Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Book Summary: Where the Action Is - The Foundations of Embodied Interaction - Chapter 4

Where the Action Is; The Foundations of Embodied Interaction
By Paul Dourish
MIT Press, 2001

Chapter 4 – Being in the World: Embodied Interaction

Dourish contends that embodiment is an attribute of how we experience physical and social reality. In turn, it is also “a unifying principle for tangible and social computing.” In this chapter he defines the notion of embodiment (and embodied interactions) by exploring the emergence of this concept.

The Quick Definition of Embodiment:
In this chapter Dourish evolves the definition of embodiment from “embodied phenomena are those that occur in space and time” to “embodiment is the property of our engagement with the world that allows us to make it meaningful.” He also shares a definition for embodied interaction: “[it] is the creation, manipulation and sharing of meaning through an engaged interaction with artifacts.”

In the book you only get to these last two definitions at the end of the chapter, at which point it makes more sense. So if you are confused just read on about the theories underlying this definition.

Emergence of the Concept of Embodiment:
Dourish’s exploration into the emergence of the concept of embodiment focuses mostly on thinkers from the phenomenological tradition, a school of philosophy in which I am personally interested. The perspectives that he highlights share three commonalities in their approach:
  1. The concept of embodiment plays a central role in all perspectives. Remember that our definition of embodiment is “a property of our engagement with the world that allows us to make it meaningful.” This definition expands beyond the notion of embodiment as a physical property to encompass non-physical properties that impact our experience of being-in-the-world.
  2. Practice plays a central role in all perspectives. By practice, Dourish refers to actions carried out in the world to accomplish “practical goal[s].” Action in the world is considered fundamental to our understanding the world and our relationship with it.
  3. All perspectives consider embodied practical action as a source of meaning. Embodiment is a source for intentionality rather than the object of it.

The Evolution of Phenomenology:
Phenomenology is relevant to understanding Dourish’s concept of embodied interaction because it is a school of thought that focuses on “ the behavior of embodied actors going about their business in the world.” It rejects abstract and formalized reasoning in favor of the world of everyday experience. To phenomenologists, meaning is found in the way the world reveals itself to us as being available for our actions, and in the way in which the world acts upon us - in both its physical and social manifestations.

Edmund Husserl is considered the father of phenomenology. The main aim of his investigations was to understand the relationship between objects of intentionality and our consciousness of those objects - in other words, the relationships between the objects of meaning and our experience of those objects. Intentionality is an important concept in phenomenology. I will not go into detail about this concept here because it is explored in detail in the next chapter of the book.

To properly analyze the relationship between these two notions, phenomenologists need to get passed the “natural attitude” under which humans operate that assumes the existence of “perceived objects” or meaning based solely on the perception. Life-world (lebenswelt) is a concept that Husserl introduced to refer to the everyday, mundane world of common background understandings that give rise to the “natural attitude” and provide a context for everyday experiences.

Martin Heidegger was a one of Husserl’s students. He broadened the focus of investigation from purely mental and cognitive concerns to encompass physical considerations, breaking away from Husserl’s perspective that separated mind and body, to embrace a wholistic perspective focused on being. Heidegger believed that first you need “to be in order to think.”

Based on Heidegger’s perspective, the meaningfulness of everyday experience arises from the way we exist in the world rather than from one’s mind – the experience of being cannot be separated from the world in which it occurs. He believed that the way we encounter the world is practical. We encounter it as a place in which we act and as a consequence intentionality (or meaning creation) is a practical affair.

Another important perspective that Heidegger introduced is that the world is not simply an object of our action but also as a medium through which we act. He distinguishes two ways in which we encounter the world: “ready-at-hand” and “present-to-hand.” Present-at-hand refers to when we encounter the world as an object of our action. An example of a ready-at-hand encounter is when we pick up a hammer and are conscious of the way we are holding it in our hand. Ready-to-hand refers to when we encounter the world as a medium through which we act. For example, when we are using a hammer but our consciousness is focused on a task such as hammering a nail

Here is a nice quote from Dourish about Heidegger’s impact on phenomenological thinking: “Essentially, Heidegger transformed the problem of phenomenology from an epistemological question, a question about knowledge, to an ontological question, a question about forms and categories of existence.”

Alfred Schutz extended phenomenology “beyond the individual to encompass the social world.” His main contribution focused on the issue of intersubjectivity. This concept refers to our “intersubjective understandings of the world and of our actions [with]in it.” Intersubjectivity ultimately provides the foundation from which social action emerges and from which social order is constituted.

Schutz’s rejected the traditional sociological perspective, which viewed intersubjectivity as a universal law. To him, intersubjectivity is a phenomena that emerges out of our everyday “mundane” experience - it is a problem that is “routinely solved by social actors in the course of their action and interaction. Social actors are, in effect, practical sociologists, solving the problems of sociology for themselves everyday.” One last important point is that this world of everyday “mundane” experience is the life-world described by Husserl.

Maurice Merlau-Ponty is the phenomenologist that placed the greatest emphasis on the concept of embodiment. The main focus of his investigation was the role that the body played in unifying the duality of mind/body, and subject/object. Embodiment had three different meanings according to Merlau-Ponty.

“The first is the physical embodiment of a human subject, with legs arms, and of certain size and shape; the second is the set of bodily skills and situational responses that we have developed; and the third is the cultural “skills,” abilities, and understanding that we responsively gain from the cultural world in which we are embedded. Each of these aspects, simultaneously, contributes to and conditions the action of the individual, both in terms of how they understand their own (the ‘phenomenological body’) and how it is understood by others (the ‘objective body’).”

Beyond Phenomenology
In this chapter, Dourish also introduces other modern theorists who are not part of the phenomenologist school but who have focused on the physical and social aspects of embodiment.

Being in the Physical WorldJ.J. Gibson is a proponent of ecological psychology, a branch of psychology that focuses on “knowledge in the world” as opposed to “knowledge in the head.” He introduced the now common concept of affordance, which “is a property of the environment [or an artifact] that affords action to appropriately equipped organisms.” This concept has heavily infiltrated the world of HCI, and it reached the general consciousness via Donald Norman’s book “The Psychology of Everyday Things.”

Being in the Social WorldLucy Suchman drew extensively from Garfinkel’s ethonomethodological perspective, which in essence “claims that everyday social practice creates and sustains the social world by rendering it publicly available and intelligible. Members’ methods for making action accountable are means through which the phenomenon of objective social reality is achieved.” (go back to the chapter 3 summary for more on ethnomethodology). Suchman demonstrated how the regimented models that are embodied in most interactive technology do not properly support the contextual and practical means by which human action is organized.

Language Games and the Meaning of Language - Ludwig Wittgenstein was a philosopher who studied language. He posited that meaning in language does not arise from words themselves but is rather embedded in the practice of language. He saw language as a form of action, rather than a system of symbols with objective meanings. To emphasize his perspective he developed the notion of “language games” that refer to “socially shared linguistic practices ‘consisting of language and the actions into which it is woven.’”

The goal of this rather long post is to help you understand Dourish’s definition of embodied interaction, with which I began this summary: “[it] is the creation, manipulation and sharing of meaning through an engaged interaction with artifacts.” I hope I have succeeded in doing so, if not, leave a comment and we’ll see if I can help shed any more light on the subject.

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