|The Domain of Cybernetics Cybernetics may be defined as the science
of describing goal-directed systems. The term comes from the
Greek word "kubernetes", meaning "steersmanship."
(From the same Greek word but through Latin, English gets the
word "governor.") In general (center of diagram), cybernetics
is useful in understanding a goal-directed system that exists
in an environment which, because it is dynamic, makes an unchanging
set of actions by the system inadequate to achieve the system's
goal. Initially (left side of diagram) cybernetics was concerned
with systems that were observed (such as thermostats). It soon
became clear that one could also observe systems that were themselves
observing (right side of diagram). This brought issues of language,
meaning and subjectivity into sharp focus.
I. Lines of Enquiry
These statements suggest how cybernetics could offer perspectives
on interaction design:
When a system has a goal, cybernetics offers definitions of
"information," "feedback" and "interaction."
When interaction includes a person, cybernetics offers useful
models of "personalization," "learning" and
When software is in the way of understanding (between person
and person, or person and machine), cybernetics may open the
flat interface into a semantic space; develop a history of clicks
into a relationship; and transform a computer into a partner
with a shared goal.
|Modeling Goal-Directed Systems Systems that have a goal may be modeled by
this notational scheme [adopted from Gordon Pask, in Soft
Architecture Machines, edited by Nicholas Negroponte, MIT
Press, 1975]. An "intelligent system" (left side) is
defined as a system that maintains at least one goal and calls
upon a set of actions (gold lines) that may achieve that goal.
An intelligent system must also review the results of actions
(blue lines) and compare (black-and-white circle) those results
to the desired goal. If the action fails to bring about the goal,
alternative actions must be tried and may involve a request to
other systems (right side). Such other systems can be partners
if they understand not just the requested action, but also the
goal that the action is intended to achieve. This requires another
type of interaction (green line) that takes place in language
and that may be explicit ("I'm trying to keep the room cool.")
or implicit, that is, not stated but implied by the circumstances.
It is an enigma to me that goals are not an explicit part
of the discussion around user interface design, no less an explicit
part of the interface functions themselves. This is not a rant
in support of impractical abstractions, but a lament that so
many opportunities are lost. It would take some work to connect
the "Lines of Enquiry" statements and the model above
to interaction design, but for now I offer an anecdote: How many
times have you dispatched an email without the attachment that
you wanted to send along? Is this your mistake, or the error
of the UI designer for failing to allow you to assert your goal
and to let you assert it at the moment it was clear in
your mind just as you open a new
message. A new menu command, "Send New Message with Attachment",
would not let you send a message without an attachment. Even
in a simple case, a goal-oriented design process leads to a modest,
but I believe useful, insight.
II. Architecture of Interaction
|Human-to-human, but with intermediation When the conversation is human-to-human and
in real time, something novel may arise from the interaction.
When technology is interposed, problems arise, especially since
both participants are not available at the same time to react
dynamically to each other. To compensate, the technology can
bring some responsiveness back by allowing the selection processes
(arrows) to be variable and based on a history of clicks, rather
than fixed functions such as links. Collaborative filtering,
for example, takes input from the participant on the right and
makes selections of content for display based on statistical
"similarities" that are the essence of this filtering
technique. The disadvantage is that the history used as the basis
of the dynamic responsiveness is aggregated across many people,
and the individual participant on the right may not be represented
by the resulting statistical aggregate. Alternatively, the selection
process could be based on the local context of the individual
participant. In this case, more is required than current systems
deliver. In the process of assembling and organizing the content,
the participant on the left can be aided by authoring tools that
capture the content into a structure that allows for adaptive
display. In the process of delivering content based on clicks
from the participant on the right, the interface must accept
signals and track behaviors that express the user's context,
which becomes the basis of the "personalization."
III. On-Line References
Materials on cybernetics are only slowly being made available
on-line, and these limited references cannot reflect the depth
and breadth of the field. And, as in any field with many contributors,
not everything under the name of cybernetics is consistent, and
some sites may give a confusing impression of cybernetics.
Heinz von Foerster
There are many "giants" of cybernetics, but none
so crystal-clear in thinking and writing as Heinz von Foerster.
Eccentric beyond description and 30 years before his time,
Gordon Pask has influenced generations of innovators, including
Ted Nelson and Nicholas Negroponte (to name the most well-known
figures). Unfortunately very little of Pask's own writing is
- "A comment
on the cybernetic psychology of pleasure" is from the 1960s
and only introduces concepts that are developed further elsewhere
(see the first Off-Line reference, below).
Beware an apparent mislabeling of the 2nd numbered list, which
should be 'a,b,c and d' instead of '1,2,3 and 4.'
These links are from my site, which mainly chronicles work
from the 1980s and 90s. They introduce ideas related to the Design
IV. Off-Line References
This paper describes in detail an interaction environment
(that I mentioned at the Design Summit), where the user playing
a musical instrument is engaged in a conversation with a mechanism
that focuses the user's attention, gets bored, and otherwise
stimulates the user in novel and unexpected ways. It is a fabulous
proposal for a type of video game, though Pask built the original
version of this system in the 1950s and carted it around England
in vans for installation in music halls.
- Gordon Pask: "A Comment, a Case
History and a Plan". In Cybernetic Serendipity, edited
by J. Reichardt. Rapp and Carroll, 1970. Reprinted in Cybernetic
Art and Ideas, edited by J. Reichardt. London: Studio Vista,
Special thanks to Hugh Dubberly for asking the first question,
and Clarke Robinson for designing the graphics and handout.