ invention of the steam engine after seeing a kettle lid rattling on the fire, and show how these are always built on earlier technologies and knowledge.  Arthur is more complete in eschewing explanations that depend on human ingenuity, and therein, to my mind, lies the weakness of his account.  However, Arthur does take into account, as central mechanism,  the accretion of technological complexity through the assembly of components, al but absent from Basella’s account — indeed in my notes as I read Basella I wrote “B is focused on components in isolation, forgets implication of combinations“.

I’ll describe the main arguments of each book, then look at what a more complete picture might look like.

(Note, very long post!)

Basella: the evolution of technology

Basella’s describes his theory of technological evolution in terms of  four concepts:

  1. diversity of artefacts — acknowledging the wide variety both of different kinds of things, but also variations of the same thing — one example, dear to my heart, is his images of different kinds of hammers 🙂
  2. continuity of development — new artefacts are based on existing artefacts with small variations, there is rarely sudden change
  3. novelty — introduced by people and influenced by a wide variety of psychological, social and economic factors … not least playfulness!
  4. selection — winnowing out the less useful/efficient artefacts, and again influenced by a wide variety of human and technological factors

Basella sets himself apart both from earlier historians of technology (Gilfillan and Ogburn) who took an entirely continuous view of development and also the “myths of the heroic inventors” which saw technological change as dominated by discontinuous change.

He is a historian and his accounts of the development of artefacts are detailed and beautifully crafted.  He takes great efforts to show how standard stories of heric invention, such as the steam engine, can be seen much more sensibly in terms of slower evolution.  In the case of steam, the basic principles had given rise to Newcomen’s  steam pump some 60 years prior to Watt’s first steam engine.  However, whilst each of these stories emphasised the role of continuity, as I read them I was struck also by the role of human ingenuity.  If Newcomen’s engine had been around since 1712 years, what made the development to a new and far more successful form take 60 years to develop? The answer is surely the ingenuity of James Watt.  Newton said he saw further only because he stood on the shoulders of giants, and yet is no less a genius for that.  Similaly the tales of invention seem to be both ones of continuity, but also often enabled by insights.

In fact, Basella does take this human role on board, building on Usher’s earlier work, which paced insight centrally in accounts of continuous change.  This is particularly central in his account of the origins of novelty where he considers a rich set of factors that influence the creation of true novelty.  This includes both individual factors such as playfulness and fantasy, and also social/cultural factors such as migration and the patent system.  It is interesting however that when he turns to selection, it is lumpen factors that are dominant: economic, military, social and cultural.  This brings to mind Margaret Bowden’s H-creativity and also Csikszentmihalyi’s cultural views of creativity — basically something is only truly creative (or maybe innovative) when it is recognised as such by society (discuss!).

Arthur: the nature of technology

Basella ends his book confessing that he is not happy with the account of novelty as provided from historical, psychological and social perspectives.  Arthur’s single reference to Basella (endnote, NoT, p.17) picks up precisely this gap, quoting Basella’s “inability to account fully for the emergence of novel artefacts” (EoT,p.210).  Arthur seeks to fill this gap in previous work by focusing on the way artefacts are made of components, novelty arising through the hierarchical organisation and reorganisation of these components, ultimately built upon natural phenomena.  In language reminiscent of proponents of ‘computational thinking‘, Arthur talks of a technology being the “programming of phenomena for our purposes” (NoT,p.51). Although, not directly on this point, I should particularly liked Arthur’s quotation from Charles Babbage “I wish to God this calculation had been executed by steam” (NoT,p.74), but did wonder whether Arthur’s computational analogy for technology was as constrained by the current digital perspective as Babbage’s was by the age of steam.

Although I’m not entirely convinced at the completeness of hierarchical composition as an explanation, it is certainly a powerful mechanism.  Indeed Arthur views this ‘combinatorial evolution’ as the key difference between biological and technological evolution. This assertion of the importance of components is supported by computer simulation studies as well as historical analysis. However, this is not the only key insight in Arthur’s work.

Arthur emphasises the role of what he calls ‘domains’, in his words a “constellation of technologies” forming a “mutually supporting set” (NoT,p.71).  These are clusters of technologies/ideas/knowledge that share some common principle, such as ‘radio electronics’ or ‘steam power’.  The importance of these are such that he asserts that “design in engineering begins by choosing a domain” and that the “domain forms a language” within which a particular design is an ‘utterance’.  However, domains themselves evolve, spawned from existing domains or natural phenomena, maturing, and sometimes dying away (like steam power).

The mutual dependence of technology can lead to these domains suddenly developing very rapidly, and this is one of the key mechanisms to which Arthur attributes more revolutionary change in technology.  Positive feedback effects are well studied in cybernetics and is one of the key mechanisms in chaos and catastrophe theory which became popularised in the late 1970s.  However, Arthur is rare in fully appreciating the potential for these effects to give rise to sudden and apparently random changes.  It is often assumed that evolutionary mechanisms give rise to ‘optimal’ or well-fitted results.  In other areas too, you see what I have called the ‘fallacy of optimality’1; for example, in cognitive psychology it is often assumed that given sufficient practice people will learn to do things ‘optimally’ in terms of mental and physical effort.

human creativity and ingenuity

Arthur’s account is clearly more advanced than the early more gradualists, but I feel that in pursuing the evolution of technology based on its own internal dynamics, he underplays the human element of the story.   Arthur even goes so far as to describe technology using Maturna’s term autopoetic (NoT,p.170) — something that is self-(re)producing, self-sustaining … indeed, in some sense with a life of its own.

However, he struggles with the implications of this.  If, technology responds to “its own needs” rather than human needs, “instead of fitting itself to the world, fits the world to itself” (NoT,p.214), does that mean we live with, or even within, a Frankenstein’s monster, that cares as little for the individuals of humanity as we do for our individual shedding skin cells?  Because of positive feedback effects, technology is not deterministic; however, it is rudderless, cutting its own wake, not ours.

In fact, Arthur ends his book on a positive note:

Where technology separates us from these (challenge, meaning, purpose, nature) it brings a type of death. But where it affirms these, it affirms life. It affirms our humanness.” (NoT,p.216)

However, there is nothing in his argument to admit any of this hope, it is more a forlorn hope against hope.

Maybe Arthur should have ended his account at its logical end.  If we should expect nothing from technology, then maybe it is better to know it.  I recall as a ten-year old child wondering just these same things about the arc of history: do individuals matter?  Would the Third Reich have grown anyway without Hitler and Britain survived without Churchill?  Did I have any place in shaping the world in which I was to live?  Many years later as I began to read philosophy, I discovered these were questions that had been asked before, with opposing views, but no definitive empirical answer.

In fact, for technological development, just as for political development, things are probably far more mixed, and reconciling Basella and Arthur’s accounts might suggest that there is space both for Arthur’s hope and human input into technological evolution.

Recall there were two main places where Basella placed human input (individual and special/cultural): novelty and selection.

The crucial role of selection in Darwinian theory is evident in its eponymous role: “Natural Selection”.    In Darwinian accounts, this is driven by the breeding success of individuals in their niche, and certainly the internal dynamics of technology (efficiency, reliability, cost effectiveness, etc.) are one aspect of technological selection.  However, as Basella describes in greater detail, there are many human aspects to this as well from the multiple individual consumer choices within a free market to government legislation, for example regulating genome research or establishing emissions limits for cars. This suggest a relationship with technology les like that with an independently evolving wild beast and more like that of the farmer artificially selecting the best specimens.

Returning to the issue of novelty.  As I’ve noted even Basella seems to underplay human ingenuity in the stories of particular technologies, and Arthur even more so.  Arthur attempts account for “the appearance of radically novel technologies” (NoT,p.17) though composition of components.

One example of this is the ‘invention’ of the cyclotron by Ernest Lawrence (Not,p.114).  Lawrence knew of two pieces of previous work: (i) Rolf Wideröe’s idea to accelerate particles using AC current down a series of (very) long tubes, and (ii) the fact that magnetic fields can make charged particles swing round in circles.  He put the two together and thereby made the cyclotron, AC currents sending particles ever faster round a circular tube.  Lawrence’s  first cyclotron was just a few feet across; now, in CERN and elsewhere, they are many miles in diameter, but the principle is the same.

Arthur’s take-home message from this is that the cyclotron did not spring ready-formed and whole from Lawrence’s imagination, like Athena from Zeus’ head.  Instead, it was the composition of existing parts.  However, the way in which these individual concepts or components fitted together was far from obvious.  In many of the case studies the component technology or basic natural phenomena had been around and understood for many years before they were linked together.  In each case study it seems to be the vital key in putting together the disparate elements is the human one — heroic inventors after all 🙂

Some aspects of this invention not specifically linked to composition: experimentation and trial-and-error, which effectively try out things in the lab rather than in the market place; the inventor’s imagination of fresh possibilities and their likely success, effectively trail-and-error in the head; and certainly the body of knowledge (the domains in Arthur’s terms) on which the inventor can draw.

However, the focus on components and composition does offer additional understanding of how these ‘breakthroughs’ take place.  Randomly mixing components is unlikely to yield effective solutions.  Human inventors’ understanding of the existing component technologies allows them to spot potentially viable combinations and perhaps even more important their ability to analyse the problems that arise allow them to ‘fix’ the design.

In my own work in creativity I often talk about crocophants, the fact that arbitrarily putting two things together, even if each is good in its own right, is unlikely to lead to a good combination.  However, by deeply understanding each, and why they fit their respective environments, one is able to intelligently combine things to create novelty.

Darwinism and technology

Both Arthur and Basalla are looking for modified version of Darwinism to understand technological evolution.  For Arthur it is the way in which technology builds upon components with ‘combinatorial evolution’.  While pointing to examples in biology he remarks that “the creation of these larger combined structures is rarer in biological evolution — much rarer — than in technological evolution” (NoT,p.188).  Strangely, it is precisely the power of sexual reproduction over simpler mutation, that it allows the ‘construction’ and  ‘swopping’ of components; this is why artificial evolutionary algorithms often outperform simple mutation (a form of stochastic hill-climbing algorithm, itself usually better than deterministic hill climbing). However, technological component combination is not the same as biological components.

A core ‘problem’ for biological evolution is the complexity of the genotype–phenotype mapping.  Indeed in “The Selfish Gene” Dawkins attacks Lamarckism precisely on the grounds that the mapping is impossibly complex hence cannot be inverted2.  In fact, Dawkins arguments would also ‘disprove’ Darwinian natural selection as it also depends on the mapping not being too complex.  If the mapping between genotype–phenotype were as complex as Dawkins suggested, then small changes to genotypes as gene patterns would lead to arbitrary phenotypes and so fitness of parents would not be a predictor of fitness of offspring. In fact while not simple to invert (as is necessary for Lamarckian inheritance) the mapping is simple enough for natural selection to work!

One of the complexities of the genotype–phenotype mapping in biology is that the genotype (our chromosomes) is far simpler (less information) than our phenotype (body shape, abilities etc.).  Also the complexity of the production mechanism (a mothers womb) is no more complex than the final product (the baby).  In contrast for technology the genotype (plans, specifications, models, sketches), is of comparable complexity to the final product.  Furthermore the production means (factory, workshop) is often far more complex than the finished item (but not always, the skilled woodsman can make a huge variety of things using a simple machete, and there is interesting work on self-fabricating machines).

The complexity of the biological mapping is particularly problematic for the kind of combinatorial evolution that Arthur argues is so important for technological development.  In the world of technology, the schematic of a component is a component of the schematic of the whole — hierarchies of organisation are largely preserved between phenotype and geneotype.  In contrast, genes that code for finger length are also likely to affect to length, and maybe other characteristics as well.

As noted sexual reproduction does help to some extent as chromosome crossovers mean that some combinations of genes tend to be preserved through breeding, so ‘parts’ of the whole can develop and then be passed together to future generations.  If genes are on different chromosomes, this process is a bit hit-and-miss, but there is evidence that genes that code for functionally related things (and therefore good to breed together), end up close on the same chromosome, hence more likely to be passed as a unit.

In contrast, there is little hit-and-miss about technological ‘breeding’ if you want component A from machine X and component B from machine Y, you just take the relevant parts of the plans and put them together.

Of course, getting component A and component B to work together is anther matter, typically some sort of adaptation or interfacing is needed.  In biological evolution this is extremely problematic, as Arthur says “the structures of genetic evolution” mean that each step “must produce something viable” NoT,p.188).  In contrast, the ability to ‘fix’ the details composition in technology means that combinations that are initially not viable, can become so.

However, as noted at the end of the last section, this is due not just to the nature of technology, but also human ingenuity.

The crucial difference between biology and technology is human design.

technological context and infrastructure

A factor that seems to be weak or missing in both Basella and Arthur’s theories, is the role of infrastructure and general technological and environmental context3. This is highlighted by the development of the wheel.

The wheel and fire are often regarded as core human technologies, but whereas the fire is near universal (indeed predates modern humans), the wheel was only developed in some cultures.  It has long annoyed me when the fact that South American civilisations did not develop the wheel is seen as some kind of lack or failure of the civilisation.  It has always seemed evident that the wheel was not developed everywhere simply because it is not always useful.

I was wonderful therefore to read Basella’s detailed case study of the wheel (EoT,p.7–11) where he backs up what for me had always been a hunch, with hard evidence.  I was aware that the Aztecs had wheeled toys even though they never used wheels for transport. Basella quite sensibly points out that this is reasonable given the terrain and the lack of suitable draught animals. He also notes that between 300–700 AD wheels were abandoned in the Near East and North Africa — wheels are great if you have flat hard natural surfaces, or roads, but not so useful on steep broken hillsides, thick forest, or soft sandy deserts.

In some ways these combinations: wheels and roads, trains and rails, electrical goods and electricity generation can be seen as a form of domain in Arthur’s sense, a “mutually supporting set” of technologies (NoT,p.71), indeed he does talk abut the “canal world” (NoT,p82).  However, he is clearly thinking more about the component technologies that make up a new artefact, and less about the set of technologies that need to surround new technology it make it viable.

The mutual interdependence of infrastructure and related artefacts forms another positive feedback loop. In fact, in his discussion of ‘lock-in’, Arthur does talk about the importance of “surrounding structures and organisations”, as a constraint often blocking novel technology, and the way some technologies are only possible because of others (e.g. complex financial derivatives only possible because of computation).  However, the best example is Basalla’s description of the of the development of the railroad vs. canal in the American Mid-West (EoT,p.195–197).  This is often seen as simply the result of the superiority of the railway, but in the 1960s, Robert Fogel, a historian, made a detailed economic comparison and found that there was no clear financial advantage; it is just that once one began to become dominant the positive feedback effects made it the sole winner.

Arthur’s compositional approach focuses particularly on hierarchical composition, but these infrastructures often cut across components: the hydraulics in a plane, electrical system in a car, or Facebook ‘Open Graph’. And of course one of the additional complexities of biology is that we have many such infrastructure systems in our own bodies blood stream, nervous system, food and waste management.

It is interesting that the growth of the web was possible by a technological context of the existing internet and home PC sales (which initially were not about internet use, even though now this is often the major reason for buying computational devices).  However, maybe the key technological context for the modern web is the credit card, it is online payments and shopping, or the potential for them, that has financed the spectacular growth of the area. There would be no web without Berners Lee, but equally without Barclay Card.

  1. see my WebSci’11 paper for more on the ‘fallacy of optimality’[back]
  2. Why Dawkins chose to make such an attack on Lamarckism I’ve never understood, as no-one had believed in it as an explanation for nearly 100 years.  Strangely, it was very soon after “The Selfish Gene” was published that examples of Lamarckian evolution were discovered in simple organisms, and recently in higher animals, although in the latter through epigenetic (non-DNA) means.[back]
  3. Basalla does describes the importance of “environmental influences”, but is referring principally to the natural envronment.[back]

One week to the next Tech Wave

Just a week to go now before the next Tiree Tech Wave starts, although the first person is coming on Sunday and one person is going to hang on for a while after getting some surfing in.

Still plenty of room for anyone who decides to come at the last minute.

Things have been a little hectic, as having to do more of the local organisation this time, so running round the island a bit, but really looking forward to when people get here 🙂  Last two times I’ve felt a bit of tension leading up to the event as I feel responsible.  It is difficult planning an event and not having a schedule “person A giving talk at 9:30, person B at 10:45”; strangely much harder having nothing, simply trusting that good things will happen.  Hopefully this time I now have had enough experience to know that if I just hang back and resist the urge to ‘do something’, then people will start to talk together, work together, make together — I just need to have the confidence to do nothing1.

At previous TTW we have had open evenings when people from the local community have come in to see what is being done.  This time, as well as having a general welcome to people to come and see,  Jonnet from HighWire at Lancaster is going to run a community workshop on mending based on her personal and PhD work on ‘Futuremenders‘. Central to this is Jonnet’s pledge to not acquire any more clothes, ever, but instead to mend and remake. This picks up on textile themes on the island especially the ‘Rags to Riches Eco-Chic‘ fashion award and community tapestry group, but also Tech Wave themes of making, repurposing and generally taking things to pieces.   Jonnet’s work is not techno-fashion (no electroluminescent skirts, or LEDs stitched into your wooly hat), but does use social connections both physical and through the web to create mass participation, including mass panda knitting and an attempt on the world mass darning record.

For the past few weeks I have had an unusual (although I hope to become usual) period of relative stability on the island after a previous period of 8 months almost constantly on the move.  This has included some data hacking and learning HTML5 for mobile devices (hence some hacker-ish blog posts recently) I hope to finish off one mini-project during the TTW that will be particularly pertinent the weekend the clocks ‘go forward’ an hour for British Summer Time.  Will blog if I do.

I hit the road last November almost immediately the Tech Wave finished, so never got time to tidy things up.  So, before this one starts, I really should try to write a up a couple of activities from last time as I’m sure there will plenty more this time round…

  1. Strange I always give people the same advice we they take on management roles, “the brave manager does nothing”.  How rare that is.  In a university, new Vice Chancellor starts and feels he/she has to change things — new faculty structure, new committees. “In the long run, will be better”, everyone says, but I’ve always found such re-organisation is itself re-organised before we ever get to t “the long run”.[back]

After the Tech Wave is over

The Second Tiree Tech Wave is over.   Yesterday the last participants left by ferry and plane and after a final few hours tidying, the Rural Centre, which the day before had been a tangle of wire and felt, books and papers, cups and biscuit packets, is now as it had been before.  And as I left, the last boxes under my arm, it was strangely silent with only the memory of voices and laughter in my mind.

So is it as if it had never been?  I there anything left behind?  There are a few sheets of Magic Whiteboard on the walls, that I left so that those visiting the Rural Centre in the coming weeks can see something of what we were doing, and there are used teabags and fish-and-chip boxes in the bin, but few traces.

We trod lightly, like the agriculture of the island, where Corncrake and orchid live alongside sheep and cattle.

Some may have heard me talk about the way design is like a Spaghetti Western. In the beginning of the film Clint Eastwood walks into the town, and at the end walks away.  He does not stay, happily ever after, with a girl on his arm, but leaves almost as if nothing had ever happened.

But while he, like the designer, ultimately leaves, things are not the same.  The Carson brothers who had the town in fear for years lie dead in their ranch at the edge of town, the sharp tang of gunfire still in the air and the buzz of flies slowly growing over the elsewise silent bodies.  The crooked major, who had been in the pocket of the Carson brothers, is strapped over a mule heading across the desert towards Mexico, and not a few wooden rails and water buts need to be repaired.  The job of the designer is not to stay, but to leave, but leave change: intervention more than invention.

But the deepest changes are not those visible in the bullet-pocked saloon door, but in the people.  The drunk who used to sit all day at the bar, has discovered that he is not just a drunk, but he is a man, and the barmaid, who used to stand behind the bar has discovered that she is not just a barmaid, but she is a woman.

This is true of the artefacts we create and leave behind as designers, but much more so of the events, which come and go through our lives.  It is not so much the material traces they leave in the environment, but the changes in ourselves.

I know that, as the plane and ferry left with those last participants, a little of myself left with them, and I know many, probably all, felt a little of themselves left behind on Tiree.  This is partly abut the island itself; indeed I know one participant was already planning a family holiday here and another was looking at Tiree houses for sale on RightMove!  But it was also the intensity of five, sometimes relaxed, sometimes frenetic, days together.

So what did we do?

There was no programme of twenty minute talks, no keynotes or demo, indeed no plan nor schedule at all, unusual in our diary-obsessed, deadline-driven world.

Well, we talked.  Not at a podium with microphone and Powerpoint slides, but while sitting around tables, while walking on the beach, and while standing looking up at Tilly, the community wind turbine, the deep sound of her swinging blades resonating in our bones.  And we continued to talk as the sun fell and the overwhelmingly many stars came out , we talked while eating, while drinking and while playing (not so expertly) darts.

We met people from the island those who came to the open evening on Saturday, or popped in during the days, and some at the Harvest Service on Sunday.  We met Mark who told us about the future plans for Tiree Broadband, Jane at PaperWorks who made everything happen, Fiona and others at the Lodge who provided our meals, and many more. Indeed, many thanks to all those on the island who in various ways helped or made those at TTW feel welcome.

We also wrote.  We wrote on sheets of paper, notes and diagrams, and filled in TAPT forms for Clare who was attempting unpack our experiences of peace and calmness in the hope of designing computer systems that aid rather than assault our solitude.  Three large Magic Whiteboard sheets were entitled “I make because …”, “I make with …”, “I make …” and were filled with comments.  And, in these days of measurable objectives, I know that at least a grant proposal, book chapter and paper were written during the long weekend; and the comments on the whiteboards and experiences of the event will be used to create a methodological reflection of the role of making in research which we’ll put into Interfaces and the TTW web site.

We moved.  Walking, throwing darts, washing dishes, and I think all heavily gesturing with our hands while taking.  And became more aware of those movements during Layda’s warm-up improvisation exercises when we mirrored one another’s movements, before using our bodies in RePlay to investigate issues of creativity and act out the internal architecture of Magnus’ planned digital literature system.

We directly encountered the chill of wind and warmth of sunshine, the cattle and sheep, often on the roads as well as in the fields.  We saw on maps the pattern of settlement on the island and on display boards the wools from different breeds on the island. Some of us went to the local historical centre, An Iodhlann [[ http://www.aniodhlann.org.uk/ ]], to see artefacts, documents and displays of the island in times past, from breadbasket of the west of Scotland to wartime airbase.

We slept.  I in my own bed, some in the Lodge, some in the B&B round the corner, Matjaz and Klem in a camper van and Magnus – brave heart – in a tent amongst the sand dunes.  Occasionally some took a break and dozed in the chairs at the Rural Centre or even nodded off over a good dinner (was that me?).

We showed things we had brought with us, including Magnus’ tangle of wires and circuit boards that almost worked, myself a small pack of FireFly units (enough to play with I hope in a future Tech Wave), Layda’s various pieces she had made in previous tech-arts workshops, Steve’s musical instrument combining Android phone and cardboard foil tube, and Alessio’s impressively modified table lamp.

And we made.  We do after all describe this as a making event!  Helen and Claire explored the limits of ZigBee wireless signals.  Several people contributed to an audio experience using proximity sensors and Arduino boards, and Steve’s CogWork Chip: Lego and electronics, maybe the world’s first mechanical random-signal generator.  Descriptions of many of these and other aspects of the event will appear in due course on the TTW site and participants’ blogs.


But it was a remark that Graham made as he was waiting in the ferry queue that is most telling.  It was not the doing that was central, the making, even the talking, but the fact that he didn’t have to do anything at all.  It was the lack of a plan that made space to fill with doing, or not to do so.

Is that the heart?  We need time and space for non-doing, or maybe even un-doing, unwinding tangles of self as well as wire.

There will be another Tiree Tech Wave in March/April, do come to share in some more not doing then.

Who was there:

  • Alessio Malizia – across the seas from Madrid, blurring the boundaries between information, light and space
  • Helen  Pritchard – artist, student of innovation and interested in cows
  • Claire  Andrews – roller girl and researching the design of assistive products
  • Clare  Hooper – investigating creativity, innovation and a sprinkling of SemWeb
  • Magnus  Lawrie – artist, tent-dweller and researcher of digital humanities
  • Steve Gill – designer, daredevil and (when he can get me to make time) co-authoring book on physicality TouchIT
  • Graham Dean – ex-computer science lecturer, ex-businessman, and current student and auto-ethnographer of maker-culture
  • Steve Foreshaw – builder, artist, magician and explorer of alien artefacts
  • Matjaz Kljun – researcher of personal information and olive oil maker
  • Layda Gongora – artist, curator, studying improvisation, meditation and wild hair
  • Alan Dix – me