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Tue 13 May 2003

Computers as Theatre

Category : Technology/theatre.txt

Let's try to connect some dots. What's the relation between creativity and the arts and computer technology?

Brenda Laurel (among others) has tried to synthesise all these elements in her book "Computers as Theatre". I try to summarise some of the ideas she has covered there.

When we go to a theatre, we go with a set of expectancies, e.g., a play has a beginning, a middle, and an end. We start with a set of possibilities. As the play progresses, the number of new possibilities introduced into the play falls off radically. "Every moment of the enactment affects those possibilities, eliminating some and making some more probable than others."

"Making some more probable than others." When confronted with a novel situation, we will attempt to match it with prior experiences, which will help us prune away at the universe of possibilities to arrive at a smaller subset of probabilities that is easier to handle.

A sensitive computer interface designer will take advantage of that. When the original Macintosh presented the user with a desktop metaphor, the purpose was to help the user "get a handle on things" and have expectancies for how things were going to work. For example, one can easily guess that the trash can is for things you want to throw away. Like drama when you're immersed in the illusion, you connect with the things unfolding on the screen and "go with the flow".

This idea doesn't stop at the interface. Consider its implication for the technique called object-oriented programming. Imagine you're walking along a beach and you pick up a pebble. At once, holding the pebble, the universe of things you can do with it is vastly reduced. You can skim it across the water or put it in your pocket, but you cannot eat it. Its nature determines the things you can do with it.

And that makes programming easier. When the user selects a line of text, the menubar can be made to highlight the actions you can do with text and disable actions that are not appropriate. That is Brenda Laurel's "flying wedge" analogy at work - "a plot is a progression from the possible to the probable to the necessary". Both the user and the programmer are guided by a plot, which keeps both focused on just a few pertinent things at a time, while engaged in a meaningful dialogue.

Contrast this with the DOS command line. Type C>DELETE or any other command and you can see that there's an infinite number of possible verb-object combinations, most of which get you "syntax error".

If computers have become more useful machines as a result of the approach pioneered by the Mac, you can see just how much of an impact ideas from the arts have had on this.

It may just make you think a bit differently the next time you enjoy a good movie.

Think about Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho - did you actually see Janet Leigh being knifed in the shower scene? You've been led to imagine it, in all its gory details, by the preceding action and accompanying soundtrack. Your imagination does a better job than anything the old Master could do, and saved him some money too, not having to shoot it. How economical.)

Posted at 8:57AM UTC | permalink

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