Monday, January 30, 2006

Reading :: Where the Action Is

Originally posted: Mon, 30 Jan 2006 20:19:28

Where the Action Is : The Foundations of Embodied Interaction

by Paul Dourish

I've been meaning to read this book for a long time. Paul Dourish's work has interested me ever since grad school, when I read the article on "technomethodology" that he published with Graham Button. And of course Bill Hart-Davidson discusses this work frequently.

It's not what I expected. I had expected an empirical case or series of cases that were investigated by or analyzed through a theoretical, analytical, or methodological framework ? which is the usual mode for books in this series. But Dourish's project is to develop a theory of interaction, based on phenomenology, that is suitable for investigating, developing, and understanding embodied interaction: "interaction with computer systems that occupy our world, a world of physical and social reality, and that exploit this fact in how they interact with us" (p.3).

This project involves defining and attending to embodiment: "a form of participative status. Embodiment is about the fact that things are embedded in the world, and the ways in which their reality depends on being embedded" (p.18). Increasing attention to embodiment, he says, results in new sensitivity to settings; describing and analyzing work activities and artifacts in concrete terms; and an understanding that artifacts can play different terms (p.19). Dourish gets to these concerns by discussing phenomenology's origins, concerns, and applications.

Throughout, Dourish gives examples from embodied computing and suggests ways in which an embodied perspective could change our approach to computing. But I found myself wishing that the book was more like what I had thought it would be: I wanted Dourish to compress the theoretical/methodological discussion and present an extended case study to illustrate how this phenomenological perspective affects the investigative and design work he describes.

Nevertheless, the book is valuable. I'm struck by how similar it is in its presumptions and examples to other work coming out of Xerox PARC and RXRC. If you've read work by Graham Button, Lucy Suchman, Abigail Sellen, or Richard Harper, this book is going to sound at least somewhat familiar, and its exposition of embodied practice is going to bring new insight to those works.

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