Check it: MS Word is baroque.

October 20, 2008 § Leave a comment

From an old post I started and never published in Feb. 2008:

In my Experience Design course, we’re spending the month of February talking about experience design criticism and how it can inform our work. It’s fun to see how my training in literary criticism is helping me understand this way of thinking.

The first article we’ve read on the topic, “Criticism as an Approach to Interface Design,” by Olav Bertelsen and Soren Pold, yields this “juicy quote,” as my professor would say:

“Word can be seen as renaissances [sic?] in the sense that it builds on the tool metaphor and aims to incorporate a WYSIWYG interface. However, the abundance of new functions and domains, such as the inclusion of DTP functions, web publishing, support for reviewing and collaboration, has led to a baroque mannerism in the interface.

“Understanding the stylistic development from renaissance to baroque – a development that is not only referring back to the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries but is relevant whenever new expressions develop, mature and decay – is key to envisioning new designs for hybrid tools such as a word processor” (p. 26).

For more on interaction design criticism, you can check out the blog series my professor, Jeffrey Bardzell, wrote on the topic.

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Csikszentmihalyi is helping me resist online shopping today.

September 28, 2008 § Leave a comment

“The addiction to objects is of course best cured by learning to discipline consciousness. If one develops control over the processes of the mind, the need to keep thoughts and feelings in shape by leaning on things decreases. This is the main advantage of a genuinely rich symbolic culture: It gives people poetry, songs, crafts, prayers, and rituals that keep psychic entropy at bay. … We very much need to learn more about how this inner control can be achieved. Then objects can again be used primarily as instruments rather than as projections of our selves, which, like the servants created by the sorcerer’s apprentice, threaten to drown their masters with relentless zeal.”

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1993). Why we need things. In Lubar, S. & Kingery D. (eds). History from Things: Essays on Material Culture.

Cesarean = Cyborg = Whoa.

February 23, 2008 § Leave a comment

Once I realized that contemporary obstetrics is a system that is co-created by obstetricians and women, each of whom have much to gain from deconstructing organic childbirth and reconstructing it as technological production, I was forced to look again at the human-machine interaction that characterizes this reconstructed technobirth — at the strong symbiosis between the woman and the technology; at the way in which it removes the chaos and fear from women’s perceptions of birth and at its perfect expression of certain fundamentals of technocratic life. … I began to see the mutilation and prosthesis of technobirth as the fullest metaphoric expression of life in the technocracy, which I define as a society whose central organizing mythology constellates around a technological progress that will culminate in transcendence of all natural bounds, including both biological and planetary limitations.

Robbie Davis-Floyd, “From Technobirth to Cyborg Babies: Reflections on the Emergent Discourse of a Holistic Anthropologist.” Paper presented to the annual meeting, American Anthropological Association, Washington, D.C., 1995.

I read this passage as it was quoted in the fourth chapter of my professor David Hakken‘s book, Cyborgs@Cyberspace?: An Ethnographer Looks to the Future, and was totally creeped out. A week later, I’m still thinking about it and how it relates to other texts I’ve been reading lately about childbirth, particularly in the United States.

David Hakken uses the above passage to introduce a section of his book that argues, if I understand it correctly, that unlike Davis-Floyd’s account — in which she seems to become a cyborg on the operating table — we have always been cyborgs, from the time that human beings began to use tools. From page 72:

Even if the justice of such a boundary were demonstrated, the contrast would be between one form of technologically mediated humanity/cyborg and another, not, as Davis-Floyd presents it, a contrast between a purely biological human and a highly technologically mediated cyborg. … In sum, my Cyborg Anthropology stresses how humans have been quite “cyborgic” from early in the emergence of the species. Technology is so deeply implicated in human existence that it is a core aspect of our being.

The idea that we have always been cyborgs, regardless of whether the technology we incorporated was external or internal to what we think of as our individual bodies, makes sense to me, but it doesn’t make Davis-Floyd’s description any less eerie. And although she suggests in the passage that both doctors and mothers may be comforting themselves with the vision of cyborgian birth as a way to remove danger from the process, it is clear from her other writings that she, like me, sees flaws in this way of thinking:

The metaphor of the body-as-machine and the related image of the female body as a defective machine eventually formed the philosophical foundations of modern obstetrics. Wide cultural acceptance of these metaphors accompanied the demise of the midwife and the rise of the male-attended, mechanically manipulated birth. Obstetrics was thus enjoined by its own conceptual origins to develop tools and technologies for the manipulation and improvement of the inherently defective, and therefore anomalous and dangerous, process of birth.

Robbie E. Davis-Floyd. “The Rituals of American Hospital Birth.” Conformity and Conflict: Readings in Cultural Anthropology, 8th ed., David McCurdy, ed., HarperCollins, New York, 1994, pp. 323-340.

This is not to suggest that obstetrics isn’t an important safeguard in high-risk birth situations, but several researchers make a powerful argument that the culturally accepted technological interventionist approach to low-risk childbirth in the U.S. is more dangerous for mothers and children than natural childbirth. For this reason, and despite my agreement with David Hakken’s assertion that our “cyborgization” (is that a word?) began long, long ago, reading Davis-Floyd’s description of the cyborgian birth experience gave me Mary Shelly-style heebie-jeebies.

This required reading just Blew My Mind.

September 23, 2007 § Leave a comment

Welcome to a new tag in my notebook: “This required reading just Blew My Mind.” Here’s a little tip about grad school that you probably already know. In grad school, you read. A lot. And if you’re lucky, some of it might even Blow Your Mind. But then you have to go on and read something else that may or may not Blow Your Mind, and either way eventually you forget the preceding Mind Blowing reading. So I’m going to start jotting down some of these things so I don’t forget them.

Your Body Is a Wonderland!¹

Item no. 1 comes from “Plastic Brains, Hybrid Minds,” a chapter in Natural-born cyborgs by Andy Clark (as opposed to Andy Clarke, who, BTW, has also Blown My Mind in several passages of Transcending CSS). OK, so we’ve already got some awesome stuff here, including plastic brains and cyborgs, but it gets better.

Clark says that our conception of our bodies can extend beyond the actual matter that comprises them if we are “tricked” in the right way.

He lists several party tricks, devised by another researcher², that you can try to confirm this, including one where you, blindfolded, sit behind your friend in a chair with one index finger on her nose and one on your own nose. (You’re remembering that joke about picking your friends and picking your nose, aren’t you? You are so crass.) Another one of your friends, standing beside both of you, uses your index fingers to stroke and tap the noses of you and your friend with exactly the same rhythm.

After less than a minute of this synchronized nose-tapping, about half the subjects report a powerful illusion. It is as if their own noses now extended about two feet in front of them. . . . To make sense of this close and ongoing match between arm’s length tapping and end-of-nose sensation, the brain infers that your nose must now extend far enough for the arm’s-length tapping to be causing the feelings. So your nose must be about two feet long. (p. 60)

Whoa. That required reading just Blew My Mind. “To recap, human brains (and indeed those of many other animals) seem to support highly negotiable body images” (p. 62).


¹ This is what Ian said after I told him about the article. Who knew that a song he loves to hate so much would come in handy in a conversation about cognitive science?

²V.S. Ramachandran, professor and director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego at the time the article was published

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