The Pliant Story
Our human world is held together by semantically rich interactions. For
example, people in conversation continually try to figure out what others
mean, check to see if they are understood, correct misunderstandings, act
in ways that depend on immediate context, past history and shared experiences,
and so forth. Such interactions may last minutes, hours, days, years or
even centuries; and they may be embodied in spoken conversation, written
correspondence, works of art, buildings, or other media. Such semantically
rich interaction, which we also call discourse, typically involves the
gradual development of a common ground: a set of shared understandings
about both the content of the interaction, and about the process of conducting
it. We aim to get digital systems to support and participate in discourse,
at least in limited ways.
Our Approach: Sociotechnical Analysis and Design
One of our basic assumptions is that the proper unit of analysis and design
is neither the technology, nor the person, nor the group, but rather people
in groups using technology: what we call a sociotechnical system. Another
way of expressing our our goal is that we aim to understand how to design
sociotechnical systems in which the boundary between the technical and
the social is gradual, fluid, and dynamic.
Three Areas of Investigation
It's useful to divide our concerns into three areas: Human-Machine Interaction;
Social Interaction; and Foundations.
1. Human-Machine Interaction: Action as Appropriation
Although today's digital systems do many things well, they don't know what
their activities mean to their users, they have no coherent view of their
past interactions, and they have no model of their own interaction process.
Therefore, they cannot explain what they're doing, discuss alternatives
with users, or adjust what they are doing based on their users' understanding
or goals. In short, they cannot participate in rich interaction, because
there is no common ground between the system and its users.
People rarely begin from a blank slate, following carefully thought
out plans about how to achieve well-specified goals. Rather, human action
is improvisational and opportunistic, and people's goals are often vague.
People look around for useful stuff, and gradually reshape it to their
own ends, specifying and redefining their goals in the process. We want
to design computational systems that support this process, which we call
appropriation. We are investigating two (entwined) ways of supporting appropriation:
accounts and coproduction. Systems that provide accounts reveal, as an
intrinsic part of their behavior, what they're doing, how they're doing
it, and why they're doing it. This seems essential to making computational
systems appropriable. Coproduction is process of the user and the system
working together, each applying its competencies to ease the process of
2. Social Interaction: From Data to Meaning
This perspective also applies at a higher level: supporting rich semantic
interaction among people through the media provided by digital systems.
Groups of people interacting over time (discourse communities) are very
effective at storing, retrieving, filtering and distributing information,
supporting learning and problem solving, and coordinating distributed activity.
However, today digital systems provide little support for such activities;
the current paradigm is that computers contain data, disembodied information
that lacks any connection with the social context in which it was produced.
Our goal here is to help users participate in the web of discourse that
connects community members, helping them understand the social context
of a particular piece of information, interact with those who produced
it and others who are using it, and continue the discourse by commenting
on, adding to, or otherwise modifing it. Our investigations in this area
include studying and analyzing examples of on-line interactive genres,
exploring ways in which pattern languages might provide common grounds
for such genres, and developing scenarios of how a discourse friendly systems
might support social interaction.
3. Foundations: From Rigid to Pliant Media
Computing technology supports responsive media that are fundamentally different
from the mostly passive physical media that have been used throughout history.
Such media can respond to their context, history, and users. However, so
far computer based responsive media are exceptionally rigid and fragile.
A primary goal of our research to create computational media that are flexible,
resilient and responsive--in a word, pliant. Specific areas of investigation
here include design approaches based on ways that people express meanings
through material artifacts, and virtual machines that directly support
computing with richer semantics.