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Irrationality and Human-Computer Interaction

When the New York Times let it be known that their election-night meter—that dial displaying the real-time odds of a Democratic or Republican win—would return for Georgia’s 6th congressional district runoff after its notorious November 2016 debut, you could almost hear a million stiff drinks being poured. Enabled by the live streaming of precinct-by-precinct election data, the dial twitches left and right, pauses, and then spasms into another movement. It’s a jittery addition to our news landscape and the source of countless nightmares, at least for Democrats.

We want to look away, and yet we stare at the meter for hours, hoping, praying. So much so that, perhaps late at night, we might even believe that our intensity and our increasingly firm grip on our iPhones might affect the outcome, ever so slightly.

Which is silly, right?

*          *          *

Thirty years ago I opened a bluish-gray metal door and entered a strange laboratory that no longer exists. Inside was a tattered fabric couch, which faced what can only be described as the biggest pachinko machine you’ve ever seen, as large as a giant flat-screen TV. Behind a transparent Plexiglas front was an array of wooden pegs. At the top were hundreds of black rubber balls, held back by a central gate. At the bottom were vertical slots.

A young guy—like me, a college student—sat on the couch in a sweatshirt and jeans. He was staring intently at the machine. So intently that I just froze, not wanting to get in the way of his staring contest with the giant pinball machine.

He leaned in. Then the balls started releasing from the top at a measured pace and they chaotically bounced around and down the wall, hitting peg after peg until they dropped into one of the columns at the bottom. A few minutes later, those hundreds of rubber balls had formed a perfectly symmetrical bell curve in the columns.

The guy punched the couch and looked dispirited.

I unfroze and asked him the only phrase I could summon: “Uh, what’s going on?”

“I was trying to get the balls to shift to the left.”

“With what?”

With my mind.”

*          *          *

This was my first encounter with the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research program, or PEAR. PEAR’s stated mission was to pursue an “experimental agenda of studying the interaction of human consciousness with sensitive physical devices, systems, and processes,” but that prosaic academic verbiage cloaked a far cooler description: PEAR was on the hunt for the Force.

This was clearly bananas, and also totally enthralling for a nerdy kid who grew up on Star Wars. I needed to know more. Fortunately that opportunity presented itself through a new course at the university: “Human-Computer Interaction.” I’m not sure I fully understood what it was about before I signed up for it.

The course was team-taught by prominent faculty in computer science, psychology, and engineering. One of the professors was George Miller, a founder of cognitive psychology, who was the first to note that the human mind was only capable of storing seven-digit numbers (plus or minus two digits). And it included engineering professor Robert Jahn, who had founded PEAR and had rather different notions of our mental capacity.

*          *          *

One of the perks of being a student in Human-Computer Interaction was that you were not only welcome to stop by the PEAR lab, but you could also engage in the experiments yourself. You would just sign up for a slot and head to the basement of the engineering quad, where you would eventually find the bluish-gray door.

By the late 1980s, PEAR had naturally started to focus on whether our minds could alter the behavior of a specific, increasingly ubiquitous machine in our lives: the computer. Jahn and PEAR’s co-founder, Brenda Dunne, set up several rooms with computers and shoebox-sized machines with computer chips in them that generated random numbers on old-school red LED screens. Out of the box snaked a cord with a button at the end.

You would book your room, take a seat, turn on the random-number generator, and flip on the PC sitting next to it. Once the PC booted up, you would type in a code—as part of the study, no proper names were used—to log each experiment. Then the shoebox would start showing numbers ranging from 0.00 to 2.00 so quickly that the red LED became a blur. You would click on the button to stop the digits, and then that number was recorded by the computer.

The goal was to try to stop the rapidly rotating numbers on a number over 1.00, to push the average up as far as possible. Over dozens of turns the computer’s monitor showed how far that average diverged from 1.00.

That’s a clinical description of the experiment. In practice, it was a half-hour of tense facial expressions and sweating, a strange feeling of brow-beating a shoebox with an LED, and some cursing when you got several sub-1.00 numbers in a row. It was human-computer interaction at its most emotional.

Jahn and Dunne kept the master log of the codes and the graphs. There were rumors that some of the codes—some of the people those codes represented—had discernable, repeatable effects on the random numbers. Over many experiments, they were able to make the average rise, ever so slightly but enough to be statistically significant.

In other words, there were Jedis in our midst.

Unfortunately, over several experiments—and a sore thumb from clicking on the button with increasing pressure and frustration—I had no luck affecting the random numbers. I stared at the graph without blinking, hoping to shift the trend line upwards with each additional stop. But I ended up right in the middle, as if I had flipped a coin a thousand times and gotten 500 heads and 500 tails. Average.

*          *          *

Jahn and Dunne unsurprisingly faced sustained criticism and even some heckling, on campus and beyond. When PEAR closed in 2007, all the post-mortems dutifully mentioned the editor of a journal who said he could accept a paper from the lab “if you can telepathically communicate it to me.” It’s a good line, and it’s tempting to make even more fun of PEAR these many years later.

The same year that PEAR closed its doors, the iPhone was released, and with it a new way of holding and touching and communicating with a computer. We now stare intently at these devices for hours a day, and much of that interaction is—let’s admit it—not entirely rational.

We see those three gray dots in a speech bubble and deeply yearn for a good response. We open the stocks app and, in the few seconds it takes to update, pray for green rather than red numbers. We go to the New York Times on election eve and see that meter showing live results, and more than anything we want to shift it to the left with our minds.

When asked by what mechanism the mind might be able to affect a computer, Jahn and Dunne hypothesized that perhaps there was something like an invisible Venn diagram, whereby the ghost in the machine and the ghost in ourselves overlapped ever so slightly. A permeability between silicon and carbon. An occult interface through which we could ever so slightly change the processes of the machine itself and what it displays to us seconds later.

A silly hypothesis, perhaps. But we often act like it is all too real.

Ken Burns and Mrs. Jennings

As the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, William Adams, noted at the beginning of last night’s Jefferson Lecture, Ken Burns was an extraordinarily apt choice to deliver this honorary talk in the celebratory 50th year of the Endowment. Tens of millions of Americans have viewed his landmark documentaries on the Civil War, jazz, baseball, and other topics pivotal to U.S. history and culture.

Burns began his talk with a passionate defense of the humanities. The humanities and history, by looking at bygone narratives and especially by listening to the voices of others from the past—and showing their faces in Burns’s films, as Chairman Adams helpfully highlighted—prod us to understand the views of others, and thus, we hope, expand our capacity for tolerance. We have indeed lost the art of seeing through others’ eyes—perspective-taking—to disastrous results online and off. It was good to hear Burns’s fiery rhetoric on this subject.

His sense that the past is still so very present, especially the deep scar of slavery and racism, was equally powerful. As Burns reminded us, the very lecture he was giving was named after a Founder and American president who owned a hundred people and who failed to liberate even one during his lifetime.

While there were many grand and potent themes to Burns’s lecture, and many beautiful and haunting phrases, in my mind the animating and central element in his talk was a personal story, and a person. And it is worth thinking more about that smaller history to understand Burns’s larger sense of history. (Before reading further, I encourage you to read the full lecture, which is now up on the NEH website.)

* * *

When Burns was just a small boy, only 9 years old, his mother became terminally ill with cancer, and the family needed help as their lives unraveled. His father hired Mrs. Jennings, an African-American woman who was literally from the other side of the tracks in Newark, Delaware. Burns clearly bonded strongly with Mrs. Jennings; he loved her as a “surrogate mother” and someone who loved him and stood strong for him in a time of great stress and uncertainty.

Then came a moment that haunts Burns to this day, a moment he admits to thinking about every week for over 50 years. His father took a job at the University of Michigan, in part so that his deteriorating wife could get medical care at the university hospital. The family would have to move. They packed up, and on the way out of town, took a final stop at Mrs. Jennings’ house. As Burns recounts the moment:

She greeted us warmly, as she always did, but she was also clearly quite upset and worried to see us go, concerned about our family’s dire predicament. Just as we were about to head off for the more than twelve-hour drive to our new home, Mrs. Jennings leaned into the back of the car to give me a hug and kiss goodbye. Something came over me. I suddenly recoiled, pressed myself into the farthest corner of the back seat, and wouldn’t let her.

Burns sees this moment, which he had never recounted publicly before last night and which immediately hushed the audience, as a horrific emergence of racism in his young self. Internalizing the “n-word” that was used all around him in the early 1960s, he couldn’t bring himself, at this crucial moment, to simply lean forward and hug and kiss Mrs. Jennings.

In this way, and in this story, Ken Burns’s Jefferson lecture was, perhaps more than anything, a plea for forgiveness. In the largely white audience, you could sense, at that tense, core moment of his talk, the self-recognition of those in the darkness, who knew that they, too, had had moments like Ken’s—a deep-seated inability to treat a black friend or colleague or neighbor with the humanity they deserved and desired.

* * *

Upon further reflection, I think there is something in the story of Ken Burns and Mrs. Jennings that Burns may not have fully articulated, but that, even through his painful self-criticism, he may understand.

That moment of “recoil” is, I believe, more emotionally complex. Undoubtedly it includes the terrible mark of racism that Burns identified. But he was also a 9-year-old boy whose mother was dying, who was being driven away from his childhood home, the address of which he still remembers by heart as a 62 year old.

Young children respond to intensely stressful moments in ways that adults cannot understand. Surely Ken’s recoil also included feelings of not wanting to leave, not wanting to acknowledge that he was being driven away from all that he knew, with another, certain, grim loss on the horizon. Perhaps most of all, Ken didn’t want to be separated from someone he deeply loved as a human being: Mrs. Jennings. Kids don’t have the same coping mechanisms or situational behavior that adults have. Sometimes when they don’t want to affirm the horror of their present, they retreat into themselves. I hope that Ken Burns can let that possibility in, and begin to forgive himself, as much as he wishes that Mrs. Jennings and his father, who lashed out at him for his recoil, could return and do the forgiving.

If he can begin to forgive himself and recognize the complex feelings of that moment, then the story of Ken Burns and Mrs. Jennings can serve as both an example of the cruel, ongoing impact of racism in the United States, and also as a source of how change happens, albeit all too slowly. Surely Ken Burns’s unconscious reflection on this moment with Mrs. Jennings has been writing itself, subliminally, into his documentaries, and through them, into our own views of American history.

Burns mentioned toward the end of the lecture how African-American pioneers and geniuses such as Louis Amstrong and Jackie Robinson changed the racial views of many white Americans. But just as important, and perhaps more so, are the more complicated, daily interactions such as that between boyhood Ken Burns and Mrs. Jennings, experiences in which cold, dehumanizing stereotyping battles warm, humanizing sentiment. It takes constant work from us all for the latter to win.

[With thanks to my always insightful wife for our conversation about the lecture.]

Frank Turner: A Great Mentor, Scholar, and Friend

“History isn’t rocket science.” I distinctly remember Frank Turner, my mentor at Yale, saying that to me in 1995 over a beer on Charlotte Street in London after a day looking at documents in the Royal Society archive. “What did you see?” What I had seen was a number of documents showing a famous mathematician trying to solve religious problems using equations. “Well, then that’s what you have to write about.”

Frank suddenly passed away today from a stroke at 66—devastating, incredibly sad news. I’ll miss him for so many reasons—most of all, he was just such a nice, caring individual, and so whip-smart about many things. I’m still deeply influenced by his pragmatic view of history, not as a complex theoretical realm but quite frequently as a process of simply recognizing what’s in front of you.

Frank’s body of work showed the power of simply recognizing what was in front of you. His first book vaulted past stale discussions about the war between science and religion in the Victorian era by showing that there were many intellectuals caught between the two supposed poles—something that should have been obvious to any close reader of Victorian thought but which had been denied by decades of “war between science and religion” talk.

A word that Frank used a lot was “unnoticed”—that is, the past is often lying in plain sight, but our preconceptions prevent us from seeing it. In his groundbreaking essay “The Victorian Crisis of Faith and the Faith That Was Lost,” he noticed that this crisis began during an intensification of religion through evangelicalism, the language of which (a return to purity, an emphasis on reform) was soon turned against existing faith. In other works he noticed the strong effect that debt and bankruptcy had on the supposedly detached thought of Victorian thinkers—they were human, after all.

Frank had seriously good taste in the important things in life: ideas (Hume), art (J.M.W. Turner), architecture (Louis Kahn), the landscape (rural New England, the Cotswolds), wine (BurgundyBordeaux), dogs (English setters). But he approached these pleasures not as landed gentry or a stereotypical Yale professor but as someone who had come from modest means in Ohio and had stumbled, almost giddily, on the joys of history and the senses. He had a historic 300-year-old saltbox in Guilford, Connecticut, that he had tastefully modified (just before the preservationists disallowed such changes) to hold a substantial personal library and writing room, and a large kitchen for dinner parties. Frank had a great laugh, and was not stingy with it. He could tell you rather specifically why a painting was great and then just stand back and smile at its greatness.

Frank was so shrewd about so many things—he had a deft understanding of Victorian history, of modern intellectual history, the workings of the academy, human nature. He also had several major phases to his career, including a stint as provost and more recently the director of the Beinecke rare books library at Yale. Just two months ago he was appointed the overall University Librarian.

I had been talking to him for the last few years about the future of libraries and the humanities in a digital age. A decade ago I think he was slightly depressed that I had veered into the digital humanities. But he called me after seeing Google Books for the first time—what was in front of him—and immediately got that this was something he had to understand better. I have no doubt that he would have been an incredible librarian who would have honored tradition while also moving one of the world’s great library systems forward; yet another facet to this tremendous loss.

This fall Frank and I were having a long back-and-forth about the future of peer review, some of which I may redact and publish in this space. I wish we could have finished that discussion, and that I could have gotten more of his advice, on this and so many other topics.

For now, I just want to honor Frank Turner, may he rest in peace. He was a great mentor, scholar, and friend. I will deeply miss him.

Digital Campus #43 – Summer Wrap-up

Hopefully it doesn’t sound this way to our audience, but it’s harder than one might imagine to put together a regular podcast. Due to our very busy schedules and some happy and sad events over the past few months, Mills, Tom, and I just weren’t able to find the time this summer to record a Digital Campus. But we return with renewed energy this week with episode 43 of the podcast, covering a lot of news and views. Get ready for commentary on the Google Books settlement, Google Wave, new ebook readers, and the real-time web as the Digital Campus podcast sharpens its #2 pencils for the new school year. [Subscribe to this podcast.]

Future Perfect Plenary Links

I’m giving the plenary at the “Future Perfect” conference today in Waco, TX. For the audience, here are some links:

Scanner-Ready

scanner

Here in Washington, the compound adjective of the moment is “shovel-ready.” That’s the description of stimulus projects that are ready to go on the day President-elect Obama takes office. For the most part, as the term implies, it refers to large infrastructure projects like the building of new roads or bridges.

But one obvious project that’s also ready to go on day one is the scanning of the contents of the Library of Congress. Today there’s a ceremonial event at the LC to showcase the thousands of books already scanned as part of the LC’s partnership with the Internet Archive, and to highlight the potential of a mass digitization project. It goes without saying that this project could be extended easily to other cultural heritage institutions. IA already has a dedicated scanning center in the LC, and just needs the funds to expand its project.

Let’s all tell our representatives to support such an effort. Given that the “HYP Solution” I advocated last spring is now extremely unlikely to happen given the sharp downturn in university endowments, let’s do what should have been done in the first place. Let’s not leave mass digitization to Google. Scanning all public domain books in the Library of Congress is pocket change compared to other investment projects, and like roads, it is infrastructure that will have enormous utility for decades to come.

Shovel-ready, move over. We’re scanner-ready.

[Image credit: ethanz]

Kress Funds New Omeka Features

I wanted to mention (slightly belatedly) some exciting developments related to the award-winning Omeka platform for museums, libraries, and other scholarly content providers. The Samuel H. Kress Foundation has generously given the Center for History and New Media two grants to add functionality within and beyond Omeka, functionality that I believe says a lot about where both Kress and CHNM think technology is headed in 2009.

First, as we’ve been saying for the last two years on the Digital Campus podcast, we believe expansion into mobile technology is critical for universities, libraries, and museums. There’s still too great a focus on the (desktop/laptop) web. We’re going to do a thorough survey of the use of cell phones and other mobile devices in art museums, out of which will come a series of recommendations about the best use of mobile technology. Moreover, we’re going to produce a suite of prototypes and proofs of concept based on these recommendations.

The Omeka team is already moving full-speed ahead to enable Omeka installations to take advantage of the latest modes of mobile use. By this spring, any Omeka-based site will look great on iPhones and many other smartphones through built-in Mobile Safari and Opera Mini stylesheets. In addition, we’ll release a barcode plug-in to allow institutions to add cell phone readable barcodes to labels in physical exhibits. When visitors to these exhibit aim their camera phones at these barcodes, they will be taken to an Omeka page with more information on the object. Also on the docket are iPhone and Android applications for the Omeka administrative interface (manage and build Omeka items and collections from your handheld; summer 2009), and geotagging, geolocation, and GPS-related services.

We are obviously strong believers in the idea of plug-in architectures. (Firefox has benefited greatly from this ecology of “add-ons,” as has the Zotero project.) A second Kress grant will enable Omeka to add some helpful plug-ins to the dozen plug-ins that are already available. New plug-ins include a CDWA Lite (Categories for the Description of Works of Art Lite) harvester and implementation; Cooliris 3D visualization; and image annotation for MyOmeka, the plug-in that lets visitors save individual items to a personal collection.

Digital Campus #35 – Top 10 of 2008, Predictions for 2009

The Digital Campus podcast team has a great time doing its second annual year-end review, looking back at 2008’s top ten trends in the intersection between technology and academia, libraries, and museums. And we look forward to 2009 with a set of broad and specific predictions. See if you can guess the top story of the year (this year with an excellent drum roll courtesy of our sound engineer, Misha Vinokur), and make your own 2009 predictions over at the Digital Campus site. You know you like year-end Top 10 countdowns; go check out the final Digital Campus for 2008! [Subscribe to this podcast.]