The phenomenology of getting used to the new: Some thoughts on memory, perception, numbing and the Zen-view

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The phenomenology of getting used to the new: Some thoughts on memory, perception, numbing and the Zen-view
  University of Huddersfield Repository Hohl, MichaelThe phenomenology of getting used to the new: Some thoughts on memory, perception, numbingand the Zen-view Original Citation Hohl, Michael (2010) The phenomenology of getting used to the new: Some thoughts on memory,perception, numbing and the Zen-view. In: Design and semantics of form and movement. LucerneUniversity of Applied Sciences and Arts, Lucerne, pp. 39-47. ISBN 978-3-906413-80-8This version is available at University Repository is a digital collection of the research output of theUniversity, available on Open Access. Copyright and Moral Rights for the itemson this site are retained by the individual author and/or other copyright owners.Users may access full items free of charge; copies of full text items generallycan be reproduced, displayed or performed and given to third parties in anyformat or medium for personal research or study, educational or not-for-profitpurposes without prior permission or charge, provided: • The authors, title and full bibliographic details is credited in any copy; • A hyperlink and/or URL is included for the srcinal metadata page; and • The content is not changed in any way.For more information, including our policy and submission procedure, pleasecontact the Repository Team at:   1 The phenomenology of getting used to the new: Somethoughts on memory, perception, numbing and the Zen-View Dr. Michael Hohl, Dipl.-Des.University of Huddersfield, UKSchool of Art, Design and  Abstract. In this text I set out to reflect on the relationship between humanperception and the usability of some designed artefacts. Beginning with ownobservations the text looks at the relationship between two phenomena: Theease with which we perceptually desensitise to conditions of our environmentsuch as designed artefacts, and secondly, the designerly dilemma of innovativeartefacts, that create an undeserved sense of trust that may result in unintendedeffects. It shows how these two phenomena are intrinsically linked to what theneuro-sciences describe as learning. Subsequently the text will look at severalstrategies that aim at preventing this type of adaptation. The text concludes withan example of a semantic designerly mapping that sustains the experience of initial surprise and prevents the effect of numbing. The paper argues thatdesigners could benefit from a better understanding of the dynamics of humanperception in order to inform design research methods and design education toconsider these perceptual processes. The primary goal of this text is to create adebate around these phenomena and show their relevance to design problems. Keywords: usability, human-factors, phenomenology, design research, designsemantics, design methods 1 Introduction In 2006 Klaus Krippendorff created a comprehensive definition of design semanticsthat consited of two distinct parts. The first part of his definition describes designsemantics as “A systematic enquiry into how people attribute meanings to artefactsand interact with them accordingly.” [1] The second part as “A vocabulary and methodology for designing artefacts in view of meanings they could acquire for their users and the communities of their stakeholders. ” [1] The following enquiry attemptsto investigate the relationship between his first definition, “how people attributemeaning to artefacts and interact with them” and a phenomenon which media arthistorian Oliver Grau describes as an audience over time “harden[ing] to [atechnology’s] attempts at illusion ” [2]. This paper tries to investigate the relationshipbetween these two states: How people create meaning from and interact withartefacts, and the effect of ‘hardening’ or numbing to a technology.   2Computer Scientist Paul Dourish writes in the context of interaction design: “Meaning is an aspect of use, interaction and practice, it is something that resides primarily in the hands of the user, not of the designer.” [3] It appears that the most adesigner could do was suggest a meaning, and it was the audience’s choice to acceptthat suggestion or construct their own. Maker and user may have very differentperceptions of what an artefact means.Krippendorff’s first definition is about about semantics, the study of meaning. Hissecond definition is about design semiotics, the study of signs. With the firstdefinition the focus widens from the narrow field of a designer’s repertoire of signs orwhat an artefact intends to communicate, to people’s perception and how they viewand use an artefact. This is a radical shift in focus when we think of design from theperspective of a rational engineering tradition. It moves the perspective from therelatively confined, clear, and safe terrain of methodically vindicating an artefact’sproperties by referring to an established design vocabulary into the much wilder, morecomplex and irrational world of how different individuals make sense of andconstruct reality. Traditionally this had been primarily the concern of fields such asphilosophy, psychology, the social sciences or ethnography. So how do designers findout what is going on in peoples minds when these engage with their artefacts? Therising popularity of qualitative design research methods, such as participative methodsthat involve stakeholders or various interview techniques, may be an indication for thegrowing acceptance of these systematic enquiries and their benefits.The focus of the following discussion is located between these domains, people’sperception and the surprising ease with which we become desensitised - or numb - toenvironmental conditions in general, and specifically to new technological artefacts.The text demonstrates some of the effect’s negative and positive dimensions andintroduces various multi-disciplinary strategies to contribute to a designerly debate.The text will make use of the terms desensitised, numbing and perceptual adaptationsynonymously, in the sense of a person’s lack of conscious awareness of anenvironmental condition. 1.1 Numbing to the new I would like to begin with two personal observations that I made, and which leadme to the insight that human perception is more complex then we might assume andthat as designers we need a better understanding of how we humans process ourenvironment and engage with artefacts.   My first example concerns watching the music video “Out of Space” [4] by theband Prodigy from 1992. When I watched this clip for the first time in 1992, Iperceived it as being of unprecedented speed and without narrative. In my memory this4:23 min video consisted of a very rapid succession of short haphazard videosequences of low quality, juxtaposed in no clear relation to one another and edited atunprecedented speed. Watching the same video again in 2010 was a very differentexperience: Not only did it appear much less rapid and haphazard then remembered,but its speed was perceived as not very different to contemporary televisionadvertisements targeted at a mature audience. It appears that either my memory isunreliable or my perception has adapted over time without my conscious awareness.   3This leads to the conclusion that the average video today may be edited faster thenavantgarde videos were in 1992. I discussed this observation with peers and severalagreed that they had had similar experiences. Conclusive evidence would require tocompare quantitative formal properties of a selection of relevant historical videos tocontemporary music videos, consisting of properties such as cuts, editing-speed, beatsper minute, visual effects, colour saturation, camera movements, zoom effects and theirsimultaneous combination. However there appears to be some indication that a style of “radically novelty” has the power to surprise temporarily only and that our perceptionadapts over time leading to an increasing rate of stronger effects for music clips tocapture our attention.Related to the experience above is the second example, which is about anotheraspect of memory, about the disappearance of something quotidian from consciousperception. I believe many will have experienced surprise and disbelief upon theinability to remember the distinct appearance of a familiar building that has beendemolished. Although, we may think, having passed by this building in the past,countless of times we may have difficulties to remember what it looked like. In ourmemory we may have a vague recollections of its height and shape but we cannotclearly recall details, especially if the building has no personal relevance to us. Wemay wonder how this happened, and why, despite having passed by it so many times,the building’s details have disappeared from our memory? Such an experiencequestions the accuracy of our memories and our cognitive capacity to recall familiarenvironments. In that respect these experiences are deeply unsettling as theydemonstrate that there are ‘blind spots’ in how we perceive and remember the worldaround us.Paradoxically it may exactly be this process of repeated exposure unassociated witha salient personal experience that can be seen as the cause of this process of erasing itfrom our conscious awareness and memory. Neuro-scientist Wolf Singer writes aboutthis filtering process: “We see, what is useful to see.” [5] Apparently if seeing thebuilding is not ‘useful’ and nothing attracts our attention from its busy urban context,we cease from actively perceiving it. It blends into the background until a change mayattract our attention again, such as when it has disappeared.The opposite takes place when we visit a town for the very first time. While we stillorient ourselves we will experience it in great richness and detail. Everything isperceived as new and unfamiliar. This ephemeral outsider’s perspective allows us toexperience the place in a manner very different to that of the town’s permanentresidents.What combines the two observations? In both cases the perception of an artefactchanges over the passing of time. The novel and highly unconventional form of amusic video begins to appear conventional (tacitly compared to the context it emergedfrom), while the familiar memory of a building in fact is not familiar and notmemorised.How are these two observations relevant for art and design? Knowledge of suchperceptual processes may be invaluable and inform our processes of conceiving andmaking. We now know that novelty soon wears off and that details of artefacts we donot use regularly are forgotten although we are not aware of this process. It appearsto be a property of our perception that we become ‘blind’ to conditions of ourenvironment that are not important or significant for other reasons.   4  Media artist David Rokeby observes: “It seems that we stop seeing, hearing,smelling as soon as we have positively identified something. At that point, we may aswell replace the word for the object. Since identification usually happens quickly, wespent most of our time not really sensing our environment, living in a world of pre-digested and abstracted memories.” [6] Why does this desensitisation happen? How do we get used to things so easily?From an evolutionary perspective it may be crucial: Our attention does not remainlocked upon the known and familiar, but is captured instead by the new and unusual.Would we, for example, continuously be aware of the sensation of our clothes on ourskin we would have difficulties paying attention to more important events.Is this, from a design perspective, a beneficial or an adversarial effect? Of keyrelevance appears to be the fact that this process is regarded as an important part of how intelligent beings learn when directly engaging with a new condition. “When anew event is perceived it is first treated as a novelty, with either a positive or negativereaction. Then the novelty is replaced by an expectation. This is the basis of learning.When the expectation is not met, there is the accompanying emotion of disappointment or even anger or frustration.” [7] Tom Mitchell, Chair of the Machine LearningDepartment at Carnegie Mellon, researches [8] the physiological processes betweenthe brain and the central nervous system. He describes that, while initially an eventreceives attention because it is recognised as a new type of event, in a repeatingencounter this curiosity and conscious attention is replaced through an expectation .Our perception is economical and selective in what reaches our consciousness. Speedof processing is given primacy over accuracy. Once we have learned how to use a newartefact, the novelty factor has worn off and we have certain expectations of what itaffords. A continued treatment as novelty could be regarded as a result of amnesia, aloss of memory, whereas the ability to recall it in all its detail would be a case of eidetic memory, another medical condition in which photographic recollection of complex visual detail, so called eidetic perception [5], is seen as the result of a higherbrain dysfunction.There is evidence that numbing to the novelty factors of artefacts is part of howintelligent beings learn, especially to engage with technology in a continuouslychanging world. Numbing in fact is a useful function of learning would perhaps betterbe described as adapting. It allows our brains to adapt to change fast so that our limitedattention is free again to select those signals that should be processed with consciousawareness.What is the relevance of these neuro-scientific insights for designers? During theprocess of learning the artefact’s initially novel and intriguing capabilities graduallydiminish behind their utilitarian functionality. In the beginning it may require time andeffort to master the complexity of, for example, navigating the web with a web-browser application, but over time people gradually master this activity almostintuitively. In fact they may become so adapted to the browsers affordances that thesesoon are perceived as a precondition and they become reliant upon them, similar to anintuitive tool that disappears from conscious perception once one has becomeaccustomed to it. Then the initially new technological artefact may become seamlesslyintegrated into a lifestyle.
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