[-empyre-] Compulsion & Seduction

Ava Lew al.lew at mail.utoronto.ca
Wed Oct 21 18:07:33 AEDT 2015

Patrick, thank you for the introduction and for the invitation to participate in this week's discussions. 

In my research, I attempt to pin down the elusive concept of interactivity, as mediated by the user interface, including its various modes and functions in socio-technical environments. The discussions around compulsion parallel some of the debates on technological interactivity, and this might be because they are related. I tend to view the outcomes (intended or unintended) of technological use as the product of a cyclical and/or reciprocal process arising out of the actions actors perform when engaging with technological systems and their design elements. Essentially, this perspective is an application James Gibson's affordances, which also corresponds to Natasha Schüll's positioning of compulsion as being situated "in the dynamic interaction" occurring between subject and object. Thus, in ruminating on some of the terms have been associated with design, such as of compulsion, desire, control – or lack thereof, I couldn't help but recall the following quote by Merovingian in the Matrix Reloaded:

"Look there, at that woman. My God, just look at her. Affecting everyone around her, so obvious, so bourgeois, so boring. But wait... Watch - you see, I have sent her a dessert, a very special dessert. I wrote it myself. It starts so simply, each line of the program creating a new effect, just like poetry. First, a rush... heat... her heart flutters. You can see it, Neo, yes? She does not understand why - is it the wine? No. What is it then, what is the reason? And soon it does not matter, soon the why and the reason are gone, and all that matters is the feeling itself. This is the nature of the universe. We struggle against it, we fight to deny it, but it is of course pretense, it is a lie. Beneath our poised appearance, the truth is we are completely out of control. Causality. There is no escape from it, we are forever slaves to it. Our only hope, our only peace is to understand it, to understand the 'why'.."
For the purposes of our discussion, one may say that the words of character, Merovingian, contains a subtext that speaks to the notion of designing compulsion. However, this notion denotes there must also be a certain something to compel. So, at the risk of sounding like I am perpetuating a technological deterministic view, and while I believe there are degrees of agency and control to be located when using some interactive technologies, I do want to point to a couple ways in which the technique of compulsion may be worked through design. Whether we are drawn to our indulgences by nature or nurture (or both) the design (intentional or unintentional) of some interactive technologies mediate and play on the innate or conditioned impulses of individuals. In an earlier post, Patrick touched on the design of systems that require "no complex cognition". Approaches in human-computer interaction promote design goals aimed at reducing cognitive effort on the part of users as they engage with a technological system in an attempt to achieve their desired objectives. As a result, there are increasing efforts to make the use of these systems' UIs more intuitive. The less cognitive effort required and the more intuitive these systems are to use brings them closer to a kind of McLuhanesque extension of the human self. To the extent that this is achieved through the design of compulsion, which may call to an individual's innate needs, senses and desires, may establish a deeper connection at the cognitive level, potentially creating a psychological 'dependency'.

Further, in alignment with dana boyd's views on interactive technologies, the technique of compulsion can be served by means of seduction and the illusion of control, which also tend to legitimize it. For example, the technique may be seen at work among those who tend to romanticise interactive technologies or who are addicted to using social networking tools, or unwaveringly glued to their mobile phones, or incessantly preoccupied with the ceaseless production and display of 'selfies'… It is the potential to trigger, nurture or condition strong desires that designing for compulsion employ. Moreover, compulsion through seduction may maintain, reinforce, heighten and intensify specific beliefs or behaviours, especially when at work in groups comprised of like-minded individuals whose interactions are mediated by such technologies (as Cass Sunstein and proponents of the selective exposure view might argue). As alluded to in earlier posts, compulsion, particularly by means of seduction, is not satiated by fulfillment of the desire(s). Rather, the success of technological designs that employ this technique also depend the use of compulsion to sustain a body of users with an increasingly insatiable appetite, seemingly in constant pursuit of the next 'fix'.

A cold is currently getting the best of me, so I will stop here and try to pick up later with applying a Foucault's technological discipline to designing compulsion.

Ava Lew
al.lew at mail.utoronto.ca

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