TITLE: OOPSLA Day 1: Brenda Laurel on Designed Animism
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: October 24, 2006 11:31 PM
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
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
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
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
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.
(Aside: One of Brenda's earliest slides showed this painting, "Dutch
Windmill Near Amsterdam" by
(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.
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
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
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.)
- the end cause
-- its intended purpose
- the formal cause
-- the platonic ideal in the mind of the creator that
shaped the creation
- the efficient cause
-- the designer herself
- the material cause
-- the stuff out of which it is made,
which constrains and defines the thing