Digital identities

Something strange happened when I grew up.

Phone numbers as identity

As a high school student, I gave my email address readily, and reserved my phone number only for people I actually wanted to communicate with. Email was (still) easy to filter and ignore; I only logged in once a week and seldom replied to anything. I was most readily reachable via phone.

Phone numbers usually came with contract plans; they were non-portable, each change meant mass-messaging one’s new number to one’s contacts. At that age my peers changed email addresses on a whim, and phone numbers were our only constant.

Emails as identity

As a working adult, things have changed. Now I give my phone number readily, and my personal email address seldom. Phone calls are easy to ignore, especially with a phone in vibrate-only mode.

Emails are still easy to filter, which makes it easier to sort personal correspondence from spammy fluff; it is phones which have become unfilterable, with a UPS delivery call being almost undifferentiable from a telemarketing call.

I have had more than a decade to grow into my email identity, and wouldn’t let go of it for all the world. My phone number now comes from a prepaid plan, because I don’t call often and like the freedom of being able to switch telco service providers on a whim. I use mobile broadband much more often than I use calltime and SMS messages, especially with WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and other messaging services fast replacing them.

The phone number now becomes an impersonal collection of figures, reflecting little personality, while our email carries the collective baggage of everything that has happened to us since we decided on that strange text string to identify ourselves by.

Technology as magic emulation

I have always found emulation, especially of computer systems, one of the hardest concepts to explain to folks who have little knowledge of computing (a la the nitty-gritty details of what goes on under that plastic/aluminium chassis). In part, that is because emulation is such a subterranean process. Business prefer their customers not to be aware of the nuts and bolts of what makes their services seamless; the failure to provide a “seamless” experience is considered a UX failure, a let-down in service experience.

Reading The Sixth Stage of Grief a few months ago (yes, this post is way overdue), I found an interesting description of OS emulation.

You typically need four things to emulate an old computer:
An operating system. Once you have the emulator and the ROM it’s like you actually own a new, old, computer—but it lacks for an operating system. Want to experience System 6.08 for your Mac? Workbench 2 for the Amiga? Microsoft DOS 6.22? You’ll likely make a fake hard drive. Then you actually install the real, authentic operating system onto the fake hard drive. Sometimes you will need to “insert” fake “floppy disks” into the fake “floppy drive” in order to install the real operating system onto the fake “hard drive” on the fake “computer.” (This is accomplished by clicking buttons.) Then you’ll “reboot.” It’s all very weird.

The word “fake” is used six times. The word “real”, two times. The word “fake” is used in reference to hardware (hard drive, floppies, computer), “real” for software (operating system). Paul Ford knew what he was writing, and this usage of the two terms reflects more about the nature of emulation than about our perceptions of them.
Continue reading Technology as magic emulation

Revisiting the ghost’s shell: the possessor and the puppeteer

Previously, we touched on the affordances of a game controller (and a game’s control scheme) as an extension of the body. And we examined the process of getting into a game proprioceptively, in some depth: this is a mediation of two interfaces, the body–controller interface, and the controller–game interface. Successful proprioception involves compounding the two interfaces into one, such that bodily movements get mapped directly to on-screen outcomes. For example, instead of subconsciously thinking “right index finger presses trigger, trigger causes main weapon to fire”, the mapping becomes “right finger ? main weapon fire”, so that one is soon able to fire the main weapon without grappling consciously with the controller interface.

This calls to mind a sporting analogy: to make the racket/stick/sporting-instrument “an extension of your body”. This certainly is not an overnight process. One starts out getting used to the various sensations, of catching a ball at the wrong part of the swing, of angling the racket in various positions, of reaching with the racket while mid-stride, … then one starts compiling an experiential library of various scenarios—overhead balls, flat shots, smashes, and so on. (These stages often do not separate cleanly, but we can think of them as separate processes.) What follows then is a conscious analysis of one’s technique, thinking about rational responses to each situation, and then training the body to respond to these situations subconsciously. We can say this is a mapping of proprioceptive responses to sensed scenarios.

It readily follows, then, that each game has its own set of strategies, which calls for its own set of mappings. A response–scenario mapping that works for squash would not work for tennis or badminton. And it is a ready leap from this analogy to video gaming: different mappings for different games.

But there is a key difference here. The sportsman has “direct access” to his sporting weapon, while the videogamer’s experience is mediated through his perception of his avatar. How exactly does that work? How does a video gamer come to make their avatar “an extension of their body”? Continue reading Revisiting the ghost’s shell: the possessor and the puppeteer

2015 thawing

I’ve had a nice long break from writing now, and would very much like to get back into it. It’s almost shameful to think that in the past ten months I’ve only written two études, less than a thousand words in total, but rather dense, layered writing, which I found a delightful challenge. But the mind needs other things to scratch its itch.

The truth is, that after Readmill’s demise I haven’t found any suitable replacement for my notetaking yet. What Readmill provided was not only a place to highlight and annotate, but to have conversations with other readers on those highlights and annotations, and that sparked a lot of the writing that followed at the end of 2013. Twingl, a browser extension for highlighting and annotating the web, was also invaluable at that stage for helping make connections, especially more so when they had Readmill integration. But now most of my reading takes place in iBooks and Pocket, and the friction of syncing and exporting my notes from service to service, coupled with the lack of a notetaking service that enables note-linking, dampens the whole otherwise-delightful experience of building idea-webs in the mind.

Regardless, I will do my best to write what I can, and look forward to the better integration of various reading, highlighting, and notetaking services.

Some things that I have been up to since the last post:

  1. I’ve upgraded WordPress, updated the theme to Twenty Fifteen, removed most of my customisations. I am increasingly finding the work of customising and shaping my blog to be a tedium, even as I find it more and more important. but I’ve decided to focus these shaping efforts on narrative rather than design, and you will (hopefully soon) see that I’ve directed my writing toward a few consistent narrative themes.
  2. I’ve activated Markdown support for comments and posts, and have ported my posts mostly to Markdown as well. An unillustrious writing history enabled me to complete this in an afternoon.
  3. I’ve been gaming as always, and have a couple more insights that I hope to integrate into my revisiting the ghost’s shell narrative.
  4. I bought a 3D printer, a printrbot Simple Metal, and it has made me revisit quite a few ideas, particularly Bruce Sterling’s ideas on futurism. Maybe another narrative theme on this sometime in the future.

If all goes well, I should have the next post out this weekend. See you then.

Étude #2

On the NoPhone.


(351 words)

The hallmark of great user experience is not a presence, but an absence—of anxiety. Anxiety is a mark of sub-optimal micro-interactions; with things, with people, with environments. How could I have done it better?

An enlightened mind faces a different anxiety, a mark of sub-optimal choice of micro-interactions; with things, with people, with environments. What could I have done instead?

Is it okay to use my information-device when I could be talking to a fellow complex sentient? Is it okay to talk to a fellow sentient when the occasion is blessed with great weather and that rare breeze, the fruits of a complex space-ball of mass-energy hurtling through space? Is it okay to be enjoying the sensuous fruits of said space ball when my complex information device, by my instruction, is trying to get my attention with something that could be urgent?

Our weapon against anxiety is irony. Irony defuses our self-expectations, shorts the circuits that process this complexity. Turns a complex sentient into a stereotype, a complex space-ball into a nostalgic image, a complex information device into mere moulded plastic. A NoPerson, a NoEarth, a NoPhone. A NoThing cannot feel envy, or engender jealousy.

But juxtaposed faces cannot be highlighted only on one side. As irony slaps the cheek of our sub-optimal choices, we unwittingly turn the other cheek, raising our unexamined envy for sacrifice.

Our weapon against irony is empathy. Where irony seeks to compress and summarise, empathy seeks to experience and individualise. Envy is arrested, stopped dead in its tracks by complexity, by the full magnitude of unanxious engagement with information-devices, with sentients, with space-balls.

Let us cling to our NoPhones, NoPersons, and NoEarths for those moments when the cross of empathy wears us thin. And when our souls, recharged from the great inexhaustible source of life, are filled again with the fire of vocation, let us leave our NoThings to bear our enlightened anxieties, the NoPerson interacting anxiously with the NoPhone to gather more information on the NoEarth, and be free. To engage fully in our interactions, and to let others be engaged fully in theirs.

Étude #1

An attempt at an étude—short but dense writing—as introduced by Venkatesh Rao on ribbonfarm. It didn’t start off as one; it was supposed to be a short Facebook post, but after some typing, grew into this. (It ended up being posted on Facebook anyway.)


(305 words)

The “digital native” is a fallacy.

There are people who are curious about product features, people who are creative in the way they use digital tools, people who are clear about what they want and need a tool designed exactly for that, people who are insanely flexible in their workflows, people who are insanely rigid in their workflows, …

But there are no digital natives. No one speaks binary as a mother tongue. No one was born in the digital ether. No one is wired for the digital ether.

Our experience of digital information is mediated by architects, programmers, and designers, of information systems and interfaces. Even text-based command interfaces are a challenge in design: lexical and grammatical.

Our social interactions are also mediated by ritual interfaces. The greeting. The introduction. The handshake. The smalltalk dance. The shared-with-public announcement. The friends-only personal celebration. Calling a friend’s name to ping their information stream. Social networks are not a digital thing, but we now have digital interfaces for them.

There are complex interfaces, and there are simple interfaces. There are fixed interfaces, and there are contextual interfaces. There are strict interfaces, and forgiving interfaces. Each unfamiliar interface has to be learnt anew, lest we commit ritual faux pas and are reprimanded to our inter-faces. The socially able are proficient at reading social interfaces. The digitally able are proficient at reading digital interfaces. There is nothing “native” about it; our grammatical skills are native, but the way we apply them to various interfaces are not.

So give the non-native a break. No one is supposed to be native at these things. It’s why we have “etiquette” courses. “Computer” courses are the same thing in different guise.

Be a gracious interface. Learn to make gracious interfaces, learn to teach gracious interfacing. Because none of us are natives at this.