Design, CHI, richness of spirit

Authors: Deborah Tatar
Posted: Mon, May 13, 2013 - 12:19:11

Since returning from Paris, I have been tapping away, writing about CHI, commenting on the papers, the panels, the oblique and direct epistemologies. But what keeps rising to the top is not CHI, but Paris. I spent the summer of 1983 in Paris, and two weeks in 1995 but have scarcely been there since. What has happened? 

For the conference, I stayed near les Jardin du Luxembourg, in the 6e, near the center of the city. My niece is living in the 11e, near Le Marais. CHI itself was at Porte Maillot. So I moved around a little bit. What I saw, everywhere, were people living on the street. A blue sleeping bag marking this entryway. Two people wrapped in blankets, end-to-end on a park bench, heads next to one another. A large awkward slab of cardboard bent over to protect a pile of belongings. A mattress next to two bins of neatly folded belongings. The legless older man in a plaid wool vest with the shy smile begging on our block from early morning through to the long twilight. In fact, there were beggars everywhere. 

No one I saw appeared to be what we call in the states itinerants. The beggars appeared to have their spots as well as the homeless, and I several times saw passers-by greet them and start apparently congenial conversations. How are you, here's some spare change. 

The most shocking sight was people dumpster diving for food. Three people, a women and two men, dressed—not so differently from anyone else in France—in slightly shabby black, exclaiming with joy at finding packets of crumpets. Far from appearing to fear that they would get caught, their chatter rang in the quiet morning street. Also, on the metro in the morning, women presumably on their ways to work wore sneakers and blue denim jeans. Men and women alike were adorned primarily and only by scarves, almost always in very subdued colors. Where were the bags, the belts, the shoes, the style, the chic? Some men were in suits, but many wore puffy coats, like my son in college in Portland. I didn’t see France; I saw suffering.

Since I wrote this, I have heard rumors about bad experiences among CHI attendees: muggings, robbery, theft, and one rumor of physical harm. I'm sorry if these are true, and they give a more dire meaning to what I noticed. Another CHI talk that I did not attend was on protecting researchers. No idea what was said, but, when the idea came up, I did comment to two young female graduates that my graduate students would not be doing research in bars. I already have nightmares about my responsibilities as an advisor. 

I don't know the reality of the French. But seeing what I did in Paris turned my mind to the question of richness of spirit. I wondered, "Where at CHI did I see richness of spirit?" Not wealth, not pride, not control, but assertion of being, compassion, kindness, thoughtfulness, care. 

As it happened, I was not able to go to any of the most likely talks for finding richness of spirit, such as those on IT4D or sustainability. But I did see elements of richness of spirit elsewhere. In particular, in the kind a playfulness in Youngsil Lee's work and in AnyType. 

AnyType, developed by Laura Devendorf and Kimiko Ryokai is a lovely facility that allows a person to take a small number of still pictures (5) or 5-second videos and turn them into a font. Part of the intention is to make the creator more aware of textures in the environment.  The examples shown at CHI were simple and untroubled patterns seen with a good eye and a steady hand, and the alphabets were used to spell words related to the originating pictures ("GRASS", "BIRDS", "PIPES"). It was nice to see this work come out of the iSchool at Berkeley and it represents a spreading of what we might call the school of Hiroshi Ishii, sharing his aesthetic of simplicity and individual empowerment. It is a terrific example of what I like to call zensign—that what isn't in a technology can be as important as what is in it. 

Left to my druthers, I would prefer for this simple tool to remain a boutique app, in which the aesthetic of production and product are tied. That's not likely. In two years every complex commercial graphical and video manipulation tool is likely to have something very like this folded in as a facility, lost in deep valleys of cascading menus and buried beneath a bewilderingly large array of font choices. 

But presumably the original will still be available and those with patience might still be able to extract the aesthetic influence of the original. I experienced the aesthetic of the sample work shown as reminiscent of Liberty's of London and Laura Ashley patterns, with deceptively simple patterns and historic roots in the Arts and Crafts movement. And, of course, the Arts and Craft movement was about a focus on craftsmanship in opposition to the dark Satanic Mills of industrial Britain. 

Where AnyType is simple and happy, Youngsil Lee's work is more complex. Two of her works spoke to me. The emotionally simpler of the two was the hedgehog dress, a black dress with a tight sash at the waist and elaborated cowl area. The elaborations consist of what initially appear to be metallic adornments. So, it's a young woman's dress, sexy with a bit of saucy punk. But here's the trick: When someone approaches, the metallic decorations stand up, like a hedgehog's quills. Back off, buster! 

I particularly liked this because I used to have a colleague who expressed power through (inappropriate) physical contact. He once came up behind me when I was leaning over in focused worked with 7th graders, rubbed his hands up and down the sides of my arms a few times and before I could turn around, had moved off. I was not a happy camper, but I could not say anything in a crowded, roomful of noisy 10-year olds. Eventually, he pulled a similar stunt under more accountable conditions and I was successfully able to growl at him, "Don't EVER touch me." Pure porcupine. It hasn't happened since. 

In the right circumstances, the hedghog dress could also be part of establishing a nice flirtation—after all, the "quills" are not actually pointy and the question of “how near?” is pretty central—but the Venus Flytrap dress is a subtler social tool. It is also little black dress, but with a considerable plunge in the neckline. On each side of the plunge, like lapels, lie red and silver decoration. You would accessorize it with a black, red, and silver clutch in New York, or with flat half-calf boots in Portland. But when a hand approaches the neckline, the trap is sprung. The flower closes. The name, Venus Flytrap, suggests danger, and so does the closing movement. But the experience is soft and pulling the hand closer than it might otherwise have come is a deeply ambiguous act. The playful dangers and delights of flirtation, and the true risk of psychic and physical pain are brought into a kind of layered focus.

In "Identity and Violence," Amartya Sen, the great economist, ties world violence to the idea that each person has a singular, exclusive identity, rather than a multifaceted and rich experience of life. When CHI creates subtlety, and layered experiences, it is in a small way combating the deprivation and neglect I saw on the streets of Paris last week. Design enhances spirit.

Posted in: on Mon, May 13, 2013 - 12:19:11

Deborah Tatar

Deborah Tatar is a professor of computer science and, by courtesy, psychology, at Virginia Tech.
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@Pardha (2013 07 07)

Thanks Deborah, for an insightful posting! This was not my first CHI but my first time in Europe. I always thought of Europe, especially its richer countries like France, as a region with a great social safety net. The poverty and deprivation I noticed in Paris was a bit of a shock. Perhaps the situation is better outside its big cities?

Unfortunately I missed the AnyType demo at CHI. Thanks to your post, I looked it up and am glad I did. We need more works like this that bring out the inner artist in all of us. A small suggestion: consider linking their website to this post (