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Human-Centered Computing - a brief history: 

Human-Centered Computing - a brief history John Canny 1/19/05

The Academy (387 BCE): 

The Academy (387 BCE) Plato founded “The Academy” in 387. It lasted for nearly 900 years.

The Academy’s entry code: 

The Academy’s entry code “Let no-one ignorant of geometry enter here”

Plato’s perspectives: 

Plato’s perspectives Plato’s philosophy was one of absolutes (perfect “forms”), which nature imitates. He abhorred democracy, and favored rule by “philosopher rulers.” For Plato, art was an inferior endeavor to science. Since it imitated life, it was two steps removed from perfection.

Aristotle’s Poetics: 

Aristotle’s Poetics Aristotle wrote and taught on most subjects known at the time, and created many that were not. Aristotle’s “Poetics” discussed tragedy, epic poetry, painting, music,… Aristotle re-elavated poetics and the arts alongside science, in opposition to Plato. His poetics defined formal criticism until Renaissance times.

The New World (ca 1860): 

The New World (ca 1860)

The 1860s: 

The 1860s America is fighting an ideological war that is deeply divisive: “..if civilization and progress are the better things, why they will conquer in the long run, we may be sure, and will stand a better change in their proper province—peace—than in war, the brother of slavery…it is slavery’s parent, child and sustainer at once..” -Oliver Wendell Holmes

The 1870s: 

The 1870s A “metaphysical club” forms at Harvard including C.S. Peirce, William James, O.W. Holmes and others. Peirce, best known as a mathematician, is using the term “pragmatism” for a new theory of knowledge. The project was much bigger and more complex than Peirce’s work. But a unifying thread was its rejection of ideological absolutes.

William James: 

William James Studied painting, chemisty, anatomy, natural history in several universities. He completed his MD at Harvard in 1869. He never practiced. Shifted to psychology and philosophy, eventually landing a teaching position at Harvard in 1874. James was the best-known architect of pragmatism. He preferred the term “humanism,” but Peirce’s term stuck.


Pragmatism Pragmatism short-circuited many of the age-old tensions in philosophy: between subject and object between logical validity and moral quality between thought and judgment The emphasis was on action and its likely outcomes. Pragmatism disarmed heavy debate with an evolutionary perspective: thoughts which improve one’s situation (and societies) are “good”. Those that do not are “bad”.


Pragmatism Pragmatism implies that knowledge creation is an essentially human endeavor. There are no “deeper truths” to be discovered, beyond what people believe that serves them well. At the same time, religious truth is as valid as scientific truth. Both are social constructions with social merit.

Pragmatism in action: 

Pragmatism in action Pragmatism is an applied philosophy. Its validity derives from its social impact – which would be nothing except through its application. That includes Psychology through the work of James, Education via John Dewey, Law through the work of O.W. Holmes Mathematics and Logic via Peirce Art, criticism, theories of knowledge through contemporary writers.

In Europe…: 

In Europe… In 1900 there were two leading philosophers in Europe. Henri Bergson was a predecessor of Merleau- Ponty and Piaget, and an ally of the pragmatists. Bertrand Russell was a logician, and the author of “A History of Western Philosophy”. Bergson seems to have been pre-eminent in his lifetime.

In Europe…: 

In Europe… By the turn of the century, mathematics had finally completed some critical “housekeeping” of its foundations. In David Hilbert’s 1900 Math Society address, he proposed a bold program for the mechanization of mathematics and physical sciences. Automobiles, Flight, the Paris exposition, heralded the way to a “technology century.” The 1914-18 war removed any doubt. Bergson did not survive it.

And in Russia…: 

And in Russia… Post-revolutionary Russia was establishing itself as a Marxist state. Its intellectuals set about creating an ideal society. This was the era of Sergei Eisenstein in film, Stanislawsky in acting (“method”), Rodchenko, Kandinsky in painting, Shostakovich in music, Mikhail Bakhtin in literature, and... Lev Vygotsky

Lev Vygotsky: 

Lev Vygotsky Vygotsky was an extraordinary scholar who studied Law, and taught Literature, History of Art and Psychology by age 22. For many scholars of this time, Marxism provided a unifying framework for scientific, social science, and aesthetic discourse. Vygotsky took it very far, developing theories of knowledge, development, and education that were profoundly influential. His other major influence was William James.

Vygotsky - Education: 

Vygotsky - Education Vygotsky is (with Piaget) the leading education theorist of the early 20th century. Vygotsky’s social theory of learning – Like Piaget he insisted that children learn by constructing their own understanding of the world they experience. Unlike Piaget, he insisted that “the world” experienced by children is a social, rather than a natural one. i.e. games, toys, and books are social constructions that embody social norms and expectations for the child.

Vygotsky – Genetic method: 

Vygotsky – Genetic method Another of Vygotsky’s key ideas is his “genetic” domains: Onto-genesis: Development by an individual Socio-historical: Development of the society Phylo-genesis: Development of the (human) species Micro-genesis: Creation of ideas & concept learning His social theory involves the interplay between 1. and 2. Thus Vygotsky’s approach interleaves methods that would be regarded as both scientific and humanistic.

Vygotsky – Mediation: 

Vygotsky – Mediation Perhaps Vygotsky’s greatest philosophical contribution was his formulation of “mediation” – the intelligent use of tools for a purpose. And among tools, language is the most important mediator. Human use of mediation develops, individually and socially, following genetic principles.

Vygotsky – Mind: 

Vygotsky – Mind Vygotsky’s approach involves accounts of both mind and consciousness. But they have pragmatist roots, rather than Idealist derivation. Mind and higher mental functions are natural (productive) behaviors that rely on mediation through language.

Vygotsky and Leont’ev - Activity: 

Vygotsky and Leont’ev - Activity Another important contribution was the “Theory of Activity,” mostly developed after Vygotsky’s death by Leont’ev. Object Tool Subject

Activity Theory: 

Activity Theory Activity theory has been paradigmatic through much Soviet social science. It is also well-established in the social sciences in Scandinavia, and has been widely applied. It is used in social science, HCI, computer-supported cooperative work, and learning research in groups in both Europe and the US. Activity theory fits well with Vygotsky’s other principles – the genetic method, mediation, and consciousness.

A. R. Luria: 

A. R. Luria Luria was a psychologist working in early post-revolutionary Russia. He was able to study Russian peasants with little or no formal education. His book “Cognitive development..” gives an extraordinary snapshot of “natural” human thought without the influence of school learning.


Bakhtin Mikhail Bakhtin is another extraordinary scholar from Vygotsky’s time (1895-1975). A direct connection with Vygotsky is unclear. Their theories are often linked together by “socio-historical” scholars (Wertsch, Chaiklin,…). Bakhtin was associated with a Bergsonian school in Russia at that time.

Bakhtin and Dialogicality: 

Bakhtin and Dialogicality For Bakhtin, utterances (and texts) are filled with “dialogic” overtones. That is, we understand utterances by “answering” them. The greater the number and weight of our “answering words”, the deeper our understanding.

Structuralism in linguistics: 

Structuralism in linguistics Around 1900 in France, F. Saussure was founding the “structuralist” school of linguistics. In Saussure’s version of semiotics, a “sign” comprises a “signifier” and a “signified” (a concept). Note that “signified”s are not thought of as “things in the world”.

A linguistic approach: 

A linguistic approach In the strongest interpretations of structuralism, mental concepts, and thought itself, depend on language. In one example, Saussure contrasts the English words “river” and “stream” with the French words “fleuve” and “riviere”. They seem similar but a French fleuve flows into the sea while a riviere flows into a fleuve. So there is no corresponding concept for an English speaker to either fleuve or riviere.


Post-structuralism Although most of his work pre-dated the movement, Bakhtin is often considered a post-structuralist. Julia Kristeva: “Intertextuality” – texts always borrow from other texts Jacques Derrida: there is no “hors-texte” – corpora are always open : deconstruction – socio-historical analysis


Post-structuralism Roland Barthes: “Writerly and Readerly texts” – the reader (re-)creates meaning Michel Foucault: a book is a “node within a network” of texts… Claude Levi-Strauss: Authorship as “bricolage”

History of Science: 

History of Science But surely there are some facts that are just “true”, and e.g. science should escape the “slipperiness” of post-structuralist analysis? Bruno Latour built his career studying the process of “construction” of knowledge in science. He showed it was a social and political process and involves protracted negotiation of truth. He is also a pioneer of “Actor-Network Theory” – a generalization of social networks.

Personality and Social Interaction: 

Personality and Social Interaction If meaning and concepts are socially constructed, what about personality, social roles and social Interaction? These questions were studied by Erving Goffman. Goffman developed a “dramaturgical” approach – social behavior as a performance. “Impression management” is one of the primary goals. Goffman also developed a “linguistic method” to understand social relations.

Language as Symbolic Action: 

Language as Symbolic Action The notion of texts as a kind of symbolic action runs deep through the works of Kenneth Burke (who wrote “Language as symbolic action”). This perspective provides an intuitive description of activity: An activity is a “theme” within a factual narrative of some subjects’ actions over time. Thus we have a strong link between two fields: human modeling and text analysis.

Berkeley 2005: 

Berkeley 2005


How can this possibly relate to information system design? It takes several years to answer this question. We will do what we can in this course…

Computational Linguistics: 

Computational Linguistics Computational linguistics began with a mathematical view of language: Language was a kind of universal informal logic. By attaching the right meanings (formulae) to terms, reasoning would be possible. Had the authors of this work ever read Luria, its hard to imagine them pursuing this as far as they did.

Statistical Linguistics: 

Statistical Linguistics The entire frontier of computational language today is statistical and pragmatic (in the linguistic sense). i.e. it is driven by real texts that are “representative” of the social language being studied. This happened for purely empirical reasons, and does not appear to link to the bulk of (non-structuralist) linguistics. On the other hand post-structuralist views (and Bakhtin) provide much more compelling explanations of basic phenomena in language.

The statistics of words: 

The statistics of words Almost all texts exhibit a peculiar distribution of word probabilities called a “Zipf” distribution. This is very difficult to explain in behaviorist terms, but follows naturally when writing is treated as a socially-situated practice.

The statistics of the web etc.: 

The statistics of the web etc. Many other social artifacts follow a Zipf distribution, including the web. They follow from a generative process in which artifacts are appropriated by authors in proportion to their encounters with the artifacts in life.


Livenotes Livenotes creates small workgroups (4-7) in large lecture classrooms using wireless networking. Pen computers are used to mark up skeletal lecture pages, in Powerpoint.

A Livenotes screen: 

A Livenotes screen

Transcript analysis: 

Transcript analysis 6 deployments over 3 years, > 1600 pages of notes…

What we expected to find:: 

What we expected to find: Students engaging in discussion with each other over the notes, a cue to cooperative learning. While there was plenty of dialogue in graduate courses, it was largely absent in (Computer Science) undergraduate courses. Students’ models of the lecture (transcribe notes), and their own learning (listen and read notes later), was completely different from ours.

What we did find:: 

What we did find: Dialogical note-taking by students – Students “answering words” to the Powerpoint bullets abounded. Powerpoint seems to be an ideal “rhetorical” medium, which stimulates dialogue. Some students even described the experience as more like a “conversation” with the Professor (than traditional note-taking). From the beginning our project had appealed to Bakhtin, but we had failed to listen to him carefully.


Summary The estrangement of science and the humanities is a consequence of particular human history. It has been, and is otherwise in certain places and times. This is something people working in HCI should probably try to work around, because most of the research on “humans” is outside of science (i.e. in the humanities).


Summary For (sensible) historical reasons, HCI and Cog. Sci. have drawn from a biased set of perspectives from social science and humanities – structuralism, idealism, reductionism… The concepts from those perspectives were “accessible” to experiment and simulation. But today, those constraints are largely gone. E.g. we have access to “social languages” (corpora), and can easily process more text than a person reads in a lifetime.


Summary At the very least, its important to understand some approaches that have had very broad applicability across social sciences and humanities. These included the “historical” or “developmental” approach (Vygotsky’s genetic method), and the “linguistic” approach.

Reading for next time: 

Reading for next time Chapters 2-4 of “How People Learn”. This is an NRC (National Reseach Council) report on the state of the art in education theory. Its written by many of the leaders in education research today. The content is “scientific” and should be an easy read. But look also for ideas from today: that learners “actively construct” knowledge in realistic (everyday) contexts.

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