Monday, November 29, 2010

The new reality of interaction design

Recently we have seen some amazing new technologies entering the scene of interaction design and HCI. First came the Wii, then the iPhone and apps, and now the Kinect. Just in a few years the technology that can make up the interface of artifacts and systems have radically changed. We are moving into an era of highly physical, tangible, and haptic interfaces while at the same time seeing technology that makes the physical and tangible interfaces disappear.

All these new technologies are radically expanding the design space for interaction design. In the "old" days (just a few years back) almost any kind of interaction was all about the screen, keyboard, and mouse interface on a computer and more than often in relation to the web. Now, the same design includes questions about what device to use (desktops, laptops, iPads, iPhones, cell phones, cars, buildings, environments, appliances) or maybe develop a new special device manifested in any material, shape, and form, and also choices about what interactivity style to use (touch screen, voice, movements, etc).

This development makes interaction design broader, more complex, more technical, less technical, more physical, less physical, less predictable, etc. As if these more technical aspects are not enough, any interaction design also has to include all possible questions about potential social and collaborative aspects, social media, etc.

All this makes any interaction design a daunting task, and a question of systems. Any designer has to struggle with if the design should be intertwined with other artifacts and systems. Any design of a car today has to be done in relation to the design of other digital artifacts, such as, smart phones and iPods. Any building has to be designed from an interaction perspective in relation to all the interactive artifacts that will be hosted or "living" in the house. At the same time, any small device has to be designed to fit the interactive environment it will move around in.

Interaction design is apparently not getting easier. The degrees of freedom is increasing, and so is the number of design choices. Interaction design is not something anymore that can be approached from just one perspective. It is no longer a question if interaction design is a multidisciplinary activity. Interaction design requires a multidisciplinary competence. Of course, this is not a competence that any individual can possess, it can only be a matter of team work.

But, and here is maybe the point, until now it has been possible to have design teams where each member brought his or her own specific competence to the table but did not really participate in the design process. The engineer only made sure that the final design was feasible, the graphic designer only cared about the visual design, etc. With the increasing complexity, all competences about such aspects as interactivity, visuals, functions, structures, information, content, construction,  etc. have to be actively involved in the design process.  To make this happen requires that everyone who represents a certain competence has to on a fundamental level understand the design process and know how to work in a designerly way.

I find this development to be fascinating and challenging. It will be quite interesting to see what companies will be able to accept the challenge to develop an understanding of what such a designerly approach requires in a real sense and also able to make it happen. It will also be interesting to see what kind of new educational programs will be developed in answer to this challenge.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Clay Shirky "Cognitive Surplus -- creativity and generosity in a connected age"

Clay Shirky's latest book "Cognitive Surplus--creativity and generosity in a connected age" takes on the same topic as his previous books, namely how new technology changes our society when it comes to who has the power to be an information consumer versus a producer. The main claim in the book is that we (the people) have an enormous amount of "cognitive surplus", that is, time that we at the moment are not necessarily using for anything important, so there is a surplus of cognitive "power" that can be harvested. Shirky's prime example of the surplus is the amount of time people spend watching TV. This time is, according to the author, time that could be used for other purposes. The book is mainly a long parade of examples of people who has managed to use the new social technology to do things that only a few decades ago would have been impossible, or only possible for those with power or money. The examples are all exciting even though they are in several cases quite well known.

The book is very easy to read. Straightforward with clear examples and easy to follow reasoning. At the same time, after a while I got a bit bored. The examples became quite similar and they function mostly as confirmations of the overall argument the author is making. Taken together, the examples make a strong case and they are convincing. But, there are some things I would have liked to see more of. For instance, it would have been interesting with some more detailed examples and analysis of failed attempts to use the new technology. It might be difficult to find those examples, but at the same time they could provide us with some other insights. I suspect that most attempts to use the internet in the way described in the book do lead to failures, that is, not to any substantial self-organization or growth in participation or impact.

In relation to that it might be interesting with a historic perspective (since the author contrasts today with before internet). Even during times without the new technology, people were able to organize and influence society, for instance, through community involvements leading to labor unions, religious congregations, ideological parties, etc. So, without technology how was that possible, how could they organize, did they have even more "cognitive surplus" in those days since these attempts probably took much more time and energy than they would today (at least according to the author). I am not sure how well such a historic comparison would work out, but since the author only focuses on successful examples, it might be interesting to see how they are  similar or not to historical successful examples.

Another aspect of the phenomenon that I miss in the book is the dark or evil side of the same "revolution". Even though the author touches on that here and there, I was waiting for a more in depth description of some examples. This is not a "tool" that only can be used for good. It can, and has, been used for anti-societal purposes. At least some chapter about that would have been interesting.

Anyhow, overall the book is valuable, especially to those who has not payed that much attention to how internet is changing things but is realizing that something is going on. To those who is more aware of the field and is engaged in the discourse, the book do not really offer that much when it comes to new insights.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Hofstadter, Dennett and the "rough ground"

I have always been fascinated by philosophy about the mind and about human thinking. A great moment for me was when the book "Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid" by Douglas Hofstadter was published in 1979. The book was so different from anything else I had read in philosophy or any other academic field. The writing was so clear! It was direct, challenging, and provocative. Hofstadter took on questions about the mind in a logical and beautiful (!) way. The book made me continue to read other philosophers and particularly Daniel Dennett.

The book "The Mind's I" (1981) by Dennet and Hofstadter had probably an even greater impact on my thinking and I was overwhelmed by the rhetoric, the argumentation, and the logical reasoning. Over the years I have continued to read Dennett, maybe less for the ideas themselves (even though they are interesting) but more for the style, the logic, and the reasoning. I have always strived to be able to argue in a similar fashion in my own works, sadly with little result.

What Dennett and Hofstadter (and others) are so good at, is to reduce the complexity of an issue to a well defined logical question or distinction. They make questions "clean" and clear. They operate with surgical precision. They remove the fluff and the unnecessary, they unfold and make visible what is covered, and reveal what is confused by our intuitive ways of understanding things. They work with logical definitions and mostly with thought experiments. It is a wonderfully skilled exercise in precise definitions and argumentation. At the same time it is salutation to the power of thinking. I was charmed and impressed and enjoyed reading their works. But over the years I have realized that even if my own  work to some extent has to do with how people think and also with concepts such as intention and reasoning, I have never used these theories in my work.

I have on my desk the latest of Hofstadter's books "I am a strange loop" from 2007. I have read parts of the book and while reading the last chapter the Epilogue, I realize that the text does not provoke me, challenge me, or intrigue me, in the way I expected. I do find the reading enjoyable. But I find it difficult to care about the "problem" that Hofstadter is struggling with.  Why is that? I deliberately added the notion of the "rough ground" in the name of this post. Dealing with design and with creating real thing in the real world, struggling with issues that all have to do with richness, messiness, complexity, all manifested more or less physically in the world of the ultimate particular has influenced my interest to be directed towards ideas and theories about human thinking that addresses that richness. So, while I still find these thinkers (Dennett and Hofstadter) to be exciting on a personal level, I realize that others better serve thinking about the "rough ground".

Sunday, November 21, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Graham Harman "Prince of Networks -- Bruno Latour and Metaphysics"

As someone who has a lifelong interest in what could serve as a philosophical  foundation for design, I have for many years admired the work of Bruno Latour. I have read most of his books and have seen him as one of the most important contemporary philosophers. However, Latour has not received the same recognition from the professional philosophical community. He is by many seen as a sociologist and not as a philosopher.

The book "Prince of Networks -- Bruno Latour and Metaphysics" by Graham Harman makes a great case in presenting  the ideas of Bruno Latour as a philosopher and someone who actually contributes to foundational metaphysical questions. Harman's book is basically divided into two parts where the first is a wonderful presentation of Latour's writings and ideas. In the second part Harman elaborates on his own philosophical thinking which of course rests solidly on Latour's, but deviates in some crucial and important regards. I must say that I really enjoyed the first part of the book which is an excellent presentation and explanation of Latour's ideas, while I did not to the same degree enjoyed the second part and that for two reasons. I will briefly comment on those two reasons before I write a bit more about Latour and the first part.

In the second part of the book Harman takes on a point where he deviates from the original ideas of Latour. The particular question is about the notion of 'object' and if objects should be seen as solely existing due to their relations of if they do have some internal or 'real' core. Harman argues that objects have to be seen as having some kind of 'real' core and he develops some arguments for this. I find this whole enterprise to be a mistake and is not a small deviation from Latour, instead I see it a major departure. It is difficult to see why Harman calls 'sensual' objects, which he distinguishes from 'real', as less real in a Latourian sense. It seems to me that Harman gets caught up in the issue of an object's 'real' core to the degree that he falls into the trap of dividing things into real versus made-up, or natural versus human. To me the prime example used by Harman where he writes about the difference between real cats and a made-up "monster x" is a mistake. The "monster x" could have a stronger existence and could even develop  internal relations with enough work (as Latour states it) would be put in.  It would take this blog post too far to fully develop this argument. Anyhow, the other issue I have with the second apart of the book is that becomes way to limited in scope and approach. Harman gets into highly detailed and internal arguments with other philosophers who subscribe to the same overall philosophy as he. The texts sounds in parts like a reconstruction of a workshop where some like-minded thinkers have really gone wild into their own little field of ideas. So, to someone who is more interested in the larger issues, the second part of the  book becomes less exciting.

So, back to Latour. After reading Harman, my respect and understanding of Latour has grown and I realize that there are so many aspects of his philosophy that makes sense from a design theoretical perspective. For instance, Latour's extraordinary strong claim about the "absolute concreteness" of objects or in Latour language "actant" clearly resonates with the notion of the "ultimate particular" that we have developed in our book "The Design Way". Harman summarizes Latour's idea about concreteness like this "Since every actant is entirely concrete, we do not find its reality in some lonely essence or chaste substrate, but always in an absolutely specific place in the work, with completely specific alliances at any given moment" (p 16). This is the reality for a designer. The design does not exist as abstract or universal idea or "thing", the design exists only in a given time and place and is what it is--an absolute particular. Its constitution and quality and existence is a result of its relationships to all other objects and actants.

Another aspect of Latour that makes sense for design is the notion that objects are created  by creating alliances, and by building relationships. All this, is for Latour a question of hard work. To make sure that a design will exist and "win" (another Latourian term) is a matter of it will connect to its surrounding objects, which in design terms is all about composition.

All the ideas of Latour that Harman eloquently presents in the first half of the book are possible to incorporate in a philosophy or theory of design. Of course, reading Harman about Latour should be complemented by reading the original, and my two Latour favorites are "We have never been modern" and "Pandora's Hope"-- two wonderful books.

I would really like to write much more about this book and about Latour, but I have to stop. I wish that we could start to see a more serious interest in Latour and his philosophy. The interest that has dominated so far is a quite shallow and uninteresting "use" of his ideas in the form of Actor Network Theory.  I find a lot of the work done under the name of ACT to be so far from Latour and so simplified and distorted that it has almost nothing to do with the original ideas. To use Latour's ideas methodologically without a deep understanding of the philosophical foundation leads to serious misunderstandings of the ideas and of their potential applications in daily research endeavors. Instead we could use Latour as a way to support a designerly perspective and to give it a strong philosophical foundation.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

"The Dark Side of Creativity", book comment

One of our PhD students (Samantha, thanks!) pointed me the other day to a new book with the intriguing title "The Dark Side of Creativity". The book is edited by Cropley, D, Cropley, A, Kaufman, J, & Runco, M. and contains 20 chapters on the notion of creativity.

I need to point out that this blog post is not a book review since I have only read the first two chapters plus the last one, so, I will restrict my comments and not review the book as such.

It is obvious that the title of the book is intriguing and inviting for anyone who is dealing with studies of any kind of creative human activities, which for me of course is design. The editors make the observation that creativity is in our society seen as a completely positive "thing",  in some quarters almost revered in religious terms. This fact is in itself enough for a book that in serious fashion takes on the potential "dark side" of creativity. This is also the reason for the book according to the editors.

It was interesting to see how the discussion (in the few chapters I have so far read) relates to the notion of "The Evil of Design" that I and Harold Nelson develop in our book "The Design Way". It seems, in the chapters I have read and in our own writings, that an examination of creativity as an activity in itself,  leads to the understanding that creativity is a quite simple cognitive "tool" that can be used for any purpose. To cope with this one has to bring in intention as a central concept in the analysis. This is also the reason why Harold and I did not discuss creativity in our book. Instead we focused on intention and judgment which are the two concepts that do have a direct and concrete impact on the potential good or evil of a human intervention in the world.

Anyway, the book do ask some good questions and I had to reflect on how I define and think about creativity. For anyone who has any kind of interest in creativity this book opens up some unusual perspectives and is also written by people who has a expertise and experience in studying creativity.

The Design Way, 2nd Edition

Some of you may know about the book "The Design Way -- Intentional Change in an Unpredictable World" that I wrote with my good friend and colleague Harold Nelson. Well, we have since it was published in 2003 struggled with our publisher who has been unusually difficult to work with. So, we are at the moment working on a 2nd Edition of the book. We also have a contract with MIT Press for the new edition, which will make things so much better. Now we just have to make sure that Harold and I  will be able to develop the new version, if so, it may be published in 2011. A couple of  new chapters, some parts removed, and some changes. Looking forward....

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