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Sunday, April 4, 2004

Ethos in HCI
I cut class to attend a lecture that I thought would have something to do with my thesis. As it turns out, it didn't really, but it was interesting nonetheless.

Caroline Miller, a professor of English at North Carolina State, gave a talk on "Expertise and Agency: Transformations of Ethos in Human-Computer Interaction." The essence of her talk (as I understand it) is this: There have been two ways of thinking about HCI: machine control and computational subjectivity, each with a very different ethos.

Machine control springs from a Cold War mentality. It's about speed, efficiency, and containment and its driving force is an Aristotelian logos. Facts are supposed to speak for themselves and expertise is automated. The components of these "expert systems" are a knowledge base (with lots of if/then statements and rules), an inference engine (with forwards and backwards chaining), and an interface. Expert systems transformed logos into ethos. Expertise is the ethos.

Many of these expert systems collapsed in the 1980s. They performed as expected, but according to Professor Miller, there were rhetorical reasons as well as cultural that caused their demise. As Americans lost trust in established institutions and technology, there was less rhetorical appeal of logos. Rhetoric needs pathos and ethos, not just logos. Thus, we began to design computer systems with more computational subjectivity. With pathos.

These "intelligent agents" are rhetorically different than expert systems in that users have a relationship with them. They focus on the establishment of trust and so explain their decisions and make those explanations credible. They have to be social and adaptable, communicating through elaborate interfaces, and they must offer an ethos that offers empathy. Intelligent agents are alive with pathos, not logos, winning favor and always looking for a response. They are friendly, familiar, and sympathetic. And they seek sympathy as well. Professor Miller called this "cyborg discourse" and it requires technique and strategy to design.

posted at 09:42 AM in big ideas, special guest stars | comments (0) | trackback (0)


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