Ode to Chopsticks as TUI

Activity theory seeks to understand the unity of consciousness and activity. It is a social theory of human consciousness, construing conscious as the product of an individual’s interactions with people and artifacts in the context of everyday practical activity. (pg 8)

As one of the simplest forms of existing tools (straight lines in the form of sticks) chopsticks stand proof of the imagination of the user to make use of “technology,” whose linguistic origin stems from Greek “techne” – meaning “art, skill, cunning of hand.” They have a physicality to them that extends the most basic existing tool of us — our hands.

Admittedly, chopsticks are not the most intuitive interface to learn. I have been using them for as far back as I can retain memories — but I have watched those for whom chopsticks are not an integral fabric of their culture struggle with them initially. However, once integrated to the contours of the hand, they become a seamless extension, empowering me, stretching the limits of what I would have been able to accomplish on my own. They can be incredibly precise (picking fishbones from my rice); reach further than the tips of my fingers (spearing the last bun on the other side of the table before it gets snatched up in the time it takes for the rotating tray to get to me); pick up things that are otherwise too hot or too cold for my skin to handle (liberating carbonized sugar clumps from the toaster). Not to be left behind in the picking-up department, they can also be used for severing, i.e. noodles (although that’s kind of an advanced user technique).

I use them so habitually that I use them without thinking. I find myself sometimes picking up things that are not food with my chopsticks just because it is more convenient to do so. Rather than having to put the chopsticks down, use my hands to pick them up, move it to wherever I needed it, and then picking up my chopsticks again for my food it was just so much more efficient to simply use them. (Of course, I get yelled at by my mother, but that’s a whole another ballpark having to do with social etiquette and conditioning.) However, the interesting thing about this familiarity with the usage of chopsticks is that the knowledge of this interface becomes a system that can be applied to solving situations beyond food picking. I have found myself at parks where I had accidentally tossed an important receipt in the public trash basket too deep for my hands to reach. Also needing to be taken into account are sanitation precautions (you never know what else is discarded in a park) and a certain degree of pungent aroma. I found two broken tree branches of needed length, applied the chopsticks interface to them and managed to neatly retrieve said receipt. 

Beyond their usefulness as purely utilitarian objects, they also serve a certain social function. For Chinese eating functions, it’s a mark of politeness to place portions in other people’s plate from the communal dish. (This being a custom that could potentially ruffle some cross-cultural feathers, proceed with caution.) In any case, when done properly and everyone understands the custom, the chopsticks take on the role as vessel of social interaction showing that you are aware of and care for the well-being of your guests and fellow diners. In some Chinese regions, chopsticks carry a funereal purpose in the transport of cremated remains of an individual to final resting vessel by relatives.

Despite its humble appearance and form, the chopsticks are truly an example of a tool and interface that is integrated into a user’s daily life, as well as serving functions of social and spiritual nature.

Photoshop

Ever since I was little, Photoshop has always been my personal digital playground. In its UI, I pushed around pixels into avatars, banners, and layouts to cultivate an online identity in forums. In doing so, I began to engage in a form of social computing, even though everything I made was intangible. I would creatively manipulate photos into collages, completing actions every time I made something. After awhile, all the commands of the interface, whether it be Ctrl + T or selective coloring, became instinctive operations.

When I interacted with its UI, I noticed that much of it pulled from reality. Many tools were named after tools: brush, lasso, pencil, etc. The software carries effects that imitate watercolors, graphite strokes, and mosaics. Photoshop referred to the tangible world for a better user experience much like how early computers utilized symbols like files and trashcans. Even the documents are called canvases, as if to reaffirm that even though the work is behind a screen, it is still a piece of art.

My mother and aunt, as graphic designers, were the first ones to introduce design to me, and perhaps the personal connection is also why I love the software. I learned it through not only solo experimentation but also by studying their working process. In that sense, my education began in an interpsychological manner; I would create characters from circles and squares under their guidance until I was adept enough to study tutorials and learn intrapsychologically.

Un-Hinge

This weeks’ readings reminded of Latour’s suggestion that the ‘hinge,’ not the door was the first technology of social construction. I might be remembering it wrong!
However as I remember it, the analogy of the door, operating as tangible technology, and the hinge as the social, or interactional component, seems applicable. When thinking about TUI, I think I am most interested in this idea of a hinge, meaning the design of space or interface, might keep something or someone in or out, and the ways in which design may privilege certain ways of being as central to how something is deemed useful or productive. How does design construct disabilities, rather than impairments— is there a way to unhinge what we think we know about human activity , as in Latour’s analogy. First there is a hole in the wall, and then a door, and then a hinge…who opens the door, closes it, who monitors the door? All to say, it’s not as simple to ask or answer as I am posing these statements I know. Yet, it always stands out to me how little we discuss different ways of being and I don’t always know if the conversation is too specialized. I thought the first reading, Acting with Technology, makes a strong argument, how theory is useful, and the failures of ethno methodologists, yet it didn’t necessarily address differently abled people or neurodivergences- are these more relevant that specializations- are we still thinking too in the box about human interaction and activities- and how they structure agency.
My favorite user UI, where I was really aware I was using a new technology, was probably the first Atari console and Donkey Kong. I remember going to the beach and trying to jump over the waves the same way my character would over the barrels.

Google Maps

I use Google Maps almost everyday and it greatly impacts my everyday life. Although the main motivation of using Google Map (or any form of map) is almost always the same, which is to get to my destination, Google Maps in particular can help me achieve different goals in different conditions.

When I first came to Berkeley, I needed to use Google Maps as a navigation tool to get me to school. At first, I followed its audio instructions step by step to make turns. After a few days, I’ve remembered the turns and internalized the process in my head. I don’t have to use Google Maps to get to school, but I still turn it on in rush hours to avoid traffics. Google Maps tells me which roads are busy and which are not, and I can optimize my route accordingly. Google Maps can also be customized to avoid toll roads or highways to meet special needs. A few days ago, I got a flat tire and I had to use my spare tire for a few days. I was not supposed to drive faster than 35 MPH using my spare tire, and I had to adjust the setting in Google Maps to avoid highways. Last but not least, the search nearby function in Google Maps is a perfect tool for searching nearby places such as restaurants or gas stations.

 

 

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Activity Theory: fundamentally humanist or anti-humanist?

When my father worked for Philly Carpenter’s Union he wore a hip-holstered flip phone by his right hand at all times. Because he was often using his left hand to hold, clamp, or carry projects, he had an elaborate one-handed method of detaching his phone from his belt, opening it, and answering it. It was an action that was itself a response to the technological availability of small devices, workforce exigencies of rapid communication, his own perceptions of masculinity, and in a way it stood as an act of social rebellion (“a phone holster—really dad?”). But the very act of picking up the phone was usually executed gracefully and with not a small amount of flourish.

To describe the same relationship with vocabulary offered by Kaptelinin and Nardi in Acting with Technology: Activity Theory and Interaction Design: Vern’s relation towards the object of his cell phone had “cross[ed] the border between conscious and automatic processes” (Kaptelinin 68)—he would answer the phone consciously, but his hand motion, which he mastered over a number of years, was performed automatically. Through his engagement with the phone he was able to conduct business, earn a living, gain status (or lose status, depending on whom you ask), and eat regular meals; his work, which was object-oriented by any measure of the phrase (he was a cabinetmaker), acceded in a special sense to the demands of his phone, and the particular human movements and responses on which that phone insisted.

While reading I’ve identified one of the central themes of the Kaptelinin and Nardi text (and to some extent the Dourish text, too) as “development.” The first three chapters of Acting with Technology, for example, based on my rudimentary and unscientific count of the text, include variations on the word “develop” around 200 times, which puts the average per-page count to just shy of three. This is to say: it is a text that is obsessed with the importance of development, whether the term refers to the development of a theory of mind, the development of a child, or the development of a subject’s relationship with the objects that define and orbit them. Even if one disregards the big-picture repetition of the word throughout the first three chapters of Acting with Technology, the text very explicitly identifies “the importance of human development” as the third tenet of activity theory (10). On the following page the authors write that “it would be desirable to establish a practice of design in which the development of users—their ability to grow and change with technology—is of paramount importance” (11). The beginning of Chapter three too hinges on Vygotsky’s increased attention to “developmental potential” of young people.

But what if a user—a subject—loses the ability to develop in relation to objects? While reading I’ve found myself turning my thoughts to a few specific communities: individuals diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s, for example, or simply older individuals who have difficulty incorporating new information into older operational schematics.

To return finally to my first example: Vern, just before he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and dementia in 2014, bought a new iPhone. The iPhone’s interface, even with Apple’s reputation for intuitive design, has been entirely intractable to him: where once he had a physical button that clicked when he accepted calls, now he has a slider that displays on the phone’s surface. And while one understands that digital literacy is a broader conversation than that which concerns specific populations with specific ailments here, I nevertheless wonder out loud: does a theory of relational ontology that privileges learning and development in its core necessarily prioritize dynamic human-object relationships over static human-object relations? Put another way: what is the minimal form of “action” required by the phrase “interaction”?

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Invitation by exhibition

Each day of our lives, we are lured by a touchscreen to glance at it, interact with it or even search for an excuse just to swipe at it. For most of us, this behavior has become second nature – and a lot of credit goes to effective design. As a child, I distinctly remember being fascinated by the claw arcade game at my neighborhood gaming parlor. After reading about activity theory, I think I understand why I felt drawn towards the game: observing the tool (claw) and it’s interface (joystick) in action meant that I understood the game instantly. Behind a transparent wall of glass, the claw promised to serve as an extension of my hands in grabbing a plush toy. But the magic lay in the joystick: it made the claw so easy and fun to operate that it had me reaching into my parents’ pockets throughout the evening.

As Kaptelinin and Nardi explain, internalization is cardinal in interacting with a new environment. Consequently, a system like a touchscreen or a claw machine which make their role in the interaction abundantly clear to the user, benefit from an easy learning curve. Once observed in action, these interfaces make it easy for the user to accomplish his/her goal without taxing the working memory, so much so that after a few transactions, using them feels intuitive. I would also like to talk about the cursor. Even though we see it blinking whenever we type, we scarcely pay any attention to it  – a close analog of the unassuming nature of the screen and the joystick. And yet, if it wasn’t for the cursor’s blink, we wouldn’t know where to start typing. The cursor, the screen and the joystick are my favorite examples of UI which by virtue of either form or function, invite the user without requiring explicit instructions. When Dourish talks about phenomenology in the opening chapter of his book, I feel that these UIs have a common thread connecting their individual perception and action, which in turn leads to better user experiences in the real world.

Radio

Even with the popularity of streaming, my radio is one of my favorite possessions. When I wake up, it is the first thing I switch on. Instantly, I hear chatter of wacky morning DJ’s and new music without needing to look at a screen or open an app. If I want to change to one of my favorite broadcasts in the afternoon, I can adjust the knobs on the side without looking – only listening for a familiar voice. The simplicity of a switch and two knobs (and the occasional antenna adjustment) allows dozens of channels of information to come streaming in with barely any effort on my part to select a source or curate a playlist, and I am exposed to new and interesting topics and artists which influence my own behavior, an example of cultural determinism (Acting with Technology, p 39). When framing this experience in the view of activity theory (Vygotsky 1982a), I am the subject, the radio my tool, and my objective to learn about what is relevant in my local community. It is also more than just the tool, but how simple it is to operate.

 

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Gestures on my MacBook Trackpad

A UI that I would consider a favorite is the trackpad on my MacBook, most specifically the gestures functionality of it. I love the smooth tactile experience of using the trackpad. It’s literally smooth, and also smooth in its integration with my use of my computer. Most importantly, the trackpad makes actions (objects) that I need to perform on my computer over and over again faster and easier. Before these improvements to the trackpad it was easier to do certain things with a desktop computer, which would have a mouse to use. But with the improvements to the trackpad’s capabilities, I don’t miss the mouse whatsoever when I use my laptop.

One example of a “gesture” that I use very often with my trackpad’s Multi-touch abilities is “Mission Control.” In the past, arranging windows in a way that made them easy to switch between was a chore. In today’s computer use, the subject often multi-tasks, having several windows open at a time, each related to different trains of thought, different work activities, even different times of day or different moods. With gestures, I now am able to swipe four fingers upwards, and suddenly all of my windows are displayed side by side, ready for me to seamlessly switch between them.

That is just one example of the several time-saving possibilities of the trackpad.

It is worth noting that there is an element of skills needed on my part to take full advantage of the trackpad. There was a learning process to my trackpad use; I didn’t instantly know to use the gestures when I pulled my MacBook out of the box. That said, after a small amount of use, gestures became second nature, and as a user I was able to use them to navigate without added thought or effort. They became a part of my subconscious. This speaks to Activity Theory’s notion of progress, and “the gradual incorporation of a wider range of human skills and abilities.” Perhaps ten years ago, the “Mission Control” gestures would have been too abstract or outlandish to be learned by users easily, and they would have missed out on its potential for time savings.

Much like the driver learning to change lanes, when I was new to the trackpad’s gestures, I needed to be conscious of my fingers’ actions in the moment (total concentration). But as I became more skilled, “this action [became] more and more automatic,” and I was able to switch windows without stopping the task at hand to think about the fact that I was switching windows.

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Constructing Spaces as Tangible Interfaces

For me, both “tangible” and “interfaces” suggest specific connotations. “Tangible” typically imparts a sense of an object, that can be handled physically, while “interfaces” suggest a kind of bridge between different spaces or dimensions, the digital and physical, for instance, and usually, a more limited set of options and possibilities.

 

I am particularly interested in how we apprehend physical and social spaces, and the elements that go into constructing these physical and social spaces. We typically conceive of space as an environment that offer a wide enough (often infinite or near infinite) array of possibilities, such that agents have significant freedom and flexibility. In physical space, the ability to move across three planes of movement (i.e. x, y, z) offers this infinite or near infinite range of possibilities. In this sense, space can be constructed by any material (or some combination) that offers such a wide range of possibilities. In many purely virtual environments, it is text, or words, that simulate a sense of space by offering such an array of possibilities. Many other building blocks, beyond text or three-dimensional space, may offer this freedom of movement or creative expression. [1]

 

Objects, interfaces or architectures that impart or afford a sense of space are fascinating because they tap into a ubiquitous, but perhaps less noticed, aspect of how we apprehend and construct our identities, agency and how we relate to one another. Temporarily setting aside architecture, objects inserted into shared or public spaces can dramatically alter how that space is perceived, opening up new affordances and new dimensions along which one may act and interact, broadening the social space beyond its physical dimensions. In this context, I found activity theory compelling, particularly in that it “maintains no properties of the subject and the object exist before and beyond activities”, and second, where “activity is considered the key source of development of both the object and the subject.” The latter characteristic is particularly interesting when we consider the effect the design of shared social spaces can have on our identities, assumptions and learned behaviors as citizens, residents and participants in any system or society.

 

One of my favorite UIs (if it can be called that) is the urban sidewalk. It functions both as a means or mode of transport, on the way to some place else, but also a public space and potential destination in its own right (such as when people go for a walk). Its relatively simple characteristics – its width, cleanliness, proximity to other locales, safety, slope and evenness lends itself to a variety of affordances, a curb allows you to easily sit, hard surfaces for exercise or play, potentially low-cost and informal socialization, a slope allows a thrill ride for cyclists/skateboarders etc. In sidewalks and other public spaces, I am curious whether inserted objects can radically change how people perceive and interact within that specific space, as well as influence how they perceive themselves and their roles within the other overlapping groups in which we are embedded.

 

1. Definitions of “space” borrow heavily from my Computer-Mediated Communication Final Paper on Collective Neutral Spaces (2016).

Favorite UI: IKEA showrooms

One of my favorite UIs is the IKEA showrooms because of 1) its organization and 2) its interactive aspect. The IKEA showrooms are organized by room types (bedroom, living room, kitchen), rather than by furniture types (table, chair, bed). This style of display aligns well with customers’ decision making process of purchasing a furniture. The thought of “I need a dining table” derives from one’s need for a certain action, consumption of food. Because certain activities tend to occur in certain locations of the house, we almost intuitively categorize furniture by the location in which it will be utilized. The organization by room types at IKEA, thus, visually reduces customers’ effort to imagine themselves using the furniture and performing certain activities on/with it.

Another aspect of IKEA showrooms that many of us enjoy is the interactiveness. By enabling and encouraging interaction with its products, IKEA supports each customer’s different needs. For instance, a living room sofa may be used primarily for reading for some and watching TV for others. Depending on the main use of the furniture, one can try his/her reading posture (sitting up) while another can try a relaxing position(sitting back) on the couch. Also, many customers discover other possibilities they may not have pre-considered by seeing and putting themselves in an environment in which the products will reside. A simple example would be discovering a desire for a foot stool or a coffee table with storage space for board games.

The IKEA showrooms elegantly accommodate customers’ journey of furniture purchase from the motive for an activity, to learning/discovering, and to internalization of the furniture within their homes. Such displays benefits both the company by cost-effectively promoting its products and the customers by providing an enjoyable experience and low-cost furniture.