The promiscuity of interaction”

This is a brief com­ment on a meet­ing Barry Brown and I hos­ted at Microsoft Research Cam­bridge, titled .

Inter­ac­tion as a a promis­cu­ous concept”: it’s Stu­art Reeves’ phras­ing that nicely cap­tures the sen­ti­ment of our small meeting’s dis­cus­sions. The col­lec­tion of short talks and the emphas­is giv­en to talk­ing (and not just lec­tur­ing), gave rise to a lan­guage of crit­ic­al but pos­it­ive reflec­tion. Rather than delib­er­at­ing on an after’ or post’ inter­ac­tion turn or wave in HCI, inter­ac­tion was seen to still offer a great deal. The con­sensus (led by pos­i­tions from Dav­id Kirk, Abi Dur­rant , Bill Gaver and Stu­art) was it provides us with a device or machinery in com­mon, and, con­cep­tu­ally, there remains much to do with the word that keeps us open to new domains and indeed new (design) pos­sib­il­it­ies. Here, I’m reminded of Isa­belle Stengers use of the phrase a tool for think­ing”. It cer­tainly appears inter­ac­tion (still) provides us with just such a tool.

And yet I felt there was a shared frus­tra­tion — or at least a frus­tra­tion in myself — of what lim­its come with using the word inter­ac­tion. With it, I find it hard not to feel bound to medi­ation as a cent­ral mat­ter of con­cern, and along­side that being drawn to a fixed divide’ between humans and machines that must be bridged or some­how solved. For me, this brings to mind Kar­en Barad’s ’ in which she intro­duces intra-action” to pur­pose­fully con­trast it with the the usu­al inter­ac­tion’, which assumes that there are sep­ar­ate indi­vidu­al agen­cies that pre­cede their inter­ac­tion”.

With inter­ac­tion, it seems we also struggle to account for the worlds that are instantly and irre­voc­ably entangled in our inter­ac­tions’ with machines, the scales of order (Eric Laur­i­er) or scal­ing (Alex Wilkie) that always looms large. Among her reflec­tions on the day, Kat Jung­nick­el reminded us of Leigh Star’s won­der­ful Cul­tures of Com­put­ing” in which she writes evoc­at­ively:

, typ­ing this, my neck aches and I am curled in an uncom­fort­able pos­i­tion. I try to think about my fin­ger­tips and the chips inside this Macin­tosh as a seam­less web of com­put­ing,’ to use Kling and Scacchi’s clas­sic phrase (1982). But chips make me think of the eye­sight of women in Singa­pore and Korea, going blind dur­ing the pro­cess of craft­ing the fiddly little wires; of clean rooms’ I have vis­ited in Sil­ic­on Val­ley and the Neth­er­lands, where people dressed like astro­nauts etch bits of sil­ic­on and fab­ric­ate com­plex Sand­wiches of inform­a­tion and logic. I think of the silence of my European ancest­ors who wore Chinese embroid­ery, mar­veling at its intric­ate com­plex­ity, the near impossible stitches woven over a life­time with the eye­sight of anoth­er gen­er­a­tion of Asi­an women. I think, I want my body to include these exper­i­ences. If we are to have ubi­quit­ous, wire­less com­put­ing in the future, per­haps it is time to have a less bor­ing idea of the body right now — a body polit­ic, not just the sub­strate for meet­ings or toys.” 

So, yes, inter­ac­tion ana­lys­is, such as that from Chris­ti­an Licoppe, offers us some com­pel­ling tools for examin­ing the unfold­ing detail of mundane activ­it­ies, but how do we extend these ana­lyses to account for a wider eth­ics (Yvonne Rogers), the body right now”, and indeed our own pro­duct­ive roles in enact­ing these cuts (Kat)? How might we focus our atten­tions not on the agen­cies intrins­ic in humans and things (before inter­ac­tion, if there could be such a thing), but where and how agency is brought into being (Alex Wilkie and Mike Michael).

I ask, then, is this the point of inflec­tion? As we turn our minds and bod­ies to very present tech­no­cul­tures that sur­round us, ones where things take on new agen­cies (Dav­id Mar­tin), have the capa­city to push back (Elisa Giac­cardi ), and where data infra­struc­tures and algorithms are per­vas­ive (Airi Lamp­inen and Barry), these weak­nesses become increas­ingly pres­ci­ent. How are we to think with the usu­al” inter­ac­tion here? How does a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with a human-centred inter­ac­tion with machines give us the capa­city to see things and prac­tices that stitch and weave across geo­graph­ies and over life­times? Do our promis­cu­ous inter­ac­tions, if you will, leave us room for think­ing and mak­ing around these sprawl­ing, always pro­vi­sion­al cos­mo­pol­it­ic­al land- and time-scapes?

Here, might we sketch out a way to move on in which the uses and design of tech­no­logy become ways to extend our think­ing about and with promis­cu­ous inter­ac­tions? These inter­ac­tions — from small scale, one-to-one tinker­ings, mak­ings, and repairs, to move­ments and trans­form­a­tions at scale — aren’t so much things that fol­low know­ing (or for that mat­ter pro­duce what we know); the divide here isn’t between know­ing and inter­act­ing. Rather they are act­ive pro­cesses through which we come to be in the world, not just in what we know, but how we organ­ise ourselves, what we value and care for, etc. We might grapple with things, mater­i­ally, at the one-to-one scale, but we are forever work­ing with their extend­ing web of entan­gle­ments (Abi Dur­rant). This, we might say, is to take inter­ac­tion ser­i­ously, to under­stand it bey­ond the object of study and see it more as a pro­duct­ive recon­fig­ur­a­tion of what for many of us have become the troub­ling dis­cip­lin­ary divi­sions between the social sci­ences, design and com­put­ing. What we have is an invent­ive ori­ent­a­tion to inter­ac­tion; wheth­er it’s the detailed study of car drivers using Face­book (Chris­ti­an Licoppe) or the eco­nom­ic and polit­ic­al assemblages emer­ging through widely dis­trib­uted Uber and AirB­nB use (Barry and Airi Lamp­inen), inter­ac­tion gives us a way to cast things dif­fer­ently and get closer, so to speak, to the entan­gle­ments.

Notes
1. Kindly atten­ded by, Andy Bouch­er, Barry Brown, Rob Comber, Anna Cox, Abi Dur­rant, Bill Gaver, Elisa Giac­cardi, Kat Jung­nick­el, Dave Kirk, Airi Lamp­inen, Eric Laur­i­er, Lucian Leahu, Chris­ti­an Licoppe, Dave Mar­tin, Mike Michael, Mari­anna Obrist, Stu­art Reeves, Yvonne Rogers, Francesca Sal­vadori, Anja Thieme, Tony Weiser and Alex Wilkie.
2. Stu­art has pos­ted the notes to his talk here. He has sug­ges­ted this as a com­pli­ment­ary read­ing: Ander­son, B. and Shar­rock, W. (2013). Post­Mod­ern­ism, Social Sci­ence & Tech­no­logy.
3. Abi ref­er­enced the piece Edge Town” by Hook­er and Kit­chen (2004), in her short talk. She has also sug­ges­ted E. M. Foster’s The Machine Stops’ for fur­ther read­ing. As she explains: [t]his is because this novella con­veys the ideas we dis­cussed about making-and-describing the macro and micro fea­tures of a world (of com­plex medi­ated inter­ac­tions) and, dare I say, the loc­al and glob­al’.  (With the 1:1 scale fea­tures of  inter­ac­tion being the stuff that design­ers can really work with. It man­ages to con­vey the com­plex­ity of a socio-technical sys­tem through depict­ing a few moments of rel­at­ively simple inter­ac­tion with the machine’.  The story also presents truly entangled human and non human bod­ies and their polit­ics, eth­ics, depend­en­cies, faith — and deals more spe­cific­ally with implic­a­tions around trans­par­ency with­in those medi­ated inter­ac­tions. This is des­pite being of it’s time and assum­ing cer­tain dif­fer­ences between people and the nat­ur­al world, and man and machine’.
4. See, Stengers, I. (2013). Intro­duct­ory notes on an eco­logy of prac­tices. Cul­tur­al Stud­ies Review, 11(1), 183 – 196.
5. See, Barad, K. M. (2011). Erasers and eras­ures: Pinch’s unfor­tu­nate uncer­tainty prin­ciple’. Social Stud­ies of Sci­ence, 41(3), p. 451.
6. See, Star, S. L. (1995). The Cul­tures of Com­put­ing. Black­well Pub­lish­ers, Inc., pp. 2 – 3.
7. Alex sug­gests this for fur­ther read­ing: Latour, B. (2007). Turn­ing around polit­ics: A note on Ger­ard de Vries’ paper. Social Stud­ies of Sci­ence, 37(5), 811 – 820.
8. Elisa has giv­en us access to her forth­com­ing book chapter: Things as Co-ethnographers: Implic­a­tions of a Thing Per­spect­ive for Design and Anthro­po­logy, to To appear in R.C. Smith et al. (eds) (2016) Design Anthro­po­logy Futures, Lon­don: Blooms­bury.
9. Airi has sug­ges­ted read­ing: Gillespie, T. (2014). The Rel­ev­ance of Algorithms.” In Media Tech­no­lo­gies: Essays on Com­mu­nic­a­tion, Mater­i­al­ity, and Soci­ety, edited by Tar­leton Gillespie, Pablo Boczkowski, and Kirsten Foot, 167 – 194. Cam­bridge, MA: MIT Press. Seaver, N. (2013). Know­ing Algorithms.” In Media in Trans­ition 8. Cam­bridge, MA. She has also recom­men­ded a link to the excel­lent read­ing list on algorithms that Tar­leton Gillespie and Nick Seaver have com­piled on MSR’s Social Media Collective’s web­site.
10. Thanks to Alex Wilkie, who won (some of) us around to Stengers’ and Bruno Latours’ Cos­mo­pol­it­ics. See, Latour, B. (2004). Whose Cos­mos, Which Cos­mo­pol­it­ics? Com­ments on the Peace Terms of Ulrich Beck. Com­mon Know­ledge, 10(3), 450 – 462. And Stengers, I. (2010). Cos­mo­pol­it­ics I, Bononno, R (trans.), Min­neapol­is: Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota Press.
See this post as one source for the dis­cus­sion.
Kindly atten­ded by, Andy Bouch­er, Barry Brown, Rob Comber, Anna Cox, Abi Dur­rant, Bill Gaver, Elisa Giac­cardi, Kat Jung­nick­el, Dave Kirk, Airi Lamp­inen, Eric Laur­i­er, Lucian Leahu, Chris­ti­an Licoppe, Dave Mar­tin, Mike Michael, Mari­anna Obrist, Stu­art Reeves, Yvonne Rogers, Francesca Sal­vadori, Anja Thieme, Tony Weiser and Alex Wilkie.
Stu­art has pos­ted the notes to his talk here. He has sug­ges­ted this as a com­pli­ment­ary read­ing: Ander­son, B. and Shar­rock, W. (2013). Post­Mod­ern­ism, Social Sci­ence & Tech­no­logy.
Abi ref­er­enced the piece Edge Town” by Hook­er and Kit­chen (2004), in her short talk. She has also sug­ges­ted E. M. Foster’s The Machine Stops’ for fur­ther read­ing. As she explains: [t]his is because this novella con­veys the ideas we dis­cussed about making-and-describing the macro and micro fea­tures of a world (of com­plex medi­ated inter­ac­tions) and, dare I say, the loc­al and glob­al’.  (With the 1:1 scale fea­tures of  inter­ac­tion being the stuff that design­ers can really work with. It man­ages to con­vey the com­plex­ity of a socio-technical sys­tem through depict­ing a few moments of rel­at­ively simple inter­ac­tion with the machine’.  The story also presents truly entangled human and non human bod­ies and their polit­ics, eth­ics, depend­en­cies, faith — and deals more spe­cific­ally with implic­a­tions around trans­par­ency with­in those medi­ated inter­ac­tions. This is des­pite being of it’s time and assum­ing cer­tain dif­fer­ences between people and the nat­ur­al world, and man and machine’.
See, Stengers, I. (2013). Intro­duct­ory notes on an eco­logy of prac­tices. Cul­tur­al Stud­ies Review, 11(1), 183 – 196.
From “[T]he usu­al inter­ac­tion,’ which pre­sumes the pri­or exist­ence of inde­pend­ent entit­ies”. Barad, K. (2003). Posthu­man­ist Per­form­ativ­ity: Toward an Under­stand­ing of How Mat­ter Comes to Mat­ter. Signs: Journ­al of Women in Cul­ture and Soci­ety, 28(3), p.815.
See, Barad, K. M. (2011). Erasers and eras­ures: Pinch’s unfor­tu­nate uncer­tainty prin­ciple’. Social Stud­ies of Sci­ence, 41(3), p. 451.
See Kat’s Tweeted pho­tos of the ori­gin­al text.
See, Star, S. L. (1995). The Cul­tures of Com­put­ing. Black­well Pub­lish­ers, Inc., pp. 2 – 3.
Alex sug­gests this for fur­ther read­ing: Latour, B. (2007). Turn­ing around polit­ics: A note on Ger­ard de Vries’ paper. Social Stud­ies of Sci­ence, 37(5), 811 – 820.
Elisa has giv­en us access to her forth­com­ing book chapter: Things as Co-ethnographers: Implic­a­tions of a Thing Per­spect­ive for Design and Anthro­po­logy, to To appear in R.C. Smith et al. (eds) (2016) Design Anthro­po­logy Futures, Lon­don: Blooms­bury.
Airi has sug­ges­ted read­ing: Gillespie, T. (2014). The Rel­ev­ance of Algorithms.” In Media Tech­no­lo­gies: Essays on Com­mu­nic­a­tion, Mater­i­al­ity, and Soci­ety, edited by Tar­leton Gillespie, Pablo Boczkowski, and Kirsten Foot, 167 – 194. Cam­bridge, MA: MIT Press. Seaver, N. (2013). Know­ing Algorithms.” In Media in Trans­ition 8. Cam­bridge, MA. She has also recom­men­ded a link to the excel­lent read­ing list on algorithms that Tar­leton Gillespie and Nick Seaver have com­piled on MSR’s Social Media Collective’s web­site.
Thanks to Alex Wilkie, who won (some of) us around to Stengers’ and Bruno Latours’ Cos­mo­pol­it­ics. See, Latour, B. (2004). Whose Cos­mos, Which Cos­mo­pol­it­ics? Com­ments on the Peace Terms of Ulrich Beck. Com­mon Know­ledge, 10(3), 450 – 462. And Stengers, I. (2010). Cos­mo­pol­it­ics I, Bononno, R (trans.), Min­neapol­is: Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota Press.

3 thoughts on “The promiscuity of interaction”

  1. If you’re keen to dis­cuss the concept of inter­activ­ity fur­ther then there’s anoth­er oppor­tun­ity at the Third Inter­na­tion­al Con­fer­ence on Inter­activ­ity, Lan­guage and Cog­ni­tion http://​www​.issilc​.org/​c​o​n​f​e​r​e​nces which is being held at King­ston Uni­ver­sity, Lon­don. The con­fer­ence will host a work­shop on Thursday 30th of June, 9.00 – 11.00am entitled: From com­puters to cul­tures: A cross-disciplinary study of the concept of inter­activ­ity — The study of inter­activ­ity spreads over many dis­cip­lines and top­ics, from human-computer inter­ac­tions, inter­act­ive learn­ing, inter­act­ive com­mu­nic­a­tion, cross-cultural inter­ac­tion, inter­ac­tion man­age­ment, inter­act­ive mar­ket­ing or inter­act­ive decision-making and prob­lem solv­ing, to name a few. Yet, it remains an elu­sive concept which may be used to describe pro­cesses tak­ing place in dif­fer­ent sys­tems (cul­tures, organ­isa­tions, groups, dyads, human arte­fact sys­tems) with dif­fer­ent social, cog­nit­ive and beha­vi­our­al out­comes. This work­shop will bring togeth­er schol­ars from dif­fer­ent dis­cip­lines with the object­ive to share and dis­cuss dif­fer­ent approaches to study inter­activ­ity and its impact on cog­ni­tion and beha­viour.” Speak­ers: Jen­nifer Misyak (Cul­tur­al inter­ac­tions), Anna Cox (Human-Computer Inter­ac­tion), Chris Howes (Inter­act­ive com­mu­nic­a­tion), Rob Thurn­er (Inter­act­ive mar­ket­ing), Gaelle Vallee-Tourangeau (Inter­activ­ity in dis­trib­uted cog­ni­tion), & Laure Caban­t­ous (actor-network the­ory).

  2. THANKS alex, a thought­ful and enga­ging sum­mary of the day! This all comes to life to me if I think of some­thing like Uber, where just think­ing about the inter­ac­tion’ rather misses where the action is’. I’m going to ask the old ques­tion again — whats your ideas for how we can move from being descript­ive and respons­ive to cre­at­ive and dis­rupt­ive?

  3. A very nice sum­mary indeed.

    I end up think­ing back again and again to two ques­tions for us: what’s at play” and find­ing where it’s at play”. I think the frus­tra­tion you speak of might arise from the new chal­lenges that face us in HCI in deal­ing more ser­i­ously with the worlds tech­no­logy is implic­ated in. (Which seems to be ever more things.)

    I like Star’s obser­va­tions too; they are inter­est­ing, insight­ful and so on, but in the end they are deeply unlikely to be at play inter­ac­tion­ally in how many people actu­ally mater­i­ally use a laptop. So it’s not neces­sar­ily a defi­ciency of a (say) inter­ac­tion ana­lys­is of laptop use. But rather it’s a defi­ciency in our own abil­it­ies to find places where such mat­ters are sur­faced and brought into play.

    So if we are inter­ested in look­ing at the entan­gle­ments we may need to look some­where else: e.g., the fact­ory or the clean room. And that’s hard (but worth­while).

    The con­fu­sion (as I’d argue) over agency’ is anoth­er one of these prob­lems. The answer is not neces­sar­ily, I think, to start try­ing to loc­ate agency in things but rather to work out where it’s at play, where it is rel­ev­ant. Again, this is a hard prob­lem because it prob­ably means we need to start going places that we haven’t before. 

    In short I think we need to find dif­fer­ent sites, places, etc.

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