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.

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