Extraordinary computing

Posted on May 12, 2009


Susan Wyche - Extraordinary computing at CHI09 Susan Wyche gave a paper at CHI recently: Extraordinary computing: religion as a lens for reconsidering the home (ACM DL).  In it she uses religion as as a lens to examine assumptions and values that shape future  domestic structures. 

Her focus was not on faith-laden technology, but on how offline faith affects how people interact.  Following the technology biographies work of Mark Blythe Wyche conducted semi-structured interviews and home tours to come to an understanding of “how Christians use ICTs in their homes”.

Not being even remotely religious (imagine my relief whenVisualising sustainability shot past my previous “most viewed post” Working with the integrity of creation to achieve ecological salvation?)  forgive me if I’ve hugely misread this paper.  I’ve ignored some of the evangelical bits. 

Wyche argues that Christians perceive artefacts differently:

Broadly, our findings demonstrate that Christians distinguish religious and faith-related artifacts, routines, and ICT use from their secular counterparts.

This sentence had me stumped for ages – Differently to what? she didn’t have a control group of non-believers  – it’s not very clear how these objects are actually different to Wakkary’s recipe books and journals.      Then I twigged, the secular counterparts refers to non-faith objects in the religious home.

Faith related objects (crosses, ten commandment posters etc) differ from ordinary ones in that:

First, they did not easily discard artifacts that they saw as connected to their faith. Second, they spoke about how these material artifacts reminded them of goals that transcended their everyday lives, and consequently were opportunities for reflection. Third, we saw and learned how these artifacts were coupled to the use of space. In particular, we saw artifacts helping our participants carve out spiritual spaces to practice their religion at home.

These faith artefacts also have longer lifespans. In a discussion of notes on fridge doors (see fridge door metaphor post from last week), Wyche reports

We saw faith-oriented notes on refrigerators. Indeed, we were struck by how common an occurrence this was in the homes we toured. These notes existed alongside typical notes that have been reported in other research, those in service of daily routines such as grocery lists, to-do
lists, and calendars. The refrigerator became an important and useful place for us to explore the differences between the secular and religious handmade artifacts that we saw.

When asked about these notes, participants frequently talked about differences in temporality. They described removing secular notes from refrigerators and discarding them once the activity (e.g., buying groceries or attending a dentist appointment) was completed. Religious notes also served in this reminding capacity, but did not have the short-lived life of their secular counterparts. What they reminded our participants of took longer to reflect upon and was related to their larger goal of living a life in accordance with their Christian faith.

In the extreme case of longevity, Wyche describes ancestral bibles.  These family artefacts retain their function and the very act of use increases their perceived worth.    Annotations and highlighting are not considered defacing (as might be expected with an old book), but rather an intergenerational narrative of passages of particular personal meaning, and interpretative commentary.

In one reported case the bible is a digital version. It is now twenty years old and having extreme personal significance through its importance in “importance in helping her grow in her faith. Although Wyche doesn’t speculate on this bible’s likely heirloom future (will it continue to work etc), she does compare the artefact preservation to the usual approach in ICT (ie Blevis’ ipod as deliberately unsustainable act).

Wyche also reports a different emphasis on faith routines (differentiated from secular ones), “The most important and constant theme was the temporal rhythms of religiously grounded routines, frequently based on the religious calendar”. Despite most of these routines being indistinguishable from secular routines:

We want to make clear that across all of these routine changes was a sense of the practices’ significance or an elevation from the sense that it was “ordinary” (even if it was routine) to being something done in response to a system of beliefs grounded in the extraordinary or divine.

What is different is that these routines are considered extraordinary, even if they’re not. 

Of actual ICT use, Wyche has some other findings.  On email, for example, she reports a quite diffferent relationship, while for secular communication we expect a reply (ie a conversation), for faith communication “few expected a digital reply to their prayer requests”. There is also a difference in tone:

Administrative email is usually for an organizational thing. It’s usually very lighthearted, very short. A [faith-related] email, I spend a lot of time writing. It’s really a much more deep thing. You really get into it. It’s sharing your faith, it’s debating something that’s central to your life. It’s more important.

So, Wyche concludes, we should recognise “Extraordinary computing”.  This is an approach to computing that recognises, supports and honours meaningful aspects in users domestic lives.   While I might disagree on what constitutes “meaningful”, it is hard to disagree with the argument that we “too often focus on ordinary technologies that tend to focus on problem solving…and arguably overlook aspects of users’ lives that are laden with religious and other types of personal meanings”.    The implications that being cognizant of temporality, reflection and enduring value all add add value beyond strict function, and all contribute to an object’s significance.

I think perhaps the extraordinariness is over stated here.  Perhaps when Wyche and colleagues compared religious experience with secular experience they unwittingly compared magic (meaning excitement -though perhaps also hocus pocus) with mundane.   There is much mundane in everyday life and it has had a lot of HCI effort devoted to it, and to good end, it is hard to make a critical mistake on internet banking for example.   But there is also much magic  in everyday life – learning to read, taking photos of your children, talking with your elderly grandmother on the other side of the world and yes, saving the planet –  that are both secular and non-mundane and would benefit from being considered extraordinary.