The Phenomenology Of Encounters With Notification Icons

It’s 630 AM or so; you’re awake, busy getting your cup of coffee ready. (Perhaps you’re up earlier like the truly virtuous or the overworked, which in our society comes to the same thing.) Your coffee made, you fire up your smartphone, laptop, tablet, or desktop, and settle down for the morning service at the altar.  Your eyes light up, your antennae tingle in pleasurable anticipation: Facebook’s blue top ribbon features a tiny red square–which squats over the globe like a ginormous social media network–with a number inscribed in it; single figures is good, double figures is better. You look at Twitter: the Liberty Bell–sorry, the notifications icon–bears the weight of a similar number. Yet again: single figures good, double figures better. You look at GMail: your heart races, for that distinctive bold lettering in your inbox is present, standing out in stark contrast from the pallid type below; and there is a number here too, in parentheses after ‘Inbox’: single figures good, double figures better.

That’s what happens on a good day. (On a really good day, Facebook will have three red circles for you.) On a bad day, the Facebook globe is heartbreakingly red-less and banal; Twitter’s Liberty Bell is mute; and GMail’s Inbox is not bold, not at all. You reel back from the screen(s) in disappointment; your mood crashes and burns; the world seems empty and uninviting and cold and dark. Impatience, frustration, anxiety come rushing in through the portals you have now left open, suffusing your being, residing there till dislodged by the right kind of sensory input from those same screens: the appropriate colors, typefaces, and numbers need to make an appearance to calm and sooth your restless self. We get to work; all the while keeping an eye open and an ear cocked: a number appears on a visible tab, and we switch contexts and screens to check, immediately. An envelope appears on the corner of our screens; mail is here; we must tear open that envelope. Sounds too, intrude; cheeps, dings, and rings issue from our machines to inform us that relief is here. The silence of our devices can be deafening.

Our mood rises and falls in sync.

As is evident, our interactions with the human-computer interfaces of our communications systems have a rich phenomenology: expectations, desires, hopes rush towards with colors and shapes and numbers; their encounters produce mood changes and affective responses. The clever designer shapes the iconography of the interface with care to produce these in the right way, to achieve the desired results: your interaction with the system must never be affectively neutral; it must have some emotional content. We are manipulated by these responses; we behave accordingly.

Machine learning experts speak of training the machines; let us not forget that our machines train us too. By the ‘face’ they present to us, by the sounds they make, by the ‘expressions’ visible on them. As we continue to interact with them, we become different people, changed much like we are by our encounters with other people, those other providers and provokers of emotional responses.

High-Tech, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down

This afternoon, overcome by a mounting frustration at being unable to get two monitors working on my new single-graphic-card-equipped home desktop personal computer, I blurted out the following on Facebook (only a couple of minutes before I entered a plaintive plea for help on the same forum, which resulted in several responses, and indeed, even a phone call from an old friend):

Nothing quite sums up our relationship with some kinds of high-tech better than the fact that in order to get it to work, you have crawl around on your hands and knees.

I’m not exactly a naif when it comes to high-tech; indeed, to invoke the spirit of Walter White‘s claim that he was the one “who knocks on doors,” I’m often the person asked for technical help by my friends. But over the years, I’ve lost my patience with the promises of the high-tech world: all too often, to interact with high-technology is to be left fuming, spluttering, hypertension and cortisol levels spiked. Many interfaces still remain counterintuitive, trouble-free interoperability between different kinds of devices–and the software they run–remains a distant mirage, and day by day a bewildering alphabet soup of formats, protocols, decimal-annotated versions, and their various misbegotten cousins rains down on our heads like a malevolent anti-manna.

I know, I know, I sound like an old fart. Fair enough. I’m not that young anymore, and it’s been years since I wrote my last line of code (whether in a lowly scripting language or in a more exalted programming language.) But the funny thing is, I used to bitch and moan like this even when I was a ‘techie,’ a programmer and systems analyst at Bell Labs, or later, a UNIX system administrator. I’ve always felt vaguely resentful of the discordance between the promises of high-tech and the stress it induces in our lives. (My complaints about the ‘fragility of the digital’ are another dimension of this unease.)

Yes, I’m well aware that I’m getting this message out using a writing and distribution platform on a computer connected to a gigantic worldwide network, which I use daily for communication, entertainment, and accessing vast stores of information relevant to my ongoing learning and education. Respect. Much respect. I am staggered by the ingenuity and brilliance and labor that makes this thing–or things–work. But this same friend and aide, the one dispensing benefactions which make our lives so much easier, also exacts a fairly high psychic cost. (I have, on many an occasion, felt like hurling my computer monitor at the wall.)  And, yes, I’m aware, my complaint today this is not a particularly new complaint. But it remains interestingly persistent and finds newer forms of expression as our technological ‘gifts’ and ‘burdens’ grow in seemingly equal proportions. Perhaps that’s the sobering part of this giddying rush onwards to the ever greater technologization of our lives.

Note: I have still not managed to get my two monitors to work. At one point in the afternoon, I decided I had had enough of looking up help forums on the net and banging my head on my desk, and decided I would get to work instead. On a computer, of course.