Thursday, May 31, 2007

The experience of crafting an experience

While moving around the kitchen early Sunday morning, the phrase "the experience of creating an experience" popped into my head. It kind of summarizes what I'm interested in as research. People that create mediated experiences for others (filmmakers, musicians, teachers, mediators, PHC practitioners) themselves are having experiences and their experience can/should be characterized and understood. Schön et al give us clues to this and of the value of doing it, which I myself am not yet quite able to do, but this question has always occupied me and seemed important. Simon refined the catchphrase as "the experience of crafting an experience", which is better.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Misc. thoughts about the 2007 Compendium Institute workshop at NASA Ames

Some overdue thoughts on our recent Bay Area workshop, held at the NASA Ames Conference Center May 2-3, 2007. Work has been unrelentingly busy since the workshop, so no time to reflect until now. Today is Memorial Day, so a hiatus.

The workshop was small, about 16-17 people, but very engaged. Most people came from the Bay Area though there was a KMi contingent of five people, including me, that came from the UK and NY. We did something different this time than our previous workshops. In the past, we've generally had our standard tutorial on the morning of the first day. (We've been offering versions of that tutorial since the mid-1990s when Maarten and I developed the first version. It's a subject for another day, but even though I think there is a lot of good material in the tutorial, it has never landed with the impact that I'd like. It is too much "in the head", I think; concepts and exercises that, seemingly, assume you have already internalized the "Compendium Way" as we have (drank the Kool-Aid)).

This time we spent almost the entire first day on an experiential exercise rather than a tutorial. This was excellent -- at least for me since it ties into my research. I had prepared some advance materials that people could download with images about space (in honor of NASA, our host) and sample formats (the idea of providing people a set of evocative images to work with in the construction of a dialogic exercise owes much to the Center for Creative Leadership's Visual Explorer tool).

At the workshop we divided people into small groups and gave them the assignment of preparing an exercise that they would lead the larger group in, with the sole restriction that it had to involve getting people to engage with, and add to, Compendium maps. Each group had about 90 minutes to devise their exercise. Since I was going to use this for part of my research data, I kept myself out of it except to help with logistics when necessary. Mostly I flitted around the cavernous ballroom to each of the small group locations, taking pictures and making sure that each group had their Camtasia screen/audio recording going.

It was interesting to see the different group styles that emerged. Some groups jumped right in creating their exercise; one spent 2/3 of the time on a meta-exercise, mapping how they were going to approach the problem. But all were very engaged. To me the main point of Compendium is the engagement with the representation, having maps be the focus of a collaborative effort to express something that matters. Our previous tutorials never achieved that, they were much more individually oriented. This exercise got people doing that from the start. (Since my research focuses on the choices practitioners make in the course of constructing participatory hypermedia representations, this is very encouraging, but that is again a subject for a different day). Each group worked hard to come up with something they thought would work well for the large group exercise.

After this prep period, we took a break and then began the large group sessions. Each small group set the stage for what they wanted the large group to do, usually with one person acting as the facilitator up in front of the room and another serving as mapper (hands on the keyboard). The idea was that each group, particularly the less experienced members (the "masters" -- Simon, Maarten, Jeff, Eugene -- were explicitly instructed not to act as facilitators or mappers for the large group sessions), would get the experience of trying to get the large group to focus on and add to the map, then get feedback on how well they accomplished this and what they could have done better.

Each of the four groups struggled (to varying degrees) to get the large group to focus on the maps and keep the session from being just a normal discussion. In each case the subject matter and people's desire to talk about it directly to each other without focusing on the map itself seemed to hold the upper hand, though some of the small groups were successful at returning the group's attention to the maps themselves. After each of these 15-minute sessions, we had an additional 15 minutes where the "masters" and the other attendees gave feedback to the small group that had just presented. The nature of this feedback ranged from facilitation styles, to Compendium software tips and tricks (quite a lot of learning and sharing of 'best practices' in those bits), to meta-questions on the purpose of Compendium.

OK, I have to digress from the above narrative to discuss the general phenomenon of getting people to engage with maps. We had much discussion at the workshop on the theme of "discussion capture" (someone mapping out the flow of a discussion as it happens) vs. more directly engaged forms of group Compendium use involving collaborative construction of an artifact of some kind. Having done both myself hundreds of times with groups over the years, my bias is toward the latter. What Compendium is especially "good for" is providing the means (through our host of tools, techniques, and concepts) by which a group can engage with a visual map of something they're concerned with -- and more to the point, that the map is not a single artifact but an interlinked set of artifacts, with ideas and objects related to each other in multiple dimensions -- and even more to the point, that the whole corpus is set up in such a way as to be available to other tools and applications and settings, so that what you collectively or individually do in one form is not limited to that form but can be exchanged with, and used in, other forms in all sorts of ways.

Even yet more to the point, for me, is the idea that non-technical people (that is, non-programmers) can do computationally powerful things just by understanding and manipulating the visual and textual relationships (nodes, links, tags, transclusions), without having to know what is going on with the code and database. These principles have underlay (underlied?) everything we have done architecturally with Compendium over the years. And yet, we still often find ourselves talking about Compendium in the same ways as tools that don't do any of these things (e.g. note-taking in Word, or mind mapping software -- nothing against those sort of tools but they are not about the above).

The problems with this set of points are many. The "discussion" trap is one of them. We -- including me -- like to talk to each other directly. We saw that in the large group sessions -- once the participants got warmed up talking about some issue about the space program, any thought of Compendium flew out the window and people got into highly engaged conversations with each other about the topic. The facilitators had to interrupt this flow to get people to look at their ignored maps. But, here is the thing. My feeling is that this is not a fault of Compendium or of the idea of getting people to engage with each other and their subject matter via the vehicle of hypertext maps. Rather it is our relative inexperience with this medium and mode of communicating. We have seen, many times, that it is possible to have deep and engaged "conversations" while in the midst of working together on the Compendium artifact. In some cases people say that they are able to get to a deeper level of mutual understanding and dialogue than they would have done talking normally.

But to me that (whether talking normally is better or not) is not the point. Rather it is how to construct the hypermedia "event" in such a way as to be inviting, engaging, purposeful, and productive -- so that it becomes a form of collaborative authoring that doesn't feel foreign, "technical", or abstract. It becomes a way for people to make something together, the same way that making a film or video (or collage or whatever) requires people to engage in the medium itself as part of their overall interaction -- it is not an either/or. That is what I strive for -- creating tools and artifacts that invite and extend human interaction, not replace it. And I think we are only at the beginning of that. It *can* be done -- we have seen and experienced it many times -- but it is often difficult to do well.

We spoke many times at the workshop about how discussions, transcriptions, notes etc. can be done conventionally, and using Compendium for any of them is often compared unfavorably to these conventional means. To me this misses the point and is a mark of the medium's immaturity. People don't say, why have a concert rather than a discussion; why make a film rather than have a meeting; why engage an architect rather than just start building a house. We engage in those highly developed media forms, that require expertise and artistry to pull off, because they are accepted ways of having a valued experience or producing a particular kind of outcome or artifact.

Constructing Compendium maps together has that same potential. We have to learn how to do it right. I think events like the first day of the workshop are steps on that path. I have seen before that it is not at all difficult to get groups to tightly engage with artifact creation if they have the right structure and scaffolding, as the small groups did. For me personally, when I finish with my current trajectory of research -- I am on the downhill slope of completing a PhD -- that is what I want to concentrate on; creating engaging Compendium events that get people working together on constructing sophisticated hypermedia artifacts that both express something of importance to the group, and bring the participants and authors together in unique and rewarding ways. The focus should no more be on Compendium itself and whether it is better or worse than other tools, than the focus of a film-making effort is on the brand of camera used. What's important is what is expressed in the unique medium, not the medium itself (see this related post).

Along with generating loads of useful research data for me, the first day exercises seemed to bring the workshop's attendees together. Many of the folks hadn't met each other before but by the end of the first day they seemed to be very friendly and informal with each other (see this photo of our happy first night group dinner at the Grand Indian Buffet restaurant in Sunnyvale). Most of the second day (as usual for our workshops) was more conventional talks and presentations on various Compendium topics, but my feeling (shared by at least some of the other organizers) was that the participants were much more engaged and interactive with the presentations than we have often seen in previous workshops, because they had a basis of shared experience (and reflection on that experience) to draw on.

It's a beautiful spring day here in near-upstate New York, so I will stop here for now to get out on the bike while I have the chance. I'll write more about the second day soon. Before closing, though, I have to give special thanks to Maarten Sierhius and Eugene Eric Kim for all the work they did to get the workshop organized. Along with all the advance deliberations (conducted with unremitting harmony and consensus (not)), Maarten got us our terrific setting at the NASA Conference Center and dealt with all the food and drink logistics (an unrewarding but highly appreciated task), and Eugene managed the flow of events during the workshop itself with aplomb, even improvising the schedule on the second half of the second day. We haven't yet planned our next workshop (East Coast USA? UK?) but I think we learned much from this one that will enrich all our subsequent gatherings.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Organizing the main concepts

I've been thinking for a while that I needed to have some kind of clear ordering of the central concepts for my research -- that is, what I've seen as the main components of the PHC practitioner experience: aesthetics, ethics, sensemaking, improvisation, and narrative. This is mostly for communicative reasons. People seem to trip over "aesthetics" and "ethics" when I use them as the organizing principles. The concepts feel too heavyweight.

I saw this again in presentations and conversations at the Connections 2007 conference this past weekend. Some clarity also dawned as a result of the conversations with Chuck, Beth, and Mark during the weekend. Two that stand out particularly: listening to Mark's eloquent responses to Beth's insightful questions while I was stuffing my face with Chinese food on Sunday night, and the later-that-evening conversation and Compendium surfing with Chuck, especially when we were talking about the importance and subtleties of aesthetic shaping on representations like Chuck's Visual Explorer PowerPoints and Compendium maps.

I think that narrative, sensemaking, and improvisation are really the ongoing phenomena in which practitioner aesthetics and ethics -- the things I'm trying to characterize and make distinctions about -- take place. I'll try to illustrate that below.

Two stories grabbed from the Metro section of the Saturday New York Times are helpful illustrations of what I want to say about narrative, sensemaking, and improvisation:
  • "Every so often a deer will appear in the 190th Street subway station. Or a 2,000-pound bull will escape from a rodeo and gallop along the streets of Long Island City. A man might arrive at an emergency room in need of stitches, bitten, it turns out, by the 500-pound pet wild tiger that lives in his apartment in Harlem. And once again, a strange but true animal event will have slapped the city out of the soul-leaching funk of $4 coffees and $200 theater tickets with the giddy news that someone keeps rats and mice in the freezer.... Few events so rouse the might and majesty of government at all levels as the discovery of a cache of scary or weird animals and bugs."
    - "In Queens Fire, Pet Rescue Take a Turn For the Wild." The New York Times, 19 May 2007
  • "The biggest manhunt in state history -- the five-month search for Ralph J. Phillips last year in the backwoods of western New York -- was thwarted time and again by communications problems, command confusion, troopers' misjudgements and over-reliance on an elite mobile unit, a state police report says."
    - "Hunt for Fugitive Was Beset By Confusion, a Report Says." The New York Times, 19 May 2007
In both of these stories, we see a disruption in the normal, expected flow of events. What Bruner calls "breaches in the canonicity" of living. In the first, appearances of wild animals in unexpected places cause alarm, fear, and triggers police and government workers to respond, which usually requires them to enter an odd situation, figure out what the heck is going on (i.e, sensemaking), and improvise some way to resolve it.

From the "Pet Rescue" story:
  • "On Thursday morning, a Fire Department lieutenant, Ed Ireland, played his flashlight across the darkness of an apartment in the basement of a two-story house on 39th Avenue in Corona, Queens, where a fire had just been doused. The beam of his light stopped near the ground on a pair of eyes, followed immediately by 13 feet of Burmese python.... Nearby was a smallish alligator.... "Oh, my God," Lieutenant Ireland said." ... the Police Department Emergency Services Unit was dispatched, complete with noosed poles to hold the business end of the snake and gator... the police put water on the animals for their burns. Then the snake went into a clean garbage can, with a lid."
As in all human events, but brought out dramatically here, there are all sorts of simultaneous and parallel narratives going on, all sorts of disruptions and breaches, and all sorts of sensemaking and improvisational actions to restore order and normality. There is the narrative of the inhabitants of the 39th Avenue apartment house, whose lives were disrupted by the fire. There is the story of Lt. Ireland's conventional post-fire investigation, disrupted by the appearance of snake eyes. There's the story of the emergency services workers whose expertise was brought in to deal with the animals. (And of course the disrupted lives and expectations of the snake and alligator).

Equally of interest are the actions taken by the police and firefighters in these situations. As professionals, they expect and very often deal with such situations, and it is in the way they approach these fraught occurences that we can discern their expertise. They make moves (assembling the right tools, wielding them adroitly (I imagine it takes some skill to throw noose over a python's "neck"), dealing with the aftermath, etc.) that "heal the breaches" (Bruner) and restore order. Put a novice in such situations, and it is quite unlkely that we would be effective.

As the latter story of the botched hunt for Ralph J. Phillips illustrates, even among professionals, things can go wrong. Despite the best tools, procedures, and hundreds of highly motivated troopers and officers, the hunt took months and resulted in death and serious injuries among the pursuers. As with Weick's story of the Mann Gulch fire disaster, sensemaking broke down in the face of competing stimuli and imperatives. Actions taken by these professionals were not effective. Coherence among all the competing narratives was not achieved. It took far longer to restore order than anyone anticipated:

  • "...the report said that field commanders often did not communicate instructions clearly to 1,400 state troopers and hundreds of officers from local, county, and federal agencies as the elusive woodsman stole cars, lived off the land and moved across the New York-Pennsylvania border at will. The report also cited equipment problems and faulted planning and interagency communication."
So the professionals took improvised actions, which themselves could be characterized by the way they wielded their tools and expertise, what form that wielding took (i.e. the aesthetics of their tool use), and the impact that their actions had on all the people, and animals, involved (i.e the ethics of their actions).

Spence's concept of "narrative recursion" is helpful. People live and act in narratives unfolding at many levels simultaneously. In 'normal' times narrative means 'one damn thing after another', events following each other with comfortable logic and easily understood causation, unquestioned expectations. But things always happen to derail this flow. Things don't happen as planned and expected; the unexpected intervenes and throws things off. PHC practitioners work in such a recursive environment, deal with unexpected breaches, figure out what's going on and what to do, then act. We can look at their actions in aesthetic and ethical terms, and characterize how well they serve to heal the breaches.

Below are a number of formulations (suitable for maps or slides) of how the 5 main concepts relate when analyzing either expert or novice (as I am now going to be doing with the video recordings from the NASA Ames workshop) participatory hypermedia construction (PHC) practice.


I think when looking at PHC, narrative is the mother concept. Sensemaking occurs when narrative coherence is disrupted; things don't go and flow as unproblematically assumed. Improvisation happens at those sensemaking moments. improvisational moves have both aesthetic and ethical dimensions.


Practitioners act in sessions with the goal of creating and preserving *narrative coherence* in the representations, flow, discourse, etc. Events occur that break the flow ('breaches in the canonicity') that create *sensemaking moments*. At such moments, practitioners must *improvise* in order to heal the breaches and return to a coherent flow. These improvisational actions have both *aesthetic* and *ethical* dimensions.


So *narrative* is the ongoing goal and state (we construct narratives, are in narratives, etc.).

When narrative flow (one event seamlessly after another) is disrupted, *sensemaking* occurs.

At sensemaking moments, practitioners *improvise* representational and verbal moves and actions.

These moves have both *aesthetic* (what form the actions take and create) and *ethical* (the implications of the actions for the interests of participants, stakeholders, audiences, and practitioners) dimensions.


When narrative is disrupted, sensemaking and improvisation occurs. Improvisation has both aesthetic and ethical dimensions.


NARRATIVE is disrupted
==> SENSEMAKING occurs
====> IMPROVISATIONAL actions are taken to restore narrative coherence
======> the actions can be characterized in AESTHETIC and ETHICAL dimensions


When NARRATIVE coherence is disrupted it forces SENSEMAKING, which
requires IMPROVISATION, which has AESTHETIC and ETHICAL dimensions.