Saturday, April 8, 2017

UX Design - The Irony


The College where I work is conducting a search for the position I hold on an interim basis. I am involved only to be invited to teaching demonstrations, and as a member of the team of program directors which holds a separate interview. The prompt for all candidates is Semiotics and Metaphor; the Human-Machine interface (something like that, I haven't been taking great notes). This is core to the design of the Master's program that I am acting as custodian for, and a topic in general of great interest.

There were to have been four finalist candidates, two female and two male, but one of the women dropped out. That was extremely disappointing to me, since we'd interviewed her previously to teach in Shanghai for which I thought she was supremely well-qualified. But for the program's dissolution, she would have been hired. I knew that she could be a brilliant director for this suffocated program.

So this round the two men took somewhat strikingly similar approaches, while the female candidate took a somewhat surprising somewhat refreshing turn in the direction of designed-in gender bias in human/machine interactions. Tracing some history, and highlighting some irony. Her talk stimulated more discussion and more animation than the others had.

Naturally, I had to examine my own bias, as it is hard for me to see this woman - who came through the program herself - able to move the program forward. It needs better definition and focus, and somewhat critically needs to move away from competition against larger better-funded programs which might cover similar territory. We need to distinguish ourselves in ways realistic in relation to the students we can attract and the funding available. She has seemed too much inside it; too rambling in her delivery and too eager to please the students.

Some of the presentation dwelled on the roles of women, who were themselves called "computers" when they did the clerical work of punch-card program upload. The cute anthropomorphism of Google's self-driving car, as opposed to the sexy object-power of what has driven automobile manufacture heretofore. Control, speed, even danger. It seems that user testing has demonstrated that riders in a self-driving car are calmed by a female voice interaction. Ditto Siri. Push buttons and command interfaces just excite that old implication with one's tools. Distance - calm breathing - is the mandate for artificial intelligence. Even moving a mouse and clicking requires too much alertness. So much can go wrong with a slip.

So here's my fugue. I've written exhaustively on the masculine relation to tools. A strong sceptic about the positives for digital so-called tools, I remark that with hand tools in particular, there can be something which approaches love, tenderness even, toward tools which feel good in hand and make a satisfying engagement with the material one is shaping.

Only when they fail might you curse and throw them to the ground. But, perhaps reluctantly, you might also realize that it was you who had failed the tool; overpowering it or failing to keep it sharp.

Computers early on were famous for enraging their users who could not make sense of them. We wanted to do some defenestration (that funny word that is almost mainstream now, perhaps because of Microsoft). Our catharsis was channeled by way of films like Office Space. We men loved our tools, we loved our cars, we loved to drive, and we loved speed. Computers could castrate us. Nerds are on the spectrum, feminized, ugly and smelly in an unathletic fashion.

In my many years supporting PC users, I have only ever seen women express a love for their machine. These machine-loving women were mostly in clerical positions. They might even name name their 'puters, often caress them, and back in the day load up their screens with cute things which I would have to caution were commonly vectors for the bad stuff. It may even have been my own reluctance to be that stern guy which took me away from that sort of work. Mostly, it was because the cloud made it impossible to be responsible.

Apple's success, its attraction to the granola creatives despite the fascism of its corporate structure, was that it mitigates rage against the machine by a friendly user interface. I do suppose that Steve Jobs and the Donald have this thing in common. An idiot savant insight to the user experience, and nothing much to do with technical expertise; in the case of the Donald, even in the realm of business.

Along with many others, I naturally pay more attention to Fox news now than I ever have before. Previously their talking heads could only outrage me, in the direction of my feelings toward televangelists. My threshold for that kind of patent destruction of the human purpose was pretty near my surface.

Now, I only want to observe that the user interface for Fox broadcast - the receptive pathway - is brilliantly engineered. Male rhetoric is direct and obvious with zero fancy intellect required to find its point. When some intellect is required, the rhetorical style is reassuring, precise, rational sounding by way of the National Review. Lessons from Ronald Reagan.

The women are engineered beauty, massively intelligent in rhetorical presence but breasty almost airbrushed beautiful foils for the men. But when were newscasters, politicians, talking heads ever human? These are highly engineered creatures, likely almost entirely different were you to meet them in person. If people that rich even have any person left, right?

I am in that strange minority of people more outraged by the Mac than by the PC. They take away my control in the same way that a self-driving car would, and make plumbing the internals way more arcane than necessary. Sometimes Apple designers even remove the power-button in the arrogance that it won't be necessary. Non-intuitive keystroke combos impossible to remember. Patent bespoke screws and ways in to do repair. Apples are the ones I want to defenestrate, since I can easily get under the hood of Windows and tinker.

But it is true that for the most part I don't pay attention to my iPhone, though for the most part I also never talk to "her." I want my tools to respond in the same direct unthinking fashion that I flip a light switch or turn a wrench. Drive-by-wire would always make me nervous. I still don't quite trust power tools, only because they might turn on you, destroy the medium, chop off your hand. Though truly, just as with self-driving cars, I've only really ever injured myself with well-sharpened will maintained and well wielded hand tools. Go figure.

So I do confess that as I update my iOS post-Trump, I'm nervous that this will be the NSA-intercept update, which transfers my control over to the Man. I marvel that post-update my available memory markedly expands. What garbage was I or it harboring down in there among all the bits and bytes? Still, I happily move along in lockstep with so many others. We are legion!

For the moment, trust is still engendered by engineered smoothness of the sort up on Fox News, designed in by Apple and manufactured in China. We like a little masculine roughness in our commanders in chief. Reagan might look too fake today, just like Xi looks a little too much his part. Maybe even a little feminine for his makeup. Hillary was a trainwreck already notable from a million miles away.

So, as ever I focus on the -archy part of matriarchy/patriarchy same-thing. My particular brand of feminism trusts more in gender fluidity, so long as that doesn't engage the man-machine interface in seductive ways. So far, the matriarchs of tech still scare me more than the patriarchs they serve. Just sayin'.

There are so few of them. Is that fact designed in, or is it only natural?

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