Wednesday, August 3, 2005

Users, activities, practices etc.

For the past month or so, I've been working with a brilliant psychologist on a design project and trying to understand the privilege accorded to psychology in human-computer interaction. My colleague is perhaps the archetypal user-centred researcher and designer, and we share many common assumptions and interests. But we also come from different academic cultures and we bring fundamentally different ideas to the table.

My interest in human-computer interaction began with an interest in how humans were being defined. In broader terms, I was interested in the cultures and practices of HCI and design. Very quickly I learned that psychology and/or mental models were the dominant paradigms; Kuhn's normal science in action. So, from my perspective, activity theory is always already part of user-centred design, and vice versa. They are part of the same tree: a mental or cybernetic species. Whether modelling users or activities, the models are systemic, relatively stable, quantifiable, hierarchical, discrete, and often predictive. More importantly, they make it difficult to imagine other ways of understanding.

In practical terms, this plays out in our design work as follows: Anthropologist comes up with ideas; Psychologist gets the facts. Psychologist operationalises; anthropologist theorises. I think, at their core, these divisions are rooted in differences between, and attitudes towards, quantitative and qualitative knowledge. In many ways the tensions, both imaginary and real, are quite productive. In other ways the relationships are rather limiting. For example, to be making these divisions at all attests to the power of the paradigm to limit our field of vision. In fact, as in many other contexts, it's quite easy to take on and enjoy only the expected roles. But what if I don't want to be that anthropologist? What if she doesn't want to be that psychologist? What do designers mean when they demand the "practical application" of ideas? Do they assume ideas are inherently other than practical or applicable?

But back to HCI, CSCW, user-centred design and activity theory, I see only functional, structural, behavioural and developmental models. People - both in who they are and what they do - are reduced to something programmable. And I think this has something to do with why computing technologies ultimately lack the pervasiveness of other technologies and the historical success of "everyday objects". They are, by definition, restrictive. I know that sounds counter-intuitive in these heady times of DIY techno-media democracy, but think about it. Can computing technologies be anything other than systems and networks? The best it seems we can do is to build open systems; ones that adapt and respond. The humanities and social sciences follow suit, although I hope we'll one day concede that offering up assemblages and flows as alternatives to systems and networks is really not all that imaginative.

Yes, I actually believe that we're intellectually impoverished - especially when it comes to something as crucial and banal as technology in everyday life. The sense of hope that pervades technological (sub)cultures is often utopian and future-oriented, but seems to do little to comfort us during the minutes and hours before we go to sleep tonight. I mean, really, where is that sense of humanity?

While I would certainly advocate a focus on what people do, rather than who they are, I would want to be clear about what I think we can know about what people do, and what value can be assigned to that knowledge. For example, Bonnie Nardi explains that "Activity Theory emphasizes that human activity is mediated by tools in a broad sense. Tools are created and transformed during the development of the activity itself and carry with them a particular culture - historical remains from their development. So, the use of tools is an accumulation and transmission of social knowledge. Tool use influences the nature of external behavior and also the mental functioning of individuals." In other words, the relationship between people and computers is one of feedback and iteration, the same processes valued in user-centred design. If early computing design put the object itself at the centre of the process, then contemporary design puts people and/or activities at the centre. In both cases, relationships are hierarchical, or at least centripetal.

Now this sense of tools or object-orientedness should be distinguished from notions of material sociality that come from social studies of science and technology. For example, Jyri's post on Knorr-Cetina's lab studies got a lot of blog attention, but I didn't see any discussion of how she defines 'tools'. For example, integral to her argument is that a scientist is rendered an instrument of measurement just as an instrument of measurement is rendered a scientist. In other words, 'tools' simultaneously comprise both subjects and objects. They don't successively act upon each other; they are always already each other. This kind of thinking departs from the more familiar "unreflexive, over-rationalized and objectivist theoretical and explanatory analytics" associated with activity theory and even ethnomethodology and related practice theories in sociology.

But now, in my mind's eye, I see Andrew smiling wickedly and asking "So how does all this help me design something good?" and I repond, also with a sly grin, "It should help you understand the cultural contexts in which you work, and that understanding should help you imagine and build other worlds." It should point at where we've come from and where we're trying to go. It should shine a light on openings and closings. It should make us question what we want and what we do. It should make us probe what is possible but it should not tell us what to do.

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