Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Ownership, art, and domain models

My department is located in a "Smart Building" out here on the plains of the midwest. In addition to a lot of technology that is usually broken, the building has a very open floorplan in which one entire outer wall is comprised entirely of glass. Many of the labs are enclosed on one or two sides in glass, giving the interior a sort of fishbowl feel as you walk past the small groups of geeks laboring in these glass enclosures. A couple of comedians have put up signs saying, "Do not feed the animals." Still, it's rather unnerving to work in a room where anyone walking by can see what you are doing. I do as little work in our lab as possible, keeping to the "privacy" of my cubicle.

Because it's one of the weirdest buildings on campus, it's strongly tied to a Seedbed Initiative to explore the human experience through art and technology. It's one of the ten cross-campus inititiatives which encompass a wide range of interests and involve faculty, students, schools, and the community. It's a good idea, but as far as my Smart Building and I are concerned, it's not working very well.

A number of art installations have leaked into our building since its opening, but they've all been fairly small-scale. A number of plasma displays show animations, and for a while there was the "Sniffer" in the lobby which translated radio transmissions into ambient noise. But last week, there was a new installation in one of the glass-enclosed labs. Basically, it's a female mannequin, dressed in Avant Garde fashion (compared to the Old Navy uniforms worn by my CS peers), standing as if she's engaged in conversation with a nearby cluster of machines. I noticed it immediately because it was dressed as a woman, and for a moment I thought our female population had been increased by 10%. For a week, the mannequin just stood there, without explanation. I figured it was art, but it wasn't widely accepted by the rest of my peers. Mostly people were just asking, "What the hell is that?" "Why is it there?" "Why is it so creepy?" A week later, a small placard explaining the work was placed on a nearby wall.

I'm still reading "Domain-Driven Design" by Eric Evans. It's a tedious book, albeit well-written, so I can only digest about twenty pages a day. In my last reading, I took note of the following:
If the people who write the code do not feel responsible for the model, or don't understand how to make the model work for an application, then the model has nothing to do with the software."
He's speaking of ownership. If software developers don't feel that they own the domain model, then they won't use it. The same need for ownership applies to the installations in my "Smart Building." I don't think that anyone here really likes the creepy mannequin mostly because of the manner in which it was installed. It was almost snuck into the building, and without any guide, we geeks do not how to process it. Moreover, it's rather intrusive to the faculty whose offices are nearby, as passersby are constantly asking them, "What the hell is that creepy mannequin doing in there?" Basically, geeks aren't trained to recognize and appreciate art, especially art which is snuck into the building and results in lower productivity.

I can easily see the counter-argument. Site installations, such as the creepy mannequin, are created for the site in which they are installed. They are created by the artist to interact with the site and effect the public space in which its installed. For Benson, the creator of the creepy mannequin, she "blurs already faint distinctions between reality and representation in works that are both absurd and eerily beautiful." That's a wonderful goal, but it's hard to accept in a place where people are trying to do thoughtful work.

I feel what the folks behind the Seedbed Initiative have failed to do is consider their audience. In this building are approximately 1000 people who, for the most part, use only the technical portions of their brains. We need guidance and explanation to understand the installations in our building. We need to be informed of the installations so that we can avoid being infiltrated and attacked by creepy mannequins. We need not to be annoyed by the installations. For example, the "Sniffer," essentially a buzzing-sound generator, was placed in an area where people are trying to concentrate and do work. I'm not saying that the art should be changed or designed so that geeks will get it, but rather it should be installed in a way that will bring the geeks to a better understanding of it, rather than just shoving it down our throats.

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