Be calm or be engaging? Thoughts on UbiComp

Two crucial ideas act as foundation for Mark Weiser’s article The Computer for the 21st Century [1]: First, “the most profound technologies are those that disappear.” (page 94) Second, “whenever people learn something sufficiently well, they cease to be aware of it.” (page 94) I’m going to examine the latter one here.

I am unable to agree with Weiser’s statement, though I can see where he comes from. According to the example of street sign he provides afterward and what he believes as “only when things disappear in this way are we freed to use them”, I can tell that he is considering about those objects that work as “tools” or “media”. He believes that tools can serve people well when they “disappear”. This underlying idea works for objects as street signs because these objects are relatively simple and the corresponding tasks they are trying to achieve is also simple (street signs show information about streets). Thus, this idea may not work when the level of complexity increases for either the object or the task. For instance, color pencil, which is a simple tool for drawing, can be used in several different ways when being operated by an experienced painter, such as burnishing and impression. Under this situation, one actually needs to be aware of the pencil to be able to achieve distinct effects, because how the pencil is used affects the result of drawing directly. I therefore argue that depends on the complexity of both the object and the task, people either increase or decrease their awareness about this object, when they learn something sufficiently well.

The problem is: how shall we take advantage from this different degrees of awareness wisely? In ubiquitous computing, this question can be hard to answer. I would like to say that this really depends on the type of things and what they are trying to achieve, but I have no idea on the criteria of categorizing things, if any. Rogers says technologies can be engaging in UbiComp [2], but she doesn’t offer a good reference for researchers to judge the type of technology here. I can see the possibility for this issue to become even more complicated as UbiComp technologies are used by different people with different cultural backgrounds. Should technology be engaging when its user doesn’t value engagement much? More similar questions can be posted.

I’m not going to try to answer any question here. But I would still love to say again that we, no matter as researchers or practitioners, should place human in a central role when designing technologies. Only by designing technology in a human-centered sense can we be aware of the diversity among both people and situations. There is no universal design. Maybe it doesn’t really matter if technology is calm or engaging. Human matters.

References

[1] Mark Weiser. 1991. The Computer for the 21st Century. Scientific American 265, 94 – 104. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/scientificamerican0991-94

[2] Yvonne Rogers. 2006. Moving on from Weiser’s Vision of Calm Computing: Engaging UbiComp Experiences. In Proceedings of the 8th International conference on Ubiquitous Computing (UbiComp ’06). Springer-Verlag Berlin, Heidelberg, 404-421. DOI:http://dx.doi.org/10.1107/11853565_24

Conflict, in learning and in constructing identity

I would like to explore the notion of “conflict”. In their book Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation Lave and Wenger talk about how learning takes place under various situations and how newcomers are able to become old timers through learning. On page 116, authors introduce conflict as follows:

Conflict is experienced and worked out through a shared everyday practice in which differing viewpoints and common stakes are in interplay.

Here, it is easy for readers to take “differing” and “common” as words referring to differences and commonalities among different individuals. What I’m arguing is that conflict also exists in one individual’s mind. Differing viewpoints and common stakes mentioned in the quote above can be presented in one single individual’s mind when one is growing and learning. Sometimes this kind of conflicts can be supportive, other times they can be truly destructive, in terms of destroying one’s identity.

When I first came to United States, I thought I would engage in great learning experience as a master student in HCI. I looked forward to doing some really design and humanistic stuff. I never doubted my learning ability or my English level. However, it turned out that I was not nearly as correct as I imagined. I thought I could convey my ideas pretty well, but when I couldn’t recall common expressions in group meetings I then started doubting myself as a proper English speaker. What was more, I encountered both minor and major cultural differences here and there in my life. I was afraid to ask questions and to bring confusions to other because of my unfamiliarity to United States. Conflicts, presented as cultural differences, were in fact the gaps between my previous identity and the new identity that I was still struggling to construct at that time. Although people kept telling me there was nothing wrong with me, I later still questioned my identity really hard, because I looked so inferior, drastically different from who I used to be.

Therefore, I appreciate Lave and Wenger since they mention change of identity as part of the learning process in their book. In addition, I feel grateful about their statement on page 51: “Participation is always based on situated negotiation and renegotiation of meaning in the world. This implies that understanding and experience are in constant interaction – indeed, are mutually constitutive.” I could have offered myself a little bit more understanding at that time but I didn’t. Looking back, I guess what I was lacking was also an appropriate level of introduction to even the boundary of participation. How was I able to legitimate peripheral participation when I didn’t know where to start? I wish I had read this book earlier to make myself feel more comfortable and confident.

Therefore, learning can be fulfilling when the learner is welcomed and willing to participate. As I see my own identity changes through my learning process, I keep reminding myself to be more understanding when communicating with other people. Learning is a lifelong journey that we as humans learn to understand ourselves and be with ourselves peacefully under various situations. As people come from different backgrounds with different values, it is fair that everybody has a right to be understood situatedly.

Again, on Situatedness

I have mixed feelings towards Chapter I in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life[1], written by Erving Goffman. This chapter, Performances, talks about different ways people perform under various social conditions. Some of the words truly resonate with my personal experiences, while others are more surprising in a negative sense. Example for the latter one includes how Goffman talks about women on Page 61 (“… but there are many social contexts in which it would be improper for a woman not to misrepresent herself as being more youthful and sexually attractive than is really the case”). I decide to understand these ideas as typical productions of its time, which is more than 60 years earlier.

I’m both impressed and disturbed by this statement on page 57:

“Under our published principles and plighted language we must assiduously hide all the inequalities of our moods and conduct, and this without hypocrisy, since our deliberate character is more truly ourself than is the flux of our involuntary dreams.”

Even if Goffman explicitly states “this without hypocrisy”, I am still able to sense the uneasiness of putting on one or more social masks. This is because I’m the kind of person who often feels anxious of my own performance when there are people around. Thoughts revolve in my mind are like “did I just say something improper”, “oh I hope I didn’t make that gesture”, “I really have to be aware of my behavior next time”, etc. This anxiety can be intensified in strange environment or when facing somebody with more power or higher social status. However, what comes together with anxiety is a longing for being my true self under any kind of situation, and then hopefully being accepted and loved as who I truly am. I believe I’m not the only person who dreams of this.

Technology and HCI have a saying here. They contribute to people’s being themselves by supporting new technologies that allow people to reflect and improve, such as apps for focusing and fitness tracker. But this go beyond simply developing apps or devices. Allowing people to reveal themselves truly without fear and anxiety means technology should be less intimidating and more inclusive. This again goes back to the idea I mention throughout this entire semester: situatedness. To design and develop technology with more empathy requires a close look on different persons. How do they behavior under different situations? How can technologies support people more situately?

Why I am so much into situatedness is because I think this world can be improved by people’s awareness and acceptance to each other as different individuals. I strongly believe that technology has something to do here. Therefore, I am responsible of taking care of this as a researcher, no matter how little I can actually contribute.

[1] Erving Goffman. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Anchor Books, New York, NY.

Sense-making Process in HCI

One of the most apparent themes emerges from Kari Kuutti’s writing about activity theory[1] is sense-making. In fact, the field of HCI has struggled a lot in various sense-making processes, from the very beginning when this field was forming. Questions are asked: What does HCI mean when standing in between human and computer? How can HCI make sense of human and computer? What theories and methodologies should be applied? What are the possible outcomes and contributions of HCI research? Activity theory tries to answer these questions by providing a list of terms and their relationship in a framework, and then realizes this framework under a specific environment to get a better understanding of how human achieves a goal by mediating different tools and leveraging the relationships among elements inside the environment.

Therefore, “a specific environment” becomes the key phrase here. To be specific also means to be situated, to admit the uniqueness of a setting that embeds a goal or task or problem. This characteristic of activity theory echoes with other theories developed around late 1980s and early 1990s, such as distributed cognition, situated action, ethnomethodology, etc. The inclusion of external environment as an influential factor for understanding human cognition marks a significant change of sense-making approach in HCI. Human actor was no longer seen as an isolated system with comparable structure of computer. Instead, because external environment has been taken into consideration, the effect it can possibly bring to human is also introduced to the sense-making process.

I am deeply moved by this idea: Meaning can only be constructed under a concrete situation. It is dangerous for both researchers and practitioners in HCI, especially theorists, to simply grab a theory and try to derive meanings from it, as theory looks much more reliable and stable than the changing environment and human mind. Nevertheless, meanings don’t come from theory. They originate from the application of theory under a particular context. While theory offers means, context defines the environment. Meaning is the ends we can reach by beginning from a question and passing one or several proper theories in a particular context. The sense-making process has been simplified here. Real-world issues can only be more complex.

Why should we treat sense-making process so carefully? A short answer is that technologies have never been so massively exposed to our lives. Thus, it is certain that the changes technology can bring to us will affect the way we make sense of ourselves and how we understand the world. That’s why we need to understand the effect of technology situatedly. I’m happy to see researchers in HCI has digested this view and so many topics come into being because of this idea. Examples are social computing, ubiquitous computing, ICTD, etc. However, I still remain open about how HCI will improve or adjust its sense-making approach in the future, as change is happening all the time.

Reference

[1] Kari Kuutti. 1995. Activity Theory as a Potential Framework for Human-Computer Interaction Research. Context and Consciousness: Activity Theory and Human-Computer Interaction (Nov. 1995), 9-22.The MIT Press.