Monday, January 22, 2018

HCI research and its neglect of complexity and systems

For many years I have wanted to engage in research that is focused on the HCI aspects of large complex interactive systems. But, I have not really done that. Almost everyday I hear stories from family members and friends about their experiences with their office, company and industry software. These are people who work with interactive systems in healthcare, insurance companies, retail, etc. they usually describe systems that have the kind of issues that in contemporary HCI textbooks seem to belong in earlier decades. The field of HCI is almost fully devoted to the kind of interaction that goes on in our private lives and very little in our professional lives.

I live myself in this situation. As an employee in a university, I have to use a number of large and complex systems that, from an HCI perspective, are extraordinary badly designed. As a field, we can, of course, blame the organizations and people who have the responsibility for these types of systems. And we tell them that they should work more in line with modern interaction design. However, even if that would help, it is probably not enough.

HCI research has a responsibility to also approach the dynamic and complex issues that are the consequence of large systems. Some of these issues are organizational and structural, some are related to the complexity of enormous masses of data and information, some are related to efficiency and effectiveness. In many cases, these are issues that are not addressed in contemporary HCI research with its narrow focus on 'user experience', the new and the cool, the interactive life of individuals, etc.

I might be wrong about this, but this 'blind spot' and neglect makes it difficult to argue for a broader societal impact of our research. As long as we only move forward, away from existing large problems, by focusing on the 'next', we are also escaping many of the inescapable aspects of designing complex system in complex environments in a way that would lead to people satisfied with their systems and work support.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Excellent article about the BS in Higher Education

Well, now and then you stumble over a text that describes your understanding of the world in a way that both makes you happy to realize that what you experience is possible to express but also makes you quite sad when you realize how bad things are.

I have been in academia most of my life and I truly love it. It is a wonderful world of exploration, learning and challenges. Since I was a little kid I wanted to become a professor, now I am one and has been it for a long time. The world I love is however not working the way it should or could.

Christian Smith (professor of sociology at Notre Dame) has written a great article in the Chronicle of Higher Education called "Higher Education is drowning in BS". Smith describes this world I love with all is deficiencies. The text resonates with my own reality.  [I hope you can access the text].

I am, as Smith also writes about himself, by working in the system, supporting the system. I have done well in this system. My career has been good. But almost every day, I (as someone who can to some extent influence the system), think about some of the aspects that Smith mentions in regard to my decisions and actions and I realize that my actions are probably contributing to the increase of BS. Pause for reflection....and then we go again....

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

New book (soon to be published): "Critical Theory and Interaction Design"

I am very honored and happy to have been involved in a new edited book soon to be published by the MIT Press. The book "Critical Theory and Interaction Design" is edited by Jeffrey Bardzell, Shaowen Bardzell and Mark Blythe. Each chapter consists of a classic text from critical theory with a commentary from a scholar in the field of HCI. 

I had personally the opportunity and pleasure of commenting on a chapter from Herbert Marcuse's book "One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society". This is a book that I have read many times and that has influenced my thinking in many ways.

I believe this new book to be an invaluable resource for graduate students in the field of HCI but also broader, such as STS, philosophy of technology, sociology, and more.

Here is the presentation from MIT Press.

Critical Theory and Interaction Design


Why should interaction designers read critical theory? Critical theory is proving unexpectedly relevant to media and technology studies. The editors of this volume argue that reading critical theory—understood in the broadest sense, including but not limited to the Frankfurt School—can help designers do what they want to do; can teach wisdom itself; can provoke; and can introduce new ways of seeing. They illustrate their argument by presenting classic texts by thinkers in critical theory from Althusser to Žižek alongside essays in which leaders in interaction design and HCI describe the influence of the text on their work. For example, one contributor considers the relevance Umberto Eco’s “Openness, Information, Communication” to digital content; another reads Walter Benjamin’s “The Author as Producer” in terms of interface designers; and another reflects on the implications of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble for interaction design. The editors offer a substantive introduction that traces the various strands of critical theory.

Taken together, the essays show how critical theory and interaction design can inform each other, and how interaction design, drawing on critical theory, might contribute to our deepest needs for connection, competency, self-esteem, and wellbeing.

ContributorsJeffrey Bardzell, Shaowen Bardzell, Olav W. Bertelsen, Alan F. Blackwell, Mark Blythe, Kirsten Boehner, John Bowers, Gilbert Cockton, Carl DiSalvo, Paul Dourish, Melanie Feinberg, Beki Grinter, Hrönn Brynjarsdóttir Holmer, Jofish Kaye, Ann Light, John McCarthy, Søren Bro Pold, Phoebe Sengers, Erik Stolterman, Kaiton Williams., Peter Wright

Classic textsLouis Althusser, Aristotle, Roland Barthes, Seyla Benhabib, Walter Benjamin, Judith Butler, Arthur Danto, Terry Eagleton, Umberto Eco, Michel Foucault, Wolfgang Iser, Alan Kaprow, Søren Kierkegaard, Bruno Latour, Herbert Marcuse, Edward Said, James C. Scott, Slavoj Žižek

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Why reason matter

I was randomly looking through my books today and the book "In Praise of Reason" by Michael P. Lynch was suddenly in my hands. I started to read it and realized that I had made a lot of underlining and comments in the book and remembered that I did write a book note about it. Looking at it now, it is clear that the message of the book is even more relevant and important today than in 2012 when I read it the first time. So, here are my notes from then.

Book note: "In Praise of Reason" by Michael P. Lynch

One of the most mundane activities that humans engage in is reasoning. We do it all the time. We try to find reasons for our own actions and for others (strange) behavior. At the same time, reasoning can be seen as the most advanced activity that humans engage in.

Reasons are the intellectual tools we use to convince others about our own perspective or solution. According to Michael P. Lynch, our society is facing a serious problem related to this daily human activity of reasoning. He argues that we have entered an era when many individuals and large groups do not accept the reasons of others as valid. There is a decrease in the trust of what he sees as the "common currency of reason", that is, there is less acceptance of the idea that we all, despite opinions and beliefs, are using the same fundamental set of rules and principles upon which we can constructively reason around a particular topic in a productive way. Instead, he argues that we see more people and groups expressing the idea that reasons are just a matter of belief. This leads to a situation where people do not have to listen to each others reason, not have to reflects upon the strength of their arguments, etc. Instead, people take the position that they are just wrong or even stupid. Lynch shows how this has become common even in parts of our society that are supposed to rest on reasoning and the exchange of ideas, such as in politics.

Lynch book gives a thorough and detailed account of the existence of objective reasoning that we all have to relate to and "obey". Even though Lynch is a professional philosopher and the topic is advanced, he manages to make his case understandable and exciting. To me, his argumentation seems both solid and convincing. His evidence for the existence of reason as something that is possible to see as common to all of us is both elaborate and elegant, but at the same time accessible. His description of the problems that will arise if we do not accept a common understanding of reason is straightforward and should give us all reason to fear the future.

Lynch also writes about something that I find extra interesting and that is a clear definition of science. He makes the case that a common understanding of reason can and should be based on an abstracted version of what constitutes the scientific approach. He writes "part of what makes scientific practice distinctive is that it is comparatively intersubjective, transparent, repeatable, natural, and adaptable." (p 93). These features give science the core quality that Lynch argues for which is an "open character". His detailed discussion about these qualities of science is highly interesting and is also relevant in a discussion about the difference between science and design.

At the end of the book, Lynch discusses the notion of truth especially in relation to Richard Rorty's idea of truth. Very interesting for those who are familiar with Rorty. He ends with a plea. He asks our society to seriously consider reason as a precondition for an open and democratic society. He argues that it is not just possible to develop a common ground and understanding about reason--it is necessary. Otherwise, our society will slide further down into a state when reason is not respected and other forms of convincing become tools, such as, money, power, violence.

I highly recommend this book. The points I mentioned above are just some from Lynch rich text. Read and think.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Interesting critique of the hype of AI and robotics

I really enjoyed reading an article by Rodney Brooks titled "The Seven Deadly Sins of AI Predictions". It is refreshing to read a critical comment about the hype around AI and robotics. Brooks makes a serious attempt to argue against those who believe that AI and robotics will in a near future transform our society. Brooks argues that it will not. I agree with his general view of the slowness of technology development and even slower deployment into people's everyday lives. Read and reflect.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Digital technology and the disconnect with reality (Birkerts and Borgmann)

One of the books that have influenced me the most over the years is "The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age" (1994) by Sven Birkerts. I read it the first time when it was published and I have returned to it regularly since then. Birkerts takes on what he sees as a fundamental shift in the history of humans. The shift is caused by the introduction and spread of digital technology. His eloquent arguments and examples lead to disturbing questions and reflections concerning the role and impact of technology. I have always felt that Birkerts is right in his observations.

In 2015, Birkerts published a new book filled with essays on the same topic and theme as in "The Gutenberg Elegies". I did buy the book when it came out but have not really read it until now. The title is "Changing the Subject: Art and attention in the internet age".

In this newer book, Birkerts returns to some of the fundamental issues he identifies with the way digital technology is influencing our society. Even though the overall idea of the book is similar, I find these essays to approach the issue in a more precise way. This does not mean that the arguments are clearer or stronger, actually, Birkerts was more forthright and direct in the earlier book, instead, here he takes a more poetic and delicate approach. It seems as if he is trying to capture what it means to live in a world that is not only 'using' a new technology but that is fundamentally shaped by it in a way that is mostly invisible and subtle.  He returns to what it 'feels' like to live today, what the 'system' does to you. For instance, he writes about e-mail:

"For one thing, to send and receive e-mail is also to move into the system of e-mail, to become implicated in the network. As a user I get both the frictionless burst of the contact -- the immediate breaching of the space-time divide-- and also the sensation, slippery but real, of taking a half step back from myself." (p 13).

He continues with a statement that speaks to me personally as true.

"This is one of the features of being inside the network mesh: incessant peripherality, and awareness of the larger world at every moment a click away. And because of this I occupy a different gravity field: I'm lighter, more porous." To me, this position resonates strongly with what Albert Borgmann is arguing with his 'device paradigm' and the loss of what he calls 'focal practices'. Focal practices keep us grounded, they connect us to place, time and community. Digital technology is extraordinary in its ability to disconnect us with place, time and community. It is exactly this ability that makes digital technology successful. Every time someone says "there is an app for that", it usually means that you can do something without having to connect to place, time and community.Both Birkerts and Borgmann argue that technology disconnects us from something more real, something more fundamental. I think that a lot of people on some intuitive level may agree with that argument, even though it is not clear what it means or what could or should be done about it.

It is possible to argue that the book, with all its essays, revolves around this idea that digital technology has "interposed a finely woven scrim of signals and distractions between me and my physically immediate reality". One of the exciting and scary aspects of Birkerts' ideas (and Borgmann's) is that the shift he is trying to capture and describe is not only invisible, it is slow moving, and has fundamental consequences. But we also have to remember that it brings new and wonderful powers to us all. What price do we pay for it? Who can resist it? Should we? Can we?

Featured Post

Why Design Thinking is Not Enough

If you go to Youtube and look for "design thinking" you will find a large number of videos with TED talks and other talks all expl...