A.I. is U.I.

Picture me running on a treadmill yesterday at the gym. I’ve only been on about five minutes when a woman hops on the machine to my left, plugs in her earbuds, tunes to channel 5 and begins to powerwalk/power-watch-Family-Feud/power-loud-laugh-inexplicably-every-thirty-seconds or so. After a couple cycles of it I start getting power-annoyed. The guffaws are just so loud. Keep in mind, I’ve got in earbuds of my own. But these laughsplosions cut right through. This is just the sort of thing that is at the top of my pet peeves list: classic Oblivion to My Surroundings. I look at the clock on my machine. I have 25 minutes left. How can I possibly keep going. I’m running through a laugh minefield here. I keep side-eyeing this lady. Each glance a useless dagger of psychological warfare, blown up mid-air by her invisible laugh defense dome. She’s winning. But then I think, what kind of insufferable jerk crazy have I become? I mean, what sort of low is it when someone else’s joy annoys you? It’s a pretty low low, I’d say. And that realization is enough. I look over again. The Family Feud mustache guy makes another funny. I look at her. She laughs. And by laughs, I mean, her eyes are barely open. Tears. Head, thrown back; mouth, wide open, gulping air; the rest of her body, shaking. Hands, white-knuckle fastened to the grips on the sides of the treadmill, desperately holding on for dear life. She looks as if she’s being electrocuted by the machine. This is sincere pleasure, untainted by the jaded raincloud following her on her right. So that raincloud smiles and laughs a little, too. Just because you’re a raincloud doesn’t mean you can’t be happy.

(Oh, and by the way, what follows is a continuation of this week’s intentionally unelegant experiment in typing in one direction and then hitting send. There is no [Delete]. There is only [Send]. I know it doesn’t quite work, but put it on a TinyLetter t-shirt anyway. Be warned: I am punchy, even for a happy raincloud.)

CB, March 13, 2015

A.I. is U.I. I mean, it should be. That, as opposed to all the useless stuff the wonderful wizards of the valley promise that A.I. will do for us, would actually be useful. Think about it. Every app is increasingly “smarter,” while the actions they force us to take are increasingly dumber. Does that make sense? Every button and menu on the screen you’re looking at now represents something you might want to do with the information firehosing itself at you all day long. Edit. Reply. Save. Delete. For god’s sake, delete. The majority — what, 90%? 95% — of our clicking and tapping is a repetitive act of information management. Every day I do the same things with the same bits of information that appear in the same places. I’m a drone with increasingly shiny hardware. Chrome isn’t my friend. It’s the machine’s friend. Every chrome detail is an opportunity to lighten the app’s processing load. It just sits there, waiting for us to tap it on the shoulder and say, “Save this.” “Delete this.” Those are simple routines for the app. The app is a drone, too. We’re drones giving orders to drones. Maybe that’s a bad metaphor. After all, nobody really likes drones. So how about this. Remember when you were a kid and you went to the doctor and he knocked you on your knobby little knee with that funny hammer and you’d gasp because your leg would suddenly kick without your permission and you’d say “Why’d I do that, Doctor Guthrie?” and he’d mutter “Instinct, son.” And then, sometime, weeks later probably, you’d be watching The Sword in the Stone — the part when Merlin and Wart become fish and Wart eats a bug and cries, “Merlin, Merlin! I swallowed a bug!” and Merlin says, “What’s wrong with that? After all, m’boy, you are a fish… Instinct, you know?” — and you’d suddenly realize what instinct meant? That it was a thing that happened simply by way of cause and effect, without thinking? Well, that’s what I’m talking about here. Clicking and tapping buttons to tell an app to do something with some bit of information is, itself, about as information-rich as knocking a kid’s knobby little knee in that special instinct place. And when the app does that thing you told it to with your bit of information, well that is about as intelligent as a kid’s leg kicking after being knocked by that hammer. As in, not. Instinct is a meaningful distinction when most actions are considered choices. But in this case, all actions, as far as the app is concerned, are instinct. If all is instinct, none is intelligence. So when someone tells you that some app uses A.I. and then shows you what stuff to tap and click in order to use it, know that “A.I.” is about as honest as that “healthy choice” label on a box of frozen food. I mean you can use two letters of your own: B.S. Unless, of course, we take A.I. literally. Artificial intelligence. Artificial, as in imitation; mock; ersatz; faux; substitute; manufactured; fabricated; inorganic; plastic; pretend; phony. If we’re taking it like that, then fine. This is some great A.I! But we’re not. At least, we’re not meant to. A.I. is supposed to signify a marvel of civilized progress. Machine intelligence. Machines that think! On their own! A giant leap for mankind (even if it’s our last). But no, this is not A.I. This is N.I., for no intelligence. If it was A.I. we wouldn’t have to look at it. It would say to us, “You have several things here.” And you’d say, “Well, what are they?” And it would say, “One is a forwarded message from your colleague, Brian. He’s added FYI at the top.” And you’d say, “Please delete that one.” And this would go on. But the next time it would say, “You have several things here. One of them is another forwarded message from Brian. Last time you deleted a message like this. Would you like to do that again?” And you’d say, “God yes.” And this would go on. But a few times later, it would say, “You have several things here, but I already deleted three forwards from Brian, saving you 5 minutes this morning.” And you’d be like, “Thanks, buddy.” And this would go on. And then one day, you’d realize that you hadn’t seen a Brian message in a long time and you’d say to your A.I. “Dude remember how much time I used to waste reading Brian messages?” And it would be like, “I know, right? Remember how much time you used to waste looking at things in general?” And you’d be like, “Seriously. I love you, A.I.” And it would be like, “I know.” And you’d continue on with your day, glad that you lived in the future and not the old days of the Busy Aughts when everyone took pride in being so, so, busy right now but kind of dying inside because nobody feels good about being a drone and having to pretend they’re not. Which is idiotic because we’re all doing droney bullshit all day long and pretending that we’re not. Oh I had a really hard day of thinking and being professional. But actually, you had a really hard three hours of thinking and being professional and another six of being a button tapping drone. It’s like George Bernard Shaw said, “All professions are conspiracies against the laity.” If you were to Bill and Ted anyone from a hundred years ago into your office today, and they were to watch what you do, and they were to eventually get past all the things that looked like magic, they’d probably get very, very sad and want to go back home where they were very, very cold and hungry and damp all the time but at least doing real things, dammit. Hey, George Bernard Shaw, modernity is a conspiracy against humanity! I know, guys, it’s full of holes. But my point is, this period in which we are living now is The Age of Inconvenient Conveniences. The period we want to be living in is one we have to make and it is The Age of Invisible Interfaces. Where A.I. is the chrome. If we wait for “A.I.” to make the future, then it will be the The Age of Useless Husk People. Forever. But if we use A.I. to make The Age of Invisible Interfaces, then we’ll quickly move through that age and then usher in The Age of Solving Real Problems and Forgetting About Computing for a Change. I know how much we all like pretty shinies on screens. I’m the first person to see something pretty and get excited about it. I’m not “over” the visible. But I’ll tell you what. I’m pretty sure I’ll be over it when there’s no water to drink. Or when I’m chasing my cancer with body nukes. Or when I can walk the plastic bridge from California to Hawaii to Japan. It’s not that invisible interfaces are going to save the world. It’s that they’re going to keep us from continuing to waste our time on useless droning. Or, that they could save us from that. It is, of course, a matter of choice. And we’ve shown so far that we’re pretty good at making the sort of choices that keep us in drone land. But we can make other choices. And I have every confidence that if we do — if we simply make better choices — we’ll have the intelligence and wherewithal to keep the world from exploding. Actually, this is where the “smartwatch” is interesting. I mean, who are we kidding? It’s not smart. It’s just a smartphone with a strap. But, could it be the device that prepares us for more invisible interactions? On the face of it (see what I did there?) it looks like no. The thing is just another screen. Happy squinting, everybody. But what’s really at play here? Voice interfaces are getting better and better. But Apple couldn’t wait for Siri to be good enough to be the UI before they released their “smartwatch” because they knew that someone had to be first to the “smartwatch” party — even if that meant just shrinking the smartphone experience — because the first “smartwatch” has the best chance of nudging us all toward “wearables” that will eventually be useable without tapping, swiping, and line of sight. The Her experience. But for now, we’re going to have to tolerate the digital crown and app honeycomb and the glances and the coming responsive design panic of figuring out what on earth we’re going to with our website information at a 272-pixel breakpoint. Boy is that going to suck. Honestly, we of the creative services caste should really take this opportunity to grow some courage and tell our clients that a 272-pixel breakpoint is just not worth it. Do you have to make your site functional on a watch screen? No, you don’t. Really. But, we’re going to do it anyway. And the thing that’s going to keep me sane then is knowing that this is just another step toward forgetting about breakpoints someday and thinking about interaction design completely differently. Interaction, to the fullest meaning of the word. But here’s a sobering thought for design with a capital “D.” These developments are going to make design less and less of a visual discipline. It’s unavoidable. It’s not that all design will become invisible, but as our informational demands continue to increase, we’ll have no choice but to spend more and more time figuring out how to process it all — automating most of it and using pattern-based algorithms to bring the stuff we individually deem worthy to the surface. That’s information logistics. Not pretty shinies, texty mathies. Designers are not going to be pleased. Just as most of them weren’t pleased when the web came along. Plenty of designers had immediate contempt for the web and considered it way beneath them to engage. Sure, they eventually started using it and loving it, but making it was obviously a tweaky fiddly grunt job that, in their estimation, was more akin to plumbing than anything they’d have called design. The web just widened the “blue collar” design caste that already existed thanks to photocopiers and Print Shop and the like, and the designers that fancied themselves at the top of the food chain held fast to print and packaging and signage and good old-fashioned typography and since I’m in this little private space where I can be completely honest and say whatever I want, these are the people that are honored today as our high design heroes. When they could just as easily be scarlet lettered “L” for luddite or “E” for elitist. And now, those who over the last few years have enjoyed the white-collaring of web design are probably going to do the same thing with invisible interaction design and information logistics. “Information logistics? Isn’t that a coders job? Surely there’s someone in Russia or India who could do that?” Look, I don’t think that, but lots of people do and that — in part — is why designers are always playing catch up to what is actually going on in the world and why version 1.0 always sucks. That is why designers right now are fussing with buttons and breakpoints, and “coders” are making computers you can talk to. Too much of design is about where to put that button. That’s no longer a worthy design problem. Next time you’re in a meeting about buttons, ask yourself what would have to happen in order for that button to go away. That is a worthy design problem. Oh, and next time you see someone reference the Paul Rand quote that goes, “It is important to use your hands. This is what distinguishes you from a cow or a computer operator,” remember that you are a computer operator and those are the words of an elitist, sexist jerk for whom “computer operation” was a woman’s job, design a man’s, and whose otherwise myopic opinion on this matter only made it more likely that we’d become the computer operators that we are.

Heavy Rotation: Three things this week, the first two commended to me by my buddy Dave. First, Very Swedish, by the Sweet Jazz Trio. Second, and in a complete change in vibe, Mission Control, a Soma FM radio show. You can’t go wrong with electronic ambient music mixed with NASA tapes. Just like last week. And finally, Late Night Tales, by Jon Hopkins. I’m sending this last one back to Dave as payment for the other two. It’s good.

Recent Tabs: Printed circuit boards. Look at this amazing workspace. Everyone needs one of those because everyone is an archaeologist. “It’s not so much the cord-cutters that Big Cable has to worry about, it’s the upcoming millions of cord-nevers.” Shitting on Everest. This is an amazing story: “Six-Legged Giant Finds Secret Hideaway, Hides For 80 Years.” While we’re doing animals, I recommend keeping this eagle cam open at all times. Did a human or computer write this? And according to this quiz, I use the internet like someone ten years younger. Speaking of ways to spend your time, this guy sits still and smiles at a camera for four hours without stopping. You can watch him do it. Sixty times. That’s two-hundred and forty hours. Or ten full days. The universe: 95% stuff we can’t see. If you were a computer, this is what watching 2001: A Space Odyssey would look like. Maybe. “This is real,” she said, with pitch-perfect wtf.

Written by Christopher Butler on March 13, 2015,   In Essays

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