CSE 271: User Interface Design: Social and Technical Issues
Notes for Ninth Meeting (4 Mar 98)
Everyone really should do the reading or else I'm afraid you may be mystified by much of our class discussions; you might as well drop out if you aren't going to read Ackerman, Latour, Lanier, etc., and at least skim Shneiderman. Even auditors should have a crack at the homework, though they don't need to write it all out and hand it in.

Notes on Chapter 7 and Epilogue of Latour

In chapter 7 Latour comes as close as he ever does to answering his own rhetorical question, on which the book is in a sense based, namely "Who killed Aramis?" The beginning is a lot of interview extracts, which basically support the list of 21 possible states of the corpse on pp.277-8. Then on pp.279-80 comes a document which is central to Latour's argument, giving goals for Aramis that are identical to those with which it began. Another long set of interview extracts, pp.282-7, support another of Latour's main points, that these actors did not want to provide funds for research. You should re-read the very last paragraph of the novel proper, all by itself on p.288 several times. Try to understand what he means by this somewhat odd language.

In class I noted that one source of difficulty with Aramis had to be that the engineers were trying to write a safety critical real time concurrent distributed software system - in assembly code. At the time they were doing this, the difficulties of this were perhaps not as recognized as they are today, and of course there were also fewer tools (conceptual and software engineering). Although Latour does not mention this, it should still not be thought to invalidate his arguments.

The Epilogue again makes major use of the mystery novel genre, to gather all the suspects in the same room with the detective - and the corpse! Actually it's the corpse of Aramis that makes the most juicy accusations. Here are some of the most important quotes from Norbert and Aramis:

You believed in the autonomy of technology. (p.292)

You humans need to talk, argue, get mad, that's your role in this imperfect world. (p.295)

Be suspicious of purity, it's the vitriol of the soul. (p.295)

You hate us; you hate technologies... A local elected official knows more about research, about uncertainty, about negotiation, than all you so-called technicians do. (p.296)

They say they love me and don't want to search for me! They say they love technology and they don't want to be researchers! (p.296)

So the conclusion seems to be that no one is guilty because everyone is, not of deliberate murder, but perhaps of manslaughter, by letting Aramis die from a lack of love. I think Latour may be telling us his major motivation for writing this book on p.298:
... at least it would be useful to others, to future engineers like yourself. to help them understand research.
After this, he is mostly (it seems to me) making fun of us (engineers).
Notes on Class Discussion

User interface issues appear everywhere. A coffee cup is an interface between the coffee and the user; questions like how thick it should be, what its volume is, and whether it has a handle, are all user interface issues. A book can be considered a user interface to its text; note that a book is interactive, because users turn the pages, and can go to any indicated page they want; they also uses indices, glossaries, etc in an interactive manner. Buildings can be seen as providing interfaces to users who want to get to a certain room, e.g. by a directory in the lobby, buttons outside and inside elevators, "EXIT" signs, doorknobs, stairways, and even corridors (you make choices with your body - not your mouse). Returning to the obvious, medical instruments have user interfaces (for doctors, nurses, and even patients) that can have extreme consequences if badly designed. By perhaps stretching a bit, almost anything can be seen as a user interface, raising certain issues of design and representation. Certainly this is the way Andersen views his museum.

Of course, all this is quite parallel to what semiotics says about signs, and indeed such issues can be considered a part of semiotics, although the notion of semiotic morphism is often needed in making the translation. The basic idea is to consider object, like a cup or a building, as a composite sign. Here are some further concepts that are useful:

Andersen's museum is a multimedia interactive system (and so is any other museum, though in a much more prosaic sense).
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8 March 1998