Sunday, October 28, 2007

Seams and the Suspension of Disbelief

At an unconference that I was at a few weeks ago, Lucy Suchman began a conversation about illusion and suspension of disbelief in technocultural systems. The example that she gave was animation: we really buy into the actions of lovable cartoon characters, and readily attribute intentionality to them. And yet, of course, there is nothing beneath the surface to match the imagined anthropomorph. Such suspension of disbelief seems to follow quite readily when the details are right. It's hard to look at the slowly pulsing LED of a "sleeping" PowerBook and not feel like the machine is a little bit more human for it.

Suspension of disbelief is something that historians strive for, too. In public history, for example, costumed interpreters, museum dioramas, and replicas of artifacts and documents stand in for the originals that they are intended to resemble, although they may have little or no causal relationship to them. The monographs of traditional history are also simulacra. They bear a principled relationship to past events, but have rarely partaken of them. Instead, their job is to put the reader into a some kind of relationship with the past, to get him or her to see through the physical reality of the codex.

The discipline of citation allows sophisticated readers to assess the evidentiary material from which a particular account is constructed. Each footnote serves as a kind of thread. Pulling on it may tighten a seam or rip it open. Professional historians expect the body of a work to be relatively smooth and tightly integrated, but they also expect to be able to use the footnotes to take it apart as necessary. Ideally, monographs always present both smooth and seamful faces.

In digital history, we have to pay attention to finding the right balance of smoothness and seamfulness, but we can work at a number of different levels, ranging from low-level electronic and hardware decisions to very high-level software abstractions. It is possible for something to appear smooth at every level. Carrying on the unconference conversation, Casey O'Donnell gives the examples of the iPod and Wii. As he says, "these devices (mostly) just work," and have been designed to suppress tinkering. It is possible, however, to construct systems that are smooth at one level and seamful at another, that signal their willingness to be hacked in particular ways. (See the work of Matthew Chalmers for more on explicitly seamful design). At the unconference, I demonstrated a simple musical instrument made from a distance sensor, Phidgets interface, a laptop running Max/MSP and a MIDI software synthesizer. All of the seams were out in the open--in fact it was a bit messy. But to play the instrument all you have to do is wave your hand in front of the sensor and you get glissandos of marimba notes. At the behavioral level it is fun and responsive; at the hardware and software levels it is obviously hackable.

As we develop historical projects online, we need to ask ourselves how we can incorporate tinkering while maintaining smoothness where we want it. A great recent example of this is Devon Elliott's suggestion that archives use wiki technology to allow historians and other researchers to create item-level metadata.

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