The art of conversation

[Attention conservation notice: long self-induldgent post composed late at night while tired discussing things I don’t know enough about. The usual then.]

Matt Webb’s at it again. Read about his experiments with conversational interfaces.

I think he’s spot-on with his points about the failings of Activebuddy, and the avoidance of trying to build a better penknife. I have a couple of complementary ideas around this area – but keep having doubts to the mainstream application of conversational interfaces.

These are tempered however when I think of the resurgence of popularity of what amounts to the command-line interface, especially amongst younger people, due to SMS and instant messenging.

Talked about this before. Dare me to think. Dare me play with language, symbols, understanding. Actually I’ll invent my own thanks. Stop mediating my experiences – I’d rather have them myself and then share them with peers, not watch them played back to me by you.I like it in here. Let’s play. Maybe it’s a revolution in the making.

The next passage where the is from Neal Stephenson’s “In the beginning was the command-line” – it’s very hard to quote out of context, so maybe better to go and read the whole thing here. It’s incredibly rewarding and aside from the interesting dissection of operating systems and culture, the points he makes on geopolitical and cultural issues are pretty thought-provoking too, right now.

“Contemporary culture is a two-tiered system, like the Morlocks and the Eloi in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, except that it’s been turned upside down. In The Time Machine the Eloi were an effete upper class, supported by lots of subterranean Morlocks who kept the technological wheels turning. But in our world it’s the other way round.

The Morlocks are in the minority, and they are running the show, because they understand how everything works. The much more numerous Eloi learn everything they know from being steeped from birth in electronic media directed and controlled by book-reading Morlocks. So many ignorant people could be dangerous if they got pointed in the wrong direction, and so we’ve evolved a popular culture that is (a) almost unbelievably infectious and (b) neuters every person who gets infected by it, by rendering them unwilling to make judgments and incapable of taking stands.

Morlocks, who have the energy and intelligence to comprehend details, go out and master complex subjects and produce Disney-like Sensorial Interfaces so that Eloi can get the gist without having to strain their minds or endure boredom. Those Morlocks will go to India and tediously explore a hundred ruins, then come home and built sanitary bug-free versions: highlight films, as it were. This costs a lot, because Morlocks insist on good coffee and first-class airline tickets, but that’s no problem because Eloi like to be dazzled and will gladly pay for it all.”

Take a look at (careful – It’s Flash-only and it spawns a browser window that fills your whole screen) It got a great debate on the LondonUsability email group started, with the majority of correspondents slating the interface, and a vocal few defending it for trying something different.

I was one of those who gave a qualified defence, as IMHO, the site does try the right thing at the wrong time… >ahem< wrongly… Using a command-line as a primary interface to a marketing site seems a little daft, and the experience of using it can be frustrating, as the feedback mechanism operates on a controlled list of questions you can ask based upon the first let you type. Kind of like the worst exesses of predictive text features on cell-phones (something I don’t have time to write about, but is definately closely-knit with this thread of throught)

However, a small bouquet with all the brickbats to them for TRYING it. Does anyone know of more considered applications of this sort of way-new command-line-interface anywhere? If not, then why not. Information scientists and Info-science-focussed-IAs (!) with their knowledge of creating controlled vocabularies could really contribute to a new generation of easy and fun to use command-line interfaces…

Vive le retro-revolution!

0 thoughts on “The art of conversation”

  1. De-construct’s command line seems more like a presumptuous Ask Jeeves without a submit button. The usefulness would improve considerably if the number of answers in the system increased to precisely match the questions I might ask. Otherwise, I have to concentrate on what the system knows, instead of my question.

    I don’t give them a free pass for trying something new because that’s not what it is. Abstract interfaces are fine to experiment with, but if you’re going to build one, study Unix first and improve on it. The system artifically adopts the same constraints as other command lines by using a hidden lexicon of valid commands (search terms). That’s a limitation, not a virtue.

    Given that they’re mixing command line with a point-and-click GUI, just give me a select menu with the options I need. Or even better, give me a list of options that I can scan and compare, so I can choose for myself which topic probably contains the closest match to my question.

  2. I don’t give them a free pass for trying something new because that’s not what it is.

    Within it’s context (the Web), I’d say it’s definitely something new.

    Abstract interfaces are fine to experiment with, but if you’re going to build one, study Unix first and improve on it.

    I may be reading into your comment wrongly, but how many of the people coming to a marketing site for a web design company would want to use a Unix style interface?

    Like Matt, I applaud them for simply trying it, even if they did get a lot of things wrong. Yes, the hidden commands are definitely a limitation. Yes, a submit button would probably help. Yes, it could be better, but that’s the point.

    If a website is really a file system with a specialized interface, why shouldn’t I be able to access individual documents with a simple command?

    Thanks Matt for pointing out this innovative site.

  3. Other examples of Web-based command line interfaces:

    I don’t agree that placing a command-line into a new context qualifies as a new idea. My comment about improving UNIX was about finding a way to create something that really is more useful by using technologies that weren’t available 10 years ago. Find a way to supplement the command line with the abilities of a GUI.

    I’m not saying that most people coming to a marketing website would want to use a UNIX style interface. Not because of the way it looks, but because of the way it works. I don’t know if supplementing a command line with a GUI would work either, but at any rate, why reinvent the wheel?

    Experimentation is great.

    Flash can do some amazing things. One example of an innovation that didn’t work, but still demanded respect was Fundacao Laramara’s audio-driven spatial Flash navigation system for the blind (Now offline). The concept behind it was as abstract as this, but totally original.

    I guess I just want to see the bar set a little higher.

  4. Prate was styling a command line interface for a bit. Note added emphasis on styling and it suffered the same setbacks as the posted site above although it was done in early 2000. It does not appear to be accessible from her index archive but maybe email her and have her dig it up.Hey Matt!

  5. Professor Jim Hendler
    University of Maryland, College Park


    I value your work, and you a great deal. But I ask also that you understand what the method is that I have chosen to employ to try to shift some small percentage of federal funding in support of an alternative to AI/Semantic Web research.

    I have made a fictional account of a conversation at:

    based on email we exchanged yesterday. Your name is not mentioned, as this is unimportant to the discussion.


    we state an alternative to the AI/Sematic Web vision for the future.

    Our position is that human thought is a physical phenomenon and logic is not.

    In the BCNGroup alternative to AI/SW we positively address the issue of long-term abuse from one community onto another community, and (perhaps more importantly) an alternative to the AI/Semantic Web vision for the future. Once the light of day is shone on this abuse issue, then our society will be able to move on to a more rational expenditure of funds on communication systems.

    In this alternative, the growth of computer science funding levels off and then sharply is reduced as the task of creating a functional understanding of what a computer can do and not do is codified in practice. The first step is a requested $60,000,000 to create a Knowledge Science K-12 curriculum.

    The alternative, to the AI/SW vision for the future, conjectures that the social/economic energy now spent in confusion, over what a computer can do, will be spent in the proper application of human-centric information production (HIP) on critical social problems such as those creating asymmetric threats and poverty and environmental degradation.

    The immediate value proposition is not a business proposition, but a National Security one.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.