With the title Talk to Me, the design exhibition currently on view at MoMA is naturally required to include some lectures, talks and curated conversations around and about the content. That content, which includes recent design work using and addressing technology to communicate, is fantastic, but also takes some time and focus to get through. The objects, videos and concepts on view are both about, and often require, the complexity and delight of communication and interaction. Simply, it's not a show one can merely peruse (great stimulation = quick brain drain). Lucky for us, MoMA Senior Curator Paola Antonelli hosted a Symposium last week in which, appropriately, several designers, artists and activists talked about the works in the show, design and communication.
The event kicked off with a keynote conversation and presentation with Antonelli, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich of Radiolab, writer Steven Johnson, and Eyewriter co-designer Zach Lieberman. In a loosely-guided discussion, they talked about designs, both in our everyday and the exhibition, which address the increasingly blurred line between human and machine. (One irresistable highlight being "Hi, a real human interface" by Multitouch Barcelona that we wrote about last week.)
The Radiolab guys talked about their uneasy attraction to "Julie," the perky and friendly computerized voice of the Amtrak customer service system. (Watch this Saturday Night Live skit where Julie mingles at a party, and you'll get it.) And of course, with it just released a week prior, Siri, Apple's new assistant-on-demand living in the iPhone 4S quickly came up. They also discussed a few more blatantly attractive (by way of being cute) responsive robots: the talking stuffed animal Furby, and Kacie Kinzer's Tweenbot, which is in the exhibition.
Kacie Kinzer's Tweenbot
With a simple cardboard body, with big red wheels, two rectangle arms, and paunch belly, topped off with two big black eyes and a smile, the Tweenbot is an endlessly interesting design prop for studying human behavior. Its robotics are totally simple—it rolls. Forward. The key element is its flag, which implores anyone nearby to help it get to where its going. Everyone who sees it smiles, nudges it along, turns it around when it hits a wall. Onstage on Tuesday, Antonelli started it up, and it was saved from falling off the stage a few times.
Radiolab also played a clip from one of their episodes, in which computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum discusses his invention, ELIZA, a computer therapist. The therapist voice (again female) conducts a conversation with the user by merely repeating back what has been said in a different way or question form. (i.e. Person: "I feel sad today." Computer: "Why do you feel sad?") Weizenbaum found that his employees, even knowing that it was a program, couldn't tear themselves away from talking to it.
With Siri, Julie and ELIZA in mind, Antonelli, Abumrad, Krulwich and Johnson discussed the fast-approaching line of questionable ethics that these robots-disguised-as-humans raise. Johnson pointed out that "one of the biggest fears of humans is mistaking the robot for humans." Are people being deceived by these technologies and designs? Have we lost control to them? Hasn't that always been the fear with new technologies?
Berg's SVK Comic
Berg's SVK Comic
The next day of the Talk to Me Symposium was filled with fantastic speakers and conversations about projects that either test our limits with technology, or directly address those very questions. Matt Jones and Jack Schulze of Berg Design presented their wonderfully optimistic work, like a comic book in which you can read character's minds using a UV pen. Later, Natalie Jereminjenko talked about a program she designed in which natural bird calls trigger a voice (male) that explained environmental issues effecting birds, and what a person can do about it.
Many of the projects in the Talk to Me exhibition show the power and responsibility that designers have as creators of objects, services, and systems that we interact with everyday. As the Radiolab discussion brought up, it can be a tenuous line of control. The cute Tweenbot appeals to our instinctive nature to assist a seemingly helpless, adorable thing get to where it's going. ELIZA appeals to our inherent desire to talk about ourselves and thoughts.
Design and Scriptwriting Panel
In the Radiolab discussion, Steven Johnson pointed out that "human tendency is to try to trick machines." For evidence of this, look at how quickly sites on the hilarity of messing with Siri arose. The panel led by Jamer Hunt on "Design and Scriptwriting" also touched on this tendency, with designer Ayse Birsel, "internet enthusiast" Kenyatta Cheese, and Area/Code founder Kevin Slavin. Cheese talked about the proliferation of tumblr sites in which fans of TV shows like Glee snag moments that they like in the show, and create animated gifs, essentially taking what they find most interesting and useful, and manipulating it for themselves. Slavin used rock-climbing route-setting as an example of design and the way that climbers approach the routes—watching, testing and working with them to get to the top. Similarly to Johnson's comments the night before on humans tricking machines, Slavin said, "People are going to find the way out—they will work around when they don't have control."
What the Talk to Me symposium and exhibition show so masterfully, is that while designers do have the terrific responsibility to create routes for users, it is a constant, multi-faceted, evolving conversation between user and designer. The machines are made by humans, and human use is (usually) required for them to operate. As designers, our tools are getting more complex, and are always changing. Talk to Me shows some of the best ways that designers are playing with them to keep the conversation interesting.
Watch video of the whole Talk to Me Symposium here.