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”.
— kat jungnickel (@katjungnickel) March 10, 2016
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.