CHI 2018 – New experiences, old dramas. A field report.
I had the great pleasure of visiting this year’s ACM SIGCHI (i.e. ACM’s „Special Interest Group Computer Human Interaction“ – while one has to recognize that the common disciplinary term is „HCI: Human Computer Interaction“) conference in Montreal, Canada. The conference took place between the 20th and the 26th of April. So, yes, it’s been a while, but as you will see there was a lot of stuff to process. Anyway, they had invited me to join their “Hacking and making at time-bounded events”-Workshop, which was investigating the hackathon phenomenon in terms of organizing, empirical research and theory. Thus, I was at the workshop and stayed for the whole conference, which featured a lot of exciting and interesting experiences that I would like to share with you.
The CHI conference was, at first, quite a breaching experience. Unlike the social science conferences I have visited so far, this conference started with party-like music and a mascot throwing (free) merchandise to the audience. The huge hall in which the masses of participants gathered provided many monitors and surround audio. This impressive setup was accompanied by the rare experience of consequently working media-technology. This pop-culture-like welcome then faded over to the introduction¬—speeches from the association leaders. I always thought that social sciences and humanities were somehow melodramatic at their conferences, performatively indicating the meaning and value of our work. However, I was pretty surprised by the “collective effervescence” that was produced at this introductory event; and even through the whole conference, the shibboleth “we are CHI” – incidentally indicating and undergirding the normative statements that are claimed or assumed to belong to the CHI community’s identity – was pronounced. This was particularly a phenomenon at this year’s conference for there were some normative troubles to observe…
The keynote about dating site data analysis by Christian Rudders was intensively discussed on several levels by many attendees. However, its greatest issue was, without doubt, the implicit sexism and racism of the statements that derived from the presented data-analysis, pointing out the (self-selective) correlations of attractiveness patterns (whatever attractiveness is in terms of operationalization), communication, dating and successful initiations of relationships. Frankly spoken, it was the presentation, interpretation and repetition of data that followed certain discriminating realities and factual clichés. Men of every age preferring young women, “attractive” women not responding much, and so on and so forth.
In the end, the interpretation was focused on the effectivity of matching similarly attractive individuals with each other. Although the data depicted a given reality of individual behaviors and perceptions of dating apps and websites users, they could have been discussed critically or treated as a structural problem to be tackled by innovative approaches. Instead, the quintessence of this keynote was rather a comment on the validity of the correlations presented and how to use these for better (or good) matching results. Since the discussion of the keynote was centrally moderated (and thus censored by the moderators), critical questions were silenced, leading many attendees to leave the room demonstratively. These attendees told me, later on, that they wished Rudders would have made explicit the discriminating structure of his data, and how much this is also an issue and responsibility of good HCI research and engineering practices. Instead they felt hurt by their critique and concerns being ignored. Throughout the conference, there were many opportunities to observe participants discussing this issue, articulating and feedbacking their anger but also some appreciating the keynote. Intriguingly, I could not spot controversial discussions on this, except for some fights about how to deal with this issue. To sufficiently understand this incident and issue, one has to know that the CHI conference is accompanied by a strong and elaborated diversity and inclusion policy that is already part of the conference’s registration process. There you can not only choose between all kinds of diets, but also between many gender identities and – independent of this – your preferred pronoun. I learned that this policy is already the result of a long process of political work and engagement within the CHI community. Nevertheless, I was impressed by this progressive attitude. This paradox was then explicitly reflected by the diversity-focused parts of the conference, comprised of several feminist-HCI panels, special interest groups (which are basically workshops) and the enthusiastically announced and heavily promoted diversity lunch. While the panels (mostly focusing on women in tech, improving accessibility of technology and fairness of algorithms) contained no room for discussions or comments larger than short, spontaneous references, the workshops intensively discussed the right code of conduct concerning the political tensions within the conference and the general CHI community that were thus rendered observable. Finally, at the diversity lunch, the issue was explicitly commented on by the organizers, apologized for and yet, nevertheless, justified. Again one could witness the discrepancies within the community. Thus there were different opinions regarding the given explanation for the keynote’s event. This also affected the award ceremony for those who were acknowledged for their contributions towards diversity and inclusion. What almost no one seemed to understand was what contribution the keynotes and even Rudders’ findings could provide at all. Funnily, at my table they concluded their discussion on the usage of Rudders’ studies with: “At least it might increase procreation rates”. I thought that was a joke, and in part I still believe it was; however, they finally agreed on this, claiming that this, at least, could not be denied, leaving me with a weird impression of witnessing positivism at its work.
After all, the whole community is diverse itself, comprised of some intellectuals, academic engineers and (even) more business-oriented people. Therefore the conference, although its overall flair is highly progressive in terms of inclusion and fairness, provides barely any criticism against capitalism or neo-liberalism. A feature which proves once more the relationship between the capital and liberalism. It is no mere result of the event’s sponsors being big market players, for they are behaving in the same way and the liberal assumptions of accountability and meritocracy bear in some cases functional values; either because the research is market-intrinsic (optimization of cooperation or targeting) or because the imagined user or client of HCI scenarios is constitutively treated as a liberal subject. Last but not least, the progressive projects, like ones on increasing participation or accessibility of technologies, do their critique in a tangible way and, more importantly, the other way round. In social criticism, ‘naturally’, the very social matters are most significant, thus leading towards more radical and extrinsic critiques. Tinkering, developing and designing artifacts within our socio-technical assemblages is always, per se, an intrinsic activity. In that way, the whole CHI community, besides some very abstract tech issues, seems to operate as an operator or mediator between technical, public and market interests, thus complementing the tensions between the realms involved with technology development. This is also reflected by the evening events that accompanied the conference: job markets and exhibitions with all kinds of business, but also artists. Indeed, incomparable to my usual conference experiences, this was a quite fancy event with high-quality food, service personal, large and usable installations of prototypes. The only thing not that fitting were our wardrobes.
As you can see, there are several interests and perspectives involved within the CHI community. As mediators of different technological and scientific perspectives, interests and objectives, they have, to my very surprise, a methodological fight between quantitative and qualitative research going on. After all, something that we definitely had in common. Most of the presented conference papers were either technical in terms of using deductive-nomological models or quantitative, statistical research. There was even a workshop on developing easily comprehensible statistics guidelines for HCI researchers. Only a few talks focused on qualitative methods of research. Overall, qualitative methods were treated as auxiliary tools for either explorative purposes or for merely undergirding research. However, between and beyond the talks I met a lot of researchers that, believe it or not, addressed me as “this German sociologist”, and asked me about my methodological perspective, what qualitative methods there are, what might be done, and if I see the limitations of quantitative research as well, despite their performed objectivity and reproducibility. We had a great time discussing these issues since I already, and almost unknowingly, had started to work on issues of qualitative methods for engineering and HCI purposes and also their capacity as mediating practices for interdisciplinary projects (Sources) which I so far had accounted as HMI; but, alas, this is a really new field to me so I happen to get a lot of things wrong in the beginning… In the end, I have been virtually invited to hand in a qualitative methods conference paper next time (which is, by now, actually in planning), so CHI could get a more genuine social science insight into the sets of given methods and their, HCI related, potential. It was funny that those CHI people and I shared, once again, a reciprocal misunderstanding. I would have never thought that they had methodological issues like we have within sociology – while they often assumed that such a methodological issue would not be there with social sciences. Oh, if they only knew…
These moments were, nevertheless, quite awkward for I had been commonly addressed as some kind of evaluating agent. Not only was I addressed as an expert and consultant for issues of qualitative research, I was also asked frequently whether I, as a sociologist, would ratify their conference and community – and those who asked were quite happy to hear that I am pretty impressed by their activities and attitudes; which I hope to articulate in this report as well. However, this often felt like I was a travelling research agent for the royal ministry of normativity in science. But neither am I such an agent nor is social science the normative judge of progressive research. Nevertheless, this was also exciting since I am used to, and expected to be, rather derided. Thus, it was very nice to see STEM researchers being excited about the exotic world of social science, which seemed to raise an issue within HCI research as it happens that more formalistic approaches of psychology and even media studies fail in processing complexities of socio-technical assemblages.
You might have noticed that I talked a lot about things that made me wonder, or sometimes even shudder; but I also tried to highlight how much I enjoyed the conference and how impressed I was. This blog post is, after all, an ethnographic artifact. Thus, it highlights all those things that are – somehow – noteworthy, and still one might tend to note (meaning both, sensing and writing) the bleak hues of one’s experience. Furthermore, I cannot deny that my experiences were, from a sociological point of view, sometimes quite irritating. However, this is disciplinary snobbism. Hence, beyond my report, please do not miss my message, that I am honestly and deeply impressed by the excitement, motivation and optimism I could witness among the HCI community at the CHI conference. As a “German Sociologist”, I am not used to approaches that assume that things can be improved if you only engage with technology development and research of the socio-technical realms (of user space). And this must not be misunderstood as some kind of naivety, it is a great pleasure to see the stamina of those who try to contribute something, and who, as I wrote above, do this by doing and from within. I think we can learn a lot from each other. Finally, HCI, as still an applied science, is made of a lot of things taken for granted which are easy to see for the trained, sociological eye; yet they set a benchmark in designing better worlds, and even more, they also identify interesting social issues (of participation, equality, compliance) with their in-depth observation of computer human interaction. I recommend visiting conferences like this to my colleagues, there is much more than nerdy tech talk.