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Where the Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction

Author: Paul Dourish
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001
Review Published: July 2003

 REVIEW 1: Tom Bell

As a faculty member in Information Science at the University of California, Irvine, and a former member of the Research Staff at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, Paul Dourish is in a position to critique computer science. This lends weight to the pursuit of one of his goals in Where the Action Is which is to take a look at a science that "is based entirely on philosophy of the pre-1930s" (vii), and tends to reduce high-level behaviors to low-level, mechanical explanations coming out of a rigorous Cartesian separation between mind and matter and between cognition and action.

Here he draws on several different perspectives which emphasize practical action and everyday experience and presents an alternative action-oriented or embodied (contra disembodied?) approach to Human Computer Interface (HCI) design. The book is organized through starting with a brief history of views of human interaction which leads into a phenomenological approach to "getting in touch" and social computing. The heart of the book then follows in an examination of embodied interaction in at least two senses of embodiment. This, in turn, moves toward the import of these ideas for design of HCI.

"Thick description" is a phrase that Dourish picks up from Clifford Geertz [1]. In common language, thick description refers to scientific research which is carried out through examination from within a specified group rather than strictly objective analysis from the outside. As Malinowski discovered, the perspective from inside a group differs from the abstract view from outside or above the group. This process also has the potential to change the observer.

Dourish furnishes us with a readable and comprehensive grounding in the philosophical, anthropological, and psychological bases of a view of humans in relationship to the world. He draws on the thinking of such figures as Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Alfred Schutz, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, J. J. Gibson, Michael Polanyi, and Geertz, as well as their disciples. This is not just a list of names and terms, such as participant observation, being-in-the-world, and the "tacit" dimension. They and the perspectives they represent open onto a broad spectrum of thinking in the recent past across the spectrum of knowledge concerned with ways humans could meaningfully interact with the world [2].

Dourish also presents a refreshing perspective on an internet world where newer versions are often pursued for their own sakes with an alarming (to me) tendency toward the technological and abstract. He is rightly concerned with how we inhabit an attitude toward the internet and toward computing. In doing so, he has performed a necessary service in weaving these threads into a coherent perspective on the work to be done in the practice of communication through computers in this postcolonial world we now inhabit.

As someone who always seems to be in the thick of things, I eagerly anticipated this book. In some ways my expectations were fulfilled. However, I was disappointed not to receive much guidance through the action or process of being in the thick of things. Perhaps that was an unrealistic expectation and what we have here is a beginning. I am hopeful similar books on specific aspects of HCI will soon be appearing

Sometimes people have been known to pursue a version of themselves on the internet and in real life. This version may not be anchored in flesh and blood reality, but as Dourish points out this is an impossibility psychologically as well as physically. Embodiment as used here does not only mean physical manifestation. Rather it means being grounded in everyday, mundane experience (125), and not cut off from this experience as some followers of Descartes might wish [3].

You will note here that the operative word of the philosophers mentioned is "thinking" rather than "thought." This window on the process of a human activity is refreshing to me as a poet. I take it as a given that it is the process that matters or means and not the product. While there is a tradition here, I do not want to get side-tracked into a discussion of it. Suffice it to say that to me it is the writing or reading process and not the poem as printed (or on the net) that matters.

Dourish analyzes the importance of these thinkers and the movementís potential role in "getting in touch" by computer in an embodied way. Getting in touch and embodied interaction are familiar to me as a practicing psychologist but as Dourish makes clear they are also familiar in your everyday world when you sit down at your computer - here he is talking about you and your computer, not the ideas of you and your computer. We are in the world of apples, as he says, not ideas of apples. You touch your computer and you are in touch with your computer. In a real way, you are a person who can be in touch with others. In a real life way, you can tell when you are being real as a person and in your interactions. I would hope so.

You might say, "Fine, but how does that affect the design of computer systems and games?" Dourish mentions several but the one that interests me here is his comments on the difference between space and place. This is a distinction that merits some thought and let me insert a couple of examples for you to consider:
  1. The other day I walked through my local library where people were waiting in line for their thirty minutes at the computer. While computers and libraries have been connected in space (and the minds of theoreticians) for over fifty years (in my recollections), it is only now that people are sitting down, putting their books and notes next to them on the table, and appropriating the computers to use them. I do not think this scene would have been common even a few years ago.

  2. Today on an internet international mailing list (Webartery, if you want to look search the archives), two participants had an interaction about gardening. Both of them are web artists and gardeners. One was having difficulty appropriating or using the interactive software the other participated or dwelled within. The other lamented the difficulty he was having getting other gardeners to join or inhabit a place in an internet gardening community. The two negotiated these issues and may or may not have gotten together. I donít have the answers.
I do think these are common occurrences today in interacting with computers or people on the internet. People want to appropriate a place to inhabit.

For Dourish, place as distinguished from space means: 1) attention to activities that occur in a space rather than the structure of the space; 2) the emergence of practice (knowledge shared by a particular set of people based on their common experience over time); and 3) a community of that practice, where community is defined by a particular set of skills or training or a particular point in space and/or moment in time. What this long sentence is saying is that we are, after all is said and done, people out here on the net. I am sure there will be quibbles over parts of this but I also think his place-centric approach is significant.

When Dourish talks about a place-centric view of design he is making inroads into an important area that affects a very wide range of concerns not only on todayís internet but also has a long history in inhabitation of the real world. There are now art museums, for example, of many types on the net these days, and many types of books and scrolls (and ebooks, etc), but the key question here remains how to induce people to appropriate and use or inhabit them. Museums in the real world and on the net sometimes have had and continue to have difficulty inducing people to appropriate them. Books of all types can be bought and displayed without being inhabited. There have always been and will continue to be some of us (maybe the periphery) who inhabit the books and the art museums. The hope some might have is for a way to induce the many into appropriating a place for themselves here in the books, in the museums, and on the internet. Part of the hope is that this might occur without technological (in a pre-Dourish sense) and commercial inducements.

As I read this book, I did not get the usual "get a new system" or "buy this or that gadget." This book is also not a "how-to." This is a book for designers of systems. It is a beginning, albeit a sound beginning. There could have been more in the way of guidance through the process of finding oneself in the thick of HCI specifically or generally for me as a writer or viewer. There could also have been more in the way of guidance toward becoming a "being-in-the-world" designer although one could of course turn to the philosophers on this or examine field notes in particular other domains for hints. As I said above, this might be an unrealistic expectation here.

I do come down heavy on this issue as I think Dourish is on to something. He just does not carry it far enough into the actual process he examines. As he points out in a slightly different context, "there is a considerable difference between using the real world as a metaphor for interaction and using it as a medium for interaction" (101). What we have here is HCI as a metaphor for interaction. I would have liked to hear more about HCI as a medium of interaction.

But I am hopeful that other books will be soon be appearing to examine and explicate this important area for designers, writers, and users. As Dourish notes, "what I have hoped to provide here is a starting point for conversations between technologists and social scientists, designers and users, theorists and practitioners about the roles of computation and experience" (209). The embodied approach to HCI is as he says, beginning to provide "a more nuanced understanding of the role that . . . representations [as seen in software and HCI] play, and how they figure as part of a larger body of practice" (208).


1. Dourish uses this apt phrase as applied to Malinowski by Geertz who derived it from Ryle. My Ďthicknessí credentials include being a patient as well as a psychologist.

2. As Dourish ends, the question of meaning is one that will be addressed in a future book although he does explore ontology and epistemology in a readable fashion here.

3. I do not want to get into this too far, but A. R. Damasioís Descartesí Error: Emotions, Reason, and the Human Brain (NY: Putnam, 1994) is worth reading here.

Tom Bell:
Tom Bell is a psychologist in private practice and freelance writer as well as a poet. His work has appeared on the web and in print in a variety of places, including Gut (April, 2002) and Possum Pouch (2002).† He reviewed Digital Poetics: The Making of E-Poetries for RCCS in December 2002.  <trbell@comcast.net>

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