Conferences

I look forward to the day when more conferences in my fields of interest offer alternative forms of presentation. I recently received an email from the IASDR conference, which will be held later this year in Cincinnati. Part of the email states that:

“To allow all world citizens to participate in the IASDR2017 conference, every effort will be made to accommodate alternative forms of presentation such as recorded video or real-time online video conferencing.”

I was really pleased when I read this, and my hope is that others will make similar efforts. No one should miss out on the opportunity to present research because of backwards policy..

Fear

When I think of the charge to write what I’m afraid of, these are two things I fear: (1) failing to pass a plateau and (2) mistrusting of my own past experience. I have passed plateaus before, so why do I disbelieve that I can/will do it again?

I started meditating a few months ago, and, as with any new practice, there was a period where I think I enjoyed tremendous progress. I was calmer and more focused throughout the day. I was effective at noticing when I started to daydream or worry and refocusing on whatever task I happened to be working on at the time. And I was enjoying some deeper and more refreshing personal interactions with friends and family.

But like many (if not all) new practices that I start, this one also proved to have an initial period of reaffirming progress followed by a gradual plateau-ing. I still notice when I get distracted but less so than when I started. And re-focusing can be a bit of a slog rather than a simple breathing exercise followed by a gentle calming of the mind.  And this aspect of it makes me afraid. And the fact that it makes me afraid also makes me afraid.

 

On the Amazon Echo

Note: This is an old post that I guess I never published. Hence the 2016 Labor Day reference.

 

Over labor day weekend (2016) I had some trouble with Alexa. But that’s all I know. I don’t know anything about the cause or anything about possible solutions. Here’s what happened.

On Sunday morning I asked Alexa to tell me the weather. The blue ‘listening’ light appeared and bounced around for a few moments longer than usual and then.. nothing. No ‘flickering’ lights to indicate that she was processing my request and no telling of the weather. What the heck?

And then an ominous red ring of light pulsed a few times and Alexa spoke. Something about how the echo had lost its connection followed by silence followed by “I’m having trouble understanding right now, please try again later,” or something along those lines.

No matter what I requested (or when I requested it) this same sequence of events played out so many times during the day Sunday and Monday. And I have no idea why! I opened the Alexa app on my phone to see if there might be anything helpful there. Nope. Nothing. The app gave me every indication that the Echo should be working. While it was frustrating enough that things were going wrong, it was even more frustrating that the most straightforward way I had of finding out what those things might be (the app) contradicted the fact that there was even a problem.

I use the Echo mostly for banal stuff like getting the news, weather, playing music, and adding items to digital shopping lists. I do have it paired with a smart thermostat, though. What if the Echo were an integral part of how I manage my day-to-day life and what if I had it paired with other smart devices (lights, a fridge, a car). It would be like multiple colleagues being out of the office without having giving any reason thus requiring you to change your schedule and take on a bunch of tasks that you no longer do. Not cool.

I don’t know what the takeaway is here: feedback is important, it’s better to know than not know, the Amazon Echo gives poor feedback, nodal point amenities (I’m making this up this stuff as I go along..) can make day-to-day life just a little bit better but when they fail they can induce anxiety and stress. Somehow I think this relates to the concept of faceless interaction. In the middle of the day on Sunday, staring at that broken cylindrical speaker in my kitchen, I wished, oh how I wished, for a screen.

Death and Dying

My in-laws live on a farm, and one of their horses loves llamas. For as long as I’ve known him he’s had the same llama companion. But last year the llama died. And my daughter asked where he went.

My mother-in-law didn’t know what to tell her. When she told me about this and asked me what I thought she should say, I was staring at a few bookshelves full of children’s books. Animals. Potty training. Imagination. Feelings. Lots of different topics. Lots of different purposes. Letters. Numbers. First words. And others. But none about death or dying.

And as I thought about it, it never occurred to me to buy books for her on the topic. Why would I? Why read a book about death or dying to a kiddo? They don’t need to be exposed to that. Do they? Should death be something that we only talk about in times of grief?

One of our dogs died last year. And so did a grandparent. So why not talk about death? In not talking about it do I just perpetuate it as a sort-of taboo concept? Maybe reading about it from an early age encourages thinking about it more deeply and relating to it differently.

Maybe she’ll have a richer understanding and vocabulary for coping with it when she inevitably does confront it. I don’t know. But I don’t think that death or dying as concepts ought to be avoided even if they seem untimely.

 

The Capacity for Shock

One of the first things I read following the 2016 election was an article called Autocracy: Rules for Survival. It’s a great, short read. And it introduced me to Masha Gessen’s terrific writing. I especially like her piece on Arguing the Truth.

One of the rules for survival has to do with maintaining the capacity for shock. This means that when horrible things happen it’s still possible to gawk in disbelief instead of sigh, shrug, and accept what’s happening as a new normal.

And ideally, the shock/disbelief is generative of some other action.

But acting on the basis of shock or disbelief requires first the capacity for both. And in an environment marked by a proliferation of shocking things, what are methods/tools that can be used to undermine the law of diminishing returns? In other words, how do we make sure that we don’t lose our capacity for shock through repeated exposure to shock?

On Critical Thinking Skills

I saw a Tweet the other day that said something along the lines of “If only people had critical thinking skills, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

I disagree.

Critical thinking skills interact with other things like world views, personal philosophies, religious beliefs, etc., and all of these things influence how critical thinking skills are deployed. Thus, I can deploy them to argue for marginalization or oppression. Or I can deploy them to argue that marginalization and oppression are not occurring somewhere where they are (and have been occurring) for many many many years, like American public schools (cf. The Autobiography of Malcolm X or the Mis-Education of the Negro).

This means that focusing on critical thinking skills as a kind of magic bullet to get us out of the current predicament is by itself a dead end.

This does not mean that critical thinking skills have no important role to play. They do.

Here’s an example of how they do: I suspect that critical thinking skills enable me to notice that children’s books generally feature male protagonists. The mouse in If You Give a Mouse a Cookie is a dude. Corduroy (the bear with green overalls) is a boy.

These are just a couple examples. There are many others. So many in fact that some of my friends’ children have taken to identifying characters as male even if there is no gender assignment made in the book and there is no obvious way (e.g. blue or pink clothes, masculine/feminine features) to make this assignment.

Critical thinking skills can help clarify that we actively design future generations’ world views simply by reading to them at bedtime. And yet at the same time these thinking skills are shaped by world views.

Critical thinking skills can be effective tools for good, but they have to come from a standpoint that values a particular meaning of good (e.g. diversity, equality, care, etc.).

Absent those values, then I’m afraid critical thinking skills will be no more useful than anything else we might have at our disposal..

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.

About The Theory-Practice Gap

I’ve been spending some time looking through the CHI best paper award winners from the past five years — all the while continuing to think about the theory-practice gap. And now I have a question. How is it that we distinguish between theorists and practitioners? Who is creating the knowledge that seems to lack practical utility or accessibility?

Just looking at the best papers, one might be struck by the volume of publications using theory, models, frameworks, etc. to do design work. And judging from the author credentials, there is quite a lot of industry collaboration, which makes me think that practitioners (if an academic/industry credential could be casually used to make this distinction) are not only using theory but they are in some cases actively contributing to it.

The theory-practice gap is simple, useful metaphor in the sense that it has guided researchers to ask interesting questions and pursue intriguing and insightful projects — think about things like intermediate-level knowledge objects — but the metaphor has been used for quite a long time (in HCI and in other disciplines) and I’m curious to know whether it has outlived its relevance in spite of its apparent utility.

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