I've attended at the huge CHI conference this week, i.e. the ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. This year it was not just huge, but huger than ever, with 3450 people attending the conference at the enormous Palais de Congrès a Paris. It was more than 10 years since I went to CHI the last time around.
The conference was four days long and had no less than 16 parallel tracks, i.e. at any point in time I can (and have to) choose one topic to listen to - in competition with 15 other topics. There were more than 15 persons from my department (MID) at the conference, but if we compare notes there is a high chance that we have attended totally different conferences, i.e. that our respective interests have not overlapped even once...
The sheer size of the conference paradoxically makes it hard to meet people at the conference. It might be that you just happen to not run into people you know are there during a whole day (or a week). Also, there are people I'd like to meet because I have read something they have written, but since I don't know what they look like, the chances of meeting up and striking up a conversation are close to zero. It might be the case that I know someone who knows them (and who could introduce me), but how do I know who that middleman is? And what are the chances of us three being in the same place at the same time?
Taking all of this into account, I have have a hard time understanding why anybody would want the conference to become even bigger, but it seems the organizers take for granted that the size will increase even further in the future. But there has to be a point when the conference can't grow anymore, right? When any further increases in size actually decreases the utility of attending the conference, right? Also, it's a very expensive conference to attend (as a ACM/SIGCHI non-member I paid €1050 for the conference and my one-day workshop).
I'm struck by the fact that I actually got to know more new people at the tiny workshop I went to in Vienna a year ago (with perhaps 100 participants) than at this huge conference. Since there are so many people from my own department here (as well as other Swedes I already know), it is easy to spend a lot of time with people you already know. But really, we wouldn't really need to go to Paris to chat, so what really is the utility of going to this particular (huge) conference? I would need to think some more about that, but I think I already know the answer.
Since this is such a big and prestigious conference, the primary reason to go would be because you have submitted a paper that got accepted. In the HCI/UX area (human-computer interaction/user interface/interaction design/user experience area), getting something accepted to CHI is as good as getting a paper accepted to a scientific journal. And so my thoughts did at times drift to what I could/might submit for next year's CHI. I have several suggestions, but the two coolest ideas are:
- Many people who talk about sustainability start by saying that "people are not rational actors" (i.e. you can't convince someone to change their unsustainable behaviors and practices by just appealing to hard facts and rational arguments). Then they show a system they have built which bombards the users with bars and graphs (tailored for "rational" left-brain engineering-type users). So me an Marisa Cohn (almost-finshed ph.d. student from the University of California at Irvine but also a visiting researcher at KTH) talked about what it would mean to really accept an build upon on the fact that "people are not rational actors". We came up with lots of ideas and we need to work out if there is a paper hiding in the bouquet of diverse and exciting ideas we shot off, but what got us started was the (made-up) concept of "functional superstition". How could we seed, encourage and build (computer) systems that promotes pro-sustainable "superstitious" behaviors, i.e. encouraging people to "do the right thing" but for all the "wrong" (i.e. non-rational) reasons?
- I collected super-cool data about the DeLaval Voluntary Milking System (VMS) 10 years ago together with my friend and then-colleague Christer Garbis (now at Amazon). Then he moved to US and nothing came out of this project of ours (it was just a hobby project to start with). I still have the data (visits to farms who had installed the VMS system and interviews with the system interface designers). And I still have a number of great stories about design/user interface challenges when designing for 700 kg "milking athletes" who by no means are stupid, but who (it has to be acknowledges) have "limited cognitive abilities". This would be the foundation of a paper about "Bovine-Computer Interaction" (BCI) and, finally, the HCI field is catching up to our ground-breaking research; there were no less than two papers presented this year that literally sets the ground for our paper; "Animal-Computer Interaction (ACI): Changing perspective on HCI, participation and sustainability" and "Ethical issues and guidelines when conducting HCI studies with animals". As to reporting back from the frontiers of ACI/BCI, what is dearly needed is an update of the story I can provide, and I have come to an agreement with my colleague Henrik Artman that I will specify a master's thesis proposal, that he will be the advisor of that thesis, and that the whole purpose of that exercise would be to revisit and see how the BCI field has developed during the last decade (i.e. new interviews with farmers and with the designers that would provide an update of the data we collected a decade ago). Even if we do find a suitable (high-performing) student immediately, it will still unfortunately be impossible to submit a full paper for the next CHI conference (deadline September 18th). We would instead submit something to the alt.chi track (deadline Dec. 27): "alt.chi is a forum for controversial, risk-taking, and boundary pushing presentations at CHI". That sounds exactly like our cup of tea and who wouldn't love a paper called "When do you want to get milked today?: Bovine-Computer Interaction and [something]".
I have a few other ideas for papers, but (I'm sure you will all agree) that these two are the coolest, most high-profile and fun papers I have thought about - although unfortunately only the first relates to what the topic I really want to focus on - sustainability. As to pushing boundaries, some of the CHI work I heard being presented really does that, but other work is incremental, (probably) impeccably conducted and (surely) written-up in fine flowing flowery English, but unfortunately not very exciting (i.e. few new ideas). I often found myself asking "why?". Why do a study in the first place when the results are sooo unsurprising (something a clever researcher cold have figured out before embarking on the study), or when there are other ways of solving the same problem that are better, easier and/or more inexpensive? We all know that "to the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail". To the computer scientist every problem (or "problem") begs to be "solved" by a new (advanced, complex, expensive, complicated) computer system. I sometimes felt that there is so much energy exerted on so many less-than-useful computer systems that won't ever be developed and whose memory will be buried in the form of never-more-to-be-read research papers. That is slightly depressing since there really is no shortage of really important and hard challenges ahead of us (pdf, pdf).
The strangest and most intriguing title of all the papers this year was "CHI and the future robot enslavement of humankind: A retrospective" - and it was quite a good paper all-in-all (one of the keywords was "maschinenweltherrschaftsangst". At the pre-conference workshop I attended, someone looked for sustainable-computing metaphors and quickly went from "the cloud" to "the sky" and then quickly on to "roots". I instead got stuck in the middle and thought of a title for a paper that is great for all the obvious reasons (as long as you "get" the reference to the Terminator); "After The Cloud - Skynet". Perhaps I'll pass that title on to the robot enslavement guys as a suggestion for a follow-up paper... :-)
Another realization was that I ought to downgrade paper sessions (since I can read the papers afterwards), and instead upgrade stuff happening right here right now, like panels and meetings with special interest groups. I thus spontaneously signed up for a half-day course on "The past 100 years of the future: CHI/HCI/UX in Sci-Fi movies and television". That course was given by Aaron Marcus, who beyond being a senior CHI person and and very obviously is a huge SF fan. He was perhaps a little too much of a fan, spending a little too much time with his personal favorites and stuff from his own childhood (50's, 60's) rather than with more modern stuff (80's and on) that a higher proportion of the course participants were more familiar with. It was still a fun course although (for both good and bad) the course at times came to more resemble a conversation or a seminar (discussions instead of "expert lectures"). What did I get out of that course? A sensitivity to computing themes and visualizations of future technology in general and computing/HCI technologies in particular in fiction - as well a list of movies that I'd like to (re-)watch.
Something genuinely new to me that I picked up at the conference was the term "design fiction". Although I had heard the term before (like two weeks ago for the first time), I wasn't familiar with the ideas of concretely (though movies and perhaps mock-ups) visualizing scenarios of the future. The funny thing is that me and my students have created design fictions for 10 years in my course "Future of Media" - I just didn't know about the fancy term and I will definitely read up on the concept and hopefully get some new ideas that can be incorporated in the course (the autumn 2013 course theme will be "The future of news / News of the future". The results of the last two years ("The Future of magazines" and "The Future of radio") - including design fiction-esque movies and texts - can be found in our online Future of Media archive. The course was given in Swedish before that and earlier results are thus less accessible to an international audience.
As to the rest of the conference, I attended 1) most of everything tagged with "sustainability" (like paper session on "sustainable energy" and "sustainability"), 2) most of everything tagged with HCI4D, i.e. HCI for development - CHI for developing countries as well as for marginalized groups in developed countries (like paper sessions on "developing the world" and "design for development") and 3) paper sessions about social media. That was a succinct one-sentence long summary of my CHI conference activities!
Now that I'm home (and in line with my methodical reading habits), I have already spent some time with the proceedings (delivered on a 16 GB USB memory stick) and with the goal of choosing 150 pages of CHI 2013 articles that I will read before the summer. Adding the position papers for the pre-conference workshop I attended (another 50 pages), those 200 pages are equivalent to four weeks of reading articles, since my goal is to read 50 pages of academic articles per week. That is what I have decided to spare for CHI, and it will in fact be tough to make that selection of "only" 150 pages as this "only" correspond to something around 17(?) articles (so many articles, so little time to read!). The articles I have chosen will eventually turn up in my ongoing "articles I've read" series of blog posts (published in parallel to my "books I've read" series of blog posts).