I realized tonight, on a walk with my spouse, that much of what I am doing this summer is documenting the epistemology of criticism. In other words, I am trying to render explicit the ways that critics come to know whatever it is that they come to know, and to compare that with how social scientists do the same.
There are several reasons why this activity is important. First, the two epistemological positions are sufficiently incompatible that both sides don’t “get” each other. To critics, social scientists can come off looking intellectually lazy, provincial, and mechanistic. To social scientists, critics can come off looking arrogant, totally subjective, and fluffy (not in the good way, like stuffed animals, but in the bad way, that is, lacking rigor). Second, my field (HCI), a traditionally social science-dominated field with an increasing interest in cultural categories, such as “experience” and “aesthetics,” is the site of a collision between these two epistemologies, and believe me, it’s not going well so far. And third, I’m trying to be one of the voices of translation, if not conciliation. That is, it may be too much to ask a social scientist to think and act like a critic and vice-versa, but it seems to me quite reasonable to ask a social scientist or critic considering contemporary, culturally embedded interaction design to have a basic comprehension (and with it respect) of the opposing epistemological position. We need to get away from the name-calling.
To articulate the epistemology of criticism, I have–as recent and future posts on this blog illustrate–read a lot of criticism and reflected on how it differs from what I suppose a social science approach to the same phenomenon might look like (part of the problem is that they don’t often consider “the same phenomenon,” so much of my enterprise is speculative). The immediate goal of this is to develop a theory of “interaction criticism” that will, not to put too fine a point on it, get me tenure. Now, one of the problems (and thanks again to Shaowen for asking the question that led me to this thought) is that on the one hand, I want to respect critical approaches. I want to practice criticism with the same care, rigor, and sensibility as a “proper” critic. (As opposed to the way many in HCI today seem to grab onto a random concept from critical theory and drop it ungracefully into HCI-as-usual.) At the same time, I want to update criticism for the context of interaction design. An interaction design is not a novel, and I must be mindful not to treat it like one.
So I know, obviously, that literary and cultural theory cannot simply be ported from Jane Austen to Steve Jobs. But it is a much harder question to know, in everyday practice, when a deviation from “true” literary/cultural criticism in order to accommodate the special characteristics of interactive digital media, is in fact a compromise, and how much of one, and whether anything can be done to make up for it. To answer that question, it seems to me, one needs something of a philosophical awareness of one’s use of critical theory.
There is a similar question to be answered as well, besides how does criticism differ from social science approaches, and that is, how does criticism in the arts (literature, painting, film) differ from criticism in design (architecture, interior design, industrial design, and fashion). I have some thoughts, but they need refinement. Probably that will happen in this space in the future as well.
In order to cultivate that philosophical awareness, I am attempting to articulate the epistemological underpinnings of these two different strategies for studying human-computer interaction.