The Mannikin and the Black Box

Have you ever had that eerie feeling while in the store that the mannikins are staring at you? They’re only wooden figures, you tell yourself, but still... you can’t shake the feeling that they’re watching you. It’s a spooky feeling, and especially creepy when you’re alone with them. This creepy feeling has been the basis for a number of movies and television shows. I remember an especially effective "Twilight Zone" episode involving mannikins coming to life.

The same is true for many other representations of the human figure. Statues and paintings can seem like they’re alive. Recall the old bit about the eyes of the person in the painting following you around the room. And then there are the horror movies in which the figure in the painting descends to the real world, wreaks havoc, and then returns to the painting.

Why is it that representations of the human form can evoke such powerful reactions, even when we know that they are only representations, that they have no substance? Such experiences pit sense against the intellect, and the intellect loses we place more confidence in our sensory experience than in our intellectual appreciation of its reality.

Thus it is that when we look at the computer, we see a television. It isn’t a television, but the monitor is the part of the system that we experience with our senses, and so that’s the part that we gravitate towards. The part that computes is so abstruse. It’s just a box that hums, nothing more. The fact that it can do something wondrous, something no machine has ever done before that it can think gets lost in the sensory shuffle.

This is one reason why our designs are so heavy on image and so light on processing. Image is direct and sensorily immediate, but processing is abstruse, intellectual, sensorily remote.

Perhaps I can put this in perspective with a ghoulish fantasy. Suppose that you are male and you are married to the woman of your dreams. This woman is all you ever wanted in a spouse; she is your perfect life’s partner. With her as your wife, life is rich and satisfying in every way.

But then catastrophe strikes; your wife develops a fatal cancer. As she lies on her deathbed, she offers you a choice. After she dies, you may preserve either her image or her personality but not both.

In the former case, she has arranged with a master taxidermist to have her body stuffed. He can do a perfect job; her body will grace your home just like a mannikin, with the skin as fresh and clear as in life, and the face looking as alive and normal and happy as ever you knew it.

If you choose the latter option, then her personality will be magically infused into a black box whose workings none can understand. Your only connection with the black box will be a single wire that sends and receives ASCII characters. With a computer terminal, you will be able to carry on conversations, talk about your life, discuss your feelings but you will never hear her voice or touch her hand or see her smile.

Which would you choose?