Houston, we have a problem.

Here’s the punch line from Mark Ackerman’s The Intellectual Challenge of CSCW: The Gap Between Social Requirements and Technical Feasibility:

If CSCW (or HCI) merely contributes “cool toys” to the world, it will have failed its intellectual mission. Our understanding of the gap is driven by technological exploration through artifact creation and deployment, but HCI and CSCW systems need to have at their core a fundamental understanding of how people really work and live in groups, organizations, communities, and other forms of collective life. Otherwise, we will produce unusable systems, badly mechanizing and distorting collaboration and other social activity.

This “social-technical” gap is the space between how human behavior and activity actually work and our ability to understand, model/represent, and design for human behavior and activity in human-computer interactions. And, coming to grips with this gap presents, for Ackerman, the primary challenge for computer-supported cooperative work as a field.

Ackerman borrows Simon’s idea of sciences of the artificial to build a case for an approach toward better studying, understanding, and addressing the social-technical gap in CSCW. Simon differentiates between the artificial (those things that exist as the products of “human design and agency”), and the natural (those things that exist apart from human intervention). For Simon, the existing sciences focused on understanding the natural, and engineering focused on synthesizing the artificial. Between these two, Simon proposed a space for new sciences–those that seek to understanding the nature of design and engineering. Ackerman places CSCW squarely in the realm of these new sciences:

CSCW is at once an engineering discipline attempting to construct suitable systems for groups, organizations, and other collectivities, and at the same time, CSCW is a social science attempting to understand the basis for that construction in the social world (or everyday experience).
CSCW’s science, however, must centralize the necessary gap between what we would prefer to construct and what we can construct. To do this as a practical program of action requires several steps-—palliatives to ameliorate the current social conditions, first-order approximations to explore the design space, and fundamental lines of inquiry to create the science.

I’m most interested by Ackerman’s call for fundamental lines of inquiry to create this new science of the artificial, primarily because I believe this approach to CSCW holds implications not only for CSCW, but for the broader field of human-computer interaction. The lack of focus we tend to have in HCI (exhibited by the never-ending stream of “cool toys” presented at conference after conference) desperately needs to be addressed, and the identification of and careful examination through fundamental lines of inquiry could go long way in bringing this focus.

I’m just as guilty of this lack of focus as anyone else. I’ve got what I think are “cool” ideas, and I’ve built up my own research around what I’m afraid are thrown together, not-so-fundamental lines of questioning. It’s difficult for me to backtrack, as I know it would be for anyone else. However, in order to genuinely contribute to the progress of HCI as a field, I must take the time establish my work in such a way that it is both prompted by that work that has gone before, and is at least situated to inform that which may follow. If I and others don’t, then fourteen years after Ackerman wrote his article, we’re still failing our mission.