On April 17, 2011 at 5:38 p.m., I posted the first draft of what will eventually become the first story in the “Making and Empathy” chapter in the book “Realizing Empathy: An Inquiry Into the Meaning of Making” surrounding my experience with glass. This is an edited version of the conversation that followed, regrouped and rearranged for clarity and relevance.
anson: When I was studying hermeneutics,28 I remember my professor saying, “Every question presupposes you know something about the answer.”
For example, you ask, “What can I do to tear a piece of glass?” The question pre-supposes that you need to do something to achieve that effect. I don’t know much about glass-blowing, but as far as I know, you take advantage of gravity, right? Sometimes you don’t have to do anything, but just let gravity and the natural decline in temperature take care of matters.
The kind of question we bring to the table often shapes the kind of answer we expect to hear. Everyone sees through a pair of tinted glasses. It is inevitable, but it is important for us to be aware of that influence and bias and try to compensate for it. That is something people in the field of hermeneutics and epistemology have helped us to understand.
Does this make sense to you?
slim: Yes it does.
And that’s such a great point about the use of gravity in tearing glass. You’re absolutely right. I did think that I had to do something to tear glass. It is truly mind-boggling to realize that there’s no end to how many biases we may be operating under at any given moment.
You mentioning gravity also reminds me of an experience I had in my modern dance class.
One day, we were asked to roll down a small hill. The first time I did, I was somewhat apprehensive. I had never rolled down a hill before — at least not as an adult — and I was afraid that I might get hurt. So in an attempt to prevent that from happening, I tried to become very con-scious of how I rolled, so I could slow down and control where I was going. I wasn’t very successful, though.
I remember the roll being rather rough.
But the second time I did it, I was abruptly dragged away by a friend of mine who showed up out of nowhere and said “Let’s go!” Before I knew it, I was back up the hill throwing myself down again. What is interesting about this second time is that I distinctly remember how free my body felt. Maybe it’s because I didn’t have any time to think, but it felt as if I were gliding down the hill. It felt very smooth.
It was just me, the ground, and gravity working together in collaboration. In retrospect, I was biased toward assuming that to not get hurt I had to become conscious of the roll, so as to try and control every aspect of it. When in fact it was better to relax.
an-lon: Funny story. I was at a going-away party for one of my DreamWorks friends, and another coworker brought some homebrew and a beer bong. At the height of everyone’s drunkenness, Josh, the bringer of beer, tore into Moiz, the guy who was leaving , over something involving semicolons. It took me a while to piece together the story, accompanied as it was by much shouting and laughter, but from what I gather, Moiz had managed to put a semicolon at the end of every single line of his Python code, and Josh just couldn’t believe it. He said, “We never put it in the best practices manual because we never imagined anyone would do something so goddamn stupid!”
Point being, in computer languages, people often write code in one language as if it were another — importing irrelevant habits/conventions/design patterns. The semicolons thing was funny because the vehemence of the rant far outweighed the magnitude of the infraction but I’ve seen many examples of this over the course of my programming lifetime, and I’m sure it has cost companies millions of dollars’ worth of programmer time just because the code ends up being incomprehensible.
slim: Yeah, I remember it taking me quite a bit of effort to go from programming in C to programming in Prolog. Even now I haven’t done much functional programming, so I bet the way I write functional programs is not as respectful of the functional principles as it could be. As a matter of fact, it may not be that much better than my disrespect for the material integrity of glass.
an-lon: By the way, your comment about respecting the integrity of physical materials reminds me of this old joke of a fictional radio conversation between a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier and the Canadian authorities off the coast.
U.S. Ship: Please divert your course 0.5 degrees to the south to avoid a collision.
Canadian Coast guard: Recommend you divert your course 15 degrees to the south to avoid a collision.
Ship: This is the captain of a u.s. navy ship. I say again, divert your course.
Cost guard: No. I say again: you divert your course!
Ship: This is the aircraft carrier uss coral sea. We are a large warship of the u.s. navy. Divert your course now!
Cost guard: This is a lighthouse. Your call.
slim: Ha ha ha ha ha ha! Respect the lighthouse, dammit!
an-lon: Also, here’s a quote that expresses my view of integrity, written by Mary MacCracken, a teacher of emotionally disturbed children. She’s explaining why she tries to teach reading to children who are so lacking in other life skills, it might be argued that learning to read is beside the point.
“The other teachers thought I was somewhat ambitious. They were kind and encouraging, but it did not have the same importance for them as it did for me. And yet, and yet, if what I loved and wished to teach was reading, I had as much right to teach that as potato-printing. In the children’s world of violent emotion, where everything continually changes, I thought it would be satisfying for them to know that some things remain constant. A C is a C both today and tomorrow — and C-A-T remains “cat” through tears and violence.”
For some reason, that quote has stayed with me for a long time. To me, that’s integrity: that C-A-T spells cat today, tomorrow, and yesterday.
And incidentally, that’s what Microsoft’s never figured out — that users hate having things change from under their nose for no good reason. Remember those stupid menus whose contents shift depending on how frequently you access the menu item? Whose brilliant idea was that? Are there any users out there who actually like this feature, instead of merely tolerating it because they don’t know how to turn it off? Features like that create a vicious cycle where users become afraid of the computer, Microsoft assumes they’re idiots and dumbs down things even further — making the computer even more unpredictable and irrational. Now there’s no rhyme or reason whatsoever behind what it deigns to display. Say what you will about Mac fans, Windows and OS X are still light years apart in terms of actually respecting the user.
And here we cycle back to the initial conundrum: how to reconcile that austere landscape of programming abstractions with our emotional, embodied, messy selves; selves so much in need of human connection that we perhaps see everything through that lens.
Here’s a slightly loony bins example that I have tried and failed many times to write down. Around the time I was learning object-oriented programming, sometime in my early twenties, my cousin went through a love life crisis.
The guy she was dating had a photo of an ex-girlfriend on his refrigerator, but none of my friend, only her business card. They somehow got into a fight over this. She went home, and, partly out of pique — but mostly to amuse herself — she got out a photo of every single one of her ex-boyfriends, put those photos on the fridge, and added the business card of the current guy. Then she forgot about it and went about her daily business. Of course, you can predict the rest of the story. The new guy somehow came over unexpectedly and saw the photos, they had another fight, and finally broke it off.
My cousin tried to explain to me later that the problem wasn’t so much the photos and business cards and exes. It was that her boyfriend just didn’t get that she does quirky things like that for her own amusement. What she did wasn’t intended as a message and wasn’t intended to be seen, it was just an expression of her own personal loopiness. The fact that he couldn’t relate to her silliness was as much the deal-breaker as the original photo of his ex.
At the time, we were both fresh out of college and lamenting the closeness of college friendships. The guy in question was older, maybe in his thirties , and he really just didn’t seem to get it.
And here is where I went into the spiel I have never been able to replicate since. Because I had just been reading about object-oriented programming, the thought in my head was that in college, we gave out pointers left and right to each other’s internal data because we just didn’t know better. All the joy and sorrow and drama was there for any close friend to read , and write, and modify. As we got older, we learned that this is a rather dangerous way to live, and developed more sophisticated class interfaces — getters and setters for that internal data, if you will. The guy in my cousin’s story seemed to live by those getters and setters, and was appalled when my cousin inadvertently handed him a pointer.
Here’s the part of the story I have never been able to replicate: I told my cousin all that without mentioning object-oriented programming once. I used a fair bit of object-oriented terminology, but only the words whose meanings were either immediately clear from the context or already in common usage — handle and interface, for example. She immediately understood what I was trying to say, and added that the word “handle” was a particularly poignant metaphor. When we’re young, we freely give loved ones a handle to our inner-selves, but in adulthood, we set up barriers and only let people in at predetermined checkpoints according to predetermined conventions. As adults, we give out handles to only a very few, and those already in possession of a handle can always come back from a previous life to haunt us. We interact with the rest of humanity via an increasingly intricate set of interfaces. By now, I possess a much deeper and richer set of interfaces and protocols than I did in my early twenties, so I can share a great deal more of myself without fear of being scribbled on. But I still don’t hand out raw pointers very often — the vulnerability is too much for me, and the responsibility too great for the other person.
Back to computers and HCI. I am surprised sometimes by how often I use computer terminology in daily life among non-programmers and get away with it. You don’t have to be a programmer to understand me when I complain that an instruction manual is spaghetti, or that my memory of a particular song got scribbled on by someone else’s more recent cover of it. The reason these metaphors work, of course, is that spaghetti and scribble are essentially round-tripping as metaphors — from daily life to computer science and then back to daily life. First, the English words were co-opted to convey a specific computer science concept — spaghetti code is code that is unreadable because it tangles in a million different directions, and to scribble on a memory location is to overwrite data you’re not supposed to overwrite —and then I re-co-opted them back into English — to express frustration at the unreadability of the instruction manual or lament that my memory of the original song has been tarnished.
My point here is that computer science is rich in human meaning precisely because we choose human metaphors to express otherwise abstract concepts. My analogy between object-oriented programming and human relations is surprisingly salient because object-oriented programming, at some level, had to come from human experience first. What is architecture? It was the Sistine Chapel before it was the Darwin operating system. Have you seen the ted talk by Brené Brown on the power of vulnerability? It’s what got me thinking about our longing for human connection
slim: I’m really taken by your use of pointers and getters/setters in the context of relationships. I’ve never thought of it that way, and it’s a rather interesting way of thinking about it. There’s so much in there that I’m having trouble responding in a coherent way.
And yes, I’ve watched that Brené Brown talk numerous times in the past. It’s a very good one, and it is consistent with my experience making physical things.
28 The art or science of interpretation, especially of Scripture. Commonly distinguished from exegesis or practical exposition. (OED Online)