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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Friday, April 04, 2008

demos remixed

I recently picked up a copy of Tom Erickson and David McDonald's (eds) HCI Remixed, which, while I've only read a few chapters, really seems like a fabulous collection of essays by some super cool people. I can't tell you how excited I was looking through the table of contents, not so much at the chapter titles as at the authors. I kept thinking, “ooh, he's in here. oh, and a chapter by her! hm, I wonder what he'll talk about.” so far, it's been pretty interesting.

one chapter that really got my interest was Wendy Ju's on The Mouse, The Demo, and the Big Idea. in it, she mention's the Media Lab's “demo-or-die” culture, something on which I have previously noted mixed feelings. from my experience, demoing forces you to be able to articulate your ideas, helps you refine your ideas by needing to present them, and gives you a good sense for what flies with which sort of people. on the other hand, some great ideas are not really demoable, and an overemphasis on demoing might lead to such projects not being developed as fully as possible. however, Wendy notes a couple important and interesting aspects of demoing that I hadn't considered.

one is a quote from her advisor Michael Hawley that “the true role of research is to flop bits in people's heads.” while certainly true, in practice, this becomes somewhat more specific; exactly which bits do you want to flip in which direction and in which people's heads? demoing is great, because you get a chance to flip bits in the heads of people beyond those whom you are targeting and with whom academics might not otherwise interact on a regular basis: business folks, politicians, government officials, public school students, public school teachers, foreign dignitaries, and other people. even if they never “use” what you're demoing, you get the opportunity to plant your ideas in their heads, and hey, maybe it ends up changing the way they think about something just slightly. we usually think about dissemination of research in terms of conference or journal publications; demoing can provide an opportunity to disseminate to a much broader audience.

something else Wendy notes is the way that demos can end up feeling like a sales pitch. “a great demo creates converts; people are not just knowledgeable about your ideas, they are sold on them.” I suppose this could be construed as a negative, since it really does end up making demos often feel like sales pitches. as a counter example, though, she cites the example of Engelbart's mouse demo, describing how he comes off as nothing like a salesman but instead a knowledgeable, passionate, sincere researcher. “a great demonstration,” she says, “is not hype, but proof.” I'll admit that I'm not quite ready to buy this assertion, probably because it strikes a little too close to that part of me that really vibes with Latour's work. people will believe in the device when the device works; the device will work when people believe in the device. it is not necessarily the case that a successful demo means a working idea, and a working idea does not always mean a successful demo.

this brings a the third interesting point, the Big Idea. Engelbart's “central goal in his research was augmenting human intellect.” at the time, most people were largely interested in either office automation or artificial intelligence, and the focus of his work didn't really fit into either of those categories. furthermore, people doing research in those areas didn't immediately, if ever, see the value of Engelbart's contributions, because they couldn't figure out how it would apply to, or help them solve, the particular batch of problems in which they were interested. however, Wendy asserts that this is often the nature of such big ideas. similar to Arthur C. Clarke's assertion that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from madness, she says that “any sufficiently advanced vision is indistinguishable from madness.” furthermore, the Big Idea itself “doesn't even have to be right, it just has to compel us to want to go out and do stuff, stuff that is different from what everyone else wants to do.” personally, I found this greatly encouraging. I'd been feeling recently that my research didn't really have a home. some of the stuff on which I'm working [LINK] draws on and uses a lot of AI and computational linguistic methods, but it really doesn't fit into any pre-existing box in those field (stuff like parsing, sense disambiguation, sentiment analysis, topic extraction, or the like). I think there's a place for this work in HCI, particularly with an educational focus, but there again it's sort of coming out of left field, not solving any particularly well-defined problem in those areas (such as supporting learning communities, providing constructionist toolkits, studying group cognition, etc.). while some of this research doesn't currently have a home as such, it's heartening to think that this lack of a home does not necessarily mean that it is not worthwhile; though at the moment somewhat homeless, it still has the potential to be valuable, compelling, and, moreover, make an impact.

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