Tuesday, April 29, 2014

I Don't Specifically Wanna be AnarCHI, but it sure does strike a chord...

If I am following ACM CHI 2014 on Twitter, and read a tweet with a picture of a document entitled "Never mind the Bullocks: I Wanna Be AnarCHI: A Manifesto for Punk CHI", I feel compelled to find it, read it and remark.

Except you can't really "read" this paper in the standard sense because it consists of a title, abstract, guitar chords, and lyrics.

It's not a paper, but rather a recipe that gets you to a performance. (You, yes, that's you, who consider yourself to be the "reader".) You have to interact with the thing to make it whole. To interact, you need to follow "instructions" for playing music, formulated using the standard conventions for how guitar music is written.

Which invites the following line of thought: If this paper can be an interactive set of instructions that can be carried out by people familiar with certain standard conventions, then, how far do we get if we view other papers as similar animals?

Unpacking that question: On the one hand, you can say about any paper, that you don't really get a complete entity until you interact with it: read it, interpret it, cite it, extend it. On the other hand, you can say about any paper, if you don't master the system of conventions (I don't know how to play the guitar), you are stuck and do not move beyond square one.

So it's a paper like any other paper, after all? Um, well. I continue with some additional remarks.

The lyrics in the paper refer to the "subtle kind of pressures that go unseen". If this were a film, the mention of the "unseen" would trigger us to expect that other forms of interpretation might lead to more insight. We could call it a foreshadowing or a hint that the message of this paper cannot be directly perceived, but must be witnessed through participation.

If the paper includes the participation, what does this participation tell us? Specifically, what does it tell us about ourselves, the "readers" of "papers"? My remarks regard the first Commentary on the paper.

This Commentary includes the statement, "It is not clear what the authors are trying to accomplish." My remark: This suggests the existence of an assumption among readers (i.e., readers like ourselves) that a paper should represent an attempt at a well-formulated achievement.

The Commentary also includes the statement, "...we are forced to question whether this paper should really be seen as anarchist". My remark: This suggests the existence of an assumption that a paper should not open up possibilities to discover contradictions between its literally expressed message, and its larger implications.

Then, the Commentary includes the statement, "The authors do draw important attention to the government and corporate funding of HCI research...However, we wonder how much of the authors' own research is funded by such." My remark: This suggests the existence of an assumption that the authors of a paper must not advocate actions differing from, or going beyond, those in which they are currently engaged. 

Finally, it includes the question "Would such mainstream acceptance paradoxically undermine the movement's very purpose?" The "movement" is here the purported AnarCHI "movement". My remark: This suggests the existence of an assumption that ideas should not come into being with the anticipation that they will ultimately destroy themselves, but rather, should come into being in order to establish permanence.

Yes, looking at this list, it does look like a set of conventions. And because the authors of this "paper" do not respect these conventions they do not get beyond square one with this Commentary.

However let's ask this: Don't we value exactly the opposite of these assumptions? Don't many of us believe that there needs to be flexibility in research for exploration (not all goals should be well-formulated), for writing papers in which the readers might discover contradictions (see things that the original authors don't), for papers that inspire future scientists that they can be better than us, and for papers that present ideas aimed at moving forward the field as a whole, rather than establishing their contribution as part of an immutable canon.

In the form of these assumptions, the subtle pressures that go unseen have stepped out of the darkness and into the spotlight. They are not inherently bad pressures. Conventions allow us to communicate, just like they allow a guitarist to interpret written music to reproduce the intentions of the compose.

However, they are there. And naturally, they are brightly illuminated when someone invokes punk along with a cool CHI play on words like AnarCHI.

Heck yeah, they are there. And like the gravity that keeps us glued to the surface of the planet, we need, as human beings, heroic acts of will, insight, and technological development in order to, physically, be able to fly.

The Commentary refers to this paper as "exceedingly clever". But maybe it's not clever at all. It could just be considered a standard method to transcend the unspoken assumptions of a mature community, and to realign them with the underlying values privately cherished by that same community, i.e., the values that we would like to believe that we hold and can act on.

The Commentary implies that the paper subverts the mainstream. But it doesn't subvert the mainstream. It reveals the tension that exists inside everyone of us. We struggle to keep our intuitions, investigation, and ambitions free of its destructive load of expecting science to progress in neat, self-consistent packages, self-contained packages with long lifespans in the larger community. It helps us because it encourages us with the reminder that we are not alone.

The Commentary admits the possibility "...we just don't get it". With respect to the duck video, I would be with you.

I've never attended CHI. Maybe I also need to learn how to play the guitar.