One reflection of my time at CHI this year is the luxury that academics have on thinking deeply about a particular domain. In the startup/Web 2.0/corporate world, there’s a certain hummingbird like intensity in which people flit from topic to topic and apply only the lightest and most shallow analysis on everything they touch. There’s always more work to be done and new things that need to be grokked and so many of the people I meet are jack of all trades but master of none. Academics, by contrast, are expected to know one domain of knowledge well and, while it can lead them to becoming comically out of touch with how technology is being deployed and used in the real world, also gives them a perspective and history which is interesting to engage with.
The cause of this is understandable, thinking deeply is a luxury and often somewhat of a guilty pleasure. There’s always something pressing to be done or yet another domain that needs to be mastered. Yes, there’s a lot of criticism that academia becomes an ivory tower but I think there’s value in deliberately cultivating an environment in which you’re forced to think deeply.
However, one persistant criticism I have about academia is it’s failure to engage with the larger discourse that’s happening on the web. My first example of this was actually after my first CHI in 2006 in Montreal. At CHI, a young graduate student called Anand Agrawala presented a neat little system called BumpTop (it launched as a commercial product almost exactly 3 years later while I was at CHI 2009). After the conference, Anand put the BumpTop video online and it quickly became the #1 viewed video on youtube. Working in the field of tabletops at that time, I had some understanding of that space but, being a first year graduate student, I didn’t feel like I could adequately comment on it. But after looking at reams of commentary about the system from a variety of different sources, what I continually failed to see was the insightful and grounded critique I was used to seeing in Academia. Everyone commenting on it approached it from a complete vacuum, ignoring the important work that had gone before it and the hard won lessons of the field.
From that point, I’ve seen, time after time, interesting HCI systems make a larger splash within the general public but no voices of informed critique there to educate and contextualise the news. Part of the reason I made a commitment to blog about CHI this year was to help provide people access to this world of deep thinking that exists within the academic community and to make industry people aware of this immense, untapped resource. I don’t know what the solution to this bridge is or even if there is a solution. I’m certainly not the first or the last to bemoan the gulf between these two worlds. But I think, because this gulf exists, anyone willing to take advantage of it can often profit hugely.