X.1 January + February 2003
Page: 17
Digital Citation

Like water for data flow

Dineh Davis

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When you wake up in the morning and look in the mirror you typically recognize your reflection as belonging to you and not to me. If you didn't, if perchance you looked in the mirror and saw me, you'd probably scream out in disbelief, "Eeek! There's Davis staring out at me! Why in the world do I look exactly like her this morning?"

Though we're all quite happy to rediscover our own unique selves every day and even show some pride, if not outright surprise, about how different we are from everyone else around us, somehow by the time we put on our clothes, head for work, and actually arrive at our offices and sit behind our desks, we have suddenly been transformed into social beings who see everyone else as fully predictable clones of ourselves. That, unfortunately, is how we sit down to imagine, design, and develop most of our communication systems. We begin with the assumption that everyone else is just like us. Though we are quite ready to acknowledge our physical differences because we are forced into this reality by our visual perceptions, we tend to deny these subtle or radical differences that must also exist within our minds and modes of cognition, because they are not overtly visible.

Once others point out such differences, we develop an awareness of various perspectives and cultures. Yet, just as strongly as we reject the notion that we are exactly like everyone else, we cherish the similarities that help bind us together in ever larger communities. An appropriate analogy for this seemingly contradictory phenomenon may be that of the river. Heraclitus noted that you cannot step twice into the same river. Similarly, though we recognize the constant shifting and changing of our moment-to-moment lives, on the surface we hold a constantly recognizable worldview.

We have all been swimmers in a sea of information, constantly treading the surface and trying to keep our heads above water.

I have always thought of water as a great metaphor for information. Our life depends on it. It has always been around. People congregated around it and civilizations flourished on its shores. It used to be free until the ones closest to it figured out they could put a tariff on it and hold others at bay. Perhaps the very first "Age of" anything was based on the medium of water. Yet, curiously, we don't speak of an Age of Water the way we've come to name all other epochs of human history. As a resident of Hawaii, I propose to partly rectify this oversight by offering the following water-based interface design model. To begin, I will share several nontechnological vignettes to build my case. As you read, keep your imagination focused on computer interfaces!

The other day four of us were heading for a morning of kayaking. We had parked the car and walked across the highway toward the beach. As we gathered on the sidewalk, someone asked "which direction to the kayaks?" Another answered, "Straight ahead!" Standing in the middle, I watched with amusement as people headed in separate directions. As I called out in laughter to stop them, the direction-giver who was already well on his way stopped and looked back impatiently. "What's wrong? I said straight ahead!" The one headed intuitively toward the nearest point on the beach trudged back saying: "Well, it all depends on which direction you were facing to begin with!" The direction-giver was quite reluctant to acknowledge that his simple instruction could possibly be cause for miscommunication. Despite knowing how easy it is to miscommunicate—even in person—I will take the chance of sharing my complex abstract model in a limited space.

As a self-proclaimed perpetual novice (PN) in the field, I have spent the better part of the past 30 years teaching beginners with diverse backgrounds how to use, critically analyze, or build modest interfaces for other PNs. We have all been swimmers in a sea of information, constantly treading the surface and trying to keep our heads above water. Some of us just need enough fresh water to survive, others must fish for a living, and a larger number enjoy frolicking around in anything from a puddle to the Pacific. Yet, we must keep in mind that the majority of the world's population lives quite a distance from shore, many can't swim, and though they may have been born and raised near the water's edge they have really never felt comfortable becoming fully submerged. Thus, it may behoove the technophiles to consider that just as humans grow up with other humans and use water from early childhood, neither is a guarantee that they will grow up to be swimmers or to be extroverts who enjoy the company of other humans. Therefore, the myth that "children will have no trouble with computers because they're growing up with them" is simply false.

Beyond making friends with the ocean, we also know that each of us heads for the water for many different reasons. We may stand on the same shore and view the same view, but we perceive different things colored by our cultures, attitudes, and beliefs.

As in a river, the flow will remain constant, but the pathways will change and grow smoother with time.

The other morning when I was going to snorkel with the sea turtles I received a stern warning: "The tide is still going out and the currents will be strong, pulling you away from the beach. Be very careful; better yet, wait another hour for the tide to come back in..." Not satisfied with this logic, I started my own investigation. Results?

"Well, you just have to look at the ocean for 15 minutes and you'll know what the conditions are," said a swimmer. "There's no correlation between tides and currents. This bay is quite safe in any case, it's not like you were going into the open ocean. But I'm a swimmer; if you really want to know about the ocean you should talk to fishermen."

"When I go to the ocean, I'm looking for a certain kind of fish," said a fisherwoman. "I know from past experience that some will bite as the tide is receding, that others will bite when the moon is new (because they can't see in the dark, and they're hungry), whereas others will follow another's run." "Yes. I can tell a lot by looking at the ocean for fifteen minutes. I've been fishing for years and am quite good at it," she added, "But I won't ever swim in the ocean. I don't know how to tread water and can't master that technique for the life of me."

"I've been surfing and swimming here for 17 years," confided a French resident of the islands. "Hawaii doesn't have the extreme tides of European beaches. There, perhaps, it would make a difference when you go to swim. Here, it's seasonal. You know that this time of the year the beaches along these two shores will be quite calm," she said, pointing to a map, "Whereas, in the wintertime this is where you will be facing the big waves."

"When I was growing up on the island," said a Samoan friend, "It would have brought shame if I didn't learn to swim. I may not have been taught formally, but I had to teach myself and learn to hold my own in the water. Sure, there were still those who never learned to swim, and it was OK—but not for me." The implied competitiveness mirrored a culture that promoted this behavior from childhood. Still, he was quite compassionate toward those who chose not to get near the water. It was OK to live and let live in Samoa.

Though everyone living on an island such as Japan or Samoa is quite likely forced to become familiar with the ocean, not everyone is fond of large bodies of water, nor do they necessarily ever learn to swim or enjoy water activities. "When I look at the ocean I see colors and contrasts," said the painter. "Obviously, this represents certain underlying factors in the environment: the seasons, time of day, depth of ocean, placement of clouds, and so on. Just because I'm aware of these factors, though, doesn't mean that I need to understand them." Knowledge, experience, culture, purpose, talent, skills, personality.

This water-for-information analogy may lead us to an interface based on the world's oceans and information exchange along its shores. From clear rainwater and the origins of waterfalls to the brackish water ponds nearing the ocean, to the fully salty brew teeming with life a few hundred or thousand feet from shore, it is quite possible to envision human interaction with this life force in the same way that we approach the world of information with computers as the interface.

Someone who may be easily intimidated by one aspect of life with computers may be perfectly capable of coping with another. Obviously, much of our dilemma is based on the current state of technologically possible interface options. When we made a choice a few decades ago to stay with general-purpose, overtly computer-based-and-networked-technologies (ocbants) with a keyboard, a monitor, and a printer, we left many potential users behind. This single view of the vast ocean behind the network may provide the comfort of familiarity for many while creating confusion for some and intimidation for others. Although my argument is built around the fact that the many different users will never be satisfied with a single view of this ocean, I'm venturing a guess that ocbants are here to stay for some time to come.

Thus, the proposed ocean-based interface can work at two levels: (1) The actual geographic-map version may stand in for diverse cultures that are contributing to and using the network around the globe, and (2) A conceptual-application version can provide different gateways to databases we have created or are likely to create online. Such iconic combinations may include separate or overlapping dimensions for work and play; connection (live or unmediated) and disconnection (buffered or mediated); learning and teaching; life-extensible and purely metaphysical as well as stage-based activities (that is, stages of life and stages of familiarity).

It would then be up to application designers to code in the initial connections to the ocean interface and make the first judgment call on the applicability of their creation to potential user groups. In this model, with passage of time, the program's users can also contribute their usability judgments by either reinforcing the designer's existing codes or adding new code links to the interface, allowing a more organic growth of the ties between users and applications on the network. For example, the original application may have been coded for work, but if any users use it for play, they can contribute that code as a distinct link back to the program. Although the overall feel of the interface will remain constant (as in the river), the gradual wearing of the pathways can reshape the links within the network in new ways.

Such a natural outgrowth with user participation is quite likely to improve the legitimacy and validity of each application beyond a certain sales record, a meaningless number of hits, or the enforced use of certain programs based strictly on market flooding or extrinsic motivations. This may help minimize the swim-or-die fear socially enforced through advertising campaigns and workplace mandates. It may also help dismantle a universal culture of guilt, exclusion, or helplessness of PNs on the mirror side of their longing to belong.

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Dineh M. Davis, Ph.D
Associate Professor
School of Communications
George Hall 340
2560 Campus Road
University of Hawaii at Monoa
Honolulu, Hawaii 96822

Dineh Moghdam Davis is Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where she focuses her teaching and research on the social impact of new communication technologies. She shares her birthday with the first generation of modern computers and was honored at CSC'84 for being the 216 (65,536th) member of the ACM, though they refused to award her a lifetime membership and, despite protests from W. C. Fields, flew her to Philadelphia to commemorate the occasion. In addition to quality HCI and ocean-time she has broken the surface tension by trudging through a wide variety of interfaces, including Tibetan glaciers, Big Island lava, Nepalese jungles, Persian palaces, and Hawaiian foam parties.

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2003 ACM, Inc.

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