Organizing Information: Arranging our World

Reading from Engelbart’s, Augmenting Human Intellect, for this week’s seminar, I’m reflecting on my own research group’s current thinking. Consider the following summary of a grant we were just awarded (before the shutdown!) from NSF,

“In a short period of time, computerization has moved from providing a counterpoint to life, with the potential to highlight and shade experience, to constituting a constant force, almost defining our experience of life. A core part of human intelligence lies in how we arrange our world. If computer systems are central in our interactions with other people and institutions, those systems must: (1) allow us to arrange them so that we are more likely to act as the selves we wish we were; (2) help us understand whether people and institutions are treating us as we ought to be treated; and (3) create and encourage reflective opportunity about these matters. Our larger goal is to pursue the reflective opportunity design space through creating designs that prioritize seams in interaction and allow people to nudge one another and themselves in particular directions.”

  • Deborah Tatar

While I think it was Engelbart’s intention to express only some examples of possibility, it seems that many have taken his examples as prescription for what should come. While certainly a system such as he suggests in the reading can be helpful, part of its utility was the way it was introduced to the user: with sharp contrast to previous ability emphasized by the juxtaposition of the user’s attempt at a task and his demonstration of the same task with the tool. If, however, such systems were to be ubiquitous, and an “augmented native” were to be observed, would they appreciate the power of the new system?

I don’t think it’s the case that new generations suffer through the toils of all their predecessors, but part of the power, and liberation of this system, was just that it is not the previous system. So I take issue with directions of research which might uncritically adopt these examples as specifications. Instead I am with my advisor (Deborah) in thinking that contrary to the buzzwords and trends in our field of Human-Computer Interaction, we must design our applications specifically to have some seams. Seamful, rather than seamless, interactions, “create and encourage reflective opportunity about” issues of ethics in our interactions with others and other institutions.

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