Thursday, May 11, 2006

Li and Landay: activity theory meets ubiquitous computing

Here is a thoughtful, interesting paper by Yang Li and James Landay that applies activity theory to problems in ubiquitous computing.

It is called Exploring Activity-Based Ubiquitous Computing: Interaction Styles, Models and Tool Support.

The authors want to move beyond the task/action level to longer trajectories of activity at the object/activity level. They are implementing an "ActivityStudio" to help designers and analysts model long-term activities such as keeping fit or providing elder care.

Their insight is that these activities are not just a linear series of tasks, but a set of actions, driven by goals, that unfold in the larger framing of motivated human activity. We may begin a fitness program but have to tailor it to injury, travel, aging, and other events. The object itself subtly changes as we respond to change and hence goals and actions change.

The paper is a short, sweet piece and highly recommended. The authors show how activity theory can be used in a practical way to model activity in an ambitious project of ubiquitous computing.

I got to meet Yang Li at the Conference in Montreal which was a treat.

Monday, May 01, 2006

A great new book

I recently read a very interesting book by Silvia Gherardi, Organizational Knowledge: The Texture of Workplace Learning. Gherardi is an Italian sociologist at the University of Trento. The book is part of a body of work known as practice-based research in which analysis of cognition and mind are displaced by analysis of “practice.” Practice is a slippery concept, and definitions vary, but it has to do with stable routine enactments in which human and non-human elements interact.

In a moment I will say why I think the practice-based approach is problematic, but first I want to say how extraordinarily nuanced and insightful Gherardi’s analysis of workplace learning is. She studied safety practices in the Italian construction industry, focusing primarily on tradesmen, but also discussing organizational approaches to safety. She chose an in-depth case study methodology, collaborating with a young male researcher who could apprentice in the industry (which as a female she could not readily do).

Gherardi developed the idea of the “situated curriculum” by which she means learning as a localized practice in which “content is closely related to the specific set of local, material, economic, symbolic, and social characteristics of the field of practices and work activities.” She contrasts this view with Lave and Wenger’s “learning curriculum” which is a more generic concept having to do with the learning practices of a profession at large.

Gherardi states that “The situated curriculum…exhibits an erratic, context-dependent, redundant, event-based and largely non-linear sequence where what to do, how to do it (and how to do it skillfully) are taught on an experiential basis and the novice ‘learns the ropes’ of the trade by imitation and contact with practitioners.” The key words for me here are “event-based” and “contact with practitioners.” It is in the minutiae of specific work events enacted in contact with practitioners that workplace learning happens.

This understanding nicely undercuts the illusion of “knowledge management” that attempts to bottle knowledge up in databases. As corporations lay off workers or outsource operations to less experienced and more isolated workers they hope to cash in on the expertise workers have built up over years of learning in the situated curriculum. Gherardi shows this is no more realistic than a cargo cult in New Guinea (although she does not use this analogy).

Gherardi’s analysis contains the surprising revelation that many senior workers did not want to reveal their expertise within the situated curriculum! And one novice was given same task over and over again limiting his learning. This realism was a breath of fresh air. Much of the analysis from the various “situated” camps deletes such dislocations, endorsing informal learning as superior to other forms. Gherardi shows how the formal training of the construction workers was a complement to the informal and became a critical resource. Gherardi presents the situated curriculum honestly, warts and all, making the concept much more useful for application as well as theory.

That’s the part of the book that was most most valuable for me. The larger project of advancing a practice-based sociology seems less useful. In the service of slaying the demons of the “rational decision maker” and AI, the practice approach eschews concepts of mind and subject. This is pretty drastic surgery for a non-fatal condition.

Gherardi says that practice-based analysis gives priority to practices over individuals, that even a collective subject is no good but we must attend to “sets of seeing, doing, and saying.” The concept of intentionality is rejected – perhaps it is too much like the rational decision maker? Gherardi advises that with the practice approach we need not worry about what’s going on in people’s heads or what they intend. We are also supposed to give up communication and language in favor of “discursive practices” which are identifiable patterned verbal interactions.

In practice-based theory we have lost our minds but gained our bodies, which are made visible in the theoretical discourse. For example, Gherardi says, “Craft trade requires trained bodies – ones, that is, which have incorporated an expertise or connoisseurship. It is through the body that ‘an eye’ for something [is developed].” The trained body is seen as an antidote to cognitivism and rationality.

While I agree that craft trades require trained bodies, I have some problems with this statement. First, the mind and body are not separate. Except for processes such as digestion the mind is required for what the body does. Practice theorists are engaged with the level of human activity at which the mind virtually always comes into play in working inseparably with the body. The practice approach has, rather amazingly, introduced mind-body dualism as a core principle.

Second, an emphasis on the bodies of others on the part of scholars who clearly have a vibrant mental life unnerves me. Those of us in the chattering classes know well that it is our abilities to spin original-sounding utterances that are not just same old discursive practices that earn our bread and butter. And our bodies can be flabby sorry things (although let me say that Gherardi is a trim stylish Italian) with very little training in evidence. So another dualism seems to be inadvertently advanced – those whose bodies must be trained for work and those who work with their, er, minds. A theory that only attends to learning in one set of occupations is not the general theory of learning we need.

Third, Gherardi says we can’t know others’ intentions and therefore they should be outside analysis. But how can we know a trained body? Gherardi quotes construction workers who invoke the body in their descriptions of how they work, but one could just as easily do that with quotes about intentions. (I’ve done it myself many times.) The rejection of mind in the practice-based approach is something more fundamental than a methodological maneuver.

I can’t help but feel a sort of puritanism in the practice-based approach. Mind is a natural phenomenon yet we must give it up as though it were an unspeakable excess, along with subject, communication, and language. See Schatzki, The Practice-based Turn in Contemporary Theory for other practice-based analysis that asks similar sacrifices of us.

I find myself in the position I often find myself in upon reading a serious work such as Gherardi’s – wondering if maybe we should just stick to mid-range theories grounded in ethnographic observation. It is there that so much insightful work seems to be done such as Gherardi’s development of the concept of the situated curriculum. Though I disagree with the practice-based approach in many ways, I will nonetheless be using Gherardi’s more grounded concepts in my research on learning in online games.

I hope I have suggested some of the reasons for reading this excellent book despite my misgivings about its larger framing. Another reason to read Organizational Knowledge: The Texture of Workplace Learning is that Gherardi is extremely well-read and you can learn a lot by reading it. I found literature in the book that no one else seems to cite that Gherardi not only cites but explains and contextualizes. Gherardi’s courteous but critical analyses of many bodies of literature are woven through the text in a lovely pattern, providing insightful discussions of varied streams of research. She makes it look easy, but years of careful thought and reflection have gone into this book. Organizational Knowledge is itself as richly textured as the workplace learning practices Gherardi documents.