Wednesday, August 30, 2006

From Reality Studies to Data Studies

One of the most fascinating changes that we are experiencing in the world of research is the move from reality studies to data studies. This is, of course, a result of the ongoing, expanding and accelerating digital transformation. In all areas of human activity the sum of digital material is growing. This growing amount of digital material is supposed to help us understand, control, and oversee the world we live in. But, there seems to be no way to keep up with the rate that this transformation is taking place. It seems as if the amount of digital material is growing faster than we can make use of it. And, we are only at the very beginning of this digital transformation.

One of the intriguing consequences of this development is that we can see a shift from reality studies to data studies. This shift manifests itself as an increasing interest in dealing with the digital material itself, leaving the "source" and the "real" reality outside the focus of study. One example is the field and growth of bioinformatics, where the studied "material" are the many databases of genes and proteins. Bioinformatics makes scientific contributions not by experimenting with real biological material, but with searching and manipulating data. Other areas are, for instance, "virtual astronomy". This area is focused on the study of the huge and unexplored databases collected from telescopes around the world. Since it is possible to say that the whole university exists in the astronomical databases, why continue to look at the real sky, when the digital sky is easier and cheaper to explore and study. Social studies of the internet can be done by searching how people have searched and communicated on the net, without having to interfere with real people. We can see this development in many disciplines. The reasoning is of course convincing and rational, the data (material) is there, it is organized, it is easy to search and mine, it is cheap and available.

But what does this shift lead to? Are there any significant differences in doing reality studies versus data studies? As far as I know, this questions is almost non-existing today, unless we see it as a classic problem of representation. The question of representation and interpretation is an issue studied by philosophy for centuries. Some of the common questions are if data can tell us anything else than what it was supposed to tell us, i.e., in relation to how they where collected, what the question was, how someone formalized the information, who did it and for what purpose? Reflecting upon these classic philosophical questions raises many questions for the future of data studies. Are we really exploring and examining reality?

As a side note, this development also have consequences for interaction design. Interaction design is about designing ways to interact with the "data world". We need new tools and instruments to make it possible to explore and interact with the world of digital material.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

"..the possibilities are endless."

In the same issue of Interactions that I mentioned in my last post, one article ends with the words "..the possibilities are endless." The article is written by Lars-Erik Holmquist and is called "Tagging the World". It is an interesting article that once again pushes the idea of a world where the physical and the digital are blended. Holmquist is correct in many of his observations and has good knowledge in the field. However, I do have problems with research that has as its major argument for existence that "..the possibilities are endless." Possibilities have always through history been endless. Humans have through history only explored a fraction of what have been our possibilities. We also know from history that all possibilities are not equal when it comes to how they influence our lives and our planet. Expanding the space of possible futures and especially manifesting some of them are ethical actions. I am certain that we will explore the "tagged world", I am sure it will help us to create desired outcomes, but I am also sure that some of the "possibilities" that a tagged world entails are not to our best and some will be outright dangerous (see the post about "The Traveller" earlier). Research must handle that responsibility in a serious way. The fact that "..the possibilities are endless." is not a sufficient argument for doing research in a specific area. If that would be the case then research is transformed in pure development, in the sense that the future is more or less something we "follow" or just try to unfold. Instead we have to realize that the future does not unfold, the future is not developed, it is designed. And design is about desire and will. There is not desire and will in the notion that "..the possibilities are endless."

Dogmatic Advise and Thoughtful Design

In the july+august issue of the ACM Magazine Interactions, Don Norman argues that doing user observations first is wrong. Usually Norman is man of wisdom, but this time he argues against a dogmatic view (that user observation should come before design), while unfortunately pushing another dogmatic view. As soon as someone argues that "this is the way to do it" we have to be careful. In Norman's case, it is of course quite easy to find example situations where it is a good idea to do user observations first, as well as it is easy to find situations where it is better to start with design. No rule, no process advise is always "true", it all has to do with intention, purpose, context, and judgment. This is the background to my (our) book "Thoughtful Interaction Design" in which we try to describe a way to approach design that in a serious way takes "intention, purpose, context, and judgment" not as problems in design but as preconditions. Based on this we develop a thoughtful approach where dogmatic ideas have no place. This leads to an understanding of design and the designer that, while keeping design complex and rich, establishes a way of developing personal design competence, not in the form of external guidelines but as internalized qualities, not as predefined action sequences but as a sensibility of quality and a respect for the particular.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

"The Traveller"

Reading the book "The Traveller" by John Twelve Hawks is a good way to experience a possible and to some probable unfolding "big brother"-society. It is a novel that combines technology science fiction explorations and some pretty serious conspiracy theories. Apart from the qualities of the book as an exciting reading, it manages to raise some important and interesting issues on the surveillance society. I realize while reading it that the way we design our systems makes up what in the book is called the "vast machine", which is the total system keeping us all under close watch.

The questions that arises are for instance if it is possible to use the digital material to build systems without ending up with "digital traces" that connect people with actions and over time builds human digital imprints stored in numerous databases? Is it? The question is not easy to answer. Most people want to say that "yes, it is possible", which is natural, because otherwise we must leave the whole digital project behind and find other ways of organizing our reality. For me, it is a design problem. The challenge is to find out how to design systems that work locally, that can exploit global information and communication, without causing the "vast machine" to know everything about us?

Interaction design, as a field, must start to accept this as a real and immediate interaction design challenge. It is not only a problem for security experts and database researchers and administrators. It is ultimately a question of how we want to interact with our environment. What kind of environment do we need, want and desire? We should not only think about human-computer interaction, we have accept that we are involved in an ongoing human-environment interaction design. Every interaction design decision probably has a greater impact on the future "vast machine" than any pure technological improvement. It is about time that we focus on what we desire and how we design our reality in relation to those desires.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Focal experiences and interaction design

I am a person who wants to know the temperature outside. In my present apartment I have no outdoor thermometer. This has been a problem for me. But since a while back I have used a widget on my computer that tells me the present temperature in the place I am living. So, without turning away from my computer I can check the weather outside my window. Another way is of course to go to the balcony door a few feet away, open the door, go out, and experience the weather (of course I do that too).

It is obvious that the two ways of finding out the weather are extremely different. The information is different, the bodily experience is different, and I probably value the weather differently.

This is maybe not an important observation, however it reminded me of Alfred Borgmann's concept of focal things and focal experiences (for definition, see an article I wrote with Anna Croon Fors). A focal experience is an experience that has a deeper connection to something bigger or to something "whole". Experiencing the weather with your body is in that sense more focal than getting some information on your computer screen.

I am not sure what all this means, but I am sure that I am as most people, which is that I move more and more of my experiences away from being focal in the way Borgmann defines them. Is that bad? Well, I guess we don't know. We are at the moment involved in a huge experiment where we with the use of bits as material are re-building our environment. We are with another Borgmann expression "commodifying" more and more parts of it. This means that we are making everything easy to get, instant, and available. It also means that we can buy it or retrive it without knowing how it is produced and how it is delivered.

HCI and interaction design have a special responsibility examining this transformation. Using bits as material makes the transformation possible, but we have at the same time the full freedom to design the new environment in almost any direction we find desireble. We can decide to design it in a way that makes it more "focal" even though it is digitally enhanced.

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