Interview with Robert Markison
Full Text
March 12, 1997

r is robert markison, the loquatious doctor.

j is me, justin, sufferer of hand woe and faithful student to many.

a is amy, my intrepid girlfriend and occasionally photographer.

becky typed this up for me, for money.

exercise, in season

j - what about physical exercise?

r - well, i'm just a great believer in walking and i think we're such a young country we tend to overdo the fitness idea and dressing up in spandex in front of background music in a subscriber gym and artifical environments. i mean we're basically around to take a swim and take a walk and

j - i started running a little bit. i feel like i like the circulation, upping circulation through my body

r - it's fine and you may be in the running season of your life. and i was and i was a long jumper and leaped as far as i could and did a lot of fun things athletically, competitively, including gymnastics. and so i did a lot of things in season and i'm out of season now

j - right, right, this is ecclesiatics. so, the season is, i just want to be sure that we get to some of the more tangible aspects, the questions in my interview about

r - let's go in the next room

pacing and pianists

j - the questions in my interview, i mean i don't really need to read them but they're a lot about what's going on with interface. i'm coming to this interview from a personal perspective, that is having seen you as a patient, being a person whose hands are screwed up and who's trying to figure out how i can work and why the computer might be such a deadly device or why i know other people who have, well, let me start with this - i asked about art tatum, jazz pianist, why didn't he have problems? why are there people who work for 12 hours on a computer a day for years and never have problems and then (snap) they get them?

r - right. well, the musicians who don't have problems are truly at ease with anything happening in their brain going on through their fingertips without any blocks, whether you're looking at it chinese-wise as chi energy blocks or whether you're looking at it as real uncertainty or lack of trust in self and heart. because the people who do stuff without any hesitation don't get strain. and its when you have moments of either doubt or ritual doing redoing too much too often without the sense and root desire to be efficient in self-expression then you will tend to get hurt if you overdo or redo and so sometimes people, despite the fact that they do beautiful work, just overdo it. so a guy like art tatum was an acknowledged genius and between art tatum and bill evans, these were the two great pianists of history. as far as i'm concerned. everything else is derivitive.

j - ok, that's interesting. huh. well, bill evans is more like the haiku which you were telling me about.

r - that's right, i think. but everything else is somewhat derivitive, and it's ok to be derivitive, if you can improvise you're fine, if you can't you're in trouble. and really again in darwin's universe where fitness is really defined as making it through potential struggle and ups and downs, based i think on creativity and improvisational skills. if you're hammering away at a keyboard and you keep trying to drill in a word and you're brain isn't filled with Roget's Thesaurus of synonyms and you don't have (snap) an instant new word, different word, just like me playing the little recorder flute thing for you, i had a gazillion ways to get from point a to b and c and back and frankly it didn't matter, it didn't matter at all, honestly

j - yeah

r - because i've paid my dues in chordes scales, rhythm harmony

his hand problems

j - but you've had hand problems

r - yes

j - because

r - the total aggregate of everything that i've done in my life, accepting my own fate and responsibilty in the course of it, in other words, i've had some mild left carpal tunnel sydrome for 12 years documented twice by electrical studies but wasn't severe enough to warrant release of the nerve

j - surgery

r - right. but i wouldn't deny it if it were necessary, i'd have a trusted collegue do it and that'd be fine. but i have a different sense of what life's all about. i accept the fact that we die in pieces, we start to decay in pieces, when i lost my hair towards the end of high school a little bit and then on through the twenties and then there's what you see now, except now gray through the 30s and 40s and its ok, that's all ok. because i've seen life, death, and disability again - its very hard, very hard

j - i would imagine working in an emergency room, losing your hair would be....

r - i'm very grateful to be alive every single day. there's nothing to make me regret it. and the shirt on my back is made by me. and that's a wonderful, reassuring, soothing every way to be.

j - so, let me ask you that about making stuff, you don't make the fabric you use.

r - no, i don't, except the felt. i do hand felting from carded wool from sheep.

j - ok

r - that's a scandanavian felting technique where you take take a washboard, some soapy water, some beautiful, sheared, clean, carded wool. then you rub it around and dip it in to make a matrix of felt. and then you make garments.

j - yeah, so you don't


r - i don't mill fabrics. you can't be absolutely pure in everything. cause, like i'm a vegetarian. have been long term, don't plan to go towards the animal kingdom any time soon.

j - no fish even.

r - don't need it. and so, which is great, fine, wonderful, i don't throw meatless energy at 20 feet of gut, trying to absorb undigestible goods. and so i've got plenty of creative energy cause i'm not throwing it at a gut level of primitive churning around to try to bring life back from a dead animal or product.

j - but sometimes i eat meat because it's got more substance, it makes me feel more full, it makes me feel like i have more animal energy to draw from.

r - again, my way is not your way. my general sense is that all dead animals resent it.

j - they do, they do, they do fight it, yeah, hum.

r - but it's ok. my way is not your way. i just avoid bad habits like nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine, animal products.


j - did you ever go through like a drug phase, like in exploring?

r - i have avoided all that stuff, because i thought it was not going to produce what i was trying to produce which is creative output, means rock solid in a number of contexts

j - yeah, rock solid.

r - i want to be a professional and that really means in the operating room being within lots of millimeter tolerances and there's no room for any intoxicants, ever, in the life span of a surgeon as far as i'm concerned. you take on a way of life, it's not plug in-plug out. you could define life as a path and a way, to see and learn and do, and so you don't need to have anything that's going to alter your set of senses that you use very carefully. you understand that, its okay, you just say no, that's my own precious view and again, my way's not the only way. i just think that creativity and improvised behavior and good company is what life's all about.


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

j - i can't

r - all my media, you know i do all my media in real charcoal and airbrushing, and pastel, and all that, sculpt clay, but i just don't like to sit in front of a computer. i don't like to stand in front 'em, kneel in front of 'em, i don't like to get near 'em. i mean i do it to tolerance cause i'm still academically active and publishing chapters, and some articles. i don't like 'em. and i'm very grateful that i've cultivated dictation skills so that all the words can be me on the dictaphone and somebody comes in and transcribes it onto a computer

j - then they're the ones...yeah, i started doing dictation but then i think about, then i'm asking other people to bear my injuries for me.

r - that's right, you do that. and you have to figure if there's any bartering you can do.

j - hm. well, what then, you read my questions i guess, i run into people who have hand problems, work through them, they get worse and then they're cut open more than once. they're getting lots of cortizon shots. the prospects are dim for people who, not only are working with poor devices, but need to work with them for money and can't work with someone like you who is enlightened and going to open up, you know...

r - well, ok, going down the list just so we're sure we haven't missed anything. and i'm on your list right now. ask if it was playing music that encouraged me to work with hands and why have i specialized in hand/wrist and i think i've mentioned that -

j - you mentioned that, yeah

r - ...the most broadly represented part of the human brain...

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