Tender talking machines

How do machines affect our daily lives? How do we adapt our lives to the machines? A short dialogue on the interaction between humans and machines and the project 'Laptop Reflections' by Luna Maurer, Edo Paulus, Jonathan Puckey and Roel Wouters.

LM: Can a machine talk?

AZ: In the early days gramophones were called 'talking machines'. Nowadays you could ask the question the other way round. Can humans talk? You see people walking around in the streets and you think: another one who is having a monologue. But he has his headset on. He is man-machine hybrid communicating with someone in world out there. We are all cyborgs.

LM: I see, you mean the machine becomes an extension in order to amplify our senses. But isn't it also that the machine has its own logic. We use the tools, but the tools want us to behave in a certain way? So the tools use us.

AZ: The discussion around technology often revolves around the question if technology liberates us or enslaves us. Humans still act, but machines structure our daily lives through and through. Modern humans actually can't be thought of without machines, they could not survive. So we are man-machine-man-machine-networks.

LM: I find it exciting if the machine - or even in a wider sense a system - delivers something to which I need to react to as a person: the resistance of the system, let's say, people and systems in exchange with friction.

AZ: This has to be a very productive friction. When a machine does not do what I want it to, I get either bored or angry.

LM: Angry is better than bored. Then, at least, it does something to you. But I mean that it should lead to new developments: You intended to do something but the machine (system/environment that you act in) formed your action into something else upon which you have to react again. It is more stimulating, than if it does everything exactly as you want. Many designers embrace the mistakes a machine makes and use them as creative input. In this man-machine relationship needs to be resistance in order to evolve.

AZ: Then you are assigning the machine an interesting role here. Most people think that machines are there to function.

LM: Even when it functions I have a relationship with the machine. A lot of times I adapt my behaviour maybe even without noticing. I get excited about what the machine does, it captures me or I take care of it. I can do that only when I respect the machine as such. A project that illustrates this thought is 'Laptop Reflections' shown in the Graphic Design Museum in Breda. Here the machine becomes an actor, a sort of an omnipresent eye observing our behaviour with itself. Because we are conscious of this observation, we react upon it. There is a constant interaction between us and our laptops.

AZ: I find there is an intriguing twist to that project. On the one side you create this 'big brother' setting, this eye generating thousands of pictures of you and what you do. On the other side that doesn’t seem to be intimidating. Your laptops are not HAL from Stanley Kubricks «2001: A Space Odyssey», a computer that takes over and finally destroys the humans. Instead the visitors see an almost intimate relationship between the four of you and their laptops. You see situations from early morning mail checking until late-night movie watching. There is a smooth interaction and an almost tender relationship.
For such a relationship computers not only have to adapt to humans, but humans also slowly adapt to their computers.

LM: That's one aspect in 'Laptop Reflections'. But our approach comes more from designing systems. We design systems with rules. When humans interact with the system these rules constrain what they can do. Systems have their own logic. The more complex they are, the more it feels as if the system resists to human interaction. There is a friction, almost as if the machine has its own will.
That's what I was pointing at, when I provocatively asked, if a machine can talk. I didn't mean the capacity of producing speech, but rather the possibility of expressing itself by complexity.

Luna Maurer , Andreas Zangger