Talking to a computer is weird for me and while I know that’s a part of getting older and resisting change, the idea that it may not be weird for some seems worrying. The computer you can talk to is not invisible but a visible human-imitating form like The Thing. It becomes a presence that can’t be ignored because its usefulness as a tool is so general that you rely on it for tasks, not a task, the void felt in its absence should highlight how much of a presence it has. Computers are machines of potential. A hammer is a hammer, but a computer is whatever you need it to be.
Why should a computer be anything like a human being? Are airplanes like birds, typewriters like pens, alphabets like mouths, cars like horses? Are human interactions so free of trouble, misunderstanding, and ambiguity that they represent a desirable computer interface goal? Further, it takes a lot of time and attention to build and maintain a smoothly running team of people, even a pair of people. A computer that I must talk to, give commands to, or have a relationship with (much less be intimate with), is a computer that is too much the centre of attentionMark Weiser — The World Is Not A Desktop from January 1994 ACM Interactions magazine https://dl.acm.org/doi/10.1145/174800.174801
Mark Weiser’s original ubiquitous computing ideas seem to rely on the interface as the main point of concern, where any attention directed to the interface is considered an unnecessary prevention of the tool itself becoming invisible.
But when we’re using a computer the interface isn’t the centre of attention as much as the potential of the computer is. When you are aware of it, potential is attractive and powerful. Computing potential is powerful in how generally useful it is. General usefulness is harder to ignore and its absence is easier to notice.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to understand why it’s particularly hard for me to focus on tasks while on a computer. I noticed it was not the actual distractions from interfaces, like notifications or alerts, that broke my focus — they are easy to turn off. What hurt me more was the potential for distraction that lies behind the interface. Distraction is not always helpful but as a form of escape, it is useful.
A computer connected to the internet is the embodiment of potential. That connectivity, as potential for distraction, is always ready if you need it. Any challenging activity is haunted by that potential to escape it.
I’ve found that potential is more present and more powerful if the interface requires less effort from you. The effort you exert in using something also binds you to that thing you are doing. For example, a paperback book needs to be held up and open, otherwise it will close and fall. The interface of a paperback demands constant engagement with your hands.
Reading a text on a computer screen does not require active engagement from anything other than your eyes. It requires occasional input to tap the space bar or scroll the mouse wheel but your hands play no part in holding the words up in front of your face.
The less an interface requires from us the more it invites us to split our attention — to never give all of it to one thing at a time.
Mark Weiser is right when he says the interface shouldn’t be the centre of attention but it doesn’t mean the interface should be passive and invisible. Interfacing is not just a way of doing, it’s an interaction. Every interaction involves actions that can directly and indirectly influence the exchange. Like facial expressions, hand gestures, or tone of voice in oral conversation.
If we reduce the word “friction” to its negative connotation, we think that holding a book up, and open, is some kind of unnecessary and laborious part of reading. We ignore the subtle values that come from increased involvement in an activity and we only see the positivist view of wasted energy and unnecessarily occupied appendages.
It’s easy to assume the friction between us and computers is in the effort we exert in using them, but I think it’s more nuanced than that.
When effort is required from us because of a shortcoming of the technology, such as learning how to speak in a way computers can understand, our efforts are less linked to what we need and more to how we get it. But the same is true of keyboards as an interface. So what’s the problem?
Keyboards wouldn’t exist without typewriters and computers, they are input devices. We don’t use them for face-to-face conversation with friends. To learn how to type is to learn something new, not to modify that which is normally used in some other context.
This means the keyboard can almost disappear once a certain level of skill is achieved because we know keyboards are a computer thing. We’ll only use them with a computer and so we don’t need to consider if they are plugged into a computer or plugged into a person each time we use them.
Our voice as an interface method with computers is shared as a method between people. As long as we continue to talk to people, the voice interface with computers can’t become invisible because we’ll always have to be aware of the need to switch context.
Maybe this is what Mark means when he says “VR, by taking the gluttonous approach to user interfaces design, continues to put the interface at the centre of attention” because in VR everything you do is a modified version of something you do in the physical context.