Where The Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction

Paul Dourish
MIT Press
October 2001

Buy copy from Amazon.com

Where the Action Is is a book by Paul Dourish slated for publication by MIT Press in October 2001. It's topic is "embodied interaction", a novel approach to the design of user interfaces and our interactive experience of computation.

The idea of Embodied Interaction reflects a number of recent trends that have emerged in the area of Human-Computer Interaction. For instance, "tangible computing" (as conducted, for example, by Hiroshi Ishii and colleagues at the MIT Media Lab), is an area of HCI research where people are exploring how we can move the interface "off the screen" and into the real world. In this model, we can interact with physical objects which have become augmented with computational abilities. This lets designers offer new sorts of metaphors, or take advantage of our physical skills (like being able to use two hands, or to rearrange space to suit our needs), or even to directly observe and respond to our physical activities in the world (perhaps by knowing where we are and who we're with, and responding appropriately). A second trend is what I call "social computing," which is the attempt to incorporate sociological understandings into interface design. This approach to HCI design recognises that the systems we use are embedded in systems of social meaning, fluid and negotiated between us and the other people around us. By incorporating understandings of how social practice emerges, we can build systems that fit more easily into the ways in which we work.

These two areas of research -- tangible and social computing -- have been conducted largely as independent research programs. However, I believe that they have a common foundation, and that that foundation is the notion of "embodiment." By embodiment, I don't mean simply physical reality, but rather, the way that physical and social phenomena unfold in real time and real space as a part of the world in which we are situated, right alongside and around us.

The reason that the idea of embodiment is an important one is that it isn't new. In fact, "embodiment" is at the centre of phenomenology, an important strain of philosophical thought beginning at the end of the nineteenth century. Phenomenology rejects the Cartesian separation between mind and body on which most traditional philosophical approaches are based. The idea of disembodied rationality, phenomenologists argue, arises because we think about cognition only in those immediately apparent problem cases where some problem appears in the world that needs to be solved. This ignores 99% of our daily lives, the mundane everyday existence in which we simply go our about business. In place of the Cartesian model, phenomenology explores our experiences as embodied actors interacting in the world, participating in it and acting through it, in the absorbed and unreflective manner of normal experience.

Since the phenomenological tradition has taken the idea of embodiment as a central one, it seems like a good place to turn for help in developing an understanding of the role that embodiment can play in interactive systems. Drawing from the writings of a number of phenomenologists, and especially from Heidegger, Schutz and Wittgenstein, Where the Action Is develops an understanding of embodied interaction organised in terms of the creation, manipulation and communication of meaning, and the establishment and maintenance of practice. Rather than embedding fixed notions of meaning within technologies, embodied interaction is based on the understanding that users create and communicate meaning through their interaction with the system (and with each other, through the system).

On the basis of this understanding, we can set out a range of design principles that are reflected by systems exploiting embodied interaction. This principles not only reflect important issues for design practice, but they also provide a framework for analysing embodied interaction in existing systems.

More Information

If you're looking for more information, here's what's currently available:

  • An essay built around this material, written for a forthcoming special issue of Human-Computer Interaction on the topic of "Context-Aware Computing". [PDF]
  • A longer article about the embodied interaction. This was written in late 1999, and is fairly out-of-date relative to the material in the book, but I haven't gotten around to updating it. [PDF]
  • The slides of a talk I presented at the MIT Media Lab and at the Swedish Institute for Computer Science in April 2000 in either Powerpoint or HTML.

What They're Saying...

"A revolution in design and the role of computer science is upon us: "Where the Action Is" describes the way. In the old days, the focus was upon the technology and "computing," hence the interest is the interface between humans and machines -- us versus them. Not anymore. As Dourish so cogently explains, design should not be about tasks and their requirements, or applications, or computing -- design is really about interaction, with a focus on ubiquity, tangibility, and most of all, shared awareness, intimacy, and emotions. This is a revolution badly needed: It's about time."
--Donald A. Norman, Nielsen Norman Group, author of The Invisible Computer

"Human-computer interaction meets philosophical treatments of embodiment. The result: a foundational study of living and acting in a wired world. And a rare achievement too: a readable and engaging book which manages to be both sensible and groundbreaking at the same time."
--Andy Clark, Professor of Philosophy and Cognitive Science, University of Sussex, UK

"Where the Action Is provides intellectual foundations for the emerging movement that makes people, and not machines, central to the process of design. With a clarity and thoughtfulness that make hard ideas easy, Paul Dourish's book will only increase in importance as the social nature of computing becomes evident to a new generation of technologists."
--Phil Agre, Department of Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles

"This is the first book to provide a broad view of how our interaction with computers is intertwined with our physical world. Dourish gives a wealth of examples of innovations in computer technologies, along with a deep grounding in the philosophical, psychological, and sociological issues and theories. The book is unique in combining great breadth of intellectual underpinnings with a clear explanation that elucidates the relationships between the fields without falling prey to the jargon of either. Everyone interested in seeing where computer interaction is leading us in the coming century will benefit from the wide view and clear perspective that Dourish presents."
--Terry Winograd, Professor of Computer Science, Stanford University

"In this beautifully written book, Paul Dourish synthesizes conceptual resources drawn from across the humanities, social and computing sciences, in a way that is generative for our thinking about human/artifact relations. He surveys an intellectual terrain that provides both theoretical and practical support for new forms of engagement across the disciplines, and with the objects of creative technical practice. This book will be a resource not only for designers in human-computer interaction and computer-supported cooperative work but also for scholars of science and technology interested in understanding those worlds from a deeply insightful, reflective practitioner's point of view."
--Lucy Suchman, Professor, Centre for Science Studies, Lancaster University, UK