TITLE: OOPSLA Day 1: Brenda Laurel on Designed Animism AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: October 24, 2006 11:31 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Brenda Laurel Brenda Laurel is well known in computing, especially the computer-human interaction computing, for her books The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design and the iconic Computers as Theatre. I have felt a personal connection to her for a few years, since an OOPSLA a few years ago when I bought Brenda's Utopian Entrepreneur, which describes her part in starting Purple Moon, a software company to produce empowering computer games for young girls. That sense of connection grew this morning as I prepared this article, when I learned that Brenda's mom is from Middletown, Indiana, less than an hour from my birthplace, and just off the road I drove so many times between my last Hoosier hometown and my university. Laurel opened this year's OOPSLA as the Onward! keynote speaker, with a talk titled, "designed animism: poetics for a new world". Like many OOPSLA keynotes, this one covered a lot of ground that was new to me, and I can remember only a a bit -- plus what I wrote down in real time. These days, Laurel's interests lie in pervasive, ambient computing. (She recently gave a talk much like this one at UbiComp 2006.) Unlike most folks in that community, her goal is not ubiquitous computing as primarily utilitarian, with its issues of centralized control, privacy, and trust. Her interest is in pleasure. She self-effacingly attributed this move to the design tactic of "finding the void", the less populated portion of the design space, but she need not apologize; creating artifacts and spaces for human enjoyment is a noble goal -- a necessary part of of our charter -- in its own right. In particular, Brenda is interested in the design of games in which real people are characters at play. Dutch Windmill Near Amsterdam, Owen Merton, 1919 (Aside: One of Brenda's earliest slides showed this painting, "Dutch Windmill Near Amsterdam" by Owen Merton (1919). In finding the image I learned that Merton was the father of Thomas Merton, the Buddhist-inspired Catholic monk whom I have quoted here before. Small world!) Laurel has long considered how we might extend Aristotle's poetics to understand and create interactive form. In the Poetics, Aristotle "set down ... an understanding of narrative forms, based upon notions of the nature and intricate relations of various elements of structure and causation. Drama relied upon performance to represent action." Interactive systems complicate matters relative to Greek drama, and ubiquitous computing "for pleasure" is yet another matter altogether. To start, drawing on Aristotle, I think, Brenda listed the four kinds of cause of a created thing (at this point, we were thinking drama): In an important sense, the material and formal causes work in opposite directions with respect to dramatic design. The effects of the material cause work bottom-up from material to pattern on up to the abstract sense of the thing, while the effects of the formal cause work top-down from the ideal to components on to the materials we use. Next, Brenda talked about plot structure and the "shape of experience". The typical shape is a triangle, a sequence of complications that build tension followed by a sequence of resolutions that return us to our balance point. But if we look at the plots of most interesting stories at a finer resolution, we see local structures and local subplots, other little triangles of complication and resolution. (This part of the talk reminded of a talk I saw Kurt Vonnegut give at UNI almost a decade or so ago,in which he talked about some work he had done as a master's student in sociology at the University of Chicago, playfully documenting the small number of patterns that account for almost all of stories we tell. I don't recall Vonnegut speaking of Aristotle, but I do recall the humor in is own story. Laurel's presentation blended bits of humor with two disparate elements: an academic's analysis and attention to detail, and a child's excitement at something that clearly still lights up her days.) One of the big lessons that Laurel ultimately reaches is this: There is pleasure in the pattern of action. Finding these parts is essential to telling stories that give pleasure. Another was that by using natural materials (the material causality in our creation), we get pleasing patterns for free, because these patterns grow organically in the world. I learned something from one of her examples, Johannes Kepler's Harmonices Mundi, an attempt to "explain the harmony of the world" by finding rules common to music and planetary motion within the solar system. As Kepler wrote, he hoped "to erect the magnificent edifice of the harmonic system of the musical scale ... as God, the Creator Himself, has expressed it in harmonizing the heavenly motions." In more recent times, composers such as Stravinsky, deBussy, and Ravel have tried to capture patterns from the visual world in their music, seeking more universal patterns of pleasure. This led to another of Laurel's key lessons, that throughout history artists have often captured patterns in the world on the basis of purely phenomenological evidence, which were later reified by science. Impressionism was one example; the discovery of fractal patterns in Jackson Pollock's drip projectories were another. The last part of Laurel's talk moved on to current research with sensors in the ubiquitous computing community, the idea of distributed sensor networks that help us to do a new sort of science. As this science exposes new kinds of patterns in the about the world, Laurel hopes for us to capitalize on the flip side of the art examples before: to be able to move from science, to math, and then on to intuition. She would like to use what we learn to inform the creation of new dramatic structures, of interactive drama and computer games that improve the human condition -- and give us pleasure. The question-and-answer session offered a couple of fun moments. Guy Steele asked Brenda to react to Marvin Minsky's claim that happiness is bad for you, because once you experience it you don't want to work any more. Brenda laughed and said, "Marvin is a performance artist." She said that he was posing with this claim, and told some stories of her own experiences with Marvin and Timothy Leary (!). And she is even declared a verdict in my old discipline of AI: Rod Brooks and his subsumption architecture are right, and Minsky and the rest of symbolic AI are wrong. Given her views and interests in computing, I was not surprised by her verdict. Another question asked whether she had seen the tape of Christopher Alexander's OOPSLA keynote in San Jose. She hadn't, but she expressed a kinship in his mission and message. She, too, is a utopian and admitted to trying to affect our values with her talk. She said that her research through the 1980s especially had taught her how she could sell cosmetics right into the insecurities of teenage girls -- but instead she chose to create an "emotional rehearsal space" for them to grow and overcome those insecurities. That is what Purple Moon was all about! As usual, the opening keynote was well worth our time and energy. As a big vision for the future, as a reminder of our moral center, it hit the spot. I'm still left to think how these ideas might affect my daily work as teacher and department leader. (I'm also left to track down Ted Nelson's Computer Lib/Dream Machines, a visionary, perhaps revolutionary book-pair that Laurel mentioned. I may need the librarian's help for this one.) -----