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Feature: Paul Dourish offers a philosophical re-examination of HCI

Source: Where the Action Is, 25 October 2001

In an extract from his new book, 'Where the Action is', Paul Dourish argues that trends towards social and tangible computing can be seen as part of a wider movement to situate and embody interaction.

In his new book, 'Where the Action is', Paul Dourish argues that trends towards social and tangible computing can be seen as part of a wider movement to situate and embody interaction. Below, Paul presents a summary of that argument. If you would like to participate in this re-evaluation, please email <editor@usability.com> or contribute a comment for publication and your thoughts will be posted.

"You might think that studies of how people use computers must always have been built around a model of the world that gives pride of place to interaction, but in fact HCI has traditionally been built on a procedural foundation. HCI, from its very beginning, took on the trappings of the traditional computational model, and set out its account of the world in terms of plans, procedures, tasks, and goals. In contrast, the model of HCI I set out here is one that places interaction at the center of the picture.  By this I mean that it considers interaction not only as what is being done, but also as how it is being done. Interaction is the means by which the work is accomplished, dynamically and in context.

My reason for viewing the history of interaction as a gradual expansion of the range of human skills and abilities that can be incorporated into interacting with computers is that I believe is that it provides a valuable perspective on activities such as tangible and social computing. In particular, it shows that these two areas draw on the same sets of skills and abilities. Tangible and social computing are aspects of one and the same research program.

First, I want to argue that social and tangible interaction are based on the same underlying principles. This is not to deny their obvious differences, both in the approaches they adopt and the ways in which they apply to the design of interactive systems. Nonetheless, they share some important elements in common. In particular, they both exploit our familiarity and facility with the everyday world - whether that is a world of social interaction or physical artifacts. This role of the everyday world here is more than simply the metaphorical approach used in traditional graphical interface design.

It's not simply a new way of using ideas like desktops, windows, and buttons to make computation accessible. Instead of drawing on artifacts in the everyday world, it draws on the way the everyday world works or, perhaps more accurately, the ways we experience the everyday world.  Both approaches draw on the fact that the ways in which we experience the world are through directly interacting with it, and that we act in the world by exploring the opportunities for action that it provides to us - whether through its physical configuration, or through socially constructed meanings. In other words, they share an understanding that you cannot separate the individual from the world in which that individual lives and acts.

This comes about in contrast to a narrowly cognitive perspective which, for some time, dominated the thinking of computer system designers and which still persists to a considerable degree. In contrast, the new perspective on which tangible and social computing rest argues that a disembodied brain could not experience the world in the same ways that we do, because our experience of the world is intimately tied to the ways in which we act in it. This leads to the second part of my argument, which is that the central element of this alternative perspective is the idea of embodiment. By embodiment, I do not mean simply physical reality, although that is often one way in which it appears. Embodiment, instead, denotes a form of participative status. Embodiment is about the fact that things are embedded in the world, and the ways in which their reality depends on being embedded. So it applies to spoken conversations just as much as to apples or bookshelves; but it's also the dividing line between an apple and the idea of an apple.

Why is embodiment relevant to these sorts of interactions with computers? It is relevant in at least three ways.

First, the designers of interactive systems have increasingly come to understand that interaction is intimately connected with the settings in which it occurs. In adopting anthropological techniques as ways to uncover the details of work and develop requirements for interactive systems to support that work, we have begun to realize just how important a role is played by the environment in which the work takes place. 

Second, this focus on settings reflects a more general turn to consider work activities and artifacts in concrete terms rather than abstract ones. Instead of developing abstract accounts of mythical users, HCI increasingly employs field studies and observational techniques to stage "encounters" with real users, in real settings, doing real work. These encounters are often very revealing, as they tend to show that the ways the work gets done are not necessarily those that are listed in procedural manuals, or even in the accounts that the people themselves would tell you if you asked. In particular, it leads to a concern with how interaction is manifest in the interface. Tangible computing reflects this concern by exploring the opportunities for us to manifest computation and interaction in radically new forms, while social computing seeks ways for interaction to manifest more than simply the programmer's abstract model of the task, but also the specifics of how the work comes to be done. In the real world, where the artifacts through which interaction is conducted are directly embodied in the everyday environment, these are all manifested alongside each other, inseparably. Tangible and social computing are trying to stitch them back together after traditional interactive system design approaches ripped them apart.

Third, there is a recognition that, through their direct embodiment in the world we occupy, the artifacts of daily interaction can play many different roles. So, one relevance of embodiment for interaction with computational systems is that, for many tasks, it is relevant to consider how the computational participates in the world it represents. Computation is fundamentally a representational medium, but as we attempt to expand the ways in which we interact with computation, we need to be consider the duality of representation and participation.

The third element of this book's argument is that the idea of embodiment as a common foundation gives us relates it to other schools of thought. Embodiment is not a new phenomenon, or a new area for intellectual endeavor. In fact, it is a common theme running through much twentieth century thought. The notion of embodiment plays a special role in one particular school of philosophical thought, phenomenology.

Phenomenology is primarily concerned with how we perceive, experience and act in the world around us. What differentiates it from other approaches is its central emphasis on the actual phenomena of experience, where other approaches might be concerned with abstract world models. In turn, the fourth element of the book's argument is that we can build on the phenomenological understandings to create a foundational approach to embodied interaction. Such a foundation should do two things. First, it should account for the ways in which social and tangible computing - and, perhaps, further areas to be defined - are related to each other, showing how they can draw upon each other's work and provide a unified model for Human-Computer Interaction. Second, it should inform and support the design, analysis and evaluation of interactive systems, providing us with ways of understanding how they work, from the perspective of embodiment.

More information on the book and its themes