HCI & Digital Civics



Human Computer Interaction (HCI) is by its interdisciplinary nature at the intersection between different academic fields, as such it finds itself in a position where its legitimacy can be questioned. We can ask whether the role of HCI is that of a discipline- to build and sustain a body of knowledge – or is HCI ‘actually best suited to occupying a catalytic role between disciplines?’[1]


‘Having emerged only in the past 40 years, HCI doesn’t have the millennia-long histories’[2]that some other disciplines have. ‘The field itself has no significant histories beyond a generally shared sense that HCI has had three paradigms or waves.’[2] HCI brings together the arts & humanities with the sciences and walks a line between them finding itself in a position where those within the field come from many different backgrounds, they bring with the knowledge and tools that hold true within their parent fields. The relative youth of the field provides an opportunity for a level of academic freedom without some of the constraints a long established history places on academic in some other fields.


In the current world where the computers and information systems play such a central role in human society, HCI can provide a means to accelerate understanding in a range of different disciplines. HCI brings together people with differing expertise and outlooks.

By co-operating to make sense of what is happening before our eyes and envisioning the possibilities that lie before us HCI finds itself positioned in a place where the work in this field can have impact across society and truly change the way things are done across disciplines.


If we take HCI to hold this catalytic role between disciplines the argument HCI has a lack of  ‘mainstream themes, overarching or competing theories, and accumulated knowledge’[3] can be seen as a strength. Arguable this absence of a disciplinary core allows the inter-discipline to centre itself on this lack of a core, strengthening its position in between its parent disciplines.


‘HCI might be defined, not as a subject in itself, but in relation to other disciplines.’[4] It could be seen as the interface between disciplines where computer are at the core and disciplines where humans are at the core. HCI labs across the world bring together academics and researchers from many different fields. The nature of HCI encourages the interactions and build the communities that can facilitate significant advances across disciplines.


There are those within the field of HCI who hold very different positions in terms of how they understand and articulate where HCI falls and where HCI should aim to be. The question of whether HCI can be considers a scientific discipline is one that has no simple answers. Kostakos argues that ‘unlike other disciplines that objectively and clearly describe their findings in scientific terms, our discipline[HCI] has simply gone overboard and turned research into a prose competition.’[3] He is optimistic as to the future of HCI as he see initiatives that see HCI being ‘more scientific in the sense of repeating studies, incremental research, and reusable findings.’[3]


This goal of shifting HCI further in to the scientific realm is one that might be seen as at odds with some others in the field. Bardzell and Bardzell who argue from a ‘humanistic HCI’ position. The difference between the humanities and science is the emphasis that sciences places on ‘the expansion of existing knowledge through the discovery of new facts.’[5] The humanities however ‘are primarily committed to the improvement of thinking.’[4] These knowledge goals are not mutually exclusive, they overlap yet the emphasis is different. The Bardzells argue that HCI research falling within humanistic HCI does not aim to fulfil the scientific measure of objectivity instead it ‘embraces the humanist stance of expert subjectivity.’[4]


For Reeves the term science itself is problematic ‘science is a linguistic chimera,’[1] it is a term that serves a political purpose. A term that is used for political purposes, to legitimise and prove worth over other fields that have a perception as less scientific. The term ‘‘science’ may have importance for communicating how HCI fits within research funding structures.’[5] An argument to made is that the label of science is used ‘in place of appropriate, relevant assessments of the rigor of research work.’[1]

In the natural sciences rigor is achieved through replicability and the generalizability of the research conducted. Given HCIs position between disciplines, this standard cannot be applied. Instead within the field, rigor is achieved through the application of standards of rigor that are ‘commensurate with the specific intellectual origins of the work.’[5]


As I progress on my academic career and find my place in this field, my position is open to change but at this time the humanistic HCI position appear to fit closest to my own positions. The Bardzells articulate the four features of humanistic thinking as: history and tradition, conceptual analysis, interpretation analysis and social action.[2]


I look back at my union experience and the most import thing that I gained from it was a sense of historical perspective. I have an appreciation of the wide rich history of resistance that came before. The sense of duty and responsibility this perspective gives is something I draw strength from – the power to look back to history allows us ‘enliven our sensitivities to similar patterns in the present and to the nature of social change.’ [2] This outlook gives me purpose it allows me to feel part of something bigger and allows me to place my small action in to a wider picture that further humanity.



Digital Civics (DC) exists to challenge transactional services provision. DC brings together education, local democracy, public health and social care with computer science. DC seeks to work with communities to challenge the individualism that neoliberalism and the late stage capitalism that is a feature of the current world.


Neoliberalism sees wide sections of society toiling to turn the treadmill of profit for venture capital. In the last decade the world has seen great change, the crash and the long decade of austerity that has followed has seen the society reconfigured with a new underclass of working poor deprived of the basic protections that were fought hard for by those who came before us.  In this world where the system seeks to make us feel alone and seek out competition to further ourselves at the detriment of other DC seeks to instil solidarity and togetherness. DC seeks to foster community and bring people together and see themselves not as individuals fighting to survive in a system of competition but as part of a community fighting to further humanity.


Research provides a unique opportunity to free innovation from the poison of producing profit. We live in a world where even structures designed to support innovation for people supported by state funds perpetuate the profit seeking market driven thinking venture capitalists embody. The rise of ‘accelerators’ and ‘incubators’ sees public funds invested in a models that mirrors the venture capital model.


For me the moment the depth of the extent of this market thinking made itself most apparent in early 2018 when I attended a hackathon centred based around ‘Worker Tech’, with stated aims at creating technological solutions that help create a fairer world of work.


Of all the projects undertaken during the hackathon, one stands strong in my memory- a group created a tool that allowed workers to upload their payslips, these payslips were analysed and the user was informed of their entitlements to social security and support.  The group created the product and decided – with direction from the hackathon organisers -that they would white label the system and sell it to a large trade union. For me this decision to monetise such a system reduces the greater good to nothing more than a moneymaking scheme for those involved. Rather than empowering workers to create a fairer world of work the model chosen to move this project forward set wheels in motion that strengthen union bureaucracy not workers themselves. This simply added a service that was under the control of union bureaucrats. This saw what in my mind should be a community resources put in a place where access would be at the whim of union officials seeking to further their own positions.


DC research provides an opportunity to challenge this way of doing things, by embedding research in communities and working with communities to coproduce mechanisms that allow them to express power we are able to challenge the status quo and build structures that see communities in the driving seat. To a place where communities themselves are able to exercise power themselves- not through the shallow transactional model using the same structure that have shown themselves to be ineffective in the world of today but through the building of solidarity strength and the community at the core of society.




The father of the field of Ubiquitous Computing Mark Weiser is known best for his work ‘The computer for the 21st century’[6]- a work that to this day is the seminal piece of work in Ubiquitous computing. However, for me the biggest lesson to learn from Weiser comes from the end of his life. ‘In 1999, Weiser was diagnosed with cancer and given 18 months to live; he died after six weeks.’[7] With his last moments on this earth Weiser attempted to write a book seeking to clarify misunderstanding about his vision. This final book was never finished but a quote from an obituary from the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences, University of California, Berkeley gives insight in to the final reflection of someone who was- and is still- so influential in the field of ubiquitous computing. Weiser is quoted as saying: ‘they’ve completely missed the nontechnical part of what ubiquitous computing is all about.’[7]


We live in a world where technologies ‘weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.’[6] For the person taking an Uber home at the end of the night, or the person getting Deliveroo for the lunch these systems produce an infrastructure that – in theory at least – seamlessly takes them home at the end of the night or brings them their food.


These systems are enable by  the ‘computational devices of different sizes, connected to each other and to the physical world’[8] that are very much part of our reality. The truth is that these systems are ‘deployed and operated in a fragmented world’[9] Where any attempt a seamlessness is an illusion, a mirage that reveals itself the closer you look.


We see today the effects of ignoring the fact that the non-technical part of ubiquitous computing involves human beings living their lives. All over the country people are going to work, they are not walking through the doors of offices, shops or factories but are logging on, going online in the hope that they will be sent enough of the work they rely upon to feed their family and keep a roof over their heads.


The question of whether the people who work in the new world of work  enabled by technology – are running their own businesses that use a technological infrastructure or whether they are in work that has the same protections as other forms of work is one that is still to be answered. We find ourselves at the point in history where our legal system will attempt to provide an answer, regardless of the answer presented DC research could allow for opportunities to explore ways to organise and help ensure that those operating these systems to understand that those working for them have a voice that must be listened to.




An initial judgement by an employment tribunal decided that ‘Uber runs a transportation business’[10] in 2016 this was appealed by Uber, a hearing was held on 30 Oct 2018 and a judgment still to be released. Regardless of the outcome this is most likely to be challenged again with no firm outcome until all possible challenges have been exhausted with a final judgment being made- this could be quite some time. The period between the initial judgment and appeal saw the lead claimants and the body representing private hire drivers voting to become a branch of the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) trade union.


The IWGB – at the same time sought to peruse an alternative route to force the legal systems to make sense of the new world of work. This case saw the IWGB going via the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC) in an attempt at gaining collective bargaining for Deliveroo workers in Camden. This request was refused in November 2017, the IWGB requested a judicial review of this decision. On December the 5th 2018 the High Court dismissed the judicial review, the IWGB will be appealing this decision.


Both these routes seek to prove that these people are not independent contractors running their own business but workers integrated in to Deliveroo and Ubers’ business. If the court agree that worker status accurately represent the reality of their working conditions they will see the employment rights associated with such status come to fruition. Workers have: entitlement to minimum wage, entitlement to holiday pay, entitlement to a pension, the right to be protected from discrimination, the right to protection from unlawful wage deductions as well as a number of other employment rights. If successful these companies will need to rebalance the way business risk is passed on the individual worker and provide those working for them with a basic level of protection most people take as a given.


In the fast moving world of technology, the slow moving world of the judiciary has been unable to keep pace. Until society makes sense of the new world of work those many thousands of people working in way see themselves caught between the doublespeak of platform/employer. Those who work in the new world of work see the power imbalances these ‘technologies both exploit and reproduce’[9]. Their lives stand testament to the true messiness that lies behind the thin veneer of seamlessness these infrastructures aim to project. This is an illusion, like a swan on the water -from the shore we see it gliding gracefully- whilst below the surface the real work happens.




Whereas the couriers of Deliveroo and the drivers of Uber have some level of visibility in the physical world around us the, those who work selling their human computation for services such as Amazon Mechanical Turk (AMT) remain hidden to most.


The basic philosophy of microtasking and AMT is to delegate tasks that are difficult for computers to do to a human workforce.’[11] AMT takes the human capabilities to complete computation and allows business to incorporate this into their workflows, ‘by hiding workers behind web forms and APIs.’[12] There workers under take micro tasks that see them completing work ‘such as language, visual processing and reasoning.’[13]


Amazon-through AMT- sells access to this human computation. Like the Deliveroo couriers and Uber drivers with more visibility they are paid a piece rate per unit of work, yet the relationship they have with those who a pay them sees an even greater imbalance.

Those setting tasks having the ability to choose whether or not to pay the Turker for the task. ‘This discretion allows employers to reject work that does not meet their needs, but also enables wage theft.’[12] Even if the employer goes on to use this work the worker is unable to effectively challenge this. These workers see themselves falling through the cracks of society – hidden from sight while business profits by treating these people like machines.

The work completed on AMT falls within the ‘paradigm of computation, and as such might someday be solvable by computers.’[13] The threat of automation taking their jobs is something that creeps closer by the day.




When it comes to the threat of automation a documentary broadcast in 1969 on the building of London’s Victoria line shows us the changes that have taken place over half a century. In the 27th minute of the documentary the narrator in this documentary tell us that ‘coasting accelerating and stopping the train looks after itself. In fact the drivers could have been dispensed with but it was thought the public would be unhappy without the sight of an official with manual over control on board.’ Although this account overlooks the power of the unions during this period-and the limits of 1960s technology – it provides an insight in to how societal changes have seen the replacement of human being with machines becoming commonplace


When we look at the rail network it is arguably one of the few places where unions can still exercise power and we see the results of attempts at further automation and the fear this causes. The rail unions are today engaged in a battle to prevent the removal of responsibility from train guards that could eventually lead to their removal from trains. The reality is that today -across most sectors- the power of the unions has vastly diminished, while the level of automation continues to grow and the increases in computational power has led to the world we see around us.


Today we see automation as part of our everyday lives. The public are accepting of a level of automation that society has not seen before. People are able scan and pay for our shopping with little to no human interaction. Amazon has opened stores where checkouts themselves are obsolete.As this automation spreads what does this mean for 2.8 million[14] employed in the retail sector? Delivery company JustEat has completed deliveries using robots, Uber continue to do what they came to replace their drivers with autonomous vehicles and the UK government has approved trials using technology that sees heavy goods vehicles being driven wirelessly on British roads. What does all this automation been for the ~1.8million working in the transport and storage industry?


We live in time that see technology disrupting the very fabric of our society, the problem solving aspects of technology are clear to see. What remains obscured is how we a society make sense of these changes. As time passes this disruptive factor will become more and more pronounced. HCI and DC research allows us explore the sense making aspects of these changes and give us an opportunity to realise a world that takes the current system of exploitation and turns it on its head. By aligning our research with people and organisations who fight against injustice and inequality we can play a part in rebalancing power in to the hands of those who feel it the least.



[1]        S. Reeves, ‘Locating the “big hole” in HCI research’, interactions, vol. 22, no. 4, pp. 53–56, Jun. 2015.

[2]        J. Bardzell and S. Bardzell, ‘Cover story: Humanistic HCI’, interactions, vol. 23, no. 2, pp. 20–29, Feb. 2016.

[3]        V. Kostakos, ‘The big hole in HCI research’, interactions, vol. 22, no. 2, pp. 48–51, Feb. 2015.

[4]        J. Bardzell and S. Bardzell, ‘Humanistic HCI’, Synth. Lect. Hum.-Centered Inform., vol. 8, no. 4, pp. 1–185, Sep. 2015.

[5]        S. Reeves, ‘Human-computer interaction as science’, Aarhus Ser. Hum. Centered Comput., vol. 1, no. 1, p. 12, Oct. 2015.

[6]        M. Weiser, ‘The computer for the 21 st century’, ACM SIGMOBILE Mob. Comput. Commun. Rev., vol. 3, no. 3, pp. 3–11, Jul. 1999.

[7]        A. Galloway, ‘Intimations of everyday life: Ubiquitous computing and the city’, Cult. Stud., vol. 18, no. 2–3, pp. 384–408, Jan. 2004.

[8]        G. D. Abowd, ‘What next, ubicomp?: celebrating an intellectual disappearing act’, in Proceedings of the 2012 ACM Conference on Ubiquitous Computing – UbiComp ’12, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 2012, p. 31.

[9]        G. Bell and P. Dourish, ‘Yesterday’s tomorrows: notes on ubiquitous computing’s dominant vision’, Pers. Ubiquitous Comput., vol. 11, no. 2, pp. 133–143, Jan. 2007.

[10]      Aslam, Fararr & others and Uber B.V., Uber London Ltd & Uber Britannia Ltd. 2016.

[11]      David Martin, Benjamin V. Hanrahan, Jacki O’Neill, and Neha Gupta, ‘Being a Turker’, p. 12, 2014.

[12]      L. C. Irani and M. S. Silberman, ‘Turkopticon: interrupting worker invisibility in amazon mechanical turk’, in Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems – CHI ’13, Paris, France, 2013, p. 611.

[13]      A. J. Quinn and B. B. Bederson, ‘Human computation: a survey and taxonomy of a growing field’, in Proceedings of the 2011 annual conference on Human factors in computing systems – CHI ’11, Vancouver, BC, Canada, 2011, p. 1403.

[14]      C. Rhodes, ‘Retail sector in the UK’, p. 15.


Author: Mohaan Biswas

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