Grandmother sources

The histories I’ve written have often been hidden, lost, neglected, too broad or too amorphous to show up in others’ radar screens, histories that are not neat fields that belong to someone but the paths and waterways that meander through many fields and belong to no one. Art history in particular is often cast as an almost biblical lineage, a long line of begats in which painters descend primarily from painters. Just as the purely patrilineal Old Testament genealogies leave out the mothers and even the fathers of mothers, so these tidy stories leave out all the sources and inspirations that come from other media and other encounters, from poems, dreams, politics, doubts, a childhood experience, a sense of place, leave out the fact that history is made more of crossroads, branches and tangles than straight lines. These other sources I called the grandmothers.

Rebecca Solnit’s idea of grandmother sources (from A Field Guide To Getting Lost, pp.58-59) is a neat shorthand way of referring to a problem I have with many books. I find that non-fiction (and to an extent, fiction) books that I get enjoy most explore a topic, rather than building an argument. Strangely, this is true even when I agree with the argument that is being made. The inevitable exclusions and cherry picking that such an approach requires result in a work that lacks depth. On the other hand, openly and honestly exploring a topic—including stories and facts that might interfere with a simple, straightforward narrative—results in something I can immerse myself in and return to again and again. These are the kind of books that I learn something from every time I read them.

Solnit’s grandmother sources, and my preference for books that use them, strongly reminds me of Chimamanda Adichie’s plea to reject the single story in order to empower and humanize people that might not fit into the dominant narrative. It also brings to mind Matthew Chalmers’s idea of beautiful seams that allow many digital tools to flourish, rather than one dominant tool.

There is also something of Franklin’s gambit here: post-hoc rationalisation disguised as considered and informed decision making (though there are those who are honest enough to admit that most of us discover where we are headed when we arrive) . This results in a teleological history—the inevitable march of progress, manifest destiny—that erases stories from the past and obscures the many possibilities and opportunities of the present.


The goodness/adoption paradox

The goodness/adoption paradox surfaces if, for fun, we separate goodness (from the expert’s point of view) from the factors that drive adoption. From the expert point of view, better technologies existed for publishing and networking than Tim Berners-Lee’s Web. Ted Nelson and Doug Engelbart talked about and demoed them for decades. But those “better” ideas were demandind in ways that would have raised barriers to adoption in 1991. At best they would have cost more to build and taken more time to engineer. We can’t know whether those additional barriers would have prevented the Web from succeeding or merely change its ascension. It’s also possible these alternative web designs might have had advantages that Berners-Lee’s Web didn’t have, which would have positively impacted adoption.

As I was watching and writing about Bill Buxton’s talk on ubiquitous computing, I had Scott Berkun’s idea of the goodness/adoption paradox from The Myths of Innovation in the back of my mind. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why, but I now think it was the idea of seamless transitions. In Buxton’s narrative of getting out of a car, the transition from voice control to a user interface was certainly seamless. Another example I can think of is having a thermostat change the temperature of your house as you get closer to home (PDF).

But I can think of other examples that aren’t so seamless, but do help ease transitions. Netflix, for example, lets me pick up where I left off when I move from my phone to my computer. Dropbox helps me move files between devices and platforms with ease. While both of these transitions are better than they were before, I don’t think that either of them are seamless. On the contrary, I’d say they are decidedly seamful. In fact, I’d say that Dropbox places itself right along the seam between different platforms. I’d also say that it’s seamfulness is exactly what makes it superior to a seamless solution like iCloud. Dropbox makes it absolutely clear what is going on: it exposes the seam. With iCloud what is being synced is so seamless that I have to idea what is backed up (or indeed how I recover that data when I upgrade my device).

These aren’t seamless transitions. Perhaps they’re not seamless because they’ve placed themselves where there was a gaping hole previously. Perhaps that will change, but I still think there is something to be said for the idea of seamfulness. I don’t think it’s the same as an intrusion. While the transition in the case of both Netflix and Dropbox may be obvious, it certainly doesn’t feel intrusive to me.

Related posts

Beautiful seams

And this leads us, finally, to the concept not of the seamlessness of designed experience, but of “beautiful seams.”

This term was coined by the late Mark Weiser, a pioneer of ubiquitous computing and the Chief Technologist at what was at the time the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. Instead of the discourse of smooth, distinction-obliterating, disempowering seamlessness which was then (and is to a significant degree still) dominant in discussions of ubiquitous information processing systems, Weiser wanted to offer users ways to reach into and configure the systems they encountered; ideally, such seams would afford moments of pleasure, revelation and beauty.

From On the ground running: Lessons from experience design « Adam Greenfield’s Speedbird

Update (November 7, 2010): Matthew Chalmers’ paper on Seamful Design and Ubicomp Infrastructure has more on Weiser’s idea of beautiful seams.

Weiser describes seamlessness as a misleading or misguided concept. In his invited talks to UIST94 and USENIX95 he suggested that making things seamless amounts to making everything the same, reducing components, tools and systems to their ‘lowest common denominator’. He advocated seamful systems (with “beautiful seams”) as a goal. Around Xerox PARC, where many researchers worked on document tools, Weiser used an example of seamful integration of a paint tool and a text editor (Weiser, personal communication). He complained that seamless integration of such tools often meant that the user was forced to use only one of them. One tool would be chosen as primary and the others reduced and simplified to conform to it, or they would be crudely patched together with ugly seams. Seamfully integrated tools would maintain the unique characteristics of each tool, through transformations that retained their individual characteristics. This would let the user brush some characters with the paint tool in some artful way, then use the text editor to ‘search and replace’ some of the brushstroked characters, and then paint over the result with colour washes. Interaction would be seamless as the features of each tool were “literally visible, effectively invisible”. Seamful integration is hard, but the quality of interaction can be improved if we let each tool ‘be itself’.

To me, this sounds very much like a well-implemented API.