Where the Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction
By Paul Dourish
MIT Press, 2001
Chapter 5 – Foundations
In this chapter Dourish addresses the notions of “meaning” and “coupling,” which are central concepts to our understanding of embodied interaction. In the realm of meaning, he explores the aspects of ontology, intersubjectivity, and intentionality. These aspects refer to the structure upon which meaning is created, the shared nature of meaning and the “directedness” of meaning. The concept of coupling on the other hand, refers to our ability to act on and through the world by manipulating the various aspects of meaning listed above.
After exploring these various notions, Dourish goes on to examine the two uses of the idea of embodied interaction that arises from this chapter (and book). The first use is as the basis for a design approach “that is oriented toward the way in which people interact with systems as a a fundamentally embodied phenomenon.” The second use is as a tool to evaluate and identify issues with the design of existing interactive technologies.
Now let’s delve deeper in the various aspects of meaning and the notion of coupling…
Below I will provide an overview of each aspect of meaning that was explored by Dourish: ontology, intersubjectivity, and intentionality. Each of these aspects “plays a different role in embodied interaction, and each raises different set of issues for interactive system design.”
Ontology provides the structure on which meaning is created. “It deals with how the world can be separated into a collection of entities whose meanings can be established, separated, and identified, and how these entities can be related to each other.” Designers often use the term ontology to refer to user’s conceptual models and to the internal representational structure of software.
One important challenge for designers is that there isn’t a single “ontology” that is shared by everyone. Therefore, designers need to be mindful of the existing “ontologies” that are held by users of their products.
The second aspect of meaning explored by Dourish is intersubjectivity, which refers to how meaning can be shared. Unlike physical phenomena meaning is based on beliefs and intentions, which are not objective phenomena. That said, humans are still able to coordinate their behavior despite the absence of an objective reality. They do so by learning about each others beliefs and intentions.
There are two places where designers need to address the problem of intersubjectivity in their designs. First, designers communicate with users throught the system. Therefore, they need to establish a common ground of understanding regarding the constraints and affordances provided by the system so that users understand how a desing should be used.
Second, users communicate with other users through interactive systems. Therefore, designers need to create systems that are supportive of the ways in which people develop shared ways of using and working with systems. “What is important is not just what the system can do, but rather, what it really does do for people in the course of doing their work.”
Intentionality refers to the referential nature of meaning – so what the heck does this mean? Essentially, the notion of intentionality proposes that meaning is a relationship between two separate entities. For example, in this simple sentence “I love my wife” the word “wife” features an intentional realtionship between with the lovely woman whom I married a little over three years ago.
The importance of intentionality to computing can be understood when you consider that computation is essentially an intentional phenomenon – the value of computation is that it refers to things. “If the key feature of the computational system is that it refers to elements in the world of human experience, then the key feature of interaction with computation is how we act through it to achieve effects in the world.” This is true of our interaction with any system, not only computational systems – it is carried out to achieve an effect in the world.
Coupling refers to the way in which we create and break down relationships between entities for the purpose of enabling and supporting our actions. This concept is crucial to understanding embodied interaction because it addresses the way in which meaning is made manifest from moment to moment as we act in the world.
To illustrate what this means lets go back to some concepts that were explored in previous chapters of this book. Specifically I want to focus on the notions of present-at-hand and ready-to-hand.
Let’s say that you had a hammer in your hand. First you will likely conciously focus on the the way you are holding the hammer in your hand to ensure that it is oriented correctly and so on. At this moment the tool can be said to be present-at-hand. Once you are comfortable that you are holding the hammer properly you proceed with hammering a few nails. At this point your focus shifts to the action of hammering the nails and the hammer and your arm become a single unit – they are in fact “coupled.” In this stage the hammer can be said to be ready-to-hand.
This example is clear but greatly simplified. Of course when we are acting in the world we tend to interact with many entities at time, rather than a single one. Therefore, the problem humans face is how to assemble a range of entities at any given moment to achieve whatever effect is desired.