Adolescence as a Metaphor for HCI

Early in the book HCI Theory, Yvonne Rogers takes a few pages to establish that research in the field is rapidly expanding/diversifying and that it’s difficult to pin down just what kind of field HCI is and what kind of research academics who identify as “HCI researchers” do. Somewhere in those first few pages, she characterizes the field as being in its adolescence and there are other bits of language that support this metaphor (e.g. she describes its “growing pains” etc.). It’s not part of her aim to spend time examining the metaphor of adolescence in any kind of depth, but some of the key ideas in the book make exploring the metaphor seems like a good use of time.

Consider the concerns she expresses over the weakening theoretical adequacy of the field. For now let’s assume this means the degree to which HCI has developed theories that explain or describe its core objects of study. Let’s also assume HCI knows/agrees upon what it’s core objects of study are. Is it reasonable to expect that a field born in the eighties to be theoretically adequate? No. But this strikes me as a totally reasonable adolescent expectation!

I don’t think HCI researchers know what their core objects of study are (or should be), but, riffing on the adolescent metaphor, why should it? Is it because we indulge an almost mythical narrative about how life is supposed to unfold? Should we expect to have our core interests “defined” or “figured out” in our adolescence? I don’t think so, but I know that’s a dominant mental model… in Western culture at least.

In adolescence we experience what HCI has been experiencing — a proliferation (in both volume and speed) of information. Tons of different things to study and different ways of studying them. One result of this is the anxious self reflection that our research doesn’t seem to fit or that everyone else seems to have their role and contribution figured out “except me.” And it can be (and obviously is, for some) overwhelming.

I had a good chat with some colleagues recently about trying to pin down a reading list of canonical HCI texts. But the truth is that there probably isn’t (a) canon nor can there be (one). But a canon is exactly what an adolescent craves because a canon provides identity and, through identity, stability. In other words, a canon provides reassurance that when the time comes, we’ll be able to point to it and say, “This is the foundation of our field.” We know who we are and where we come from and maybe even where we’re going. This arc is reflected in how Rogers organizes her book. Just read the abstract and table of contents. She wants to provide this!

And this, again, is what most need when they’re young (myself included).  The world can seem a complex and scary place without the presence of a few useful frames to make sense of it all. And when it all comes at you so fast and in such high volume, maybe it’s quite a reasonable reaction to retreat and reflect. To try and find the core. The foundation. But things only seem/appear/feel dim if we focus on the parts of the metaphor that Rogers’ brings into focus.

Incidentally, the same thing happens with the theory-practice gap metaphor. We focus on what’s not there and as a consequence we never look elsewhere to see what’s going on.

For the adolescent metaphor (and its apparently generalizable ‘identity crisis’) we don’t stop to think, “Huh, well, what comes after adolescence?” Potentially a lot of really excellent deep insights and cool theoretical work! In fact, lots of cool stuff like this happens during adolescence, too. That much is also clear from Rogers’ text even if it paints an unsettling picture to begin with.. So, sure, the short term might — and I’m really emphasizing the might here — might seem like a confusing mix of questions, approaches, and contributions coming so quickly that we feel validated in our concern that the field is spinning out of control. But, that’s what adolescence is for most folks.

There is a ton of interesting theory work going on in the field! We’re developing theories originating in other fields and we’re developing our own! Check out the theory project page for some good citations. I can understand why someone might choose to frame the field in terms of weakening theoretical adequacy even though I disagree with it. Its negative charge is too strong. It strikes me as a “let’s be reactive and protect against this outcome from happening” instead of a “Let’s cultivate the good theory work that’s already happening.” Yvonne Rogers framing can be read as a warning and so I think it skews towards the former. However, the latter is in my view morally superior.

Adolescence brings with it enough anxiety. We don’t need to be fearful of possible future outcomes. That only subtly undermines our ability to do good work now.

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