Making phones work

Carolyn Marvin quotes the following account in her (excellent) When Old Technologies Were New about a farmer’s encounter with the newfangled telephone (p. 20):

He then rolled up the paper and tried to push it in the aperture in the transmitter. Failing in his attempt with his finger, he took his lead pencil and jammed it in, destroying the vibrating plate. With an air of satisfaction he took his seat and awaited a reply. After about ten minutes, he became discouraged, and thinking he perhaps had not sent the message on the right line, he wrote another and jammed it into the hand telephone, and to make sure work, rammed it home as he would a ball in a rifle.

She uses this story as an example of what was seen as the dangerously technologically illiterate, in order to create a class of technological elite. We have the same stories about people who make dumb computing errors (CD-drive as cupholder, etc.). But we don’t tell this story about telephones any longer, because it is seemingly a transparent technology. It has disappeared into our everyday existence.

A friend is acting as guide to a group of rural African English teachers who are in the US for intensive language training. His major role is to teach them Microsoft Word so that they can complete their writing assignments for the term. Most have never seen a computer, none have used one, and none will have one when they get back home. But, to operate in a US university, you gotta know Word, I guess. (I’ll admit, I’m not part of this process, so maybe I missed something important there.)

Anyway, this student assistant, who helped with my cyberporn class, emigrated from Jamaica, and so has at least some cross-cultural experience. He was not prepared, though, for a group who had such limited access to communication technologies. Many had seen a phone (in their school or elsewhere) but many had never made a phone call.

His first task was to get them used to the student ID cards that provided access to their dorms, and to the use of the deadbolts on their doors. (Actually, on my block in suburban Buffalo, people leave their front doors unlocked more often than not, but on a campus, things are different.) At the door, he showed them how to swipe their ID cards through the reader. The first teacher/student tried it, positioning the card over the slot and dropping it. Eventually they got this skill down. They were provided with calling cards to contact their home schools. After a fairly careful explanation of direct dial telephones and use of calling card numbers, the first student attempted to slide his card through the seam in the telephone case.

It makes you wonder whether “good design” is possible. Design is always about treading that line of adhering to the stylistic cannon and expectations of the user (“Don’t make me think!”) while providing an experience that is aesthetically challenging that appeals to the emotions of the user. Treading that line is difficult, but it makes you really appreciate things like a Porsche 911, things that manage to be both challenging and become part of the visual and experiential rhetoric, and manage to do so throughout a long period of time and across cultures.

The visitor clearly thought that by learning a new interface, he had a new window on the world, and this led him to think about other systems through that window. I have a feeling most designers (and people who teach designers) are trying to create technologies for visitors. For me, at least, designs for residents also have value. There is value, sometimes, in the exercise of power that forces the user to become one with the interface, especially when that power is exercised openly, and mindfully.

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