Interview with Robert Markison
subject: on computers/interface issues
March 12, 1997
r is robert markison, the loquatious doctor.j - yeah. you don't see yourself living the life that the future is urging us towards?
j is me, justin, sufferer of hand woe and faithful student to many.
r - well, i enjoy it. i've mingled in digital media, to tolerance. that's important.
j - to tolerance.
r - that's really important. because i realized that as soon as you took silicon sand off the beach and turned it into a chip, you did something horrible to the cycle and rhythm of nature. because the rhythm of nature was waves washing over that silicon sand, ok? that's action and repose. which is like this, a series of cycles of action and repose. the wave, the peak, the troth, back and forth, the flow and ebb of tides, natural time and cycles and rhythms. digital time is reversed in so far as it is a no wait state of progressive chip speed increases waiting for the warm-blooded primate to escape natural rhythm and cycles and get into some giddy, frantic, digital squirrel wheel with an ironic plastic object that has no feelings.
j - testify, wow.
r - that's it. and then you add poor design to the digital interface and now you've got an even bigger mess.
j - see that's what i got off on the computer is that i felt like, with the device, with the keyboard, that the computer of today, and if i could afford it, the computer that i would have would allow me to make music and to make pictures, and to...without having to buy art supplies, i would have this one tool that would allow me to forge all these things in dialogue with thousands of people out in the world and the history of arts could be part of my images and this kind of giddy...
r - right
j - you know, and that's why, but, i don't know, so what
r - so you need real world linkages for that kind of function and you have to retreat from the digital quisinart and go back into the fundamental, hands-on, how its done, step by step, of putting together your life, from the ground up. that's why the metaphor of shoemaking is so important to me because i'm building my ease with comfort from the ground up, cause that's why my interface, the shoe, between me and the ground
j - so what what then about the computer, i mean it's really taken hold, it's clearly going to permeate the household and the office even more so.
r - the market test for computing was the captive audience captivated by television. to what extent people would sit in front of the box and a screen and maybe have their family and friends around, its true that once chips came in then it would be a seller's market for computers. and that's what happened. and then as soon as they added a little interaction to it, it became more captivating. and so now what we have is captive folk who are tending now to think and say the same things based on prompting from the screen. and so people in a chat room coming out of kenya are not talking about the beautiful natural dyes that make kenyan fabric, they're talking about, where can i get a pair of nikes, cheap? which is ok but the homoginization and erosion of human identity that flows from linkages is significant. and so if you've had identity to start with, you'll be cautious about the wear and tear that it takes on identity period in human species.
j - well, i've seen digital space as a place for myself to create
r - that's right, and i don't knock it at all, cause you understand we're birds of a feather to some extent as far as you've seen that i had to more than fiddle with this stuff to get all this teaching material down and then i make a statement. but i'm cautious about it, got to approach avoidance with it, which is really to tolerance, to tolerance not having a web page, not having... people can find me - i've never advertised me a day in my life everybody's found me and i'm grateful for their confidence, and yours including - i will never advertise under any circumstances ever. i will never do that. and that's good because i know that i'm not putting myself out as mass goods. i accept the fact that the media will take me out, and i have been on things that you saw, you know, macniel lehrer, smart questioning coming from good interviewers. and again i appreciate the confidence. my role, if there is one, in society is to gently nudge people to do better with themselves and in the case of computers with the interface, cause computers are dreadful design on a good day. and if that's true, why are they and why are they still?
j - yeah, why are they still?
r - and this is based on, if you saw the triumph of the nerds on kqed, it was about the evolution of the computer, starting from the homebrew computer club that you know about onwards to things that suddenly had a keyboard and later had a mouse once they took the thing out of xerox parc and apple put it together
j - and doug englebart and all that
r - yeah that's right,through the 60s on. all that stuff was really making the human primate end user an afterthought. they wanted a binary system with rapid switching devices and then the primate who operates it is an afterthought. human factors have limped along because the average industrial designer/ engineer has never dissected the human body and/or seen it in health and disease.
j - but here we are and we're aware of it and you're here right, so do you work and do you take that knowledge you have and work in conjuction with people who design, the engineering end of things?
r- it's there for anybody who's real and reasonable to call me and say, we have a project at the drawing board level and we'd love to work with you. i'm available for that, i have been used in various ways where people have tried to buy my endorsement for a shrinkwrapped shitty(shady?) product
j - oh, that's a little different, yeah right.
r - and that's basically the essence of the giddy computer marketing arm. they say let's run it by markison if we have his stamp then that might mean it's user friendly and i'm not the underwriter of the human body, and i don't hold myself as the ultimate authority on this stuff, but ive just seen all the mistakes made so often repetitively and in the occassions where i've invited industrial designers to chat on my nickle for lunch, just to say 'why are you making these mistakes' with hand intensive
j - yeah, again and again
r - middle finger intensive, hand intensive, twisted limb intensive interfaces - could you would you? are you interested in learning something? but they 'ah well things are going pretty well right now, its ok cause we can write off 15 plus percent of end users and the other 85% of a big market are ok'
j - so they don't get stressed out and they don't have problems yet
r - that's right and so it's really a question of where were shoes, again, i keep getting back to shoes, we didn't define left and right shoes until the mid 19th century, we didn't define shoe patterns until the 19-teens and '20s standardized for men and women and children, so now in the latter 20th century we still don't have the two tenants of industrial design which are choice and or adjustability for keyboards and the whole setup and everything else. we're willing to enslave the most broadly represented body part on the brain, the human hand, to a cursor pointing device. i mean, when Elias howell was working in the sewing maching in the 1860s he said, let's have a foot treadle so that we don't wear out the upper limbs making black fabric, with a foot treadle. when the automobile was invented it could go plenty fast, with a foot pedal. and so we haven't even done things that would be appropriate for the end user. we're not even thinking about it, it comes from bits and pieces from small entity inventors,
j - yeah, exactly
r - who are ultimately infringed by well capitalized big companies as their ideas are diluted. and as a gargage guerilla, meaning an inventor who can really solve problems in a gargage, i'm sensitive to the fact that it's not a good time to be an independent free-thinking inventor in america. it was, during the time of the founding fathers, but now its a very predatory environment
j - hmm.
r - and so most things are done in a quick and dirty fashion, plenty of capital behind it and then they're made offshore where no there's no prayer of prototyping adquately for people of all sizes, shapes, ages, abilities, disabilities. and so if you can't have the learning lab onshore where we make things that are really intelligent and look 5 -10 -20 years ahead, then we're going to be hideous - fated to recreate bad designs, which in some cases can be career-shortening bad
j - and what we're also going to have is a burgeoning hand and wrist specialist profession of all the people who are working to heal all the people who are crippled from the use, the overuse of their hands and arms. as soon as i developed my hand problem, i've been approached by a woman who told me to strap magnets onto my wrists, it'd be the way to address my problem and as well i've had little electrical currents sent through my muscles and i mean, burning needles with herbs on the ends, i mean, you know....
r - and i don't like to see that, my goal, as you've probably gathered, is not to be needed. my goal is not to be needed. i mean some practicioners in the allied fields of medicine will say, yes i can help you with accupuncture three times a week in perpetuity and then when you die, i give you a price break. and that's not good and as a patient passive-dependent consumer of your knowledge or hands-on technique, so again, its partly not information that can presumably get people out of trouble. and if there isn't a good interface to go back to, then it's a question of, do you offload the limbs to the voice for example, do voice-recognition at a halting pace? do you incorporate little hands-free mouse for the foot with a foot mouse? and what do you do if you're going to be mingling in the digital arena? can you dictate to handle information and have someone come in and take the dictation? so it's raised basic questions but until we get to the true design issue of how do we make a good interface, and really think it through. again, you know, you've got a 7 year old in elementary school with a grown-up full-size keyboard and some pushy teacher says, learn touch typing and he's trying to spread a little finger to perimeter keys. then you understand there's ignorance in the whole process and so on an anthropological level, and again the reason i studied and study anthropology is to see that some basal joint where a joint in the wrist 45,000 years old in the context of 1.2 to 1.8 million years of hand-wrist evolution. the new kid on the block, subject to battery, if i had an iq of anything would i make a space bar that thrashed this new joint in the human hand and then wore it down in the middle age person, mostly women, needing sometimes joint replacements? or would i rethink, how do you make space between words? i mean there are many things that could be done that are not being done that are really not expensive to do. and so seeing these constant mistakes with some hope and naive optimism as i was a multi-media developer in the late 80s, i'm losing faith in the capacity of industrial designers to design for humans. and that really means, do we become the dumbest species in history, self extincting by the destruction of the upperlimbs?
j - plug in, plug out, yeah
r - well, do we self-extinct through loss of the upper limb capacity and it took us so much evolution to get to the human hand, do we devolve based on dis-abling design? and that's the issue - are we too stupid to design happily to maintain brain hand linkages in a divine, precious system so that we get what we deserve because we're idiots?
j - this sounds like a manifesto or something that you would raise from the
r - well, these are gentle, gentle questionings about who we are and how we do things
j - well, 35% of american homes have computers now
r - right, well, we don't have one at home
j - oh, really
r - yeah,
j - but you have two at the office
r - right, one for voice and one for running the front end of the thing and i'm not doing any multimedia development until i see that there's a reasonable interface for a guy who's more than half-way through his life with carpal tunnel syndrome to get back there and make more stuff, meaning me. so i'm not going to do much computing at all in the foreseeable future until i see that the interface...
j - you mean pen and voice aren't enough to get you back on?
r - no they're not, no
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