Activities and digital technology
‘What are your orders, Messire?’
Fagott asked the masked man.
‘Well, now,’ the latter replied pensively,
‘they’re people like any other people…’
Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita
I am starting this essay citing Bulgakov’s masterpiece, because the way how Messire is talking about people reminds me of how mankind depends on its own kind. People like any other people. This statement can be related to activity theory, which considers humans as a part of their cultural background. Every human since being born adopts different methods of performing activities. These methods are often based on experience of previous generations. However, some individuals create their own means and tools which will influence people in future. All in all, the results of people’s activities strongly affect people’s consciousness and shape a certain perception of reality. Nowadays these are very actual notions, because the whole digital world is based on activities which reform our world-view every day. Technologies allow things which were hardly predicted in a previous century. This process cannot last neutrally, it affects people and their way of thinking. Digital technology does not only provide tools for sufficient problems solving, it changes people’s attitude to problems as such. All these issues will be discussed in this essay.
1. Basic principles of activity theory
Activity theory is rather complicated theoretical framework, which takes some time to be understood by a beginner. However, after deeper analysis, it appears to be very dynamic and useful for studying people’s behavior in different disciplines, including human-computer interaction.
The concepts of activity theory were developed in 1920-1930 by soviet scientists Alexei Leontiev, Alexander Luria (psychological approach) and Sergei Rubinshtein (neurophysiological approach), who based their works on the previous studies of Lev Vygotsky. In the beginning, activity theory was seen as a narrow branch of behaviorism, but Leontiev extended Vygotsky’s research framework in many new ways. He proved, for example, that animals have an active relation to reality, and that all human processes have three different levels of analysis. His results helped to get a bigger picture of human relations to the objects.
Activity theory provoked interest of western researchers from such intellectual developments as cognitive science, American pragmatism, constructivism, and actor-network theory. To the international audience activity theory was introduced in the late of 1970s and early 1980s through the translated publications of Leontiev. Scandinavian activity theory, developed by Yrjö Engeström, united soviet and western approaches.
Prior to analyzing human activities in digitally mediated settings I would like to make a sketch of the main principles of activity theory as I see them, mostly based on Leontiev’s studies.
Activity is a form of interaction, during which animals and humans purposely affect surrounding objects in order to satisfy own needs. Mental reality, which serves any interaction process, starts to form from the earliest age of animals and humans. Mental reality is a way of observing environment and forming images of situations which should be helpful when choosing the right behavior according to established tasks. In other words, we start getting knowledge about different situations since being born and then learn to apply this knowledge for achieving various goals. The main difference between animals and humans is that animals can focus only on external, directly perceived aspects of environment, while humans’ activity (due to collective labor and intelligence) is based on symbolic forms of objects relation.
According to Leontiev, there are three components of activity:
- Motives that drive activity
- Goals that are associated with expected results of activity and can be achieved by certain actions
- Operations that serve as means for the achievement of goals
Actions are processes of interaction with any object. These processes are characterized by having a previously established goal. There are main components of actions:
- Making a decision
- Correction and control
When making a decision, people link together an image of situation and a way of acting. Realization, correction and control happen in cycles. Different means and tools, which were either adopted or individually discovered, are used at these stages.
Operation is a unit of humans’ activity correlated with a goal and conditions for its achievement. Operations, which help people to achieve goals, are the results of adaptation of socially generated actions.
One or another activity may play a crucial role in psychological formation during the development of an organism. This, finally, brings us to the base thesis of activity theory: “It is not consciousness that determines the activity, but the activity that determines consciousness”.
2. Activity theory and human-computer interaction
Nowadays digital technology is focused on user-centered design, the user experience, usability, usefulness, and user empowerment (Norman 2002; Norman 2004; Cooper, Reimann R, and Cronin 2007). Developers turned from waterfall model of programming, which required coding, designing, testing and presenting being done separately at each own stage, to new ways of producing software. One of these ways is communicating with users as much as possible; create personas of potential customers, write user stories, and so on. Human psychology started playing an essential role in digital world. Therefore a huge interest in activity theory arose among the developers of digital interactive software.
How can we use activity theory in practice? Do we actually need activity theory in interaction design? My answer is yes, and here are the reasons. First of all, there is no stable theory applied to interaction design, and that turns developing into guessing work. For example, there is a gap between the intentions of designers and the intentions of users (Kaptelinin & Nardi, 2006, p. 12). Secondly, two approaches used to explain human-computer interaction processes do not give full answers to all arising questions. These approaches are cognitive approach and ethnomethodology, and both of them have weak points. Cognitivists are too much concentrated on algorithms, while people are usually improvisatory and do not follow algorithms as computer programs do. Ethnometodology, by contrast, provides various practices and explanations, which are quite flexible but cannot be generalized.
So, activity theory can be a theory that unites previous approaches, identifies important concepts, suggests mechanisms to explain a certain phenomena and generates solutions to problems of interaction design. Let now see how principles of activity theory and human-computer interaction correspond to each other.
According to Victor Kaptelini and Bonnie A. Nardi writings, principles of activity theory can be used to reconsider some of the most central concepts of traditional human-computer interaction, such as transparency, affordance and direct manipulation.
Transparency has traditionally been considered a key aspect of user interface quality (Kaptelinin & Nardi, 2006, p. 79). For example, the followers of ubiquitous computing ideas claim that technology should be invisible, and infrastructures should be seamless (Geneive, Dourish 2006: 10). The founder of ubicomp Mark Weiser wanted technologies disappear into the background. He saw them vanished in the same way as electric motors in a single machine (Weiser, 1991). Transparent interaction is an interaction in which the user can focus on his work, while the system remains “invisible”. However, the recent researches of ubicomp show that the idea of transparent and seamless technologies did not work out. It happened mostly because digital tools became too personal to just disappear. This paradox may be explained by activity theory. The reason is that individuals are concentrated not only on the result (goal) but also on the ways of achieving it (tools). So, they are pretty much aware of their actions, but routine operations are carried out automatically without interfering with conscious processes. In other words, transparency can be reached not by hiding tools but by skills automatization. Skills can be automatized when a user does the same actions several times and finally remembers all of them. Developers are aware of the importance of analogical actions. For example, every new Apple application should have the same logic as the others existing before, otherwise the user would need to learn over and over again every time he opens an app. This would make completing tasks and reaching goals very difficult and time consuming.
Affordances are the possibilities for action provided by the environment. Generally speaking, affordance is what environment gives to humans or animals. In human-computer interaction affordances may be interpreted as a number of features which allow using them in a certain way. For example, an iPad screen affords touching or swiping; keypad on laptop allows pressing and so on. Affordances are also interpreted in terms of low-level manipulation with physical artifact. (Kaptelinin & Nardi, 2006, p. 81). As far as activity theory is based on interaction between individuals and objects, it matches ideas of affordances. However, it does not agree that affordances should be static. Activity theory stands for constantly changing environment, that is why its notion of affordances needs to be extended to human activity as a whole, not just the level of static operations.
Direct manipulation has been a fundamental concept of human-computer interaction until it was challenged by activity theory. Developers thought that individuals manipulate objects directly, without concentrating on instruments. However, a recent activity theory-driven analysis of human interface revealed that people seldom operate on their objects of interest in a direct way. On the contrary, people highly interact with instruments before manipulating an object. For example, when scrolling a document they operate with a scroll bar and, as a result, with a document (Kaptelinin & Nardi, 2006, p. 83).
These were just a few examples of how activity theory principles change the standpoint of human-computer interaction. It teaches that our actions are interrelated and that they can influence our further decisions. That is why every new piece of software has to be created in relation to existing concepts, because it makes interaction process much easier. In addition, developers should pay more attention to designing tools, because people love using tools, especially when they are attractive and handy. Affordances are not static; they can be modified both by environment and by people.
3. Is digital technology neutral?
The notions of activity theory can prove that digital technologies are not just instruments for the achievement goals. Better to say, they intended to serve as such but exceed the expectations. The vision of technologies as mere tools was shared among ubiquitous computing developers, who imagined a world full of hidden devices, which helped people to live a better lifestyle and do daily tasks faster. However, nowadays digital devices became too visible and too personal that they cannot be considered as simple tools anymore.
This is mostly an issue of design and marketing. Many centuries ago instruments were not necessarily beautiful. There was a clear line between art and craft. A cup served as a container for water, hammer was an instrument for nailing, spoon was there to eat etc. Nowadays there are plenty of brands and models; manufacturers are worried of selling their items. The design is the main thing (in addition to functionality and quality) which differentiates products one from another. There is so much attention paid to visual form, that even simple tools, intended to help with a single task, look like a piece of art. So do digital instruments.
The consequence of overwhelming design is changing people’s attitude to their tools. I do not consider my smart phone as a device for making calls and check e-mails. I love it as an object and I do not always interact with it to complete a certain task. Sometimes I literally enjoy scrolling, touching and swiping. So, digital technology is not neutral, it definitely affects my consciousness. I am not sure if it is autonomous or not, but definitely far more than mere tool and instrument.
As an example, let discuss digital technology as a way of offloading our mind to external resources, such as search engines, digital dictionaries, digital notes, calendar entries and so on. In the beginning, these tools were created to simplify the process of achieving concrete goals. Nowadays people rely so much on Google, that I can hardly imagine modern life without it. This is how performing activities transforms our consciousness. Therefore, search engines are not neutral anymore.
It seems like people are becoming less concerned about developing their internal cognitive resources. They rely on various mind extending devices surrounding them (the search engines are simply the most illustrative example). Even the educational system is changing. Teachers revise methods that are no longer suitable for students, who do not look through the piles of encyclopedias anymore but spend a few minutes for Web surfing instead.
Now we have a situation when certain activities change the whole environment. This approach is closer to cognitive science than activity theory. It is evident that human tools have changed throughout the centuries: from stick to ink and finally to keyboard and laptop. Google is a product of necessity, “an evolutionally produced device got from people who do not simply live their environment, but actively shape and change it” (Bardone 2010, p. 63).
Moreover, our digital activities also shape other daily activities. As a result, we start doing many unnecessary things which could not be doing without technology existence.
I often find myself doing completely useless things via Google, for example, searching for celebrities and their biographies, checking word spelling (even if I am sure how to spell), looking for song lyrics etc. After I get the answers I feel rather lazy than satisfied because the information was not obtained in a hard way. I just did a few movements.
The easier is access, the less effort our brain needs to complete the task. As a result, we become lazier (both mentally and physically), which is not the best statement of human organism. Perhaps our brain is in the same danger as our body. Some researchers claim: “Physical technology altered the frequency, intensity and manner of our muscle use, altering our muscular development (even introducing new ‘technological diseases’, such as carpal tunnel syndrome). Cognitive technology will do likewise, but instead of affecting our muscles it will affect our brain development, organization and capacities. Changing how we think, learn and communicate, our cognitive tools are reshaping our minds” (Dror, Harridan, 2008, p. 21).
We become lazier also because there is no need to learn and memorize new things if our cognition is distributed anywhere, no matter whether our brain still controls it or not. So to say, due to offloading parts of information onto digital technology, we reshape our organisms. That basically means that activity allowed by technology effects humans’ behavior and mental state. And this is one more illustration of activity theory
4. Redesigning activity
In this chapter I want to turn to the daily activities which can be reorganized with the help of emerging digital technology. There have been many interesting suggestions offered by my colleagues. For example, offline reading, proposed by Valeria Gasik, can be improved with better illumination, better content and better concentration. In her opinion, this can be done by going beyond the technologies. For example, if you are tired of artificial illumination, make a break. If there is lack of concentration, stop multitasking. If you do not like the content, change the genre. Everything dos not entirely depend on a computer.
Kristo Vaher suggests changing the strategy of e-learning. By now, online courses include a huge number of papers for independent reading, video conversations and chat rooms. Each of this method might be useful for some concrete purposes but not for e-learning as a whole thing. Vaher proposes making online studying more interactive and closer to natural. The main point is to produce a clear feedback from students to teacher, which may highlight the main misunderstandings and propose questions.
Mehrnoosh Vahdat speaks about lack of concentration because of multi-tasking. She claims that everything she does with digital technologies can be done in the same successful way without them. It means that tools, which once were intended to help people, do not help them anymore. Moreover, they produce new problems to be solved, such as how to pull oneself out of Facebook and force writing an essay.
I am not as pessimistic as Mehrnoosh, but I also noticed that many daily activities should be redesigned within digital technologies, because the way it all works today does not make solving tasks much easier.
Let discuss one of the most essential human activities – finding something to eat. The question “what to eat?” is arising several times a day. The fastest solution is to eat somewhere out, but those who prefer home-made food usually think of a recipe and necessary products to buy. I love cooking and I have thousands of recipes stored in books, brochures, magazines, written on pieces of paper and saved in the bookmarks of my browser. One day I realized that it became pretty hard to find my favorite recipe or at least any suitable recipe in such a huge mess.
There are plenty of Internet resources concerning cooking: personal blogs, communities, websites, groups in social networks and so on. The main problem is that each source has its own method of storing the recipes. Some websites put step-by-step illustrated instructions; some provide a number of ingredients and a short description. Ingredients can be proposed in different measuring systems: grams, spoons, cups etc. Searching tools are also different. It is possible to search by typing keywords, catalogues surfing, asking questions at forums etc. After all, even if I succeed in finding the recipe, how can I take laptop to the kitchen and always keep it in front of my eyes? All the same, I have to write down the recipe on a piece of paper and then take it with me and glue somewhere on the wall. So, creating a personal database with all the recipes turns out to be a difficult thing.
Let us classify the main problems once again and point them out here:
- Hard to find an appropriate and trustful source of the recipe (blog, community, website, group, forum).
- Hard to search for the right recipe (keywords, catalogues)
- Hard to follow the instructions (different measuring systems)
- Inability to take laptop to the kitchen
Using Valeria Gasik’s method of converting problems into goals, we have this number of challenges:
- Better orientation among recipe sources
- Better searching tools
- Unique instructions
- Possibility to follow the instructions while cooking
Better orientation among recipe sources
This can be done by creating a single database which may include links to different sources. This will prevent from repeating the same recipes. When joining the database it source has to follow simple instructions, such as keeping the same style of naming recipes, providing illustrations or video instructions etc. There also should be a motivation for different communities to provide their information to the database. This motivation can be getting a much larger audience, an ability to vote for the recipes, choosing the best recipe or the best instructions of the day and other types of interactive motivators. The user interface of such database may look somewhat like eBay listings.
Better searching tools
Searching for the recipes can be done in both ways, either by typing keywords or by browsing through the catalogue. Browsing system should include various levels of classifications. For example, search by products or by meal types (desserts, soups, drinks etc).
As different people are used to different measures, there should be provided at least two versions: quantity in grams/kilos and quantity in spoons/cups. The description of fruits and vegetables sizes is also an advantage. For example: one banana of medium size, 5 small cherry tomatoes etc.
Possibility to follow the instructions while cooking
It is dangerous to take laptop to the kitchen because it may get wet or dirty. On the other hand, switching between laptop and kitchen is not the best solution either. I suggest the audio recipes that can be heard from the kitchen easily. In addition, if a user has a speech recognition function, he or she may ask to repeat instructions or ingredients.
iCooker or facing the future
The methods I offered to improve our daily cooking activity are not perfect. In my view, there is still not enough of corresponding and affordable technologies to make preparing food smooth and easy. The ideal picture for me is having a special device, let me call it iCooker, with a scanning feature, display, balance and speakers. It can be easily placed in the kitchen and improve cooking activity.
How does it work? Imagine you have a number of products at home: cheese, milk, butter, tomatoes, potatoes and garlic. Can you cook them together? If imagination is not enough to pick the right recipe iCooker will help.
First of all iCooker scans your products. You put items one by one in front of the green laser and the device recognizes what type of product it is. When all items are scanned, you make preferences and give orders. For example, ask device to find recipes that include only products available; or request other recipes which include 2-3 additional products (maybe you have them but did not notice at first).
Recipes appear on the screen. They can be classified by popularity, easiness or time required for cooking. You may also choose the number of portions needed. iCooker identifies not only the type of a product but also its size and weight, as it can be connected to a small electronic balance via Bluetooth.
After preferences were chosen, iCooker gives you general instructions and then shows pictures of every stage. There is an audio option available as well. You can also “talk” with iCooker asking him to repeat any stage.
As for protection issues, iCooker can be easily installed in your kitchen, it is not afraid of water or oil. It can be cleaned and replaced; works with batteries and has to be charged 2-3 times a week.
In my opinion, this kind of a tool can reshape our activity and also change attitude to cooking in general. If we have a future of ubiquitous computing, there will be plenty of devices as the one described above. However, nowadays only online recipes are available, that is why cooking activity should be somehow improved within the frames of existing means.
In this essay the basic principles of activity theory were discussed. Activity theory is a complex theoretical framework which was developed in 1920-1930 by soviet researchers and then recognized in western world owing to Scandinavian developers. It has a common understanding of people activities with other theories, such as cognitive science, American pragmatism, constructivism, and actor-network. Nowadays activity theory provoked high interest because it can be applied in human-computer interaction.
Activity theory reshaped existing concepts of interactive technology, such as transparency, affordances and direct manipulation. The theory showed that people do not treat digital devices as mere tools; and that activity performed with technology is constantly reforming our consciousness.
Therefore digital technology is not neutral anymore. It changes people’s attitude to common things. For example, search engines initially appeared as instruments, but nowadays the process of searching is not just an instrument; it is an activity itself, which is sometimes performed without any clear purpose.
Looking at various digital devices and analyzing their usefulness, we can suggest the new features and new solutions for our daily activities. Relying on their previous experience, people can find the new methods for faster problems solving. An example presented in this essay is iCooker, a digital device used for generating recipes. If there appear more devices like that, human life soon will be wrapped into technologies and one cannot imagine any daily activity without them. But one never knows if people smoothly adopt this lifestyle or just drop it out one day and start acting like before. People like any other people.
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