Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Communication Breakdown: Activity Theory On the Road

Groupware has had many definitions since its existence. The controversy of definitions is due to the multiple levels of networking in which it exists. My present research has been in the field of social software, specifically in computer-mediated communication (CMC). Popular CMC applications include social communities like Myspace, Facebook, Blogs, forums, and peer-peer applications like instant messaging. I am currently interested in how these social mediums can effect communication in travel with comparison to recent observations in the CMC field, and also what kinds of communities can be established through this new medium.

I would like to provide a brief overview of how social networking in travel would function. Projected design of such an application seems to be most easily imagined as an iPhone app. After successful retrieval of the app, one would be prompted to make a user profile (similar to Facebook). The object of the profile is to lure other users into a conversation with you. Users with similar profiles will be matched via connection server. Imagine each user with a data bubble around their vehicle projecting their profile to nearby users. When two profiles of similar interest are matched, both parties are notified with some kind of audio signal to avoid distraction from the road. By letting users know about surrounding “like interests,” possibilities are created for an ad-hoc communication environment. If the parties decide to connect, they are now free to chat through a voice call and discuss their similar interests.

The Human-Computer Interaction Handbook points out a list of issues that might occur when dealing with groupware applications. I would like to address a couple of them in context of a mobile-CMC (Andrew Sears & Julie A. Jacko, 2008).

2. Critical mass and Prisoner’s dilemma problems. Groupware may not enlist the “critical mass” of users required to be useful, or can fail because it is never in any one individual’s advantage to use it.

Critical mass would have direct correlation with whether or not a mobile-CMC is sustainable. For a social network to exist on the highway there would need to be a mass amount of users, or else not enough “similar interest matches” would be made to hold the user’s interest. Taking a look at Facebook in comparison, its online culture has changed dramatically since its creation. When Facebook was created it was limited to the culture of college students. Once it expanded to allow all sectors of society, online cultures started forming infinite new relations. Not only did new bonds form online, but through virtual activities real-world connection also are affected.

3. Disruption of social processes. Groupware can lead to activity that violates social taboos, threatens existing political structures, or otherwise de-motivates users crucial to its success.

I think this issue is related to similar issues in value sensitive design. With Facebook, the most common VSD issue is that of privacy. In the evolution of Facebook’s growing capabilities, multiple social taboos arose including privacy. The issue of privacy arose as an ethical issue and threatened the growth of Facebook’s culture. With people afraid to share content and develop deeper profiles, creations of new virtual subcultures seemed to come to a standstill. It is not hard to believe that comparable situations could arise in the mobile-CMC scenario. However, I think there is another value that has higher importance in mobile-CMC design. Human welfare is always the first topic brought up when discussing new entertainment for travel. Entertainment while travel provides a stimulus for the mind to keep alert while driving. It can also induce distractions that have negative effects on welfare. Obvious precautions can be designed to keep the mobile-CMC “hands free” or semi auto-mated, reducing distraction.

I would like to refer to a theory pulled from Kari Kuutti’s research on Activity Theory in response to welfare and distraction while driving. Kuutti explains that, “A good example of action-operation dynamics is learning to use a manual gearbox when driving a car.” Kuutti describes how actions like using the clutch, brake, gas, and shifter all require planning, sequencing and decisions. However, after a while the actions become part of a bigger equation, which is called an “operation” (Kuutti, 1995). I believe after a prolonged use of social networking applications in travel, users will acquire a more “operational view” to communication while driving. I believe communication while driving will become part of the operation of driving as is shifting, thereby eliminating communication from the list of distractions.

It is important to identify the type of social software exhibited by this system to properly predict issues it might have with information flow. I mostly imagine this system as a Peer-Peer application. However, most instant messaging applications are not necessarily designed for social networking. Facebook, on the other hand, is specifically used to provide friends or acquaintances with status information about you. Through this method, a chain reaction of finding users with similar interests can occur. Consequentially groups are formed, activities are scheduled and knowledge is traded. In essence, the traveling social network takes on the “hive mind” characteristics and abilities of Facebook, while harnessing the more privatized communication of instant messaging.

Judging from the progression of communities that have formed on Facebook, blogs, and forums, it seems that a mobile-CMC would develop a related social structure. Looking at the chart taken from Jonathan Grudin’s article one “Computer-Supported Cooperative Work,” I will compare today’s common Social applications to my theoretical mobile-CMC (Grudin, 1994).Facebook interactions occur generally in the middle time row. If a message is posted on Facebook, one can expect a person to receive it in an average amount of time. I believe this to be true for the mobile-CMC situation. If both users are aware of each other, a conversation should be expected to start within an average time. The two types of communication differ when it come to place. Since users are connected from distance through Facebook, it is appropriate to say that they are in different locations. It is also appropriate to say that it is predictable that the user being messaged will get on Facebook to receive said message. This would place Facebook somewhere in range of electronic mail. With the mobile-CMC situations, users are technically in the same location (the highway) since they have to be within short range of each other to communicate. This places the mobile-CMC more in range of tele/video conferences (real-time conferencing).

It has taken a good four years for Facebook to yield so many virtual subcultures. Building from that existent framework and placing social communication in a real-time medium could increase the rate for social development of mobile-CMC. Coherent and familiar interfaces will allow users to quickly adapt to the new form of entertainment/communication. Given that critical mass is met users will be able to new cultures specifically based on highway travel. For example, maybe “user 1” travels at the same time during rush hour as “user 2,” after multiple connections “user 1” is informed by “user 2” that there is a shortcut that cuts 20 minutes off the trip. In turn “user 1” shares this information with “user 3” which met on the way to the mall. Not only does this create opportunity for collective intelligence and problem solving, but it also creates superior chances for marketing.

Today “user 1” is traveling down the highway thinking about the broken toilet that sits at home. In the upcoming stretch he notices that “user 2” (a plumber/contractor). “User 1” is granted a connection and asks “user 2” if the company services his area. “User 2” regretfully replies no, but provides the suggestion that his mother company resides in “user 1’s” town. The first user efficiently got useful information (that was allocated out of a set schedule of time wasted driving) from the second user who just brought in a possible client for his company (on his way to another client). These real-time efficiencies make this social networking system a great benefit to the travel experience.

Computer-mediated communication has come a long way since the 1980’s. Building from past frameworks and HCI studies can prove to be very beneficial to design. Grudin and Kuutti have found logical ways to organize the data gathered about HCI statistics. Although at this point in time social networking while driving may seem to project negative effects on human welfare through distraction, I believe the product of social activity and collaboration weigh out positively.

Works Cited
Andrew Sears & Julie A. Jacko. (2008). The Human–Computer. New York: Lawrence Earlbaum Associates.
Grudin, J. (1994). Computer-Supported CooperativeWork : History and Focus. Irvine: University of California.
Kuutti, K. (1995). Activity Theory as a potential framework for HCI Research. Boston: Cambridge: MIT Press.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Participatory Design

As a usability/user experience professional working for the e-commerce team of a telecommunications company, I had heard of participatory design, but never knew much about it or worked with anyone who had experience in it. It sounded logical to me to involve end-users in the software design process. However, I had heard that it more specifically meant involving users in the design process directly, something that seemed problematic to me.

I guess it’s natural to me that involving end-users in the design process is essential. Doing so will help you to better define your requirements, to understand your end-users’ goals, needs and environmental contexts and to verify that what you are creating is on track. However, it was clearly noted in my mind that end-users (in our markets) are rarely software/website designers and thus do not have the training or advanced techniques/understanding that these professionals have.

For example, end-users may struggle with something and not have the words or knowledge to specify what the problem is exactly. However, a designer can observe their struggle and understand that a subtle fix can make a significant improvement. Still, it seems reasonable that obstacles like that can be challenged and domains can be bridged.

In fact, Michael Muller discussed the idea of a third space, a “hybrid of space between software professionals and end-users”. In this space where the two groups come together, assumptions can be questioned, knowledge can be exchanged, and a common language can be established to the betterment of both groups. He described Participatory Design as creating this third space which in turn can benefit the field of Human Computer Interaction. He then examined a variety of Participatory Design methods to see how well each contributed to the goals of hybridity.

Within his Participatory Design chapter, Muller summarizes the claims of third spaces, which include, among other attributes:
  • Questioning and challenging of assumptions
  • Mutual learning
  • Synthesis of new ideas
  • Negotiation and (co-)creation of Identities, working language, working assumptions and dynamics, understandings, relationships
  • Dialogue across and within differences
The elements of Participatory Design are intriguing – a dialogue between people from separate domains facilitated by hands-on activities. Issues that come to my mind as I consider how I might apply this to my work are practical ones such as, how many Participatory Design sessions in a design process, where in the lifecycle does this fit, how many end-users, how to recruit/screen, how to analyze results and turn them into actionable outcomes, how could I make a case for this at my company. Muller identifies a few as well, one of which is the concern for universal usability. He points out that nearly all of the Participatory Design methods that he examined are “highly visual and require hands-on manipulation of materials”, making them not accessible to many people with limited visual or motor skill abilities.

A recent paper by Loebbecke and Powell (2009) discusses Distributed Participatory Design and the need for it to evolve by learning from other collaborative design methods. They point out that Participatory Design was initially developed for groups of software professionals and end-users to meet physically in the same location, which was appropriate for the time. With the common practice today of virtual teams who may be in separate countries and time zones, Distributed Participatory Design has developed. The authors compared Distributed Participatory Design with other collaborative design methods (Distributed Action Research and Distributed Design Science) to discover similarities between approaches that might be beneficial to all.

They identified several issues that practitioners have with Distributed Participatory Design, physical distribution (separation of people and resources), organizational distribution (work structure, differences in skill levels, knowledge levels) and temporal distribution (limited time teams can meet virtually given differences in time zones).

Loebbecke and Powell describe the Action Research method as one in which some change is introduced to complex social processes followed by observation of those processes and any effect(s) of the change. The steps are part of an iterative process and involve (1) Understanding and diagnosis of the situation and its underlying dynamics, (2) action planning, (3) intervention, (4) evaluation, and (5) reflection.

The authors then describe the Design Science method as concerned with creating something new and innovative to enhance HCI often to solve a business problem/need. They present seven principles suggested by Hevner et al (2004): (1) ‘Design as an artifact’, i.e., producing a viable artifact (construct, model, method, instantiation), (2) ‘problem relevance’, i.e., searching for important solutions for the business world, (3) ‘design evaluation’, i.e. assuring quality and utility of an artifact, (4) ‘research contributions’, i.e., reflecting upon the design (how did she/he contribute to the body of knowledge he used?), (5) ‘research rigor’, i.e., rigorously applying methods along the process, (6) ‘design as a search process’, i.e. stressing the dual imperative between solutions and environmental constraints, and finally (7) ‘communication of the research’ underlining the double audience of stakeholders and research community.

After conducting a textual analysis of the three approaches looking at publications and projects, Loebbeck and Powell found many commonalities (research focus, outcomes, and research process) and differences (terminology, references, and audiences). They were concerned with the separation of these areas, referring to them as “walled gardens”.

They suggest that these approaches may be better considered as paradigms than methods. They also recommend that researchers of Distributed Participatory Design would benefit from looking to Distributed Action Research and Distributed Design Research for inspiration.
“This research suggests that there is a lack of cross-fertilization from approach to approach, and that walled gardens exist or are starting to emerge. Thus, there is a need for the walled gardens of different methods to at least have windows so that knowledge can be exchanged and ultimately the walls need to be removed. However, as demonstrated by this research, the walls are high at present and, though there is some evidence of cracks in the windows, distributed PD may miss potential sources of enrichment”.

Although I find that I still have many unanswered questions about this approach or paradigm, I am inspired by the potential that it and other collaborative methods have to offer.

Muller, M. J. (2007). Participatory design: The third space in HCI. In Sears, A. & Jacko, J. (Eds.). The Human-Computer Interaction Handbook: Fundamentals, Evolving Technologies and Emerging Applications, 2nd Edition. (pp. 1061-1082). Lawrence Erlbaum.

Loebbecke, C. & Powell, P. (2009). Furthering Distributed Participative Design. In Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems, 21:1 (pp. 77-106).

Virtual Environments for Computer-Supported Coopertive Work: Too Quickly Dismissed, or a Waste of Time? (and a little summary of Olson and Olson)

This week’s reading included a chapter in The Human Computer Interaction Handbook, called “Groupware and Computer-Supported Cooperative Work,” written by Gary and Judith Olson from the University of Michigan. In this chapter, they recount the history of various computer-based tools designed to facilitate cooperative work. They refer to this technology as “groupware.” References are made to many of the HCI pioneers that we have already studied this semester, such as Vanever Bush and Doug Englebart. Email is pointed to as the first truly successful groupware application, and the increasing use of instant messaging in the workplace is discussed as being a big development in computer-supported cooperative work. I found these sections to be of interest, because I work in a corporate culture where even email is viewed as a new technology and is not widely accepted. Although reluctance by coworkers to accept such a basic technology as email can be extremely frustrating, it has also provided me with an opportunity to watch the shift in communication paradigms as those things are adopted in our office. It is interesting to watch people begin to map their very laborious communication tasks (like walking across the building to speak to someone, or hand-writing notes to people) to more efficient, computer-mediated media. Instant messaging was also introduced during the past year, and while I am still one of the few who use this tool, I have found the “status” feature to be extremely useful. Our internal IM tool automatically determines a person’s status, based on computer activity, unless the person manually changes their status. This means that I can generally tell if someone is in their office, before I attempt to contact them, which saves me a great deal of time. Our change control system is still entirely manual, which means that when I revise an instruction manual (which happens on a daily basis), I have to complete a multi-page form, and actually walk it around the building to get various people (10-15 people) to review the revisions and manually sign the approval form. This little activity constitutes the biggest waste of my time that I have ever experienced, and knowing whether people are in their office is a big time saver for me.

The authors of this paper go on to discuss various online meeting tools (we use Live Meeting at work), workflow tools (we have no such thing, unfortunately), and group calendars. I could relate and understand most of what they said, as we use many of these tools where I work. As with other tools, use of some of these tools is frustrated by hesitation by the aging population of the office to accept new technology. Group calendars and specifically the ability to schedule meetings and reserve conference rooms via Microsoft Outlook is a particularly neglected tool. I often schedule a meeting via Outlook, and arrive at the reserved conference room at the appointed time, to find another meeting taking place. When I inform the squatters that I have reserved the room, I have been told on more than one occasion they they had also reserved the the room…by posting a note on the door, or telling the receptionist that they would be using it. So, while these technologies are extremely useful, I’ve had the opportunity to see first hand the challenges faced during the transitional phases of technology adoption.

Of greater interest to me is the authors’ discussion of “integrated spaces” for computer-supported collaboration. The authors give us a brief description of “media spaces,” which are persistent, bi-directional audio/video streams between two geographically distant locations. It is suggested that research has shown these to be ineffective for distributed collaboration. The authors then touch very briefly on collaboration in virtual environments.

My primary research focus this semester (both in this class and in another) has been the use of 3-D immersive virtual environments to perform various communication tasks. The authors of this paper suggest that virtual environments are ineffective for distributed collaboration, because “in use, it is difficult to establish mutual awareness or orientation in such spaces” (Olson). However, I think this finding could be a bit outdated at this point. Having reviewed the sources indicated by the Olsons, I find that only Hindmarsh, et al. suggests that virtual environments are ineffective as distributed collaboration tools, and that study is quite old (11 years old), and was performed using technology that doesn’t even exist anymore (Hindmarsh, et al., 1998). I believe that modern virtual environments and the hardware used to interact within them are advanced far beyond what Hindmarsh et al. used in their study, and that the difficulties they experienced (primarily due to a limited field of view) have now been overcome. The other sources cited by the Olsons are nearly as old, use the CAVE virtual environment (which uses a vastly different interface than typical modern virtual environments), and fail to suggest that virtual environments are ineffective for distributed collaboration (Park, et al., 2000; Yang, 2002). My research indicates that virtual environments are more effective for distributed communication than other forms of electronic media (Bricken, 1992; Bronack, 2008; Franceschi, 2008; Martinez, 2008), primarily due to the enhanced set of communication tools that are available to users of virtual worlds. Studies have also suggested that one of the key benefits of collaboration in a virtual environment is the user’s sense of physical proximity to other users, which results in enhanced feelings of trust between users. In general, I believe that virtual environments have the potential to increase productivity in the workplace exponentially. In addition to the ease of collaboration between geographically distributed users, virtual environments can isolate users from the sensory distraction factors that exist in a typical open office environment, which will dramatically enhance focus and productivity (but that’s the topic of another paper…coming soon). The Olsons have given us a strong foundation in CSW technology, and while I believe they misjudged virtual environments (which I think have the potential to solve virtually all of the problems mentioned in their paper/chapter), they have definitely provided food for thought, and inspiration for future research and development. 


Banbury, Simon P., et al. “Auditory Distraction and Short-Term Memory: Phenomena and Practical Implications.” Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 43.1 (2001): 12-29.

Bricken, Meredith. “Virtual worlds: No interface to design.” Ed. M. Benedikt. Cyberspace: First steps. Cambridge: MIT Press, (1992).

Bronack, Stephen C., et al. “Designing Virtual Worlds to Facilitate Meaningful Communication: Issues, Considerations, and Lessons Learned” Technical Communication 55.3 (2008): 261-267.

Bronack, Stephen C., et al. “Presence Pedagogy: Teaching and Learning in a 3D Virtual Immersive World” International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education 20.1 (2008): 59-69.

Dickey, Michele D. “Three-dimensional virtual worlds and distance learning: two case studies of Active Worlds as a medium for distance eductation” British Journal of Educational Technology 36.3 (2005): 439-451.

Franceschi, Katherine G., and Ronald M. Lee. “Virtual Social Presence for Effective Collaborative E-Learning” Proceedings of the 11th Annual International Workshop on Presence. 2008.

Gabbard, Joseph L. A Taxonomy of Usability Characteristics in Virtual Environments. MS thesis Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 1997.

Hindmarsh, Jon., et al. “Fragmented Interaction: Establishing Mutual Orientation in Virtual Environments” Proceedings of Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work. 1998.

Kirschner, Paul A. “Why Unguided Learning Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Discovery Learning, Problem-Based Learning, Experiential Learning, and Inquiry-Based Learning” Educational Psychologist. 2004.

Martinez, Nicola. “Second Life: The Future of Communications?” Proceedings of the 55th Annual Conference of the Society for Technical Communication. 2008.

Padmanabhan, Poornima. “Exploring Human Factors in Virtual Worlds.” Technical Communication 55.3 (2008): 270-275.

Park, Kyoung S., et al. “Lessons learned from employing multiple perspective in a collaborative virtual environment for visualizing scientific data” Proceedings of ACM CVE 2000 Conference on Collaborative Virtual Environments. 2000.

Slater, Mel. “Measuring Presence: A Response to the Witmer and Singer Presence Questionnaire” Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments 8.5 (1999): 560-565.

Witmer, Bob G., and Michael J. Singer. “Measuring Presence in Virtual Environments: A Presence Questionnaire” Presence 7.3 (1998): 225-240.

Yang, Huahai, and Gary M. Olson. “Exploring collaborative navigation: the effect of perspectives on group performance” Proceedings of CVE ’02. 2002.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Distributed Cognition, Red Balloons, & Bioluminecent Squids (oh my)

Hutchins et al originally developed the theory of distributed cognition studying the workings of a Navy ship crew. In Distributed Cognition in an Airline Cockpit (1996) Hutchins & Klausen update this work by exploring cognitive theories about the workings of an airline cockpit by taking the unit of analysis to be the functional group and their organized processes and interactions rather than their individual minds. [1]

The ideas of distributed cognition have philosophical implications that bring to mind far-out science fiction ideas and visions of a future with a technology-mediated hive minded consciousness. Since cognition generally refers an information processing model, the actual approach of the theory is much more utilitarian than philosophical. Hutchins’ early work in shaping disturbed cognition theory arouse out of the need to apply cognitive theory to the workings of a ship crew and an airplane cockpit, and other highly organized distributed groups.

So, despite the interesting philosophical implications that challenge traditional models of the mind, distributed cognition is a surprisingly simple and elegant theory that works very well as a model.

Distributed cognition theory simply extends the level of analysis beyond the individual. The difference between someone who remembers something by writing it down and someone who relies on their short term memory is simply the difference between a cognitive system using an external process (pen, paper, and written language) or an internal process (short term memory). This idea of embodied cognition has many implications for HCI particularly with recent advances in ubiquitous mobile computing and emerging augmented reality technology making the separation between the individual and the “computer” thinner and thinner.

In Distributed Cognition: Towards a New Foundation for Human-Computer Interaction Research, Hollan, Hutchins, & Kirsh list three tenets of distributed cognition:

1. Distributed cognition is social
Hollan et al. present social organization as form of cognitive architecture. They argue that cognitive processes involve trajectories of information and the patterns of these information trajectories reflect some underlying cognitive architecture. Social aspects of distributed cognition have been widely studied and examples include the behavior of juries and the stock market.

2. Distributed cognition is embodied
In the embodied view of distributed cognition, minds are more than passive engines that render internal models of external phenomena. The organization of mind in development and in operation is an emergent property of interactions among internal and external resources.

In this view, work materials are more than mere stimuli for a disembodied cognitive system. From time to time they become elements of the cognitive system itself. Other examples such as a blind person’s cane or corrective eye glasses become a central part of the way some individuals perceive the world. Well designed work materials, such as a calendar alert system on a mobile device, become integrated into the way people think, see, and control activities, part of the distributed system of cognitive control.

3. Distributed cognition is culturally embodied
This view, includes the complex cultural environments in which we all live and work. Culture shapes the cognitive process of systems that transcend the boundaries of individuals. [2]

The environment is viewed as a reservoir of resources for learning, problem solving, and reasoning. Culture is a process that accumulates partial solutions to frequently encountered problems. Culture can be viewed as a residue of previous activity, that individuals can utilize to solve problems and build on the success of others.

Recent examples of distributed cognition

As technological innovations create new opportunities for distributed individuals to work together with others on a common task, distributed cognition may be becoming more and more useful as a model.

In 2008, Clay Shirky documented many of these new developments in Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations [3]. Shirky, like many others, argues that our culture of media consumption is transitioning to include participation and interactivity. In one of Shirky’s most powerful arguments considers the potential “cognitive surplus” of individuals who begin to use social computing to create and organize. Shirky sees a trend of Americans spending less time passively engaging with media and more time actively participating and interacting with media. He calculates that if Americans applied just 1% of the time they currently passively participating in media (i.e. watching television) and used that time to engage & interact more actively with media this shift would represent the time and effort required to create and maintain 1,000 wikipedia sized projects each year. Clay Shirky’s talk can be viewed here:

a written transcript is here: http://bit.ly/3vYPt9

Just last week DARPA launched a contest to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the internet. This challenge indicates an interest in exploring the workings and emergent capacities of social-computational systems of people and computers. The Darpa Network Challenge places 10 red weather balloons in prominent locations across the country for four hours on a single day. The first individual or team to provide the exact latitude and longitude of all of the 10 balloons wins a $40,000 prize. Darpa describes the challenge as follows:
“To mark the 40th anniversary of the Internet, DARPA has announced the DARPA Network Challenge, a competition that will explore the role the Internet and social networking plays in the timely communication, wide area team-building and urgent mobilization required to solve broad scope, time-critical problems.

The challenge is to be the first to submit the locations of ten moored, 8 foot, red weather balloons located at ten fixed locations in the continental United States. Balloons will be in readily accessible locations and visible from nearby roadways.”
The nature of the task seems to require a complicated series of interactions with thousands of others, yet according to the rules of the contest only one individual may win the prize. Because of this element of competition and the relatively short time to organize, it’s likely groups will organize a number of different, complex coordinated and competing processes. These processes will likely emerge from the behavior and ideas of many, competing individuals and groups and will not be as engineered or planned from the top as Hutchins’ airplane cockpit.

It seems likely that many of the individuals who first happen upon the balloons in this four hour period will not be aware of the contest. Therefore, the information will need to travel through a complex path via communications using social computing tools like facebook and twitter, until it reaches an informed agent or group. This example is analagous to the perception of individual photons by an single first order neurons that are communicated to higher level visual processing structures of the brain. There are other complex neural processes such as those that enhance the signal to noise ratio. Similarly, it’s easy to imagine the contest will have many false positives and bits of misinformation winding their way through twitter, facebook, and other networks during the four hour period that contribute to a signal to noise problem. It may become necessary to send individuals to verify rumored locations or develop an algorithm to estimate the reliability of each report or otherwise attenuate the signals from the chatter.

By dangling a $40,000 carrot, it seems DARPA is pushing social networks and other web platforms to discover what structures of distributed cognition emerge. This problem space is very different from Hutchins’ early work in distributed cognition theory. Hutchin et al needed a model to represent the processes involved in the workings of a ship crew and an airplane cockpit. These processes were engineered, improvised, evaluated, and tested. In the DARPA experiment the scale will be to large to be engineered and determined from the top, many of the structures of distributed cognition will emerge in unpredictable ways.

Flipping the Script - The mind of an individual as a distributed system

Hollan et al introduce the idea that concepts and models of social groups can be used to describe what is happening within an individual’s mind. They site Minsky’s Society of Mind in suggest that cognition of an individual may also be distributed.

This idea of distributed components of an individual is similar to a talk that outlined new research in molecular biology that, like distributed cognition theory, shifts the level of analysis beyond the individual bacteria to study the complex processes of highly coordinated groups of bacteria. Biologist’s Bonnie Bassler April 2009 Ted Talk: Discovering Bacteria’s amazing communication system is a summary of ideas that outline cognitive-like processes carried out by well-coordinated bacteria. Further extending the level of analysis, she discusses a species of squid that utilize a highly organized community of bioluminescent bacteria to precisely control an anti-predation behavior and outlines new research in bacteria quorum sensing and other group processes.

This 15 minute talk is definitely worth a look:

Implications of Distributed Cognition of founding assumptions of HCI

These readings on distributed cognition advocated for a new foundation of Human Computer Interaction Research, nearly 10 years ago. Since then, there have been incredible instances of distributed individuals using innovations in technology to work together in new and powerful ways.

Is distributed cognition theory as it now stands, useful in explaining new ways people are using technology to work together? Does the theory need to be updated and re-evaluate? Does the theory need to be combined with other theories of group behavior such as activity or game theory? Do we need a more developed theoretical frame to better understand and conceptualize the many new ways people are working together?

As people are becoming more comfortable working as a group via technology they are utilizing and repurposing powerful technology for diverse uses. Apparent social computing has advanced to the point that DARPA needs to study security implications. As designers how can we stay ahead of things and design software that allows for flexible and emergent use, so that people can work together in new and expected ways.

Human Computer Interaction as a field has typically focused on a single user interacting with a computer to complete tasks. These days, computing is becoming more and more about rapid advances in complex systems of humans and computers working together in new and interesting ways. Human Computer Interaction must develop new theories to be useful and relevant. Rather than using theory to drive innovations in social computing, it may become increasingly important for the field of HCI to study new and interesting uses of existing technology and develop new theories to understand and shape these advances.


1. Hutchins, E. & Klausen, T. (1996). Distributed cognition in an airline cockpit. In Engestrom, Y. and Middleton, D. (eds). Cognition and Communication at Work. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

2. Hollan, J., Hutchins, E., & Kirsh, D. (2000). Distributed cognition: Toward a new foundation for human-computer interaction research. ACM Transactions on Human-Computer Interaction, 7(2), 174-196. [pdf]

3. Shirky, Clay (2008) Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations The Penguin Press HC

Links to Video of talks

Clay Shirky's April 2008 talk at Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco

Bonnie Bassler April 2009 Ted Talk: Discovering Bacteria’s amazing communication system