The Procrastination sketch was originally the first thing I made for this blog series. It’s not great, though the idea is simple: The relationship between work obligation and attention is represented through the spatial relationship between a box and the cursor. The statement is, in essence, ‘avoiding work makes it larger and more demanding of attention’ (plus some nuance). Some of the details of the spatial relationship are more or less invisible though (if not the entire relationship). It’s also a 2D sketch for a 1D relationship. The reasons why these issues are issues though is interesting.
In a sense, the screen space is too small and too easy to traverse. The location of the cursor has no real impact on whether you can move the cursor anywhere else—every place is roughly equivalent to every other place. No matter where you ‘go’ the potential actions are almost exactly the same: move ‘towards work’ or ‘away from’ work. In hindsight, the sketch could’ve been one dimensional with everything taking place on a line. Maybe the pointlessness of the second dimension reinforces the notion that the anxiety of procrastination is inescapable; you can run away whatever direction you want but it doesn’t matter. I don’t buy it.
Thoughts from Bogost, McCullough and Gibson shed some light here. In the chapter on “Transit” in How to Do Things with Videogames Bogost notes how modern technologies frequently reduce the space between places, making everything ever so closer, but contemporary digital artifacts have the potential to (and often do) create space by way of making it artificially difficult to traverse environments. The catch is that there’s really only one location here. Somewhere in Digital Ground Malcom McCullough notes that while we typically think of space preceding activity, it’s often the case (or better to think of things in terms of) the activities defining spaces. In other words, a space is is contingent on a set of action possibilities (including the possible ‘movements’ to other spaces). In this sense, different sets of action opportunities are needed in order to even have different spaces to traverse to and from. (It’s probably worth noting that the idea of looking at environments in terms of action opportunities is at the root of J.J. Gibson’s Ecological Psychology.)
Maybe the inescapability of work as part of the modern condition makes sense in the single-space of the screen—there’s no-where to go because everywhere is the same. That’s a pushing things though. I’m don’t think you can ‘talk about space’ by not having any. In a sense, the absence would need to be foregrounded (as strange as that sounds). There needs to be an impression of going somewhere that could then be subverted, in a sense.
This sketch could be a good anti-example of a general principle: if you want to makes spaces for interactive-representative purposes, its worth beginning with action sets. (Though this is just the notion of programme in architecture, no?) Alternatively, we could say that compelling interactive artifacts require certain kind of meta-action or side-effect wherein a user’s actions affect available action opportunities. ( I’d like to say that Salen and Zimmerman’s argument from Rules of Play that “meaningful play” requires game actions to be “integrated” into game outcomes is similar, but it’s really not quite the same. )
Whether constituents or consequences (of action)
Another complication is that the relationship between the cursor and box is not really easy to attend to during the encounter; it just doesn’t end up foregrounded, perceptually speaking. It’s subsumed into the very act of moving the cursor around. If anything captures attention it’s the variable size of the square and our ambiguous ability to affect this attribute. The specific mechanics of this causal relationship are more or less invisible. By ‘mechanics’ I’m referring to things like that the square only moves when we move, that we can move away or towards, if we move just a little and stop the gets closer and shrinks. (Perhaps the more general feeling of ‘dragging around work’ is appropriate though?)
When we act we appropriate (or invoke (or make use of)) a causal chain. Most of the time most of this chain is in a sense invisible. For example, try to explain what you’re doing when you ride a bike or write your name while you’re doing it.
In the sketch I’m trying to use part of the chain for representative purposes. This is, at best, tricky. Consider, for example, if I asked you to open a weird door and said that the movement of your elbow means something. That’s a hard sell I think.
This could just be a craft challenge but I think it points to a more general problem: How can an action ‘represent’, if at all? If an interactive thing is to function as a communication piece or a kind of representation, is there some sense in which the related actions themselves function as “representations” of some kind? By this I mean the action itself would have some kind of “derived intentionality.” To make what feels like a really problematic set of leaps: It smells like there might be a slippery slope to saying that certain aspects of the action could be representative, like beliefs and desires, which would leave us with something (a mental state) that has both primary and derived intentionality: a thought that refers to something but that we (simultaneously?) take to refer to something else. That sounds pretty weird. But my thinking here is loose and dubious.
From actions to system behaviors (and back?)
One perspective that avoids the issue of representative actions is one where we consider the behaviors of the system as bearing the ‘content’ (so to say); our actions with or on the system are just the means by which we encounter the meaning-laden behaviors. (It might be fair to say that this view is roughly in line with Bogost’s procedural rhetoric.) This perspective would also make sense with traditional artifacts too: When we look at, say a poster, we’re moving our eyes around (however non-consciously) but such saccades are the means by which the viewer ‘accesses’ the relationships that obtain in the artifact…
That said, there is a sense to doing something with an interactive artifact; there is “game feel”. And there’s nothing to say that we can’t take that feeling to be, grossly speaking, ‘representative of’ something the author or designer intended, or evocative of an experience they wanted us to consider….