fredag 4 november 2016

NordiCHI 2016 in Gothenburg (conference)


I attended the NordiCHI conference in Gothenburg last week (October 25-27). The full and more impressive name is the 9th Nordic Conference on Human-Computer Interaction and this year's theme was "Game-changing design". I have also attended the 1st NordiCHI conference (in Stockholm in 2000) and the 8th NordiCHI conference (in Helsinki in 2014) and I expect to attend the 10th NordiCHI conference that will be held in Oslo two years from now (in 2018 between Sept 29-Oct 3).

My colleague Elina, me and five other colleagues held a workshop the day before the conference (Oct 24), "HCI and UN's Sustainable Development Goals" and I wrote a separate blog post about the workshop last week.

The conference venue, "Lindholmen Conference Center", was nice and I very much appreciate that not only coffee but also lunches were included in the conference fee. The fact that the lunch break was free, on-site and 1.5 hours long made for effective networking. Or rather for effective collaboration; I had working lunches every single day and used those precious hours to discuss and plan for paper together with Oliver Bates (Tuesday), Hanna Hasselqvist (Wednesday) and Staffan Björk & Maria Håkansson (Thursday). Staffan recently came to Stockholm to give two guest lectures in my project course about The Future of Computer Games, but he was also the general (co-)chair of the conference so I especially appreciated that he had the opportunity to take time off to discuss a really exciting writing project we started to talk about already when he visited Stockholm in the beginning of October.

Staffan rattled of some facts about the conference from the stage when it started;
- No less than 329 papers were submitted (231 full papers, 98 short papers) and 76 papers from 38 countries were accepted (23%).
- There were 60 associate chairs and no less than 577 reviewers.
- There were 22 submitted workshop proposals and 15 workshops were held (including ours)
- There were 420 attendees when the conference started (it was possible to buy on-site one-day passes) from at least 34 countries.

To those fact I can add the fact that both of my submissions to the conference (aimed at the "Future Scenarios track") were rejected despite getting ok or better-than-average reviews. We have since already reworked one of the papers and submitted it to another conference.

The conference is a relatively small conference with two parallell academic tracks and some other activities in parallell (industry track, poster session, demos, student competition) as well as (of course) a social program for the evenings. A big difference between this conference and the huge CHI conference with 15 or so parallell tracks is that I become abruptly reminded of the fact that I am actually not particularly interested in the majority of what is characterized as HCI research. I'd say that I'm perhaps genuinely interested in only 10-20% of the research in this domain.

There were however some presentation that caught my attention I briefly list them here and add a comment that describes the paper and why I thought it was interesting (but I might have misunderstood something or forgotten some in the 10 or so days since I heard the presentations). I plan to print and read (at least) these papers from the conference:

  • "Informing Design Decisions for Advice Mediating Handheld Devices by Studyng Coffee Cup reading" by Börütecene et. al. This was a really fun presentation. These crazy Turks had studied the practice of Turkish women reading the fortune? future? of their friends in the remains at the bottom of the coffee cup. They were particularly interested in how they used one hand to hole the coffee cup (think cell phone) and the other hand/arm to dramatize the results. I'm not 100% sure but I guess they hope to find some implications of this practice that is relevant to how we use our cell phones. 
  • "Traces as an Approach to Design for Focal Things and Practices" by Robbins et. al. This was an explorative design study and what caught my attention was the authors use of a STS scholar, Borgmann and a book of his from 1984, "Technology and the character of contemporary life". The presenter in particular described the different between how we heated our homes in premodern times (chopping wood etc.) compared to today and I will primarily use this paper as an entrance to Borgmann.
  • "Informing Design for Reflection. an Overview of Current Everyday Practices" by Mols et. al. On reflection practices in everyday life and how to support them (with, I suppose, some sort of digital tools).  It might be that everyday reflection is waning as we use our smartphones to play casual games at every occasion when we have time to kill (waiting in line, on the subway etc.). Walking was a setting that encourages reflection but that activity might nowadays be replaced by hunting Pokemon when we are on the go? 
  • "Involving End-Users in Game Based Ideation A case Study in Hospital Logistics" by Huyghe et. al. The authors had used a board game to troubleshoot problems at a large hospital and I think the development of the game, the way they used it and the outcomes were very innovative and interesting. This is a sure read as we have also used a board games in our education (and written about it earlier this year).
  • I guess I will also at least have a look at all the six accepted papers in the Future Scenarios session ("panel").
I naturally also like the two Sustainable HCI papers that were presented at the conference:
  • "HeatDial: Beyond User Scheduling in Eco-Interaction" by Hagensby Jensen et. al.
  • "Eco-Feedback Visualization for Closing the Gap of Organic Food Consumption" by my colleagues Jorge Zapico, Cecilia Katzeff, Ulrica Bohné and Rebecka Milestad.

The conference also had three keynote speakers and I reacted very differently to those three speakers and quite badly to two of them:

The first keynote speaker was Erik Stolterman (blog). He is a Swede living in exile at Indiana University (rubbing shoulders with Eli Blevis, the Bardzells and Hamid Ekbia). His keynote reported on an ongoing investigation of his (together with Jan-Erik Janlert at Umeå University) about the characteristics of interactivity, interaction, and interface. They were friends as ph.d. students and have recurrently investigated this topic for the last 25 years. I only listened for some minutes before I decided that I would buy and read their upcoming book on this topic (MIT Press 2017) and then for the most part zoned out of the talk. Stolterman seemed to know what he was talking about, and who wouldn't after having spent 25 years thinking about a particular topic? That's a feat and that reason alone almost merits having your book read in and of itself!

The second speaker was experimental physicist Jacob Sherson who talked about "Citizen Science Game Design: Harnessing the Power of Human Intuition". While he described lots of "exciting" research problems that were being solved by crowdsourcing, I tried to figure out what vision he had of the good society (that his research would help usher in) and couldn't really see that he had thought much about the implications of his research at all. He was very much into crowdsourcing and described a simple game for solving some really complicated real-world physics problems. He spoke reverently of one of his best players, a taxi driver, who described his strategy poetically and in such a way that every sentence could (apparently) be turned into equations. But how will Sherson repay this taxi driver and the research he does for free on Sherson's behalf? I would think that the most probable outcome is for Sherson to crowdsource for people to analyze and "solve" "traffic situations", eventually replacing the taxi driver with an autonomous vehicle that will put him out of his job. Which I told him as part of the question I asked him after his talk. I am here very much inspired by the work that Silberman and Irani have done on Amazon Mechanical Turk and "Turkopticon" (here, here and here) as well as Ekbia and Nardi's work on "Heteromation" (here and here). It is a fine line to walk between Sherson's "citizen science" and "getting people to work for you for free"...

I managed not just to ask a question but also to be the first to ask a question. One thing I referred to in my question was the 2014 alt.chi paper by Kirman et. al., "CHI and The Future Robot Enslavement of humankind". The authors pretend to be robots from the future who have travelled back in time to thank humanity for all the great research we conducted and that made the future robot enslavement of humankind inevitable at the point in time when the paper was presented (2014). The authors then go about and enumerate research they consider harmful to human freedom and those aspects we value in  human societies. I could not remember exactly what research they referred to but told Sherson that his research, as far as I could recall, would probably fit right in there. My question wasn't just a rant but actually ended in a question and I guess I did get an answer of sorts (but not particularly satisfying). It felt to me like Sherson might have been a bit subdued when he agreed that the aspects I mentioned are important and that he [something that I don't really remember]. I guess one of the reasons I took badly to this talk was because certain parts of it reminded me of the Clueless AI researcher I listened to and blogged about back in 2011.

I also had problems with the last keynote speaker, Anna Rosling Rönnlund (who is married to Hans Rosling's son). She works for the Gapminder foundation (Wikipedia) and she has definitely drunk the Kool-Aid. Much of her talk was interesting and the Dollar Street project was riveting and I wholeheartedly recommend a visit to that street! Most Swedes think they belong to the middle class when we in fact belong to the global overclass. Don't believer me - check it out on Dollar Street! We also think "the poor" in Sweden are poor, but they too belong to the global upperclass (or the upper middle class) and Dollar Street drives home that message once and for all.

I also don't have a problem with the spiel about us living with a world view that we got from Tintin comics as of 50 years ago and where there is us (rich) and them (poor). The world is obviously much more complicated and it is also a much better (or at least more affluent) place than what many of us seem to think. Rosling Rönnlund reported on asking people a variety of questions regarding if the world is getting better or worse and they consistently got answers that show how out of touch people are with actual developments in the world during the last 50 years. The world has consistently gotten better (child mortality, # people who have died in wars, due to extreme weather events, disease, absolute poverty etc.), but most affluent westerners think it has gotten consistently worse.

I did however have problems when Rosling Rönnlund suggested that due to past trends, things will continue to get better in the future. I again managed to get the microphone first and suggested that her question "Is the world getting better or worse?" could be divided into two questions: "Has the world gotten better or worse?" and "Will the world get better or worse?". The answer to the first question is obviously "yes" (and Gapminder had massive evidence of this). As to the second questions, well, we just don't know. Some current trends point towards "better" but other trends point towards "worse" and the truth is that we just don't know. I guess it depends on which trends you think will be the more important and more dominant.

After having laid that foundation I switched track and suggested that Rosling Rönnlund was playing the same game that my personal bankwoman has tried half a dozen times before she gave up on me (I have stopped seeing her now). My personal bankwoman showed me a lot of attractive curves that all seemed to suggest a date with wealth in my future - if only I invested money in their wonderful mutual funds. But (and this is a Big "but"), each and every attractive-curve fund also came with an important proviso stating that "historical data is no guarantee for future yield". So we know about the past and we can extrapolate forward in time but that actually says very little - and guarantees even less - about what the future has in store. I expressed this even more concisely by telling her that I just peed in my pants and could she please guess if I now feel better, the same or worse than five second ago? The fact that it feels so much better right now is a bad predictor of how I will feel a minute from now...

No one can dispute trends based on the history of the 20th century (and the 21st century this far), but those trends say very little about the future. I politely thus suggested that her 20th-century-trends (and the extrapolation of said trends into the future) were deceptive because we cannot with certainty say very much about the future and forecasting always always misses all the important game-changers, the black swans and the wild cards.

So what was her answer? She totally agreed and pointed out that it was in fact only the population trend that she/Gapminder extrapolated into the (far) future year of 2100. I noticed that she knew exactly what I meant (she had probably heard the same critique many times before), but I still caught her disregarding her own answer when she answered other people's questions. She for example stated that people have a too gloomy view of the future and that that's one of the motivations behind the Gapminder projects. I could again have reminded her of the fact that "historical data is not a guarantee for future trends"! It might be that people have been too gloomy again and again in the past, but that does not disprove gloominess as a good predictor of the future right now, it only disproves past gloominess. It could thus be totally justified to be gloomy about the future and nothing - Nothing - of what Gapminder does (no matter how much data they collect!) can disprove that. And unless Gapminderers are very clear about what exactly it is they do and how they do it, they do for the most part travel around the world, spreading a messianic message about the future that could be totally untrue and at least isn't very nuanced. Which I told her. But it didn't seem to make a difference.

My association with futures studies persons at KTH (Mattias Höjer, Josefin Wangel, Ulrika Gunnarsson Östling, Luciane Borges) has sensitized me a lot to how we can talk about the future when these futures studies researchers talk about probable, plausible, possible and preferable future as well as about the differences between various techniques, e.g. forecasting vs backcasting etc. Forecasting just has a unjustified good reputation, something that is hinted in the very titles of these two articles:

  • Smil, V., 2000. Perils of long-range energy forecasting: reflections on looking far ahead. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 65(3):251–264.
  • Bezdek, R.H., Wendling, R.M., 2002. A half century of long-range energy forecasts: errors made, lessons learned, and implications for forecasting. Journal of Fusion Energy, 212(3–4), 155–172.

The errors made are many, the lessons learned are few and the implications for forecasting are for the most part damning. Heres a quote from a paper I'm just now writing (I did not formulate these particular words): "forecasts have missed virtually every important shift of the past decades as well as all sudden, dramatic and unexpected changes or deviations from trends that have been extrapolated".

Here's a quote from another paper that I've written together with others but these are words that I have personally formulated (it's from a paper that is currently being under review): "Science fiction author William Gibson is known for repeatedly having stated that “The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed” [...]. From a Collapse informatics and a Computing within Limits perspective it makes just as much sense to state that "The collapse is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed." The collapse in question is readily at display in places such as Detroit, Greece, Afghanistan, Syria and in various failed states, and it can also be captured by a large and increasing set of keywords such as mass unemployment, metastasizing slums, stagnating social mobility, crumbling welfare states, peak oil, scarcity of energy and water resources as well as by various effects of climate change."

For anyone who has drank the Cool-Aid (e.g. everyone who works at Gapminder or who devours Gapminder's (ideological) message), I would recommend them to read Harald Welzer's 2008/2012 book "Climate wars: Why people will be killed in the 21st century". It is riveting, terrible and terrifying all at once and is the best prediction I have seen of the near future (2007-2016). It predicts recent and current trends much better than all the Pollyannaish books that extolls the virtues of humankind and describes how everything keeps getting better all the time. Climate wars unfortunately does not at all point to a very nice future even as the author intensely hopes that he is wrong.

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