The User Illusion

Reaction to pcomp reading “The User Illusion” by Tor Norretrandes

Norretrandes is a man as fond of metaphor and analogy as a bear is fond of honey. He makes frequent proclamations about human behaviors, such as why children like bedtime stories to be repeated (so they can watch their parents’ experience of the story, p. 146) or why mean humor is proof of poor mental ability (because good jokes rely on sudden reinterpretations, p. 153). While interesting, his citations in support of these stray theories are few and out of date. The chapter tackles far too many topics, and is laced with oddly emotional language. He clearly did a great deal of background reading for this chapter, but the strong philosophy and information science bias produced conclusions I do not agree with.

Two themes run throughout the chapter: That we take in more information than we consciously process, and that tossing information is a defining characteristic of human consciousness. He calls this tossing out “exformation” and likens it to editing. “Exformation: information deliberately discarded, compressed into notions encompassing the vast exformation.”(p. 133) He uses non-verbal communication as an example of such exformation. He frequently writes that the body cannot lie, or at least does not easily cooperate with the brain. For a more fun investigation of this behavior, try watching the show “Lie to Me”.

Norretranders missed a major concept in neuroscience research, which would have been available to him before 1991. The concept he lacks is “summation”. He does refer to chunking in reference to Miller’s famous “7 +/- 2” article, but that is not the kind of summation I refer to. In fact, at the lowest sensory levels, we have a built-in summation mechanism. All neurons take in information over time, and the timing and intensity of signals from many sensory neurons are summed up before information gets anywhere near the main processing centers. There are fewer “bits” of information to deal with than the implied numbers (which are just a count of sensory neurons by sense category).

It is quite true that humans support a low “cognitive load” in what is called “working memory”. And that it is difficult to measure what a person has perceived or understood, since expressing information presents its own fundamental challenge. So to “sum up”, humans deal in compressed information and non-verbals, please keep that in mind while designing.

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