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.
Judith Flanders. A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order. New York: Basic Books, 2020.
As Flanders points out in the last chapter, in our time the use of alphabetical order is so extensive and familiar that it is a revelation that its emergence had many surprising twists and turns. The fundamental problem that it and other ordering methods were intended to solve, was how to find things. As writing and other means of notation expanded, especially after the emergence of inexpensive paper and moveable type printing, the vast expansion of things needing organization drove a wide range of experiments in how to facilitate search. She traces the story from the middle ages, with an intentional focus on Europe and the Anglo-American world. Examples of other kinds of organizing schemes were listing names by social status or some other characteristic, listing words by substantive categories, listing tax records by the status of tax payers, and listing medical terminology from head-to-heel. Flanders not only covers conceptual schemes, but concrete technologies including furniture. It’s a great review of how the problems of search were dealt with in the pre-digital ages.
David Jury. Graphic Design Before Graphic Designers: The Printer as Designer and Craftsman 1700-1914. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2012.
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.
Jamie Kreiner. The Wandering Mind: What Medieval Monks Tell Us About Distraction. New York: Liveright, 2023.
The topic of attention, and in particular, distraction, has loomed very large in the recent HCI and CSCW literatures. Indeed, one of our colleagues at UC Irvine, Gloria Mark, has done extensive research on that topic, and has just recently published a book that I’ll review here soon. But this fascinating book by Jamie Kreiner, who is a medieval historian, shows that these problems have been with us for a very long time. What makes medieval monks an interesting case is that one of their primary goals was to avoid distraction so they could focus on the divine, on God. They found this very hard to do, and what is so remarkable, they wrote about it extensively. Kreiner reviews these writings by Christian monks (both male and female) living in the Middle East, the Mediterranean region, and throughout Europe, surveying the period between 300 and 900 CE. There were many sources of distraction: other people, the activities of monasteries, their own memories of their past lives, and on and on. Studying the Bible itself was often a source of distracting thoughts. Those who went to extremes of trying to isolate themselves, living in caves, in remote places in the desserts, and even living atop poles, were hounded by visitors who thought of these types as being especially holy and sought their help in reaching out to God. They developed all kinds of techniques to try to keep their focus, such as highly organized work schedules, all manner of elaborate metacognitive exercises, and physical regimens. Kreiner is an insightful and very witty reviewer of all these amazing materials, and for someone like me, who is a cognitive psychologist very interested in such matters, it’s a rich and entertaining account of what is clearly a human problem of very long standing.
Thomas S. Mullaney. The Chinese Typewriter: A History. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017.
You may be surprised to find this under HCI, but that is what it is fundamentally. First, this is the first of two volumes on the history of information technology in China: the next one will focus on computing in China. But even the focus on typewriting is fundamentally about HCI. What is the sensible interface for a user trying to type Chinese characters, which of course are nothing like the alphabetic or syllabic character systems of most of the rest of human writing systems. So much of the story is about how to characterize characters, and of course this applies to much more than typing: dictionaries, phone directors, card catalogs, not to mention telegraphy and other information technologies. It’s a fascinating story, and Mullaney tells it with great erudition that is not clouded by dull story telling. He introduces us to all kinds of fascinating people involved in the story. There is also the unsophisticated and jingoistic characterization of ridiculous solutions to Chinese “typing” that was prevalent in Western media, even up to the present. While there were many impressive and highly innovative attempts at a Chinese typewriter, the form that dominated into the PRC period was where a tray of characters were arranged to that the typist could select individual character slugs from the tray to make an impression on the paper. While there were rational schemes for how to organize such trays, during the Maoist regime huge numbers of innovative typists customized their trays to form an early instance of predictive texts, locating characters close to each other that co-occurred frequently in actual texts. All of this long before sophisticated computer systems that would employ similar methods. And the other innovation was to view data entry as a way of retrieving what you wanted, rather than effecting a 1-to-1 mapping of your keystroke to what appeared on the page. This fundamental insight of course played out later in all kinds of information technologies. I recall on one of my trips to China in the 1990s, I saw a Chinese typewriter on display. I had no idea at the time of the amazing and rich history surrounding that device. I am eagerly awaiting the sequel to this excellent volume, also to be published by MIT Press. Below is a photo I took of a Chinese typewriter that I saw in China in 1980..
Daniel M. Russell. The Joy of Search: A Google Insider’s Guide to Going Beyond the Basics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2019.
Dan Russell has a long background in HCI, and in this timely volume, turns his attention to his passion of the last decade or so. He lectures and teaches about search, has a widely read blog on search, and has explored the many ways in which you can seek out answers to a very wide range of questions by using resources that are online. In this book, he presents us with a series of case studies to illustrate an incredible range of techniques and strategies that can be used to find answers to questions. He views Research as the fourth R of modern literacy. In a final two chapters he summarizes the lessons learned via his examples, and then ponders the future of research. This highly readable guide can be used by anyone with curiosity and some level of patience, and will be thoroughly rewarded by what is learned here.
Lucy A. Suchman. Human-Machine Reconfigurations: Plans and Situated Actions (2nd Ed.) New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
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.
Clive Thompson. Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World. New York: Penguin, 2019.
In 1984 Steven Levy published Hackers, a portrait of the early generations of programmers that has remained a staple for many years. Now comes Clive Thompson’s Coders, which significantly updates the portrait. The underlying technology has changed substantially since the early 80s, and the social context surrounding programming has also changed dramatically. The web, mobile technology, and the increasing social character of much technology use has brought new challenges and problems. The significant interference with the 2016 election, for example, resulted from technologies that were developed with unrealistically optimistic frames of reference for how the technology would be used, and this remains a major problem that so far has no clear resolutions. The dominance of coding by young white males has persisted, despite efforts to enlarge the scope of programming education and opportunities. Thompson interviewed numerous participants in all of these activities, and his survey of this central occupation in the 21st century is insightful.