Reflecting on the making of a political speech at a HCI conference

 

A week has passed since returning from CHI 2014, and since the “Punk HCI” paper that we presented there still seems to be raising discussion, it seems like an opportune moment to reflect on the intentions and effects of making an angry, shouty and overtly political address to some of the worlds most respected researchers in computer science and interaction design.

Background

For those who weren’t there, I should provide some background. The ACM SIGCHI conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (or, CHI) every year has an alt.CHI track designed to be “a forum for controversial, risk-taking, and boundary pushing presentations at CHI. The CHI program committee formed alt.chi as a forum for innovative and insightful work that can go unrecognized through the standard review process.” In previous years, we have used this track as a venue in which to describe perverse, imaginary systems, critical games, and even a paper written from the perspective of robots from the future. These presentations have been generally well received at the conference, and have walked the line between being entertaining sessions, but also containing serious and (we feel valuable) discussions on the direction of HCI research. Notably, they have also tended to be quite well cited.

 

The paper

This year, we submitted a paper that actually isn’t a paper at all, it’s a song. The paper (which is available here) has a brief abstract, followed by some badly written guitar tabs and lyrics. The theme of the paper is “Punk HCI,” which we should be clear, is not supposed to be a grand new theoretical position on understanding the making or use of technology. Rather, inspired by the original wave of Punk rock in the late 1970’s, the paper is a generally angry and immediate response to perceived inequalities. We question how technology impacts society, and how the process through which that technology is designed is bound up in values. The song makes the point that big technology projects with big budgets, employing numerous researchers and engaging with industry partners, naturally tend to be conservative in outlook, and that the technology that comes from them (technology that we use every day) typically serves to enforce rather than question or undermine existing power structures. Remember, however, that we make these points through a two-minute song with less than two hundred words, so there is anger and outrage and not much else.

In the song we allude to an alternative process, one which involves undertaking small rather than large projects, which should allow for a more critical and independent approach to HCI. We don’t expand upon this at all, but it is not a unique idea, and it should be noted that lot’s of people have already done a lot of work exploring this approach. There is a tradition in HCI of Everyday Design, DIY and Maker movements, and – something that grabbed a lot of attention at CHI this year – Critical Making.

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The challenge of presenting the paper

Since the song was accepted as a paper at the conference, we were faced with a problem: how do you present a paper that is an angry reaction against the status quo in your discipline? Because we had appealed to the 1970s punk rock aesthetic as a way of framing the contribution of the paper, we felt that we couldn’t do the typical well-polished, well-researched, reassuringly-presented conference presentation. We had to do something a bit more radical and anarchic. We also decided early that we couldn’t perform the song, as that would inevitably be very lame and not very punk rock (two middle-class 30-something academics do not equal Sid Vicious).

Last year, we presented our paper (on the contribution of HCI research to the inevitable robot apocalypse) “in character” (ie from the perspective of robots from the future) and this element of theatre was well received, so we were intrigued by the idea of doing something similar again. However, we always had a suspicion that, while people were entertained by that paper and presentation, they didn’t necessarily take the points very seriously. Further, we felt that people would turn up this year, equally expecting an entertaining performance. So, we thought that the most “punk” thing we could do in this situation would be to turn those expectations back on the audience, to show some passion and emotion, and generally make everyone feel a little uncomfortable. The point being that, despite the huge societal implications of the issues being discussed at CHI, you rarely see any emotion in the discussion, it rarely feels personal.

At this point, we had an idea of how the performance should feel, but were still struggling to find appropriate content. Luckily for me, on the Monday of CHI, I attended the panel discussion on “design methods for the future,” which was lead mainly by researchers who work as design consultants on massive projects with industry. In this session I was quite shocked at how clearly certain political values underpinned the design methods used by these practitioners. When I was later re-reading the reviews of our Punk paper, the following comment by Lilly Irani struck a chord with me.

“by boldly claiming a political ideology, the piece poses a challenge to CHI papers. What kind of research would you do if you were doing AnarCHI, or socialist CHI, or libertarian CHI? What does it do to our research to attach it to varied political agendas rather than burying the lead under seemingly objective values of efficiency or utility?” – Lilly Irani

Yes, our paper overtly states a certain set of political values. However, after attending that panel session, I realized that even papers that apparently unproblematically discuss design methods are inherently wrapped up in political values. I thought that was a point worth discussing in our session.

Further, if they don’t specifically mention values in design (few do), I would argue that HCI papers tend towards conservative values. Research is carried out on the premise of making technology that will sell, above all other concerns. Thus, designers are interested in understanding subjective human experience as a marketing technique, rather than as a core concern for the dignity of their potential users. I thought that was also worth raising as an issue at CHI.

 

Transcript

Below is a short transcript of the notes I used during the talk. I’m not sure how closely I followed these, but the points are essentially the same.

I’d like to take this opportunity to respond to a comment made by Lily Irani in the commentary published alongside this paper. Lily mentions how this paper is unusual in openly stating it’s politics.

This paper certainly has a political agenda. It is not unique in holding that agenda, but it is probably unique in expressing it so openly and proudly.

Yesterday I was in the panel session on “design methods for the future.” Was anyone else at that panel? The members of that panel were mostly people who work as design consultants or collaborators with large multi-national companies.

The discourse in that room was deeply political. Did anyone else notice that? Specifically, I felt that the values expressed by panel members were incredibly right wing or libertarian. Do people agree with that interpretation? And yet there was no acknowledgement or problematising of this. It was taken as given.

As a left-leaning European, the discourse in that room made me extremely uncomfortable. I felt like Hunter S. Thompson at the Kentucky Derby. Fear and Loathing in the “Design Methods for the Future” session.

There were two main points made at that panel session that really stuck in my mind as worthy of discussion here today: Firstly, that the market should decide on the technology that we have as a society. Secondly, that it’s not our responsibility as HCI researchers to check, or question, technology development (as the market will do that). I will discuss these in turn.

 

“Let the market decide the technology we should have”

The attitude of panel members seemed to be that users should be left to set their own boundaries on the technologies that they use. If the users don’t like a particular piece of technology, they can choose not to use it, and therefore it won’t impact upon their lives.

Translated into design practice, this sounds something like “let’s make whatever we want – whatever we think will make money – without caring about the implications.” “Let the users decide whether or not they want to use it”

As if there is a choice

As if we have the power to choose the technology that we interact with.

This, from the same panel containing a member from SAP, who boasted at the beginning of the session that 60% of global GDP flows through SAP systems. 60%!!!!! How do you choose not to participate in or use that technology? And that’s only one example from one company.

It’s a stated objective of ubicomp and usability researchers to make the technology disappear, so that we don’t know when we are using it. How do you choose to opt out when you don’t know when you are using it?

 

“It’s not our responsibility as HCI researchers to check or question technology development”

I disagree. I believe that as HCI researchers we are in a unique position. Due to our skills and experience, we are the only group people who understand; how the technology works, how design processes work, the stages through which a technology must go from idea to implementation, how the funding systems work, as well as being interested in the social, cultural and psychological consequences of technological development.

We are the only group of people who know all of these things at the same time. If it’s not our responsibility, then who’s is it? The market? Just presume things will work out fine?

 

To summarise, I would argue that HCI papers that are presented as objective and apolitical, which are not concerned with values or politics, are quite likely to contain quite right-wing values. They suggest that we should let the market, rather than our collective knowledge, skills and expertise as researchers and scholars, decide what technology we should have, and how our societies should be effected by those technologies.

I would argue that if you don’t go about the design of technology specifically with values such as fairness, dignity and privacy as goals, then there is no reason why you should get those as outcomes. I think that there is value in nailing your political colours to the mast and letting your practice, or research, be guided by the fact that you value specific societal outcomes.

And there is value in presenting and overtly political paper at a computer science conference if it generates discussion on ideologies inherent in apparently objective and apolitical research agendas.

 

Reflection

Reflecting on the experience over a week later, I felt that while our “in character” approach worked quite well as a method of presentation, unfortunately, it didn’t allow us to engage in any depth with questions from the audience. This is my big regret about the session, as we had a fantastic opportunity to have some open, in-depth and uncomfortable discussion and we didn’t take advantage of that. Rather, we tended to shut the discussion down with angry or flippant responses. Indeed, our answers to some questions were quite ill-considered and offensive. As punks, that’s fine, but as academics it’s problematic. The session was designed to be provocative and memorable, but not offensive. If anyone felt personally targeted, we do apologise. That reflected badly on us, rather than you.

Ultimately, the session generated a lot of discussion at the conference, and lot’s of people came to chat with us over the following days, expressing thanks for “sticking it to the man,” for raising the issue of political ideology, and for expressing thoughts that they had been biting back on saying. Since my intention in attending a conference is always to meet new people, have interesting discussions, and hear new ideas, this was a very positive outcome of the talk.

 

Conor

 

 

Comments

I totally agree that HCI and design is always underpinned by a politics — denying politics is still a politics, and of course the structural complicities and entanglements of the projects also guide the politics that play out. In some ways, the challenge to declare the politics of research was responding to the opening I saw in your paper, but it wasn’t only a “oh here’s a new thing papers can do,” but also a call to account for people to dredge up or even confront the politics already shaping the project.

I wish I could have been at your session. Again, was chairing that crowdsourcing panel. Which also, of course, had lots of politics but none overtly declared.

posted by Lilly Irani / 05.13.14 - 09:17

Also, that’s three Ls in my first name. :)

posted by Lilly Irani / 05.13.14 - 09:18

apologies – fixed!

posted by conor / 05.13.14 - 09:25

[…] mind the Bollocks: I wanna be AnarCHI! A manifesto for Punk HCI” paper and theatrics. Conor has written an extensive and excellent blog post about the paper and the presentation, so I will direct you […]

posted by LiSC: Lincoln Social Computing Research Centre / 06.02.14 - 16:12

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