Friday, July 07, 2006

The Horses of Elberfeld

Yesterday, I was making a relatively obscure point about "The Horses of Elberfeld," when a student pointed out the existence of the Subservient President website, which was modeled on Burger King's engrossingly interactive and much forwarded Subservient Chicken page.

Unfortunately Subservient President turned out to be a relatively unsatisfying experience, especially when compared to the endless hijinks of the corporate fast-food fowl who can be made to do just about anything, except for the things that make the man in the chicken suit wag his finger at the screen indicating that the user should be ashamed of himself or herself for even suggesting such a command. Subservient Chicken was developed by the ad firm Crispin Porter + Bogusky, which is known also for their hip, youth-oriented social marketing campaigns in favor of AIDS testing and against teen smoking.

In contrast to our reactive feathered friend, Subservient President often looks confused when asked to do something that the chicken would have easily mastered, such as doing push-ups or jumping jacks on the small screen. Luckily, knowing some of the keywords (particularly those related to Weapons of Mass Destruction or drunk-driving) made it a slightly less frustrating user experience, but the disconnect between keyboard and screen was still relatively marked. A little online research revealed that this Chief Executive in a rubber mask who promises to deliver "politics just the way corporate America wants it" was created by Steve Anderson of USC, who is also Associate Editor of the innovative online journal Vectors.

And what does this have to do with the Horses of Elberfeld? I had been invited to team-teach for the day with my friend, colleague, and fellow intellectual property activist Jenny Cool in her Social Analysis of Computing class. I was explaining a footnote in the introduction to Claude Shannon's Information Theory classic A Mathematical Theory of Communication, which was written by one of Shannon's collaborator's Warren Weaver. Weaver quotes K.S. Lashley as follows:

When Pfungst (1911) demonstrated that the horses of Elberfeld, who were showing marvelous linguistic and mathematical ability, were merely reacting to movements of the trainer's head, Mr. Krall (1911), their owner, met the criticism in the most direct manner. He asked the horses whether they could see such small movements and in answer they spelled an emphatic 'No.' Unfortunately we cannot all be so sure that our questions are understood or obtain such clear answers.

I managed to find what appears to be a photograph of one of the Horses of Elberfeld. It's interesting that so many of the early Information Theory pioneers, many of whom were also doing work on Artificial Intelligence, were so worried about situations of fake interactivity in which communication only appears to take place. Several decades later when the computer program Eliza was brought to life, a precursor of Subservient Chicken that mimicked interactions with a Rogerian therapist, her creator Joseph Weizenbaum wanted to ask hard questions about the social significance of accepting this kind of interaction as a norm.

I would argue that this substitution of "interactivity" for communication or participation can also have political consequences. Users expressed frustration with the level of interactivity that Subservient President provided, but how interactive is the White House website really, even if there is an "interactive" heading on its navigation bar? There may be 360-degree virtual tours or exhibits in which you can turn the pages, but how well does this serve the interests of the electorate? I would argue that this even extends to the formulaic use of the Internet conventions of "chat" at Ask the White House, in which my question is never picked -- although not for lack of trying.

This week a computerized voice, programmed by my insurance company, asked me a lot of prying, personal yes-no questions and nagged me interactively about getting a mammogram. Fair enough, there were perhaps anomalies that would cause me to be picked out of a database, but why delegate the responsibility to a machine? I now regularly get pre-recorded calls from candidates for office. Based on my political anomalies, like the fact that I walk precincts, how long before I'm picked out of a database for an "interactive" call?

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