Archive for January, 2007

Silhouette and Form

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

 A few weeks ago I was in Crete (ok, I was actually in rural Virginia but I found the above photo and…) wandering around.  I noticed how the silhouette of most of the trees I saw seemed analogous to the movement of the sun across the sky: a curve.  At first I thought that the trees seemed to be a memory of that movement, but when I heard an approaching flock of geese and looked up to see the undulating curve of their collective movement I realized that the trees I was looking at were all alive, and their silhouettes were developing as were the flock of geese overhead, in concert with the movements of the sun (along with many other dynamic sub-systems).  At that moment I realized that the sun was literally a part of the tree, and that my understanding of them as being separate but related was flawed.

 It occurred to me that in an environment comprised of relationships any truly useful description of form must account for all of the physical aspects of a given object (or, more accurately, focal point within an environment), which must include each formative connection without which the object would not exist.

 Extrapolating this understanding of form into my own experience of the tree I realized that my experience of the object(s), how it appears to me, is more than my ability to identify it (tautology), and inspect it visually. Specifically, the affect associated with my moment in the mix of elements was equally an inextricable element of that form, without which “it” would not be.  Affect is physical.  Affect is complex.  Affect may be analogous to the relationship of the sun to the silhouette of the tree in that the timeframe of the relationship may not be easily observable as a linear, cause and effect sequence, but the relationship is essential, and, as such, must be accounted for.

 It seems strange to break fields of relationships, of which our mind and experience are physical components, into arrangements of discriminate parts/things, of which our experience is clearly an aspect but seems somehow limited to “simply” identifying an object as a discriminate component within a set of discriminate components – something I referred to in a previous post as “first-order”, or “target-level” sensing – a useful aspect of what we are but, perhaps, the cornerstone of an interpretive system that produces a grossly oversimplified model of the world that reduces complex relationships within which we are deeply engaged, to clumsy, yet “workable”, and certainly repeatable, tautologies that give our lives the quality and agency of spectators at every level.  I think its time to let ourselves off the leash.


1 & 1 = interface

Friday, January 19th, 2007

I heard a talk by the founder of secondlife on the longnow site, and early into his talk he posed the question: “what might happen if we digitize everything.”

I wonder what that question means, and how could we possibly digitize everything? I assume he is referring to creating simulations of offline elements that would exist in secondlife. With this in mind I began to think about the experience of manipulating simulations on a desktop computer and this quote came to mind:

When people say “interface”, they usually mean VIRTUALITY.

By “virtuality”, I refer to the opposite of reality: the seeming of a thing, anything. Most things have both a reality (nuts and bolts) and a virtuality (conceptual structure and feel). A building and a car have a physical reality and a virtuality– a conceptual structure and feel. The only thing that doesn’t have a virtuality is something you’re not supposed to know about or feel– like a fishhook (till it’s too late).

We don’t usually design software interfaces, we design software virtuality. The only time you design a software “interface” is when a program already exists with very specific functions, and you are just deciding how that function is to be shown to the user. But if you are designing or deciding that function– which is more usually the case– then you are designing its conceptual structure and feel, or its virtuality.

–Ted Nelson.

When Nelson equates the use of the word interface with the word virtuality I think he’s saying, to expand on his examples, that buildings and cars have a physical and virtual aspect, but those aspects are intertwined at essentially every scale, so that one wouldn’t describe the doorway of the building as the interface mediating the system of bricks, steel, and mortar with the system of using the resulting space. The idea is that the physical elements within the form of the building have an experiential quality of what may be described as buildingness that can be described as its’ virtual aspect but that cannot be literally separated and transposed onto another form, or literally removed from the building itself for inspection. The physical and virtual are descriptions of a complex relationship between elements within an environment that include us.

The virtual aspect seems to be the intersection of the conscious mind with the form at every scale where the form is still in tact, and this virtual aspect is inseparable from and essential to the identification of the form as a building. The same is true for the car – although that is probably more difficult to fathom now as so much of the car is becoming embedded with computerized extras that have designed interfaces – these are going beyond interior sound and hvac systems to computer assisted parallel parking and exterior lighting control. I imagine Mr. Nelson would feel the incorporation of such extras creates overt virtual experiences by separating the user from the center of the driving experience (the meaning and experience of the car are created at the intersection of the driver with the vehicle, which is to say that the user is a part of the physical and virtual aspects of the form, just as the building needs humans for the building to actually be a building).

By creating elements of the driving experience where the user is put in a position of being allowed access to certain aspects of the function of the car an interface condition is established as the user feels like they have become a component part of a system of control and feedback, whose behaviors must fit within specific guidelines. When you can clearly identify the interface between the physical and virtual you are in a digitized environment.

When you argue that the gas pedal or elevator are the interfaces to the car or building you have acquired the mental model of the digitized world. I think that when we talk about digitizing everything we are talking about a mental model of interoperability and interchangeability of component parts, at the core of which is an idea that things can, and perhaps should, be able to be broken apart into discriminate bits and then manipulated and recombined with other things, under the influence, gaze and will of a detached but powerful participant. When we follow this model we become components, too.

Which is to say that we can learn a lot from interactive 3d graphics and we can and will take those lessons into the offscreen world.

So, really, what is happening as we digitize everything?

“I think, therefore I am resistant to change.”

Friday, January 19th, 2007

I just read and re-read this interesting paper by Francis M. Duffy.  Rather than ruin it by describing it I suggest that you take a look.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Mental models resist change. People don’t like to change what they think they know. Given new information to consider, individuals will search their existing mental models to ensure that the new information is consistent with what they know. If the new information fits an existing mental model, the person accepts the information. Perhaps the information even expands or improves the person’s existing mental model. If the individual cannot link the new information to an existing mental model, he or she may construct a mental model to understand the new information or discard the information as irrelevant, unimportant, or wrong.”

And there are ideas at the end for addressing the implications of persistent mental models.