As an HCI researcher or practitioner, you may often be confronted with the question of what you imagine the digital future will look like. How do you answer?
The only valid reply may be that we don’t know. But I am also confident in saying that it won’t be a digital future, but rather a hybrid one—one that merges our physical world with the digital. While this is neither a novel nor particularly exciting statement, it has many consequences, some of which I will discuss and speculate about in this article.
First, let me briefly explain why I use the term hybrid, which has been criticized in our community. For instance, Laura Devendorf and Daniela Rosner argue that the term hybridity “has been taken up in HCI’s programs of design research to explore resolutions between two disparate entities, typically human and machine or the digital and analog” . The result is a purification, reinforcing the separation of two categories while also trying to fuse them, thereby stabilizing them. Further, hybridity is limited to a dichotomy that may lead to narrowing the scope of design inquiry. To overcome these issues, Devendorf and Rosner refer to Donna Haraway’s notion of co-productions, which question and explore boundaries rather than trying to resolve them.
Another way of framing the blurring boundaries between categories in human-computer interaction comes from Umer Farooq and Jonathan Grudin, who suggest the term human-computer integration, implying a partnership between humans and computers rather than stimulus-response, as in interactions . In participatory design, hybridity has been discussed as third spaces, in-between regions that share attributes of the technology developer’s and the user’s domain, wherein individuals challenge assumptions, learn reciprocally, and create “new ideas, which emerge through negotiation and co-creation of identities, working languages, understandings, and relationships, and polyvocal (many-voiced) discussions across and through differences” .
Maybe even human-computer integration is not going far enough. Maybe it is a human-centered hybrid world that needs to become the focus.
What all these notions have in common is their emphasis on a relation between more or less disparate entities and how those form and reform partnerships (or fusions), whether referred to as hybridity, co-production, integration, third space, or something else. The reason why I favor hybridity over other terms is a simple one: Hybridity is likely to evoke a quick and expressive picture of “something merging,” which can be a powerful instrument used in scientific and public discussions of the future alike.
In HCI, one way to consider hybridity is the partnering of physical and digital entities. As such, hybridity is a characteristic not only of the future but of the present as well; everything computational may be considered hybrid, since it merges the digital with the physical. However, I would argue that the future holds potential for a purer form of hybridity, one where materialities that we don’t yet know will result in experiences that are not yet possible, based on a hybrid quality that no longer allows separation or distinction between physical and digital parts. Hybridity may be considered a quality that cannot exist when either the digital or the physical is missing. But how do we arrive at such a hybrid future? What does hybridity mean for individuals, and how will it be experienced? How is it designed, and can it even be designed? Who has a say? There are numerous approaches to these questions. Some are philosophical and ethical, exploring what is desirable; some are technical and get at what is possible; some are historical, regarding what led to the current state; and psychological ones involve how individuals experience this hybridity. In the following, I will focus on two of these perspectives, which are at the very heart of HCI: how individuals may experience a hybrid future, and how we as a research community can approach it.
If our future is going to be hybrid, I would argue that humans will experience the future’s nature as hybrid. This means that distinguishing between a physical world and a digital one may become obsolete. Computation will be (where it is not already) an inherent part of our environment: Mark Weiser’s grand vision of ubiquitous computing (e.g., ) made manifest. However, is computation going to be invisible, as Weiser predicts? If humans experience the environments they live in as hybrid, they might not care whether things are computational or not. Hybridity may even become an immanent quality of the future. Maybe it’s fine if there are computers and computational artifacts that are visible, but which at some point are no longer contrasted with the physical world. I am using a much-debated term here, nature. With this, I aim to emphasize that hybridity may become an inherent quality of the things surrounding us. At the same time, nature may be understood as something opposed to things that are human or made by humans—it is this very opposition that I question. Will hybrid things be separable from nature? Will they be experienced as being separated? Is nature becoming hybrid?
A lot is being said about digitization or digital transformation in the public discourse (e.g., ), whereby the digital is expected to change the known world in many ways. However, what is lacking in this public (and often also the scientific) discourse is the complementary idea of not only the physical world being transformed by the digital, but also vice versa. An example: E-book readers are, roughly speaking, digitally transformed books. Many of them attempt to mirror printed books as much as possible—their look and feel, their behavior, the interaction between the reader and the book (e.g., turning pages). However, it also works the other way around. Advancements in physical books are inspired by contemporary digital ways of reading, designed in the size of a smartphone, to be held with one hand, the text presented in landscape format so that readers can flip pages upward as if they were swiping a smartphone .
Another example: While computers (desktop computer, laptops, smartphones, etc.) may disappear as distinct objects, the infrastructure needed, such as physical server farms, is not likely to disappear. Anything that is required to produce, to run, or to dispose of ubiquitous computers will require physical non-ubiquitous infrastructure. However, the idea of what a computer is, the appearance of the computer, their expressions and forms, and how they are experienced might change completely. The question then is whether human-computer interaction will remain a field of research; maybe even human-computer integration is not going far enough. Maybe it is a human-centered hybrid world that needs to become the focus.
Further evidence that we are working toward a hybrid world may be the return to traditional objects and an emphasis on crafts within the realm of HCI. The revaluation of handmade objects (e.g., phonograph records) in their intersection with computation (e.g., getting mp3 files along with a phonograph record) may be interpreted as a wish to interact with objects that carry meaning and traces of use. This also includes revisiting practices and preferences, such as going to flea markets, setting up a beehive, or devoting the time and getting the equipment to brew one’s own special coffee—practices that are often discussed and shared via online communities. Furthermore, the processes and practices of crafts are gaining attention again. Woodworking, gardening, book binding, knitting, beer brewing—these and many other crafts are finding their way into our research as sites of investigation focusing on online and offline practices and meanings. They are also becoming required components of the things we research and design. Such a return phase is not exclusive to a hybrid present or future; instead, it is the intermingling of this return to traditional objects and crafts with novel, computational objects and crafts that may result in hybridity.
However, while these developments might lead us toward a hybrid future, arriving there won’t be easy. Gaps occur where the physical and the digital world don’t match. HCI has engaged with numerous examples throughout its history, such as when computational things are not usable for humans, and when they are not effective, satisfactory, desirable, functional, or aesthetically pleasing. And there are additional, maybe less-discussed mismatches: when URLs are printed in newspapers, when humans and robots get in each other’s way on the shop floor, and when a printed calendar and a digital calendar are used alongside each other but contain conflicting entries.
These gaps may be overcome by specifically researching the connections between the digital and the physical (something that, for instance, the TEI community is intensively working on). Furthermore, by considering the future’s nature as hybrid, we may even think of the physical and the digital as two complementary elements, which only together will provide rich experiences for humans inhabiting this hybrid world.
Recognizing our future as hybrid may also affect our research and design methods. When we aim to research and design this hybrid future world, we need to understand what the hybrid is and, even more so, how it is experienced. This includes both the physical and the digital, but also their intersections and integration. You may think that we already do that, but I would argue that we do not yet.
Research and design practices have evolved to create “something digital,” with the consequence of a dematerializing world. After a few decades, a rematerialization took place. In HCI and interaction design, this was coined as a material turn, characterized by an increased interest in the materiality of computation, a bridge “across the physical-digital divide” . This interest was spurred by a desire to make computers tangible, to integrate them into our known world. Advances in material sciences are also breaking ground for promising new interfaces and interaction, such as shape-changing materials, auguring new materialities and experiences for humans. While materials have always been part of HCI and design research (e.g., as Donald Schön’s seminal article on “designing as reflective conversation with the materials of a design situation”  in 1992 conclusively articulates), the explicit scientific discourse around their role in design and use practices peaked a few years ago. Since then, it seems that the importance of design materials and the materiality of things has been taken for granted; materiality has become part of the standard vocabulary of HCI and interaction design research.
With regard to designing a hybrid future, one challenge, as mentioned earlier, is to overcome the notion of the digital being adapted to something physical, or the physical being adapted to what is possible digitally, or, in general terms, something new being added to something existing. While this is not wrong in itself, it may contain the trap of being stuck to the past. In order to clarify this point, let me refer to Marshall McLuhan’s notion of media ages (e.g., ), which we discussed in detail in . McLuhan separated four stages of cultural history: a primitive tribal culture, an audile culture that uses the oral technology of speech, a visual culture that uses the mechanical technology of printing (the Gutenberg Galaxy), and the electronic age of television and computers. His argument was that particular media, prominent in each one of these phases, would focus on specific human senses, thereby depriving others. The result: Humans would unlearn to comprehensively perceive with all their senses. But in contrast to previous media ages, the electronic age would be capable of affecting and transforming all human senses by activating a sensual interplay. McLuhan argued that new forms of interaction would be needed to overcome sensory deprivations; however, new media would often not be considered in terms of their novel potential, but rather be forced to just replace older ones. Though there have been a variety of developments in past decades that contributed to sensory richness, I would argue that, in regard to a hybrid future, there is still work to be done to understand and make use of the potential of hybridity. For instance, many interactive artifacts rely on visual user interfaces, but only a few address other or additional human senses. This has been recognized within our community. Many scholars are working on ways to design for the whole human sensory spectrum, which may even be expanded (or transformed, as McLuhan described it) through hybrid things.
While there are many great developments that may be highly influential for our hybrid future, there are fewer ideas for how to actually design the hybrid. What about truly hybrid artifacts or interactions? Are natural interactions or tangible artifacts some of those? What about hybrid practices? What about hybrid crafts? How do we create visions for this hybrid world that is full of uncertainty with regard to the physical, the digital, and the integration thereof?
Coming back to the book example, there might be a potential new way of reading if an e-book reader were not just an imitation of a physical book. Hybrid books may enable a completely new reading experience if we could only envision a yet unknown form of reading, a novel way of interacting with text and words.
Radically rethinking a hybrid future may require a different approach from extending what is scientifically or publicly known.
One currently trendy way to envision radical new futures is design fiction. Considered as a research and design approach since Bruce Sterling’s seminal article in 2009 , design fiction found its way into our field of research in many forms and formats, ranging from design concepts, prototypes and products, and research abstracts and papers, to advertisements and catalogues. Mark Blythe and Enrique Encinas  provided a categorization of such formats, arriving at a map of fictional lands: The majority of design fictions would be residents of scientific highlands, characterized by extrapolations of current trends; they have more or less proximity to the great plains of irony, characterized by critical or ironic fictions. The fields of magic do not provide a scientific or rational explanation for their fantasy, and the oceans of ambiguity (e.g., leaving room for intentional misinterpretation) complete the fictional lands—and then there is the “wide space of future undiscovered countries” . However, as Blythe and Encinas state, there is a dearth of fictions that go beyond extrapolations through progressive exaggerations. Consequently, these visions may be limited; they are stuck in the present. While exaggerations are a powerful instrument to create visions of the future, radically rethinking a hybrid future may require a different approach from extending what is scientifically or publicly known. Design fiction may definitely help to envision hybrid futures, but even here, the most radical forms have yet to be explored.
Design approaches such as participatory design or co-design may also be affected when hybridity becomes a dedicated design goal. While making is an inherent part of constructive design research (often with professional craftspeople, makers, and coders as part of the research teams), we have seen few other approaches in HCI that consider traditional or new crafts as a necessary part of their research and design processes. In order to be able to envision a truly hybrid world, we might consider expanding the group of participants in participatory or co-design processes. For instance, when attempting to create the future book, why not include (heterogeneous) readers, coders, and book binders alike? However, the aforementioned argument of not just adding something digital to the physical requires us to take a step further; if we included only readers and book binders, we would arrive at an exact computational copy of a physical book. Though this might be fine in terms of the interactions and experiences they enable, radical alternatives are less likely to emerge. Thus, to broaden explorations, the list of relevant individuals and professions to be included could be heavily expanded: non-readers, listeners, journalists, calligraphers, and even knitters, dressmakers, and plastics engineers. Whoever may provide an interesting angle to create a novel reading experience. HCI could then grow beyond its current interdisciplinary character and become truly transdisciplinary.
Speculating about a hybrid future necessarily leads to questions of whether we actually already live in a hybrid present, and how the present and future differ. The boundary between a hybrid present and a hybrid future used in this article is certainly an artificial one that is needed for this thought experiment. It is not a strict boundary, neither in regard to a date nor in regard to a shift; there is no “hybrid turn” that distinguishes a non-hybrid past from a hybrid future. However, I would argue that past or current understandings of hybridity characterize interactions and artifacts as a sum of physical and digital parts, while true hybridity will be an inherent quality of the future, where blended physical and digital elements will be more than the sum of their parts—a future we are about to envision and create.
This hybrid future may be one where a distinction between computational and non-computational things might no longer be relevant. Considering a truly hybrid future, however, results in several consequences for individuals inhabiting it and for professionals researching and designing it:
- Understanding past developments may help in overcoming present issues to approach future hybrid things in new ways. However, those past developments may not just be transferred to match current ways of living; instead, things for the future also need to be radically and constantly rethought.
- The present hybrid-like world is a result of many well-thought-out design practices, but not all of these practices sufficiently focus on the material aspects of the resulting designs. Understanding how materiality plays out in our current world may be revealing for future materialities and experiences.
- The future hybrid world needs to be designed. Therefore, alternative future hybrid worlds need to be envisioned to provide a range of options. Diversity in users is important, as is the involvement of crafters, industry stakeholders, policymakers, and scientists, with a particularly promising contribution needed from the material sciences. Thus, in addition to who envisions and designs the future hybrid world, there are also the issues of how many, and of how heterogenous, how interdisciplinary, and how transdisciplinary these many are.
- Hybridity requires more than a digital transformation of the physical world: It requires us to envision inherently hybrid natures.
- A hybrid world will be full of experiences that may exceed the sensory impressions and effects to which people are accustomed. This process of enriching experiences is certainly happening all the time, but hybrid things could strongly expand individual perception and capabilities. It will also be exciting to see how individuals partake in creating their own hybrid environments and experiences.
However, a shiny new hybrid world may not be without problems. We don’t yet know the full range of materialities that can be created and the experiences that can be shaped. What power do future hybrid artifacts, environments, or practices have? What effects do they have on individuals, on cultures, on economies, on hierarchies, on minorities? What will hybridity mean in the next 10 years? In the next 50 years? Given the vast options of what a hybrid future can look like, boldness and reflexivity may become core attributes of HCI, alongside understanding, envisioning, and designing exciting new worlds.
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Verena Fuchsberger is a postdoc at the Center for Human-Computer Interaction at the University of Salzburg, Austria. In her research she focuses on the agency of human and non-human actors in HCI and interaction design (building on actor-network theory, among others). In particular, she is interested in the materiality of interactions. firstname.lastname@example.org
Hybridity as a central characteristic of the future is on its way, with observable examples along two converging directions. One direction is the physical world informing computation, such as how interactive artifacts look, behave, or feel. For instance, biotechnology is one fascinating example where biological principles are translated into technology to be used by humans (e.g., prostheses). The other direction is when computation informs the physical world. For instance, smartphones heavily influence the state and experience of our physical life. Smartphones may be considered in their relation to the human body, such as the feeling of nakedness people experience when leaving their phone at home; hence, smartphones may be seen as a form of clothing for humans. Smartphones may also inform the design of physical things, such as books, which have been designed to be held with one hand, with pages to be flipped upward like swiping a smartphone . Smartphones also influence clothing (e.g., dedicated smartphone pockets and headphone-cable outlets in jackets) and the design of furniture, such as kitchen work surfaces being equipped with inductive charging stations. This direction, however, did not start with the advent of smartphones, but rather much earlier. Who hasn’t at some point worked on a computer desk—those wooden, metal, or glass desks with a shelf for the printer, an extensible one for the keyboard, and a tabletop for the screen?
Creating a hybrid future requires research and design approaches that reflect the prospective inseparable interplay between the physical and the digital. For instance, crafts may also need to become hybrid. In regard to e-textiles, Mika Satomi and Hannah Perner-Wilson discuss future master craftsmanship, considering e-textiles as a contemporary craft that “combines novel materials, tools, and techniques with those traditionally associated with crafts,” thereby heavily relying “on the manual skill and technical expertise of the maker.” These crafts are risky, and full of opportunities for innovative solutions and new inventions . While they require a crafter to combine different disciplines in one person (often learned in exchange with others, though), I would rather think that future crafts require many individuals with different skills, perspectives, and motivations working together in hybrid crafts.
There are currently many promising developments along these lines. For instance, do-it-yourself (DIY) trends are complemented by do-it-with-others (DIWO) communities. Research collaborating with arts is another exciting avenue to envision and facilitate novel hybrid human experiences. Thus, envisioning and exploring a hybrid future requires not only the knowledge and skills of a certain digital or physical material or practice, but also the partnering of different approaches, perspectives, or rich disciplinary languages, and the shared motivation to actively create an enjoyable and sustainable future.
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