Technological Love/Fear: Reflections from CHI’17 Conference

This week, I attended the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI’17) in Denver and saw many excellent and thought-provoking talks about the interaction(s) and relationship(s) between humans and technology. CHI is a yearly international conference that attracts ~2000-3000 attendees from academia, industry and beyond who come to share and learn about the latest research in the area of Human-Computer Interaction. Many of the attendees are also presenting their own research and so it is a wonderful chance to connect with other researchers, practitioners, and thinkers in this area.

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CHI conference

This year, I presented a short paper that described a case study about how to engage youth in engineering education through hands-on maker activities, a poster about a novel wearable interface for therapists administering Sensory Stimulation Therapy, and a workshop paper about gender, e-textiles and Mayan weaving. It was a wonderful event and also extremely stimulating with ideas, social interactions and complex emotions (towards our collective future). In this post, I will share a few subjective highlights and reflections about the conference and its themes.

Challenging Boundaries

For me, the conference started with a pre-conference weekend workshop called HCIxB which was planned for researchers who work in the field of Information and Communication Technologies and Development (ICTD). Many years ago, I was lucky to attend a course taught at CHI by the late Gary Marsden, who was a pioneer in this field. His enthusiasm and clarity inspired me to try to learn more about this area and conduct several research projects in Bhutan, Mexico, and Kenya.

At the workshop, there were many researchers from Pakistan, Namibia, Mexico and other countries. This year, the new travel ban had caused extra challenges for the CHI community and many participants from the listed countries could not attend the conference in person. One way of bypassing this problem was to attend the conference via telepresence robots.

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Telepresence Robot with very long legs!

In addition to questioning the lines drawn between countries, many of the participants at this workshop also challenged lines drawn between research and practice. Listening to the presentations, made me think about some of the hard lessons I have learned in my prior projects where I tried to cross these lines myself and found it really difficult to both stay true to the goals of my projects and also make a lasting impact in the communities I was working in. This brought many questions to mind: How can researchers create sustainable, scalable projects to impact many people? Isn’t this role better suited to governments, NGO’s or even private companies? While questions of sustainability and affordability are really important and should be taken into account in every project, isn’t it too ambitious for HCI researchers who are often not trained in economics or industrial engineering to tackle them?

A solution that is adopted by many researchers in this area (including myself) is to collaborate and work closely with local trusted practitioners, NGOs or government agencies to translate research results into lasting products or services. Additionally, working with multidisciplinary teams helps with broadening the impact of research by incorporating diverse points of view. Of course, I have a lot of respect for researchers who have the capacity to put on practitioner hats in projects, and there are many who navigate multiple roles really well. I just think it is helpful to clarify that the main role of an academic researcher (at least in my mind) is the creation (or co-creation) of (hopefully relevant) knowledge and the communication of this knowledge to others (students, the research community, the public). This activity might result in societal impact or more importantly provide the ideas or impetus for others to make a large impact, but it is not the main focus of research.

Performance as Inquiry

Right before going to CHI, I saw an incredible immersive theater performance in Baltimore called, “The H. T. Darling’s Incredible Musaeum“. The play took place in the first purpose-built museum in the United States which the theater group had turned into an exhibit of imaginary objects from an imaginary land. The play progressed through several parallel plotlines that were both entertaining and also cleverly disguised a sharp criticism of colonialism and “Othering” that was at the heart of much European “discovery” of exotic lands and people. I deeply enjoyed this play and it made me think of the power of performance as a form of inquiry.

On the bus to CHI, I met a colleague who reminded me of a play she and her colleagues ( Jackie Cameron, Mike Skirpan et al.) had produced last year and I had attended at CU Boulder.  The play entitled the Quantified Self Data Experience invited audience members to experience a performed future scenario that raised questions around privacy and personal data. It utilized personal data collected from the participants prior to the play to give a sense of our vulnerability when we mindlessly interact with algorithms.

At CHI, I came across two other exceptional projects that talked about performance as a form of inquiry. One is a project called The Question that comprises of a theater performance for blind and sighted audience members that takes place in an entirely dark space. Through listening to sounds and interacting with a tangible interface, audience members get to learn about the narrative and explore the performance space.

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Tangible object used in The Problem

Another project in the design fiction track, “On Speculative Enactments”, by Chris Elsden and colleagues, described an approach in which they invited participants to “interact with, and experience, speculation”. Participants would use design probes (e.g., quantified dating cards) and interact with actors in role (e.g., a datagrapher for a wedding) and would describe their experience/feedback about the scenarios to the researcerhs. The presenters claimed that the approach allowed for a better understanding of users’ receptions and attitudes towards future designs.

This really made me think about the potential of using performance art more formally in HCI research (I am aware that this is already an established practice in other fields). The nature of digital systems are changing: rather than monitors with keyboard and mouse that one individual uses at a time, a lot of new systems are embedded in objects, the environment, or even on people’s bodies and are used in social contexts. Doesn’t it make sense for procedures that investigate and understand these systems to evolve so that they are sensitive to the complex dynamics that they embody? How can we learn about these systems without simulating or previewing them “in the wild” (i.e., in the real world, outside of the lab)? Further, what if prototypes did not only consist of research artifacts but of whole interactions (complete with performers, scenarios, and narratives) that could be performed? This approach is not new and as I mentioned above it is already being used (especially in the area of ubiquitous computing and in methods such as “Experience Prototyping“), I just think there’s more room to formalize it as a rich way to understand complex social interactions and to get informed not only by intellectual input from users but also emotional and affective input from them. Also, I really like the idea of having performer/actors as design/research partners.

Additionally, if a key part of research is the communication of ideas why are we in the research community still so obsessed with the written form as the ultimate form of knowledge output? Of course, writing might be the most precise and appropriate form for many forms of knowledge but for others, new media such as video, images or even performances can best capture and communicate knowledge. There is already recognition for this idea in many HCI research communities, including CHI, UIST, and TEI that highly encourage the submission of videos accompanying papers and DIS that has a whole pictorial track. One of my favorite (not limited to HCI) initiatives is the Dance your PhD competition! I hope that I can incorporate some of these ideas in my future research projects.

Technophilia/Technophobia

In the controversial opening keynote of the conference, MIT artist and researcher Neri Oxman challenged the boundary between the natural and artificial. She described her vision of a future world in which humans co-design with nature in an intimate way. Some examples included orchestrating a large number of silkworms to weave a human-sized cocoon and creating a novel 3D printing filament out of shrimp shells.

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A tent-sized cocoon that was woven by silkworms

Additionally, Oxman showed impressive 3D printed masks and clothes for artists such as Bjork and David Bowie that were designed specifically for their anatomy. Of course, many ethical and practical (sustainability, anyone?) questions arose during the talk but I believe there was much creative power in the visions that were presented. Additionally, there was a strong sense of optimism in the potential of technology and design to move us into a dreamlike state where anything is possible.

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Bjork’s 3D printed mask. “As a designer, I am a lover of nature, we learn from each other, shape each other and look into each others’ images, until we wake up with each other’s faces.” – paraphrased from the opening keynote by Neri Oxman

This optimistic theme of technophilia was present in several other talks and presentations. In a fascinating talk about “grinders“, DIY cyborgs who self-modify their body, Lauren Britton and Bryan Semaan, described how members of this community aim to move beyond established constructed social divisions and use their bodies as a site of social experimentation where embedded devices are used to reimagine a new society where the lines between (for example) citizen/scientist and man/woman are blurred. In other talks, Fabio Morreale and colleagues discussed how a new hardware platform supported the creation of a maker community, Thomas Ludwig and colleagues described the increased social interaction around 3D printing, and Shaowen Bardzell and colleagues explained how maker innovation can lead to policy changes that support creative economies. In offline discussions, representatives from Keio University‘s Superhuman Sports Academy described their vision of creating a new brand of superhuman sports. Of course, these views are reminiscent of the pioneering work of artists such as Stelarc in whose (in)famous words, “the human body is obsolete” and will be “constantly interrogated by technology”. For a thought-provoking (and shocking) talk by Stelarc see here.

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Grinders with embedded lights

In contrast, the closing plenary by author Nicholas Carr was full of warnings about the dangers of automation and how it distracts and takes away control from human agents. He described how the Internet is negatively impacting our short-term memory because we don’t have to remember things anymore, and how using self-driving cars will deteriorate our ability to drive and control a vehicle.

On a similar note, in a fascinating conference presentation entitled, “Us vs. Them: Understanding Artificial Intelligence Technophobia over the Google DeepMind Challenge Match”, Changhoon Oh and colleagues described the feelings of fear and despair that were experienced by audience members watching a five-game Go match in Korea between Lee Sedol, a former world Go champion, and AlphaGo, an AI Go program developed by Google DeepMind. After the talk, an audience member asked the presenter, “How would we feel if we were sitting in an audience looking at a robot presenting a paper at CHI? Wouldn’t it be threatening to us?”

Finally, in an excellent alt.chi talk (a conference track that is specifically for non-traditional work), entitled “Design for Existential Crisis”, Irina Shklovskif and colleagues, described the challenges of staying optimistic (and productive) in the face of real threats to human existence. Drawing heavily on the work of Viktor Frankl (among others), they stated how important it is for us to find meaning in life in order to survive future threats. They warned against what they termed, Bovine Design, which results in “tools that encourage passivity, rote-behavior, and a blinkered existence at a time of great uncertainty and change”. They encouraged designers to stop thinking of users as “them”, either the distracted masses or the elite waiting to sit in an Arch on the way to another planet, and instead think of users as “us”, the whole of humanity.

“Who am I? Who are you? Where are we going?”

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These were all extremely thought-provoking and made me reflect on my own stance in relation to technology. Obviously, the choice is not only to love or hate technology but to move on a dynamic spectrum of views that assesses each technology in context with respect to our think a lot about where I stand in the chasm between technophilia and technophobia. It is easy to try to think which one is really liked this talk as in some of my past work I have also tried to challenge the boundaries between digital and living media.

I think there is even a more meta-process behind the scenes (I’m inspired by Mark Blythe‘s work on plot and storytelling in HCI research). These extreme love/fear feelings towards technology are reminiscent of previous narratives around the role of God and Nature in making sense of the world. Doesn’t our relationships towards God and Nature and how we revere, fear and try to control them say more about ourselves? Aren’t our feelings of fear and love signs that we are trying yet again to project our responsibility into a mirage of future technologies?

I can appreciate and understand feelings behind technophobia (e.g., fear of automation, fear of Artificial Intelligence and even the more existential fear of technocratic domination and its milder sibling techno-paternalism, etc.). But I am also concerned that this fear does not recognize that we are not separate from technology (or nature) and thus cannot give up our responsibility to take control of how we use and abuse it. I do believe (after Marshall MacLuhan) that technologies are extensions of us and that drawing artificial lines between the natural and the artificial is a dangerous alienating practice (as Donna Haraway has warned in the Cyborg Manifesto). I am talking about technology in the original sense of the word where our clothes, pens, and books are also forms of technology. The fear of the end of the world is not new (see Umberto Eco‘s interview in Conversations about the Time).

This search for meaning is perhaps an essential part of human life (as Viktor Frankl would say) and it takes many forms including despair and confusion. But is it really wise that rather than looking inside and finding out for ourselves, we ask of Technology the essential questions of “who am I? who are you? and where are we going?”. It seems Technology and the Future are filling a gap left by religion and traditional dogmas that were weakened in the 20th century. My hope is that we can stop blaming yet another external entity for our existential misery, take responsibility for our being and live authentic, heartful and fearless lives (as long as they last).

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