HCI and CSCW

I will use this category for particular books in HCI and CSCW (both broadly construed) that I have found remarkable. It will be a very idiosyncratic list, for sure.

David Alan Grier. When Computers Were Human. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.

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I don’t think it is widely known that the term “computer” was first used to refer to people (alas, mostly women) who historically carried out large scale computing projects. Grier presents the remarkable history of the phenomena associated with humans doing computation. Though there are hints that such phenomena go back to the ancients, the widespread use of humans to do computations has at least a 200-year history. In the 18th century humans were used to calculate the information required to predict the return of Halley’s comet. Such astronomical calculations continued to use human computers up until the mid 20th century. Such uses of humans to calculate tables of information for a wide range of scientific and engineering flourished in the 19th and early 20th century. Interestingly, Grier discovered that his own grandmother, who got a mathematics degree in the early 20th century from the University of Michigan, was a classmate of five other women who went on the perform computing tasks of the sort Grier goes on the document in great detail. Altogether, an amazing set of stories.

David Jury. Graphic Design Before Graphic Designers: The Printer as Designer and Craftsman 1700-1914. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2012.

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For the information visualization aficionado, this is a thoroughly delightful volume. The profession of graphic designer did not formally emerge until the early 20th century. But the emergence of moveable type printing enabled a flourishing of graphic design. Features such as type fonts, layouts, and illustrations saw endless creativity, largely in the hands of craft printers themselves. Jury’s volume traces these activities in this lavishly illustrated volume. I’d characterize the book as of the espresso sub-genre of coffee table books. But the sophisticated text and figure captions warrant the placement of this book in the scholar’s den, not just the espresso table.

Tom Standage. The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers. New York: Walker & Company, 1998.

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Telegraphy is an interesting interim technology that had important characteristics of both what came before and after. Standage reviews its interesting history, from optical versions to electrical ones, with widespread skepticism about whether this was a workable idea. But when it finally emerged as something that worked, it was remarkable in its influence. From a world where the fastest means of communication were horseback riders on land and ships at sea, the telegraph made more or less instantaneous worldwide communication possible across the entire planet. It radically transformed business, stock markets, shipping, railroads, newspapers, diplomacy, and so many other things. The idea that information could be conveyed almost instantaneously, had a profound impact on a world where information flows had previously been measured in days, weeks, and months. Now it was seconds. And, of course, those bent on evil figured out a wide variety of ways to take advantage of this change. What’s most remarkable about this technology is that although there were attempts in the early 19th century, it was not until about 1850 that these things actually worked and propagated. Yet by the turn of the century, the telephone essentially silenced this medium. I know that in my youth, you could still send a telegram — mid 20th century. But it was a fringe medium. And, in so many ways, as Standage points out, it parallels things like e-mail and the Internet in the 20th century. As both Henry Petroski and Vint Cerf say on the cover blurb of the early hardback version that I own, “I was simply fascinated by this book.”

Donald E. Stokes. Pasteur’s Quadrant: Basic Science and Technological Innovation. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1997.

711xie1jbjlThis volume, which I read around the time it came out, has had an enormous impact on my world view. It contrasts the traditional linear view of the relationship between applied and basic science with a new proposal, namely, that the pursuit of basic knowledge and the solving of practical problems are two dimensions of a 2×2 table. A given kind of investigation can be high or low on either dimension. His examples are Niels Bohr, high on basic knowledge but essentially not interested in applications. Thomas Edison is low on basic knowledge but high on applications. His poster child, Pasteur, is high on both, seeking both to help French farmers but also interested in figuring out why. I’ve long felt that the best HCI and CSCW research occupies Pasteur’s Quadrant. An interesting quadrant is the one that is low on both. I came to believe that someone like John Tradescant (both the Elder and the Younger) who systematically collected all kinds of things with no particular goal in mind is an example. This collection became the basis of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, which of course has been a valuable resource for all kinds of scholars. A fascinating read about the Tradescants and Elias Ashmole, who appropriated the Tradescant collection and gave it to Oxford (hence the name of the museum) is Jennifer Potter, Strange Blooms: The Curious Lives and Adventures of the John Tradescants. London: Atlantic Books, 2006, which I describe in more detail under History and Biography.

Lucy A. Suchman. Human-Machine Reconfigurations: Plans and Situated Actions (2nd Ed.) New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

41usamhtg7l-_sx331_bo1204203200_When Plans and Situated Actions appeared in 1987, it had a major effect not just on HCI, but on a wide range of fields perhaps best classified as cognitive science. It opened many eyes, including mine, to a new perspective on how to think about people and machines that permanently changed my thinking. This volume is a fascinating update of the earlier book. It includes the text of the earlier volume, but with voluminous notes and comments. It also has new chapters. It is a brilliant way to build upon the earlier work. If you know the earlier work, you will learn much from the updates. If you are new to this, you are in for a major treat.