the ordinary and the normal

I am reading Michel de Certeau’s “The Practice of Everyday Life“.  The first chapter begins:

The Practice of Everyday Life (cover image)The erosion and denigration of the singular or the extraordinary was announced by The Man Without Qualities1: “…a heroism but enormous and collective, in the model of ants” And indeed the advent of the anthill society began with the masses, … The tide rose. Next it reached the managers … and finally it invaded the liberal professions that thought themselves protected against it, including even men of letters and artists.”

Now I have always hated the word ‘normal’, although loved the ‘ordinary’.  This sounds contradictory as they mean almost the same, but the words carry such different connotations. If you are not normal you are ‘subnormal’ or ‘abnormal’, either lacking in something or perverted.  To be normal is to be normalised, to be part of the crowd, to obey the norms, but to be distinctive or different is wrong.  Normal is fundamentally fascist.

In contrast the ordinary does not carry the same value judgement.  To be different from ordinary is to be extra-ordinary2, not sub-ordinary or ab-ordinary.  Ordinariness does not condemn otherness.

Certeau is studying the everyday.  The quote is ultimately about the apparently relentless rise of the normal over the ordinary, whereas Certeau revels in  the small ways ordinary people subvert norms and create places within the interstices of the normal.

The more I study the ordinary, the mundane, the quotidian, the more I discover how extraordinary is the everyday3. Both the ethnographer and the comedian are expert at making strange, taking up the things that are taken for granted and holding them for us to see, as if for the first time. Walk down an anodyne (normalised) shopping street, and then look up from the facsimile store fronts and suddenly cloned city centres become architecturally unique.  Then look through the crowd and amongst the myriad incidents and lives around, see one at a time, each different.

Sometimes it seems as if the world conspires to remove this individuality. The InfoLab21 building that houses the Computing Dept. at Lancaster was sort listed for a people-centric design award of ‘best corporate workspace‘.  Before the judging we had to remove any notices from doors or any other sign that the building was occupied, nothing individual, nothing ordinary, sanitised, normalised.

However, all is not lost.  I was really pleased the other day to see a paper  “Making Place for Clutter and Other Ideas of Home4. Laural, Alex and Richard are looking at the way people manage the clutter in their homes: keys in bowls to keep them safe, or bowls on a worktop ready to be used.  They are looking at the real lives of ordinary people, not the normalised homes of design magazines, where no half-drunk coffee cup graces the coffee table, nor the high-tech smart homes where misplaced papers will confuse the sensors.

Like Fariza’s work on designing for one person5, “Making a Place for Clutter” is focused on single case studies not broad surveys.  It is not that the data one gets from broader surveys and statistics is not important (I am a mathematician and a statistician!), but read without care the numbers can obscure the individual and devalue the unique.  I heard once that Stalin said, “a million dead in Siberia is a statistic, but one old woman killed crossing the road is a national disaster”. The problem is that he could not see that each of the million was one person too. “Aren’t two sparrows sold for only a penny? But your Father knows when any one of them falls to the ground.”6.

We are ordinary and we are special.

  1. The Man without Qualities, Robert Musil, 1930-42, originally: Der Mann ohne Eigenschafte. Picador Edition 1997, Trans.  Sophie Wilkins and  Burton Pike: Amazon | Wikipedia[back]
  2. Sometimes ‘extraordinary’ may be ‘better than’, but more often simply ‘different from’, literally the Latin ‘extra’ = ‘outside of’[back]
  3. as in my post about the dinosaur joke![back]
  4. Swan, L., Taylor, A. S., and Harper, R. 2008. Making place for clutter and other ideas of home. ACM Trans. Comput.-Hum. Interact. 15, 2 (Jul. 2008), 1-24. DOI=[back]
  5. Described in Fariza’s thesis: Single Person Study: Methodological Issues and in the notes of my SIGCHI Ireland Inaugural Lecture Human-Computer Interaction in the early 21st century: a stable discipline, a nascent science, and the growth of the long tail.[back]
  6. Matthew 10:29[back]

Dublin, Guiness and the future of HCI

I wrote the title of this post on 5th December just after I got back from Dublin.  I had been in Dublin for the SIGCHI Ireland Inaugural LectureHuman–Computer Interaction in the early 21st century: a stable discipline, a nascent science, and the growth of the long tail” and was going to write a bit about it (including my first flight on and off Tiree) … then thought I’d write a short synopsis of the talk … so parked this post until the synopsis was written.

One month and 8000 words later – the ‘synopsis’ sort of grew … but just finished and now it is on the web as either HTML version or PDF. Basically a sort of ‘state of the nation’ about the current state and challenges for HCI as a discipline …

And although it now fades a little I had great time in Dublin meeting, talking research, good company, good food … and yes … the odd pint of Guiness too.

island life – three weeks in

It was three weeks yesterday when we moved here to Tiree and slowly getting into the pace of island life.  Steve, our first visitor, left on Thursday, on the ‘big’ plane (about 30 seats).  Had a great time working with Steve on the Physicality book that we are writing as an outcome of the DEPtH project.  We managed the odd walk on the beach together, albeit rather windy, and Steve, brave soul, cycled several times from his hotel in Scarinish to our house, not far and flat all the way, but with a 30 knot wind in your face!

Otherwise have had our first fuel shortage when we needed petrol for the car and found there was none on the island for several days (incidentally the garage must have one of the best views in the country), had our first takeaway (fish and chip van 100 yards from the house … we are well positioned), lit our first fires (ah the smell of coal smoke reminds me of my childhood), registered at the doctors to get vaccinations ready for India (not in regimented 10 minute slots!), and of course lots of paddling in the sea … but think I might be developing my first every chilblains … well I know my own fault, but how can I resist when there is sea and foaming waves to dip my toes in.

It still feels like a holiday …  of course holiday for me tends to mean working with a nice view … so not sitting around the whole day watching the wind blow foam back in clouds from the breaking wave crests and the patterns of dark and light constantly shift with the moving clouds.  Getting lots done, for once clearing the to-do list faster than it grows (although it does still grow, some things don’t change), but for the first time for years free of that ever present feeling of heavy heavy weight on my shoulders.

… and on Monday I’ll be experiencing the flight to Glasgow myself as travelling to Dublin to give the SIGCHI Ireland inaugural lecture.  Managed to work out flights without needing a stay-over in Glasgow, but I have a feeling I will get to know the Holiday Inn Express at Glasgow airport quite well over the coming year.

Coast to coast: St Andrews to Tiree

A week ago I was in St Andrews on the east coast of Scotland delivering three lectures on “Human Computer Interaction: as it was, as it is and as it may be” as part of their distinguished lecture series and now I am in Tiree in the wild western ocean off the west coast.

I had a great time in St Andrews and was well looked after by some I knew already Ian, Gordan, John and Russell, and also met many new people. Ate good food and stayed in a lovely hotel overlooking the sea (and golf course) and full of pictures of golfers (well what do you expect in St Andrews).

For the lectures, I was told the general pattern was one lecture about the general academic area, one ‘state of the art’ and one about my own stuff … hence the three parts of the title!  Ever for cutesy titles I then called the individual lectures “Whose Computer Is It Anyway”, “The Great Escape” and “Connected, but Under Control, Big, but Brainy?”.

The first lecture was about the fact that computers are always ultimately for people (surprise surprise!) and I used Ian’s slight car accident on the evening before the lecture as a running example (sorry Ian).

The second lecture was about the way computers have escaped the office desktop and found their way into the physical world of ubiquitous computing, the digital world of the web ad into our everyday lives in out homes and increasingly the hub of our social lives too.  Matt Oppenheim did some great cartoons for this and I’m going to use them again in a few weeks when I visit Dublin to do the inaugural lecture for SIGCHI Ireland.

for 20 years the computer is chained to the office desktop (image © Matt Oppenheim)

(© Matt Oppenheim)

... now escapes: out into the world, spreading across the net, in the home, in our social lives (image © Matt Oppenheim)

(© Matt Oppenheim)

The last lecture was about intelligent internet stuff, similar to the lecture I gave at Aveiro a couple of weeks back … mentioning again the fact that the web now has the same information storage and processing capacity as a human brain1 … always makes people think … well at least it always makes ME think about what it means to be human.

… and now … in Tiree … sun, wild wind, horizontal hail, and paddling in the (rather chilly) sea at dawn

  1. see the brain and the web[back]