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Complexity in the interface Age
An Interview with Jeremy J. Shapiro

Ubiquity, Volume 2001 Issue November, November 1 - November 30, 2001 | BY Ubiquity staff 


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Do you control technology or does it control you? Jeremy J. Shapiro talks about the power struggle in machine/human relationships and what it means today to be information-technology literate. Shapiro is a faculty member in the Human and Organization Development Program at the Fielding Graduate Institute.

Complexity in the Interface Age

Do you control technology or does it control you? Jeremy J. Shapiro talks about the power struggle in machine/human relationships and what it means today to be information-technology literate. Shapiro is a faculty member in the Human and Organization Development Program at the Fielding Graduate Institute.

UBIQUITY: What information technology issues are on your mind these days?

JEREMY J. SHAPIRO: I'm really aware today of that aspect of our technological environment that has to do with interfacing and interoperability and all of the obstacles and headaches connected with that. It's a domain that interests me both as a user and as well as intellectually.

UBIQUITY: Can you give us some examples?

SHAPIRO: Well, about two or three months ago I bought a digital video camera that also takes still pictures. To do anything with them, you have to connect it to a computer. All of a sudden, either the video camera or the computer or the connection between them or the software that makes it possible for them to communicate properly, stopped working on my computer. It reminds me of something that I became aware of when I first started using computer technology 20 years ago, which is that things may work very well by themselves, but as soon as you have to interface them or connect them to something else, there are all kinds of headaches. I tend to be the type of person who connects things to other things so I also probably have an above average share of headaches connected with interfacing and the fact that all of these things are supposed to smoothly plug and play and connect but they often don't. That can be very aggravating. And of course the problems are often idiosyncratic combinations of things that, as a tech support person told me over the phone recently in response to a different interfacing problem I was having, "we're not trained to deal with."

UBIQUITY: When did you first become aware of the problem?

SHAPIRO: When I first started using a computer in 1981, a friend in the computer industry told me, "You have to get certain magazines to find out about computers: I recommend one called 'Interface Age'." Uncomprehendingly I responded, "Interface Age?" I couldn't even parse it as a linguistically meaningful phrase. Somehow the words and their juxtaposition made no sense to me. Of course that magazine went out of existence years ago. But, in retrospect, "Interface Age" is a really apropos title for the aspect of our lives that has to do with connecting things with each other -- as apropos as "Internet Age", which is really a part of the larger "Interface Age." Today I live in an "Interface Age" -- and it seems problematic.

UBIQUITY: What other issues are on your mind?

SHAPIRO: I am interested in the old "sorcerer's apprentice" issue: the way in which technologies that are supposed to be instruments and servants of people are their masters. I have been thinking of making a T-shirt called "People are merely means for the creation of better technologies." Often it seems to me that that's the way it is. But, at the same time, I like to be part of the process of technological expansion. Even though there's a part of me that kvetches about it, I also am enamored of the way in which technology has a life of its own. Even though my T-shirt slogan is ironic, I also realize that technologies do in part develop in this way: out of their own tropism or their own almost biological tendency to grow independently of the fact that they're supposed to be servants of people. My other proposed T-shirt slogan, based on experiences in organizational life, is, "Individuals are smart, but organizations are really stupid." Often, organizational uses of technology are stupider than individual uses of technology. There seems to be a huge cultural lag because of this fact. Often organizational decisions about technology and its uses are stupid.

UBIQUITY: Can you give an example of that?

SHAPIRO: I recently had to deal with one in which an organization planned a live Webcast to different sites without first checking whether the sites had the appropriate broadband Internet connections. Of course this is only an example of the larger issue that organizations and individuals sometimes do things without checking out all the systemic aspects or implications of what they're doing. Years after systems thinking and ecological thinking and cybernetic thinking have penetrated into our culture in general and organizational rhetoric in particular, they are only occasionally reflected in practice.

UBIQUITY: Let me go back and ask about the interface problems.

SHAPIRO: I am generally an anti-Microsoft person rather than a pro-Microsoft person. I don't mean this just as a statement about the crash-proneness of Microsoft Windows or the company's monopolistic business practices or their current plans to replace purchasing software with leasing it, all of which are well-known and well-documented and highly problematic. Regardless of the Justice Department settlement, it is a no-brainer that the operating system and the application software shouldn't be made and sold by the same company. Rather, I'm talking about the underlying model of the computer user as na�ve, passive consumer. I am one of those old-fashioned people who doesn't like everything to be done for me invisibly behind the scenes. I like to understand how it's done, and through that understanding be able to influence it myself. It's not just a personal preference, it's a political belief in autonomy and the decentralization of power. Part of my current frustration about interfacing has to do with the fact that in the Microsoft world, more and more things happen invisibly, behind the scenes, without your knowledge or approval. It is supposed to make things easier for users, but it actually makes things harder because everything is invisible. When I first got a computer 20 years ago I didn't know anything about computers. I taught myself on the old CP/M operating system. As with UNIX and Linux today, information was accessible about the internal construction of the operating system. If you have a problem, there is then at least a chance that you could actually see what was going on and change it. For example, I once rewrote part of the operating system so that I could send foreign accent marks to my printer. In the Microsoft environment, that information isn't available -- and if it was and you tried to do something like that, you'd probably be sued for intellectual property violations.

UBIQUITY: So do you think we should all become computer programmers?

SHAPIRO: It's not that I think that everybody has to do it themselves, but it's good to have that option. It's a bit like freedom of information in the political sphere. Not everyone seeks out certain kinds of governmental information, but it's essential to democracy and informed public opinion that they are able to do so. In the current computer environment, things are constantly being done to your computer without your approval or knowledge: files are installed, defaults are set, programs try to access the Internet, information is recorded and transmitted, all without your knowledge. Ads are injected, cookies are deposited, and so on. That is an operating environment that I find not only distasteful and hard to use but morally and politically reprehensible, because it means that you are subject to the control of mysterious entities that are not in your own environment that you can't really talk back to. Imagine if you came home after work and found that, while you were gone, someone had changed your brand of toothpaste, thrown out magazines you were saving and replaced them with others, put someone else's clothes in an empty drawer in your dresser. I don't like that type of operating environment -- it's totalitarian. And it makes interfacing more difficult because you don't have information that would be helpful in rectifying problems. While I think it's good that people can connect things without having to be computer programmers, the way that it's done in today's environment brings a whole host of other problems with it that relate to the complexity in interfacing.

UBIQUITY: Do you see a tension between your two major points -- the first point being the desirability of having openness and transparency and the ability to let people add to the operating system themselves, and your second point that people can become slaves to technology? It seems to me that the people who have to throw themselves into technology just in order to use it do become slaves to the technology.

SHAPIRO: I think that in an ideal world there would probably be several layers or ways of relating to the technology. For example, in the old days if you had a car, you could either learn to tune it up yourself or you could take it to a garage that would tune it up for you. Both of those were legitimate and possible ways of relating to the car. Now, partly because of the computerization of cars, it's very difficult and often impossible to tune up your own car. At least in the UNIX environment, end users who want to can use various graphic interfaces so that they don't have to deal with certain things, but people who want to deal with those things are given the information and the possibility of dealing with them. This enables people to define their own level of relationship to the technology more easily than the current Microsoft environment does. The issue is different with regard to information technology than with regard to other technologies, precisely because the technology is about information and knowledge. For example, a cleaning service comes to my home and in the process of cleaning it sees that a light bulb is burned out and replaces the light bulb, or sees that the window is dirty and washes it, without my explicit instruction. Great! I want them to do such things. But if they looked at my desk and saw papers lying around and decided to straighten them up, put things from the top of the desk into drawers, add papers that weren't there in the beginning, I'd be very upset. Why? Because those papers are part of the content and organization of my mind in a way that the windows and lightbulbs aren't. Computer technology is, to use a McLuhanesque expression, an extension of your mind -- if other people are controlling it, they're controlling your mind. My observation is that it's hard not to become a slave of technology -- or at least of someone else controlling you through it.

UBIQUITY: Is it a matter of not feeling in control of your environment?

SHAPIRO: In Gene Rochlin's book, "Trapped in the Net" he had a wonderful example of this problem. He and some researchers from Berkeley were on a naval vessel -- an aircraft carrier or a battleship -- that typically is refueled by a tanker coming alongside and running a hose from one boat to the next. It's a very delicate operation because if the ships aren't aligned properly, then the hose can come out and cause a fuel spill. The Navy was installing on the ship a multimillion-dollar computerized method of refueling so that an operator could sit in front of a computer monitor and through various sensors watch the boats being aligned and know at what point to open the hose or the fuel tank. When they interviewed the ship's captain about the system, he said, "The Navy is spending millions of dollars installing that but I'm never going to use it." And they asked, "What do you mean?" He said, "Let me show you how we do it now." He picked up a thing like a broomstick that had two little rings attached to it and said, "If I look out the porthole of my boat and I align one end of this stick with the other end with the tanker, then I can see when they're all in a perfectly straight line. If somebody's checking the alignment through the mediation of all these technological devices, I will never have 100 percent certainty that they're aligned properly in the same way that I can with this gadget," which I think he had made at a cost of $3.75 by getting a broomstick and tying two little rings onto it. He added, "And if the computerized installation breaks down, they'll have to fly in somebody from San Diego or Washington to fix it."

UBIQUITY: And the moral is . . . ?

SHAPIRO: The point of the story is that in a sense there's an unconscious conspiracy to make people be slaves of these systems. In order to do the most basic things, people have to be a part of larger systems that they're not completely in control of and which, in fact, have limitations built into them by the designers: limitations of knowledge or information or the ability to handle things. They are subject to breaking down and in some ways remove human knowledge and judgment from the human being and place it into the machine -- without consulting the appropriate people.

UBIQUITY: I thought machines were supposed to make us smarter. But you're saying that machines actually remove our knowledge?

SHAPIRO: A friend of mine observed recently that college students she was teaching had trouble telling time because they had grown up exclusively with digital watches and had more trouble adding or subtracting time units than people who had grown up with analog watches. They didn't have the sense of the addition or subtraction of time units that you get from seeing a hand go around a clock. If somebody asked, "It's 3:45 now. What time will it be in two-and-a-half hours?" they could not answer the question. When you look at a clock with a face, you can visualize the motion of the clock twice around and the addition of a half hour. That was a very interesting story to me because it brought up this issue. Even though machines can enhance intelligence and knowledge -- and that's part of what's exciting about them -- there are aspects of computerization that subtract from people's knowledge, that make people less aware of complexity and choice and less able to express their own individuality.

UBIQUITY: What can be done about the problem?

SHAPIRO: It's a real tradeoff. I think the tradeoff would be improved if there were some cultural, educational and organizational processes that didn't try to just make people cogs in the system, but tried to teach them how to use these systems to enhance their own knowledge and judgment.

UBIQUITY: What would such an organization look like?

SHAPIRO: It gets back to this whole idea about what it means to be information-technology literate, where people's learning about technology is part of a larger process of their cultivation and development as an entire person with a mind and an intellect. There are individual organizations, schools and courses that actually do that, but it's not something that is done automatically across the board. Training and education are not the same things. It's possible to be trained in something without the extra stage of actually asking how does this specific task that you've been trained to do fit into a larger, more comprehensive sense of who you are, what your organization is doing, what your role in it is, how you could be a more effective knowledge worker by having your individual judgment and decision-making power and autonomy enhanced through a sort of sophisticated understanding of the use of these tools.

UBIQUITY: On a practical level, how would it work?

SHAPIRO: Part of it has to do with a fundamental orientation of the organization toward people as empowered knowledge workers versus cogs in the machine -- as what Shoshana Zuboff years ago called "informated" versus "automated." I think that that's a meaningful distinction. The increasing focus of education on the needs of the workplace doesn't sufficiently ask the question, "Are we talking about empowered knowledge workers in the workplace or cogs in the machine in the workplace?" This is one reason why companies are increasingly focusing on "knowledge management": because having knowledge around doesn't mean that there are appropriate processes or orientations for using it well. This gets back to the schools and their approaches toward education. It gets back to organizations and their ultimate orientations toward their employees and workers with regard to those two different approaches. I think there are instances of both. The lazy person's way now is to say, "We're just trying to turn out people with workplace skills. And sometimes these skills are making a PowerPoint presentation or using a spreadsheet or being able to go through the motions without thinking."

UBIQUITY: Did you read "The New Yorker" article in July about PowerPoint? One of the points that they made was that even though PowerPoint can be used to enhance thought, that often it's used to replace thought.

SHAPIRO: Yes. If a person has a weak point in the argument that they're putting forward, just by clicking on the next thing and having a slide come up or a sound effect or whatever at the next point, they can leap over a sloppiness in their own thinking. These are all related issues. They have to do with complexity and differentiation and individuation as cultural, cognitive and philosophical goals and using technology to reduce complexity, differentiation and individuation for the sake of routine operations. It may be built into modern bureaucratic, capitalistic, technological society that there will always be that tension. But certainly the technologies in some ways make that tension more acute. I consider it likely that only a fundamental reorientation of the whole society -- a more fundamental democratization than most people in our society are willing to contemplate -- could create the environment for improving the situation within individual organizations, locales and schools.

UBIQUITY: Let's finish on the topic of The Fielding Graduate Institute. You've talked about technology. You've talked about human purpose. You've talked about organizations and their contrast with people. Relate those to what Fielding is doing and aspires to do.

SHAPIRO: I see Fielding as very much in a state of being inside of this tension that we've been talking about. I should just say on a personal note that I've been with Fielding for a long time. I became part of Fielding because one of its three founders was one of my personal mentors. I had worked with him at another institution and he was a very utopian, idealistic person.

UBIQUITY: Why was the idea behind the founding of Fielding?

SHAPIRO: Fielding was founded in the mid-'70s on the wave of a more counter-cultural, utopian, individual and community-enhancing model of education than established higher education. The people who founded it did so especially because they saw that existing higher-education institutions were not well set up for adults. They were convinced that adults would have a very important role to play in education. They believed strongly in what's now called lifelong learning. They thought that contemporary society was going to increasingly require adults to learn ongoingly and redefine themselves and change their jobs and careers and that higher education wasn't set up for this. But they also were people who were influenced by humanistic psychology and the human potential movement. They believed that education should be student- and learner-centered rather than driven by faculty or institutional needs and should involve all dimensions of the person: intellectual, professional and personal. All of these things have now become ideological slogans in contemporary education. Many of the things that are done at Fielding are in line with these original values and goals.

UBIQUITY: How well are those original ideas and values holding up?

SHAPIRO: I just had a meeting with a student who's a man in his late 40s or early 50s. He told me that he had been looking through a carton in his basement and discovered a letter he had written to his mother when he was in college 25 years ago and how intellectually excited he was then. He said to me, "I read that letter and I thought, 'Where was this person for the last 25 years? Where is the person who wrote that letter?'" I said, "Gee, to me you sound like the person in this letter -- the guy who was intellectually excited about things and had a vision for being able to impact society." And he said, "Yes, but that's only happening to me now because of Fielding." That was quite a nice thing to hear especially because I'm his faculty advisor. But at the same time, now that Fielding has become an accredited, established institution and competes with many other institutions that recognize that adults are an important part of the workforce and an important educational market, that there is pressure to become more traditional and bureaucratized. Even though the school still makes possible individualized student learning, one can see the pressures from the surrounding society driving it to be more like an institution where the individual is serving the apparatus rather than the other way around. Fortunately, most faculty and administrators and students there are still committed to the underlying vision and are willing to struggle with those pressures.

UBIQUITY: Do you think that Fielding will be spoiled by its own success?

SHAPIRO: I'm not saying these things from a na�ve, counter-cultural perspective like, "We could drop all of the trappings of powerful institutional bureaucracy and go back to some counter-cultural model." I'm aware of the limitations of the counter-cultural model. Some of the students who came into Fielding in the early days probably shouldn't have been in graduate school. Some of the dissertations that were done probably were not very good quality dissertations compared to ones being done today. The driving power structures of our society are complicated because they also accomplish things. That's what makes all this ironic -- the relationship between the status quo and the realization of human ideals that you believe in.

UBIQUITY: Well, is there any hope?

SHAPIRO: Several years ago when I thought about this question, I thought, "Well, what I really think about this and about the world is that evil is probable and good is possible." So there is hope in the sense that I do think that good is possible -- and I mean that both in terms of individual ethical action and in terms of what institutions can do. But it always involves going against the grain, because I think the grain is always going to be towards the machine, the apparatus, the routine, the predictable, humans being just servants of the system, and so on. I think that in modern society that is probably the natural tendency, what Weber called the "iron cage of bureaucracy." But I don't think it's really an impermeable or iron cage or one that there's no point putting energy into trying to improve and change. It is possible to carve out against certain dominant drifts domains in which individuals or institutions or technologies and uses of technologies produce humanly and socially good things. It's worth doing good things, even recognizing that it's going against the grain or going against the drift. I've become more of a skeptic about whether the whole can be made good, but I believe it's worth struggling for the good things.


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