Fresh: rant

XIV.4 July + August 2007
Page: 5
Digital Citation

HCI and the human condition


Authors:
Jonathan Arnowitz

We’ve just returned from CHI2007. It’s a huge event, with multiple parallel tracks, and clearly there is something for everyone in the offerings. In this, more than any previous conference, there was room for practitioner and other applied papers in HCI. On departing the research/theoretical ivory towers, one will increasingly face social issues. For example, once you decide that haptic interfaces are ready to actually be used, the debate shifts from "is this effective?" to "whom can it affect?" A cursory glance at the session titles already points to this new development in HCI. Looking at these sessions, what strikes us is not their novelty to CHI (many of these issues have been raised before), but rather their increasing social/actual application.

Emotion and Empathy

A CHI2007 session on emotion and empathy presented a study on how to develop experimental designs to study emotional experiences (Mahlke). Affect, or how we really feel about things, is a slippery variable. Additional submissions presented positive and negative affect in text communication (Hancock, Landrigan & Silver), something in which most of us participate whether we do it actively through tokens like smileys or turns of phrase that can be widely (mis)interpreted. This work is based in social information processing theory and is essentially a study in computer-mediated communication. The researchers showed that indeed, people can "read" each others’ emotions as expressed through the limitations of text. Not surprising; the study was nicely done, and there is great depth to mine in further experiments, but perhaps it is the research question that needs to develop rather than the research. What is our willingness to be emotionally expressive under severe limitations, and what factors influence us to dissemble about our emotions?

We all know that we react to design. We’re starting to see peer-reviewed, high-quality research studying that reaction, and not just the timing, success, and directly questioned satisfaction responses we normally collect from usability studies. We applaud the study of non-goal-oriented behaviors and the attempt to eliminate the squishiness from aesthetic approval.

Politics and Governance

CHI2007 offered a session on politics and activism. One of the papers on voting looked back at paper, punch-card, and lever voting machines in order to compare today’s new voting systems with a baseline of data from traditional voting methods (Byrne, Greene & Everett). The topic is not essentially political; voting entails solving the problems of delivering a choice-making system to an extremely broad consumer market: eligible voters. Not timely or provocative enough to make a difference in next year’s U.S. elections, the paper focuses on the logistics and mechanics of voting. Charged with politics, the stakes for accuracy are higher than voting for your favorite snippet on YouTube. Or are they? Candidate names in the reported studies were randomly selected, leaching the emotion from the process.

But in another session entirely on emergency action, we get a different take on activism: public participation in crisis events through computer mediation (Palen & Liu). Their goal is to expand their readers’ awareness of trends in ordinary citizens’ responses and needs in large-scale crises, so that technologists can prepare for (and shape?) their needs.

Home Spirituality

Perhaps one of the more surprising sessions, and most indicative of this dive into the real world, is the session entitled "Home Spirituality," which addressed ways computers can aid spirituality in the home. One such study involved 20 Orthodox Jewish families and the ways in which technology of automation can help them observe their Sabbath, which prohibits them from working from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.

In another paper (Gaver, Sengers, Kerridge, Kaye, & Bowers) we get a nod to horoscopes—but it’s not what you think. It’s about gauging domestic well-being and emotions and sensors, and, ultimately, it discusses inferencing systems. It is really about faith—faith in technology, whether it can do its job, whether it can do your job, the faith to rely on technology, and in turn, on technologists.

HCI and Social and Human Relevance

In a short article like this, we can’t cover the many other sessions, like kids and family, color/blind, education and culture, or play and exercise. And needless to say there are many more topics not covered by the conference (or this magazine) that deserve to be heard as well. We came across an interesting article in our local paper that discussed how the iPod was being used not just as a killer mp3 device, but also to help school kids cheat on multiple-choice exams. Ignoring social and human relevance is not just a trend; ignoring it would be a gross dereliction of duty. So as we near our next-to-last issue of <interactions>, we’ll quote something we said in our first issue’s Rave (though now regarding social and human relevance in HCI): "You ain’t seen nothing yet."—<eic>

©2007 ACM  1072-5220/07/0700  $5.00

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