Human-Computer Interaction : Dialogue, Conversation, Symbiosis (1)

A few years ago I attended a public lecture at the RSA and afterwards, a lady asked me what I did. I am a computer scientist, I said. And, she said: What makes you a scientist? I use a computer too. What’s the difference between you and me?

This is the interesting thing about computing, and in particular the field of human-computer interaction: Everyone thinks they are an expert in it, rather like they do in social psychology or design. Everywhere we go, we observe other people and how our and their behaviour affects our social interactions. We discuss it often and refer to it as pop psychology. Design is the same. We design our spaces in our houses and at our desks, we live and critique the results of design. We are all social psychologists and we are all designers and UX experts. We all use computers and our phones to get things done, so we can easily identify what’s not working in an app.

However, this does not equip everyone to be the social psychologist who designs clinical experiments, or the architect who builds a house, or the computer scientist like me who, as I explained to the RSA woman, has built and repaired computers, written and supported software, trained users, shadowed and observed how people work in order to close the gap between a computer and person – whether expert or novice in their field – in order for them to do their job more better, faster, more creatively. When I get it right, it seems obvious, when I get it wrong, it’s a difficult or terrible piece of technology which doesn’t seem worth the time/money/effort. Like most things in life, it is much easier to criticise than to create.

Computing though comes with a load of preconceptions. I talked about it in the women in technology blog. Marketers got their hands on the home computer and changed it from a place for women to work to the domain of the teenage nerd. They created stories and stereotypes to tell us how computing worked. There has also always been the myth of progress. Technology advances so quickly and changes our lives that we can barely keep up. People rarely ask: Is this progress?

After taking a career break, I said to some mums one day in conversation that I would return to working more, instead of encouragement and without any knowledge of the field of computing, they told me without hesitation that computers change so quickly and move on so fast that it was too late. They said that it was over for me as the ever changing technology had left me behind. Had I thought about doing something else, something I could get up to speed more easily? The thing is even though I hadn’t been earning money, I hadn’t really stopped thinking and writing and researching my field, as it’s not a job, it’s more a way of life – something I like to spend time on. I doubt I will ever stop thinking about how people use technology, and more and more how technology is dictating to people how they should work.

Nowadays, I feel that some of the research I was part of 20 years ago is making it into the mainstream and that is super exciting, technology like augmented or virtual reality back then seemed to a non-computer scientist rather like science-fiction as was more unwieldy, super expensive and rarely mentioned in the public domain. It belonged in a hi-tech lab. Almost daily now, I can pick up a paper or magazine and read about another latest VR application, a cheaper more accessible version for everyone, based on what we were thinking about years ago.

So, I am starting a blog series here to talk about human-computer interaction, how I became involved and how what I do has changed. From designing a straight up dialogue between one person and a machine, to humans online who were originally monologuing before Web 2.0, and then holding conversations with multiple machines, multiple users, to now what I believe is called for, which is a more symbiotic approach between humans and computers that considers more human aspects such as trust, intimacy, privacy first and foremost for the safety of humans – and different to safety critical systems which were designed to prevent disasters – now it is personal safety disasters which need to be avoided using, amongst other tricks of the HCI trade, psychological responsibility. And I would like to look at where I think this ever changing digital landscape and the ubiquity of our devices will take us in the future.

Come join me and journey through the dialogue, conversation and symbiosis of human-computer interaction. I can’t wait to get started.

[Part 2]

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