Designers as Activitists?

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Since I started riding the bus to work, I’ve gained about 80 minutes of reading time a day, and lately I’ve been reading recent issues of interactions.  I’ve found many of them quite interesting, probably because they’re rather far afield from my usual concerns. They’re mostly by and for HCI (broadly construed) practitioners, rather than for researchers. One particular article got my attention: Learning from Activists: Lessons for Designers, by Tad Hirsch.

Hirsch talks about how activists have been technology innovators, touches on some examples, and talks about what the design process is like under these conditions. For example, the “immediacy of activist projects, coupled with a perpetual lack of funding, forces a kind of rough-and-tumble innovation”. Sounds right.

Things get more interesting later, as Hirsch says that “Activists willingness to engage in extra-legal activity also enables unique design opportunities”. He hastens to add that he doesn’t mean violence or vandalism, but the “exploit[ation] [of] excess acpacity”, like squatting in abandoned buildings or using wireless networks without their owners’ permission.

Finally, he talks about how “contestational designers” [i.e., those who design for activists] are “openly partisan practitioners who take sides in pressing issues of the day. They are neither objective technicians nor hired guns — images that continue to dominate the technical development community”.

It was this final point that I found most provocative. On the one hand, I too feel that it is imperative for all educated people — and I hope that includes not just designers, but also software professionals, academics, and students — to “take sides in pressing issues of the day”. However, if we do that in our roles as professionals — as designers, as researchers, as academics, etc. — do we lose our professional community? Note that Hirsch isn’t proposing this [that all designers, let alone all HCI researchers, should become “contestational designers”] — I’m just tracing out the implications of his advice.

For example, it’s obvious that the HCI community is heavily liberal and leftist. “Everyone” at CHI 2009 was ecstatic about Obama’s election, but this fact was mostly “informal”. That is, the conference program per se did not reflect it. But what if this changes? What if activist papers play a larger and larger role in our professional community? Would they all be liberal-activist papers? Would that drive out non-liberals? Or would conservative activists, Chinese nationalist activists, anti-abortion activists, gun-rights activists all be represented? Would you be happy about papers about providing technology support for radical environmentalists to shut down a coal plant, or for radical anti-abortion activists to shut down a family planning clinic?

I don’t know… However, as I get older, I am more and more interested in reconciling my personal beliefs and my professional practice. Hirsch’s article made this topic more urgent for me.

The Netflix Prize and the MovieLens Data Sets

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Hello all.  We’ve been asked by several of the Netflix Prize teams if they can use the MovieLens datasets in training their algorithms.  The answer is yes! We’re happy to encourage algorithmic experimentation using our datasets — and you don’t even have to share any of your winnings with us :).  We only ask that you credit the MovieLens datasets on your web site, and in any written descriptions you write of the resulting algorithms.

Compete well!


Amazon Erases 1984

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In a “too delicious to be true” story, Amazon has used one of its Kindle’s features to erase copies of the book 1984 from their customer’s devices. Yes, that 1984, the one about the futuristic society that controls and audits everything their citizens read or speak.

Apparently a third-party seller uploaded an illegal version of 1984 to the Amazon web-site, and some users purchased it.  When Amazon found out the version was illegal, they refunded the purchase price *and deleted the copies of the book from the Kindles*.  Almost too funny to be true.  (One of the users was a 17 year old high school student whose notes on the book were also erased by Amazon when the deleted his copy of the book.)

Amazon has already promised not to do something like this again.  However, the story makes clear the deep danger in aggressive digital rights management.  If the owners of the content can control what you read, when you read it, and how you read it, our access to media becomes only a temporary “right” that can be granted and taken away at a whim.  We need to create a set of rules that ensure that information can never be controlled in this way.

One extreme example of the need for rules to protect the free flow of information is the hubbub over the new version of Hemmingway’s “A Movable Feast”.  Depending on who one talks to, Hemmingway’s grandson Sean has either edited the book to make it truer to how Hemmingway really felt about his first wife or has altered Hemmingway’s text to change history about that relationship.  (It helps muddy the water that the first wife is Sean’s grandmother.)  The publisher is releasing the new version, which will now be compared endlessly by scholars to the 1964 original.  What would happen in the digital world of the future?  Would the publisher be able to change the text of everyone’s original version to the new updated content?  Presumably noone would lobby for such a world … but if we aren’t careful to constrain contracts between publishers and digital device owners, we could accidentally end up living in it!

How wonderful that Amazon made this mistake with the book 1984.  It’s not the greatest of the anti-utopian novels — that’s Huxley’s Brave New World! — but perhaps we were too quick to accuse it of wandering too far from reality …


Bone growth as a metaphor for Wiki-work

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In the human body, there are two groups of cells that manage the production and refinement of bone. Osteablasts create new bone while osteaclasts break bone down. These cells are constantly working in parallel to manage our bone structure and repair damages. When a fracture takes place, osteoblasts come in to calcify the tissue surrounding the break. They aren’t very picky about what or where they calcify so you’ll end up with a large mound of bone where the break was. Over time the osteoclasts will trim and refine this bone down until the bone reacquires its original shape.

I feel that this is an excellent metaphor for how work is done in Wikipedia. There is a very large group of editors who do not make many edits on an individual basis, but they contribute the vast majority of content that makes it into the encyclopedia. They behave like osteoblasts in that they contribute large amounts of material but they don’t have the experience to know what sort of content is encyclopedic. A smaller group of more active members of the encyclopedia (Wikipedians) perform the role of osteoclasts by trimming unencyclopedic content and refining what is left over into coherent articles.

In order for a human to have a healthy skeletal structure, a balance between bone formation and bone trimming has to be maintained. In the same way, the balance between content contributors and content refiners in Wikipedia must be maintained.