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  • Where the Action is: Foundations of Embodied Interaction
  • Diane Gromala
Where the Action is: Foundations of Embodied Interaction by Paul Dourish. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, U.S.A., 2003. 256 pp. Trade. ISBN: 0-262-04196-0.

In Where the Action Is: Foundations of Embodied Interaction, Paul Dourish offers the Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and artistic communities an important proposition, one that is relevant to both groups. The premise of "embodied interaction" is to understand interaction in terms of a participatory status "with computer systems that occupy our world, a world of physical and social reality, and that exploit this fact in how they interact with us." By drawing on the philosophical tradition of phenomenology, Dourish insists on accounting for the inextricable interplay of user, tool and context, as well as privileges engaged, natural practice over disembodied rationality and abstract cognition. In these ways, Dourish opens a user-centered approach to expansive physical and social realities.

The book is composed of two parts. The first section provides a persuasive and thoroughly developed method of analyzing the assumptions upon which much of HCI rests, including a brief history of interaction. Rather than a history of computing technology per se, this is a history of the way computer scientists have gradually incorporated human skills and abilities into the development of technology, turning their focus to the way humans and the everyday world works, rather than on how the machine works. Dourish demonstrates the ways in which his proposed approach is already partially at work by examining the assumptions of two specific HCI practices—Tangible Computing (also referred to as Everyday Computing and Ubiquitous Computing) and Computer Supported Collaborative Work (CSCW). Tangible Computing capitalizes on the fact that every so-called virtual world is inextricably bound to the physical realities of user and world. CSCW takes into account the real, messy, improvisational social realities of computing, primarily in the context of work. Yet Dourish clearly exceeds these accepted practices of mainstream HCI. His engaging history of interaction is paralleled by an equally clear and compelling articulation of the philosophical foundations of his proposition. Further, he includes the work of artists throughout the book, not merely as tangential asides, but as important examples that turn users' attention to matters of physical and social realities beyond the "purely" technical or the strictly work-oriented. The artistic examples are no mere applications, but are instances of technical development itself. This is not the main focus of the book, however. Since Dourish does a remarkably good job of pointing out the importance of artists to the HCI community, it would behoove artists who work closely with computer scientists to familiarize themselves with the assumptions of HCI that Dourish so clearly develops.

The second section of the book is a less developed but nonetheless provocative attempt to outline initial principles of embodied interaction design. The reason Dourish makes this move— from merely proposing a theory to the putting of that theory to work in practice— is driven by the philosophical approach itself. The phenomenological approach Dourish draws from is important for this reason: it turns our attention to how we encounter the everyday world as meaningful through active participation in it, as users and as creators. Besides the handful of computer scientists who practice Situated Action and Activity Theory research, very few are concerned with the issue of meaning. Since artists are primarily concerned with meaning, it is precisely here that a common ground is opened up for both communities. Dourish is demonstrably well aware of the conflicts of theory and practice, and does an admirable job of avoiding any facile, prescriptive approaches that often stifle current HCI practices. His approach promises to expand understandings of technological development that, in turn, will extend its scope, reorient its focus, and put it to relevant and meaningful use.

Diane Gromala
Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, GA, U.S.A. E-mail: <>


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