20 May 2003
What is your thesis project about?
I am exploring how phenomena such as self-referentiality make a self arise from inanimate objects. I am basing it on Hofstadter's proposition that a self, an identity will arise by itself if an object becomes self-referential, if there is a self-referential loop inside the system. I am not trying to prove or disprove it. I am just trying to explore self-referentiality in electronic objects because every time we designers create an object, we try to give it an identity or a self. So I find Hofstadter's point quite relevant for our design practice. Our human capacity for self-consciousness finds its equivalent in the self-reference found in the objects of art, science and music. In Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, Hofstadter suggests that the self-referential loop holds the key to unravelling the mystery of the 'self'. There is a striking similarity between the self-consciousness of a human and the self-reference of a machine. Human self-consciousness realises itself through the awareness of the human of his own thought process. In inanimate objects the self-reference becomes apparent in the systems that talk about themselves and are capable of self-modification, self-recognition etc. I am interested in exploring this, especially since it allows me to question the static assumptions we have. There are not many examples of self-referentiality in digital devices. You find them mostly in works of art, like Escher's Drawing Hands or Fellini's 8 1/2. In interaction design, I believe that only Casey Reas and John Maeda explored this issue.
What did you make?
I built four prototypes of self-referential objects. One of the objects, entitled Being, is a proximity sensor, which simply stands in the middle of the room, and as soon as it detects a person, it starts talking about itself, saying something like: you have been detected by a proximity sensor, the sensor switched on a relay, the relay sent a signal to the sound card, and the sound card delivers you this message. Being explores the internal functions and structure of itself as the purpose for its being. Another prototype, Life, is a battery drainer. It runs on dead 9 Volt batteries that you cannot use anymore. They still have a little bit of power left. So if you stick it in that machine, it takes the remaining power of the battery to power it up and to deliver you the last message of the battery. This artefact amplifies the life of an electronic object through showing the inevitability of its death. The machine is needed in order to deliver a message from the dying battery because the battery by itself lacks the necessary parts for such task. But at the same time the machine kills the battery. The third prototype, Death, is based on Epimenides' paradox. He stated that all Cretans are liars, but being himself from Crete, it is paradox. If it's true, it's false, and if it's false, it's true. Death explores the concept of death in an electronic object. This object consists of an LED blowing circuit. The circuit is only completed when you place an LED in it. This allows the electric current to run through the circuit and for the machine to work. But a working machine blows up the LED, breaks the circuit and stops working. It is stuck in an endless self-destructive loop. The last one is a 2x16 LCD display that simply searches for itself on the Internet and then displays the result on its little screen.
What do you want to achieve with this project?
I want to find out whether people will perceive these objects as having personalities. Also these objects question our basic assumptions about electronic objects, that batteries are for powering, LED's for lighting, sensors for sensing something, etcetera. In all my objects that little part becomes the main element. How will that change our assumptions? As an interaction designer I deal with creating objects that seem to embody a 'self' or a personality and become 'alive' to their owners. For this reason I am interested in self-referentiality as a possible criteria to be used when designing such artefacts. I want to explore how self-reference enhances the communication that happens between the object and the human.
What impact has Interaction-Ivrea had on you?
I always dealt with virtual stuff before. Here for the first time I had the chance to actually make some physical things and look at the electronics behind them. It was really exciting to work on the challenges of overcoming the problems in designing physical devices, to make your ideas real, and then to be able to touch and move the objects you created. Another big advantage here was the fact that there are so many people from so many backgrounds, which allows you to see so many different points of view.
What are your plans now?
Ideally I would like to have my own design studio. I would like to find a market niche designing services, such as designing scenarios for services or user experience modelling for services. But in fact I am quite open.
(Interview by Mark Vanderbeeken)