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CHAMPAIGN, Illinois – Professor at the University of Illinois Ben grosser sees his fingers as engaged in a choreographed dance as he uses his computer’s trackpad or scrolls through a list of contacts on his phone. Software guides how he and we all move when we use our technology all day, every day.

“I started to become aware not only of my finger activity in manipulating these interfaces, but also of how my fingers feel choreographed. It is a set of movements. I feel like I’m driven, as much as I drive, ”said Grosser, professor of new media in the School of Art and Design and a researcher from National Center for High-Performance Computing Applications, where he developed a new initiative in critical technological studies.

“I’m always interested in something that we do that we take as natural, but that is part of a designed experience,” he said.

Grosser is developing a new critical technology studies initiative at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. He made a video last year of his hands manipulating the trackpad on his computer, which was part of a faculty art exhibit at the Krannert Art Museum.

Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

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Grosser made a video last year of his hands manipulating the trackpad of his computer.

“Look how delicate these movements really are. There is a lot of soft touch, almost caressing, ”he said.

Grosser recently made a supercut video of scenes from the Netflix series “House of Cards” showing characters from the series using technology. This is the first in a series of three videos for his “Touch software” project.

He is interested in both how actors manipulate props and how props manipulate actors. For example, one scene shows a man stroking his computer mouse while scrolling the image of a woman across the screen. Other scenes show the movements of a character’s fingers or hands controlled by software as he is illuminated by the glow of a bright screen in a dark room. Grosser noted that the show used new ways to represent technological concepts, such as showing the content of text messages on the screen as the characters text each other. Yet little attention has been paid to these other human-technology interactions.

Grosser noted that “House of Cards” initially focused on displaying message content on screen, but now spends more time presenting personal uses of the technology in scenes without any dialogue.

GIF created by Ben Grosser

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He has seen a progression in the way technology is portrayed over the course of the series, from early experiences focusing on interface content to later examples that feature quiet, personal uses of technology in scenes without any dialogue. Like Grosser himself, the characters are forced to touch objects.

“(The designers) want to create devices that almost create an emotional connection. Something in the continuity of these objects – the softness, the metal and the glass – connects you to them, ”he said.

He is also interested in how data on viewer habits shapes the plot of “House of Cards”.

“It’s well known as a show whose content is partially based on surveillance analysis of what viewers are doing,” Grosser said. “It’s an algorithmic show. (Netflix) has the ability to know so much about us, and they can make shows specifically to activate emotions.

Grosser said scenes from “House of Cards” often show a character’s hand movements lit by the glow of a bright screen in a dark room.

GIF created by Ben Grosser

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One of the main components of the show is the ubiquitous use of technology.

“The more transparently a show portrays technology – with everyone in constant communication – the more this behavior becomes normalized in everyday culture, and the more it supports the tech narrative as neutral,” Grosser said. “As humans, we have a responsibility to criticize something to which we give so much power.”

We also need to be aware that while a technology is designed for a specific purpose, that is not the only thing it is used for, he said. For example, Facebook is meant to keep us connected to each other, but it also collects information about us and shows us ads to click on, Grosser said. And because Facebook quantifies all social activity, these metrics affect what we like and our friends. Adobe products are meant to enable creation, but the way those products are designed affects what we create with them, he said. Intentional or not, software design reflects the point of view of its creators.

“The tendency to view the technology we engage with all day long as natural is problematic,” Grosser said. “The software represents a particular point of view because of who made it and why they did it.”

He’s planning more supercuts and is currently choosing another show that uses technology as a plot device. He hopes to find shows to use on HBO and Amazon, to compare how these three new media networks describe the technology.


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