Back Stage at the Machine Theater

A look at the theatrics guiding user interaction

Tim Hwang
Tim Hwang
Apr 10, 2015 · 10 min read

Here’s a speculation of science fiction that is rapidly manifesting into a real nuts-and-bolts design debate with wide-ranging implications: should self-driving cars have steering wheels?

The corporate battle lines are already being drawn on this particular issue. Google announced its autonomous car prototype last year, drawing much attention for its complete absence of a steering wheel. The reason for this radical departure? The car simply “didn’t need them.

The solution? Allow the interface of your technology to engage in a form of design theater.

An object can assume the form of something familiar and accepted, in line with the status quo, even as the real capabilities of the technology undergo radical change. After all, the truly functionless steering wheel in the autonomous car would simply replace a steering wheel that already keeps up the myth that it is connected to physical mechanisms within the vehicle, rather than providing a digital input to a series of computers.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

What’s the point of these nonfunctional design features? They make users more comfortable with a new technology by giving us a sense of control, even if that sense is ultimately illusory.

The oft-cited urban legend that instant cake manufacturers had to add an unnecessary step — the addition of an egg — in order for housewives of the 1950s to feel like they were still “cooking” pays homage to exactly this type of theater in the design of objects. Similarly, in neurological experiments, animals show fewer signs of stress response to an uncomfortable situation if they’re given a lever to push so they feel like they’re in control — even if that lever isn’t actually connected to anything. Sometimes, we need the illusion of being in command of something to feel comfortable with it — and new technologies are no exception.

“Design lies” can serve a number of purposes, and aren’t necessarily nefarious — sometimes they’re just about making social life possible.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Machines are likely to become increasingly dramaturgical, and the theater of volition will be perhaps the most popular performance in the near future.

The reason for this is simple: our technologies are increasingly intelligent and proactive. From the algorithmic outputs of a search engine or social network to the physical robotics that eliminate the need for a human operator, systems can and will outpace human proficiency.

re:form

A field guide to the designed world

    Tim Hwang

    Written by

    Tim Hwang

    i’ve got mass communication / i’m the human corporation

    re:form

    re:form

    A field guide to the designed world