Monday, May 11, 2015

Meatsuits and the Limits of Metaphor - On Gender Identity UI, and How to Think

Today's post is seems to be about disparate topics, but at its heart regards something quite important to me as a writer and, perhaps surprisingly, as an AV designer. Today we're talking about metaphor.

Last week I came across this drawing by British artist Alice Hershel, drawing under the name Glytxh (the drawings are quire charming and cleverly done. If you want to see more, you can follow her on Google Plus or even venture to her GoFundMe for a chance to own your very own ink-and-paper hardcopy of the collection, delightfully titled "Whim").

From Whim, by Glytxh

Many people (myself included) reshared he image as a clever statement of support for those whose expressed gender doesn't match that of their birth. Then someone gave this reply:

...I was never trapped in the wrong body. It's my body, so it's a woman's body - it just had some medical issues. Being raised as a boy is part of who I am, and I can't truly be part of myself if I fight to discard that. So put the meatsuit back on, sharpie that O--> to a O+ (or a smileyface) and fight to be yourself, whoever and whatever that awesome person is".

What followed was a discussion about how "trapped in the wrong body" is a metaphor - and one which can be uncomfortable for those who either don't want to or do not have the means to change their bodies. On the positive, for those who have body issues this thinking creates a division between the essential "self" within and the physical shell. As CS Lewis once said, "You don't have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body."

"But Leonard," I hear you saying, "You're an atheist. You don't believe in souls. Why are you quoting a Christian apologist?" My answer is simple: I don't believe in souls as a literal thing, but I DO believe in metaphor and even, to an extent, in myth. I also believe that something can be "true" (that I what defines my "self" is more than my physical body" without being literally true.

So is a soul trapped in the wrong body a good metaphor for gender transition? (For a high-profile example, think of Jenner - an individual whose crowning accomplishments were of the body. How does saying that someone like Jenner is "trapped in the wrong body" inform how we - and they - see the work they put into having success with that body?)   Or a caterpillar metamorphizing into a butterfly? Or, as the above commenter noted, a person using the raw materials of themselves to create something new? It likely depends on the situation and on  the person. What I'm most glad of is that we're reaching for metaphors other than a model of "disease". To no longer look at a trans man as a broken woman or a trans woman as a broken man is a step forward. The next step is to listen to our trans friends and better learn the different ways in which we can think about this matter.

Metaphor and UI

Are my AV friends still here? I've not forgotten you! I DO have a point about AV system design, which is this: even in an increasingly connected world technology - especially the kind of bespoke technology for specific environments we in the AV industry have come to know and love - is not something with which the human race has the centuries of experience to be able to conceptualize instinctively. We can describe form, we can describe function. We can also, as we create new technologies and interfaces, rely on metaphor.

One route - perhaps the simplest - is to use a technology with which most people are familiar in order to describe something new. I'm reminded especially of a discussion with SMW's Associate Principal Robert Badenoch. Badenoch is quite an accomplished AV designer with a great measure of knowledge and experience about audio systems, especially the acoustic requirements for performance spaces. What I find even more valuable - the skill which is very hard to teach - is that he knows how to think and how to help other people think constructively. One thinks with metaphor.

The discussion about which I am thinking took place perhaps a year and a half ago while we were working on the control specification for a fairly complicated system including three cameras, five video displays (two of which are annotative), two dedicated PCs, a wireless video input appliance, a recording appliance, and more laptop inputs than you can shake a (USB) stick at. To create something user-friendly for such an environment is a challenge.

In one early bit of discussion he said that the control system could be like either the CATV remote you have in your home or like ones shopping cart. In the former case, each interaction with the control creates an action on the settop box; it will change the channel, change the volume, or move the STP to "Menu" mode. The interface - your handheld remote - remains static. The Amazon shopping card is different; the interface will change to display various bits of product information as you select items, and those items will queue in your virtual shopping cart (another metaphor!). The actual action - moving funds from your bank to Amazon - doesn't happen until you've made all of the selections and hit the "checkout" button. It's also the way a technician-oriented "routing" control would work (Source, source, source, destination, take).

The brilliance of such an approach is that we can take something which is, by nature, unfamiliar and describe it in terms with which our audience has an instinctive understanding. The drawback and danger is the same as with Glyxth's "Meatsuit" - if one carries  the metaphor too far, it can inform your thinking in ways you may not want. If I look at the UI in a conference room as a handheld remote, for example, it's easy to get locked into a "single buttonpress/single action" form of thinking. There may be some times when one wants a keypress to do more than one thing, or be context-specific. Or when one wants to react to something other than a keypress. At best, metaphor gives us the ability to both direct our thoughts and communicate with both end-users and fellow professionals. At worst, we're the well-meaning ally inadvertently telling our trans friends to hate their bodies and - by extension - parts of themselves.

No way to treat specialized AV cabling.
Will this be your HDMI cable tomorrow?
This question - of how to think and communicate - is the one constant in an ever-changing AV industry. I'll close with another metaphor: Last week I needed a tie-down for the trunk of my car and didn't have any bungee-cords at the ready. What I did have was a scrap of cable which must have been lying there for years; after I finished tying  it up I realized that the cable was low-skew UTP with equal  wire-lengths to preserve sync between colors when extending analog RGBHV video. I realized that it's a cable I would never again use for anything as the equal twist rates make it useless for actually carrying data. It's a specialized bit of AV cable from yesteryear, now only useful as a rope. This is what happens to yesterday's technical knowledge, while the bigger lessons of how to think endure.

No comments:

Post a Comment