DigitalFriend Blog

November 2007

SIMTECH 2007 Workshop

Fri, 30 Nov 2007 11:09:03 +1100

By: gosh'at' (Steve Goschnick)

Went to the first International Workshop on Social Interaction and Mundane Technologies this week, a new workshop that was sponsored by Microsoft Research - impeccibly well-organised by Connor Graham. That 'mundane' word doesn't do justice to the focus of this workshop, as it was anything but mundane. Keynote Associate Professor Barry Brown defined a few of the features of 'mundane technology', he talked of the process that renders spectacular technology, ordinary - e.g. think of the magic in ones first encounter of the iPod back at its introduction ... now, the iPod is considered ordinary, everyday, mundane technology. He talked of how people ground the extraordinary into their ordinary lives "Almost everyone knows where they were and what they were doing, when they first heard of the extraordinary events unfolding on September 11, 2001. That is an example of how people turn (contextualise) the extraordinary into the ordinary, into the mundane."

But my specific interest was in the opposite direction, in how people turn the mundane, the ordinary into the extraordinary. My view of Web 2.0 is just that: it is the current best example of taking ordinary mundane technologies such as SQL DBMS and JavaScript - the first of which has been with us since the late 1970s and the second has been with us since 1996 - and turning them into the successful phenomenon that is Web 2.0 ... but the conference reviewers weren't overly interested in Web 2.0 technologies wrt the mundane as such, or, the point simply passed them by (I'll try them again next year - in Edinburgh - as I find that it often takes a year or so for these things to sink in - the DigitalFriend itself was a classic example: we put in an application for a Telstra Broadband Research Grant in 2003 titled 'The Web Service Workbench', which got knocked back by the select Board of Reviewers with the comment/feedback: "What are web services and why would you want to orchestrate them anyway?" ... we put the same application in the following 2004 round 12 months later, with a different title only, and it got enthusiastically accepted), However, SIMTECH'07 did accept me SQL+PaWS paper as a 4-page short-paper/poster, which is better than 'being pocked in the eye with a sharp stick'. So there is now also an A2-sized poster version of it in a single slide in powerpoint format, which is linkable here: SQL+PaWS poster in a powerpoint slide.

There was a paper titled 'Leadership and Mundane Technologies' (Rouncefield et al) which did tackle the use of email, Word, Powerpoint and spreadsheets (i.e. very mundane), and how organisational leaders do turn them into extraordinarily effective tools. His opening justification for the work was that "most studies take this sort of technology as a resource instead of studying it" [Note: the most memorable quote of the workshop was also by Mark Rouncefield: In answer to a question about mental models that good leaders might use, he responded "I wake up in the morning. I put on my leadership underpants, and that's my mental model." ... i.e. lots of HCI people and ethnographers are not into mental models]. It does surprise me from time-to-time that Access and SQL DBMSs drop off the edge of the world when people consider end-user productivity tools, when they do include spreadsheets. Its not that I'm surprised about the inclusion of the spreadsheet, its that I do really believe that learning SQL is easier than learning to use a spreadsheet program effectively - you can teach most CEOs/Deputy Directors effective SQL querying in half a day or less, particularly once they see the sorts of information they can retrieve for themselves from their own corporate databases. And I can recall at least a handful of journal papers and magazine articles around SQL by business 'leaders' in the form of company CEOs, Vice Presidents and the like. E.g. a paper I regularly give to my database masters students on distributed SQL queries ('Taming the Bull') is by Howard Goldgerg, a vice president at Merrill Lynch, to also make the point that fluency in SQL is an ongoingly useful skill whether you pursue/are-on either a technical or a managerial career path.

There was an interesting discussion about privacy versus accountability, by people including Paul Dourish, about the need to "account for being where you are: time, place and action" particularly as the concept of work moves further out of the office, and the office moves further into the home, and as we all move further into cyberspace with a 24/7 presence.

SIMTECH was very good but it wasn't perfect. There were one or two flakey papers that got in as full papers for god knows what reason but isn't that always the case; a time bandit tried to get the workshop goers into plastering banal graffiti around the environment immediately outside in the park (who somehow at short notice convinced organisers to slot her into the otherwise full schedule) ... however, the best and most original paper for my money was a paper by Wally Smith and Hannah Lewi, titled 'Magical Beginnings of the Mundane' (and is available in .pdf from the workshop Program link), which amongst other things, makes the well-backed-up claim that the world's first smart house called 'The Priory' was built in the 1800's by Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin (1805 -1871) - the preeminent magician of the 19th Century, which was the golden age of conjuring - and IS researcher Wally Smith would know, as he is also a magician and a member of the Magic Circle. They point out that "conjuring in the nineteenth century was a dominant form of entertainment that exploited the latest advances in science and technology to produce ever more amazing tricks: new understandings of electricity and electromagnetism; new materials ... and miniaturization of mechanical devices." Anyway, Robert-Houdin went on to build the world's first Smart House using the best of his knowledge, and the account in this paper is a very good read to anyone interesting in smart houses and/or magic. Their final point was that this smart home from the 19th Century proved a failure over time (i.e. next to no one knows anything about it now), because of "the denial of method" - as the magicians code is to "never disclose the secret" - which sounds like a good plug for Open Source to me.

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