problematizing innovation as a critical project- suchman

October 9th, 2008

It seems that Suchman’s audience in this paper is researchers in the MIS and business strategy fields, but not practitioners in those fields. The rhetoric is fairly readable, but still dense for most non-academics I know.

Big takeaways:

Innovation discourse often binarizes the innovative from the uninnovative (those who can’t keep up, won’t adapt, etc)

innovation discourse often fetishizes visible change, missing the ways innovation, appropriation, and articulation work are “indigenous” to technology use and often unrecognized in organizations –> artful integration
innovation figures a “competitive field of action”

Infrastructural inversions are so hot right now!

September 30th, 2008

From MacKenzie’s “Untangling the Unwired: Wi-Fi and the Cultural Inversion of Infrastructure:”

Talking about the “information mythology of cyberspace” (think Dyson, or even perhaps Castells), Bowker suggests the method of ‘infrastructural inversion’ as a way of investigating how claims about technology emerge and circulate:

“Take a claim that has been made by advocates of a particular piece of science/technology,
then look at the infrastructural changes that preceded or accompanied the effects
claimed and see if they are sufficient to explain those effects—then ask how the initial
claim came a posteriori to be seen as reasonable.” (p.235)

This quote is taken from “Information Mythology” which talks about the way information comes to be seen as fixed, objective, and transferable. It reminds me of the way Anna Tsing talks about how in all the talk about global flows, we should pay attention to the channels carved into the ground by and sustaining and directing those flows.

It also connects in my head as something to think with against Hollan’s DCog journal paper where they talk about cognitive architectures being traceable through information trajectories. My feeling is that the distributed cognition’s assumptions of information travel start to get stretched and break down when great distance is being traversed between locations (spatial, temporal, or cultural/metaphorical).

Distributed Cognition: Toward a New Foundation for Human-Computer Interaction Research by Hollan, Hutchins, and Kirsh

September 30th, 2008

Journal paper summarizes 12 years of ethnographic and experimental work developing distributed cognition as a theoretical foundation for understanding how collectives of people and artifacts accomplish tasks that the authors define as cognitive.

The “central hypothesis is that the cognitive and computational properties of systems can be accounted for in terms of the organization and propagation of constraints.” This reminds me too much of planning algorithms in artificial intelligence and the assumptions of a preconceived, axiomatized system that is being operated in. 

A distro cog system can be a group of people working with artifacts, or it can be a single person working with artifacts, or even what goes on within the single cognitive unit. The last is not a contribution of dcog as much as it is dcog incorporating work like Minsky’s and human information processing theory that divides the mind up subprocessing units coordinated to perform cognition.

Artifacts, including representations, are seen as things that  can be used symbolically or reappropriated according to their physical properties to in performing cognition. Here, authors point out that this means that the real-world baseline for face to face communication is shortsighted, undercutting potential of media spaces. The human body is in the realm of physical things that can be used, and felt through, in imagining, thinking, and remembering (authors talk about navigators feeling directions in relation to bodily orientation). Other people can also be used in coordination to perform cognition as well.

Dcog sees culture as a bunch of partial solutions to problems that people frequently face in the world. What I like about this is that it is an account of why people won’t just adopt the most efficient tool for the job, or even necessarily search for the optimal tool for a job. Culture (their experience in the world) offers them a set of good enough solutions to appropriate to their ends. This speaks to discussions Dan, Robin, and I had about Notebook and Spreadsheets and how people used pretty simple, common schemas for figuring things out. 

This perspective can be described as “emergentist…on many key phenomena” (178)  because the body, world, and brain adapt to one another. In this sense, it is definitely embodied cognition.
Key principles of dcog are:

  • people establish and coordinate different types of structure in their environment
  • it takes effort to maintain coordination
  • people offload cognitive effort to the environment whenever practical
  • social organizations can improve dynamics of cognitive load balancing

Dcog is also about a methodology of naturalistic investigations of cognition, particularly using participant observation and video to capture people interacting with each other and the environment, often coupled by experiments to pin down the cognitive activities identified “in the wild.”

The questions suggested by the research framework include how to make representations more active so they help users and supporting people’s conceptualizations of what is going on and what “ought” to be done — both are about cognitive efficacy and instrumental good. There is a third question that I’m into which is “how do we design representations to facilitate their flexible use?”, though I’d broaden that to how do we design technological artifacts to support flexible, ensemble, interactive use — assemblages!


  • There’s a tendency to describe ethnography as “wild” and “natural” that makes me wonder whether dcog has done reflexive investigation of how its methods shape its observations and what its limiations are.
  • Dcog seems to shine when you’re talking about coordinated tasks. What happens when not everyone in a dcog system knows they’re being enlisted in a task? (In a sense, you could say artifacts are like this, and I suspect there’s a use to thinking of people this way too.)
  • What happens when tasks aren’t so cut and dry, like people are researching stuff on the internet that they’re interested in and might need later, but they might not, or people are trying to have a pleasant social interaction?
  • How much of a claim of universality does dcog make? The language seems fairly careful aboutnot claiming universality without raising the question: “a set of core principles that widely apply” (181)
  • How does dcog talk about learning? They say history of use informs our interactions with artifacts (187). That’s something, but not as much as other theories suggest. (But this is less universalist that idea of fundamental cognitive/perceptual affordance, as (I think) Norman suggests.) In dcog, the activities they discuss are all about load balancing, supporting memory, and making satisfactory calculations. Little is said about how and why learning occurs (here, activity theory offers the account of externalization and internalization; communities of practice offers identity and legitimate peripheral participation).
  • Dcog also treats information as a thing – “cognitive processes involve trajectories of information (transmission and transformation) so the patterns of these info trajectories, if stable, reflect some underlying cognitive architecture” (177). Is this the same as information as data? Then what are the limitations on the sort of emergence that dcog can talk about usefully (race, gender, culturally slippery concepts, miscommunication and breakdown)? It seems like information is at least a thing in the moment when it is reified as such, though the system has to adapt when breakdown occurs. How does dcog talk about errors and misunderstanding?

It seems like dcog is most effective when you think of things as tasks. So I guess it isn’t surprising that Evans and Chi “information assimilation” studies of social bookmarking, newsreading, and information behavior didn’t find dcog particularly useful in illuminating behavior.

Summary of what I learned about the middle class this summer

September 25th, 2008

Goal: Learn what it means to mean (identify as) middle class in one Pacific Northwest suburb, with goal of comparing it to what it means to be middle class in other locations, including internationally.
Method: Ethnographic interviews in 27 households, with repeated visits in most cases. Photojournaling. Lots of hanging out around the suburb we studied.
Here is an attempt to distilling what we have to say about the US middle class.
– The middle class in the US (or in Beaverton, really, but we have reason to believe it is broader) is not about jet setting and or getting ahead. It’s about staying connected to home and keeping comfortably stable.
– While the dominant ways people enacted middle class stability were home ownership and aspiring to be a stay-at-home parent, we saw a group questioning these traditions and actively trying to simplify and downsize. (There may be an opportunity for computing here, since computers consolidate a lot of functionality into one unit, but they are also seen as always depreciating and requiring disposal rather than maintenance.)

1) stability is key to people sense of being middle class and this is primarily read and enacted through:
– home ownership and home maintenance (as compared to renters who are more transient and basically are seen as not giving a crap about their surroundings or being invested, as manifested in how they treat their things)
– being a stay-at-home. This is a major struggle and aspiration. There was all this nostalgia of the stay-at-home mom times past when it was easy. Feminism is partly to blame for the fact that you need two incomes to make it now. (This is what several of them said, not what I think obviously.)
2) We had a breakout group that was really starting to simplify and downsize as a way of maintaining that stability and they were coming to think that the stay-at-home mom and home ownership goals were getting in the way of, rather than supporting, stability.

So what does that mean?
– yeah, the on-the-go mom thing was a minor point…
– more important was that people definitely didn’t get or resonate with the idea of jetsetting, traveling around, living the fast life. It was all about living a stable, moderately paced life where you’re getting out of debt, raising healthy kids — people didn’t talk about getting ahead, but just keeping up with changing times and changing needs– staying middle class. This is way different from what Ashwini sees in India where it is much more about getting your family ahead, moving them up this ladder. part of this was…
– keeping a strong connection to home. When people talked about communication technology, it was often about how it can either connect you with home (give kid first cell phone when it is time for them to walk to school alone, using the cell phone to be always accessible to family when out, using tiny cameras to surveill your home while you’re away) or how it can pull you (or kids, especially) away from home (texting at the dinner table).

A thread that Kathi and I have talked about developing more is comparing beaverton to chile. In chile, technology was totally associated with this imaginary of class aspiration, but in beaverton, technology was almost like toilet paper or something. One girl said “Oh, for my laptop? Whatever, everyone has one. My dad just found the best deal.” People across the income spectrum, from <25k to 200k had laptops. Rather than self-expression, the laptop needed to be stylistically mobile. Many described not wanting flashy laptops (we showed them this intel laptop) because they wanted something that could move between home and work and escape notice while they were multi-tasking. (Many described the colorful laptop, linked above, we showed as juvenile or childish.)

Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation by Lave and Wenger

September 25th, 2008


This is a short, densely-written tome where Lave and Wenger:

  • describe legitimate peripheral participation (peripherality implies relatedness to the community, but also not quite full participation)
  • admit that their definition is not formal, but instead fuzzy and relational (we discern much of what LPP is from what it is isn’t as much as what it is)
  • show how LPP has played out in specific historical moments and cultural settings to show how it has accomplished the perpetuation of learned community in some moments (yucatec midwives, a.a. meetings, master tailors, quartermen) and failed to perpetuate it in others (meat packers)
  • Argues that learning is wrapped up in building one’s identity as a “master” or full participant of a community
  • Argues that learning isn’t necessarily about the communication of information, but about becoming a certain kind of community member (yucatec midwives pick up how to do prenatal massage, A.A. in some ways isn’t about information but about self-discipline and community supporting).
  • Note that these communities are constantly reproducing through generations (so I take it that there is potential for change and slippage; there is also a processual account of community history hinted at)
  • Note that there is a fundamental contradiction between continuity of community (by bringing in new comers) and displacement (by having those full participants eventually replaced by newcomers)

In a way, I think the way SL references the relevance of activity theory but doesn’t talk about itself as an extension of it is smart. It means that if someone takes big issues with activity theory, they won’t dismiss SL but may instead consider its relevance in relation to other theoretical domains. After all, SL doesn’t seem to use AT as founding assumptions, but instead shows its relevance to reconfiguring understandings of activity theory. This seems like a useful argumentative strategy more generally.

  • There’s this latent reference (in some cases explicit through refs to Vygotsky) to Activity Theory. Lave and Wenger talk about Engestrom’s work and frequently reference activity systems. Yet I don’t see a lot of attention to this in people’s discussions of the book online. What’s SL’s relationship with Activity Theory?
  • How is LPP learning related to the idea of habitus — becoming a learned body of a certain sort, with a certain comportment — rather than attaining knowledge?
  • How does the focus on identity as central to practice of learning make CoP less useful for more solitary instances of learning through trying and tinkering, say, how to make a web page or a workaround for getting dressed in second life? Or would they argue that even these instances of learning always take places in sociality, even if it is the artifacts (tools, documents, etc) left behind or made available by others to aid in this process?
  • Lave and Wenger build off of Marxist ideas like contradiction and ascending from the abstract to the concrete. (Is this a seeing-the-superstructure-from-the-base thing?) They also point to the contradiction of continuity and displacement. However, it is unclear what the contradiction of continuity and displacement actually generates — are there warfare, friction, or creative efforts to ease the tension? Also, their marxist intuitions are supplemented by a processual account of community reproduction through generations. So how to Lave and Wenger use Marx? Is Marx really necessary for their argument?

Gary Marsden talks about OLPC

May 1st, 2007

At CHI, somebody asked Gary Marsden, winner of CHI’s 2007 Social Impact Award for his work on interaction design for Africa, about his thoughts on the One Laptop Per Child project. He was diplomatic, and even encouraging, but still circumspect.

“It is solving a problem that I’m not coming across in my research because the people we study are using cell phones. I haven’t seen the need in the populations we study.

The problem is that teachers don’t know how to teach with computers and the software needs to be good enough to replace teachers, because there aren’t enough of them.

Big access criteria is local content…

Lessons learned from your study that would have pay off for hundred dollar laptop:
Usability is irrelevant. People buy cell phones and that is all they have. No house, no car, that’s it. They will spend a long time figuring out how to use the phone. If you can provide a solution that makes someone’s life better, you don’t need usability. It is about understanding the community and the culture. Usability comes *after* that.”

Human Computer Interaction Consortium: Peter Pirolli Keynote

February 1st, 2007

Peter Pirolli Keynote: Beyond Information Foraging to Ecologies of Sense Making by Peter Pirolli, Palo Alto Research Center

Information patch foraging: How do you model when someone says “I’ve looked for useful info here enough. I should move on.”

He argue that if you increase the probability (say from 0.15 to 0.015) of choosing the wrong page as you browse a graph, the number of pages you visit goes up, diverging drastically as depth increases.
But what is the typical depth of navigation? The number of pages goes crazy at depth 12, but do people really go that deep? My guess is that people usually go for a depth of 1-4.

He then shows a model predictions and actual observed browsing on Yahoo on ParcNet and (eyeballing) it looks like 90% of sessions had a browse depth of 10 or less, 75% depth of 6 or less.

Stu Card and Pirolli had a ToCHI paper looking at eye movements and what they can tell us about information scent. They found that for crappy info scent in a hyperbolic browser, eye went all over the place, but for good info scent, eye took fairly direct path along graph.

Then they tried to model the eye movements and had some luck when they treat the eye as a rational, economic decision-maker. They came up with a scary looking equations expressing the probability of visiting any node in terms for euclidean distance, number of items in the visual group, scent (category), and inhibition of return.

Still early and their model predicts time in tasks and clicks decently well for high scent tasks but still work to do with low scent tasks. Hypothesis: People have trouble finding home again when they get lost.

Microeconomic model of highly interactive visual interface.

Model can do browsing and information seeking tasks for ~7000 nodes in human-like time.

And he has a book coming out

Other comments he makes: There are real evolutionary reasons why we enjoy and are attracted to certain kinds of scenes. We’re not exploiting any of this in the interfaces we make — no regard for aesthetic.

Adaptive info interaction for intelligence project

External Data <--> Shoebox <--> Evidence File <--> Schemas <--> Hypotheses <--> Presentation

Ext. Data –> Shoebox by searching and filtering

Shoebox –> Evidence file by readinga nd extracting
Evidence file –> Schemas by schmeatizing

Schemas –> hypothesis by building a case

Hypothesis –> presentation by building a representation

At each step, you can go backwards by searching for more data

Socially Mediated Foraging and Sensemaking is becoming increasingly important from high profile sensemaking failures such as 9/11, Columbia shuttle. But remember that we know a lot about the potential and failures of group decision making, so stop gushing about collaboration.

Mathematics comes from Hogg, Huberman & Clearwater, optimal foraging theory that deals with collaboration in groups

Factors that make social media system work are:

  • quasi-independent search and knowledge contribution
  • diversity
  • decentralization in that people are looking at different things
  • Interference effects (transaction costs)
  • methods for sharing and aggregating information

Power Geometries

January 16th, 2007

Writing about power geometries of time-space compression, geographer Doreen Massey writes:

[D]ifferent social groups, and different individuals, are placed in very distinct ways in relation to these flows and interconnections. [… A]t the end of all the spectra are […] the jet-setters, the ones sending and receiving the faxes and the e-mail, holding the international conference calls, the ones distributing the films, controlling the news, organizing the investments and the international currency transactions. These are the groups who are really in a sense in charge of time-space compression, who can really use it and turn it to advantage, whose power and influence it very definitely increases. […]
But there are also groups who are doing a lot of physical moving, but who are not ‘in charge’ of the process in the same way at all. The refugees from El Salvador or Guatemala and the undocumented migrant workers from Michoacán in Mexico, crowding into Tijuana to make a perhaps fatal dash for it across the border into the US to grab a chance of a new life. Here the experience of movement, and indeed of a confusing plurality of cultures, is very different. (Massey, 1991: 149)

One site that might be interesting to study is looking at World of Warcraft “gold farmers” – low paid workers outside the US who play WOW full-time, collecting gold and other artifacts that are then sold to players for in the open market. How do their perceptions of networked time-space differ from their customers? Does this perspective spill over into meanings of other networked artifacts, such as mobile phones?

Folders are brittle

November 8th, 2006

Dan Gruen usefully points out that folders are a system where the usefulness of, say, your email folder for a project is very brittle. If you dutifully file 90% of your project related mails but fail to file 10%, you still will need to use search to locate project related emails.

So when are folders useful? Maybe if they help you breakdown the problem. When there isn’t a rush of emails coming in such that you’re likely to fail to folder. When you can learn and suggest a folder to facilitate filing with a single click.

Email Overload Talk

November 8th, 2006

People who reported email has high work importance tended to use work email as clean inbox work to do list

People who checked email more often reported lesser feelings of email overload. Restricting when they checked increased overload. Using folders and filing messages associated with increased feelings of overload
Limitations of laura’s method (by her own admission):

– cross-sectional analysis gives correlations but not causal accounts

People’s coping mechanisms for life in general don’t explain all the variance Laura saw in the email overload feedback.

What would it mean to generalize this topic from email overload to communication overload?

Folders are harmful!  12% of people spend their time filing. Dan Gruen points me to this paper by Olle Balter which will have some references to how folders fail people over time.
Remail IBM system that Dan Gruen worked on looks cool.  It has thread view like gmail, but they’ve added visualizations showing relation of emails to calendar events as well as thread visualization diagram for context (Gmail shows this if you scroll down the thread, also doesn’t show thread structure). Cool mobile feature is that it shows thread structure in bottom right of email being viewed so you know whether to reply to a mail you’re looking at or if you should just reply right there.