Taking stock

Authors: Jonathan Grudin
Posted: Thu, January 22, 2015 - 5:20:50

Two years of monthly posts. A year ago I weighed the experience and suggested that discussion is becoming a less effective use of time, given the ease of scanning masses of information and perspectives on most topics. A blog contributes to the information pile, but engaged discussion may diminish. I see occasional spontaneous flare-ups or flurries. Does your online or offline experience differ?

Twelve posts later, another time to reflect. When Interactions began online blogs, my goal of one a month seemed unambitious—we were asked to write twice that. I stuck to it and now feel downright gabby. I persevered because the discipline of finishing by the end of the month ensures that something gets written. We may have envisioned less polish and more conversation. Some people read them—I’m not sure how many, but everyone is busy.

In 2010, Don Norman reflected on five years of authoring Interactions columns, writing “My goal has always been to incite thought, debate, and understanding.” He asked, “Have they made a difference? How can one tell? If I am to judge by the paucity of email I receive, the infrequent citations, even in blogs, and the need for me to repeat many of my arguments year after year, I would have to say that the columns have not had any impact. Is this due to the work’s inelegance, the passivity of this audience, or perhaps the nature of the venue itself? I reject the first reason out of self-interest and the second out of my experience that in person, you are all a most vocal group. That leaves the third reason.”

He shifted to the magazine Core77. His essays there drew more comments but were ephemeral. Typing “Don Norman” into its search engine returns 931 hits; in no discernible order one finds links to his articles, passages mentioning him, and other things. In contrast, Don’s 37 Interactions essays are easily found in the ACM Digital library. Two are among the top 10 most-cited Interactions articles and one 1999 article was downloaded 221 times in the past six weeks

If immediate impact is the goal, and sometimes it is, Core77 won. On the other hand, Interactions could be more promising to someone who shares Arthur Koestler’s view: “A writer’s ambition should be to trade a hundred contemporary readers for ten readers in ten years’ time and for one reader in a hundred years.” Don’s Core77 essays are collected on his website, but few authors expect readers to forage on their sites.

I edited and wrote Interactions history columns for eight years. I hoped they would interest some readers, but a major target was scholars embarking on a history of HCI “in ten years’ time.” (In a hundred years, the Singularity may write our history without requiring bread crumbs.) The online blogs are indexed and will be easily retrieved as long as Interactions and its blog interface are maintained, but they aren’t archived by ACM. There is no download count to identify which attracted readers. They may rarely be found. Why post?

I noted in "Finding Protected Places" that blogging is a way to explore, clarify, and sometimes discover ideas, to fix holes in fact or logic that do not become evident until reading a draft. Friends can help improve a short essay. A published post can later be revisited and expanded upon. Whatever its quality, each of my posts reflects thoughts that are carefully organized in the hope of propelling someone who is heading down a path I took, a little faster than I managed.

Publishing is an incentive to finish and to ask friends for feedback, but an essay that fails to clear my (fairly low) bar of “potentially useful to someone” goes unpublished. Don identified three goals in publishing. Unlike Don, I never hope to incite debate. All else equal, I’d rather calm and move past debate. But Don’s other goals, incite thought and understanding, yes. When I’ve agonized and made a connection, however modest, sparing the next person some agony is a contribution. If a more complete treatment exists, undiscovered by me and my well-read friends, it doesn’t matter if others are now wrestling with the same issues. Once in a while I discover a better analysis that was written prior to the publication of mine; I can revisit the issue and point it out. I have a few demons, but NIH isn’t one of them.


Where does this reflection leave us? After two years, continue blogging or rest? One of my demons is a fear of running out of new things to say without noticing it. Links to past posts, such as the two above, can only up to a point be justified as building on previous thoughts. Even with a low bar, the supply of topics I’ve thought about enough to produce a worthwhile essay in a few days is limited. Will a worthwhile thought per month materialize? A few remain, and electrodes could be hooked up to the carcasses of a few unfinished past efforts to see if they can be brought to life.

My greatest concern is that views shaped in the 1970s and 1980s offer little to folks with radically different experiences, opportunities, and challenges. I frequently dream of wandering lost in familiar rooms and streets, thronged with busy people I don’t recognize. They’re friendly, but they can’t help me find my destination, and show no sign of needing help finding theirs.

Since 1970, a guiding image for me has been the final scene of Fellini’s Satyricon. I recall the movie as a grotesque view of ancient Rome that Fellini shaped into a personal vision. A boy we have seen mature into a man attends the funeral of the poet who inspired him. The poet appears to die twice. At the beginning, he is a poor man kept to amuse a corrupt aristocrat. Burned and beaten for speaking the truth, he collapses after bestowing the spirit of poetry on the boy. Near the end, he unexpectedly returns as a wealthy man surrounded by aging admirers. The source of his wealth is not explained—I assumed it was his literary reputation. He is fading and soon dies peacefully. His will is read: His fortune will go to those who eat his body. His followers cite cannibalism precedents in the literature. The protagonist and several other young men and women briefly watch the gruesome feast, then turn to a seagoing sailboat and distant shores.

Posted in: on Thu, January 22, 2015 - 5:20:50

Jonathan Grudin

Jonathan Grudin is a principal design researcher at Microsoft.
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