In the film The Descendents, George Clooney’s character Matt King wrestles — sometimes comically — with new and old choices involving his family and Hawaii. In one case, King decides he wants to meet a rival, both just to meet him and to give him some news; that is, he (at least explicitly) has generally good reason to meet him. Perhaps he even ought to meet him. When he actually does meet him, he cannot just do these things, he also argues with his rival, etc. King’s unplanned behaviors end up causing his rival considerable trouble.1
This struck me as related to some challenges in formulating what one should do — that is, in the “practical reasoning” side of ethics.
One way of getting practical advice out of virtue ethics is to say that one should do what the virtuous person would do in this situation. On its face, this seems right. But there are also some apparent counterexamples. Consider a short-tempered tennis player who has just lost a match.2 In this situation, the virtuous person would walk over to his opponent, shake his hand, and say something like “Good match.” But if this player does that, he is likely to become enraged and even assault his victorious opponent. So it seems better for him to walk off the court without attempting any of this — even though this is clearly rude.
The simple advice to do what the virtuous person would do in the present situation is, then, either not right or not so simple. It might be right, but not so simple to implement, if part of “the present situation” is one’s own psychological weaknesses. Aspects of the agent’s psychology — including character flaws — seem to license bad behavior and to remove reasons for taking the “best” actions.
King and other characters in The Descendents face this problem, both in the example above and at some other points in the movie. He begins a course of action (at least in part) because this is what the virtuous person would do. But then he is unable to really follow through because he lacks the necessary virtues.3 We might take this as a reminder of the ethical value to being humble — to account for our faults — when reasoning about what we ought to do.4 It is also a reminder of how frustrating this can be, especially when one can imagine (and might actually be able to) following through on doing what the virtuous person would do.
One way to cope with these weaknesses is to leverage other aspects of one’s situation. We can make public commitments to do the virtuous thing. We can change our environment, sometimes by binding our future selves, like Ulysses, from acting on our vices once we’ve begun our (hopefully) virtuous course of action. Perhaps new mobile technologies will be a substantial help here — helping us intervene in our own lives in this way.
- Perhaps deserved trouble. But this certainly didn’t play a stated role in the reasoning justifying King’s decision to meet him. [↩]
- This example is first used by Gary Watson (“Free Agency”, 1975) and put to this use by Michael Smith in his “Internalism” (1995). Smith introduces it as a clear problem for the “example” model of how what a virtuous person would do matters for what we should each do. [↩]
- Another reading of some of these events in The Descendents is that these characters actually want to do the “bad behaviors”, and they (perhaps unconciously) use their good intentions to justify the course of action that leads to the bad behavior. [↩]
- Of course, the other side of such humility is being short on self-efficacy. [↩]
Are the conditions required to assert something conventions? Can they be formalized? Donald Davidson on whether convention is foundational to communication:
But Frege was surely right when he said, “There is no word or sign in language whose function is simply to assert something.” Frege, as we know, set out to rectify matters by inventing such a sign, the turnstile ⊢’ [sometimes called Frege’s ‘judgment stroke’ or ‘assertion sign’]. And here Frege was operating on the basis of a sound principle: if there is a conventional feature of language, it can be made manifest in the symbolism. However, before Frege invented the assertion sign he ought to have asked himself why no such sign existed before. Imagine this: the actor is acting a scene in which there is supposed to be a fire. (Albee’s Tiny Alice, for example.) It is his role to imitate as persuasively as he can a man who is trying to warn others of a fire. “Fire!” he screams. And perhaps he adds, at the behest of the author, “I mean it! Look at the smoke!” etc. And now a real fire breaks out, and the actor tries vainly to warn the real audience. “Fire!” he screams, “I mean it! Look at the smoke!” etc. If only he had Frege’s assertion sign.
It should be obvious that the assertion sign would do no good, for the actor would have used it in the first place, when he was only acting. Similar reasoning should convince us that it is no help to say that the stage, or the proscenium arch, creates a conventional setting that negates the convention of assertion. For if that were so, the acting convention could be put into symbols also; and of course no actor or director would use it. The plight of the actor is always with us. There is no known, agreed upon, publically recognizable convention for making assertions. Or, for that matter, giving orders, asking questions, or making promises. These are all things we do, often successfully, and our success depends in part on our having made public our intention to do them. But it was not thanks to a convention that we succeeded.1
- Davidson, Donald. (1984). Communication and convention. Synthese 59 (1), 3-17. [↩]
When Facebook was sweeping Stanford in Spring 2004, it wasn’t yet just Facebook — it was [thefacebook.com]. Many of my friends who were undergrads at Stanford around that time (and shortly after) will still refer to it as “The Facebook” or “the facebook dot com”. This usage can be a jokey signal to members of the in-group that one was an early user. This also may signal attendance at one of the universities Facebook was available at early on (e.g., Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Columbia).1
Of course, this signal can fail for various reasons. The audience may not understand — may see “the Facebook” as a grammatical error. Or widespread attention to Facebook’s history (say, via a fictionalized movie) may put many people in possession of the ability to use this signal, even though they weren’t early users and are not alumni at the appropriate universities.
Worse still, for some audiences, this usage might seem to put the speaker in a late-adopting category, rather than an early-adopting one! For example, in President G. W. Bush’s visit to Facebook today, he said he is now on “the Facebook”. So to many ears, “the Facebook” does exactly the opposite of the effects described above.
In fact, at least one friend has had just this experience: she used “the Facebook” and got a “are you a luddite?” kind of response. To avoid ambiguity (but also subtlety), “the facebook dot com” is still available.
- Though it is worth noting that by the time of the domain-name change, many more schools had access to Facebook. But I would guess the likelihood of adoption and attachment to the name is lower. Update: see this more detailed timeline of Facebook university launches. [↩]
TechCrunch and others have been joking about Apple’s rejection of an app because it uses shiny chat bubbles, which the Apple representative claimed were trademarked:
Chess Wars was being rejected after the six week wait [because] the bubbles in its chat rooms are too shiny, and Apple has trademarked that bubbly design. […] The representative said Stump needed to make the bubbles “less shiny” and also helpfully suggested that he make the bubbles square, just to be sure.
One thing that is quite striking in this situation is that it is at odds with Apple’s long history of strongly encouraging third-party developers to follow many UI guidelines — guidelines that when followed make third-party apps blend in like they’re native.1
It’s important to not read too much into this (especially since we don’t know what Apple’s more considered policy on this will end up being), but it is interesting to think about how responsibility gets spread around among mobile applications, services, and devices — and how this may be different than existing models on the desktop.My sense is that experienced desktop computer users understand at least the most important ways sources of their good and bad experiences are distinguished. For example, “locomotion” is a central metaphor in using the Web, as opposed to the conversation and manipulation metaphors of the command line / natural language interfaces and WIMP: we “go to” a site (see this interview with Terry Winograd, full .mov here). The locomotion metaphor helps people distinguish what my computer is contributing and what some distant, third-party “site” is contributing.
This is complex even on the Web, but many of these genre rules are currently being all mixed up. Google has Gmail running in your browser but on your computer. Cameraphones are recognizing objects you point them at — some by analyzing the image on the device and some by sending the device to a server to be analyzed.
This issue is sometimes identified by academics as one of source orientation and source equivocality. Though there has been some great research in this area, there is a lot we don’t know and the field is in flux: people’s beliefs about systems are changing and the important technologies and genres are still emerging.
If there’s one important place to start thinking about the craziness of the current situation of ubiquitous source equivocality is “Personalization of mass media and the growth of pseudo-community” (1987) by James Beniger that predates much of the tech at issue.
Mobile phones are gateways to our most important and enduring relationships with other people. But, like other communication technologies, the mobile phone is psychologically not only a medium: we also form enduring relationships with devices themselves and their associated software and services (Sundar 2004). While different than relationships with other people, these human–technology relationships are also importantly social relationships. People exhibit a host of automatic, social responses to interactive technologies by applying familiar social rules, categories, and norms that are otherwise used in interacting with people (Reeves and Nass 1996; Nass and Moon 2000).
These human–technology relationships develop and endure over time and through radical changes in the situation. In particular, mobile phones are near-constant companions. They take on roles of both medium for communication with other people and independent interaction partner through dynamic physical, social, and cultural environments and tasks. The global phenomenon of mobile phone use highlights both that relationships with people and technologies are inﬂuenced by variable context and that these devices are, in some ways, a constant in amidst these everyday changes.
Situational variation and attribution
Situational variation is important for how people understand and interact with mobile technology. This variation is an input to the processes by which people disentangle the internal (personal or device) and external (situational) causes of an social entity’s behavior (Fiedler et al. 1999; Forsterling 1992; Kelley 1967), so this situational variation contributes to the traits and states attributed to human and technological entities. Furthermore, situational variation inﬂuences the relationship and interaction in other ways. For example, we have recently carried out an experiment providing evidence that this situational variation itself (rather than the characteristics of the situations) inﬂuences memory, creativity, and self-disclosure to a mobile service; in particular, people disclose more in places they have previously disclosed to the service, than in new places (Sukumaran et al. 2009).
Not only does the situation vary, but mobile technologies are increasingly responsive to the environments they share with their human interactants. A system’s systematic and purposive responsiveness to the environment means means that explaining its behavior is about more than distinguishing internal and external causes: people explain behavior by attributing reasons to the entity, which may trivially either refer to internal or external causes. For example, contrast “Jack bought the house because it was secluded” (external) with “Jack bought the house because he wanted privacy” (internal) (Ross 1977, p. 176). Much research in the social cognition and attribution theory traditions of psychology has failed to address this richness of people’s everyday explanations of other ’s behavior (Malle 2004; McClure 2002), but contemporary, interdisciplinary work is elaborating on theories and methods from philosophy and developmental psychology to this end (e.g., the contributions to Malle et al. 2001).
These two developments — the increasing role of situational variation in human-technology relationships and a new appreciation of the richness of everyday explanations of behavior — are important to consider together in designing new research in human-computer interaction, psychology, and communication. Here are three suggestions about directions to pursue in light of this:
Design systems that provide constancy and support through radical situational changes in both the social and physical environment. For example, we have created a system that uses the voices of participants in an upcoming event as audio primes during transition periods (Sohn et al. 2009). This can help ease the transition from a long corporate meeting to a chat with fellow parents at a child’s soccer game.
Design experimental manipulations and measure based on features of folk psychology — the implicit theory or capabilities by which we attribute, e.g., beliefs, thoughts, and desires (propositional attitudes) to others (Dennett 1987) — identified by philosophers. For example, attributions propositional attitudes (e.g., beliefs) to an entity have the linguistic feature that one cannot substitute different terms that refer to the same object while maintaining the truth or appropriateness of the statement. This opacity in attributions of propositional attitudes is the subject of a large literature (e.g., following Quine 1953), but this has not been used as a lens for much empirical work, except for some developmental psychology (e.g., Apperly and Robinson 2003). Human-computer interaction research should use this opacity (and other underused features of folk psychology) in studies of how people think about systems.
Connect work on mental models of systems (e.g., Kempton 1986; Norman 1988) to theories of social cognition and folk psychology. I think we can expect much larger overlap in the process involved than in the current research literature: people use folk psychology to understand, predict, and explain technological systems — not just other people.
Apperly, I. A., & Robinson, E. J. (2003). When can children handle referential opacity? Evidence for systematic variation in 5- and 6-year-old children’s reasoning about beliefs and belief reports. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 85(4), 297-311. doi: 10.1016/S0022-0965(03)00099-7.
Dennett, D. C. (1987). The Intentional Stance (p. 388). MIT Press.
Fiedler, K., Walther, E., & Nickel, S. (1999). Covariation-based attribution: On the ability to assess multiple covariates of an effect. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25(5), 609.
Försterling, F. (1992). The Kelley model as an analysis of variance analogy: How far can it be taken? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 28(5), 475-490. doi: 10.1016/0022-1031(92)90042-I.
Kelley, H. H. (1967). Attribution theory in social psychology. In Nebraska Symposium on Motivation (Vol. 15).
Malle, B. F. (2004). How the Mind Explains Behavior: Folk Explanations, Meaning, and Social Interaction. Bradford Books.
Malle, B. F., Moses, L. J., & Baldwin, D. A. (2001). Intentions and Intentionality: Foundations of Social Cognition. MIT Press.
McClure, J. (2002). Goal-Based Explanations of Actions and Outcomes. In M. H. Wolfgang Stroebe (Ed.), European Review of Social Psychology (pp. 201-235). John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/0470013478.ch7.
Nass, C., & Moon, Y. (2000). Machines and Mindlessness: Social Responses to Computers. Journal of Social Issues, 56(1), 81-103.
Norman, D. A. (1988). The Psychology of Everyday Things. New York: Basic Books.
Quine, W. V. O. (1953). From a Logical Point of View: Nine Logico-Philosophical Essays. Harvard University Press.
Reeves, B., & Nass, C. (1996). The media equation: how people treat computers, television, and new media like real people and places (p. 305). Cambridge University Press.
Ross, L. (1977). The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 10, pp. 174-221). New York: Academic Press.
Sohn, T., Takayama, L., Eckles, D., & Ballagas, R. (2009). Auditory Priming for Upcoming Events. Forthcoming in CHI ’09 extended abstracts on Human factors in computing systems. Boston, Massachusetts, United States: ACM Press.
Sukumaran, A., Ophir, E., Eckles, D., & Nass, C. I. (2009). Variable Environments in Mobile Interaction Aid Creativity but Impair Learning and Self-disclosure. To be presented at the Association for Psychological Science Convention, San Francisco, California.
Sundar, S. S. (2004). Loyalty to computer terminals: is it anthropomorphism or consistency? Behaviour & Information Technology, 23(2), 107-118.