Monday, September 7, 2009

Common Ground

Common Ground
What is information? Information as Thing

It all begins with that kernel of “information”, which at first glance sounds so factual and dry. Looking at information more closely, as Buckland and Winograd have, it becomes obvious that information is not so clear cut. We change information from its “knowledge” state to its “thing” state every time we share that information. Convert it into “knowledge” by expressing information in any form and it becomes subjective and personal.

As I read Buckland’s definitions, I wondered that I hadn’t realized that before. It would have helped me have a better understanding of a summer full of healthcare bombardment. I shouted a loud “Amen!” when I read Buckland’s observation that “Sometimes information increases uncertainty”. It seems that both sides of the argument are often saying the same thing, and at other times both sides are clearly stretching the truth (as Buckland says, “Even if we dismiss the argument that untrue information is not information, we could still ask what could not be information?”). But with Buckland’s deeper understanding of information-as-knowledge, and information-as-thing, is it possible for all of our citizens’ healthcare goals to be presented in a way palatable and understandable to all sides? Is there common ground in every argument?

If ubiquitous Internet access has increased nearly everyone’s access to information by an exponential factor, in some situations it has also increased our uncertainty. I think about my own family’s health issues. When I had a fever or sore throat decades ago, I took my doctor’s advice as law, almost sacred. Now, when my daughter has a sore throat and the doctor writes a prescription, I rush home to check the symptoms online, and indulge in long hours of second-guessing. I pay particular attention to websites that meet certain criteria; Does the website I’m consulting for medical advice end in .com (obviously biased to sell a product) or .org (altruistic)?; Does the interface look professional and official (therefore potentially more reliable and knowledgeable than my chosen healthcare provider)? Has the information been presented in such a way to be understandable and comforting, or does it look like it was cut and pasted from the FDA warning in the medicine’s packaging?

How does our interpretation influence information? Understanding and Being

My take from this chapter is that information on its own is not good or bad, but hermeneutics give it the spin that colors the information to be interpreted as one or the other. Winograd talks about objective hermeneutics, or text that exists independently of any interpretation. Buckland might assert that any processing of information would negate any objectivity. Even computer processing has a human being behind it somewhere.

If the town hall meetings I attended this summer didn’t enhance my understanding of healthcare reform, at least they gave me first-hand experience with Heidegger’s “thrownness”. I attended an NAACP meeting in August where the guest speaker was our Congressman. When over a hundred healthcare reform protestors turned up at the meeting usually attended by a dozen friendly faces, the moderator was unexpectedly thrown into a situation where she didn’t have time to think before she acted – she had to react to the events as they occurred. There was no experience or model for the moderator to rely on; if she could have anticipated this overwhelming response, she might have “designed” the meeting so that she could have more control.

How did we get to this current stage of processing information?
A moving target: The evolution of HCI

As I read about the evolution of HCI, I marveled at the imagination and foresight of these HCI pioneers. In a time when only computer operators could physically interact with computer hardware via key punched cards, when even programmers flowcharted and coded on paper forms with little or no contact with hardware, visionaries like Licklider, Engelbart and Nelson were anticipating a future when computers would “become congenial tools that people would choose to use interactively” (Sears, p 5).

And it wasn’t just communication between the human and the computer that was difficult. A whole field of research focused on the difficulties managers had in communicating with people knowledgeable about computers. (Sears, p 7). I have to confess I sort of miss those days – I liked the feeling of superiority my understanding of multi-dimensional arrays and Assembler programming language gave me. Who cares now that I can interpret an MVS core dump?

Looking Ahead
Using computers: A direction for design

Winograd talks about developing aids to bridge the gap caused by breakdowns in human understanding. He mentions training as one of these aids (Winograd, p. 165). But is training an outdated notion? Do today’s users have the patience? We’ve come to expect things to be immediately useful. If a device requires training, we throw it away, replace it. Maybe I just need to adjust my understanding of what training is.

Looking ahead, what will be the next mandatory technology? As Sears says,“software that was discretionary yesterday is indispensable today” (Sears, p. 19). The reverse is also true. Few people have typewriters in their homes anymore, and even landline telephones seem to be phasing out. How many people do you know who don’t have a cell phone? Even Grandpa has an email address. As Sears suggests, perhaps “HCI will become invisible through omnipresence” (Sears, p. 19).

As I’m writing this, my 12 year old daughter is home on her own, and texting me for cooking directions. What is interesting to me is that she is using very few words. She wants to know if the plastic wrap we have it microwave safe, so she texts only “microwavable?” and a photo she has just taken of the roll of cling film. I ask (in full sentences, of course, with completely spelled words and correct punctuation, because I’m a throwback to an earlier age) what she is cooking, and she responds with a photo of a can of Campbell’s soup. This is very different from the conversation I would have had with my mother on the same subject, and illustrates Winograd’s observation that technology is “a vehicle for the transformation of tradition” (Winograd, p. 179). Transformation will happen regardless of our will. We can’t even choose what that transformation will be, because individuals cannot determine the course of a tradition. The actions of millions generate the changes, and the evolution continues.

Liz Foster

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