The Human-Human Interface

Roman Mars (RM): This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

RM: In the world of Philip K. Dick, humans are often at the mercy of objects. Like taxis, coffee makers, and doors. Here’s a scene from his book Ubik.

Benjamen Walker (BW): “The door refused to open. It said ‘five cents please.’ Joe Chip searched his pockets. No more coins. Nothing. ‘I’ll pay you tomorrow,’ he told the door. Again he tried the knob, again it remained locked tight. From the drawer beside the sink, Joe got a stainless steel knife. With it, he began systematically to unscrew the bolt assembly of his money-gulping door. ‘I’ll sue you!’ the door said, as the first screw fell out.”

RM: That’s Benjamen Walker. He told me he’s always subscribed to Dick’s dystopian vision of man versus object. But then he met up with Paola Antonelli.

Paola Antonelli (PA): Philip K. Dick’s view of the future of objects was definitely dystopian and he needed- he needed it for like drama reasons. But in truth, we’ve had a report with objects throughout the centuries. There’s always been affection, emotion. Heirloom ring or the bridge where you had your first kiss. I mean, there’s always been an attachment. There is a whole universe in every single object that becomes even bigger when put in a relationship with a person.

BW: Paola Antonelli is the Senior Curator in the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art. Her most recent blockbuster show, Talk to Me, examined the future and the history of communication design.

PA: Furniture design or car design is just one fragment of the design world. And for many years there’s been something called communication design, which maybe before used to be called graphic design, which is the design of messages, be it advertising or be it, you know, signage. So its existed. So that’s design whose subject is communication. But, right now, the difference is that even furniture designers need to understand that a chair might need to have some kind of conversation with people.

BW: There was a talking chair in her show.

This is the era in which chairs can talk. They can talk, they can sing.

BW: And talking toys. And talkin maps. But there were also ATMs and subway kiosks. According to Paola Antonelli, cutting edge communication design is all about the interface.

PA: When you say “interface,” you can take out the “face” and put “section.” You can take out “section” and put “relation.” It’s one of the focal points of the way we live today and the way culture moves today.

BW: Paola Antonelli says designers understand the interface between people and objects better than, say, science fiction writers, because what they’re really working on is the interface between people and people. One of the pieces she put in her show was a menstration machine, design by Sputniko.

PA: And in that particular case, the interface is not between man and machine. It’s between man and woman. Right? So it’s a contraption that looks like a chastity belt that is for men, but also for menopausal women, and it really gives you the feeling of menstration. It has electrodes that stimulate your lower abdomen and they give you cramps and then it has a reservoir in the back, you’re suppose to draw your blood, put it in there, and then you have your blood drip exactly where it should, so it’s the whole shebang. And to me, it’s the ultimate gesture of understanding. And that’s what I really love. That interface. Not the human-machine interface. The human-machine interface, you know, what we are all doing, engineers, designers, scientists, we’re all trying to make technology disappear. That’s the truth. Just like we go through the toll booths in freeways using EZ Pass and we still have that box but we don’t think about it- that’s how life should be, so we can focus on real human habits and human needs, as opposed to focusing on the technology.

RM: 99% Inivisible was produced this week by Benjamen Walker, who produces the radio program Too Much Information, from WFMU. He also sports a Philip K Dick Ubik-inspired tattoo on his arm.

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