Zeuser Interfaces

Sup y’all, and welcome to the Ideaspace, a biweekly email exploring ideas. I’m Yancey Strickler. Click here to subscribe or keep reading for the latest issue.

Zeuser Interfaces

The relationship between technology products and customers today can feel like one of predator and prey. Hooked on proto-monopolist hyper-growth dreams, tech businesses see user dependency as the ultimate success. This is why companies want to “capture” markets and build “moats” to achieve “user” “lock-in.” It’s how prison wardens define success, too.

This prison mindset has resulted in products that are intentionally addictive, obscure what a person is signing up for, and where, as a rule, every conceivable advantage is tilted towards the company. Tracking pixels, forced arbitration clauses, always-on surveillance, and other invasive practices that would have shocked us two decades ago are givens today.

This feels inevitable. Even permanent. But other paradigms for how people and technology can relate are possible. We know because they’ve existed before.

Take the Clapper. The home improvement product from the ‘70s that had the simplest UI imaginable: two claps and something turns on, two claps and it turns off.

The Clapper uses an interaction model that clearly puts humans over tech. It allows a person to direct technology to do what they want — even theatrically and sarcastically, as the TV spot shows. With the Clapper, there’s no question who’s in control.

The Clapper is an example of what I’ll call a Zeuser Interface (ZI). An interaction model where humans get the Zeus-like capabilities rather than the technology. If the tech of today borrows from the interaction paradigm of HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey — where we think the machine is benevolently helping us until the moment we discover it really isn’t — interfaces like the Clapper are closer to Zeus standing on Mount Olympus sending lightning bolts to do his bidding.

Imagine a Zeuser Interface like the Clapper for your home internet. Two claps and do not disturb goes on, WiFi turns off, and distracting notifications do too. Two claps in the morning and everything turns back on. To qualify as ZI, this version of the Clapper would need to respond to human command without surreptitiously gathering up data in stealth surveillance mode at the same time. Few tech companies have that kind of willpower today.

A more recent ZI example is a Kickstarter project called IRL Glasses that black out video screens when a person looks at them. Rather than being captive to ambient ads and screens, a person wearing IRL Glasses chooses what they see and what they don’t.

In a more speculative direction, imagine a camera sensor programmed to ignore anyone who closes their eyes while the picture is taken. This would give the subject of a photograph control over their appearance in a picture rather than the photographer. This sounds strange, but just as the photographer’s ability to capture an image is based on technology (the camera), technology could rewrite those dynamics in new ways as well.

In a real life example of this, the model Gigi Hadid was sued by a photographer for posting a photo of herself on Instagram that the photographer had taken. He said the photo was copywritten. She countered by saying that since she chose to smile and make eye contact with the camera, she was the coauthor of the photograph. The photographer’s lawsuit against her was dismissed.

Zeuser Interface is a fun thought experiment, but it’s not hard to imagine the ways it goes awry. When personalized media diets allow people to hold conflicting notions of truth, a world where we chose our own reality could make filter bubbles look diverse and inclusive by comparison. We would each be Kings and Queens of our castles of Self with little regard for what goes on beyond our moats. Not far from where we are today, actually.

The assumption that technology is an all-powerful host and humans are its subservient clients sleep-clicking through one Terms of Use after another needs to be challenged. Especially when other realities — from the Clapper to these speculative concepts to Craigslist’s utilitarian unstickyness — are possible. If two claps can turn off the lights and eye contact can establish ownership, couldn’t clapping, closed eyes, and other Zeus-like gestures opt us out altogether?

2019 Cultural Standouts

🎵 Solange’s When I Get Home and her dance piece at the Getty Museum
Not as musical as her last record, but I love the vibe of Solange’s new one. The dance and musical piece I saw at the Getty by her was even better.

🎨 Kara Walker, Fons Americanus at Tate Modern
The feeling of standing in front of this devastating piece in Tate’s Turbine Hall is unforgettable.

🎨 Nam June Paik retrospective at Tate Modern
The Korean video artist saw the future back then even better than we do now. Loved his Tate retrospective, especially the room with a single burning candle and five or six cameras filming and projecting it on walls from different angles. Irresistibly creative and playful.

🎥 Micaela Durand and Daniel Chew, First and Negative Two
Two short films by NYC filmmakers, both highly creative in their storytelling style and hyper real in their depiction of how the internet exists IRL.

🏀 Doris Burke on color commentary of any NBA game
Doris Burke’s ascendance to become the top NBA commentary voice is a joy to behold. Few are as honest or insightful seeing the game. The fact that NBA games are now being called by women, reffed by women, and assistant-coached by women is great for the game. The NBA remained by far my favorite form of entertainment in 2019.

🎭 Girl School LA Yoko Ono Tribute and Descanso Gardens performances
Two fantastic musical events curated by Girl School LA and its director (and my friend) Anna Bulbrook. The Yoko Ono tribute at the Walt Disney Concert Hall was impressive and the best her music has ever sounded. Girl School’s nighttime modern classical concert in a botanical garden was magical, too. Keep an eye out for their events in 2020.

🎥 Parasite and Queen and Slim
The two movies from 2019 that stuck with me. Parasite is recommended for all the reasons everyone recommends it. I found Queen and Slim’s combination of a genre film structure and political story to be super smart and affecting.

👟 Clearweather shoes
Local Southern California shoe brand started by two brothers. Great shoes (my wife and I have four pairs between us) and an independent company, too.

🚴 Peloton
Shoutout Ally Love, Kendall Toole, Emma Lovewell, and all the other great instructors. Started as a Kickstarter project!

🦆 Peep and the Big Wide World
For the parents out there. The only child’s video content I recommend.

🌎 The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells and We Are the Weather by Jonathan Safran Foer
Two devastating books about climate change. The former is all about science and data. The latter adds beauty and grief.

📚 Three Women by Lisa Taddeo and White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
Two excellent books that gave me insight into the experiences of people around me. Thank you.

📚 Time Loops by Eric Wargo
Still not sure if I’m 100% convinced, but I really enjoyed this exploration of the ways that the future impacts the past.

🎵 Sacred Cosmos playlist
Of the many playlists I made this year, this collection of spiritual jazz moved me the most.

News

Happy New Year!

Peace and love my friends,

Yancey