A review of "where the action is?" (Paul Dourish)

Dourish, P, (2001)"Where the Action Is : The Foundations of Embodied Interaction", MIT Press: Cambridge.

The book is about the common thread between current developments in Human-Computer Interaction and Computer-Supported Collaborative Work: embodiment, which is a central underlying concept for tangible computing and social computing. Tangible computing refers to the distribution of computation across different devices in the physical environment, and are sensitive to their location and proximity to other devices and people. Social computing refers to the increasing attempt of understanding the social world for interactive system design. Both have in common the familiarity with the everyday world and the way we experience it, the facts that things are embedded in the world (which is physical but also a social context).

What is also important here is that this very notion of embodiment does not come out from the blue. It's connected to other school of thoughts in philosophy such as Husserl's phenomenology, Heidegger's hermeneutics' phenomenology, Schutz's phenomenology of the social world and Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology of perception:

Husserl was concerned with how the life-world was based in everyday embodied experience rather than abstract reasoning; Schutz recognized that this conception of the life-world could be extended to address problems in social interaction. For Heidegger, embodied action was essential to our mode of of being and to the way which we encountered the world, while Merleau-Ponty emphasized the critical role of the body in mediating between internal and external experience.

Of course, as Dourish argues, some others have also underlined the importance of physical embodiment as a resource to act: Gibson's concept of affordance is a relevant one for example.

Placing the source of action and meaning in the world is an important issue. It leads to Dourish's refined definition of Embodiment: "Embodiment is the property of our engagement with the world that allows us to make it meaningful", "Embodied interaction is the creation, manipulation and sharing of meaning through engaged interaction with artifacts".

Of course, this is a shift from previous school of thoughts in Human-Computer Interaction and CSCW that were more articulated around cognitive psychology and user interface design. This lead to specific methodologies (controlled experiments, lab studies) drawn from experimental psychology and also theoretical frameworks (like information theory, the importance of internal representation...). In HCI/CSCW, these methods and frameworks has proven to be not wrong but incomplete; see for instance the work of Lucy Suchman (or Edwin Hutchins) that promoted the importance of situatedness in cognition (as opposed to internal and preformulated plans): resources for individual actions are situated in the environment. This theoretical shift is followed by a methodological one too: sociology and ethnomethodology (because understanding real world settings, tensions and organization of actions became important).

Some excerpts are also directly connected to my PhD research: the ones about 'awareness' (p165, p174-175):

"Awareness is the informal, often tacit, understanding that collaborators have of each other's activities. Being aware of each other's activities helps collaborators organize their own activities to contribute to the progress of the group's work. (...) The role of awareness as an element in the coordination of work emerged first from field studies of collaborative work [Heath and Luff, 1992] (...) Awareness in collaborative systems may arise directly through the visiblity of the effects of other people's actions, or indirectly through the visibility of the effects of actions on the objects of work"

The book is full of interesting stuff ranging from mention of Wittgenstein's connection with Elvis Presley to relationships between designers/social scientists. Aslo interesting: Matthew Chalmers's review of the book.

Why do I blog this? first because it give me a framework for my research, especially related to collaborative and awareness concepts, and how these concepts relates to accountability, meaning or intentionality are of crux importance. Furthermore, it allowed me to expand my point of view from psychology (my original field) to social sciences as a whole (from sociology to psychology or anthropology). IMO, different methods can be applied to study different things. The problem is more about the theoretical framework which are still not that clear and often nascent.

Finally, this embodiment concept connects to my work about video games research since this is exactly what is at stake today: tangible and social computing are really the new direction that expand the vision of the gaming situations. Studying player's embodiment and designing accordingly is one of the topic I am working on (not in my phd but for my gaming research) in terms of learning how tangible interactions are achieved and what can we learn about that for video game design. For instance, the next wii console will afford new interactions that we are clueless about.