On the Perils of Value-Free Interfaces

Providence and serendipity are good friends to the sporadic academic reader.

Three texts that I read today have manifested an interesting intertextuality in between them, two of them being (co) authored by Muki Haklay (whose work I’ve been intending to sample for quite some time) with the third being co-authored and suggested by Jay Bolter, the New Media scholar responsible for Remediation, among many other works. Bolter will meet a small contingent of the NMDC personel tomorrow, and as a preparation he suggested this paper, co written with Maria Engberg (media design) and Blair MacIntyre (Interactive computing). The topics of the three varies. Bolter et al. deal with “utilizing” media studies for interactive design while Haklay take a CHI focus on GIS, whether as a theoretical essay on the ‘Neogeography’ fantasy of democratization or an empirical exploration of how trustworthy does a GIS system appear, based on its interface.

So why do I find the three so compelling together? Essentially, they can be read as an circular ongoing discussion. Bolter and his colleagues write for a journal of interaction designer, trying to explain how media theory can be “implemented” to improve on current design techniques, mostly via AR/VR technologies on mobile devices. They argue, for instance, that building on Panoramas of the late 19-n century, one can create a more informed version of a panoramic app, with the user in the centre (pun intended). From a media / STS perspective, the paper is somewhat simplistic, bordering on condescending (favourite line: “Is it possible to reframe media studies to make it a productive theory, a theory that can be applied to practice?” p 38.). But with the intended audience, plus the cross- and multidisciplinary orientation of its author, the end result is understandable.

It is however very much Californian in its vision – we should learn from past in order to design better tech, which will make people’s life better (I’m simplifying here, but this is the gist). And this is exactly the sort of thing that Haklay warns against in his Neogepgraphy essay. Categorizing this technological view as ‘instrumentalist’ and identifying it with the current tehcno-economic elite he warns (in the context of GIS) that zero-values technology has political implications, especially towards disenfranchised groups and users on the wrong side of the digital divide. While Bolter et al do not necessarily talk about GIS, they do focus on locative technologies, specifically noting that “Mapping applications are among the most compelling current examples of this refashioning. Through the phone’s connection to GPS, the map can become a record of our changing locations. Our aesthetic relationship to the phone changes because we can see our own location recorded on the map”. Haklay mirrors those views with those informed by critical theories, building on Feenbergian notions of technicity, codes and access. Essentially, he argues for greater participation of technical elites in ‘traditional’ PPGIS/ PGIS rather than expecting that neogeographical platforms a’ la’ Google maps will bring salvation to the unwashed masses.

The last paper, written by Artemis Skarlatidou, Tao Cheng and Haklay, all geographers from UCL, is seemingly purely empirical, with little of the theoretical conundrums that echo in the previous two. It is an exploration of users’ trust attitudes (affective and the cognitive) towards specific GIS application (one created to involve British citizens in the process of nuclear waste disposal). Turns out, these experiments, and similar ones prior to this showed that interface design (usability and functionality) has a profound effect on non-expert trust in GIS systems. …Which comes full circle rather nicely with our first piece.

The way I see it, Spiderman had it right: with greater power comes greater responsibility. The interfaces of things like Google maps, Waze or myriad other habitualized digital mapping platforms in the present and future have power over their users. One can only hope that those who design them have proper understanding of the choices they make and the consequences of such choices.

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