Ben’s CHI2014 Reflection

Toronto is an odd city – a motorway built over a construction site built over a shopping mall built over a convention centre built over a car park. A Fortressian metropolis- as you navigate the sprawling undercity you rarely see sunlight, and the city goes to great lengths to conceal the beauty of lake Ontario behind concrete and car parks. This was the setting for the 2014 SIGCHI conference on Human Factors in Computing (CHI), the most prestigious conference in the field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). The sense of the unreal pervaded my experience of the city and the conference, and I am left contemplating whether the entire week was the result of some kind of gravy-induced fever dream.

The conference started with fiction – science fiction author Madeline Ashby kindly gave a thought-provoking keynote on the value of stories at our co-organised workshop on “Alternate Endings: Using Fiction to Explore Design Futures“. The workshop partly came from our presentation last year on the role of HCI research in the eventual enslavement of humankind by hyperintelligent machines. There is a fair bit of interest in the role of fiction, envisioning and design futures currently bubbling within the CHI community. The workshop was intended to explore the value of these approaches and share strategies for effectively using fiction as part of a design process. We were extremely privileged to be joined by plenty of exceptionally smart people at this workshop, so I was happy to participate just to try and absorb some smidgen of insight.

The fictional theme continued straight into the conference proper with the opening keynote from Margaret Atwood. Margaret talked with great style and charm about the relationship she has had with robots throughout her life – she seemed to be under the impression CHI was a conference about robots (actually it is for robots) – before talking about her own work with the sinister robotic “Long Pen” Syngrafii that is designed to enable remote signatures. In this way it echoed the typical CHI format: an interesting and provocative set-up followed by a demo/sales pitch of some boring technology.


The more interesting part of the keynote was happening on twitter – tweets were bouncing around the #chi2014 hashtag talking about the toilets at the conference venue. Apparently they were wired up to some kind of automatic analytical system that gave real-time feedback about health issues of conference attendees.


The website provided a live feed of data around the toilets to the public. Attendees were part shocked, offended, excited and bemused by the system. News about the system travelled far – it was covered by news outlets around the world within the day. Of course, the system was entirely fictional, one of the outcomes of the Critical Making Hackathon at the conference. However, it remains as probably the most important thing I saw at the conference. Critical design work is frequently talked about within a sub-community of CHI, and is certainly a hot topic, but this project (and hackathon) dared to move out of this space and challenge the community at large through direct provocation. It certainly paid off, as the project was definitely the single most talked about, and widely reported, thing that was shown during the entire conference. Whether it will trigger any longer-term reflection about privacy in HCI work remains to be seen. in the meantime I relished the irony of CHI attendees being offended by this work and then presenting their own equally problematic research with a straight face.

Conor, Shaun and I later attended the special “post-mortem” session for the Quantified Toilets and met the teams involved in the workshop. I felt this was very valuable, as makers talked at length about their concepts, strategies and what worked/didn’t worked. The key seems to be engineered simplicity – they did just enough to be plausible, and polished every detail to carefully reinforce this “startup aesthetic”. It was fantastic and inspirational to meet and celebrate researchers and work that aligns so well with our own ideas about mischief, impact and critical design.

I was co-author on a couple of provocative papers at alt.CHI this year – Laura Buttrick’s excellent “50 Shades of CHI” paper has three fictional vignettes that use the language of erotic/BDSM fiction to describe relationships between humans and technology. What is particularly interesting is that the relationships (as that in 50 Shades of Grey) are all considered unhealthy and potentially abusive. I think this raises some very interesting questions to HCI researchers about the relationships their technology cultivates, especially in the shadow of the Quantified Toilets. Although it was hard to get the mood right at 9am on a Thursday, Laura, an undergraduate student here at Lincoln, did a fantastic job both writing and presenting this work.

The second paper was our somewhat infamous “Never 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 there.

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

I will add a couple of points though. Firstly, throughout the conference we were referred to as “AnarCHIsts” – anarchy wasn’t the main point, it was just a convenient pun. Indeed we definitely overestimated the knowledge of Sex Pistols and other punk lyrics amongst the audience, which muddied the points a lot. Secondly, and most importantly, we were criticised several times for not performing the song. I’d argue performing the song would have been the worst possible thing to do – a horrific pastiche of punk by two overeducated wankers in front of an audience of beard-stroking latte-drinking tosspots. As Eric Baumer correctly pointed out, real punks wouldn’t even submit to an orthodox conference like CHI (rather favouring unconferences, maker faires, etc perhaps), however in this case the CHI community is never directly exposed to this perspective. We were successful in forcing that angle into CHI, and provoking people to think about ideologies inherent in all HCI work (especially the right-wing bias of many big projects), even if the mode wasn’t optimal – we were more constrained than liberated by the punk format in the end. For perspective however, ours was the only paper that talked about the NSA scandal, of which some of the main sponsors of CHI – Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Yahoo – were complicit. This and the fact that I was threatened during the talk (“These people will be on your interview panel”) suggests a toxic attitude that dissent and critique is dangerous or unwelcome among the CHI community.
Punk-An-Aesthetic-An-Aesthetic-With-text-by-Jon-Savage-and-William-Gibson-Amazon-co-uk-Johan-Kugelberg-Books 2014-04-10 16-15-07(from Savage et al., Punk: An Aesthetic)

On the topic of Google, I continue my diet (although I did accept their free beer at CHI. I didn’t have to sign in to G+ for that.), and had several interesting conversations about it with other conference participants. A lot of talk about the future of Android, and the balancing act of not turning “too Stallman” to relate the argument to others. On a related note, several people talked about Janet Vertesi’s fascinating attempt to hide her pregnancy from the Internet, and how her attempts had her labelled as a probable criminal.

My favourite work at CHI was from Mark Blythe, whose paper “Research through design fiction: narrative in real and imaginary abstracts” was about the use of fictional abstracts, that describe fictional user studies of fictional research prototypes. I urge you to read the paper, but Mark looks at the typical language and form of HCI work and eliminates the costly aspect (the actual work) by replacing it with explorations about potential outcomes as a process of research through design. This is clever, and also hints at the uncomfortable truth that in similar ways,  all HCI work is fictionalised through the process of publication.

The increasing worry of being fictional myself came to a head during the closing keynote. The CHINOSAUR, a novelty twitter account that makes jokes about HCI work (and meat) has been going for several years, but based on some joke about the conference chair’s cardigan (CHIdigan, obvs), the chairs issued wanted posters asking for the head of this fictional monster, culminating in someone in a dinosaur costume on stage in front of 3000 people, taking a selfie with the conference chairs. Fiction defines our reality, and with momentum, a simple and small joke account ends up being the centrepiece of the closing plenary of the most important conference in the field.

After the conference, Conor send around a link to another excellent essay by Darius Kazemi about the value of small projects.

When I start building something, I often want it to do things A, B, C, and D. But if I’ve worked on it for a little while and it does A and B, and it’s pretty good, I immediately stop doing any creative work on it, and I switch into “ship it” mode. At this point I try to get it as fast as possible to a state where I can post it online, even though it only does half of what I set out to do.What this means is I can create my thing, it’s pretty okay, and I’m done. I can move on.

I’m not saying “don’t finish your work.” I’m saying “radically alter your idea of what “finished” means.”

Darius’s article resonates strongly with me. As a lecturer, I don’t have a lot of time to dedicate on “finishing” large projects. Teaching, marking, and mountains of administration (Including that pile I am ignoring right now) quickly use up the vast majority of my time. I am cursed with having tons of ideas for projects but no time to even think about starting them. To get this time you can attempt to either buy time with funding, or give the work to students. Both are a false economy as you spend more time writing the proposal, or supervising the student, than the project would take anyway. They just mean you have more administration and even less time. Darius is exactly right – I need to radically alter my idea of “finished”. Indeed, at CHI one of my favourite papers was from Seok and colleagues talking about “Non-Finito Products”, and designing systems that are explicitly unfinished. Darius is also right about the themes of your work. At CHI, we were accused of being CHINOSAUR (again), accused of making the Quantified Toilets, and accused by the real people behind the toilets of making the meta-level postcards about the findings of the Quantified Toilets (wow). If nothing else, we definitely have seem to have established a reputation for something. If we can continue to claim credit for all these amazing projects by default, that seems to be a good position!


[…] Also see my longer blog entry about CHI 2014 in general at the LiSC site. […]

posted by Punk HCI | Ben Kirman / 11.20.14 - 18:11

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