Dunne and Raby: Placebo Project

The work of Dunne and Raby (warning: javascript resize) was some of the first that I came across as I navigated away from straight cognitive science. Shortly after I arrived as a research assistant in the Kanwisher Lab, I attended a lecture by the two of them in the architecture department at MIT. My only experience with academic talks were those of the scientific variety, so to attend a design and art presentation, so shortly after finishing my undergraduate studies, and even though I was extremely interested in this area, was a challenging experience. I had to turn off the internal censor shouting words that were appropriate, but the meaning of which I didn’t yet understand in this new domain: evidence, hypothesis, experiment. Where were they? There were no graphs to guide me; I didn’t know which signposts in their discourse to use as markings of appropriateness. I had yet to engage with these words outside of the “scientific method” and had no way of really evaluating what I had seen and heard. The methods were foreign to one trained entirely in the oft-believed, and appropriately criticized, hypothesis-experiment-results-repeat series of steps.

I left slightly miffed, realizing that I had seen something quite provocative, but still unable to recognize or realize what it was that made it so interesting.

Fast-forward to spring 2005. I’m taking a course at the Media Lab when I return to the work of Dunne and Raby yet again, this time for my ætherspace project and an exploration of “Hertzian Space”. I realized then, as I do now, the importance of our psychological perceptions of the electromagnetic world. Just as it’s relatively immaterial whether or not we are really affected by EM radiation from our objects, if we have the perception that we are, that will radically effect how we interact with these new intruders into our environment. While scientific studies attempt to determine causes and effects, we still must deal how we conceptualize the consequences of regular interactions with objects whose mechanisms most are at a loss to understand.

Fall 2006, and I’m back. Back to the project that brought me to ætherspace, their Placebo Project (link to the de-framed page). This time my concern is agency: what are our conceptions of agency when faced with new computational objects? Here is not the right place to go into the history of this question, but I’ve returned to this work to understand how people understood the mechanisms of the objects in the Placebo Project. Unfortunately, the excellent book that was a result, Design Noir, is currently checked-out at our architecture library, so I cannot quote extensively.

There are some extremely pertinent and interesting things to note. Consider the GPS Table, an item that displays its exact latitude and longitude when it can reach the GPS satellites, and “lost” when it cannot. In the words of one of the people who lived with the table for some time, “I’m not quite sure why I was shocked. I thought, ‘Bloody hell, the poor thing’s lost.’” His choice of words is extremely revealing: calling the table by the pitiful phrase “poor thing” suggests a type of deep connection with the object, for reasons that he is “not quite sure”. So what’s going on here? All we have is a table with a two-line LCD screen, and a human is making an identification with it and using language that might be, in other situations, directed at a living thing (such as an animal). Is it simply that we do not have the language to describe non-animate objects dispassionately? Are we merely grafting onto our discourse means and terms that we would not use if we had another way to describe things? Or is there a consideration of the human by the human but from the point of view of the object? Take our concept of “lost”. For this to have any effect on the person here, he must understand the predicament of the thing “lost”, and to do so, he would have to place himself in the metaphorical “position” of the thing lost. Doing so, he would understand that the response to such a situation is often a desire to help the thing (but usually, a human) that is lost. Here the remedy is simple: place the table in a location that has a line-of-sight to the GPS satellites (simple to say in words, but not so simple to do without a knowledge of wireless communications and propagation paths). But to return to our question: in order for these reasoning steps to occur, the human must already be considering that the table can experience being “lost”, which would require a conception that the table has at least some particularities of “agency” that enables it (the table) to “want” a change in the situation of “lost”.

So even in this situation, with a rather simple electronic object, the human interacting with the object does not objectify it; rather, he identifies with the object’s agency. Yet this agency is not actually “there” in the table itself; there is nothing in the circuitry of the table to give it this ability. No, the “agency” is still only in the mind of the human, but that is no matter; it is this agency which influences the behaviour of the human in this (and other) situations. And since our language is our language, we cannot speculate as to what would have “really” happened if we had other, separate, ways to describe non-animate objects. And we were able to unpack this all from two sentences by the participant!

My goal now is to figure out what about this table made it so wonderful at drawing this sort of response from the participant in the project. I have some ideas, but those will have to wait for another post, I believe.

Thoughts about these ideas and criticisms of my reasoning are greatly appreciated.

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