SYSTEMS THEORY + EMBODIMENT + NETWORK TECHNOLOGY
SYSTEMS THEORY + EMBODIMENT + NETWORK TECHNOLOGY
Designers often call themselves “problem solvers.” Though, in the world of increasing complexity and new information environments there are wicked problems, that allow multiple solutions, either “good enough” or “not good enough”. Wicked problems can be viewed through the lenses of the three basic concepts for designing information environments: systems theory, network technology and embodiment. Systems theory regulates the interactions among different units in the world of increased complexity; embodiment uncovers the nature of these interactions; network technology provides grounds for the development of new types of interactions.
The main themes that come up when these three concepts overlap are: “connectedness”, rearticulation of self-identity and the process of decision-making in new information environments. The three themes can serve as a framework for designers to identify the set of potential solutions to wicked problems when designing new information environments.
Wicked problems are systemic-level, open-ended, socially situated and exist within a larger system of interconnected contexts, which like a Russian doll can have both hierarchical and heterarchical organization.
The idea of “connectedness” in new information environments can be explained through the prism of systems theory and cybernetics. “Without context there is no communication,” – says anthropologist Gregory Bateson in the essay “Cybernetic Explanation”. Bateson explains that the subject matter of cybernetics is “not events and objects but the information “carried” by events and objects.” Like a nervous system, these systems are linked together and exchange energy. They are “complexly branching and interconnecting chains of causation”, whatever unit of the system is influenced – the whole system changes. A random change will eventually circulate to affect all the units of the system. Though the response the system produces to the change will not be random – it will function according to system’s inner organization. It is essential for a designer to understand the nature of the systems first in order to create these triggers, catalysts, to be able to maximize affordances and minimize constraints.
Network technology brought what user experience expert Michael Kuniavsky calls “smart material”. Kuniavsky explains that information processing is no longer the purpose of the system; instead it is the material the system is made of. “Information becomes “smart” only if used in the right context”, in other words it happens when the information serves as a mediator that connects different systems. We design with people and we no longer “design information”, we design “WITH information.” Design projects become viable only if they are “connected.” Basically, the idea of viability relates to the idea of evolution and natural selection. “Those organisms which were not physiologically and environmentally viable could not possibly have lived to reproduce.” In other words, those design projects that are not designed for the contemporary context of “connectedness” cannot be viable.
According to the cybernetic explanation design functions as a filter that understands all the opportunities and chooses the best one for now (a kind of an answer to wicked problems.) “We consider what alternative possibilities could conceivably have occurred and then ask why many of the alternatives were not followed, so that particular event was one of those few which could, in fact occur.”
Like in chemistry, the change in the mass number of an element by adding or subtracting neutrons changes the whole nature of the element, in design the distilling the context, “breaking the whole picture into parts and rearranging them” enables designers to create new opportunities and ways for innovation.
Finally, to approach wicked problems designers should not only notice all the opportunities, but also to see constraints, that might stand in the way of innovation. Wicked problems are always socially situated, so the constraints can lie not only in technology, but also in stakeholders, those who use the technology.
Rearticulation of self-identity. [USERS]
Human activities is a complex network of interactions with their environment. According to Activity theory, introduced in the 1920′s by Russian psychologists Aleksei N. Leontiev and Sergei Rubinshtein, people’s consciousness and interactions with the environment are an interrelated inseparable unity.
Activity theory is a synthesis of cognitive science with systems theory. It developed over time and in the late 90-s it evolved into Systemic-structural activity theory (SSAT), which laid down the ground for the study of Human-Computer Interaction. In the world of increased complexity more than ever do designers need to understand users’ needs and motivation, both the technological and physiological natures of these interactions.
In the contemporary environment mediated by network technologies people no longer seek for the information, the information itself finds people. In the “maker” economy with the democratization of the means of production people go on the Web not only to search for the news, but also to “be the news.” People’s self-identities are rearticulated in the global society.
In the book “The Feeling of What Happens” behavioral neurobiologist, Antonio Damasio explains consciousness or the sense of self, the basis for a person’s self-identity. The main quality of consciousness is subjectivity: it is made up of things that refer to a person individually. Each person has a particular set of mental images acquired over the lifetime experience that are evoked in response to a particular situation. What makes people’s experience to some extent common are the basic biological factors that influence our perception of reality. Identifying a particular group of people of similar age, race and life experience, designers might expect that their senses of self are alike. As users can rarely articulate their needs, through qualitative research methods (personas, scenarios, task analysis, focus groups, descriptive and interpretive field ethnography, etc.) designers unpack the nature of human interactions with new informational environments, break the interactions into components and map user paths (critical touch points necessary for a user to execute a task).
By playing on people’s emotional reaction to a particular stimuli smart HCI systems might facilitate the effective use of mental images each person has in his head. “Good actions need the company of good images.” Smart systems can manipulate symbols that stand for particular types of knowledge and therefore cause different emotional responses.
The process of decision-making. [USERS+ENVIRONMENT]
The organic nature of how we perceive information in the connected environment is inseparable from the decision-making process, which has also undergone a transformation. The way people make decisions is now “augmented” by smart systems that are part of our everyday life, sometimes misleading us and leaving very little room for independent thinking.
In the book “Networks, Crowds and Markets”, social scientist David Easley and computer scientist Jon Kleinberg rethink the process of decision-making from the systems theory standpoint. The authors talk about information cascades, which appear when people make decisions in sequence. Easley and Kleinberg describe how individuals make decisions made on probability, abandoning “their own information in favor of inferences based on earlier people’s actions.” Perhaps the largest information cascade that can be found is Google. Google’s PageRank system is based on the principle of linking: those Web sites that link and are linked to other Web sites most of all appear first in the search list, which does not necessarily mean they are the sources of credible information.
Network technology gave origin to what is called the “mob rule”, when the power of decision-making is given not to the most knowledgeable but by “the loudest and most opinionated.” That is a great challenge for designers, as people are unlikely abandon Google as a very useful tool for getting information quickly and with little effort. Designers can make a real change by determining factors that lead to correct cascades that can appear within the existing ones. In order to do these, designers need to understand the nature of people’s decision-making process in a better way, so that to open the floodgates for credible knowledge.
The physiological nature of the decision-making process suggests that our brain has different ways of processing information. Communication scientist Richard Perloff in his book “The Dynamic of Persuasion” talks about two types of thought processes – central and peripheral. Getting most of information on the Web people are impatient to get it as soon as possible and with almost no effort. People usually make quick decisions, activating peripheral thinking which relies on an emotional impulse at that single moment. That again proves the fact that we can be easily persuaded (though we don’t realize it). “An individual is more likely to be persuaded if positive cognitive responses are generated,” – says Perloff. There are many ways in which smart systems influence our decisions. Psychologist Richard E. Petty proposes that “if we perceive that the information being communicated is pertinent to us specifically, we are motivated to think centrally; thus, if it is perceived to not affect us, we will focus on peripheral cues.” “The system, specifically its shape and signs, inform the decisions. [...] The system’s inherent signs can be designed in a way to control, or limit decisions the person make,” – says Shaleph O’Neil, semiotitian and interactive design researcher.
There are two ways to see design in a contemporary environment: as an “imitator” or as a catalyst (the reason for this system to come to existence.) Design can either follow the laws of mimicry and imitate up-to-date trends or take an active role. If functioning like an “imitator” chameleon, design adapts its surface, but is basically incapable of making any real change in the world. Pro-active designers (better call them design-thinkers) have realized that through profound understanding of users and their self-identities, their environment mediated by network technologies and the process of decision making when the two interact is a way to find better solutions for global systemic-level wicked problems in today’s society.
 G. Bateson, “Cybernetic Explanation”, p. 408
 G. Bateson, “Cybernetic Explanation”, p. 407
 G. Bateson, “Cybernetic Explanation”
 M.Kuniavsky “Smart things: Ubiquitous Computing User Experience Design”
 M.Kuniavsky “Smart things: Ubiquitous Computing User Experience Design”, chapter “Information is a material”
 G. Bateson “Cybernetic Explanation”, p. 405
 G. Bateson “Cybernetic Explanation”, p. 405
 A. Keen, “The Cult of the Amateur: how today’s Internet is killing our culture”, p. 7
 A. Damasio, “The feeling of what happens”, p. 24
 D. Easley, Jon Kleinberg, “Networks, Crowds and Markets”
 A. Keen, “The Cult of the Amateur: how today’s Internet is killing our culture”, p. 15
 R. Perloff, “The Dynamics of Persuasion”
 R. Petty, “Personal involvement as a determinant of argument-based persuasion”
 Shaleph O’Neill, “Interactive Media: The Semiotics of Embodied Interaction”
Bateson, G. (04/01/1967). “Cybernetic Explanation”. The American behavioral scientist (Beverly Hills) (0002-7642), 10 (8), p. 29.
Damasio, A. R. (1999). The feeling of what happens: body and emotion in the making of consciousness. New York: Harcourt Brace.
Petty R. (1981). Personal involvement as a determinant of argument-based persuasion.
Easley, D. (2010). In Kleinberg J. (Ed.), Networks, crowds, and markets : Reasoning about a highly connected world. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Keen, A. (2007). The cult of the amateur : How today’s internet is killing our culture. New York: Doubleday/Currency.
Kuniavsky, M. (2010). Smart things : Ubiquitous computing user experience design. Amsterdam ; Boston: Morgan Kaufmann Publisher.
Perloff, R. M. (2010). The dynamics of persuasion : Communication and attitudes in the 21st century. New York: Routledge.