User-centeredness, and its’ accompanying illusions.

Starting with a double-pilfered quote:

” ‘[F]orgetting is the friend of learning. When you forget something, it allows you to relearn, and do so effectively, the next time you see it.’ – Dr. Nate Kornell” -robertgreco

This quote rattled around for a little because I wasn’t sure of what to do with it. I find it, for the most part, to be pretty true. It made me think of the whole “end of forgetting” thing, also of Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age.In the lattter, Viktor Mayer-Schonberger makes a case for being able to “forget” some of our youthful transgressions so that we can move forward, both as individuals, but more importantly, as a society as a whole. It only somewhat runs counter to the whole “if you don’t know your history, you’re going to repeat it” argument, but there is something to be said about relearning things in different contexts that sometimes ends up moving from knowing a piece of information to actually gaining some higher form of knowledge.

Multiple re-learnings=context=knowledge?

So what about user-centeredness? Look at Google Instant and the much goofier Google Scribe, both of which use some form of automation to provide you with suggestions that are designed to anticipate you. In the case of Scribe, a pre-loaded stock of language is designed to fill in those nagging blank-outs that happen when you write.  Over at Library Ad Infinitum, Matthew Battles gave Scribe a test run, and came to a really fun conclusion:

As the Scribe’s algorithms loom dark and uncanny from a welter of vocabulary, it’s clear that the choices come from a catalogue of ingrown snippets harvested in the course of Google’s (and our own) massively parallel crawlings of the webs. These are snippets spooning within snippets, calling up strange and halting patterns, whorls and arabesques and St. Vitus dances. What I wonder is this: although simpler to the point of horror, how much does this look like our own minds’ inner workings at the brink of evocation?

More than likely, Scribe is more like us than we care to admit as it locks into its’ St. Vitus dance, but what Scribe also does is allows the writer to skate. Nevermind not creating new knowledge for the writer, it goes all the way to nonsense. Thinking for you was not the goal of Scribe. According to Alex Chitu of the Google Operating System, “(u)sing information from what you have already typed in a document, Google Scribe provides related word or phrase completion suggestions. In addition to saving keystrokes, Google Scribe’s suggestions indicate correct or popular phrases to use.” If we do learn by writing, or just by communicating something to others in our own words (why else would Barzun suggest that we take notes by paraphrasing?), then having some kind of “autofill,” especially one that goes as far as to suggest a popular or correct phrase kills the process. Re-learning things in a new context, namely by putting them in one’s own context is a way to create knowledge. Scribe at least partially frustrates that process. The instant search speeds up this frustration of thought, much like an interrupting cow.

So, is this User-centered? Yes. It uses many users data, including one’s own, to provide a service to make the most efficient use of the user’s time. Like the slow media folks, it begs the question, is faster and/or easier always better? Over at Kottke.org, Jason Kottke calls Nick Bilton out on his “everything-centered-around-you” worldview:

In the political world, the rough analog to this digital media future is democracy. But as we’ve seen, the seeming transfer of control from lawmakers to the people is just that: seeming. To a large degree, the big media and technology companies — particularly the de facto monopolies like the mobile carriers, cable companies, etc. — still control the consumer experience. The future will be personalized, but don’t think you’ll get everything you want when you want it.

Further reading of Bilton’s essay shows his blind side even more:

Once this happens, we will see more customization and personalization of information, entertainment and advertising. For instance, if I am reading the newspaper at 4 p.m. in Brooklyn, the content I see should reflect the time of day (near dinner), the place (what’s nearby) and more.

The news feed I’m reading should also be intelligent enough to know what I’ve already read that day and what I haven’t. It should factor in stories my friends recommend and what’s being discussed on my social networks. Most important, these systems should do this without my having to instruct them or tell them anything.

Bilton assumes that anything that can be put into the flow of the news feed is fair game for monetization. Given the nature of many companies to monetize everything they can see, Bilton wagers that this will work out well in the end. But important information, just because it does not have a monetary assignment, will quickly fall out of the news feed, whether or not somebody wants it because if it doesn’t make money, then companies that sell information won’t carry it.

More importantly, this style of content provision does the same thing to our information flows as Google Scribe does to writing. It produces a continuous cycle of  electronically harvested information that results in gibberish. We are not allowed to forget and re-learn, because the news feed does the learning for us.

Am I repeating myself?