Sunday, November 13, 2005

"Freedom Evolves" and HCI Theory

I have just finished reading Daniel C. Dennett's book "Freedom Evolves". It is a fascinating book with a message that is clear and strong. The idea that freedom is (as almost everything else) a product of evolution is quite remarkable. It also leads to some quite astonishing consequences. For instance, it means that freedom is still evolving, and according to the laws of evolution it can evolve into something we would describe as "more freedom", but it can also be a "dead end" in evolution and disappear.

Anyhow, the message aside, what I realized when reading the book, is the way Dennett discusses his assumptions and ideas in relation to all other theories in the field. He is strong in his critique of theories, and many of them does not "survive" his analytic examinations. He compares ideas and assumptions. He measures their strengths and weaknesses. He categorizes them according to their intention, structure and outcomes. It quite often becomes a matter of two sides of theories, about "them" and "us " (or even "me").

In the field of HCI, interaction design, information systems design, we lack this kind of theoretical debate. It seems as if most researchers stick to their own approach and assumptions. This has lead to a range of small communities of researchers that all work in parallel. This is all good and well, but I think if we want to see some progress when it comes to theory development we have to be much more open to debate, discuss, compare, with the purpose to find some common ground. Common ground in this context does not mean agreement on what is the "correct" theory (this is definitely not the case in Dennett's book either). Common ground means instead a clearer appreciation of the differences between theories when it comes to assumptions, purpose, structure, outcome, etc.

So, this is why I will teach a PhD course this coming Spring with the title "Human Computer Interaction Design Theory" with this in mind. It will be "about" theories, their role, character and intention. I will especially focus on the relation between theory and practice. In this I am inspired by a text by my colleague Yvonne Rogers. If you have ideas on this or suggestions about suitable texts, please let me know.

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