Sunday, February 19, 2012

Human-Social Interaction

A visit to the US, as the one I am enjoying now, is always good for many things: intellectual challenges, ease of daily life, catching up with how the US version of English evolves. On the latter aspect, I keep being impressed by how an expression can be redefined to mean something new, often something completely different or even opposite of what it used to mean (and still does in other parts of the world). A well-known example is Starbucks calling its smallest coffee size "tall". There are of course many reasons for this tendency, ranging from marketing through politics to a puritan fear of calling a spade a spade.

Last week, I was struck by another case of newspeak that surely has a marketing reason, but also seems to indicate a growing disconnect of technologists from physical reality. An achieved computer scientist gave a talk and started with several slides pointing to his various books. One of these books has "human-computer interaction" in its subtitle. The author said he had been seriously considering to change this to "human-social interaction" in the most recent edition.

This struck me as odd. Somebody famous for influencing user interface design, including user interfaces of social networks, thinks that what is happening at these interfaces should be called human-social interaction. My take on social networks is that they are indeed changing human-social interaction and I love many aspects of them (while not caring much for others). But interaction with friends and colleagues, to me, is still a much broader concept than what can happen in 140 characters on twitter or postings on Facebook. Call me old fashioned, but for me, the interaction between a human being and his or her social circles needs to be primarily physical, at least at some points, to be and remain meaningful. To claim that a book on HCI is about HSI seems, in other words (but not those of Starbucks!), like a "tall" order.

Maybe the author does actually live up to this understanding of human-social interaction. After the talk and the question period, he started talking to somebody from the audience, only to turn his attention to typing on his computer (and stopping to listen) after the first two sentences had been spoken ...