Study of Film and HCI

Periodically I post something on my course blog, Interaction Culture Class, that might be of broader interest than just the class. In such situations, I repost them on my personal blog. This is one such example, and its original post can be found here.

I mentioned during class today that HCI luminary Elizabeth Churchill had an interesting post on Facebook earlier today. Here is the quote:

Another brilliant independent movie I watched today. Made me reflect on self presentation and emotional isolation. It occurred to me that current discourses in the HCI and CSCW communities when it comes to loneliness, privacy and connection really only touch the surface when it comes to thinking about the complexity and multiplicity of ways humans have when it comes to managing identity, human social interaction and social withdrawal.

Obviously, I agree with the gist of her idea (I haven’t seen the movie, so I have no opinion on it specifically). I think most commercial filmmaking is a form of experience design. And I note that filmmaking, film theory, and film criticism are mature phenomena that have grappled for decades with issues that we are beginning to deal seriously with in HCI–identify, alienation, longing, hope, isolation, social participation and withdrawal, etc. Thus, it seems obvious to me that film can and should be an intellectual resource to help us make progress on issues in HCI/interaction design.

Now, obviously interaction design is not film. Films tend to be strongly narrative (plot, characters, conflicts, point of view, etc.), while interaction designs are generally not. Issues such as emergence, usability, privacy, etc., are not as central to film as they are to HCI, so I don’t mean to overstate any equivalence between HCI and film. But inasmuch as we are (especially via experience design) concerned with sociability, identity, emotional fulfillment, meaningful life, etc., there is considerable overlap. And any engagement with film literature (or, in Elizabeth’s case, a good film) reveals how much work we have yet to do in experience design–as Elizabeth clearly notes.

Here is another way, one more practical and relevant to class, and this is what I was trying to get at at the end of class.

In the critical analysis of Chungking Express that we read in class today, Brunette makes an argument that there is a relationship between the space (urban Hong Kong) and the lived experience of those who inhabit that space.

Of the space, he says (and other critics of Wong Kar-wai have made similar arguments) that it is “heterotopic” and “contradictory”; it is urban and overcrowded; it is constituted by global symbols, such as McDonalds; it is multiracial (Indians, Chinese, and Anglo characters are all intermingled in the film); it sits on the edge of a government handover from Great Britain to the People’s Republic of China (or it did in 1994, when the film was made).

Of the lived experience of that space, Brunette points to the fluidity of identity; the need for a special practice of “urban survival”; the experience of being/feeling alone and isolated within a bustling crowd; and the experiences of longing, self-entertainment, memory, and hope–all mediated by global technologies and symbols (clocks, expiration dates, air travel, etc.).

Now, Wong’s vision is not simply a literal record of the Hong Kong experience: it is his interpretation of certain forms of Hong Kong experience. But this is a very resonant interpretation, not just for Chinese viewers but for viewers around the globe. Put another way, Wong has interpreted an existing space (a district of 1994 Hong Kong) in an insightful and illuminating way; he has simulated that space/experience on film; and this film resonates with audiences worldwide, who both recognize a certain validity of his representation of that experience and directly feel that experience when they watch the movie.

What does this have to do with HCI? Well, a major part of HCI’s agenda is ubiquitous computing, which is also about constructing technologized spaces in which our everyday lives will unfold. What Wong Kar-wai is doing fictionally on film, we are bringing into reality in a literal sense.

  • What will the experiences of those spaces be like?
  • Are we creating places where people will flourish–professionally, emotionally, physically, intellectually–or are we creating urban nightmares?
  • How do we know?

Understanding the experience of our designs is no longer “merely” an aesthetic question: we’re in them now, and increasingly we can’t turn them off.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s