Final project assignment
We will be exploring a single question through a series of six weekly projects. The purpose of this message is to define that question.
It is sometimes said that computer networks will render space unimportant. According to this scenario, face-to-face interaction will disappear. Paper and office buildings will be unnecessary. Everyone will live in the country. We will deal with one another through video conferencing, or holograms, or something. That scenario is nonsense. It's not happening, and it takes only a moment's thought to see why it will never happen. People need, want, and value physical proximity for many purposes, and not just because they are nostalgic Luddites. When we design new information services, therefore, our goal should not be to replace physical interaction entirely. We will not be moving from a world that's entirely face-to-face to a world that's entirely virtual. That kind of primitive dichotomy is not helpful. Instead, we must look for the dividing line between physical and virtual interaction. That dividing line already exists, of course. We conduct much business over the telephone, by Fedex, by e-mail. With the growth of new technologies, we will probably conduct a different subset of our interactions through technological mediation. But which subset? That is our question.
A story may help make the issue intuitive. Finance is largely a matter of information, and so one would expect that the vast growth of information and communication technologies would cause financial people to scatter across the landscape. After all, financial people must often travel to investigate the businesses in which they are investing, and they can build trust with their customers by meeting them face-to-face as well. In fact, the opposite trend is happening. Finance is becoming ever more concentrated in a small number of "world cities" such as New York. Despite the power of new technologies, finance people want to be physically close to other finance people. Why? To negotiate the complex deals that the new technologies make possible, and to build the complex social networks that the ever-shifting world of financial deal-making requires. Many financial activities *are* moving to places like North Dakota. But these activities do not involve deal-making. Rather, they are the "back-office" activities like bookkeeping, which can be moved to places where labor is cheap, as well as the "customer service" activities, which can be moved to places where the people have the kind of interactional style that customers like. Cities like New York, therefore, are increasingly organized around financiers, and around the services that financiers need to get in person: restaurants, culture, building maintenance, those types of retail that don't work over the Internet, and so on.
The moral of this story is that the Internet does not scatter us by severing all of our physical bonds with one another. What the Internet does, more subtly, is to sever *some* of the physical bonds that connect us to other people, and to material things. We then respond by strengthening the bonds that remain. People who run all-virtual businesses, for example, can move back to their hometown, or live near their favored recreational activities. When the personal computer is no longer tied to the desktop, many types of work will be able to move as well. Some of this work will certainly move to the Bahamas, but most of it will move to places that are determined by the worker's irreducibly physical connections: onto airplanes, into hotel rooms, into the home, into meeting spaces shared with team members, onto building sites and factory floors, and so on. Work activities will be divided in different ways, so that each element of the work takes place in the physical location that is best suited to it. Collaborative work in particular will be divided more precisely, with some elements being conducted face-to-face and other elements being conducted through various media. Sometimes the team members will be pulled together by the comparative advantages of face-to-face interaction for specific purposes, and other times they will be pulled apart by the comparative advantages of being physically close to different people, places, or things in the rest of the world. And the information services that support them will be designed to respond smoothly to these fluctuations: by being portable, by supporting the types of mediated interaction that the team members need, by delivering information in a manner that is fitted to particular work settings (mobile, collaborative, noisy, hands full, eyes on the road, large drawings, familiar document genres, familiar collaboration practices, and so on).
We want you to think about these phenomena as you observe your own team's work practices. What do you need to do together, and what can you do apart? What roles do the various communications media play in your collaboration? How do you use information services together? How do your complementary skills motivate asymmetric roles in the work process? What kinds of tools could loosen unnecessary physical bonds? What do you need to do together, and what can you do separately? Is the quality of your work constrained by the difficulty of arranging face-to-face team meetings at the right times or in the right amounts? What elements of your face-to-face interactions could be done at a distance with the right tools? How do you keep track of one another? How do you wish you could keep track of one another? What stages of "processing" does information go through as it passes from (say) database to notes to group meeting to draft presentation? What information resources do you wish you had? What tools would enable you to iterate designs more effectively as a group, whether you are in the same room or not? What if you had electronic paper that was portable, could be used as a computer display, could be drawn on like a whiteboard, and so on? What if you had a shared workspace that was visible to everyone regardless of distance? Would these things really be useful? What specifically would they really be useful for, and what would they not be useful for? How do your work practices fit, or fail to fit, with the rest of your life? What tools would enable the team's work to go ahead even as the team members juggle their other commitments? How could everyone renegotiate the boundaries between work and home, between work and school, between the demands of different classes, among the various activities for this course? What design issues arise because of the team members' diverse disciplinary backgrounds, professional languages, and skills? What could you do if everyone had a dozen new platforms -- portable devices, computing power and display screens built into your car, interfaces that use speech recognition when your hands are occupied, shared audio spaces -- and useful "groupware" applications to run on them? What kinds of boundaries would you need to establish in order to stay sane in such a world, and how could the tools support them?
Our purpose in the design exercises will be to explore these questions. We want you to reflect on your team's experiences so that you'll be approaching these exercises in a thoughtful way, and in a way that's in full contact with reality. We'll get into the details when the time comes.