John S. Morgan,
Associate Professor,
Visual Communications,
Auburn University,
Alabama, USA.

Electronic mail: morgaj3@mail.auburn.edu
Telephone: 334-844-3387 Fax: 334-844-4024


    From Ancient Zeus to the Talking Moose

    Humor Challenges the Unknown

    John S. Morgan

    Associate Professor, Visual Communications

    213 Biggin Hall, Auburn University, AL 36849 USA

    morgaj3@mail.auburn.edu

    Abstract

    This paper is a result of my ongoing interest in humor as a communication tool and humor as a means of fostering acceptance of and interaction with information technology.

    Along with my exhibit of Conceptual Kiosks, this paper explores people's interaction with technology. I explore the possibilities of fostering increased interaction in order to make technology approachable by, and therefore available to, larger numbers of people. I base this exploration on the evidence that humor has been a vital tool in mankind's attempts to deal with forces and entities greater than itself throughout history. From ancient Zeus to the modern Talking Moose this phenomenon has obviously been well appreciated by authors throughout time.

    I have been drawn to the subject of my current research, humor as a means of fostering acceptance of and interaction with information technology because of my ongoing interest in humor as a communication tool .

    Along with my exhibit of Conceptual Kiosks, I submit my thoughts on people's interaction with technology. In so doing, I propose to explore the possibilities of fostering increased interaction in order to make technology approachable by, and therefore available to, larger numbers of people. I base this exploration on the evidence that humor has been a vital tool in mankind's attempts to deal with forces and entities greater than itself throughout history. From ancient Zeus to the modern Talking Moose this phenomenon has obviously been well appreciated by authors throughout time. The classical Greek writers created gods with humorous human failings as a means of disarming the uncertainties of the unknown and rendering the gods harmless and approachable. The modern Talking Moose of Memphis (Tennessee, USA) utilized the audio abilities of the Macintosh computer to speak humorous one liners to the novice computer user thus disarming the technology and rendering the machine approachable. Humor continues to prove its place as a disarming device in overcoming inhibition and in setting the stage for positive experience. Paul Rand stated, "Readership surveys demonstrate the magnetic force of humor in the field of visual communication... The visual message which professes to be profound or elegant often boomerangs as mere pretension. The frame of mind which looks at humor as trivial and flighty mistakes the shadow for the substance. ... as an aid to understanding serious problems in war training, as an effective weapon in safety posters, war bond selling and morale building, humor was neglected neither by the government nor civilian agencies during the second World War (1)

    "Change is avalanching upon our heads and most people are grotesquely unprepared to cope with it. (2) That was 25 years ago! The technological changes which we have witnessed in the past ten years alone leave one wondering about the coming state of his/her own sanity at the end of the next decade. I propose to grapple with one method for making the menacing technological world in which we find ourselves a bit easier to cope with. I expect that viewed objectively "technology is not hostile, nor yet is it friendly, it is simply indifferent" to paraphrase John Holmes. It is true that technological advances in the twentieth century have given us a world free of much of the mundane drudgery of life. If only it hadn't replaced the mundane with more complexities than we previously had to cope with we would be grateful. With V.D.T., O.C.R., R.O.M., voice mail, E-mail, cellular phones, faxes, Internet and the World Wide Webb it seems that we each need two concurrent lives- one to keep up with technology and one to keep up with the requisite responsibilities of our human lives.

    As I see the situation, we have two options in dealing with the proliferation of technological changes around us. We can, as romantics, extract ourselves from the technological world into which we were born or we can embrace the technology and use it for the betterment of all society. While the former sounds reasonable it is hardly a responsible choice. Should the artistic members of our society fail to become involved in helping to resolve many of these technological issues we will all suffer the loss of a human world. Philip Meggs asserts that "We run the risk of becoming buried in the mindless morass of commercialism whose mole-like vision ignores human values and needs as it burrows forward into darkness. (3). In the recent history of art it has been the pragmatist rather than the romanticist who has made the most dramatic impact on society and profession. One twentieth century example is seen in the influence Walter Gropius of the Bauhaus. Gropius sought a new unity of art and technology. He lead the charge in a struggle to solve problems of visual design created by industrialism. He strived "to breath a soul into the dead product of the machine" (4).

    Our situation today calls for a similar determination to give a soul to the unbridled product of information technology. This can be accomplished in part through the determined creative efforts of the communication artist. By using the power of humor I propose to make the intimidating more approachable. Humor "is the ability to perceive and express that which is comical, ludicrous, or ridiculous, but connotes kindliness, geniality, sometimes even pathos, in the expression and reaction of sympathetic amusement from the audience."(5) Technology packaged in and instilled with a sense of humor in the form of an approachable personality is technology that we can all live with. It is the responsibility of design professionals to assist the engineers and scientist in creating human products. Otherwise, we deserve all of these products which require people to scale the back of the technological camel rather than having the camel kneel to the advantage of the user. Perhaps we can at least begin to conceive new ladders so as to allow the beast to be mounted and put to good use by those with less scientific minds.

    "The creative process is not performed by the skilled hand alone, or by the intellect alone, but must be a unified process in which head, heart, and hand play simultaneous role". (6)Herbert Bayer.

    I submit that technology should be packaged in approachable skins. The icon based user interfaces currently in use must be only the beginning of acceptable graphical user interface design. The computer has come a long way toward achieving the promised "toaster" ideal in which it becomes a transparent tool of our lives but increased humanization is needed with each generation of technological improvement. Since we are in fact designed as relational beings we can best relate to technology through a filter which gives the technology personality. A sense of humor disarms the seemingly hostile and even creates a sense of camaraderie.

    "...advertisers and publishers have exploited humor as a means of creating an atmosphere of confidence, good will, good fellowship, and the right frame of mind toward an idea or product". (7)

    My experience with the use of humor as a communication tool stems from my own personal creative research with narrative kinetic sculpture. I also observed this phenomenon under more objective conditions in London. As I was researching the European phenomenon of automata during the summer of 1993, I had the opportunity to observe on multiple occasions people of all ages and cultural backgrounds interacting with life size automata at Cabaret Mechanical Theatre in Covent Gardens. The participants were not passive viewers. I observed that, because of the skillful use of humor, inhabitations fell as individuals participated with these machines endowed with personalities by artists. It was the heart of the artist that gave life to the lifeless wood wire and steel. While these creations were only performers with one act they still captivated their audience time and again as they performed. I believe that this same creativity can be applied to the field of information technology. These same principles apply as well in the areas of multimedia and computer interface design because the ability the technology has to branch and explore different avenues at the whim of the individual in control thus giving opportunity for more variety and apparent spontaneity. In the words of Paul Spooner, one of England's premier automatists, "People are prepared to accept certain things at face value-` it is only common sense'. For almost anyone on the planet the fact that the earth revolves around the sun is interesting but irrelevant. The effect is and always has been of the sun's revolving around the earth. Everyone excluding astronauts and rocketeers - perceives this to be the case in their everyday dealing with the universe. If people can suspend their belief on an astronomical scale, then some small deception in the matter of a mechanical toy should pass without a comment." (8). The fact is, people want to be humored. This is particularly true when dealing with the unknown. The technological world of today is no less confusing to the average person than the issues dealt with by the average Greek as they sought to give explanation to the unknown and confusing natural world around them. When we moved from the machine age in which a viewer could observe the mechanical principles that explain how things work to the electronic age where only the computer engineers and scientist really pretend to know what goes on inside the heartless box that sits beneath the CRT, the mystery of the unknown and confusing electronic world arrived.

    The concept of digital automata attempts to take the humor, wonder, charm and intrigue of automata and employ it in a digital form as a means of infusing impersonal technology with an approachable personality. The exhibit displays the merger of 3D kinetic sculpture and 2D electronic media in the form of conceptual kiosks. Digital media allows for the combining of live video, sculpture, animation, 2D graphics, and 3D animation in a single context creating a homogenous blend of these formerly divergent activities. This approach to conceptualizing allows the artist to visualize ideas beyond the limitations of mechanics, budgets and of the physical constraints of the current state of hardware at the consumer level.

    In this research project the surface possibilities of the extension of the genre of automata into the digital world are explored. I attempt to create digital automata as a means of visualizing personalized non-threatening environments where casual users can hypothetically interface with the information age.

    While this exhibit uses electronic tools to accomplish the stated purpose and to demonstrate what was accomplished, the research is based on the premise of exploring new concepts of visual interface rather than breaking new technological ground or demonstrating the latest hardware or software marvels. I consider myself an average user. I am not endowed with the ability to understand how this technology does what it does. I, like the majority of consumers, simply want to climb aboard the beast and enjoy the ride. Hopefully I have begun to create some new mental ladders to help us ascend the growing technological camel. Even so, I remain skeptical of the comfort of the journey we face once on board. Perhaps I am actually a responsible romantic rather than a realist. I will attempt to contribute to the humanizing of technology while wishing to withdraw from an often confusing and increasingly unknown world.

    This research project was funded in part by Auburn University College of Liberal Arts, the Art Department and Aardvark Studio.

    1. Paul Rand, Thoughts on Design. New York, N.Y.: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1970

    2 Alvin Toffler, Future Shock. New York, N.Y. : Random House, 1970

    3 Philip Meggs, A History of Graphic Design. New York, N.Y. :Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1983

    4 Ibid.

    5 David B. Guralnik, Webster's New World Dictionary. New York, N.Y. :The World Publishing Co. , 1964

    6 Paul Rand, Thoughts on Design. New York, N.Y.: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1970

    7 Ibid.

    8 Paul Spooner, Spooner's Mooving Animalr or the Zoo of Tranquility. New York, N.Y. : Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1986

    EXHIBIT

    Conceptual Kiosks / New Information Environments

    John S. Morgan

    Associate Professor, Visual Communications

    Auburn University, AL 36849 USA

    morgaj3@mail.auburn.edu

    Catalogue Entry

    The exhibit displays the merger of 3D kinetic sculpture and 2D electronic media in the form of conceptual kiosks. Digital media allows for the combining of live video, sculpture, animation, 2D graphics, and 3D animation in a single context creating a homogenous blend of these formerly divergent activities. This approach to conceptualizing allows the artist to visualize ideas beyond the limitations of mechanics, budgets and of the physical constraints of the current state of hardware at the consumer level.

    In this research project the artist explores the possibilities of the extension of the genre of automata into the digital world. He attempts to create digital automata as a means of visualizing personalized non-threatening environments where casual users can hypothetically interface with the information age. Digital visions of conceptual kiosk are demonstrated utilizing current technology as a delivery mechanism.

    Ideas are demonstrated in the form of animated digital video images displayed on a large TV monitor controlled by a personal computer with a large external hard disk drive. Viewer interaction is accomplished through a track-ball. The viewer controls the presentation through selecting various components for display. While the author of this exhibit used electronic tools to accomplish his purposes and to demonstrate his accomplishments, the research is based on the premise of exploring new concepts of visual interface rather than breaking new technological ground or demonstrating the latest hardware or software marvels.

    This research project was funded in part by Auburn University College of Liberal Arts, the Art Department and Aardvark Studio.




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