Tuesday, February 28, 2006

(Reading Roundup: Bodker and Andersen, Bodker and Christiansen, Bansler and Havn)

Originally posted: Tue, 28 Feb 2006 09:55:00

In the early 1980s, Scandinavian researchers teamed up with unions to develop a design methodology called "participatory design" (see my recent articles in TCQ and Technical Communication). Based on Marxist theory, participatory design was meant to empower laborers in their struggle with management by giving them a means to guide software development. In particular, innovations such as future workshops, organizational games, and prototyping allowed the workers to envision systems that would preserve their tacit craft skills. The goal, ultimately, was to extend and develop workers' skills rather than deskilling them. In a cluster of countries with de facto lifetime employment, a fine balance between capitalism and socialism, and unprecedented union leverage, this goal seemed reachable.

Today, everyone seems to have pretty much given up on that goal. Susanne Bodker, who did significant early work in participatory design, and Jorgen Bansler, who provided smart critiques of early PD, are now conducting projects based in new economy/fast capitalism environments. The question is no longer how to preserve a fading set of craft skills, it is now how to hold things together so that workers can preserve some sort of developmental movement and some sort of shared community in the face of increasing work fragmentation and distribution. The three articles below, from 2005-2006, really underscore the enormous shift that has taken place in Scandinavia over the last 25 years.

Bødker, S. and Christiansen, E. (2006, in press). Computer support for social awareness in flexible work. Computer Supported Cooperative Work.

Bodker and Christiansen pick up this thread in their first paragraph:

People are increasingly working in mobile, or flexible settings. Work has become a moving target with respect to content and obligations. It is subject to constant change; in goals, in qualifications, and in partnerships. New people join groups, projects, and companies. Companies hire, fire, or close, or are taken over by others. The instability this turmoil creates in our social networks puts people under pressure, causing what Sennett calls a "corrosion

of character" (Sennett, 1998).

It doesn't take much reading between the lines to detect nostalgia for the original PD project, mingled with resignation to the new economy and resolution to blunt its worst effects. In particular, the authors are interested in developing a sense of co-presence for workers, who increasingly find themselves working from elsewhere. That's a significant problem:

In order to stay socially aware, it seems necessary to have people within reach ? not always, but at least occasionally. This tension between the ephemerality and continuity of social encounters, and likewise the need to construct identity through relationships by means of social encounters, is not generally part of the definition of social awareness in CSCW.

The authors describe "artefact-driven explorations" (prototypes) for dealing with the issue of "hot-desking." The most intriguing thing, I think, is that these prototypes are not electronic -- sometimes they are as simple as putting a soccer ball or bicycle helmet on the desk of someone who is in the office. The idea is to find ways to develop the material traces that workers use to develop a shared, unfolding history. And here we see the influence again of the original PD project, with its concern for development, history, and humane work environments.

Bødker, S. and Andersen, P. B. (2005). Complex mediation. Human-Computer Interaction, 20:353?402.

Development is a perennial concern of activity theory, whose third generation was significantly impacted by Bodker's work. In this article, Bodker and Andersen tackle a problem that I have attempted elsewhere: the problem of mediation by multiple tools and symbols. Whereas I drew on Bakhtin, they draw on Peircean semiotics. "Activity theory makes rather unclear distinctions between the role of instrumental mediation and that of communicative mediation (except as analytical perspectives determined by identifying whether we are dealing with a Subject-Object relationship or a Subject-Subject one)," they argue (p.360). In a move reminiscent of Latour's hybrids, they argue that the distinction between tools and symbols is artificial, and most mediators lie between the two (p.361).

The authors argue for two related types of complex mediation:

we summarize the preceding by suggesting that one should design for multi-mediation, that is, recognize that more than one mediator normally is used in an activity, and that individual mediators should be designed as a part of an assemblage of mediators, either co-occurring, organized in levels, or connected in chains. (p.356)

"Co-occurring" mediation happens at the same point in time; I've been terming this "ecological." "Chained" mediation involves a chain of activities:

artifacts in a web of technologies in the plant are part of a chain of artifacts and objects that together help regulate the plant and ultimately fulfill the overall purpose of wastewater processing: to turn wastewater into purified water. (p.391)

Chained mediation sounds a lot like activity networks.

Bodker and Andersen have developed a complex system for relating these two perspectives, along with "levels" (which sound like a way of extending chained activity networks to the meso level). But it seems too orderly to me; Bodker and Andersen seem to be attempting to preserve and strengthen distinctions among activities, and in doing so, they chop these into smaller and smaller pieces.

Bansler, J. P. and Havn, E. (2006, in press). Sensemaking in technology-use mediation: Adapting groupware technology in organizations. Computer Supported Cooperative Work.

Bansler and Havn argue that groupware is successful in large part because local workers do the hard work of adapting it: "users often use groupware in ways not intended or expected by the designers of the technology and that users tend to re-invent the technology when they adapt and incorporate it into their working practices." But "relatively little is known about the actual process of tailoring or adaptation, i.e. about the way in which groupware technologies are appropriated and modified by users." They set out to investigate this question, terming these local workers "mediators." (These mediators sound a lot like Nardi and O'Day's "gardeners.")

Mediators, the authors argue, make sense of technology in relation to context; they convert abstract technology into "technology-in-practice." By promoting technology use, helping and supporting users, and establishing conventions of use, these mediators can make or break the new groupware. Additionally, mediators help to create and spread workarounds and often suggest changes and modifications to the developers. Mediators are by their nature boundary-spanners, people who interface between two different activities (e.g., design and use).