Announcing a new CHI subcommittee: Critical and Sustainable Computing

Authors: Rob Comber, Shaowen Bardzell, Jeffrey Bardzell, Mike Hazas, Michael Muller
Posted: Wed, July 08, 2020 - 10:30:03

Reflecting rising interest in sustainability, social justice, aesthetic experiences, and critical computing throughout the HCI community in the past decade, ACM CHI now features a subcommittee devoted to such concerns: the Subcommittee on Critical and Sustainable Computing. Pursuing meaningful alternatives to the status quo, the subcommittee will encourage papers that explore how computing and computing research may contribute to fair and just relations between individuals, social and cultural groups, and whole societies, locally and globally—all in the pursuit of fulfillment and flourishing. This new focus should not only contribute to the CHI research community but also offer new resources for practitioners.

The goal of this subcommittee, which is a unification of two separate subcommittee proposals, is to create a home for the research at CHI that deals with the place of technology and technology-oriented practices in creating a fairer, more sustainable, and flourishing society. We aim to do so in light of the long history of work, in HCI and beyond, that has put computing and technology design in a critical spotlight—whether in the emanicipatory forms of, for instance, postcolonial, intersectional, queer, cultural, participatory, and feminist computing, or through the application and interrogation of critical theory, philosophy, ethics, and aesthetics.

Writing this in April 2020, it seems like an odd time to celebrate. In the face of the current pandemic—when many people are suffering physically and mentally, losing their jobs (and in some countries, their healthcare), and the stability of life-as-normal is unwound for vast stretches of society—it is our hope that this subcommittee can be one place to see a way forward for HCI research. Although the subcommittee has been more than two years in the making, its timeliness is evident. Now, perhaps more than ever, we need high-quality research that questions our assumptions, challenges positions of power (including our own), and attends to the social, environmental, and economic inequities and injustices of society, and the roles that technology and technology-oriented practices have in perpetuating and ameliorating them.

This is a continuation of decades of work in HCI, CSCW, and critique. The roots of the values that underpin this subcommittee extend back to the mid-1970s, with the 1975 Aarhus Decennial Conference focusing on critical computing; the lively discussion of HCI’s impact on society has grown ever since. The critical stance of HCI research has been continually sharpened to consider people—our own individual and collective expressions of our humanity and solidarity—as more than just interchangeable cogs in the machine. Critical, cooperative, participatory, and justice-oriented design have taught us to question who gets to or is allowed to make the machine. And now we must also ask, who benefits from it? In the past 10 years alone, papers submitted to CHI dealing with topics of sustainability, social justice, development, cultural computing, Indigeneity, feminist HCI, emancipation, race, intersectionality, and the relationship of HCI to politics, activism, ethics, and the legal and societal impacts of computing, have more than doubled.

And our community is also changing, both in formal ways—ACM has updated its ethics policy, the SIGCHI Executive Committee has established SIGCHI CARES, conferences now include sustainability and diversity and inclusion chairs—and in informal ways, such as CHIversity and the Sustainable HCI SIG, which have organized and created a more inclusive space for researchers at conferences and other SIGCHI professional events. This subcommittee will hopefully be the best of both—a rigorous and rich space to collaboratively increase the quality and standing of the work that this subcommittee stands for, and a strong and supportive community of researchers working together. We expect our community and subcommittee to be one that grows, but also one that helps researchers within our community to grow. We also hope to attract new interest from researchers in science and technology studies, the humanities, the arts, and policy studies, among others, to enrich HCI scholarship. We are strong advocates, in our work and service, for diverse voices, perspectives, and approaches. We recognize the significant practical, institutional, disciplinary, ethical, and personal challenges of the work this subcommittee is designed for. We want to be sure that authors know that their work will be respected for what it is.

As research questions change, and new epistemologies and methods are integrated within HCI, the community also needs to accept—indeed, to foster—new formats of intellectual expression. For example, increasingly the community is using essays and pictorials as new forms with which to carry forward the fundamental goal of any research community: the collective construction of knowledge. The space that we can create can also be open to new ways of thinking. Authors in fields of sustainability are pushing against individualistic and consumerist notions in our designing and behavior; authors in critical computing have long moved with interpretivist epistemologies; and those working in social justice and on structural inclusion are questioning and mitigating imbalances of power.

In short, the Critical and Sustainable Computing subcommittee aspires to support expressions of research that foster deliberative self-awareness and care in the research, design, and development of interactive systems. It engages the broader HCI community’s own contributions—both positive and negative—to concerns such as criticality and ethics in computing, social justice, and the climate crisis. Yet it does so inspired by individual and social flourishing, by artful ways of being, and by the brave actions of those within computing and beyond who have challenged societies to be more just.


We have been overwhelmed by the support we have received. We want to thank Pernille Bjørn, Eli Blevis, Mark Blythe, Susanne Bødker, Nicola Dell, Tawanna Dillahunt, Paul Dourish, Lone Koefoed Hansen, Ann Light, Silvia Lindtner, and Phoebe Sengers for their solidarity, mentorship, and intellectual inspiration. These people and many more remind us of the point of it all: to create a conducive and nurturing scholarly environment, if we can, for those who are in it with us, and for those who come after.

Posted in: Covid-19 on Wed, July 08, 2020 - 10:30:03

Rob Comber

Rob Comber is an HCI researcher and associate professor in communication at KTH Royal Institute of Technology. His research focuses on issues related to the democracy of technology, including social and environmental sustainability, social justice, and feminism, and to specific applications of computing technology, including civic society, food, and social media. [email protected]
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Shaowen Bardzell

Shaowen Bardzell is professor of informatics at Indiana University Bloomington’s Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering. Her research explores the contributions of design, feminism, and social science to support technology’s role in social change. She is the co-author of Humanistic HCI (Morgan Claypool, 2015) and co-editor of Critical Theory and Interaction Design (MIT Press, 2018). [email protected]
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Jeffrey Bardzell

Jeffrey Bardzell is professor of informatics and director of HCI/design in the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering at Indiana University Bloomington. As a leading voice in critical computing and HCI/design research, he has helped to shape research agendas surrounding critical design, design theory and criticism, creativity and innovation, aesthetics, and user experience. He is co-author of Humanistic HCI (Morgan Claypool, 2015) and co-editor of Critical Theory and Interaction Design (MIT Press, 2018). [email protected]
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Mike Hazas

Mike Hazas is a professor of HCI at Uppsala University. His research interrogates how digital systems contribute to increasing standards for comfort, fidelity and service provision, and thus tend to ratchet energy demand. He was co-chair of the Specific Application Areas subcommittee for CHI 2015—2017. [email protected]
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Michael Muller

Michael Muller is a Ph.D. research staff member at IBM Research, working at the intersection of social science and AI, with a background in participatory design and diversity studies. He is an ACM Distinguished Scientist, a member of the SIGCHI Academy, and an IBM Master Inventor. [email protected]
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