Author Archives: Shuyang Wang

Modular Design and Socio-Technical Dependencies: A Case Study on WeChat

Abstract

In nowadays China, WeChat is one of the most popular social platforms on cell phones. It is not simply a platform for messaging, but also provides functions that can greatly meet people’s needs in their everyday life. This essay will try to analysis the design principles of WeChat from aspects such as its modular design and socio-technical dependencies, based on two research questions: (1) What functions does WeChat provide that makes it such a popular application that people cannot live without; and (2) What are the technical and social reasons behind the phenomenon that WeChat does not provide users with delivery status notification (DSN).

Key words: modular design; socio-technical dependencies; WeChat; social media; DSN

 

1. Introducing WeChat

(One Day of WeChat)

Currently, Wechat is the most popular mobile chatting application in China. Released in January 2011 and developed by Tecent Company, WeChat provides users with multimedia communications as well as other functions such as online payment and location sharing (Xu, 2016). Step by step, WeChat has built up its unique ecosystem, and it is now regarded as an application “for China’s everything” (Pasternack, 2017). According to the statistics, the average times people check their WeChat per day is 10 times, and more than half of the users spend more than 90 minutes on this application per day (WeChat Blog, 2016). This essay will try to examine features of WeChat from different aspects. In the following parts, it will try to analysis reasons of WeChat’s popularity from its modular design aspects, as well as its design principles from socio-technical perspectives.

(WeChat Statistics, 2016)

2. Why is WeChat so Popular? – From the Modular Design Point of View

WeChat is a product with many add-ons that makes life easier and more convenient. It is not only a cell phone application for people to contact each other, but could also be the platform to post and share life with friends, the channel where people receive all sorts of information, and the tool to transfer money and make payments. With the updates, WeChat has gradually penetrated into many important aspects of people’s life by combining more modules and functions into this application. As Author puts it, new technologies arise by combining already existing technologies (2011). By interconnecting subcomponents, the designed system can manage a larger and more complex structure of functions. Every added module in WeChat has a hierarchy structure, combining more detailed design principles and features. Wang and Grover, product managers of WeChat also state that WeChat is just “simple features organize in a good way” (WeChat Blog, 2015). The following part will try to discuss some of the most frequently used features in WeChat and examine WeChat as a modular design.

 

2.1 As a Multi-Media Communication Tool

As a social messaging application, the most basic and essential function of WeChat is to help the users build up and keep connections.  By using the internet instead of basic texts, WeChat provides users an environment to stay connected with others without charges. One of the underlined assumptions under the core values of WeChat, according to Wang and Grover, is that the users will always be online (WeChat Blog, 2015). The internet environment provided by the boosting technique of mobile network and Wi-Fi supports the users to use WeChat and be connected as long as they want to. Based on that, WeChat offers users various forms of messages, including text message, voice message and personalized stickers. With all these features in hand, users can choose the channel they want to communicate through and express themselves freely.

Moreover, WeChat provide users chances to recall the last sent message within two minutes. Although it leaves a permanent notification in the chat for all parties involved in the conversation, with that feature, users can withdraw the unwanted message and keep other person from knowing the content of it. This could be a very useful feature when the user sent the message to the wrong person, sent the wrong file, or said something improper in the message.

(WeChat recall feature)

2.2 As an Ingroup Broadcast Channel – Moments

Moments is a unique function of timeline story posting and experience sharing. Similar to Facebook and Instagram, users can post stories on their timelines, and decide which group of people can see the post, as well as like and comment other users’ post. However, different from other social media applications, Moments only allow users to see the likes and comments made by mutual friends between the user and the person who posted the moment. In other words, the user cannot see the likes and comments from those they are not friend with.

According to Wang, that kind of “circle design” changes the content of the posts (WeChat Blog, 2015). Because the one who posted the moment will be the only one to know how many likes or comments she got, users would be more genuine and tend to post authentic things to share with friends instead of posting things catering public taste and make the posting process a competition, which would lead to more interesting posts.

(WeChat Moments)

 2.3 As an Online Payment Method – WeChat Wallet

With the 5.0 update, WeChat has introduced the feature of wallet and payment. Users can bind their bank account to this application and complete monetary transactions. Users can complete purchases and make payments through WeChat wallet for a variety of things from mobile top up, pay utility fees, buy film tickets to order taxi and food delivery. Online investment is also imported in WeChat, providing the users with a high interest rate to encourage them move their money from saving accounts, which also provides a fund raising method for Tecent company.

(Various purchases that can be realized by WeChat wallet)

That feature boosts the micro-business in China. With free and almost real-time money transfer, people are able to run small businesses on their WeChat account. These business runners use WeChat as a free platform for advertising as well as one-on-one customer service channel.

(micro-business runner advertising her products via Moments )

2.4 As an Information Channel – Official Account

Except for the main function of multi-media communication, WeChat is also used as a channel to receive all sort of information via the official accounts. News feeds will be sent to users based on a mechanism called server push, which can “send the data from server to client in an asynchronous fashion” (Sampathkumar, 2010). After the user subscribe to different official accounts according to their interests, these official accounts will start to feed the users with articles. Since the messages are asynchronous, users can read the feeds sent from official accounts anytime after it is published without worrying about the message will be gone or be refreshed if they do not read it as soon as possible, as well as share it with friends on WeChat or share it to other social media platforms such as Weibo.

Official accounts have boosted many business and media related industries in China. For companies and advertisers, official accounts enable them to engage with consumers with a new method (Xu, 2016). As the messages are sent to the followers individually, users can reply to the server push and have “direct conversations” with the service providers via the official accounts from Q&A, feedback, to book a service, and no other users can see their conversation even if they have followed the same account. It has also induced the generation of self-media. As long as the user’s identity is verified, everyone can create their own platform and post articles and opinions. That creates a channel for direct communications between the blogger and the followers. As users can subscribe or unsubscribe an official account at anytime, the self-media as well as advertisers are demanded to offer “more valuable contents as well as a high level of interactive experience with the audience, (Xu, 2016)”, instead of using it as a broadcast tool for message bombardment.

(Types of Official Accounts that Users Follow, 2016)

(Number of Followers on Official Accounts, 2016)

 

3. Why There is No Message Delivery Notification? — A Socio-Technical Analysis

Combined with all these modules of functions, WeChat is an important application penetrating every aspect of life in China. It is not only used for contacting each other, but also for payment, and receiving all sorts of information. However, as a messaging application, WeChat does not provide users with message delivery status notification (DSN), which is also called message sent/read confirmation. It is a feature helping users to know whether the messages have been delivered or read, normally realized by a small icon below the sent message. WeChat also does not tell the users if the person they are talking to is online or not. Although Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp see these features as essential and important, WeChat is designed without them. The next part of this essay will try to analyze the reasons behind that from socio-technical aspects.

(Messenger: Know when messages are delivered and seen to reach people instantly)

(WhatsApp: Message Status Identification)

(WeChat: Only shows whether message is pending to deliver/failed to deliver)

 

3.1 Technical Aspects

DSN feature might be left out from WeChat for an optimized user experience, not because that WeChat does not have the technique to support DSN feature, but out of a comprehensive consideration ensuring users can receive the messages in real time. According to Pappu, Carvalho and Pardalos, Quality of Service (QoS) is a discription of the overall performance of a service, and translation delay is an important aspect in QoS measurement (2013). QoS capabilities allows system designers and administrators to attach priority to the message or communication channel (Pappu, Carvalho, Pardalos, 2013). To have the message delivered within the required time, the bandwidth of the network as well as network traffic are important considerations.

Deshpande has determined that, the maximum allowed time for a message to deliver is 8ms. Which, translated into a bandwidth requirement, is 7.144 Mb/s. He has also mentioned that the differences in the traffic of a network and the network architecture will alter the results, thus the actual bandwidth for the delivery of a message could be higher or lower according to the network.

However, connectivity in China could be barely enough to realize the requirement for real time message delivery. The average bandwidth in China is 7.6 Mb/s (Akamai, 2017), and that number differs from place to place – in some of the rural areas, the internet connectivity could be poor, rendering a slow sending and receiving of messages.  Also according to Wong, in the year 2016, the online population in China has reached 688 million, which is half of the population, and nearly 90% of them can access internet connection via their phones (2016). This could also result in more traffic in the network, which, as a consequence, requires a higher bandwidth for the delivery of the message.

(China Internet Bandwidth Ranking, 2017)

Under these operating conditions, DSN might be a heavy burden on message delivery, and could slow down the message sending and receiving process. Instead of offering a more advanced service of informing users whether the message receiver has read the message, WeChat needs to put the priority in ensuring the messages are delivered as fast as possible to increase Quality of Service. Thus to reach the best result of message delivery, WeChat is designed without this feature to make sure message deliveries can meet the timing requirements.

 

3.2 Social Aspects

Besides the bandwidth and network traffic constraints, WeChat is designed without DSN feature for other social reasons related to the privacy policy, the nature of this application, and the communicating style of the users.

On WeChat ChatterBox, which is the official WeChat blog, WeChat team claims that message read confirmation feature will not be provided to protect the users’ privacy (WeChat Team, 2014). In the blog post “Why You Won’t Find Blue Ticks in WeChat”, the team states, “we believe the exact time you read a message in WeChat is your business and no one else’s – unless you make that decision yourself. Users can chat freely in WeChat knowing the other party will not see any timestamp or receive information about your messaging behavior other than the content of the conversation you choose to share (WeChat Team, 2014).” In other words, DSN is deliberately excluded from WeChat features, so that the users would not be worried about exposing their messaging behavior, or figure out the time lapse between they see and reply the message.

Also, according to Social Networks in China, WeChat does not place a heavy emphasis on simultaneous online communications (Che and Ip, 2017). It provides an asynchronous communication mode, where “instant responses are not necessary for information exchange” (Che and Ip, 2017). Authors of this book compare WeChat with QQ, which is another chatting application designed and owned by Tecent company came out in 1999. They state that to some extent, the type of communication features is defined by the platform characteristics (Che and Ip, 2017). WeChat and QQ has different market positioning based on their characteristics. While QQ is a platform for synchronous chatting on both PC and cell phone when they are both online, WeChat users are more likely to conduct their conversation on cell phones, using their fragmented time slots in daily lives. Thus the feature of showing whether the other party has seen the message is unnecessary: users are expected to check WeChat messages in their fragmented time, thus the timing of the users seeing and replying the messages are non-deterministic in the communication. In other words, instant reply is not expected when people communicate on WeChat, and time lapse might exist between when user see and reply to the message. Without DSN feature, users can feel free to see the message and reply whenever they feel comfortable.

Moreover, to some extent, users will alter their messaging behaviour if DSN feature is introduced. Read notifications works as an “awareness cue”, as it “offers the interaction partner a detailed feedback about the online activities of a user”, and this information may increase users’ response pressure (Marques & Batista, 2017). Having the knowledge “the sender will be notified if I have seen the message” in mind, the user will either not to open the message when she cannot reply, or be pressured to reply right after she have seen the message. In addition, according to Wang and Gu, the Chinese rhetoric style is high context and indirect (2016), it puts a great emphasis on vagueness. DSN feature provides the users with excessively explicit information that they need to consider and deal with. Although the intention of DSN feature was to be informative about the message’s delivery status and help users reach higher quality communications, to some degree it actually causes concerns and pressure to the users.

 

Conclusion

In conclusion, this essay discussed WeChat from its modular design and social-technical dependencies. The first part of the discussion tried to analyse the crucial modules in WeChat that make it an indispensable application in people’s life, and the second part of the essay tried to explain why WeChat does not provide DSN features for the users. We can also see that design decisions have an influence on the user habit, and sometimes users are affected in ways different from the designers’ intention. Designers should take the design impact on users into consideration as they add new features to an application.

 

References

Arthur, W. B. The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves (Reprint edition). New York: Free Press, 2011.

Che, Xianhui, and Barry Ip. Social Networks in China. Chandos Publishing, 2017.

Deshpande, Jayant G., Eunyoung Kim, and Marina Thottan. “Differentiated Services QoS in Smart Grid Communication Networks.” Bell Labs Technical Journal 16, no. 3 (December 1, 2011): 61–81. https://doi.org/10.1002/bltj.20522.

Figueiredo, Marques, Rui Pedro, and Batista Lopes Joao Carlos. Information and Communication Overload in the Digital Age. IGI Global, 2017.

“Global State of the Internet Connectivity Reports | Akamai.” Accessed December 14, 2017. https://www.akamai.com/us/en/about/our-thinking/state-of-the-internet-report/global-state-of-the-internet-connectivity-reports.jsp.

“Messenger.” Accessed December 14, 2017. https://www.messenger.com/features#texts.

Pappu, Vijay, Marco Carvalho, and Panos Pardalos. Optimization and Security Challenges in Smart Power Grids. Springer Science & Business Media, 2013.

Pasternack, Alex. “How WeChat Became China’s App For Everything.” Fast Company, January 2, 2017. Accessed December 15, 2017. https://www.fastcompany.com/3065255/china-wechat-tencent-red-envelopes-and-social-money.

Tencent, IBG. “Why You Won’t Find Blue Ticks in WeChat.” WeChat Blog: Chatterbox. Accessed December 14, 2017. http://blog.wechat.com/2014/11/13/why-you-wont-find-blue-ticks-in-wechat/.

Wang, Xiaobo, and Baotong Gu. “The Communication Design of WeChat: Ideological As Well As Technical Aspects of Social Media.” Commun. Des. Q. Rev 4, no. 1 (January 2016): 23–35. https://doi.org/10.1145/2875501.2875503.

Wong, Edward. “China’s Internet Speed Ranks 91st in the World.” The New York Times, June 3, 2016, sec. Asia Pacific. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/04/world/asia/china-internet-speed.html.

Xiaoge, Xu. Handbook of Research on Human Social Interaction in the Age of Mobile Devices. IGI Global, 2016.

Sampathkumar, Padmashree. “Using WebSphere Application Server Community Edition to Connect Ajax Client and Asynchronous Data,” October 21, 2010. Accessed December 14, 2017. http://www.ibm.com/developerworks/cn/websphere/techjournal/1008_sampathkumar/1008_sampathkumar.html.

Tencent, IBG. “Tech Tip – Your Guide to WeChat Moments.” WeChat Blog: Chatterbox. Accessed December 15, 2017. http://blog.wechat.com/2015/06/12/tech-tip-your-guide-to-wechat-moments/.

Tencent, IBG. “The 2016 WeChat Data Report.” WeChat Blog: Chatterbox. Accessed December 15, 2017. http://blog.wechat.com/2016/12/29/the-2016-wechat-data-report/.

Tencent, IBG. “We Chat About WeChat #3: An Inside Look at How and Why We Build WeChat.” WeChat Blog: Chatterbox. Accessed December 15, 2017. http://blog.wechat.com/2015/11/06/we-chat-about-wechat-3-an-inside-look-at-how-we/.“

2017 WeChat User Report Is Out! – China Channel.” Accessed December 15, 2017. https://chinachannel.co/1017-wechat-report-users/.

 

From the Question “Why Rabbit does not work on Safari?”

Last time when I was chatting with my friend, he introduced me a webpage called rabbit, which is a platform with the screen share function that enables users to watch videos together, and on the webpage, users can have video, audio or text chat at the same time. I found this webpage cool and wanted to check it with my other friends. However, when I opened the page with Safari, this page showed up:

Later on, I checked for the reason for that, and found out it is because Safari does not support WebRTC, which is the technology Rabbit uses for audio and video. I was surprised as this is the first time I see web browsers are actually different from each other. Before that, web browsers are just a sort of “invisible black-box”, which I use to explore and gain information but never actually paid any attention towards it.

When I take a closer look into the technology, I come to understand WebRTC, or Web real Time Communication, is “a set of communications protocols and application programming interfaces that enable real-time communication over peer-to-peer connections.” However, Safari uses a different implementation of the similar function, which is not compatible with Rabbit. Thus, the signals between Rabbit and Safari is not “translatable”, while Chorme and Firefox or other browsers support WebRTC thus Rabbit can work on these browsers. If the user really wants to access Rabbit on Safari, then a plug-in called “Skylink” can help, which can translate the digital information Rabbit needs into a language Safari can process.

This lead me to think further about what actually is a browser, and how the browsers are different from one another. From the readings I understand that web browser is the application for retrieve, present, and traverse information sources on the World Wide Web. Specifications of webpages are maintained by using W3C organization standards. When the HTML text file is received, the browser decodes the URLs included in the HTML file, and then presents the text, graphics, sounds and video files included in the sites. Browsers differ from each other by using different “layout engines”, which is used to interpret the instructions given by the webpage. Chrome and Safari uses the same layout engine called webkit, while Firefox is using Gecko and IE is using Trident. Layout engines also are updated to understand new versions of instructions, such as html5 and css3. Thus although the layout of a webpage looks the same presented by different browsers, it is actually interpreted in different ways.

 

Reference

Martin Irvine, “Introduction to the Web

Ron White, How Computers Work. 9th ed. Que Publishing, 2007. “How the World Wide Web Works.” (excerpts).

“WebRTC.” Wikipedia, November 20, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=WebRTC&oldid=811241724.

“What’s the Difference Between Browsers, and Why Do People Think Internet Explorer Sucks?” The Dojo (blog), March 28, 2013. http://www.realtyninja.com/blog/whats-the-difference-between-browsers-and-why-do-people-think-internet-explorer-sucks/.

Garsiel, Tali, Paul Irish Published: August 5th, and 2011 Comments: 14 Your browser may not support the functionality in this article. “How Browsers Work: Behind the Scenes of Modern Web Browsers – HTML5 Rocks.” HTML5 Rocks – A resource for open web HTML5 developers. Accessed November 29, 2017. https://www.html5rocks.com/en/tutorials/internals/howbrowserswork/.

“On the Internet”

This week’s readings are about internet, the design system and its extensible features. “On the internet”, as I understand it, somehow means to be able to connected to the Wi-Fi, or using data to send and receive information through an electronic gadget. To further address the question “what does it mean to be ‘on the internet’”, it is essential to have a better understanding of “what is internet” in the first place.

Though more often, we talk about the internet as a totalized entity, and see it as one and a whole function of the modern technology and communication system, if we have a closer look, we will understand that the internet is actually a system rather than a totality. The internet is a “cumulative orchestrated combinatoriality” with layers of technologies. As shown in this picture, the internet is the network built up upon protocols, with the fundamental support of wire, fiber and radio. It is a combination of both hardware and software: physical implementations such as wire, power plant, and radio provides the most essential signal, and programs in the computer or other terminals allows the gadget be connected easily to the internet with simple clicks.

(Picture: Internet as an hourglass)

 

Also from the technical level, internet is also designed in “abstraction layers” where data is transmitted in packets. According to “Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion”, there are two important choices in the development of internet: avoiding size limits of the information so that large messages could still be carried through the network, and ensuring the capacity of network could only be limited by the data traffic instead of the amount of connected computers. As information are sent and received as multiple small packets of data, it allows the webpages to be loaded almost instantly as we open it. We can observe this in our life experience: when we open a web page, the content on the webpage does now appear in a top-to-bottom sequence, but normally the texts will appear first, pictures second, and videos at last. Also old information will be saved on the terminal as cache, and thus the next time when we open the page, only the packets of new information needs to be transferred. This is also why when we refresh a page or open a page again, it loads faster than the first time.

The system, or the layers of technologies in the internet, allows it to be extensible and open to future developments. With technology development, the internet will always be able to develop new features, have faster speed and alter to the need of social development.

The rapidly uploading and downloading data and the whole system make it possible for us to be “on the internet” and keep us connected to the “outside world” by creating and understanding the information via cultural symbols. Thus to be “on the internet” and make it functional, it also requires the users to understand the rules and methods to utilize symbols to understand meanings.

When thinking about the socio-technical dependencies of the network, I can’t help but think about the Great Firewall of China, which is a combination of both legislative actions and technologies to “regulate the domestic internet”. Access to certain websites such as Google, Facebook, Instagram, and sometimes even Wikipedia is limited by GFW, while the users still have access to other websites such as Bing and Yahoo. A huge amount of the internet users are fine with this limitation, while still a proportion of the internet users need and try to seek access to get over the “Great Firewall”, and the way to make that possible is to download or purchase a VPN. As explained in the video below, by using a VPN the user can bypass the censorship of the government and be connected to the forbidden websites. The relationship between the Firewall and VPNs is somehow like a competition or a combat, from time to time we hear news that the government is closing down VPN companies and making the Firewall stronger by limiting more webpages, and at the same time there are always new VPNs coming out. The accessibility of webpages is also an interesting issue when thinking about the implication of being “on the internet”, that how can we be exposed to the information as much as we want to, instead of only being “on a part of the internet” because of the government censorship.

 

(Video: What is VPN and how does VPN work)

 

References:

Martin Irvine, Intro to the Design and Architecture of the Internet (from “Key Concepts in Technology”)

Martin Irvine, Introducing Internet Design Principles and Architecture: Why Learn This?

Hal Abelson, Ken Ledeen, and Harry Lewis. Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Addison-Wesley, 2008. Excerpt: “The Internet as System and Spirit.”

“Great Firewall.” Wikipedia, November 12, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Great_Firewall&oldid=809869813.

What Computer Brings Us

According to Alan Kay, the computational media environment should always hold support for the users to think, discovery, and create. His actual implementations of computer software, such as sketchpad, tries to turn computers into a kind of personal dynamic media where users could express their ideas, and generate new thoughts via man-machine interaction. Though there would be sophisticated programs running behind the screen, the interface is quite simple and user-friendly: it understands the user instructions and alters them into some symbolic visual icons according to a certain algorithm, users can use these symbols to express and further develop their ideas, “like examining a physical object in the real world”. In general, Alan Kay was trying to reinvent computers into a dynamic platform for culture creation, where each individual user could benefit from and generate their own ideas.

Moreover, Manovich points out that computers are reinvented from a fast calculating tool to a metamedium, which represents most other media while augmenting them with many new properties, handles all of its owner’s information-related needs, and continuously generates new media tools and new types of media. Computers can be regarded as the “remediation machine”, where mediums with distinct properties are put together in a single computational environment, and thus can build up connections between each other. With these connections, computer is able to help its users to “generate new information from old data, fuse separate information sources together, and create new knowledge from old analog sources.” Or put it in a shorter form, “New media is new as we can always add new properties to it.”

With all these characters, computing devices facilitate our needs for constant innovation, cultural acquisition, and symbol creation. To some extent, I would like to regard this “metamedium” as a huge, open, and neutral platform, where with a certain standard, that allows all sorts of software running their own functions and build up connections with each other. So far I cannot think of another way to combine virtual and reality, or easier approaches to create meanings and connections between different properties. The following video is a good example: it is a combination of real life video and imaginary creatures/impossible combinations. Computing devices helps to build up the connection between video and 3D animations, thus his inspirations can actually be conducted and realized.

 

 

As I might have mentioned in one of the former posts, a picture could only be a piece of memory or an art work when it is only saved in the camera. However, once it is posted on some social platforms, new meaning is added to the same piece of picture. As social media platforms would ask the user to add descriptions and locations when posting the picture, it then symbolizes a story that the user wants to tell people; and even if the picture is posted without any description, it still conveys the message of experience sharing. Thus, though the initial intention of taking a picture is to capture a moment, social intentions could be added to the same piece of picture with computational devices (metamedium) and the applications running on this platform (medium), even though nothing in the picture has essentially changed. The medium itself conveys some message.

One of the significant consequences, according to Manovich, is that “new media as a whole is given to the user, have the far-reaching effect of shaping the contemporary culture.” As the metamedia platform depends on standardized design, and with the core design principles are based on symbolic and cognitive capabilities, it is equally open to all of the users, which means individual users can have a relatively similar chance to voice their opinions and create symbols and meanings according to their own cultural values. While inheriting nature from the traditional mediums as carriers of knowledge and information, computing devices as the new medium, is providing a more open and free platform for users to develop their own meaning systems and spread their ideas (such as the generation of wemedia and internet personalities), thus the culture is shaped in a more multivariant way.

 

References:

Martin Irvine, Key Design Concepts for Interactive Interfaces and Digital Media
(The concepts that enabled interactive “metamedia” computing)

Manovich, Lev. 2013. Software Takes Command. International Texts in Critical Media Aesthetics, volume#5. New York ; London: Bloomsbury.

Conceptual Development of Computers

This week’s reading is about the history of computation, and sees computers as metamedia interfaces for interactive cultural creation, rather than just tools designed and used by the same person. The movement of the computer from being a device only used by military and big businesses to something that the everyday person will have at home required changes in the initial design of the computer.

When watching the video, I was amazed by the computer techniques Alan Kay was introducing. I used to think those functions and interactions between human and computers, such as Sketchpad can recognize human strikes and adjust the graph according to user’s requirements, are some advanced computer technology only available in today, however after watching the video I came to realize these functions and technologies enabling human computer symbiosis are already existing. As Manovich points out, computers, to some extent, are “remediate machines” that “expertly represents earlier media”, and are not expected to function any differently as it has first appeared. The development of technology, somehow, seems just the combination of already existing thoughts and softwares, while the hardware creates the ceiling of the software performance and better quality GUI.

However, if that’s the case, what are the alterations of computers that makes them evolve into “general purpose” information processing machines rather than the same as the earlier designs, which is just for military, government and business applications? I think the conceptual steps that somehow changes the nature of computer lies in how programs run the routine work while offering users a more interactive and transparent interface at the same time. Licklider claims in “Man-Computer Symbiosis”, that “Computing machines will do the routinizable work that must be done to prepare the way for insights and decisions in technical and scientific thinking.” Thus the time of users are allowed to put more efforts into things computers couldn’t help as much with, such as intellectual thinking, creating menings, formulate hypotheses, and other cultural activities. Also, new media, according to Manovich, is no more a sole province of the designers. Instead, with the highly interactive interface, it gives users the freedom to develop context according to their requirements. Alan Kay states this kind of interface as “truly intimate”, that he feels he can stick hands into the display and touch things in the screen directly. These are the concepts behind the design that make computers more reachable to common, nontechnical users.

As mentioned in readings, Memex is a good representation for this point. The memex, thought up by Vannevar Bush, was one of the earliest examples of a conceptual change to what a computer could mean to people. It took the abilities of the computer and tried to see how they could be implemented differently. Anyone who could make use of a library would find a memex to be even more useful. Its goal was to compress books and other written media into a searchable knowledge network that could be accessed via table-sized machines. While this device never came to be, it gave a good idea of the required technical and design needs for computers to be widely used.  Being small enough to fit in a home and being able to be mass-produced so they can be afforded by most people were essential; as was the addition of a screen that gave users feedback through a Graphical User Interface (GUI). While the memex wasn’t made, in the coming years the personal computer did which was even more versatile than even Bush had anticipated.

References:

Alan Kay on the history of graphical interfaces

J. C. R. Licklider, “Man-Computer Symbiosis” (1960)

Lev Manovich, Software Takes Command.

Programming Language and Nature Language

By learning Python, I somehow see how to use programming language as the computer’s “nature language”, and give the computer instructions to complete specific tasks. It is the language between human and the computer: according to David Evans, it is a language human can understand and machines can execute. These are some reflections I had through the learning process:

Programming language and natural language share quite a lot of similarities. Words and abbreviations are borrowed from nature language to function in programming language, such as “print” means to present the result on the screen and “len()” means to measure the length of the word. During the first few lessons where there are not a lot of symbols involved, I feel that I can totally understand what the algorithm is about by reading the instructions I write down. As in natural language, the smallest units of meaning are morphemes, according to David Evans in Introduction to Computing, the smallest units in programming language are primitives. Based on that, a scheme program is capable of processing expressions and definitions.

Programming also has its own grammar system which is called algorithm according to Denning’s The Great Principles of Computing. The language structure of programming is kind of recursive according to Computational Thinking, that “a computation is an information process in which the transitions from one element of the sequence to the next are controlled by a representation.” Different symbols are used combined with primitives to function different algorithms, and I need to be careful and pay attention to small details to run the program successfully. Certain rules have to be followed, for example “6.75%” should actually be presented as “6.75/100” (as 6.75 divided by 100 in stead of just showing the percentage), as “%” implies a different function than showing the percentile as we normally use it in maths. Also, by using “str()”,the number does not change but somehow the meaning and nature of it has changed.

Based on that, it is interesting to point out that Python demands accuracy to a great extent, and the flexibility of the language is somehow limited. The “interaction” between human mind and computer is not the same as between humans. While during the latter one human brain can understand each other, complement the incomplete sentences, autocorrect mistakes and develop the meanings, when we are communicating with the computer we need to be accurate and specific of what we actually mean. The computer will not complement or refine the programming language itself, any small mistake could fail the running process.

It is a shame that when I have proceeded the Python tutorial to “String Formatting with %, Part 2”, the webpage somehow stuck when I click “run” and I cannot go any further than that point in the tutorial, otherwise I could have got the chance to explore more aspects of programming.

 

References

Jeannette Wing, “Computational Thinking.” Communications of the ACM 49, no. 3 (March 2006): 33–35.

Peter J. Denning and Craig H. Martell. Great Principles of Computing. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2015, chapters 4, 5, 6.

David Evans, Introduction to Computing: Explorations in Language, Logic, and Machines. Oct. 2011 edition. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; Creative Commons Open Access: http://computingbook.org/.

Message, Shared Knowledge and Meaning Making

This week’s reading covers Shannon’s information theory. Information theory, combined with semiotics make the meaning-making process possible in this digital environment. As shown by Shannon’s original diagram of information transmission model, the information goes from the sender through a more complicating than thought procedure of encoding and decoding to reach the receiver.

Transmission of Message

Messages work after being transmitted because both the sender and receiver share the knowledge base of what the transmitted signal represents. For instance, in a text message, it is assumed that both the sender and receiver share the knowledge of the grammar, vocabulary, formal/informal usage of whatever language they are being transmitted in.

Language itself, no matter spoken or written, is a code for understanding and communicating the world as we perceive it to someone else. Thus beyond being able to receive the text, the receiver must understand the language or the communication rules for the signal to be able to correctly gather what the sender was trying to say. If the sender and receiver does not share the same language, they must try to find another channel to translate the information to a language that they understand. This gives the chance to introduce non-digital “noise” into the message. Mistranslation could happen when a word or phrase cannot be directly translated to another. Misunderstandings of words or phrases due to the language difference could lead to wrong decoding of the original message.

 

Meaning-making based on Shared Knowledge

In terms of images, the idea remains the same. A shared pool of previous knowledge is required to provide meaning. For example, people will recognize all these pictures as Mona Lisa, as they are familiar with the elements (such as the face, the gesture, or the tone of the color) in the original painting, and have already known them as symbols.

Another example goes in modern usage of images may be the Internet meme and jokes. What makes sense to one person may make no sense at all to another, because they’re not familiar with the background knowledge. They have no context with which to interpret the image given to them to understand what the sender is trying to say. For instance this picture would not make much sense to someone who is not familiar with the culture. Zhuge Liang, whose courtesy name is Zhuge Kongming, is a famous chancellor during the Three Kingdoms Period. This picture only make sense to people who speaks Chinese and knows the person. “Liang (亮)”, the person’s name, means light or brightness in Chinese, while “Kongming”, the courtesy name, means lights in holes or eyes. People normally see the name of a person as an entity and do not look into its actual meaning, thus this picture is funny for Chinese speakers as the image of the person changes according to the literal meaning of his name. However people from other cultures would not understand without the background knowledge or context.

(Literal Translation of his name:

Zhuge Brightness, Zhuge Darkness; Zhuge Light-in-the-Holes)

 

References

Martin Irvine, “Introduction to the Technical Theory of Information

Peter Denning and Tim Bell, “The Information Paradox.” From American Scientist, 100, Nov-Dec. 2012.

Ronald E. Day, “The ‘Conduit Metaphor’ and the Nature and Politics of Information Studies.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science 51, no. 9 (2000): 805-811.

E-Book, Word, PDF, Notepad and the Idea of Paper

  1. Affordances and Interfaces of a Book

Affordance, according to Norman, is about making possible uses of a produce immediately obvious (Interactive design Foundation). Taking book as an artefact design, we can see that it is a set of rectangular paper glued on one side of the edges (normally the left), and can be opened up from the other side (normally the right side). Thus readers would know how to hold a book and open it: hold the left side, where the pages are all glued together so the book will not fall apart, and turn the pages from the right side when the reading process goes on. Also a book normally has its title on one side of the cover, thus readers could intuitively know where to start from.

The whole process happens intuitively – that is, we have our unconscious expectations about how to open a book at the moment we see it (Murray). This kind of expectations are based on the past experiences, and provided by cultural conventions as cognitive affordance (Norman). For example, readers of English (as well as many other languages) books expect the content to appear horizontally from left to right, however books in Japanese as well as traditional Chinese are expected to read vertically from right to left.

(Different ways of presenting texts)

  1. Computational and Digital Display of Paper

Books, as well as other paper products such as note books, are designed to help people to note down thoughts and deliver them. When transferred into the digital display, such as word processor (e.g. Microsoft word), PDF viewer (e.g. adobe), e-book, as well as notepad, designers still want to keep a sense of paper.

The affordance of books does not always apply to digital displays. For example, when words appear on the screen we cannot actually turn the pages like in books. However, a table of content can be used to help users better locate in the book or document, and allows readers to jump to the wanted content. Also, these document processing applications offer users ways to take notes, such as highlight and underline, as users are used to do while reading paper books.

 

2.1 E-book

E-book gadgets as well as the applications are designed with the principle to restore the experience of reading a real book. In most of the e-book applications, the reader can swipe the screen or tap on the right for turning to the next the page and left to the former page, in the purpose of simulating the feeling of turning pages in a real book. This recreates the real life artefact of turning a page to get to more content.

 

2.2 Word Processor and PDF Viewer

Word Processors and PDF viewers has also inherited the notion of page limits, but the way to turn pages is changed. We do not swipe or tab right to turn pages, instead, we roll down a bar on the right side of the screen for this process just as fir webpages. This is a merging of intended use and ease of use: content appears with limitations of paper edges so that the users can have an idea of how it will look like when printed out on paper (intended use); and at the same time, being able to e scrolled through makes the content appear consecutively, which creates a smooth reading and editing experience.

It is also interesting to mention that, when I was searching for word processor as well as PDF viewer apps, most of the appeared icons are in blue (for word) and red (for PDF). To some extent, I think this is the colour of icons of the biggest companies in these areas (Microsoft Word is blue and Adobe Reader is red). That shows that these companies have a strong force on the market share, that other applications of the similar functions need to be in the similar design or colour so that the users can have an idea of the function of the application.

 

2.3 Notepad

Different from word processor and PDF viewer, notepad does not expect the user to print out the content, thus there are no page limits in each notes. They try to give users enough space to keep a whole piece of thought in the same piece of “paper”, while another piece of thought in another piece of “paper”. Clusters are also designed to help the users better organize and group their thoughts.

Most of the notepad icons are designed as a representation of what the application is simulating (a notepad with a pencil), showing that notepads are more function oriented rather than brand identification oriented.

 

References 

Martin Irvine, “Introduction to Affordances and Interfaces.”

Janet Murray, Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012. Selections from the Introduction and chapters 1-2.

Donald A. Norman, “Affordance, Conventions, and Design.” Interactions 6, no. 3 (May 1999): 38-43.

Interaction Design Foundation, The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction, 2nd. Ed. https://www.interaction-design.org/literature.

Dimensions of Mediation – Based on Instagram

 

Throughout the development of human history, we have created words and symbols for abstract meanings. Technologies, our language system as well as artefacts helps us better present them. The artefact is the medium we deliver our message, and to some extent also consists message itself. I do find this week’s reading abstract and sophisticated, and am not sure whether I have understood it in the right way, but would try to discuss about some of the dimensions of mediation based on Instagram as a case study.

Interference

 

According to Latour, the first sense of mediation is “the program of action”, it is a series of goals and steps and intentions described by an agent. Latour claims there is a symmetrical relationship between the actor and the medium, that the responsibility for action is shared among the various actants.

Instagram now has two major ways of posting: the user can choose to post pictures on the homepage (the traditional way, the picture will exist until the user delete it), or to post it in the story, which lasts only for 24 hours and will be automatically deleted afterwards. Thus Instagram, combined with the user’s choice, has created two different ways delivering message and achieve different “goals”: one is to record a moment that can be reviewed and remembered later on, and the other is to share a moment with followers and probably be forgotten soon. The user and Instagram together classified which type of message is delivered.

The Folding of Time and Space

Here we again come across the concept of blackboxing, and Instagram, according to Latour’s definition “the joint production of actors and artifacts is entirely opaque”, is a blackbox. When we are using it, we can only see the refined UI where we post our own pictures and like others’ however we do not come across the techniques behind it at all. While using the application, we do not think about how it uploads and downloads data via internet, how the hardware in the phone and this software work together to provide all the interactions, or how the pictures are displayed on the screen. We take the procedure operation for granted, and jump directly to use the provided functions and deliver messages via this application.

Crossing the Boundary between Signs and Things

While Latour was giving an example of speed bump and its French expression “a sleeping policeman”, I would like to give a similar one on Instagram. On the personal page, the place for users to edit their information is called “edit profile” in English, while the Chinese expression could be translated as “edit homepage”. Though lead to the same action, the embedded meaning is slightly different between these two expressions. “Edit profile” could be more about how to describe yourself and who you feel you are, while the focus of “edit homepage” is more likely to be how do you want to present yourself, or what do you want others to see on the homepage. These two expressions somehow show the different focus on self-portrait in the two different cultures.

Moreover, according to Latour, techniques have meaning. When the picture is posted, its nature as a photograph (“thing”) preserves, but at the same time, it is also a message (“sign”), that the one who posts the picture has a goal to communicate and share the information in this picture with a certain group of people. Thus the action of posting itself adds meaning to the matter of expression, and the boundary between the thing (photo itself) and sign (message embedded) is crossed.

 

References:

 

Bruno Latour, “On Technical Mediation,” as re-edited with title, “A Collective of Humans and Nonhumans — Following Daedalus’s Labyrinth,” in Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999, pp. 174-217.

 

Pieter Vermaas, Peter Kroes, Ibo van de Poel, Maarten Franssen, and Wybo Houkes. A Philosophy of Technology: From Technical Artefacts to Sociotechnical Systems. San Rafael, CA: Morgan & Claypool Publishers, 2011. Excerpts from chapters 1 and 5.

 


Questions:

  1. During reading I was not sure about the second mediation, composition, and could not see a significant difference between the second and the first mediation.
  2. In Regis Debray’s reading I came across concepts as “the interaction within a system [intrasystème]”, “the interaction between systems [intersystème]” and “the interactions across systems [transsystèmes]”. Again I’m not really sure what they actually represents.

Rally Sports Challenge : Cognitive Artefact and the External Symbol Storage

Well, when i was 4, my dad bought a trusty XBox. you know, the first, ruggedy, blocky one from 2001. we had tons and tons and tons of fun playing all kinds of games together – until he died, when i was just 6.

i couldnt touch that console for 10 years.

but once i did, i noticed something.

we used to play a racing game, Rally Sports Challenge. actually pretty awesome for the time it came.

and once i started meddling around… i found a GHOST.

literaly.

you know, when a time race happens, that the fastest lap so far gets recorded as a ghost driver? yep, you guessed it – his ghost still rolls around the track today.

and so i played and played, and played, untill i was almost able to beat the ghost. until one day i got ahead of it, i surpassed it, and…

i stopped right in front of the finish line, just to ensure i wouldnt delete it.

Bliss.[1]

This is a story I read online a few years ago, and I find it a fine example helping me to understand media technologies as “symbolic-cognitive artefacts”, as well as how do video games, creating a virtual reality world, serves as an “external symbolic storage”, and constructs to the “symbolic material culture” [2].

According to Norman’s “Cognitive Artefacts”, this story can be examined from the system view as well as the personal view [3].

The system view sees the total structure of the person and the artefact together in accomplishing a task [3]. As Renfrew points out, indicators of thoughts take form of visual symbols (artefacts). As components of the material culture, they are reflective and constitutive to the cognitive categories [2]. Rally Sports Challenge, or video games in general, creates a virtual reality world for its players. As a kind of cognitive artefacts, video game serves the representational function as a community where people of similar interests could spend time together, communicate and entertain, even though normally the game itself cannot bring any material reward to the player. The meaning of video games is not the software itself, but a platform where people, through their interactions, could develop meanings and form collective memories. It could also be seen by Cole’s definition of “tertiary world”, that “constitute an arena of non-practical but come to colour the way we see the “actual” world, providing a tool for changing current praxis [4]”.

The personal view focuses more on how the artefact has affected the task to be performed [3]. In this case, it is how this particular game, has become a unique symbol of memory for the boy.  It has a dual material-conceptual nature. On the material level, it is a group of code carrying the record of the fastest player in this game, and on the conceptual level, it carries a cognitive task and forms an “external symbol [5]”, loading the father’s willingness  to accompany and take care of the boy even after he has passed away. Thus the memory of the boy playing games with his father is given an material form out of the brain, the ghost player is a symbol bearing the weight of parental love. From that point on, some new and exclusive meanings are created beyond the original intention of the game (entertaining), symbolizing a deeper bond between the father and the son even when the father is not there anymore. This also reflects Renfrew’s point of human as symbolic species: the roles of artefacts are practical as well as symbolic, and based on the interactions with the existing artefacts, we are enabled to further develop meanings [5].

To end this post, I would like to think about where technology and artefact design should lead us to. As Norman points out, artificial device enhances human cognitive capabilities [3]. It helps us to develop through a co-evolution of human brain and the external world. For me the story is a special one, as it to some extent reveals the humane care in technology. In my point of view this is an important notion to be combined in the design process, as when our performance is enhanced by artefacts, this notion would keep us in a better linked community to create collective and cultural memories, and also helps us to know our standpoints better in the process of development.

References

[1] Torchinsky, Jason. “Son Finds His Late Dad’s ‘Ghost’ In A Racing Video Game.” Jalopnik. Accessed September 27, 2017. https://jalopnik.com/son-finds-his-late-dads-ghost-in-a-racing-video-game-1609457749.

[2] Kate Wong, “The Morning of the Modern Mind: Symbolic Culture.” Scientific American 292, no. 6 (June 2005): 86-95.

[3] Donald A. Norman, “Cognitive Artifacts.” In Designing Interaction, edited by John M. Carroll, 17-38. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Read pp. 17-23.

[4] Michael Cole, On Cognitive Artifacts, From Cultural Psychology: A Once and Future Discipline. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996. Connected excerpts.

[5] Colin Renfrew, “Mind and Matter: Cognitive Archaeology and External Symbolic Storage.” In Cognition and Material Culture: The Archaeology of Symbolic Storage, edited by Colin Renfrew, 1-6. Cambridge, UK: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 1999.