Beki Grinter

Revisiting Visions

In academia, academic management, C@tM, discipline, HCI, ICT4D, research, social media, wellness informatics on June 3, 2009 at 4:23 pm

So who knew that a blog would encourage me to think harder.  Almost certainly some researchers I know, and I apologise to them profusely, but it’s still a new experience for me.

I wrote about vision (and strategy, but we never mention the latter without mentioning tactics). I said that I felt it didn’t come naturally to me, that I was more instinctual.  Beginning with instinct… here are the things that seem important to me.

  1. Wellness Informatics. I recently wrote about my version of this idea but its something I’ve been thinking about for about a year. The gist is that  health informatics (or more recently biomedical informatics) is largely (not completely, largely) focused on a medical response to health issues. But health and wellness are important partners. Wellness takes place in a community, and possibly without reference or interaction with the medical establishment. And what really triggered this idea for me was that in some communities, the medical establishment was a complex interaction. It depends from where you start.
  2. Human Network Interaction. I have a long standing interest in making the Internet/home network a better user experience. What the popularity of the Internet has successfully proved is that a network architecture/protocols designed for technical specialists is miserable for end-users at home, not to mention technically trained people at home. What Keith Edwards and Nick Feamster will tell you, and I agree, is that this situation is probably resolved when HCI moves “down the stack” i.e., when networking and HCI are co-designed to meet the unique constraints and opportunities presented by unmanaged environments.
  3. Narratives of Reach in ICTs. Paul Aoki first explained the importance of cross-cultural flows in computing. He made a compelling case that religious organizations are using ICTs not just to expand out of Westernized countries to emerging nations but vica versa. Research and conversations later, I understand that religion is a fascinating place to examine how emerging nations are using Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) to expand into the West. One thing that’s important about this for me is that it turns a traditional narrative on its head. I participate in communities where ICTs are helping Western corporations expand their reach into emerging nations (heck I worked on such a project).
  4. Distributed Intelligence in Human-Robot Interaction. Robots are a fascinating computing platform (in so many ways). In the last few years a quiet revolution has occurred. Robots have always been a part of our collective narrative (e.g, in science fiction) but in the last few years they’ve been quietly moving out of our imagination, away from our screens, and into our homes. That’s a change… I think that this puts pressure on robotics, and on human-robot interaction to devise modalities by which we may interact. The focus seems, at least to me, on making robots more smart. And that’s a good thing, but I think it scopes the design space in limiting ways. Specifically, I think that if the design space accounts for how/why people want to engage with robots then it opens up the design space to a type of human-robot distribution of intelligence. And, I think that’s the relationship people actually seek with robots.

Each of these is clearly a product of the interactions I have with the students I work with. There are some interesting cross-cutting themes though.

One is instinctual: about looking at problems the other way around. Arguments frequently have a temporal-linear narrative. The last two sort of exhibit this property. Narratives about the expansion of ICTs have them reaching out from the rich, urban, industrialized, to the poor, rural, pre-industrialized. But it can be and is also the other way around. Arguments about intelligence dominate the rhetorics of robotics design, but what about arguments that propose emotional engagement. I’m not saying that dominant arguments/narratives don’t have their place, but I am saying that considering the possibility of what’s not there is well mind-opening.

Another example: decomposition. Software Engineers spend a significant amount of time focused on decomposing a problem into a series of modules that can be worked on individually. But if you think of software as a linear-temporal activity then the process of reassembling them, of creating the whole from the some of the parts, becomes much more visible. And I once argued that it was that process, the process of recomposition, that was why software engineering was so human-centered, it was the need to be able to put things together that drove a significant number of the collaborations required to keep all the individually separated parts in alignment so that they would fit back together again.

Funny I always think that I didn’t pay much/enough attention in John L. King’s class about argument morphology. Perhaps that’s not true. I thought my colleague LP was the one who was paying attention.

Another theme which I hardly know how to express is to do with considering the extremes. I’m not the first to think of that, nor would I claim to be. I have colleagues who have research that takes place in countries like Liberia, or among Atlanta’s urban homeless. We have called this computing at the margins. I feel that a lot of the projects I’m involved in have a feel of take something that works somewhere, in a particular context, and then watch it fail or change in a different context. That certainly describes the Home Networking research. I think it also describes the focus on religion. Religion is ubiquitous and a site for many interesting and diverse uses of ICTs, but it’s not a central topic in HCI. Well it wasn’t, we’re working on its inclusion. But why? Because it’s ubiquitous, because religious values have long shaped the appropriation and rejection of technologies, as well as been some of the major reasons driving adoption. And most importantly because it allows you to look at non-religious use in a different light. It is a new frame, a new perspective from which to re-examine what otherwise gets lost because it is assumed. It also captures my interest in Wellness Informatics. I’m far more interested in the cases where the relationship between the community and the medical establishment and its knowledge is not straightforward, because it reveals the all important hierarchies.

But, what pulls all this together? That’s the question I have going forward.

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