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by Paul Dourish
MIT Press, 2001
Review by Andrew Sneddon, Ph.D. on Mar 13th 2002

Where the Action Is

     Imagine a desktop on which computational tasks can be accomplished via the movement of physical objects. Imagine identification tags that can communicate to electronic “blackboards” and to electronic writing pads. Imagine an answering machine that works by associating messages with marbles. Messages are replayed by choosing the appropriate marble and dropping it in the appropriate slot; they are deleted by putting it in a different slot.

     These engineering phenomena, and others like them, are the central players in Paul Dourish’s Where the Action Is. Dourish, once a researcher for Xerox, provides readers with a look at research into human-computer interaction (HCI). His purpose is to articulate a foundation for such an approach to designing computational systems. He does this by looking at several trends in current software engineering, noting both how they differ from prior approaches and how they are similar to each other, then by augmenting such observations with work from prominent phenomenologists. This culminates in the formulation of six principles for software design, analysis, and evaluation. These principles explore the implications of general features of the stance that has been articulated through the body of the book.

     Very broadly, HCI is a domain of research that studies and develops the ways that people interact with computer systems. Dourish’s first chapter provides a history of such interaction, revealing a broadening of the range of ways people interact with computers. We have come a long way from the days when human-computer interaction occurred directly through electrical circuits. More interestingly, this range of ways of interacting has broadened to incorporate skills we already have, such as the use of text and pictures to accomplish computational tasks. Current HCI research is devoted to extending the range of interaction even further by exploiting still more skills we already have.

     Dourish calls the stance he develops the “embodied interaction” approach to HCI. The notion of embodiment must be treated carefully to avoid misunderstanding. Although the implications of physical features of objects is part of the territory explored here, physicality is not really what Dourish means by embodiment. The central idea is “embeddedness”. Hence he also draws attention to social aspects of the use of computers. His point is that the ways we accomplish many important and everyday tasks are embedded in physical and social contexts that both constrain and structure these tasks. Hence one way for HCI researchers to exploit a greater range of skills is to develop systems that explicitly utilize these physical and social contexts.

     Dourish looks at two trends in current engineering that instantiate the embodied interaction approach. The first is “tangible computing” (chapter two). Research projects that fall under this term develop human-computer interaction via novel ways of using our physical environments. The examples we have already seen exemplify this approach. Some tangible computing projects envision computation occurring amongst a variety of objects, perhaps much more task-specific than familiar PCs, that are spread throughout a given environment and that communicate with each other. Other tangible computing research projects are attempts to give familiar objects new computational abilities, thus aiding our accomplishment of tasks with these objects, and perhaps making possible other uses. Still other tangible computing projects design whole environments, such as rooms for certain purposes, in which computational power is available to us directly through the physical objects in these rooms.

     The other trend that exemplifies the embodied interaction approach is “social computing” (chapter three). These research projects are devoted to incorporating work from the social sciences that makes explicit certain features of social reality into the design of software. Such social science work is important given a perspective on software that emphasizes both that software users and designers communicate and interact through the products of design processes, and that various users interact through software, not just to communicate directly, but also to accomplish shared tasks. The work of ethnomethodologists is particularly important to Dourish’s explanation of social computing. Their emphasis of making clear how social orderliness of action is achieved, maintained, and intersubjectively understood is enlightening for software engineers interested in using social skills to facilitate human interaction with computers.

     There is much for philosophers to quibble with in this book. The admittedly whirlwind examination of phenomenology (103-117) is the clearest matter. Other philosophers will be repelled by the very brief and far from unified discussions of topics in philosophical psychology, such as intentionality. Other people will find the early (4) characterization of interaction misleading. Here Dourish emphasizes the interaction of relatively special purpose computational devices to accomplish tasks, in contrast to the rigidly sequential approach implemented in algorithm-driven general-purpose computers. This topic is clearly important to the rest of the book, yet human-computer interaction is the central topic. I expect many philosophers to be bothered by the general lack of precision in the use of language. Another possible problem is the lack of discussion of the work of Hubert Dreyfuss, except incidentally.

     It would be a mistake, however, to dwell on such shortcomings. The reason is Dourish’s ultimate purpose. He is not primarily interested in theory, nor in the nuances of philosophical debates about the topics he raises. Instead, his aims are ultimately practical. Given that he wants to guide HCI research projects, my impression is that the small tastes he provides of matters close to the hearts of philosophers will suffice. I have no doubt that these matters could be tied to practice more satisfactorily, but for a short, general, programmatic book, Dourish’s approach is enough.

     The first three chapters, containing the history of human-computer interaction and descriptions of recent HCI research, will be of the most general interest. This material will be useful for anyone whose work involves ideas about what computers can and cannot do. It might also stimulate the imagination of those in a place to speculate about ways to use computational systems. This is the portion of the book most likely of relevance to thought about the therapeutic use of computational systems. Finally, chapter three is somewhat important for people studying human action. The material discussed here provides a useful corrective to overly “intellectualist” views (in Ryle’s sense) of the nature and production of action.     


© Andrew Sneddon, 2002


Andrew Sneddon is currently a Killam postdoctoral fellow in philosophy at the University of Calgary, where he is working on a book in philosophy of action. His other interests include philosophy of mind and moral philosophy, especially moral psychology.