Brief Thoughts after Laurel

I often argue that this technological moment is one of tension, of a working through the possibilities and limitations of new technologies while also engaging with the lessons and legacies of antecedent technologies. The utopian me hopes that we’ll push through this tension, arriving at a space of openness and access and opportunity. The dystopian me isn’t so sure. There are a number of factors and funding sources driving innovation, and the trajectory is–as it always was–compelling and unknowable.

But Laurel’s talk of immersion, of sense and synesthesia, is very interesting to me.

I think, for example, of the current push toward 3D televisions and films. Right now, our entertainment industries are very sight-centric, pushing 3D as the major monetization opportunity. Similarly, as we’ve all experienced with our iPads and Xooms, many interface questions connect to touch. Just yesterday, Bret Victor wrote a brief-but-fascinating and must-read piece on interaction design, arguing that our current technologies are “pictures under glass,” and that “they sacrifice all the tactile richness of working with our hands, offering instead a hokey visual facade,” that they “[deny] our hands what they do best,” and that we need to transition out of this interface design asap. (Seriously, read the piece.) I agree. Our technologies are impressively single-minded at the moment. Which isn’t to say that they’re bad; I love the affordances and visions of many of the applications I use on a daily basis. But I worry about the trajectory.

So, reading Laurel, I was struck by the mention of smell. Smell! What happened to smell in our technology? Laurel mentions Morton Heilig’s Sensorama, which seemed both beautiful and bizarre. I had to go to YouTube and investigate.

In that video, Morton Heilig states that there isn’t a modern technology comparable to his vision of the Sensorama. And I’ll extend that argument, asserting that the notion of smell in computing seems at once absurd and retro–as evidenced by Professor Farnsworth’s Smell-O-Scope in the TV show Futurama. (Sensorama, Futurama–these are associative links!) In one episode, Farnsworth invents a telescope that can comically trace smells across the galaxy. Likewise, Futurama often invokes gags regarding the long forgotten Smell-O-Vision. These jokes work because smell is so completely divorced from any of our entertainment or computing platforms; smell seems irrelevant (and, in the case of Futurama, irreverent) in a world of Word documents and iPhone apps. And while I don’t necessarily want fumes of smoke wafting in my face as I watch an episode of Mad Men, I do think that within these gags and early visions of “the future” we can see some semblance of a forgotten potential. And like Bret Victor, I worry about this moment of touch–about its ableist tendencies and the paradigms it’s/we’re building. Just as Aristotle offers Laurel a means of (re)thinking through HCI, I think that the Sensorama might (bizarrely) remind us that there are significant implications to the sensory technologies upon which we teach, read, and produce.

One thought on “Brief Thoughts after Laurel

  1. Great piece Tim. I think of the students I know who cannot see. For them, contemporary technology is as often disabling as it is enabling because of the frequent reduction of communication to just the visual.

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