Tuesday, May 22, 2007

What It's About 3: Interaction

Although digital history isn't about computers per se, we still have to take into account our mediated interactions with other people, and with various constellations of hardware and software. Over the past few decades we've seen the widespread proliferation of human-scale interactive devices. These have been driven, in part, by advances in electronics. Thanks to transistors and integrated circuits, small electric motors, tiny radio transceivers, LEDs, lasers and relatively long-lasting batteries, more and more people are toting around cell phones, pagers, laptops, digital cameras, music players, and GPS receivers. As any reader of Gizmodo or Engadget knows, these devices are legion. Thanks to various standards like Wifi and Bluetooth, they are usually networked to one another and to the Internet.

In the same period there has been a rethinking and expansion of a field which used to be known as human-computer interaction, and is now known as interaction design. Interaction designers are responsible for making it easier, more obvious or more intuitive to place a call, post to a blog, get money from an ATM, buy tunes, order an espresso, shift into overdrive or pay taxes. For many years people approached computers at a level very close to the machine, flipping switches or punching out ones and zeros on cards. As networked computation becomes ever more pervasive in our environments it takes many more forms. It may be invisible, like the network of microprocessors that keep your car running efficiently or provide telltale data after an 'event.' It may seem like something else: a phone conversation, a game, recorded music, even a heartbeat. New devices allow people to use motion and gesture as inputs. Many interaction designers follow the advice of IDEO's Bill Moggridge to think in terms of "verbs, not nouns."

As an example of the potential of thinking in verbs, consider reading. Historians are very familiar with the different affordances of the traditional codex. In digital form, however, text can be "remixed" or "mashed-up" in ways that allow new kinds of interaction. In a sample mashup, the text of Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War was passed through a system that extracts geographic names and projected into an interface that includes an interactive map. In this new form, the book can still be read in the traditional fashion; it is now also possible to click on locations on the map and see corresponding passages in the text. It is relatively easy to extract dates and plot them on an interactive timeline, providing a temporal browser as well as a spatial one. If the editor of the volume needs to correct an error in the text, the mashup continues to work. If the History of Herodotus is digitized, it can be given a similar interface with little effort. There are three key points about mashups. First, they are heterogenous, built from services that are supplied over the Internet. Once one person or group figures out how to do something (like extract dates from a text) they can provide the service to anyone else who needs it. There's no need to reinvent the wheel. Second, mashups are live. Data can be continuously updated without breaking the system. Third, the range of web services is continuously expanding. Increasingly, we will come to think of the work of the historian as the work of drawing live sources from archives, integrating those sources on the fly, interpreting them, and building that interpretation into tools that give the reader an unprecedented power to explore the evidentiary base from which our accounts are constructed. Historians, in other words, will become designers of experiences and interactions.

Tags: |