Physical Computing Lesson 1

What is Interaction?

Until very VERY recently, I was always turned off by “technology.” My argument would revolve around a sort of nostalgia for previous technological advances that seemed so commonplace, for two reasons.#1. I really enjoy simple, intuitive interfaces. I dont enjoy spending more time learning how to use something than actually using it. Plus, I always feared that after learning how to use something, two things would happen. Either it wasnt really what I was looking for or it would soon become outdated. So I gravitated to things that stood the test of time. Which brings me to my second reason. If something can withstand the test of time, this means that there is a certain amount of quality involved.
As a musician especially, I also really held onto the idea that we (in the community of musicians) fell into two distinct categories. ANALOG vs DIGITAL.
I certainly fell into the analog side of life. Besides the rhetoric of music sounding better recorded on tape vs wav files, there was a then intangible argument that I couldn’t quite articulate about my preference.
And even though I most definitely enjoyed and respected digitality in the process of making music, ( especially drum machines and synths) I still felt like there was something missing.
I realized what it was!
I spent a lot of time in my years as an amateur producer recording on my 4 track tape machine. I also daisy chained my various guitar pedals ( delay, phaser, etc) and ran them through my drum machine. I would create a pattern on my drum machine, but the real fun for me was moving all the knobs around on the pedals. My instrument would essentially be the knobs on my guitar pedals. I felt like a mad scientist, making my frankenstein beats, twisting and turning to my hearts content. It felt good to touch and move the knobs around. it was an intuitive action. i move the knob a little to the left, it makes this sound, more to the left, more that sound.
When I got protools a few years later I was very excited to finally have a seemingly more powerful instrument to record on. Little by little, however, I was turned off by many things. First, I hated staring at a screen for hours on end. Secondly, no knobs to twist around. And most importantly, NO TAPE HISS! Plus, I just love watching the tape roll while it’s recording…. In the end the recordings seemed cold. No personality, no life.
I ultimately treated my protools setup like my 4 track. I didnt use any edit functions. The only real use I found for it was the endless amount of tracks I could use to build my songs. I couldnt spend time learning how to use it bc the interface just turned me off so much. To me, the 4 track was sufficient enough, and subsequently became my go to, after ditching protools almost completely.
Although in “the art of interactive design” crawford explicitly points out that interaction requires 2 actors, and within that parameter a conversation takes place, (the 4 track is hardly an actor) … It happens to be much more of an active actor than a protools setup. And even still, I think the 4 track has a mind of its own, especially when the signal starts to clip. you can feel the saturation, the overload it is trying to process. The experience of recording in analog is much more interactive in general. Real instruments are being played (i.e guitar, which is made of organic wood that is indeed “alive.” In this case, the guitar is being affected in the exchange just as much as me, playing it. It wears and tears, and the cyclic process of an interaction starts to take shape: listen, think, speak.

Similarly, on “a brief rant” by bret victor, one of the strongest points for me in his essay is his definition of a tool. “address needs to amplify human capabilities.” Although he made a strong point of the importance of the hand, its nerve endings, in short, it is our window to the world.. and there is hardly a difference between typing, swiping, and turning knobs in theory, … in practice it is actually quite different. when turning knobs we are also touching different equipment, plucking strings, banging on things, using “real” instruments to produce sound. The experiences are worlds apart.
The analog way addresses human needs without making our nerve endings on our fingers go numb from lack of use. Sometimes, the most simple instruments are what keeps us from losing our human-ness, by being closer to the process, by being active WITHIN the process, and not just fullfilling some sort of binary questionaire in a homogenous “pictures behind glass” paradigm.