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Amsterdam - 14, 15, 16 November 2002

Flow needs fixity

Malcolm McCullough

[we've also published Malcolm McCulloughs' article that he wrote for the Archis special Flow-issue: Digital Ground: Fixity, Flow and Engagement with Context]

Flow needs fixity. This simple claim might even explain how interaction design becomes more instrumental to natural capitalism. In some big picture that this conference might help you envision, one design challenge of pervasive computing is to uphold the value of places. Good design helps people recognize and develop the many kinds of capital, human, cultural, natural, fiscal even, of which our cities are the best repository. John’s opening remarks got it just right: this isn’t the wild west here. Plenty of protocols have already been written, such as in brick, in the size of courtyards, in windows without curtains, in streets with a body of water down the middle, crossed by small arched bridges, foot candy.

But wait a second, for an important message.
Hi! You appear to walking past our shop. You should come in for just five minutes. We know what you like.

Now I can only speak for myself on this, but I don’t tend to identifiy with spaces that declare their identity to me. Give me the sites of personal and cultural histories, spaces that have been appropriated for something else altogether, spots where something was said, scenes under the law of unintended consequences, sites where I can find my tribe. Like here at Doors. But this isn’t blood soil. This tribe carries no uzis. For instead of us belongs to many places and communities, partially, by degree. How so is increasingly mediated, and so has increasingly become subject matter for design.

This session has been focused on design in context. If you have been thinking about this at all yourself, then you might let me ask you three questions.

First, what is the difference between ubiquitous computing and situated computing?

As a hint, I’ll remind you that you cannot carry all the world about in your bag. It’s important to have someplace to go. Even real nomads do not wander randomly, but instead make their rounds. To them, as to us, it’s important to have some places that you really know how to play, where life really flows.

My second question is more complicated. How important is physical context as a foundation for situated interaction design? Here I’ll cling to the coattails of the psychologists and philosophers, who claim, in so many words, that embodiment is an intrinsic property of interactions. We’ll have to get back to this.

Third, a question I wish more of my colleagues were here to consider. Can pervasive computing reawaken us to what matters most about architecture? Sorry, it isn’t about fashionable form.

To help unpack these questions, it may help to use analogies from long ago and far away.. That way the metaphor stays clear.

Upon learning the topic of this conference, my first image was of the Mississippi, a river whose flow is some twenty times that of the Rhine.
Imagine yourself there in late march of 1882, where “The water extends from Natchez on the Mississippi across to the pine hills of Lousiana a distance of seventy three miles. These are the words from the journal of a steamboat pilot, named for a depth sounding measure, Mark Twain. Not that anything can compare to what your fine nation knows about floods--or is anyone here from Dresden or Prague—but to Twain: “One does not appreciate the sight of earth until he has traveled through a flood. At sea one does not expect to look for it. But here, with fluttering leaves, shadowy forest aisles, house-tops barely visible, it is expected.” “We came to a section where there were many open fields….” Horses swim for it, Twain observed, “but a beef will stand in its tracks until with exhaustion it drops in the water and drowns.

Do floods of information ever leave you feeling similarly bovine? Have you ever beloinged to some electronic herd. How may times do you check the news each day. Would you feel like a lesser person if there were no messages waiting. Are there stickers and logos and warning labels on all your stuff? Is there muzak coming out of your gas pump handles? Do you worry that some American voters opinions are furnished? Did you know that statistically per capita we’re exposed to well over a thousand advertisments a day? I’d say it’s time to swim for it.

Back to the heartland in the 1880s. You are looking at a flow switching device that reshaped half a continents’ geography, right down to the balance of species. This is the control room of a Chicago grain elevator. As told by the environmental historian William Cronon in his 1992 book Nature’s Metropolis, which some critics rated among the best books ever written about any city, Chicago was the hub in an unprecedented space of flows. Flows of soybeans, wheat or corn. A grain elevator is a switch that directs an incoming flow of grain into a graded bin. Those of you who are experts in data abstraction might recognize how this had remarkable consequences. This began with a fundamental act of commodification: instead of buying three tons of, say, farmer Smith’s wheat from Independence, Iowa, you now bought three tons of Grade A wheat from the elevator company, without regard to its origins. But this did much more than just eliminating the impedance of so many irregular batch transactions. Famously, the elevator allowed the accumulation of reserve capacity. It allowed much more voluminous Flow. And infamously, it also enabled market speculation on that. Instead of trading wheat, people started trading symbols of wheat.

As a space, this was unprecedented because it was linked to the hot new network technology of the age: railroads. Everywhere railroads connect cities; but here they created cites. Railroads have notoriously high fixed costs, however: once they are there, something had better ride on them. So instead of the trains riding back west empty having delivered so much grain, they were priced to favour centralized volume trading in merchandise. It is no accident that Chicago’s merchandise mart was among the world’s most massive buildings, or that its tallest tower belongs to Sears, Amazon’s obvious precedent in highly centralized retailing.

Here the metaphor is of crossovers. Places emerge at crossovers between infrastructures. Trade in symbols tends to have counterparts in physical life, like stockyards. Interactions in one channel get interesting when they have effects in some other channel. What works about Amazon is that it makes something happen on a UPS truck.
Our conference asks about economies of service and flow. History tells us to look for those in good cities. Think city as switch. What is Amsterdam is not an entrepot. It’s made of transfer points. The urbanist Jane Jacobs, who realized all this long before the architects, explained that what looks like chaos to the planners, those 6 degrees of 9 guys, is sometimes a living service ecology. When you make your rounds, you are probably acting in one of these. And it’s all physically situated. If something like your favorite bakery closers, this throws off your whole routine.

Anyway, this is the heart of the matter: Flow needs fixity, like a river needs riverbanks. Intentionally fixed settings, also known as architecture, provide a necessary context for Flow.

And so we are back to my questions. How is situated computing different from ubiquitous computing? That’s simple. It piles up more, is housed an maintained better, and is adapted much more effectively in some places than others. The coupling of mobile and embedded computing works better where local protocols have been modeled, integrated, and tuned. It’s almost as if we need some sort of situation sets or stacks.. Somehow, we need to recognize the how the success of designs depends more on appropriateness than performance. Appropriateness is intrinsically a matter of context.

How so gets us to my second question. How important is physical context as a foundation for situated interaction design? To answer this in substance would take a lot more time than we have got. We would have to trace the origins of what interaction psychologists call activity theory. Instead just consider a semantic map that I have been using. Many of the words here have been badly abused. In a companion piece in the Archis magazine issue for this conference, I have laid out some common wisdom on these terms. For still one more level of detail, I have written a book called Digital Ground (which is still inching through due diligence at the MIT Press.) For deeper homework still on embodiment in interactions, I refer you to a fine book by Paul Dourish: Where the Action Is.

Because contexts are learned through actions and events, much of this understanding is based on memories of interactions. Contexts are full of props and cues, which serve as learning resources and memory devices for evolving patterns of usage. Many such cues serve as constraints: context rules some things out, so that others may receive closer attention.

Which brings us to architecture. Architecture surpasses most other technological productions at institutionalizing arrangements to the extent that they shape cognition. A culture’s perennial spatial forms reflect and perpetuate a particular cognitive background. This is why one of the best criteria for appreciating architecture is whether it is memorable. Perhaps one key to meeting the design challenge of pervasive computing is to reexamine the connections of body, memory and architecture.
I’m not talking about piles of polygons to publish, without any people in them, in glossy magazines. Instead I’m talking about arrangements you seldom notice but which have profound affect on your life. I’m wondering about ambient and haptic interfaces. I believe that design for interactivity can no longer afford to stop at the scale of the task. The more that context informs pervasive computing, the more it all seems like architecture. Information technology, like buildings before it, has become social infrastructure. This is quiet architecture, which does not compete for eyeballs but instead is experienced habitually, in a state of distraction.

Consider the alternative. The loss of tacit context has already become a problem that is costly to ignore. Contentious, scaleless, siteless, universalized, dumbed-down, haptically challenged, kinesthetically damaging, information spewing, rising all around us. There is no denying our dismay at surveillance, saturation marketing, autonomous annoyances, and relentless entertainment. Whatever our desire for a “sense of place,” we seem destined to get “places with sense.”There is no escaping the fact that the world is being flooded with digital systems. And I’m told that the Dutch hate floods.

The word “ground” originally emerged from much earlier words for “bottom.” Its most usual meaning describes some sort of foundation, such as physical preparation in the graphic arts, an theoretical basis in debate, or a mental construct in psychology. To be psychologically grounded is to have stability, resilience, and repose. To architects, at least, this sense emerges more distinctly where the ground has been modified. A horizon is more powerful in the presence of a church tower, for instance. Some of these artifices seem more natural than others. Much as takeoff and landing are the most significant moments in flying, so other connections and disconnections with other grounds highlight other experiences of design We may think nothing of turning on a water tap, but do worry at prospects of flowers that look back at you, or shops that chirp..

The expression “digital ground” is a simple shorthand for a more complex proposition. Like architecture, and increasingly a part of architecture, interaction design. must serve the basic human need for getting into place. Context not only shapes the usability of design; ideally it is the subject matter of design.


[we've also published Malcolm McCulloughs' article that he wrote for the Archis special Flow-issue: Digital Ground: Fixity, Flow and Engagement with Context]

updated Monday 31 March 2003
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