CHI 2014 – Days 1 and 2

This week I am happy to be attending CHI2014, the Computer-Human Interaction conference, which is generally where all the cool kids are in software and interaction design research, and where you can see a lot of the next big thing, and be dazzled by the future that’s already here.

But, my experience has been coloured by a number of works I’ve been exposed to recently which have poked a bunch of holes in the technological positivism surrounding technology innovation (and really the start-up culture that is fueled by these ideals of saving the world through technology) mainly, the new HBO show Silicon Valley, this great piece on the capitalist notions underlying gaming by Steven Poole, and this piece from Wired profiling a (somewhat failing) start-up. So let’s just say I’m taking all this in with a mindset of being rather critical (okay, full-out cynical) and not ready to drink the Kool-aid.

Can’t We Leave the Teddy Bears out of it?

So, first, let’s talk about 3D printed teddy bears. Because that is a thing that some people see the need for. I am not one of those people. I frankly don’t see the need for 3D printing of any soft substances, though I may be in the minority there. I personally feel that the power of 3D printing plastics is in either: giving new, previously unknown material capabilities to small scale one-off designers; OR, changing the way manufacturing and distribution of plastics happens, in order to minimize waste and transportation. And neither of these apply to soft materials. We already have the tools to make objects with soft materials such as fabrics and yarns in our homes. And people (mostly women) have been doing this for centuries in analog form, and decades with the aid of (often-computing-enabled) machinery. I see absolutely no benefit to reinventing the wheel in this way, with a series of expensive technological barriers separating the design and making from a human’s interactions with the materials itself. So why are we putting energy into 3D printing teddy bears? There seems to be this mentality that ‘because we can’ is a good enough reason to add a computer to anything. And I guess what bothers me the most about this is the underlying value assumption (which I may be projecting or unfairly inferring) that a CAD model and a printing machine is somehow better than a pattern and needles and a person with a brain who can use them.

On the Outsourcing of Smelling the Roses

On to my problems with the Internet of Things.  Yesterday I saw a presentation talking about the IoT and trying to re-think the economics underlying it, based on the principles of building sensors with the cheapest possible materials. And, it was quite a good presentation. But, I still have problems with the whole topic. To start with, why must we always bring houseplants into the discussion of the IoT? (and yes, I am guilty of this myself.) But honestly, is taking care of houseplants really the task that plagues us all? (I can see the b&w infomercial now: tired of coming home to dozens of dead and rotting houseplants? Computers are here to help!)  From the plant’s point of view, how are we as a society enabling these plant-murderers, as we stand idly by while they show no regard for plant life, lacking knowledge or ability to take care of them on their own??? Maybe we need a shift in plant-human relations altogether, rather than embedding a bunch of sensors in pots.

But what really concerns me with the Internet of Things is the idea that everything can be – or is somehow better when – quantified, monitored and automated. I tend to think of the uses for IoT as applied to everyday interactions that are a pain and a chore, so how does our relationship with a thing (an orchid, microwave, significant other) change when we are constantly outsourcing our responsibility to sense and monitor?  What is left for our own senses when so much of our interactions are mediated by technological means? Is it necessarily a better interaction this way?

Humans and Humans First

Now, on to the things that gave me hope and didn’t make me feel like giving up and moving to a cabin in the woods. A wonderful presentation I saw on making culture by Andrew Quitmeyer brought up these two common conceptual missteps: de-skilling of humans, and digital exhaust (i.e. superfluous digital add-ons). And I argue that we need to be more conscious of these issues in any and all CHI. Another wonderful and entertaining presentation on ‘AnarCHI’ was a much-needed wake-up call to take responsibility for what we are doing and the politics, or ethics, underlying our work.

So basically, this is what I’ve got after the first two days. I initially thought that the re-naming of the HCI field to CHI was merely a method of creating better acronyms and bad puns (like this year’s theme, ‘One of a CHInd’), but I think there’s really something else at play here. I think the ACM (the Association for Computing Machinery) consciously puts ‘Computer’ first in Computer-Human Interaction, and I think we need to re-think our priorities on the matter. We need more options for looking at HCI on equal grounds with Human-Human Interaction or Human-Thing (non-computer) Interaction. Plenary speaker Nathan Eagle brought up an excellent example of the failures of CHI: a mobile application for predicting Cholera in Rwanda that didn’t work because the data and the algorithm were predicting the wrong thing, based on the wrong assumptions, and not as good as simply talking to people on the ground. So let’s do more of that in CHI, let’s not forget to talk to people on the ground.