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Cultivating Mechanical Sympathy

Making meaning with ambiguous machines

Time: Fri 2023-10-20 10.15

Location: F3 (Flodis), Lindstedtsvägen 26 & 28, Stockholm

Video link:

Language: English

Subject area: Human-computer Interaction

Doctoral student: Joseph La Delfa , Medieteknik och interaktionsdesign, MID, Interaction Design

Opponent: Associate Professor William Odom, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada

Supervisor: Professor Kristina Höök, Medieteknik och interaktionsdesign, MID

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QC 20230927


Moving with a drone can be a captivating and reflective experience. A drone can easily grab my attention, yet its hold is distinctly different to a screen where my body goes missing and my eyes are held captive. Instead, my body feels alive and present. As if every part of it is playing a crucial role in keeping the drone in the air. The sensors on my body enable the drone to be sensitive to my movements, which in turn increases my sensitivity to the drone's movements. It's like carrying a cup of hot tea with a book under your arm, any sudden movement from any part of your body affects the tea in the cup and vice versa.

In this thesis, I traced back through this experience and several other first-person experiences with machines to reflect on their constituent moments of sensing and acting. In doing so, I came to realise that these moments were fundamental to making meaning with machines, that is, how you come to understand its function and its purpose in your daily life. I used a combination of soma design and industrial design practice to draw from these first-person experiences and create three systems, Tai Chi in the Clouds, Drone Chi and How to Train Your Drone. Through the design of the first two systems, I attempted to distil the feeling of being a beginner tai chi student into a human-drone interaction. Subsequent user studies of these two systems demonstrated some degree of success, but it was the participants' own interpretations that sparked my curiosity and drove the creative process for the third system. I was fascinated by the tendency for participants to liken unfamiliar feelings to past experiences when faced with an ambiguous situation with a drone. This prompted me to reflect on the ambiguity that presented itself to me during the design process of Tai Chi in the Clouds and Drone Chi. There I found rich associations with my past experience racing go-karts and maintaining old cars. This culminated in the design of How to Train Your Drone, a more ambiguous human-drone interaction intended to support the participants’ own interpretations and allow their unique constellation of sensing and acting to drive the meaning making process.

The subsequent analysis of a month-long user study led me to describe the unique and tacit relationship that unfolds between a human and a drone as Mechanical Sympathy. Mechanical Sympathy is a process of sensing and acting that leads to a cumulative appreciation ofhuman-with-machine. It does not, in the reductive sense, mean being emotionally sympathetic towards a machine, but rather a synergy or bodily understanding between human and machine that shapes how they can act together. This process entails fostering an awareness of your capabilities, limitations, and changing body in relation to a machine and vice versa. It also allows you to craft your own experiences with a machine and explore how that machine, in turn, shapes your aesthetic preferences. Through this process, you can reflect on what kinds of human-machine experiences hold value and meaning.

Whilst analysing the interview data from How to Train Your Drone it became clear to me that the participants did not program the drones to perform some action as much as they shaped what the drone could and could not sense; how reality was presented to the drone. This was an important shift in perspective that led me to propose an expansion of the soma design program that considers designing interactive technology as less of a material to be mastered and more of an agent to evolve with — both for the designer and later for users. Central to this shift was the concept of the Umwelt, first introduced by Jakob von Uexküll which posits that we cannot know what it is like to be anything but human and therefore the realities of other beings are essentially unknowable. However, we can make meaning with them by paying attention, which, fittingly, is something that is required by both the soma design process and its resulting artefacts. Additionally, I looked to the fields of evolutionary robotics and human-robot interaction to bring structure to this expanded soma design program and situate it in the literature. Ultimately, I aimed to afford both the designer and the user novel ways to embrace ambiguity when interacting with machines by providing opportunities for aesthetic appreciation and meaning making. The thesis concludes with a speculative look at the challenges this approach to design faces in the context of daily life.