I read Bret Victor’s rant about touchscreens and interaction in late November, but kept running through my mind this morning as (bleary and zombified from lack of sleep) I replayed the events of last night.
The evening started out pleasantly, a nice opportunity to unwind after a busy month. Time to sit back and watch some more Leverage, with a nice single malt (I’m working through a bottle of the Caol Ila 12 at the moment). So I turn on the television, and turn on the PlayStation, which is our set-top-box-cum-DVD-and-Blu-Ray player (And Also It Plays Skyrim!). Usually pressing the on button rewards me with a little rising swell of violins, cellos, and violas, like an orchestra tuning, as the screen fades in to present a space-age looking green wave interface.
I pressed the button. No orchestra music ensued. Nor any space-age green wave interface. The machine seemed to be working, but no picture or sound appeared on my television.
Seemed is the key word here. For those of you who haven’t made the acquaintance of a PlayStation 3, it’s a black lozenge which looks like it might uplift a race of proto-humans into sentience / beating the crap out of one another while Also Sprach Zarathustra blasts brass in the background. No, I’m being unfair: the machine does have two buttons, one to eject the disk, and the other to turn the entire system on. There’s a blue light beside the ‘eject’ button and a green light beside the ‘on’ button.
These are the only two means the device has to accept input or offer feedback: two buttons, and two little LED lights. When God’s in his heaven and all is right with the world (and NERV), the system accepts input through wireless controllers, and offers feedback through my embarrassingly large television–plenty of bandwidth. When all is not right with the world, though, you can’t trust the system and the controller to communicate with one another, and you can’t trust the system to talk with the TV either. The aperture for information from the PlayStation shrinks from 40″ of television to those two pinprick elementary-school science project LEDs, and the control surface shrinks to those two buttons which may or may not work.
How does one troubleshoot a tiny Monolith? Apparently Monoliths respond to trigger point massage: press a spot, and hold, and wait for tension to ease. Beeps, changes in the light from the LED, all these things can be indications that what you’re doing works–or doesn’t. I spent an hour sitting on the floor in my living room sipping Scotch and pressing the power button, over and over again, in different combinations, listening for different beeps and wondering if I’d miscounted the number of seconds between them. In the end, I connected the PlayStation to a different power source, pressed both buttons at once, waited as the machine coughed up a hairball, and eventually was rewarded with a picture. I don’t know if the two-button trick had anything to do with my success; David Hume would observe no causal connection, but then, that’s Hume for you. If post hoc ergo propter hoc holds, then anything I did in that hour might have contributed, including staring at the machine with one eyebrow lofted and a dour expression on my face.
This isn’t unique to the PlayStation–I’d be in a similar spot if my laptop screen suddenly died. The funny part for me is not that our world is full of technology that is hard to comprehend or troubleshoot, but rather that (once things start breaking) the path for interaction between my brain and the colossally fast computer inside that mini-Monolith is so limited that when things go wrong I’m reduced to pressing buttons that might not even work, and it’s reduced to blinking occasionally at me with tiny heterochrome eyes. And when we manage to agree on something (a task, say, like ‘boot up to the home screen’), neither of us is quite certain what we’ve done that’s worked. That’s where we are, when interfaces fail.
Two people could end up in that situation. Or two nations. Or a goddess and her faithful. I’m remembering the Asimov book, The Gods Themselves, in which two universes (ours and another) are endangered by a theoretically infinite source of energy that bridges their worlds. For much of the book, neither side thinks the other is sentient, and so they treat one another as technical problems. Any life that evolves out of technology might not be recognizable to us, not because it will be inherently alien, but because it won’t have been designed to interface with us meat-bags.
Weird world we live in.