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Interact with Michael Newman
I say it's spinach

Sunday, May 23, 1999

By Michael Newman

This morning we consider the question of whether, if it talks like a duck, quacks like a duck and responds to user inputs in a duck-like manner, it is a duck. This is a more complicated problem than you might imagine.

This is one of the differences between journalists and scholars. Not that anyone's confusing the two, but as a card-carrying journalist, I would be fully satisfied in calling it a duck, writing up my duck story and going home. Hadyn Kernal, a doctoral student in communication at Stanford, is not so easily convinced.

Kernal presented a paper at last week's Computer-Human Interaction conference called "Effects of Computer/Television Convergence on Users' Perception of Content, Equipment and Affect." I have a simpler title: "Can People Tell the Difference Between Computers and Television?" Or rather, "Can People Tell the Difference Between 'Computers' and 'Television'?" As in journalism, quotation marks are important.

To find out, Kernal devised an experiment: First, she got a Sony Trinitron monitor, one that could plausibly belong to a computer or a TV. Half of her 48 subjects were told it was a TV, while the other half were told it was a computer.

Then the subjects were told to either watch "Saturday Night Live" or trade some stocks at the Charles Schwab Web site. The group was again divided evenly, with half the "computer" group either watching "SNL" or trading stocks, and half the "TV" group either trading stocks or watching "SNL." (I told you this was going to be complicated.)

I am pleased to report that the results give me sound empirical support for a hypothesis I have long cherished, which is that "The Simpsons" is much funnier than "Saturday Night Live." They also show that long-term munis are a better investment than soybean options, but I'd like to see further research on this issue.

Actually, what the experiment shows is that it matters what you call something. Those who watched "SNL" on "TV" thought it much funnier than those who watched the very same program on a "computer." People who used the "computer" to trade stocks thought it much more "intelligent" than people who did the same thing on the "TV."

Thus we see the specter of device-ism (applianceism? contraptionism?) rearing its ugly head. As Kernal notes: "Different technologies have different reputations; people are affected by those reputations, much as they are by stereotypes in the social domain. These stereotypes lead users to ignore objective evidence and to be guided by their own pre-existing ideas."

People expect entertainment, not necessarily usefulness, from their TVs. People expect usefulness, and not necessarily entertainment, from their PCs. This explains the popularity of programs as diverse as "Turbo Tax" and "When House Plants Attack III."

This research raises many intriguing questions. What happens when TV's time-honored reputation as the source of all rot and sleaze in America runs up against the computer's clean-cut, efficient image? Or is it already too late for the computer, loaded with "Doom" and "Leisure Suit Larry"? If so, can we charge TV with corrupting the morals of a minor? At the very least, I want Aaron Spelling placed under house arrest.

More important, in the coming age of "convergence," can the all-powerful media-adverdustrial complex convince us to watch our computers, and to use our TVs? This is a fitting dilemma for America's marketers, who are now faced with undoing the images they have sought so carefully to manage for the last 50 years or so.

I have the utmost confidence in them. These are the same unsung heroes, after all, who got the country to care deeply about laundry detergent. Maybe they can convince me a duck is not really a duck.

Hypertext appears every Sunday in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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