Jaron’s wager

I saw a talk yesterday by Jaron Lanier, in which he mentioned Pascal’s Wager. For those of you who don’t know, this was the argument by the mathematician Blaise Pascal that you are better off believing in God, because if there is no God, then you have nothing to lose, but if there is a God, then you have everything to gain.

To me this argument has always seemed flawed, since in a universe with an infinity of metaphysical possibilities, it is just as likely that atheism will get you sent to heaven, whereas believing in God will land you in hell. When it comes to pure conjecture, any possibility is as likely as any other.

But Jaron was only using Pascal’s Wager as a model for a much more interesting wager. Speaking to our current cultural fascination with computers, he argued that the best way to develop better user interfaces for computers is to ignore the computer entirely — essentially act like it doesn’t exist — and think only about the human brain and body.

In particular, he said that if a designer of user interfaces is given the metaphysical choice between “the brain is just another kind of computer” and “human thinking is unique in a way that is beyond mere computation”, it is more useful to choose the latter.

Just to be clear, he wasn’t saying that the human exceptionalist view is correct, merely that it is more useful when designing user interfaces. And I tend to agree with him.

In fact, as I’ve said here before, it is arguable that the most influential user interface designer of the last dozen years has been J.K. Rowling, since her vision of Harry Potter’s world was pretty much a description of the way we’d like our computer interfaces to behave, if they could do whatever we wanted them to do. Not surprisingly, reality has been catching up to her vision of a world in which maps can show you where your friends are now, and people in newspapers wave to you.

Someone from the audience asked Jaron whether it is always useful to think this way. Jaron judiciously said no: When you are studying the computational abilities of the brain, it may very well be useful to think of the mind in cybernetic terms.

But when you are trying to create better user interfaces for actual people out in the world, it is clear that Jaron sensibly sides with J.K. Rowling and her fellow modern philosopher Arthur C. Clarke, who famously pointed out that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

4 thoughts on “Jaron’s wager”

  1. I find the danger that the user starts to “adopt” to the ability of the device and modify the “natural” movement you are creating the interface FOR, thus getting used BY the interface…. it’s a “trap”. Maybe computers will regulate our physical behaviors in the future. Already Wii Fit program tells me every day, my balance is always tilted to the left (I’m a violinist) when I *think* I’m standing straight! But that’s a good thing its doing for me…

  2. I’m not sure there is an inherent “danger” caused by what happens between you and a technologically enabling instrument such as your computer or your violin.

    Yes, it’s true, you adapt your movement, your posture, your musculature, even your pattern of growth if you start playing in childhood, to the device.

    But it is not clear that there is such a clear concept of “natural” in the use of tools, only a concept of usability and of not causing debilitating harm (since a badly designed instrument — be it a violin or a QWERTY keyboard — can cause physical damage to its user).

  3. Perhaps “danger” was too strong a word. I meant to say that you start to perform in a way that the interface would easily recognize your movement, rather than sticking to your original movement you are trying to track. The result comes out to be rather forced or “unnatural”, at least different from what your original gesture was. There was a video of a violinist using the gesture follower that illustrates this clearly and we talked about this (it’s at IRCAM) I’ll try to find it. He was playing in a way that would trigger it better 🙂

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