One of my favorite bits from James Scott’s Seeing Like a State:
While doing fieldwork in a small village in Malaysia, I was constantly struck by the breadth of my neighbors’ skills and their casual knowledge of local ecology. One particular anecdote is representative. Growing in the compound of the house in which I lived was a locally famous mango tree. Relatives and acquaintances would visit when the fruit was ripe in the hope of being given a few fruits and, more important, the chance to save and plant the seeds next to their own house. Shortly before my arrival, however, the tree had become infested with large red ants, which destroyed most of the fruit before it could ripen. It seemed nothing could be done short of bagging each fruit. Several times I noticed the elderly head of household, Mat Isa, bringing dried nipah palm fronds to the base of the mango tree and checking them. When I finally got around to asking what he was up to, he explained it to me, albeit reluctantly, as for him this was pretty humdrum stuff compared to our usual gossip. He knew that small black ants, which had a number of colonies at the rear of the compound, were the enemies of large red ants. He also knew that the thin, lancelike leaves of the nipah palm curled into long, tight tubes when they fell from the tree and died. (In fact, the local people used the tubes to roll their cigarettes.) Such tubes would also, he knew, be ideal places for the queens of the black ant colonies to lay their eggs. Over several weeks he placed dried nipah fronds in strategic places until he had masses of black-ant eggs beginning to hatch. He then placed the egg-infested fronds against the mango tree and observed the ensuing week-long Armageddon. Several neighbors, many of them skeptical, and their children followed the fortunes of the ant war closely. Although smaller by half or more, the black ants finally had the weight of numbers to prevail against the red ants and gain possession of the ground at the base of the mango tree. As the black ants were not interested in the mango leaves or fruits while the fruits were still on the tree, the crop was saved.
This successful field experiment in biological controls presupposes several kinds of knowledge: the habitat and diet of black ants, their egg-laying habits, a guess about what local material would substitute as movable egg chambers, and experience with the fighting proclivities of red and black ants. Mat Isa made it clear that such skill in practical entomology was quite widespread, at least among his older neighbors, and that people remembered something like this strategy having worked once or twice in the past. What is clear to me is that no agricultural extension official would have known the first thing about ants, let alone biological controls; most extension agents were raised in town and in any case were concerned entirely with rice, fertilizer, and loans. Nor would most of them think to ask; they were, after all, the experts, trained to instruct the peasant. It is hard to imagine this knowledge being created and maintained except in the context of lifelong observation and a relatively stable, multigenerational community that routinely exchanges and preserves knowledge of this kind. [Chapter 9]
The workshop began with a short keynote from Patricia Greenfield, a psychology professor at UCLA, about the costs and benefits of media multitasking. Greenfield’s presentation struck me as representing as an essentially conservative and even alarmist perspective on media multitasking.
Exemplifying this perspective was Greenfield’s claim that media multitasking (by children) is disrupting family rituals and privileging peer interaction over interaction with family. Greenfield mixed in some examples of how having a personal mobile phone allows teens to interact with peers without their parents being in the loop (e.g., aware of who their children’s interaction partners are). These examples don’t strike me as particularly central to understanding media multitasking; instead, they highlight the pervasive alarmism about new media and remind me of how “helicopter parents'” extreme control of their children’s physical co-presence with others is also a change from “how things used to be”.
Face-to-face vs. mediated
The relationship of these worries about mobile phones and the allegedly decreasing control that parents have over their children’s social interaction to media multitasking is that mediated communication is being privileged over face-to-face interaction. Greenfield proposed that face-to-face interaction suffers from media use and media multi-tasking, and that this is worrisome because we have evolved for face-to-face interaction. She commented that face-to-face interaction enables empathy; there is an implicit contrast here with mediated interaction, but I’m not sure it is so obvious that mediated communication doesn’t enable empathy — including empathizing with targets that one would otherwise not encounter face-to-face and experiencing a persistent shared perspective with close, but distant, others (e.g., parents and college student children).
Greenfield cited a study of 30 homes in which children and a non-working parent only greeted the other parent returning home from work about one third of the time (Ochs et al., 2006), arguing — as I understood it — that this is symptomatic of a deprioritization of face-to-face interaction.
As another participant pointed out, this could also — if not in these particular cases, then likely in others — be a case of not feeling apart during the working day: that is, we can ask, are the children and non-working parents communicating with the parent during the workday? In fact, Ochs et al. (2006, pp. 403-4) presents an example of such a reunion (between husband and wife in this case) in which the participants have been in contact by mobile phone, and the conversation picks up where it left off (with the addition of some new information available by being present in the home).
I’m looking forward to the rest of the workshop. I think one clear theme of the workshop is going to be differing emphasis on costs and benefits of media multitasking of different types. I expect Greenfield’s “doom and gloom” will continue to be contrasted with other perspectives — some of which already came up.
Ochs, E., Graesch, A. P., Mittmann, A., Bradbury, T., & Repetti, R. (2006). Video ethnography and ethnoarchaeological tracking. The Work and Family Handbook: Multi-Disciplinary Perspective, Methods, and Approaches, 387–409.
- Which also means I’m multitasking, in some senses, through the whole conference. [↩]
Much of current human-computer interaction (HCI) research focuses on novice users in “walk-up and use” scenarios. I can think of three major causes for this:
- A general shift from examining non-discretionary use to discretionary use
- How much easier it is to find (and not train) study participants unfamiliar with a system than experts (especially with a system that is only a prototype)
- The push from practitioners in the direction, especially with the advent of the Web, where new users just show up at your site, often deep-linked
This focus sometimes comes in for criticism, especially when #2 is taken as a main cause of the choice.
On the other hand, some research threads in HCI continue to focus on expert use. As I’ve been reading a lot of research on both human performance modeling and situated & embodied approaches to HCI, it has been interesting to note that both instead have (comparatively) a much bigger focus on the performance and experience of expert and skilled use.
Grudin’s “Three Faces of Human-Computer Interaction” does a good job of explaining the human performance modeling (HPM) side of this. HPM owes a lot to human factors historically, and while The Psychology of Human-Computer Interaction successfully brought engineering-oriented cognitive psychology to the field, it was human factors, said Stuart Card, “that we were trying to improve” (Grudin 2005, p. 7). And the focus of human factors, which arose from maximizing productivity in industrial settings like factories, has been non-discretionary use. Fundamentally, it is hard for HPM to exist without a focus on expert use because many of the differences — and thus research contributions through new interaction techniques — can only be identified and are only important for use by experts or at least trained users. Grudin notes:
A leading modeler discouraged publication of a 1984 study of a repetitive task that showed people preferred a pleasant but slower interaction technique—a result significant for discretionary use, but not for modeling aimed at maximizing performance.
Situated action and embodied interaction approaches to HCI, which Harrison, Tatar, and Senger (2007) have called the “third paradigm of HCI”, are a bit different story. While HPM research, like a good amount in traditional cognitive science generally, contributes to science and design by assimilating people to information processors with actuators, situated and embodied interaction research borrows a fundamental concern of ethnomethodology, focusing on how people actively make behaviors intelligible by assimilating them to social and rational action.
There are at least three ways this motivates the study of skilled and expert users:
- Along with this research topic comes a methodological concern for studying behavior in context with the people who really do it. For example, to study publishing systems and technology, the existing practices of people working in such a setting of interest are of critical importance.
- These approaches emphasize the skills we all have and the value of drawing on them for design. For example, Dourish (2001) emphasizes the skills with which we all navigate the physical and social world as a resource for design. This is not unrelated to the first way.
- These approaches, like and through their relationships to the participatory design movement, have a political, social, and ethical interest in empowering those who will be impacted by technology, especially when otherwise its design — and the decision to adopt it — would be out of their control. Non-discretionary use in institutions is the paradigm prompting situation for this.
I don’t have a broad conclusion to make. Rather, I just find it of note and interesting that these two very different threads in HCI research stand out from much other work as similar in this regard. Some of my current research is connecting these two threads, so expect more on their relationship.
Dourish, P. (2001). Where the Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction. MIT Press.
Grudin, J. (2005). Three Faces of Human-Computer Interaction. IEEE Ann. Hist. Comput. 27, 4 (Oct. 2005), 46-62.
Harrison, S., Tatar, D., and Senger, P. (2007). The Three Paradigms of HCI. Extended Abstracts CHI 2007.
Yes, that spells ASSIST.
Check out this call for proposals from DARPA (also see Wired News). This research program is designed to create and evaluate systems that use sensors to capture soldiers’ experiences in the field, thus allowing for (spatially and temporally) distant review and analysis of this data, as well as augmenting their abilities while still in the field.
I found it interesting to consider differences in requirements between this program and others that would apply some similar technologies and involve similar interactions — but for other purposes. For example, two such uses are (1) everyday life recording for social sharing and memory and (2) rich data collection as part of ethnographic observation and participation.
When doing some observation myself, I strung my cameraphone around my neck and used Waymarkr to automatically capture a photo every minute or so. Check out the results from my visit to a flea market in San Francisco.
Photos of two ways to wear a cameraphone from Waymarkr. Incidentally, Waymarkr uses the cell-tower-based location API created for ZoneTag, a project I worked on at Yahoo! Research Berkeley.
Also, for a use more like (1) in a fashion context, see Blogging in Motion. This project (for Yahoo! Hack Day) created a “auto-blogging purse” that captures photos (again using ZoneTag) whenever the wearer moves around (sensed using GPS).