Buxton, W. (1994). Metaphors that keep us on the periphery. Human Computer Interaction, 9(1), 50-52.
Metaphors that Keep Us on the Periphery
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I think that the problem lies in an over-reliance on the literary metaphor that pervades the paper: text and context, books and publishing. At first glance, the examples are compelling. But it is precisely that which makes them problematic. Because they fit the arguments so well, one tends not to stop and wonder how thus restricting the repertoire of metaphor constrains thinking about the problem.
Let me illustrate this by way of two examples - examples that are based
on an assumption that the information and communications technologies
that we are designing are not always best understood by comparing them
to what has preceded them.
From this asymmetry emerges a missed opportunity. The problem is this: if knowledge of context and the periphery is important for communication, then that should be true in both directions. Not only should design consider context from the human's perspective of the technology, so should it do so from the technology's perspective of the human.
Whereas a book can't read, computer and telecommunications technologies do have the potential to sense and react to the periphery (physical and social). When confronted with foreground communications, with appropriate design, these technologies have the potential to interpret these communications according to the background context within which they are made.
As an example, imagine a VCR in a conference room that is sometimes used for videoconferencing. One can imagine instrumenting the room such that what happens when the "record" button is pushed depends on the context: if in a video conference, both sides of the conference are recorded, otherwise, just what is occurring in the local room. The user need only initiate recording. The system senses the context in which the record request was made, and configures the room's A/V network accordingly.
Such sensing of the periphery by technology is not generally done. But it can be, as is illustrated by examples such as security systems and Xerox PARC's "Reactive Environment" project [Elrod, et. al, 1993]. It is a relatively small step to employ this background sensing to provide the peripheral awareness that would enable foreground interactions to be interpreted in context. This is directly supported by the authors' arguments.
As we add cameras, microphones and other sensing mechanisms to our systems,
this becomes an increasingly practical option. I would argue that
this property does distinguish these artifacts from those which preceded
them, and by its virtue, one way to compensate for the "loss of continuity"
embodied in them is provided.
However, another observation is omitted from the essay: how the
technology can be turned back upon itself to address problems that it helped
create. Perhaps the best example of this is how those same technologies
that bring about physical demassification afford the provision of a "social
prosthesis" that can counteract social demassification. These affordances
emerge from so-called "mediaspace" and "telepresence" technologies [Bly
et. al, 1993]. These increasingly have the capability to effectively
support tight social networks among communities which are otherwise dispersed.
Design must be holistic. And, I believe, the approaches discussed
in the Brown and Duguid essay must be matched with an approach that reflects
an intimate familiarity with a suitable repertoire of potentially applicable
technologies and their affordances. From such an outside-in approach,
perhaps the social prostheses that all of us are striving for will emerge.
Buxton, W. (in press). The three mirrors of interaction: a holistic approach to user interfaces. In L.W. MacDonald & J. Vince (1994). Interacting with virtual environments. New York: Wiley.
Elrod, S., Hall, G., Costanza, R., Dixon, M. & Des Rivieres, J. (1993) Responsive office environments. Communications of the ACM, 36(7), 84-85.
William Buxton is an Associate Professor of Computer Science and
Scientific Director of the Ontario Telepresence Project at the University
of Toronto. He is also a consulting reearch scientist at Xerox PARC.