With over twenty-five years exploring human-computer interaction, Brenda Laurel is an unsung veteran of the field. Her doctoral dissertation was the first to propose a comprehensive architecture for computer-based interactive fantasy and fiction. Laurel was one of the founding members of the research staff at Interval Research Corporation in Palo Alto, California, where she coordinated research activities exploring gender and technology, and where she co-produced and directed the Placeholder Virtual Reality project. She was also one of the founders and VP of design of a spin-off company from Interval — Purple Moon — formed to market products based on this research. Her latest book, Utopian Entrepreneur (MIT Press, 2001), explores the struggles she dealt with at Purple Moon — attempting to perform socially conscious work in the context of business.
She currently serves as interim chair and graduate faculty member of the graduate Media Design program at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.
Roy Christopher: While Utopian Entrepreneur explores issues that emerge when one attempts to do socially conscious work in the context of business, it also illuminates sort of a dialectic between the two (the heartfelt work and the heartless business). Do you foresee a way that this conflict can be resolved in the context of capitalism?
Brenda Laurel: To be frank, I’m no longer sure what capitalism means any more. I see several problems with the “free market economy” that may prove catastrophic for societies and ecologies; for example: the degradation of some cultures and their environments by offering factory work as a substitute for agriculture, the privatization of health care and education, and unwillingness or inability of the government to regulate industrial pollution and waste. I do think that people who do good work that provides products or services of value can often make reasonable businesses out of those ideas.
There are certain issues — for example, the ability of people to earn an honest living creating content for the internet — that are not currently possible in our business climate, because they are resisted overtly and covertly by the publishing giants who profit from keeping “individual creators” in the role of contractors. It is also true that, due to the excesses of greed and moral laxness of the last several years, funding is extremely hard to come by no matter how good the idea, and there has been no perceptible change in the unrealistic expectations of the venture community (at least in the area of high-tech) on the rate of return on investment. It is worth noting that investors in alternative energy have a much longer horizon for return on investment, which makes their vital work possible.
RC: The metaphor of “public good” or “the commons” keeps coming up in reference to the current peer-to-peer model of information exchange, where the simple sharing of bits is the raison d’être. There has yet to be a business model that could exploit this free exchange. Do you see a way to make P2P work for business without killing the commons?
BL: Although I have been told strenuously by several people that it won’t work, I honestly think that an infrastructure for micropayments could be created to support the sale of individual digital work that has value to customers. Near-currency may also succeed eventually. The problem with barter is that people are rarely willing to send a bag of groceries to a content or service creator.
RC: The narrative style of Utopian Entrepreneur reminds me of Ellen Ullman — thought-provoking and often simultaneously heart-breaking. She said she struggled with the very personal stories in her book Close to the Machine (City Lights, 1997). While writing about your business experience and personal feelings, did you feel a pull one way or the other?
BL: No. I feel that personal experience must be revealed for the conclusions that one makes to have any credibility. I was remarkably restrained in the narrative portions of the book, but I do think that they helped get my ideas across. The audience for the book, I hope, is people who approach their work with passion — not for what they can make, but for what they can do or enable others to do.
RC: The user interface has been a battlefield of theory, dogma, and experimentation for decades now. Users have been seeking better ways to create, retrieve, and manipulate information while UI designers seem to be working on the wrong problems in a lot of cases. What work do you see going on in the conceptual space between human and machine that makes the most sense?
BL: Certainly work on speech recognition and generation has created a wealth of new opportunities. The slow but steady degradation of the notion of the machine as the thing to be used is helpful as well. For example, a person does not want to operate a musical playback device; they want to listen to music while jogging — hence the Sony Walkman and its descendants. Focusing on the person, the situated context, and the desired result are the best ways to approach any interface problem. Also, I think that the rise of ethnographic and qualitative research is an enormous help to designers. As designers gain a more central role in enterprise, the situation will continue to improve. As my friend Aviv Bergman has said, “the machine is not the environment for the person; the person is the environment for the machine.”
RC: Is there anything else that you’d like to bring up here?
BL: Only the work I did in real honest-to-goddess virtual reality (with head-mounted displays) back in 1993. There, the principle was that a person should be able to walk around in a virtual environment, because the sense of agency is imperative to a sense of immersion. Desktop VR was a very poor substitute and I look forward to the day when we use all the existing processing power with cheap, wide-angle stereoscopic displays to reinsert this important ingredient into VR.