Codependency or Collaboration? Human-Computer Interaction: Dialogue, Conversation, Symbiosis (4)

[ 1) Introduction, 2) Dialogue or Conversation, 3) User or Used, 4) Codependency or Collaboration, 5) Productive or Experiential, 6) Conclusions]

The fig tree is pollinated only by the insect Blastophaga grossorun. The larva of the insect lives in the ovary of the fig tree, and there it gets its food. The tree and the insect are thus heavily interdependent: the tree cannot reproduce without the insect; the insect cannot eat without the tree; together, they constitute not only a viable but a productive and thriving partnership. This cooperative “living together in intimate association, or even close union, of two dissimilar organisms” is called symbiosis. (Licklider, 1960).

The above quotation is from JCR Licklider’s seminal paper Man-Computer Symbiosis (1960). I had to grit my teeth as he kept going on about man and men and computers. To distract myself from the onset of a patriarchal rage, I decided that I needed to know the precise definition of seminal. Google gave me seed of semen.

The original meaning of the word computer actually means a person who did calculations, like women in 1731 who ran a household and were advised to be clever with their husband’s wages, and whilst I am wondering about who is the tree and who the insect in this scenario of man-computer symbiosis, I am thinking that it really isn’t a good idea to aspire to have computers and people functioning as natural living organisms who cannot survive without each other. I love technology I really do, but the idea that I cannot function without it is, at the very least, disturbing.

We got a new boiler the other day complete with a smart thermostat. The smart thermostat uses an app now installed on everyone’s phone along with our locations activated to see if we are home or not and the thermostat uses the information and corrects the temperature accordingly. It will also build up patterns of our daily routine what time we get up, have a shower, take a bath, etc., so that it can be ready for us. But, only if we are home and have our phones charged. Thankfully, there are buttons on the thermostat if the WiFi goes down, apparently the earlier versions didn’t have them, and we can also log into a web browser to make changes to its routine.

Theoretically I should be thrilled, it is better than my Fitbit asking when my period is due so that it can tell me when my period is due – and since that blog, I have been given Google adverts for different sanitary products, I told you so! – or Google Nest which needs you to tell it how you want your house to run rather like my Fitbit. And, I do like data and patterns so I am interested in what it collects and what it does and if it is clever enough to respond to a cold snap or whatever.

But old habits die hard, so far we have got out an old room thermometer to check if the smart thermostat is measuring the temperature correctly as it seemed a bit high. It was right. (Just checked it, it says 25.8c the room thermometer says 22.8c quite a big difference) I guess I have just worked in computing too long and I have technology trust issues. If the Sonos is anything to go by when the WiFi goes down we are completely without music, well digital music at any rate. Last time, we got out the guitar and turned into the Vonn Trapps, I am not even joking. The alternative would be to keep other music formats and a player. But that idea doesn’t do a lot for me, I am more of a donor than a collector. I hate stuff filling up my space.

When I reader Licklider, I am reminded of ubiquitious computing rather than any other technology. I know I would rather my tech be ubiquitious than making me feel codependent on my mobile phone. All these apps for my heating, my music, my blogging, my Bikram, my electricity, my gas, it is slowly but surely turning into the precious and I feel like Gollum. I worry about my phone and can’t stand anyone touching it. Whereas ubicomp had the idea of one person, lots of computers interacting with, if I was doing it, the physiology of a person and making changes accordingly, rather than with the person’s mobile phone’s location, which strikes me as being a bit simplistic and not smart at all. (Just ‘cos you call it smart doesn’t make it smart.) And, then collecting and sharing over the Internet which causes us all to have the symptoms in the above codependent link – my phone does make me anxious and I try to please it all the time. I am forever staring at it and hoping it is doing ok, and I don’t like that feeling.

I have spent a lot of time writing about what social media can do for us, and how we can feel connected. But, in this scenario when it is not other people and it is an app, or sometimes it is other people via an app, if we are not in control, we become disconnected from ourselves and then we become addicted to the app or to the person. We give away our power and our data. The problem with these apps is that we have no control and we are barely a factor in the design. Our mobile phone is the factor in the design and it trains us to be codependent, addicted, anxious. Warmth after all is the bottom rung of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and I am staring at my bloody phone hoping for the best. This is not symbiosis, this is codependency.

But back to Licklider and his seed of semen paper, a lot of what he was trying to imagine was probably about cooperation or collaboration of the kind I have blogged about before: a space of solutions to explore, with the computer doing the grunt work and the human doing the thinking. And, I believe it is possible to do that even with apps.

In a post, David Scott Brown, looks at what Licklider suggested in Man-Computer Symbiosis and what is possible today: shared processing, memory, better input-output, different languages, etc. And, I would add, in fields where the language is precise and limited, for example, Trading think about: buy, sell, high, low, and often over the phone so applications of AI are useful and will be able to do all sorts. All the data and conversations can be recorded and used and mined. It is extremely exciting, and memory and storage is it seems infinite which would make Licklider’s mind boggle.

As an undergraduate I had to learn sparce matrices, memory was something not to waste, it was expensive. In his paper, Licklider says:

The first thing to face is that we shall not store all the technical and scientific papers in computer memory. We may store the parts that can be summarized most succinctly-the quantitative parts and the reference citations-but not the whole. Books are among the most beautifully engineered, and human-engineered, components in existence, and they will continue to be functionally important within the context of man-computer symbiosis.

Imagine his face looking at the data centres all over the world storing memes and cat pictures and abusive tweets repeatedly without checking if they have already been saved, without indexing, without any sort of check on redundancy, an endless stream of drivvel. I am sure even Tim Berners-Lee wonders sometimes about the monster he has created.

And, books take so long to write, beautifully engineered they are, we lose ourselves in them and learn from them, they take us out of ourselves in the same way our phones do, but we are addicted to our phones and to our social media to that little hit of dopamine that social media gives us, which our books don’t always do. Books are work and we are passive whereas on our phones we feel active, but because our phones are controlling our homes and training us to be codependent and anxious and powerless, it is a vicious circle of more phones, fewer books.

In these times when I look at where we are going and I am not feeling good about it, like Licklider I turn to nature, as the best designs are in nature. I also look to the wisdom of yoga. So this is what I have:

When a bee gathers pollen, it also gathers a small amount of poison along with the pollen, both get transformed into nectar in the hive. The yogis say that when we learn to take negative situations and turn them into wisdom, it means we are progressing, and becoming skilful agents of the positive.

So, even though I worry about what happens when my whole life is literally on my phone and the world’s nature reserves are all full of data centres which contain every last terrible expression of humanity, and we are so disconnected from the nature around us that the oceans are filled with plastic, and many of us are in offices far away from the natural world staring into our bloody phones, and many of us do it to create technology. Surely we can create technology to change where we are. If we want a symbiosis we must make a human-planet one not a human-computer one. I don’t care what my Fitbit says I don’t want any technology in my ovaries thank you very much.

So, with that thought and the amazing technology I have at my fingertips today, I want to share an animated gif of my cat drinking from his water fountain. Licklider said:

Those years should be intellectually the most creative and exciting in the history of mankind

And, they are. I remain hopeful that we can collect enough data on ourselves to become self-aware enough to transform it into wisdom and create something better for all humanity and our planet. In the meantime I will be enjoying watching my cat have a drink of water and I am sure Licklider in 1960 would have been just as amazed too to see my cat drinking from the fountain on a phone more powerful technologically and psychologically than he ever could have imagined. It remains to be seen whether this is progress or not.

[Part 5]

User or Used? Human-Computer Interaction: Dialogue, Conversation, Symbiosis (3)

If you torture the data enough, it will confess to anything.
– Darrell Huff, How to Lie With Statistics (1954).

[ 1) Introduction, 2) Dialogue or Conversation, 3) User or Used, 4) Codependency or Collaboration, 5) Productive or Experiential, 6) Conclusions]

In the last blog I wrote about human dialogue with a computer versus the conversation between humans via a computer. The dialogue with a computer is heavily designed whereas human conversation especially via social media has come about serendipitously. For example, Twitter came from texting which was invented by engineers as tool to test mobile phones.

This is an example of what I call serendipitous design which works by users employing systems to do what they want it to do, which is the no-function-in-structure principle and then a designer find ways to support them. In contrast, the way to create systems which support users to do their job better uses the cardinal rule: know your user with all the various tools and techniques UX designers have borrowed from anthropology. You design with your user in mind, you manage their expectations, and you have them at the front of your mind as a major factor of the design so that the system has specific goals.

But, however hard you try, with each new system or software or form of communication, you often end up changing how people work and the dialogue is less about a field of possibilities with insight, intuition, and creativity, and more about getting people to do extra stuff on top of what they already do. And, because people are keen to get in on whatever new thing is happening they buy into what I call the myth of progress and adopt new ways of working.

[pullquote]This begs the question are we creating systems for users or the used?[/pullquote] This begs the question are we creating systems for users or the used? Today, I was chatting to a roadsweeper, he told me that last year he was driving a lorry but the council’s initiative to reduce carbon emissions means that 80 lorries were taken off the road and the drivers are now out sweeping the streets on foot. He showed me his council-issue mobile phone which tracks his every move and presumably reports back to the office his whereabouts at all times. Not that he needs it, if he sits on a wall too long, local residents will phone the council to complain that he is sitting down and not working hard enough.

Tracking is not new, smart badges, invented at Xerox PARC, were trialled in the 1990s in the early days of ubiquitious computing (ubicomp). The idea was to move computers off the desktop and embed them into our infrastructure so that we interact with them without our knowledge, freeing the user from the need to learn complex systems. In the badges’ case, everyone could be located by everyone else in the building, rather like the Harry Potter Marauder’s map. However, it smacks rather too much of surveillance, especially if your boss decides you are spending too long in the toilet or by the water cooler and, that your behaviour needs to change. The road sweeper instead of a badge has a mobile phone and people who spy on him and grass him up in part because they lack context and don’t know that he is entitled to a 20 minute break.

[pullquote]Must I really run all my important ideas past my fridge?[/pullquote] But it’s not just as part of a job, we have Google Maps recording every journey we make. And yet, ubicomp was less about having a mobile device or about surveillance, it was the forerunner to the Internet of Things, the ambient life, which is there to make things easier so the fridge talks to your online shopping to say that you need more milk. But what if I go vegan? Do I need to inform my fridge first? Must I really run all my important ideas past my fridge? This is not the semiotic relationship psychologist and mathematician J.C.R. Licklider had when he had his vision of man-computer symbiosis.

I was speaking to someone the other day who monitors their partner’s whereabouts. They think it’s useful to see where the partner is at any given time and to check that the partner is where they said they would be. No biggie, just useful. I mentioned it to another person who said that they had heard several people do the same. I wonder why am I so horrified and other people just think it’s practical.

Insidious or practical? I feel we are manipulated into patterns of behaviour which maintain the status quo.

Last week, I woke up and checked my Fitbit to see how I had slept which is slightly worrying now – I never needed anything to tell me how I slept before – and there was a new box in there: Female Health. I clicked on it. It asked me about birth control, when my next period is due, how long it lasts and so on. Intrigued, I entered the requested data. The resulting box said: Your period is due in eight days. Really? I mean, really? It was wrong even though I had tinkered with the settings. So, then it had a countdown: Your period will last four more days, three more days…etc. Wrong again. And, now it is saying: Four days to most fertile days. This is so irritating. It feels like Argos, you know, how the system and the reality of you getting something you’ve ordered never quite match up. I know together me and my Fitbit can build up data patterns. Will they be insightful? Time will tell. The bits which really concern me is that it said it wouldn’t share this information to anyone, okay… but then it added that I couldn’t share this information either. What? I am guessing that it wants me to feel safe and secure. But what if I wanted to share it? What does this mean? Menstrual cycles are still taboo? I can share my steps but not my periods? My husband and I laughed about the idea of a Fitbit flashing up a Super Fertile proceed with caution message when out on date night.

[pullquote]I regularly lie in bed pretending to be asleep to see if I can fool my fitbit[/pullquote]But, it’s not just me and my Fitbit in a symbiotic relationship is it? Someone is collecting and collating all that data. What are they going to do with that information prying into me and my Fitbit’s symbiotic space? It rather feels like someone is going to start advertising in there offering birth control alternatives and sanitary protection improvements. It feels invasive, and yet I signed up to it, me the person who thinks a lot about technology and privacy and data and oversharing. And, even now as I sit here and think about my mixed feelings about my Fitbit, the idea of wearing something on my arm which only tells me the time, and not my heart rate, nor the amount of steps I am doing, feels a bit old-fashioned – I am myself am a victim of the myth of progress. I am user and used. Confession, I regularly lie in bed pretending to be asleep to see if I can fool my Fitbit. It’s changing my behaviour all the time. I never used to lie in bed pretending to be asleep.

Back in 2006, I watched Housewife 49, it was so compelling, I bought the books. Nella Last was a housewife in Barrow-in-Furness who kept a diary along with 450 other people during and after the war. It was part of the Mass Observation project set up by an anthropologist, a poet, and a filmmaker, which sounds rather like the maker culture of HCI today. They didn’t believe the newpapers reporting of the abdication and marriage of King Edward VII, so went about collecting conversation and diary entries and observations on line. Rather like today, we have social media with endless conversation and diary entries and observations. The newspapers are scrambling to keep up and curate other peoples’ tweets because they have traditionally been the only ones who shape our society through propaganda and mass media. Now, we have citizens all over the world speaking out their version. We don’t need to wait for the newspapers.

We are living through a mass observation project of our own, a great enormous social experiment and it is a question worth asking: User or used? Who is leading this? And what is their goal? And, then we have the big companies collecting all our data like Google. And, we all know the deal, we give them our data, they give us free platforms and backups and archives. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are right about the results of their research on our data, or have the right to every last piece of information to use, even if you give it freely, because there is a blurring of public and private information about me and my steps and periods and birth control.

Anthropologist Agustín Fuentes has written a thoughtful article about the misuse of terms such as biology in Google’s manifesto and consequently, the sweeping generalisations to which it comes. Fuentes says we have no way of knowing what happened before we collected data and even now as we collect data, we have to maintain our integrity and interpret it correctly by using terms and definitions accurately. Otherwise, we think that data tells the truth and stereotypes and bias and prejudices are maintained. I love the quote:

If you torture the data enough, it will confess to anything.

Information is power. Hopefully, though, there are enough anthropologists and system designers around who can stop the people who own the technology telling us what to think by saying they are having insights into our lives whilst peddling old ideas. We need to pay attention to truth and transparency before we trust so that we can have more open dialogue in the true sense of the word – an exploration of a field of possibilities – to lead to real and effective change for everyone.

Let us all be users not the used.

[Part 4]

Let’s Talk! Human-Computer Interaction: Dialogue, Conversation, Symbiosis (2)

[ 1) Introduction, 2) Dialogue or Conversation, 3) User or Used, 4) Codependency or Collaboration, 5) Productive or Experiential, 6) Conclusions]

I chuckled when I read Rebecca Solnit describing her 1995 life: She read the newspaper in the morning, listened to the news in the evening and received other news via letter once a day. Her computer was unconnected to anything. Working on it was a solitary experience.

Fast forward 20+ years and her computer, like most other people’s, feels like a cocktail party, full of chatter and fragmented streams of news and data. We are living permanently in Alvin Toffler’s information overload. We are creating more data per second than we did in a whole year in the 1990s. And yet, data or information exchange is why we communicate in the first place, so I wanted to ponder here, how do we talk using computers?

Commandments

Originally, you had to ask computer scientists like me. And, we had to learn the commands of the operating system we were using say, on a mainframe with VAX/VMS or DEC; on a networked workstation with UNIX, or a personal computer which used MS/DOS.

Then, we had to learn whatever language we needed. Some of the procedural languages I have known and loved are: Assembler, Pascal, COBOL, ADA, C/C++, Java, X/Motif, OpenGL (I know I will keep adding to these as I remember them). The declarative PROLOG, and (functional, brackety) LISP, and scripts like php, Perl, Python, Javascript. The main problem with scripts is that they don’t have strong types, so you can quite easily pass a string to an integer and cause all sorts of problems and the compiler won’t tell you otherwise. They are like a hybrid of the old and new. The old when computer time was expensive and humans cheap so we had to be precise in our instructions, and the new computers are cheap and humans cost more, so bang in some code. Don’t worry about memory or space. This is ok up to a point but if the human isn’t trained well, days may be lost.

As an undergraduate I had to learn about sparse matrices to not waste computer resources, and later particularly using C++ I would patiently wait and watch programs compile. And, it was in those moments, I realised why people had warned me that to choose computers was to choose a way of life which could drive you mad.

How things have changed. Or have they?

Dialogue

When I used to lecture human-computer interaction, I would include Ben Schneiderman’s eight golden rules of interface design. His book Designing the User Interface is now in its sixth edition.

When I read the first edition, there was a lot about dialog design as way back then there were a lot of dialog boxes (and American spelling) to get input/output going smoothly. Graphical-user interfaces had taken over from the command line with the aim of making computers easy to use for everyone. The 1990s were all about the efficiency and effectiveness of a system.

Just the other week I was browsing around the Psychology Now website, and came upon a blogpost about the psychological term locus of control. If it is internal, a person thinks that their success depends on them, if it is external their success is down to fate or luck. One of Scheidermann’s rules is: Support internal locus of control, so you make the user feel that they can successfully achieve the task they have set out to do on the computer because they trust it to behave consistently because they know what to expect next, things don’t move around like the ghost in the wall.

Schneiderman’s rules were an interpretation of a dialogue in the sense of a one-to-one conversation (dia means two, logos can mean speech) to clarify and make coherent. That is to say: One person having a dialogue with one computer by the exchange of information in order to achieve a goal.

This dialogue is rather like physicist David Bohm’s interpretation which involves a mutual quest for understanding and insight. So, the user was be guided to put in specific data via a dialog box and the computer would use that information to give new information to create understanding and insight.

This one-to-one seems more powerful nowadays with Siri, Alexa, Echo, but, it’s still a computer waiting on commands and either acting on them or searching for the results in certain areas online. Put this way, it’s not really much of a dialogue. The computer and user are not really coming to a new understanding.

Bohm said that a dialogue could involve up to 40 people and would have a facilitator, though other philosophers would call this conversation. Either way, it is reminiscent of computer supported cooperative work (CSCW) a term coined in 1984 that looked at behaviour and technology and how computers can facilitate, impair, or change collaborative activities (the medium is the message) whether people do this on the same or different time zone, in the same or different geographical locations, synchronously or asynchronously. CSCW has constantly changed and evolved especially with the World Wide Web and social media.

I remember being at an AI conference in 1996 and everyone thought that the answer to everything was just put it online and see what happened then. But just because the WWW can compress time and space it doesn’t follow that a specific problem can be solved more easily.

Monologue to Interaction

The first people online were really delivering a monologue. Web 1.0 was a read-only version of the WWW. News companies like the BBC published news like a newspaper. Some people had personal web pages on places like Geocities. Web pages were static and styled with HTML and then some CSS.

With the advent of Web 2.0, things got more interactive with backend scripting so that webpages could serve up data from databases and update pages to respond to users input data. Social media sites like Flickr, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter were all designed for users to share their own content. Newspapers and news companies opened up their sites to let users comment and feel part of a community.

But this chatter was not at all what Bohm had in mind, this is more like Solnit’s cocktail party with people sharing whatever pops in their head. I have heard people complain about the amount of rubbish on the WWW. However, I think it is a reflection of our society and the sorts of things we care about. Not everyone has the spare capacity or lofty ambition to advance humanity, some people just want to make it through the day.

Web 3.0 is less about people and more about things and semantics – the web of data. Already, the BBC uses the whole of the internet instead of a content management system to keep current. Though as a corporation, I wonder, has the BBC ever stopped to ask: How much news is too much? Why do we need this constant output?

Social media as a cocktail party

But, let’s just consider for a moment, social media as a cocktail party, what an odd place with some very strange behaviour going on:

  • The meme: At a cocktail party, imagine if someone came up to us talking like a meme: Tomorrow, is the first blank page of a 365 page book. Write a good one. We would think they had banged their head or had one shandy too many.
  • The hard sell: What if someone said: Buy my book, buy my book, buy my book in our faces non-stop?
  • The auto Twitter DM which says follow me on facebook/Instagram/etc. We’ve gone across said hi, and the person doesn’t speak but slips us a note which says: Thanks for coming over, please talk to me at the X party.
  • The rant: We are having a bit of a giggle and someone comes up and rants in our faces about politics, religion, we try to ignore them all the while feeling on a downer.
  • The retweet/share:That woman over there just said, this man said, she said, he said, look at this picture… And, if it’s us, we then say: Thanks for repeating me all over the party.

Because it is digital, it becomes very easy to forget that we are all humans connected together in a social space. The result being that there’s a lot of automated selling, news reporting, and shouting going on. Perhaps it’s less of a cocktail party more of a market place with voices ringing out on a loop.

Today, no one would say that using a computer is a solitary experience, it can be noisy and distracting, and it’s more than enough to drive us mad.

How do we get back to a meaningful dialogue? How do we know it’s time to go home when the party never ends, the market never closes and we still can’t find what we came for?

[Part 3]

Virtual Presence: Where do we go when we go online?

Steve Mann, Augmented Reality Man

I spent most of Sunday morning staring into the eyes of spiritual teacher Eckart Tolle. I was in my garden in London and he was at home in Vancouver giving a SoundsTrue webinar on The Power of Presence. Tolle was demonstrating to me and the other 100,000+ people on the webinar that it can be useful to connect with another human being who is free of mind, even on a screen.

Tolle’s demonstration of thought-less presence was a continuation of The Power of Now in which he discusses that we only have the now. Nothing happens in the past or future, our senses, perceptions, feelings and thoughts all make up the now. He extended this on Sunday by defining presence as being aware of ourselves as a perceiving consciousness deep in the essence of now.

And this, reminded me of a question I have been pondering for some time now: Where do we go when we go online?

As Tolle talked about the surface of now whilst I was staring into the screen at him, I was conscious of the external world outside of me and my focus on him on a screen, that is to say I was peripherally aware of the garden I was in, I could hear the birds tweet, the traffic go by and what he was saying all at once. Then, when he was telling me to feel my breath and my inner body aliveness I focused completely on my presence whilst Tolle said that I was entering the now, the external or surface now, and then the internal or deep now of my unseen thoughts and feelings.

And, this was all working until I began to wonder about presence, our physical presence like mine in the garden, and our virtual presence when we are connecting to the Internet at which point I missed what he was saying, I was off wondering:

Where do we go in the space? Is it a connection to our own thoughts and inner fire as I discussed in Lighting the Fire and The Space Between Us? Is it a connection to a collective consciousness as Jung believed and as Deepak Chopra believes? Or, is the Internet an external world of ideas as Plato postulated?

Tolle during his webinar mentioned that when he introduces language to describe presence as consciousness it creates a duality which reminded me of Decartes and his theory of Cartesian Dualism of the mind and body as separate. But, some scientists and artists don’t feel this way and think that our embodiment needs an upgrade as our bodies don’t keep up with our ever expanding technology which expands our minds.

The Internet is a medium which expands our capacity for thought, for ideas, for information and it demonstrates perfectly how the medium is the message. This medium – the Internet – expands us and influences how the message is perceived and so, creates a symbiotic relationship.

We talk about going online or being online. And when we talk about the Internet, which after all is just a network of computers, we talk about it as a space which we navigate, we surf, we go back or forward in. Is it a mental space for us? If so what happens to our physical? Where is our presence?

I have been online and had access to the Internet for over two decades now and I have often gotten lost online – not so much in hyperspace – but lost myself completely, lost all sense of time and space, or specifically an idea of where I was, during say a unix talk which would split the screen in two and you could see both sides of the conversation, or during chats on Facebook Messenger, or DM on Twitter, when both parties have treated this asynchronous feature as a chat in real time. According to Tolle this is because I have identified with, in this case, the chat, I’ve let them/it take me over and I am longer in the now. I have been drawn into unconsciousness to which I would add I have been drawn into the collective unconsciousness. But then most of us have had this experience when reading a book or in the cinema well before we all went online.

Research into literary realism – a 19th century art movement which we might call sociology nowadays – has established that human comprehension and language cannot encompass reality in its entirety. We may have a partial understanding which comes from our experiences and senses in the now, but most of what we understand is largely based in concepts, or mental representations.

So, since we are limited by our senses, perceptions and feelings which make up the now, it makes sense that we are easily led and go elsewhere, we fall into the collective unconsciousness. A while back I talked about flow, and the gap and falling into other people or into an online video, or argument in the Moments in modern technology blog as I couldn’t quite figure out if technology was causing us to miss moments or not – were we absent or present? Tolle says that being conscious of our presence in a moment is the way we feel super alive. Being taken over by thoughts and triggers is being absent.

In the field of literary theory, absence and presence has long been debated and understood that people can be made to believe that they are somewhere they are not, or in the presence of people and objects that do not actually exist. Our suspension of disbelief as Coleridge put it whilst reading text on a page, allows us to go online and enter virtual spaces.

Virtual architecture and design creates social norms in virtual spaces which affects how people use and communicate in a given space for they follow the cues offered. So, if an online group meet in a virtual lecture with a lecturer at the front they will behave quite differently to say if they meet in a virtual coffee shop, and it will impact how a student learns.

As I said in Games,Storytelling and Ludology, the more the environment demands of us, along with giving our senses all the information they need – sight, sound, touch (haptic feedback) the more complete it feels. And our minds, don’t really know, or care if it is real or not.

Sculpted virtual environments aside, even in text-only chats, we still lose ourselves online. I believe it is our desire to connect and experience and be experienced which really drives our minds, not the technology. It is our willingness to want to reach out. We are hardwired for connection and shared experiences are a quick way to connect. As Tolle says: When you are really present you are not looking past or future or comparing you are no longer a person… you and the now are one and the same… you can understand experientially or conceptually.

The yogis says that experience can be Nirguna (formless) and Saguna (with form), and I see now that this means, if we give it form, we break it down conceptually and then it is just a partial understanding. A formless experiential experience expands us and influences us.

I think that is what we do online, we experience experientially in the now, and when we come back from online, like on TV after an ad break, a presenter will say: Welcome back, as if we’d been somewhere, perhaps it is then when we interpret conceptually.

If we, as Tolle recommends, learn to cultivate a stillness inside us against which everything happens then it is will be easier to retain a sense of self online, a sense of presence, and our virtual and physical will be aligned.

However, if you are like me, I lose myself everywhere and anywhere and yet I am often told by people that I have great presence, just be reassured I’ve gotten lost a million times online, but I always find my way home.

The ghosts of AI

I fell in love with Artificial Intelligence (AI) back in the 1990s when I went to Aberdeen University as a post-graduate Stalker, even though I only signed up because it had an exchange program which meant that I could study in Paris for six months.

And, even though they flung me and my pal out of French class for being dreadful students ( je parle le C++), and instead of Paris, I ended up living in Chambéry (which is so small it mentions the launderette in the guidebook), it was a brilliant experience, most surprisingly of all, because it left me with a great love of l’intelligence artificielle: Robotics, machine learning, knowledge based systems.

AI has many connotations nowadays, but back in 1956 when the term was coined, it was about thinking machines and how to get computers to perform tasks which humans, i.e., life with intelligence, normally do.

The Singularity is nigh

Lately, I have been seeing lots of news about robots and AI taking over the world and the idea that the singularity – that moment when AI becomes all powerful it self-evolves and changes human existence – is soon. The singularity is coming to get us. We are doomed.

Seriously, the singularity is welcome round my place to hold the door open for its pal and change my human existence any day of the week. I have said it before: Yes please dear robot, come round, manage my shopping, wait in for Virgin media because they like to mess me about, and whilst you are there do my laundry too, thank you.

And, this got me thinking. One article said the singularity is coming in 2029 which reminded me of all those times the world was going to end according to Nostradamus, Old Mother Shipton, the Mayan Calendar, and even the Y2K bug. As we used to say in Chambéry : Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. To be honest, we never, ever said that, but my point is that our fears don’t change, even when dressed up in a tight shiny metallic suit. Nom du pipe!

We poor, poor humans we are afraid of extinction, afraid of being overwhelmed, overtaken, and found wanting. True to form I will link to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and repeat that we need to feel safe and we need to feel that we are enough. Our technology may be improving – not fast enough as far as I am concerned – but our fears, our hopes, our dreams, our aspirations remain the same. As I say in the link above, we have barely changed since Iron Age times, and yet we think we have because we buy into the myth of progress.

We frighten ourselves with our ghosts. The ghosts which haunt us: In the machine, in the wall, and in our minds where those hungry ghosts live – the ones we can never satisfy.

The ghost in the machine

The ghost in the machine describes the Cartesian view of the mind–body relationship, that the mind is a ghost in the machine of the body. It is quoted in AI, because after all it is a philosophical question: What is the mind? What is intelligence? And, it remains a tantalising possibility, especially in fiction that somewhere in the code of a machine or a robot, there is a back door, or cellular automata – a thinking part, which like natural intelligence is able to create new thoughts, new ideas, as it develops. The reality is that the guy who first came up with the term talked about the human ability to destroy itself with its constant repeating patterns in the arena of political–historical dynamics but used the brain as the structure. The idea that there is a ghost in the machine is an exciting one which is why fiction has hung onto it like a willo the wisp and often uses it as a plot device, for example, in the Matrix (there’s lots of odd bits of software doing their own thing) and I, Robot (Sunny has dreams).

Arthur C Clarke talked about it when he said that technology is magic – something, I say all the time, not least of all, because it is true. When I look back to the first portable computer I used and today, the power of the phone in my hand, well, it is just magic.

That said, we want the ghost in the machine to do something, to haunt us, to surprise us, to create for us, because we love variety, discoverability, surprise, and the fact that we are so clever, we can create life. Actually we do create life, mysteriously, magically, sexily.

The ghost in the wall

The ghost in the wall is that feeling that things change around us with little understanding. HCI prof, Alan Dix uses the term here. If HCI experts don’t follow standards and guidelines, the user ends up confused in an app without consistency which gives the impression of a ghost in the wall moving things, ‘cos someone has to be moving the stuff, right?

We may love variety, discoverability and surprise, but it has to be logical to fit within certain constraints and within the consistency of an interface with which we are interacting, so that we say: I am smart, I was concentrating, but yeah, I didn’t know that that would happen at all, in the same we do after an excellent movie, and we leave thrilled at the cleverness of it all.

Fiction: The ghost of the mind

Fiction has a lot to answer for. Telling stories is how we make sense of the world, they shape society and culture, and they help us feel truth.

Since we started storytelling, the idea of artificial beings which were given intelligence, or just came alive, is a common trope. In Greek mythology, we had Pygmalion, who carved a woman from ivory and fell in love with her so Aphrodite gave her life and Pervy Pygmalion and his true love lived happily ever after. It is familar – Frankinstein’s bride, Adam’s spare rib, Mannequin (1987). Other variations less womeny-heterosexy focused include Pinocchio, Toy Story, Frankinstein, Frankenweenie, etc.

There are two ways to go: The new life and old life live happily ever after and true love conquers all (another age old trope), or there is the horror that humans have invented something they can’t control. They messed with nature, or the gods, they flew too close to the sun. They asked for more and got punished.

It is control we are after even though we feel we are unworthy, and if we do have control we fear that we will become power crazed. And then, there are recurring themes about technology such as humans destroying the world, living in a post-apocalyptic world or dystopia, robots taking over, mind control (or dumbing down), because ultimately we fear the hungry ghost.

The hungry ghost

In Buddhism, the hungry ghosts are when our desires overtake us and become unhealthy, and insatiable, we become addicted to what is not good for us and miss out on our lives right now.

There is also the Hungry Ghosts Festival which remembers the souls who were once on earth and couldn’t control their desires so they have gotten lost in the ether searching, constantly unsatisfied. They need to be fed so that they don’t bother the people still on earth who want to live and have good luck and happy lives. People won’t go swimming because the hungry ghosts will drown them, dragging them down with their insatiable cravings.

Chinese character gui meaning ghost (thanks @john_sorensen_AU)

In a lovely blog the Chinese character above which represents ghost but in English looks like gui, which is very satisfying given this is a techyish blog, is actually nothing to do with ghosts or disincarnate beings, it is more like a glitch in the matrix – a word to explain when there is no logical explanation. It also explains when someone behaves badly – you dead ghost. And, perhaps is linked to when someone ghosts you, they behave badly. No, I will never forgive you, you selfish ghost. Although when someone ghosts you they do the opposite to what you wish a ghost would do, which is hang around, haunt you, and never leave you. When someone ghosts you, you become the ghost.

And, for me the description of a ghost as a glitch in the matrix works just as well for our fears, especially about technology and our ghosts of AI – those moments when we fear and when we don’t know why we are afraid. Or perhaps we do really? We are afraid we aren’t good enough, or perhaps we are too good and have created a monster. It would be good if these fears ghosted us and left us well alone.

Personally, my fears go the other way. I don’t think the singularity will be round to help me any time soon. I am stuck in the Matrix doing the washing. What if I’m here forever? Please come help me through it, there’s no need to hold the door – just hold my hand and let me know there’s no need to be afraid, even if the singularity is not coming, change is, thankfully it always is, it’s just around the corner.