Acting with Technology

This book is a nice intersection of two areas: activity theory and human computer interaction. Because of the focus of the book, it is intended to have some wheels. The authors are establishing a question: What can we learn about designing software from thinking about HCI? The answer would yield a different kind of technological artifact: “We hope to use activity theory to stimulate great design — the design of digital technologies that address the needs and desires of specific individuals and groups” (87). Kudos.

The book has to cover a lot of ground to bring the intersection into realization. The initial ground covered is a really fantastic piece of work.

Because the book is situated within a different field of study, information technologies and design, the discussion of activity theory is a little more esoteric than discussions of the same theory in the context of rhetoric and composition. While the authors claim that they place the theory in a nutshell, I found that their discussion was more substantial than discussion of the theory in composition and rhetoric.

The book explores three questions in three parts:

  1. What impact has activity theory had on interaction design?
  2. How does activity theory relate to other theoretical approaches in the field?
  3. What does “activity theory” really mean.
The basic tenants are there. The authors thoroughly explore the interplay of actor, artifact, and context. However, the difference is that rather than studying it, these authors are looking for a way to create the artifact to reinforce the interplay. The “technological support for knowledge generation and management” is these author’s imperative. They are working from the assumption that artifacts are social items that influence the cognitive processes of people. For me, I am startled by this idea, but at the same time, I tend to embrace it.

One of the really nice features of this book is the discussion regarding educational technologies. While the authors do not endorse enterprise solutions (and why should they?), they make an excellent point about sustainability. Often, education technology-related projects die when the project head walks away from it. Meaning, they are often unsustainable. Since technology mediates human activity, if one of the participants walks away, there is nothing for the technology to mediate, so the student does not receive the benefit of the artifact’s support.

An interesting addendum to compute-mediated learning is the notion of learner-centered design wherein the computer (here, a nonhuman entity with agency), instruction materials, the student and the instructor are tied together through a series of interpersonal relationships (fig 4.2). As a budding educator, I look at this model and think: yes, this is true. How can I use it? As a novice programmer, I think: yes, this is true. How can I use it for good?

Acting with Technology: Activity Theory and Interaction Design
by Victor Kaptelinin and Bonnie Nardi

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