Beki Grinter

Posts Tagged ‘vision’

Vision, History, Brand: HCI and Ubicomp

In discipline, HCI on September 26, 2011 at 9:33 am

At Ubicomp 2011 (last week) there was a panel on Ubiquitous Computing, on its past—particularly its founding vision—and on the future. Panelists presented several different perspectives, ranging from a focus on the pragmatic (i.e., if ubiquitous computing has arrived is it time to declare it a success and cancel the Ubicomp conference series), to charting the next vision (one that would be more culturally relativistic, my everyday not being similar to many others that exist globally), and to using some of the technologies of ubiquitous computing for new societal challenges (particularly disaster response and prediction).

Having just reviewed the panel materials, I then turned to Interactions magazine and read a piece by Ben Shneiderman. The argument is that a number of new terms have recently surfaced in HCI such as human-centered computing. His position is that we should hold on to the name HCI, even if the scope of our endeavors have broadened because to lose HCI is to lose the association with our successful past. He coined the terms micr0-HCI (a continued focus on innovations in the human-computer interface experience) and macro-HCI (which I read as domain exploration and carving out new applications for HCI). And ended by saying that it was really all HCI anyway.

To my mind what happened at Ubicomp and this proposal for the future of HCI are related. I read the latter in the context of the former. The argument for HCI is to hold onto the history because it’s served us well in the past, and we should continue to leverage it while moving forward. But, the very presence of the panel at Ubicomp was really asking whether a historical vision can move the discipline forward, and if so, at what cost?

Pragmatically, I asked myself, has HCI been so successful that it is time to declare the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (colloquially known as CHI) done? If we did, and if we created a new vision what would it be? With HCI, given its size and scope, I think we could ask further whether there would be a single vision holding the people of HCI together, or would it make more sense to follow different paths? (If a vision is a means to create common ground, to provide ways of talking about what the enterprise constitutes).

What I liked about the panel at Ubicomp is that the idea of it suggested a time to reflect on what has passed and what is desirable going forward. What troubles me about macro- and micr0-HCI is that its a solution that under explores the questions that lye beneath it? So is it time to take a step back in order to look forward? Where are we going and why?

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Pondering Change

In academic management, research on August 30, 2010 at 4:37 pm

Recently I attended the GVU retreat. Early on, the Director presented the GVU vision. It’s presented as an interplay between technology and people. The argument is as follows: from a technologists perspective, technology changes rapidly while people remain at a constant. The GVU argument is that people do change, in relation to technology, and it’s that space that GVU is pursuing.

So, let me start by saying that this post is not really about the vision itself, but about reflecting on the vision from the research perspective. Visions, including this one, do a particular type of work. They have to be broad, inclusive, easy to understand and take up. This vision does that nicely. And GVU’s success in part is attributable to this good vision.

Vision = good.

So, do people change or not?

Evolution suggests slowly at best. But setting evolution aside, I am reminded of some research I did a long time ago now. In the late 1990s, I studied teenagers using IM and SMS technologies. They had been rapidly adopted among teenagers and I wanted to understand why. The answers were that these technologies were allowing them to do a variety of things despite the constraints that they faced.

The question of change came up in this research though, well one version of it: what are the new activities that these technologies enable? And the truth was that it was hard to answer that question. What we saw a lot of in our data was that technology seemed to provide a new mechanism for doing things that had long existed. Teens wanted to text each other to make arrangements to meet up, to share gossip, and to get help with homework. But teenagers have always wanted to meet up, share gossip, and get help with homework. Technologies for these purposes seemed like new means to get help with old, unchanged, problems. Although you could argue that the process of using these technologies was changing how and when they got access to each other, a sort of time-space shifting.

The goodnight message we concluded was a new practice. The goodnight message is the SMS that is shared among two close friends (perhaps dating, perhaps not). It was the last message sent at night. Even that we felt might not be so novel, it seemed to mirror other behaviors, chiefly among those who could say goodnight to each other last thing at night. And of course, you might say that this is not surprising, practices are very embedded. Just because we get new technology, like the web, that allows us to bank from home, doesn’t mean that we’re going to throw away the banking system as a whole.

So, I’m not sure that I agree that humans use technology to change their experiences by leveraging its ability to facilitate novel practices. On the other hand, I think that it does change the circumstances in which practices can occur, it reconfigures the mixes, then yes, I think I can concur. I think it just depends what change means. And to me, naively change often implies a complete shift from what has been, and I am not sure that technology changes people like that.

Addendum: just re-reading Burrell and Morgan and being reminded that change, at least in some perspectives is far more radical than anything I’ve proposed above. Change implies destablization, overthrow, at least in some perspectives. So, again I guess I don’t think that the majority of technology does that, perhaps it could do that, but not as it is designed. Perhaps not surprisingly the majority of technology we use seems to me to reinforce the status quo, at least from this perspective of radical change.

Perhaps other people have a better answer. But, I think it’s a question worth asking.

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.