Friday, May 26, 2006

Technology as Experience

Work has been very busy for the past few months, so although I see the 'blog' bookmark on my Safari toolbar whenever I get on the Mac, I haven't posted anything. On the Compendium front there has been a ton going on, though my involvement has been fairly limited. The best recent thing was teaming up with Simon to give an intro workshop to AETMIS, a government agency in Quebec. As always when we've done these, we see a lot of things in the training materials and the tool itself that need improvement, but it was also gratifying to see what looked like genuine interest and enthusiasm on the part of the attendees, who were mostly researchers for medical policy-making.

On the research front, Simon introduced me to two of his colleagues at CHI in Montreal, who have written the book Technology as Experience. Excerpts from a fan letter I wrote Peter and John follow. Highly relevant to the purpose of this haltingly published blog.

I feel like a kid who's won a ten minute shopping spree at a toy store -- there are so many things I want to throw in the cart that I don't know where to begin, and almost want to give up before starting because I know there is not enough time or space to grab everything that appeals. The book is helpful, validating, and stimulating on so many levels that I am almost sick. In a good way.

Not sure how many of your other readers have had to suppress the desire, in public places like the departure lounges where I turned many of your pages, to jump up, pump a fist in the air and yell "In your face, turn-to-practice theorists! Your lacunae have been revealed for all to see!" I remember when we collaborated with the Institute for Research on Learning in the mid-90s, who were doing studies of work in the phone company, and one of the anthropologists saying "We don't care about individuals." Well, I did, and do, and see no contradiction in also caring about the sociality of work. One entails the other, always has, always will, and you can't understand work or the workplace or technology without entering into both dimensions, especially the way they interpenetrate each other.

My own background is literary (I love what you write about Bakhtin's emphasis on the novel since I've spent much of my life reading literary novels) and aesthetic, and I came, partly, to technology through media studies, film/video production, music performance, and facilitative approaches like peer counseling, so trying to understand and write about technology from the perspective of emotion, dialogue, volition, aesthetics, rings a Big Ben of resonance for me. I have been trying to do that in my little world of looking at the particular phenomenon of collaborative hypermedia practice and practitioners, but have been missing some theoretical pieces that I believe your book will help me get much firmer hold of. And, I commit to reading Dewey and Bakhtin and Shusterman and some of the others before I am through.

Of course the book leaves me with a host of both new and chronically familiar unanswered questions. Like, how to apply some of this to my day job designing nuts-and-bolts b2b web applications? A more 'rationalist' environment could not be imagined. Or, how to turn, harness, focus, force the kinds of insights this approach (or set of approaches, really) can provide into an academic discourse (in CSCW and HCI) that seems so focused on outcomes, results, proof, etc. Since I came out of media studies and know also where that discourse can lead (maddening self-reflexivity, theoretical jungles, indecipherable critical-speak), and don't want to go back there, want to stay in the light of making and producing things and trying to communicate with other human beings that haven't read Derrida, I feel that there is not yet clarity at the end of the rainbow -- that at the other end of doing the kind of analysis that I was already trying to do and that your book will help me do better, I do not yet see an oasis of calm, insightful, applicable wisdom. I often fear that I will only create more complexity, not less. Addressing the 'unfinalizable' richness of individual experience is an unending effort -- there is no way to write a definitive, closed account of a Yeats poem or Bergman film, and the same is true of trying to capture and convey experience like that of a collaborative hypermedia practitioner working in heated moments with a group and tool and representation. How do you usefully bound and cap this? Is there a point at which you can go just far enough and not farther? There has to be or the effort is never finished, but every stopping point I pick feels like a violation of the ones I haven't reached yet.

The book is Technology as Experience, John McCarthy and Peter Wright, MIT Press 2004.

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