Wednesday, October 6, 2004

Where's Chris? (on reflexive design)

Chris Heathcote has hacked together a feature on his website which reports his current position via his mobile phone. Yes, that means anyone can find out where Chris is at any given time. Of course, when Matt checked he was several kilometres into the Baltic from Helsinki, but right now he appears to be getting on or off a tram, in the rain. What I find curious is how knowing this immediately makes me think of Chris shielding me from the London rain this past spring, and I smile. It's such a lovely way to draw out a series of movements and memories in space and time.

And I agree with Matt - Chris' experiment is valuable to anyone working on ubicomp or locative media. As he explains:

"A bigger question is why publish this information in public. I must admit I'm not overly happy with giving everyone access to this data, but then again, this kind of service is the near-future that designers like myself have been preaching for years. It will cause privacy problems, it will cause social embarassment, it may change the way I live. Unless I try it myself, I will never know what unexpected consequences publishing this information will have. Self-ethnography is not scientifically valid, but I think it's one of the best ways of empathising with the problems new technology creates. If I won't use it, I shouldn't expect you to either."

Hear hear! Empathy for users should be part of the ethical and responsible design and development of any new technology. I've seen increasing interest in reflective design, which is a great start, but the anthropologist in me says that reflexivity would be even better - and more in keeping with Chris' self-awareness and empathy. Reflexive design practices would acknowledge the role of the designer in creating both users and technologies. It would force designers to be accountable for their assumptions and interpretations of social interaction, and the consequences of these positions. And it would encourage greater reciprocity and empathetic cooperation between designers and users.

One more thing: self-ethnography is also called auto-ethnography and it is considered valid research for a wide variety of problems. Its focus is on subjectivity and lived experienced, usually told as a first-person narrative. While able to slip into the worst sort of navel-gazing, the best examples of auto-ethnography draw out the kinds of self-awareness, empathy and reflexivity mentioned above. The edited volume Auto/ethnography: Rewriting the Self and the Social is an excellent introduction to the field.

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