Revisiting the ghost’s shell: adjusting to new bodies and minds

[Caution] This post is going to be a potentially confusing sequence of vignettes. I’ll connect them as much as I can, but I may not be on to anything here at all—the power of the human mind to rationalise anything is powerful, and I am in its grip here. Sometimes I think it’s better I try not to explain anything, and just describe the confusion as it is.


I have never been much of an exercising person, so it was with some surprise (and relief) that I got my Silver fitness award and realised that I wouldn’t have to enlist early and join the two-month preparatory fitness programme. I felt anything but fit, and ready for military training.

I got a Gold award once, at some point during my two years of compulsory service, a feat I never repeated. I don’t remember how I did it, but it didn’t feel harder than all the other fitness tests I had gone through.

Now, ten years on, I am still not an exercising person, and fitness tests feel as difficult as before. It’s no surprise to me now that I keep failing a particular section of the test: the 2.4km run. Instead, what surprises me sometimes is how I manage to achieve a better timing than what I thought I would, based on how ready I feel. I hear some exercising folks are able to predict their timings down to the minute. I really would like to know how they do it, although I suspect they don’t—they feel it.

How does one know how far one will jump at a given instant? How does one know how quickly one can cover a distance?

Continue reading Revisiting the ghost’s shell: adjusting to new bodies and minds

Short-term memory and productivity: a theory of hold time

Over the past few months, I have observed some curious things about my workflow. They are not rigorously measured; in fact the only way I have noticed these is mainly by looking at the system clock, or wall clock. I don’t have the kind of free time that would allow me to really set up ways to verify this, but if there are any published papers on this phenomenon (or lack thereof) I would love a pointer to them.

  1. Simple tasks (sending emails, collating names) take about the same time both on the desktop at home, and on the laptop at work.
  2. Complex tasks (timetabling, collating multiple columns of student information, searching for images and videos) take longer on the work laptop tan on the desktop. And I mean sometimes as much as 3 or 4 times longer.
  3. I lose my train of thought at work much more easily, and hence fall out of a state of flow more frequently.

A simple explanation for this is that my internet connection is faster at home, my desktop is faster (though the effects of this are pretty negligible except for niche tasks like image processing), and my screen is bigger. But how does this lead to a three- or four-fold change in productivity? I don’t think speed differences in hardware alone can sufficiently account for this.
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Inhabiting a desktop

I once tried an MOOC, edX’s Future Cities. It was everything I expected, and I “dropped out” after the third lesson. I had what I wanted: a new term for a new discipline, “Information Architecture”, and examples of how not to do it—the MOOC itself was such an example.

Information Architecture is a discipline that looks at how information is structured. If physical architecture is the partitioning and ordering of space and material, information architecture is the sorting and hierarchical organisation of information and the ways in which it interacts. Databases, contacts, calendars, these are forms of structured information which we are familiar with. They come in a certain expected format: an event invitation would be very strange if it did not mention date, time, and venue, at the very least. But it can quickly get complicated as well. A huge event, such as a conference, with multiple breakoff seminars and sessions, can itself contain multiple overlapping events in multiple venues with multiple people. How is this information to be organised and presented? As we walk through the conference hallways and foyers, how do we see this information arrayed around us?

I’ve been paying more attention to coworkers’ desks lately. I don’t mean the physical desk, the physical structure of wood and steel, but the tangible desk, the way things are laid out. Which photographs and mementos take pride of place, the way in which paper is stacked, and spills over to adjacent spaces, the arrangement of the tiny paper-flanked cubbyhole where the laptop sits, . . . . We all have the same desk and cabinet and shelves, but over time we come to identify each coworker’s desk by this unique arrangement of personal effects. We inhabit our desks. Continue reading Inhabiting a desktop

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.
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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