A review of the book: A Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander

In the Timeless Way of Building (first published in 1979), Cristopher Alexander exposes his theory of the use of pattern languages in architecture. The idea of pattern languages has not only been influential in architecture but also in other fields such as software architecture, education, and interaction design. I found this reason enough to revisit the writings that started it all.

I would not be surprised if many who started reading the timeless way for similar reasons as I had, have put it away after reading just a few pages. At first reading the book comes across as an almost religious text. Alexander introduces “the quality that cannot be named” as the highest ideal in building, which can be reached through “a process which brings order out of nothing but ourselves (…) if we will only let it”. The core of the book is divided in three parts the quality, the gate, the way. It is full of little summaries, often in the form of rules or maxims. These style choices are not my taste, but luckily, in-between all this idealistic chatter, Alexander does unfold an interesting and quite practical theory of design, which is worth considering.

In the first part of the book, Alexander tries to define the quality that cannot be named. He observes some places are nicer to be in than others and tries to define a single quality which sets these places apart from others. The quality can be described as a freedom from inner contradictions, the feeling of being whole, or alive, as a kind of freedom, as comfortable, as egoless and eternal. Some places have this quality, while others lack the quality. The quality can be recognized from patterns of events that keep on happening in the place, which give the place its unique character. These patterns of events, in turn, are interlocked with the patterns in space which have co-evolved with the activities. These observations, lead Alexander to two interrelated quests. First he tries to define a process of building that allows for this co-evolution and second he wants to develop a way to capture the best practices in building that sets such placed with a high living quality apart.

In the second part of the book, which I found the most interesting; Alexander sets out to explain the idea of a pattern language which forms the core of his theory. According to Alexander, people have always used pattern languages implicitly in their building practice, but modern architecture has lost touch with this way of building, hence his attempt to make it explicit. Patterns are a particular way to capture the essence of a good building practice. They describe a relationship between elements in space. One example is the rule of thumb that a living room should have windows on both sides. Patterns, are not descriptions of concrete buildings, but they are an abstraction of a building practice focusing on those part that are invariantly present in all buildings with a certain quality. Moreover a pattern solves a problem, or more specific, it relieves a tension between opposing forces. Patterns are culturally dependent, although some are more universally applied than others.

A pattern language is a network of patterns. This network has a partial hierarchy, A garden growing wild, can have tree places, which could consist of fruit trees, and so on; different hierarchical paths are possible through the network, so one might arrive at using fruit trees, through different paths. While the patterns form the words of the design language, the network defines the grammar, or at least the collocations of patterns. Using the pattern language is subsequently a process of differentiating space. A designer starts with the first pattern, and then works down the network slowly detailing the space until the design is complete. Although this process quite straightforward, and -perhaps- easy to learn it gives much creative freedom, as the designer can chose patterns, shape them according to the needs of the whole.

In the last part of the book Alexander discusses how a pattern language can be used in real projects. Working from a shared pattern language ordinary people can design, buildings and neighborhoods. Alexander discusses for example the case of the site of a clinic which is designed in a co-creative process by the later users of the clinic as one example. This part is illustrative in the workings of a pattern language, but it is also the part where Alexander returns to his idealistic and egalitarian agenda. He castigates modern architecture, argues building should be in the hands of the people, not of architects. Buildings need not to be drawn on paper, but can be built from marks on the ground, using a pattern language. Although there is something to these ideas, I guess, a more modest tone would have been appropriate. The practices Alexander preaches here are so far off of modern practice, that they need stronger arguments than he provides in the book.

There are several strong ideas in the Timeless Way. Alexander puts emphasis on utility, or use over aesthetics as main function in architecture. The ideas of patterns as a way to consolidate best practices is strong, and his celebration the tacit knowledge in craftsmanship and culture may be a dearly needed sound in modern society and education. It is less clear to what extent Alexander’s program to explicate patterns really fits this idea though. Alexander explicitly positions the practice of explicating patterns as an intermediate step. He believes patterns originate from the building and living culture of a community and explicating them is merely an antidote to the perils of modern building industry. Positioning patterns as an intermediate step, however, raises the question how a transition to the ideal state ought to occur. This question is never answered in the book.

The idea of a pattern language as a design language is certainly strong. Language forms a strong metaphor to understand what design is. The pattern language appears accessible as well, as it turns out to be useful means in a participatory design project described in the last part of the book (Alexander shares ideas, ideals and practices with the Scandinavian School of participatory design, which emergerd in the same period). On the other hand, composing a language out of a pattern network alone seems to be a poor solution. It seems to me a full-fledged design language needs to integrate more types of knowledge than explicated best practices and principles.

A more general critique is Alexanders tendency to present the pattern language as a solution to all problems. The book, already riddled with references to the Tao, pursuing the quality that cannot be named as the single ideal to strive for, feels religious enough without offering the pattern language as a salvation for all possible problems in building practice. More than as a theorist, Christopher Alexander speaks to us as a believer. If you can handle this, you’ll find in him a fine design theorist too, but I recon this will take a handful of blasphemy from your side.


I guess I spend too much time on the web – me too. For several years a cute little book called “Is the internet changing the way you think?” has been lingering in my closet, waiting to be picked and read. But I just never managed to grab and read it, until now. Each year the Edge organization asks a group of great thinkers in the world a question. The responses, in the form of short essays are published on the web and in paperback. “Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think”, was the edge question of 2010. The book is a marvelous collage of perspectives on the internet and our minds. Although it is not a completely timeless question, if you missed to pick up the book back then, I can still warmly recommend it.  Of course I couldn’t resist a little theme hunting and sharing some of the gems I found, so here we go.

“What kind of dumb question is that” (Andy Clark)

Unsurprisingly, many authors claim internet doesn’t change the way we think at all. The genetic infrastructure of our thinking has been there since we were primates and this will not change by an overnight “revolution” such as the net. But, even if the machinery is the same, our information diets are changing and this can have dramatic effects. Just think of suddenly feeding oranges to a potato cutter. In an earlier post I wrote about how our cognitive biases might be amplified by search. In the book, Mark Pagel and Daniel Haun rise similar concerns: our social brains are fit to reason about small groups and Pagel speculates. Because its connectivity and scale, this small group social reasoning turns into public fear and conspiracy theories on the web. Although these authors are fairly pessimistic about the effect of the web, they do not assume our brains or thinking habits to change because of our information habits. What our brains throw out depends, like with the patatocutter, on what we feed it, but unlike the case of the patatocutter it may actually change its habits cutting habits too. In his brilliant essay “what kind of dumb question is that” Andy Clark claims that the internet changes what we think and as a result also how we think.

“What is important for thought about the internet is not the content, it is the activity of being a searcher, with the worlds store of knowledge and images at your fingertips” (Lee Smolin)

One theme in the book is the symbiosis (or absence of it) between information seeking and thinking. Saying we went from an information scarcity to an information abundance may seem like stating the obvious, but many authors in the book still remember the times in which they had spent weeks to down an article from a remote library, a practice which is now obsolete. The mind loves information, however, and some authors worry about the current profusion of this brain candy. Esther Dyson, for example, who likening the web to food wonders whether there is enough nutrition in all this high calorie information bits. Others like Nicholas Carr complain about the attention scattering effect of this trip in the candy store. But some authors think the information abundance is a positive thing such as Richard Foreman, who sketches a symbiosis of search, information and thinking and Chinese artist Ai Weiwei who summarizes this idea neatly in the title of his essay: When I am on the Web I Start to Think. The internet as instigator of great thinking, or as great distracter; maybe the debate is settled in George Dysons essay who compares the way Kayaks are built to the way canoes are build. Kayaks are built by creating a frame from little pieces of wood found on the beach, and covering it with a waterproof skin while canoes are created by taking a large tree and removing material until only the canoe is left. We were Kayak builders once and need to learn to build canoes

. “The internet hasn’t changed the way I think but it has increased the number of people who’s thoughts are in my head” (Eva Wisten)

The third major theme emerges when edge authors shift from discussing the internet as an information medium to discussing it as a communication medium. Framed this way, the question changes into “what the internet is doing to our collective thinking?”. In many essays the net is praised as “the big leveler”. Through the net is possible to connect with a wider range of people who can contribute to the intellectual enterprise. To put it in the words of Stuart Pimm: “When knowledge is everywhere, so are the thinkers”. While some authors stress the nets ability to support unexpected connections between ideas (internet as the large information collider) others are more skeptical. As we follow the same information highways our collective information intake may become more homogeneous rather than more diverse. We may all have the thoughts of more people in our heads, but much of they are the same lot of thoughts.

So how does the internet change our thinking? One shouldn’t pick up an Edge book for a final answer on the question it is posing. A lot has changed and it is hard to say whether this is generally a good thing. But even if the internet has set about a revolution that changes our individual and collective thought patterns, in my view the result will be remarkably close to what it used to be. At least this is how it appears to play out in economy – I don’t see how our minds would differ. So as a final thought:

 “I notice that everything the Net displaces, reapears somewhere else in a modified form. For example, musicians used to tour to promote their revords, but since records stopped making much money due to illegal downloads, they now make records to promote their tours. Bookstores with staff who know about books, and record stores with staff who know about music, are becoming more common.”(Brian Eno)

Reading more:

Most of the Edge essays can be found online. When I could find them I have linked them in this post. My earlier posts Photo’s Everywhere, Collateral Damage of the Robots Race (on the Web) and Cognitive Bias in the Global Information Subway are thematically related to this one.


A Review of the book “Simians, Cyborgs and Women”, (1991)

Donna Haraway’s claim to fame must be the essay “A Cyborg Manifesto (…)”. It isn’t an accident that this title brings about associations with Robocop and Bladerunner…; it was written in the same time frame. Nevertheless my guess is Haraway’s writing will prove to be more time-resistant than the movies that augment her imagery. The essay was published in the book “Simians, Cyborg and Women”, which deals, above else – and including A Cyborg Manifesto, with the art of scientific storytelling. Haraway’s writing isn’t easy. I found it hard to read the essay without the rest of a book as background and I am still not sure whether I believe the crises she identifies can be resolved with the cyborg as the alternative hero. Nevertheless I do believe it is an idea worth considering.

Most of Simians (…), deals, as the title suggests, with monkeys and apes, or rather what biologists see in the behavior of our ancestors. Monkey behavior serves as a model of human behavior, but Haraway shows how scientist, gather and interpret evidence about animal behavior in the light of certain, highly gendered, hypotheses about the origins of human behavior. She shows, for example, how much evidence about the productive role of dominance in monkey groups, was inspired by the -bluntly gendered- “man the hunter” hypothesis, which ruled thinking about human origins at the time. One does not even have to question the quality of the evidence to have doubts about the picture of monkey behavior that arises. In another chapter she attacks the quality of the evidence itself, in particular the way infanticide among languor monkeys was studied in a highly selective and biased manner. The more modern theories of sociobiologists – who try to explain animal behavior almost entirely as a byproduct of genetic selection processes) await a similar deconstruction by Haraway. She shows how this theory of behavior which is based on a decentral, scarcity driven system resembles characteristics with the (neo) capitalist worldview which was flourishing when the theory came about. Haraway does not claim biologists are bad scientist, in the contrary her point is that scientific studies are stories, with hidden assumptions and messages, just like other stories.

This early work of Haraway features a couple of key points about the history of primate biology. First, we study monkey behavior at least in part for humanistic motives: we want to get to know ourselves, through studying our ancestors. Second, the talk-back of this scientific work is disappointing: we turn out to reproduce how we see ourselves, through our stories about monkeys, rather than alter our self-images based on the behavior of the monkeys. This holds for early work, but it still holds as her analysis of sociobiology shows. Haraway: “.. the history of biology convinces me that basic knowledge would reflect and reproduce the new world”. Third, gender is an important concept in anthropological writings about primates and it has so far not been treated particularly neutral. Fourth, many of these theories follow a (hidden) biblical arc – or a ‘birth myth’. The apes represent paradise or the ‘natural order of things’ (paradise, the newborn) after which humanity may have gone astray (mankind fallen into sin, the lost innocence of the adult). Studying this natural order can help us return to nature (paradise, innocence). If this is the dramatic arc of our scientific stories of humanity, it is a somewhat ironic finding that we reproduce the new world in the old one.

“Cyborg writing must not be about the Fall, the imagination of a once-upon-a-time wholeness before language, before writing, before Man. Cyborg writing is about the power to survive, not on the basis of original innocence, but on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other.”

Against this background, Harrayway positions the image of a cyborg as an alternative. From the start the Cyborg Manifesto comes across as a grotesque piece of writing. Haraway positions the essay as act of blasphemy, she tries to create a political myth, faithful to feminism, socialism and materialism; the intent is to be critical, serious and humoristic and playful at the same time. She introduces the cyborg as a powerful metaphor that can be used to combat much of what is wrong with traditional humanistic-scientific and feministic writings. Cyborgs – both man and machine – are hybrid, ambiguous, organisms. They have no birth myth, they have never been innocent. They bridge traditional boundaries: they are both fiction and lived experience, both man and machine, both natural and handmade, neither male or female, both real and virtual. If anyone can combat the traditional mistake of reproducing our cultural distinctions in search of our innocent selves it must be the Cyborg. Cyborg thinking allows us to see the world as a polymorphic information system. The ideas behind information technology have shaped our thinking. Hierarchies and dominance, once cornerstones of our thinking, make place for the idea of networks and interrelations. For long, the human body has been the model for the world, but now, it has become the subject of information technology. The immune system, for example is seen as an information system. Many sciences including biology and ecology have in fact become information sciences. This calls for a new form of scientific storytelling.  A theory of everything needs to be rejected because it misses out on most of reality but we should revert to an anti-scientific meta-physics instead. Rather we need to celebrate a science in which pluriformity and situated knowledges are chosen over grand unified theories to understand and reconstruct the borders of our daily lives, in connection with others.

“Cyborg politics is the struggle for language and the struggle against perfect communication, against the one code that translates all meaning perfectly, the central dogma of phallogocentrism”  

If like Lakoff and Johnson argue, metaphors shape our thinking, Haraway’s proposal for a cyborg epistemology is a bold effort to change the practices of humanistic and scientific storytelling by choosing a new metaphor for it. I doubt, though, if this will turn out to be fruitful. Haraway combats our needs for wholeness and natural order and replaces it with a proposal for celebrating shattered mosaics and the cognitive dissonance it brings. This is realistic, and truthful, but it runs against a deep felt human need. Besides her essay does not escape her criticism of theories about monkeys. Her thinking –too- is fed by the dominant ideas of her time frame: such as post-modern thinking and a celebration of information technology as a liberating force. Nowadays these views are in decline. Haraway’s cyborg theory, too, is a product the time it was written in and rather insensitive to the talkback of the facts she uses to support it. Nevertheless Haraways book provides an insightful analysis if how this process works and the Cyborg manifesto stands out as a tantalizing, thought provoking and emancipatory essay. In many ways it an essay of the late eighties, but it was ahead of its times too, foreshadowing, among others, the next nature movement. The manifesto will remain to provide food for thought for years to come, if only, to end with an ironic note, by future scholars on the evolution of humanistic thinking in the past.

Reading more.

My last post called Reasoning on Metaphorical Foundations, discussed Lakoff and Johnsons thesis that metaphors are central to our conceptual thinking as they have put forward in their book Metaphors We Live By.

Rather than focussing on the Cyborg manifesto I reccomend to read the full book: Simians, Cyborgs and Women


A review of the book Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.

Just how important are metaphors? Many linguists, certainly if you asked them before 1980, would have told you something like this. Metaphors are a nice feature language, important to poets, but of little importance to ordinary language use, the mind or society.  But then Lakoff and Johnson, composed a thorough defense of the opposite thesis. They argued that metaphors shape our understanding of the world, and our action in it. To them human thinking and social action is deeply metaphorical in nature. In this post I will critically examine their book.

Lakoff and Johnson introduce the idea that metaphors are a building blocks of our conceptual thinking with the example argument is war. There are many sentences which fit this metaphor: “Your claims are indefensible. He attacked the weak points in my argument. I never won an argument with him”. Are these, Lakoff and Johnson ask, exotic poetic ways of taking about arguments, or are these sentences linguistic evidence for the fact that we use the concept of war to understand and reason about the concept of argument? If the last explanation holds true, an analysis of the way metaphors are used in everyday language, can tell us a lot about the way our conceptual system works. Clearly, this is the program they unfold in the rest of the book.

Metaphors can transfer the structure of one concept to another. Our understanding of arguments borrows the ideas of struggling parties, an all-or-nothing struggle, attacks and defenses from the concept of war. In time is money, the idea of a limited, valuable resource is projected on the concept of time: “Is that worth your time? You are running out of time.” This comes at a cost though. If we use a metaphor to understand a concept it highlights certain aspects of the concept we use it for and hides others. Time, seen as money, highlights its value within our culture but it hides its indefinite flowing, which is in turn highlighted by time is a river. According to Lakoff and Johnson, metaphorical structuring is partial:  we can apply multiple metaphors to a single concept to highlight different aspects of it. This is particularly clear with concepts such as love (as chaos, as journey, as magic, etc.) and ideas (as containers, as resources, as fashions) which typically take structures from multiple donors. Metaphorical understanding has coherence though:  the concept which receives a structure needs to do so in a way consistent with its donor. Although the practice of metaphorical structuring is universal, the specific metaphors are culturally bound.

There are two special types of metaphors, which appear to be so foundational that Lakoff and Johnson assign special status to them. One is the class of orientational metaphors such as in-out, up-down, front-back and so on. These are used to structure many other concepts: “happy is up, sad is down; conscious is up, unconscious is down; health is up, sickness is down; more is up, less is down; and so on”. Another class is that of the ontological metaphors.  Ontological metaphors allow us to grab concepts as (physical) substances and objects. The gradual rising of prices, is seen as the entity inflation in: “we need to combat inflation; inflation makes me sick”. Ontological metaphors allow us to quantify, identify aspects, express causation, setting goals and motivate actions among others. Lakoff and Johnson claim spatial and ontological metaphors are grounded in our (early) physical experience, and allow us to use this experience to grasp much more abstract ideas which we face later.

So metaphors are not a linguistic fringe at all. We use metaphors all the time to make sense of the world around us. We create meaning through metaphor. We systematically understand and structure new concepts in terms of older, more concrete, concepts. The most fundamental concepts are the orientation and ontological metaphors which structure most of our thinking. Because metaphorical thinking is so natural to us, most of us go unnoticed. This makes it a powerful weapon of speech. Declaring war on drugs frames drugs as a an entity, which must be defeated, in a win or lose situation, drug dealers become enemies, policemen allies, there will be a struggle with wins and losses, which may take long and take sacrifices and so on. Almost without noticing the metaphor structures our thinking and our actions.

Metaphors We Live By builds a strong case for the ubiquity and importance of metaphors. Lakoff and Johnson’s core insights have an intuitive appeal and are supported by a lot of examples. The book has two main weaknesses. First: Lakoff and Johnson act as if only building block of our conceptual system. All is metaphor. This seems unlikely. Are, for example, orientation and ontological metaphors really metaphors in the same way as structural metaphors are? This is hard to assess with linguistic evidence alone, which is the second major weakness of the book. Take referring.  We learn to refer to physical entities. Later we refer to abstract concepts such as inflation. Lakoff and Johnson claim we understand inflation as a physical object so we can refer to it, which makes it metaphorical in nature. But this circular as Lakoff and Johnson present the fact that we refer to inflation as evidence for our understanding it as a physical entity. Until a lot of psychological experimentation has proved the truth value and reach of metaphorical understanding, it will be hard to assess the true importance of metaphors for our mind and society. Until then it remains an intriguing theory which is certainly worth reading the book.

P.S. In the book Lakoff and Johnson give an account of the consequences of their theory for the philosophical notions of subjectivism and objectivism. As I found this the least interesting part of the book, I took the liberty of skipping it.


There has been much writing about MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses – lately, but little about their interaction design. This may seem unsurprising; there is simply no groundbreaking UX work on Coursera or EDx. But I do believe that part of the success of the MOOC is because they are better designed than predecessors. Just compare the experience of the MOOC, with much of the ‘open courseware’ that can be found on i-Tunes University. The mediocre live recordings of u1niversity classes that were so common there have been replaced by special purpose, high quality materials. MOOCs also allow for an inkling of educational interactivity: through tests and assignments and, sometimes, peer feedback. It seems likely that this brittle marriage between UX and educational design contributed to the tipping point for online learning that MOOCs, appear to embody. So it is worthwhile to consider how we can improve interaction design of the MOOC further. To explore the room for improvement I asked my social interaction design class to come up with designs for MOOC’s that would increase engagement and participation rates, would strengthen educational interactivity and would encourage peer feedback and (informal) peer learning. In this post I discuss four solution-directions which they threw back at me.

Chunk and Unlock

UX-designers know the power of chunking and chunking is important in educational design too. Unfortunately currently MOOCs do not chunk learning well. They do better than open courseware: typically lectures are sliced into separate video-lessons of about 5-15 minutes. But these chunks of knowledge transfer are seldom interlaced with knowledge activation chunks such as small assignments or quizzes. So there is a weekly ‘listen-do cycle’ to most MOOCs, which seems hardly a suitable rate for online learning. No wonder so many users skip the ‘do-part’. One way to resolve this is to use the power of unlock. Rather that offering the materials in a fixed, weekly pace, the user can unlock a new instruction video by doing a small assignment or quiz, or by reviewing someone else’s work. An interesting variant could be social unlock. Users are matched to a partner, and both have to contribute something to a joint assignment before they can unlock the next instruction materials. Of course random matching may go wrong in a learning environment with many lurkers, but users could be matched to other users who unlock at the same pace or who check in to unlock simultaneously.

Improve the connection between content and community

Once, schools used to favor the principle of separation of learning and social peer engagement. In the classroom, you would listen to the teachers; during the breaks you could talk to classmates; which was not considered learning. Such schools do still exist, but they are hardly considered as best practice. Still, separation of learning and community is in the basic design of most MOOC platforms. MOOCs offer materials for individual learning with a hyperlink to a forum – elsewhere in cyberspace – where learners can engage with one another about the content of the course. So the coupling between community and content is as loose as it could possibly be. As a solution, my students suggested to take a better look at Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMORGs) – which inspired the term MOOC in the first place. Players in those games take on joint challenges with division of labor. Communication around the challenges, encourages peer learning, the forum is not a separate place anymore and community emerges around the content. Although this seems ideal, it can be hard to design such challenges and set up the special purpose UX to support it. A less demanding solution to the same problem is to couple forum entries to specific content and challenges within the MOOC. This is done well on code academy where every exercise has its own forum entry. One of my students went as far as suggesting a dynamic forum coupled to the video. Users could add questions to specific points in the video instruction, which are then answered by other users watching the same video on a later time.

Improve online identity, presence and urgency

One well-known social web pattern which is rare in the MOOC is showing the presence of other people, and lowering the threshold of informal interaction with them. Consider yourself looking at a video in an MOOC: do you have an idea of whom else is watching this video at the time? Currently not. But supporting online identity and social presence – in a properly designed way – may increase participation and engagement a lot. Profiles on MOOCs are weak and too much focused on the narrow role of the user as a learner. One of my students suggested deep integration of MOOC platforms with the professional networking site: LinkedIn. Don’t learning and professional development go hand in hand? How about a ‘Dream jobs’ profile, accompanied by MOOC achievements? Other students suggested increasing the presence of other users through live forums, connecting community and content in the here and now. Maybe videos could be started only after a critical mass of learners say (say 5) signed in to it, so live chat would become an opportunity and study groups may be formed in a natural way.

Level the playing field

In a MOOC it seems as there is a single expert and many, many (equal), novices learning from the expert. This is a myth. Many users of MOOCs are far from novice and many even bring additional skills to those of the super expert. But the myth, the ‘bright light’ radiating from the super expert in the MOOC may hinder participation from semi-expert and peer learning. Do you feel free to try on your own ideas when an expert is watching you? In response, my students came up with ways to level the playing field, in the hope more participants of the MOOC would feel like playing. One solution was to give special status to expert users. Possibly they can provide extra content, so the MOOC becomes more of a shared place. Another solution could be to stimulate creativity, and to create community around creative exercises. Exercises that do not have a right or wrong to them might help challenging the ‘one expert model’ many MOOC users get from its design. A final avenue could be to create a large joint project, a barn raising challenge. Users could create something together, like in Wikipedia, which adds meaning to the course materials, which can handle contributions from people with a large rage of expertise and skill and which can give a feeling of joint discovery and achievement.

Where do suggestions like these bring us? Will MOOCs become interactive education places where joint learning takes place, when their designers take up these suggestions from my students? Maybe. Hopefully. But what I expect most is a diversification of online a d blended learning possibilities and experiences, from ‘simple’ open educational content, to well-designed educational games, and many other blended forms of on-line and off-line learning. Following, Manovich, we could draw a parallel of online learning today, to the cinema of the 1900s and say that MOOCs are one among many experimental forms that will one day define the ‘language of blended learning’ and will fill the ecosystem of educational forms of the times to come. This diversification can be exciting in itself, but what I am really looking forward too is finding out how the marriage of educational and user experience design develops.


A review of the book “Ubiquitous Photography” by Martin Hand.

I have a notebook somewhere with an old advertisement for camera phones. The ad shows a woman in sexy lingerie, sending a picture to her partner to ask for his (her?) opinion. It must have been 2001, camera phones were new and the telephone providers undertook a charming effort to explain their utility to the general audience. The message came across though: digital photography has changed who makes pictures, the reasons for making pictures, the way in which we use and share pictures and with it, it changed the cultural meaning and significance of photography and photos. Martin Hand tries to describe and explain these changes in his book “Ubiquitous Photography”.

Digitization is just one of the many changes that happened to the technology of photography since its invention at the end of the nineteenth century. The first photographs resembled realistic portrait paintings. Photography was hard for everyone: subjects had to sit still for many hours, photographers had to control light and setting precisely and printing photos was a specialist job. So photos were precious objects. Later, agency shifted from the photographer to the technology. Increased light sensitivity made action photography possible. The Kodak camera made photography accessible to everyone, resulting in the family album and tourist photography. Photos became affordable objects for everyone. For long, printing photos was still a professional service, but the Polaroid camera changed this, too. Photo printing became immediate and the ‘snapshot’, a new photography emerged. Digitization, in many ways just the next small improvement, was a turning point – in particular when the camera phones came about. Digital photography combined the immediacy of the Polaroid with flexibility of presentation. We can share photos online and we can print them on any surface – including birthday cakes, clothing and shower curtains. This started an enormous diversification of (personal and professional) photography practices.

This diversification, in turn, makes it increasingly hard to build theories about photography which do justice to its diversity. Martin Hand’s tries to contribute to the problem by carefully tracing both the continuities and the changes in academic thinking about photography, once ‘digital’ arose. Hand: “Photography has now many co-existent lives each of which is part of a different trend and may have a different trajectory in the future, but all have significant connections with earlier photographies.” (P185). He uses personal photography – so the pictures you and I make – as a focus point and he writes about professional photography only in passing. Still there are many threads to trace and the book offers a complex quilt of ideas about photography and the ways in which we are weaving photos into the fabrics of our lives. Throughout, Hand recognizes some bigger trends or themes, such as: photography is shifting from capture to performance, from permanence to ephemerality and its role is shifting from celebrating the family to living publicly. Let me discuss these shifts in turn.

Once upon a time, photos used to be a proof of the objective reality. Photos didn’t lie: they captured reality as it appeared in front of the camera. While this is more or less true from a technical perspective, in the practice of photography it has always been a myth. For example: photographers choose which part of reality they capture and this framing has a big impact on what the photo has to say. Also, on early photos we see people posing for the camera in carefully created photosets – how ‘real‘ was this? Even photo manipulation is a much older craft than many people know. But it is this myth of photos as a depiction of reality which makes up its role as a performance medium today. Billboard advertisements are an example. They are clearly photo compositions, but they seem to say “this dream we are portraying here could be the objective reality if you buy our product”. This is performance using the myth of capture. The family album is another example: it isn’t used so much to remember important events in life, it is much more about storytelling to celebrate family values and to shape the ‘ideal’ family. The family album doesn’t capture the way your family is, it shows how you like it to be and how you want portray it to others. This family performance can turn photography into the director of your experience. During my last holiday in Ecuador there were frequent-volcano-photography-bus-stops, to take pictures of volcanos and of course to take pictures of ourselves taking those pictures. So I wondered: was the holiday about the experience of seeing a volcano or about collecting photos to show our friends the ‘reality’ of our holiday. Photos are little objective snapshot of our live, which play a major role in the make believe plays we play with each other. Photography may always have been about performance. But it seems fair to say that older photography still celebrated the myth of capture, while today’s photography uses it merely as a background for other things. Today the focus is on performance, simply because we take many more pictures, which we share in many more ways with many more audiences, often in digitally manipulated form.

Related to the idea of capture is the idea of the photo as a fixation of a moment in life. Before digital, we took pictures of those moments in life which we wanted to ‘save forever’; as such we fixed them, chemically on a piece of paper. They weren’t literally fixed: just like now, photos did migrate from one place to the other. They moved from hanging in a frame on the wall to a family album or a shoebox beneath the bed, but they were ‘about’ fixation nevertheless. Even the shoebox pictures had a role in remembering and sharing stories about the precious moments in life. This practice of photography still exists, but new practices arose too. Today, photos have become ephemeral objects. Rather than physical evidence from the past, many 21st century photos are about the ‘here and now ’- and just that. We send each other photos of our food, the dirty dishes, writings on a whiteboard, or the delay sign for a train, as an integral part of chatting with friends. In other words photos have become a form of speech. Today, we use photos to say: “Look, this is what I am looking at right now”, and we do this a lot, much like the camera phone ad, I begun with, predicted. This practice is a next step after the snapshot. Nowadays we are capturing and sharing stuff that isn’t worth a dollar for a print to us; goodbye to the photo as a record of the ‘precious things in life’. According to Hand, college students express a concern about the unexpected permanence of digital photos (p155). The technology of photography still has a fixation character: photos may be permanent in the sense that their bits and bytes will dwell forever on some hard disc or cloud computer and they may one day be found by future data archeologist. Still: in the everyday practice of photography the ephemeral, fleeting and the mundane have become dominant forms.

Next, we must ask to what extend the personal photo is still about the family. In his book, Martin Hand pays attention to the impact that the way in which we share photos has on the photo’s which we take (and the other way around). More and more, we share our photos on social media: Instagram, Facebook and Flickr, rather than through the family album. This changes the scope of personal photography. Hand: “The emergent problem of ‘how to live publicly’ in a post-privacy world is not only about the management of digital self-presentation but also recognizes the collective nature of public life (p183)”. Our photos find bigger and different audiences, with the disadvantage of losing control. Who has access to your photos and in what contexts these are presented? This is a much more difficult question today, than it was years ago. Personal photography experienced a shifting agency of sense making from the personal to the collective and a loss of control of who chooses to look at your photos and with which expectations. Hand shows this vividly with an account of how college students react to person tagging (which controls whose ‘timeline’ changes) on Facebook, compared to topic tagging on Flickr, which has less effects on audience control. As soon as we post a picture online we trade connectivity for ownership and the future of personal photography may well depend on the situations in which this turns out to be favorable and the situations in which this turns out be a Faustian deal. The result will not only affect the pictures we share, finally it will influence the pictures we take.

This last point may be Hands most important one. There is a bidirectional relationship between the technology of photography and its cultural use, which he calls ‘reconfiguration’. The reason for taking a picture is mostly to share it. How we share the picture, with whom and to what extend we feel in control of this process may be important to the pictures we choose to take (or not). Changes to the technology and, in particular, to the cost of making pictures affects the pictures we take and they shape our reasons for sharing and the audiences of the pictures. Digitization has made the relationship between the technology for taking and sharing photo more complex, dynamic and exciting. When we try to make sense of these changes we need to see that the photo is no longer an image on a physical piece of paper. Rather, we see a networked object that can collect meaning and an audience more or less independently. This can be for better or worse to the original authors. Instead of fixed objects, capturing the ideal family, photos are now shapeshifting objects for performing a diverse set of scenarios in today’s ephemerality; publicly.

Reading more.
Lev Manovich is a strong advocate of the idea of a new media object as a networked object, a view shared by Dhiraj Murthy, when he writes about Twitter.


Imagine having a device which can post sound bites from your home to your Facebook wall. Now and then it will record the sounds in your home, scramble them – so listeners cannot recognize specific sounds, and it will make an audio post for you. Most people I talk to, think this is a stupid idea. But it is what “Facebook Listener”, designed by Stefan Veen and his colleagues, does – and I do believe it could be a success. Or at least I believe in the broader idea of awareness systems: allowing people to share background information with others in a lightweight way. In this post I will answer four critical questions I often get about awareness systems and I hope to show where the opportunities for awareness are.   

Facebook Listener

Facebook listener records sounds from your home and allows you to listen to sounds, others shared.Picture from the original article (link below) 

A short history of awareness

Maybe I should to take a step back and discuss shortly where some of the ideas behind Facebook Listener originated. The academic tradition of awareness systems started in the workplace of the early 1990ies. When people collaborate they build on tacit knowledge about each other. Several workplace studies showed that people who have an awareness of their co-workers can collaborate more easily and effectively. Scientist turned out to publish most articles with people whose office was nearby. People in control rooms needed details about what others were doing to avoid mistakes. Because of findings like this, researchers slowly started to recognize a design opportunity: “If people need background information about each other to work together”, they thought, “can’t we design systems which deliver such information across a distance?”. So soon, researchers started to build devices which allowed awareness, background contact and casual communication at a distance. Mostly these media spaces, as they were called, involved video links between multiple remote offices. This was exciting and controversial work: in those times computers had to be useful tools to complete specific tasks effectively. The idea to use computers to provide background information about others seemed to come from outer space. Exciting or not, researchers needed several incarnations to get the design of these systems right, and honestly, the early controversy didn’t fade.

Media-Space-office-meeting

Early awareness systems, called media spaces, provided video links with remote colleagues.
Image from: http://people.cs.vt.edu/~srh/Media%20Space%20Home.html

Is there a need for awareness systems?

The top 1 question. Does your work, for example, improve if you get a video connection with remote colleagues; so you can see them behind their desk, typing? Or, does anyone benefit from listening to scrambled sounds from your home on Facebook? Perhaps not: I have not seen studies of media spaces which led to measurable improvements on business results and clearly my friends survive without being able to listen to my house sounds today.  But, probably yes too. Consider Digital Family Portrait, for example. Researchers from Georgia Institute for Technology placed sensors in the home of an elderly woman so the computer system could get a sense of her activity during the day. The (adult) children could see this activity data on a digital photo frame in their home. There were butterflies around the picture of the elderly woman and big butterflies meant “mother is active”, while little butterflies pointed to the opposite. Digital Family Portrait raises many questions, but the users were positive about it and it shows how awareness systems can support real communication needs.

Digital Family Portrait

Digital Family Portrait gives subtle cues about activity.
Picture from: http://home.cc.gatech.edu/jimRowan/4)

Often, our communication is not so much about the contents of the communication but for the sake of communicating itself. This is called phatic communication. When I share what I am eating on Twitter, my followers learn something boring and something important about me. The boring part is what I am eating. The important part is that I am alive, all is well, and the communication channel is open. They can contact me if they want to. It turns out that this last phatic part of the message is important, in particular between close ones. The users of digital family portrait didn’t really need to know how active their grandmother was. But they needed a possibility to check on her regularly for their peace of mind. Digital Family Portrait provided them an easy way to do just that. There are other reasons the butterflies on Digital Family Portrait made good sense as well. The meaning of a bit of information about someone close to you depends on your background. To the users of the Family Portrait the size of the butterfly is not so important, but the way it changes over time is. A sudden drop in activity, for example, means there is a reason to check on grandma (or the hardware). Finally, background information such as Facebook Listener, Media Spaces or Digital Family Portrait give, can be a starting point for a more intimate and meaningful conversation. Users of Digital Family Portrait could use the butterflies to talk about health and lifestyle choices. So it could be that Facebook Listener, Digital Family Portrait and Media Spaces aren’t presenting the right information about the right people in the right way, to the right people. But this doesn’t mean the general idea is wrong. It seems people want to share and receive background information about others. Even if it is just phatic communication, I would say there is a need for awareness systems.

Why spyness systems? What is wrong with human updates? Aren’t those sufficient?

Granted that people need background information from others and that they already share such information on social media, why bother any further? Or stronger: aren’t we crossing a hard and scary border when we start to capture and send information about people automatically, like the three examples so far do? I find this question much more difficult to answer, but I would say no: it fine to build systems which give automatic updates. Perhaps JK Rowling can support my argument. In the Harry Potter book “The Goblet of Fire”, the Weasley Family has a clock which shows were family members are, rather than the time. This is an example of automatic updates that seem sympathetic and useful. In fact we know from research it is. Soon, this “whereabouts clock” as researchers called it, was build and evaluated by Microsoft Research [1]. They report that – at least within nuclear families – the clock gave a sense of reassurance, connectedness, expression of identity and social touch. The clock quickly became an integral part of the routines of the family members: it provided phatic communication possibilities. Family members got a sense that everything was going to routine, that all was well. Part of the success of the clock may have been its Potterish design, though. Much like the original version of the Weasley family, and unlike some commercial tracking systems, Microsoft’s whereabouts  clock used rough place labels like ‘home’, ‘work’, ‘school’ and ‘elsewhere’, rather than precise GPS data. Probably there is a tradeoff in automatic sharing. The more intimate the data you share gets, the more abstract, course grained or fussy the presentation of this date needs to be, to be acceptable to users.

Wherabouts clock

Figure 4: Microsoft incarnation of the whereabouts clock, first described in an Harry Potter book.
Picture from: http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/groups/sds/whereabouts_clock.aspx

Who needs even more ‘information display’s’?

This question comes in different forms, but the gist is that people wonder how to act on the new information they are getting. Wouldn’t it be awkward to pick up the phone and say “why’s your butterfly so small today ma”?  The notion of awareness is information centric much more than communication centric indeed. Many awareness systems researchers want to figure out what people could share though sensors and how to show this information to users. They seem to care less about the next step: providing the means for the ‘talk’ that may follow from the awareness. Often, like in Digital Family Portrait the information stream is one directional too. The mother lacks common ground, she doesn’t know how big her butterfly is that day, which creates the awkwardness of the example.  Some researchers argue that people have enough channels and the awareness system only needs to provide the ‘trigger’ for the communication. But I think the evidence from the studies I mentioned points in a different direction. Users of Facebook Listener turned out to use it to create dedicated ambient-home-sound-scape messages for their friends. Microsoft researchers reported that users of the whereabouts clock wanted to be able to send messages back to their peers from the clock. Evaluators of other awareness systems report similar findings. Awareness information triggers communication needs, and it seems normal to support those from the system, preferably in an open ended and playful way.

Who would buy such a system?

This is a fair question. A positive evaluation doesn’t form a business case. There are two serious barriers to market entry of current awareness systems: single purpose systems and the network effect. Many awareness systems serve a single purpose: a specific awareness need or a single type of awareness information. This fine for research projects, but it creates small markets and high entry costs. It seems difficult to overcome. Users of the Digital Family Portrait and the whereabouts clock can understand the information of the system because the design supports the use case. Some have tried to create more flexible awareness systems such as the modestly successful awareness rabbit called Nabaztag, but this is difficult.  It is a pity, but Nabaztag cannot display location information of the family in an optimal way. When we abstract away from (design for) a specific type of information the awarness display becomes hard to read. A related problem is the network effect: part of the value of any communication system is in the number of users that already use it. Awareness systems, usually being specific purpose, a-symmetrical and standalone, may suffer from this effect. The decision to buy or use is not with a single person but at least with a small group. This makes those awareness systems that make use of existing technical infrastructure and use patterns (of mobile phones for example) much more likely to succeed than other sensible awareness proposals.

Nabaztag

Nabaztag is a general purpose awareness systems. The ears can be used to communicate with other Nabaztag users.
Image from
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nabaztag

So the proposal of Stefan Veen and his colleagues: to make awareness systems which cooperate with Facebook makes a lot of sense from a market perspective. The idea is resembles our proposal of a year earlier: to integrate social media and business by building software on top of the existing social media (integration software). The benefit could be that users are already networked in this environment and they can make use of its lightweight communication tools. But this benefit comes with two costs. First, there is a usability challenge. In our own research we found that it is hard to communicate to users how the use of the new interface works together with Facebook. In a way users handle two systems at the same time. It is not easy to understand how an action in the integration software or awareness system plug-in changes the state of Facebook, for example their timeline. Second, Facebook integration only has an advantage if whatever comes out of the awareness system is also informative for non-users of the system. Any message the new system puts on Facebook needs to be a good addition to the facebook timeline. This is a strong limitation. So while I expect that awareness systems will be build that will integrate with social networking sites, chances are that they will most likely provide a new output of the data which is on Facebook already,  or can be inferred from it, rather than providing a new input device.  But on the other hand, if awareness systems are eventually communication systems new inputs will soon be added to this outlet in your home.

Reading More

Much of the information for this blog post comes from the book “Awareness Systems: Advances in Theory, Methodology and Design”. In particular: the history of awareness (chapter 1), phatic communication (chapter 7) and  the wheraboutsclock (chapter 18). The design of Facebook Listener is described in detail in this NordiChi paper, the Digital Family Portrait in this paper. Our exploration of software which uses social media as an infrastructure for new applications can be found here.

Loosley related to this post are my post about common ground, privacy coordination, playification and Twitter.


[1] Several incarnations where build at Eindhoven University of Technology as well.




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