CHI2018

ACM, design, design research, HCI, hci research, Human-Computer Interaction, knowledge production, knowledge tools, research, science, SIGCHI, theory-practice gap

Looking forward to CHI2018 in Montreal, QC, Canada! This year I am humbled to be first author on one full paper and a contributing author on a second full paper. Two full papers! Huzzah! The first author paper examines the concept of the theory-practice gap as a generative metaphor. Here is the abstract:

The theory-practice gap is a well-known concept in HCI research. It provides a way of describing a space that allegedly exists between the theory and practice of the field, and it has inspired many researchers to propose ways to “bridge the gap.” In this paper, we propose a novel interpretation of the gap as a generative metaphor that frames problems and guides researchers towards possible solutions. We examine how the metaphor has emerged in HCI discourse, and what its limitations might be. We raise concerns about treating the gap as given or obvious, which could reflect researchers’ tendencies to adopt a problem solving perspective. We discuss the value of considering problem setting in relation to the theory-practice gap, and we explore Derrida’s strategy of “reversal” as a possible way to develop new metaphors to capture the relationship between theory and practice. (https://doi.org/10.1145/3173574.3174194)

I’m excited to talk about this ongoing project and discussing its potential with other members in the HCI research community. Onward!

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The Capacity for Shock

design, research, Uncategorized, writing

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

knowledge tools, learning, writing

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

design, design research, design theory, HCI, hci research, HCI/d, Human-Computer Interaction, Informatics, theory, theory building, theory development, theory-practice gap

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.