Why examining the gritty details of human social organisation is key to understanding the nature of ‘ubiquitous’ technologies

NCRM news
Dr Stuart Reeves, University of Nottingham
Two people launching a drone over a field.Two people launching a drone over a field.

Consider, for a moment, the pervasive spread of computational devices, services and infrastructures that insinuate themselves into almost every part of life for a sizeable proportion of the UK population. It ranges from the grey familiarity of the desktop computer or laptop, through to 'always on, always connected, always with you' devices like smart phones, and far beyond to large scale (almost 'invisible') infrastructures like city-based camera and sensor networks for monitoring traffic. And all of these frequently extend beyond to encompass 'cloud' services and human crowdwork on the backend of these systems. As a result, it is ever more difficult to avoid interactions with this 'ubiquitous' computing – interactions with which may be very much 'implicit' or even hidden entirely from view or, at the other end of the scale, highly public thanks to mobile devices. These digital computing technologies have come to inhabit our domestic spaces, workplaces, transport systems, hospitals, and educational instructions, to name a few.

Human-computer interaction (HCI) researchers have concentrated on the design implications of this emerging situation of 'use' and 'users' since at least the 1970s. In response to what I've described above, HCI research communities have since broadened out into a complex hybrid 'inter-discipline' that spans a wide number of domains, perspectives, and technologies, addressing many of the challenges faced by digital ubiquity with a design- and human-oriented attitude (a distinct new field of research on 'ubiquitous computing' emerged during the late 1980s and early 1990s and – in my view – has since then been mostly integrated into HCI and its concerns).

But with these changes there has also been a big shift of other research disciplines turning towards domains that form HCI's core interests. Thus, human-computer interactions as a phenomenon, as well as the contours of HCI research itself, have become the concern of many existing research fields, each with their own unique take on the all-consuming ubiquity of computational technologies. HCI research has in some ways absorbed a few of these approaches, leading to some researchers expressing worry about the limits and scope of HCI itself.

The role of ethnomethodology and conversation analysis in HCI

Amidst this story of disciplinary mixing and remixing as research communities wrestle with the tumult and changing picture of technology's place in our everyday lives, we can trace out the role played by ethnomethodology and conversation analysis (EMCA). Although ethnomethodology (EM) in particular – and by extension, conversation analysis (CA) – represented a significant and often iconoclastic fracture with the mainstream sociology of the time (for EM this begins in 1940-50 but really heats up in the 1960s and ‘70s), aspects of EM and CA have both found a place of sorts in HCI, initially quite far away from the frictions found in their 'home' disciplines.

How is this? Firstly, I think ethnomethodology and conversation analysis present a unique ‘interactional’ focus for studies in HCI because they emphasise a seriousness for deeply examining how social organisation is practically accomplished – 'interaction' (or some conception of it) being of central interest to HCI for a long time. In other words, EMCA contributed a new sense of definition to HCI's focus on interaction, in that it offered a way of examining how people, as social beings, constantly work to order, organise, and make sense of their experiences of both new and legacy technologies and their infrastructures. Because EMCA puts all emphasis on 'members' perspectives' this seemed immediately compatible with HCI's focus on 'user-centredness' (although I note that HCI’s attitude towards notions of user- or human-centredness itself has very much evolved and complexified much since EMCA's introduction into HCI). At the time of EM and CA's surfacing within HCI research – in no small part owing to early work by Lucy Suchman, Xerox-funded research labs, and the 'Lancaster school' – there was a need for HCI to develop ways of thinking about the sociality of interface use. So EMCA seemed a good fit.

A new perspective

Much of the classic work of EMCA oriented research in HCI mixed fieldwork, ethnography, and studies of collaborative work practices. Since then, as I argued above, HCI has expanded wildly into more spaces, activities, domains, and purposes than could have been conceived of in the 1980s and 1990s milieu. And, most importantly, there are now new generations of researchers in EM and CA who are starting first-hand to encounter the challenges posed by digital technologies in understanding social organisational phenomena. Many EMCA researchers doing so will want to engage with HCI topics and associated fields like human-robot interaction (HRI), but also there is a need to contextualise this against HCI's long-running (somewhat patchy, to be sure) relationship with ethnomethodology and conversation analysis. I also hope these new EMCA researchers critically engage with that relationship's history – what was done well but also to reflect on where things ran aground, partly through misunderstanding but also – in my view – some limitations on how EMCA could be productive.

I think all this calls for a fresh attitude and perspective in connecting the work of EMCA with sociotechnical interactional phenomena and at the same time paying attention to HCI's disciplinary development. With all this in mind, the NCRM course on Studying Human-Computer Interaction with Video takes a small slice of this quite complicated story. Against this backdrop, the NCRM course focusses on the value of video for understanding human-computer interactions – providing equal time to learning about the conceptual background as well as the practical realities of doing this style of research. Throughout we will try to take a reflective approach to both HCI and its technologies, and explore the value of EMCA in providing a critical appraisal of the human impacts of digital technologies and their infrastructures.

Register for Studying Human-Computer Interaction with Video