A fresher’s thoughts on Digital Civics

In this blogpost I will attempt to shortly present Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) as a research field, Digital Civics (DC) as a promising branch of HCI research and present my very personal fresher’s-like thoughts and reflections on the DC agenda, the values and the methods that DC embrace.


HCI in a nutshell

Human Computer Interaction (HCI) likens a pandora’s box in which different disciplines blend together. Computer science, physcology, art and design, civic and behavioral studies are few to name. One of the very first writings that present the term is 1976  “Evaluating the impact of office automation on top management communication” [1] of James H. Carlisle; a paper concerned with the impact of that time new communication technologies on the effectiveness of top management decision makers.

HCI is an interdisciplinary field concerned about the ways people interact (or do not interact someone could add) with technology and works through design towards the narrowing of the gap of those interactions [2] by at least improving interfaces usability. According to Mauchly [3] “Any machine coding system should be judged quite largely from the point of view of how easy it is for the operator to obtain results” At the time this was written operator represented the today’s programmer [2].

In a broad sense, HCI research is applied to existing technologies we humans interact with, to under-construction technologies or in a more experimental approach to ideas and possible future scenarios of future humans interacting with future technological apparatuses. Speculative design also called Critical Design is usually applied to the latter.  

HCI has a long history. During those 50 or so years of its life, different names have been used to describe the field. As names insinuate notions (thus theories and practises) we can shortly have a glimpse of the different trajectories HCI came through.

HCI can be seen as HMI’s offspring. HMI refers to Human-Machine Interaction and to the era that computers have not yet been brought to life. When the latter finally occurred a research field called Man-Machine Interface appeared. ‘Man’ was latter on not accepted as a representative term for human beings(ibid) and I suppose as excluding other genders -females that time- was at least semantically pushed back.

The academic society also decided to replace Interface with Interaction. They saw that their focus was not on the object interface but the process of interaction between the humans and the Interface(ibid). The term HCI was thus born.

The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) used instead the name Computer-Human Interaction removing the ambiguity of HCI where someone could think of Human-like computers. The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) defines computer-human interaction as “a discipline concerned with the design, evaluation and implementation of interactive computing systems for human use and with the study of major phenomena surrounding them” [5].

Interaction can be measured by numbers in cases but I would argue that this does not refer to the majority of HCI schemes. Interaction between humans and computers is a multilevel state. Different types of interaction take place in different occasions, different places and different times of a day. As stakeholders vary in age; gender (HCI gender research branch investigates ways in which attributes of software or  hardware can interact with different genders) culture; psychological state during which the interaction occurs, in those interactions a polarized and problem-solving categorization of users and non-users in HCI seems not adequate and can be pejorative to the notion of the individual. In that sense when HCI takes a solutionist approach, the complexity of personal, political and environmental issues is ignored [6] and as Dobbins [7] argues that “solution-driven design” generally reaches for answers before questions have being posed. In that occasions problems are presumed but not investigated enough.

Gaver et al. [8] propose that there is not a single correct way to interpret a computer system. This is based not only on the aforementioned hydra environment of such an interaction but also on the subjective interpretative lens of the the HCI researchers. To make things more complicated this subjective interpretation of data is based on the accordingly subjective input that interactors may offer directly and verbally or in other possible forms, to the researcher. As Sengers and Gaver [9] cite, ambiguity is a characteristic of human computer interactions. According to Edmonds [4] there is not a single cookbook of recipes for interaction. Neither for its analysis nor for its enhancement, I might add.

This “narrowing the gap” that HCI sets as one of its motor themes, can be seeked in different applications and may support different pursued aims. Put simply, HCI can serve both the market -as more easy-to-use products may have higher marketability and lead to bigger market shares for a company- and the humans-customers themselves. HCI can work in favor of both corporations and consumers -if their balanced coexistence is anyway plausible. Let’s not forget that in Sal’s ideal world of Weiser’s Ubicomp vision, computers do not fade away physically but only technically. Brands are staying in place.  

If humans are in the very center of HCI and HCI does not stick just to the ease of use of a widget but examines and takes into account less obvious implications of human computer interactions other values should equip its arsenal. In that case HCI should broaden its focus on issues around democracy, ownership, different cultures and their values, power relations embedded in technology etc. Those values refer to both the process of researching a technology and the process of designing one.

Tangible interfaces (TI) as a form of designing and supporting human-computer interactions are incorporated in HCI research agenda.TI seek to humanise computer design affordances, enrich and transform computer-based activities and create a smooth passage from the physical to the virtual world. According to Hornecker & Buur [10] TI tend to support collaboration and social interaction.

I would argue that TIs have the potential to take into account the aforementioned values and especially take into account the different cultures and its tangs, something not evident in the orthodox paradigm of computers where the use of mouse and keyboard is the universally applied scheme.


Digital Civics in a nutshell

“Digital Civics” when googled leads to different institutions that use the term. Among them is Newcastle University, Harvard University, Georgia Tech. Some papers on academic journals include the term as also few pop-science articles and a wikipedia entry.In a Digital Civics approach to HCI values of democracy; equality; the unremembered equity and social justice are inherent.

According to Vlachokyriakos et al. [11], the field of HCI has a long history of advocating for the role of technology in supporting public participation. They also argue that technology has the potential to reshape the relation between citizens and governments towards a more participatory scheme. On their Digital Civics: Taking a Local Turn, Olivier and Wright [12] refer to the limited people’s ability to exercise control over their own lives, to organize, and to help each other as the reason of Digital Civics existence as an HCI discipline. To them DC is an endeavor that uses digital technologies to truly empower citizens.


Digital Civics in today’s world

DC, Big Data, Ubicomp, desire paths and online platform affordances

It is out of question that computer-based activities have been changing the way we act, communicate, acquire information, drive, love, share thoughts, like things, engage with politics, play, consume, exercise, take revenge, build personas etc.

Alexander Endrullat, Unibody, 2015 


We might approach Weiser’s Ubicomp vision in which technology is an extension of humans; not a set of tools but an indistinguishable part of human life [13]. The Ubicomp paradigm goes hand by hand with Big Data. Nowadays we produce millions of information each day that tracking machines gather. Ownership and potential use of those data is a big debate and China’s credit system is not anymore science fiction. Social media are an indistinguishable and addictive -some would think- part of ourselves that nonetheless facilitate our everyday life in an unprecedented way. As social media users we produce tons of data over which we have no ownership. Those are stored centrally and along with its meta-data can be used by advertising companies to market more efficiently their products. Most social media are free to use but this comes at a cost. Someone could say that producing data that have a market value (as someone makes profit over them) is a form of labor. An unpaid one. And Monetization of data is one of the current debates.

It is more than clear that ICTs diffusion has irreversibly altered our life. The aforementioned pessimist-like narrative does not suggest digital eremity but tries to state that this desideratum empowerment through and over technology is important for the society’s future. And DC researchers as empowerers can play multiple roles. They can act as educators who advocate against ICTs wrongdoings and research the socio-technical dynamics of them, they can do real politics and influence the political agenda over the regulation of information giants, they can help those in need of technological innovation, they can boost citizens participation and create new forms of citizen engagement. 

If we could draw a parallel between offline public spaces and online public spaces -if social media and the Internet in general could be perceived as public- DC researchers could be likened to those activist architects that reveal the hostile architecture embedded in the high aesthetically designed online places.

Stéphane Argillet & Gilles Paté, the fakir’s rest, 2003


Adding on to this parallelism with the offline public space, DC researches could be seen as those that take into account public’s will, experimentation, appropriations and desires over ICTs. A form of those can be seen in the so called unsanctioned shortcuts or desire paths. According to Nichols [14] desire paths arise because in cases, formal structures do not meet individual or group needs.  When not devalued but harnessed can give useful human-centric, coming from the wild, information. In urban planning desire paths approach has been used in Finland, Virginia Tech and the University of California, Berkeley.

desire path example found online: https://imgur.com/JIXACph


In a more technological context the way people appropriate and ‘hack’ digital technologies could give useful information to DC researchers. A form of appropriation that I am personally in favor of,  is the ‘unplatforming’ that here implies the use of online platforms for purposes that those have not initially be designed for. This can be broadly found on facebook where for example different facebook groups facilitate genuine sharing economy schemes or other peer-to-peer transactions. In those, users may not have ownership over the platform but set themselves the rules of their communities and in a lot of cases invent ways so as to ‘hack’ the pre-set design affordances of a platform for their own good. In those peer-to-peer relational models there do not exist official intermediates that can be found in the rentering-like P2P platforms (e.g. Airbnb, blablacar, uber). Researching ‘unplatforming’ could prevent the creation of multiple bespoke applications and platforms from HCI and DC researchers and on the same time inspire researchers on supporting users’ desire paths or help them find their peer-to-peer ways of acting while using already existing platforms they are used to; or simply like to use.


DC as a form of activism

If also activists, DC researchers can empower citizens by advocating against the non-neutrality that characterises technology and inform publics around the design attributes of technological apparatuses that can latently impose values and/or behaviors. This could be seen as one main priority in DC.

NOT-EQUAL for example is a DC inspired cross-field network and platform that aims to create the conditions for digital technology to support social justice and a fairer future for all in and through the digital economy.

I argue though that such and similar projects that shed light on the well hidden attributes of technology ask for more prominence and a more ‘situationist’-like approach. At least in their dispersion around the UK – in which CCTV is almost a cultural value that sits next to beer-drinking and cheddar.

Taking a turn in the very inner environment of DC “factory” I have this impression (an impression cannot be rigorous at all) that what happens in Open Lab Newcastle stays in Open Lab. To make my point clear, I did not came across a statement of Open Lab’s agenda or a project of this Lab being even depicted on USB’s TVs that are placed in its atrium. (I refer to the period of time from mid Sept 2018 to mid Dec 2018)

In a more radical approach, how would it be if a DC researcher (or more) “short-circuited” or tried to boycott a talk of Facebook or Google recruiters that give a presentation in the Newcastle University or somewhere around the UK? Would this have any effect or is it just old-May 68’-fashioned? Should a DC researcher take those kind of risks in a UK context? This nostalgic approach of turning against our own kind might seem revolutionary to a DC fresher of my kind and could also fit to the ‘turn in the wild’ choice that DC try to embrace.


DC in the wild

‘Turning in the wild’ can of course take less wild forms. In the HCI academic nexus, wild implies research activity out of the sterilised lab environment. According to Argyris et al. [15] HCI is an action science. To Carroll and Beth [16] local community life (the wild) presents a rich context for understanding challenges and possibilities of information technology. To them HCI enterprise as a matter of continuing proactive and reactive change management, not merely one of understanding and designing tout court.

This practice can create schemes in which designers work along with communities and co-create technological artifacts (software or hardware) or facilitate processes that need the use of them. Lots of DC projects have this form. Some could argue that such ad hoc projects have low visibility and influence only and temporarily small societal groups. Scaling-up and replicability is important in social innovation, but I suggest that scaling-up should not be seen as panacea of success under which everything should be judged.

My personal take is that small bits that support humans’ sovereignty over ICTs or even only over few aspects of them should not be degraded at all. Influencing the masses is a pop-culture’s task and should not be the seen as the success criteria of DC. DC instead could focus on subcultures/anti-cultures that embrace decentralization, horizontality, digital democracy and inclusion in their values. When working with them DC researchers can participate in dialectic schemes where they can offer their expertise to support those subcultures and also harness their good practises and try to adapt them in other cases that might fit.


Creative parking methods in Amsterdam, 1997 


DC and the relational state

Rick Muir & Imogen Parker [17] in their report ‘Many to Many-HOW THE RELATIONAL STATE WILL TRANSFORM PUBLIC SERVICES’, in which they state the need to reform public services around UK, present the relational state as a form in which the government is more an enabler than a manager. In this relational form a diverse range of actors and institutions take the lead. This movement from a transactional to a relational state is of high priority in DC practice over Newcastle and the UK. Bits of this approach are to be found in the NHS service provision and other type of civic services.

Co-creation that is embraced in the relational approach sounds in line with citizens participation schemes and social inclusion values. Someone would argue though that asking from the citizens to participate and giving to this participation grave names, its latently a form of outsourcing labor to communities. Communities that suddenly are “given a voice” when public budget cuttings occur and have to offer their unpaid labor to deal with cases of abandonment.

Of course this reformative approach to the design and maintenance of civic services is valuable. Another aspect I would think of as valuable that fits in DC agenda is the ownership over systems and practises. In the aforementioned relational state citizens give their insights and participate in co-creating forms but they do not have any legal ownership over those systems. Having said that, DC researchers could also explore and learn from more radical reactions to abandonment in which societal groups self-organize and create anti-cultures away from the state, the markets, the NGOs. In those, relational refers to the relationships in between the members of a community and not in between the community and the statutory institutions. Examples of this way of dealing with abandonment can be found in autonomous public spaces, autonomous clinics, autonomous factories, cooperative platforms, ‘unplatforming’ sharing economy schemes, research institutes, art collectives and of course the squatting movement in general. The authors of Torre David: Informal Vertical Communities [18] that researched over a period of year the architectural and social structures of the squatted 40 or so floors skyscraper of downtown Venezuela see in informal settlements a potential for innovation and experimentation, with the goal of putting design in service to a more equitable and sustainable future.



A short RT documentary for the squatted Tower of David



Digital Civics is a fresh notion. As so, there is not one single definition that someone should look for. More and more disciplines chip in, technology is under constant change, politics are evolving.  As an interdisciplinary discipline of HCI (and why only HCI?) DC is under constant formation.

In its constant design-ing, a fresher’s DC -only having spent 3 months in the DC ‘camp’- view and reflection on the ‘headlined’ DC agenda, hopefully lies in the iterative and user-centric approach to design that DC speak out for.  DC strive for equality. That is obvious. DC also should not forget about the importance of equity that in a Marxist approach respects individual needs and capacities. Equity does not create polarisation schemes that most probably appear when equality is used or implied, but takes into account different cultures, different personalities in different cultures, different genders and so on.  

This holistic approach around the human of HCI can also be implemented in the computer of HCI field. Computers are machines that interact with humans in a complex system where also other machines and humans exist and directly or not influence the form of the microscoped interaction. DC interdisciplinarity offers the plausibility of zooming-out and having a broad view on human-machine interactions. To make my point clear, a tablet computer in a car is a computer. But this computer interacts with other computers that get satellite data, and other computers that provide the driver with live information around the performance of the car. The car itself is a computer, made in factories of computerised machines. But also a car moves next to other cars. And more cars ask for more roads, and more roads bring new districts, new businesses, new petrol stations, new malls; urban sprawl. Malls where you can pay to update a car’s tablet software or you can buy a new screen if broken, or where you can even buy a new car. DC could offer the space in a case like the above mentioned to research a human’s interaction with a computer -in this case a car’s tablet- having in mind and exploring multiple actors and factors, some of which I tried to depict.

This daisy chain could also bring up and enrich DC research around the known as ‘materiality of the immaterial’. As Roos A. et al comment [19] ICTs are inherently material, as opposed to purely cognitive or code based. In that sense I would propose that ICTs have a foreshortened back-end that can be traced in different levels. From the extraction of the cobalt to the working conditions in amazon’s warehouses.

Vasilis Kostakis, The materiality of the Immaterial,  2018


Ideally if any kind of paradigm shift is pursed from DC, pleasure and ‘playing’ should be seriously taken into account. As personally intrigued by the buzzworld ‘gamification’ in HCI that everyone loves, I would argue for a re-examination of its embedded values. My short experience being out and about HCI and DC showed off gamification’s use and application so as to mainly raise productivity. Put simply ‘ Make work seem less like work’. As not accepting the quote ‘Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life’ (it has been attributed from some to Confucius) I maybe childishly note that you either work or play.

And playing would call google maps not to only give us the fastest way but also the calmest one, the greenest one or the dirtiest one, the sunniest one etc.



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[2] Wright, P. (2011). Reconsidering the H , the C , and the I. Interactions, 18(5), 28. https://doi.org/10.1145/2008176.2008185 [Accessed 20 December 2018].

[3] Mauchly, J. W. (1973). “Preparation of problems for EDVAC-type machines,” in Randell, B., ed., The Origins of Digital Computers: Selected Papers. (pp. 365–369). Berlin: Springer-Verlag, pp. 365– 369. 6.

[4] E. Edmonds, The Art of Interaction: What HCI Can Learn from Interactive Art. Morgan & Claypool Publishers, 2018.

[5] “ACM SIGCHI Curricula for Human-Computer Interaction : 2. Definition and Overview of Human-Computer Interaction”, Old.sigchi.org. [Online]. Available: http://old.sigchi.org/cdg/cdg2.html#2_1. [Accessed: 20- Dec- 2018].

[6] Blythe, Mark, Andersen, Kristina, Clarke, Rachel and Wright, Peter (2016) Anti-Solutionist Strategies: Seriously Silly Design Fiction. In: CHI 2016 – Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 7th – 12th May 2016, San Jose, CA.

[7] M. Dobbins, Urban design and people. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2013.

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[9] P. Sengers and B. Gaver, “Staying open to interpretation”, Proceedings of the 6th ACM conference on Designing Interactive systems – DIS ’06, 2006. Available: 10.1145/1142405.1142422 [Accessed 20 December 2018].

[10] E. Hornecker and J. Buur, “Getting a grip on tangible interaction”, Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human Factors in computing systems – CHI ’06, 2006. Available: 10.1145/1124772.1124838 [Accessed 20 December 2018].

[11] V. Vlachokyriakos, C. Crivellaro, C. Le Dantec, E. Gordon, P. Wright and P. Olivier, “Digital Civics”, Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems – CHI EA ’16, 2016. Available: 10.1145/2851581.2886436 [Accessed 20 December 2018].

[12] P. Olivier and P. Wright, “Digital civics”, interactions, vol. 22, no. 4, pp. 61-63, 2015. Available: 10.1145/2776885 [Accessed 20 December 2018].

[13] M. Weiser, “The Computer for the 21st Century”, Scientific American, vol. 265, no. 3, pp. 94-104, 1991. Available: 10.1038/scientificamerican0991-94 [Accessed 20 December 2018].

[14] L. Nichols, “Social Desire Paths”, Social Currents, vol. 1, no. 2, pp. 166-172, 2014. Available: 10.1177/2329496514524926.

[15] C. Argyris, R. Putnam and D. Smith, Action science. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990.

[16] J. Carroll and M. Rosson, “Wild at Home”, ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction, vol. 20, no. 3, pp. 1-28, 2013. Available: 10.1145/2491500.2491504 [Accessed 20 December 2018].

[17] R. Muir and I. Parker, “MANY TO MANY HOW THE RELATIONAL STATE WILL TRANSFORM PUBLIC SERVICES”, Institute for Public Policy Research, 2014.

[18] A. Brillembourg and K. Feireiss, Torre David: Informal Vertical Communities. Berlin: Aedes, 2013.

[19] A. Roos, V. Kostakis, and C. Giotitsas, “Download The Entire Special Section Here,” tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique. Open Access Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society, vol. 14, no. 1, 2016.

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