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CSCW/HCI and Theory: Building a Case For Foucault

Ding Wang
HighWire CDT, Lancaster University
Lancaster, U.K.

ABSTRACT is much more tied to ideas about prediction and generaliza-

This paper begins with discussing how theory has been con- tion (and generalization of a particular kind). While theory
sidered ‘harmful’ in CSCW and HCI. It continues to explore has regularly (though often temporarily - until it goes out of
the role of theory and how it has been interpreted and applied fashion) shown itself in CSCW/HCI, it has often misconstrued
as analytical frameworks. The paper then presents an example the nature, the ‘work’ and the ‘implications’ of theoretical
of how Foucauldian approach, as an analysical tool is applied work and consequently failed to derive much in the way of
in our study of ’smart city’ to finally bring the paper to its discernible benefit. In part this may be because of a failure
conclusion - how theory could be useful in CSCW and HCI. by CSCW/HCI to appreciate the relentless mix of different,
sometimes hostile and contrasting theories - and clearly early
ACM Classification Keywords hopes for some kind of unified theoretical framework have
H.5.m. Information Interfaces and Presentation (e.g. HCI): faded or rather, did not long survive the snarling and argu-
Miscellaneous; See for the mentative entry of Sociologists into CSCW/HCI (personally
full list of ACM classifiers. This section is required. I blame the ethnomethodologists). Instead I think one view
or notion advanced by the workshop - that of ‘framework’ -
Author Keywords might ultimately prove to be more profitable - (even for eth-
Theory; CSCW; Foucault; Smart City nomethodology) -especially when it comes to those elusive
and contested ‘implications for design’; and so I want to ex-
plore some ideas that emerge from applying a Foucauldian
framework to the study of, and design for, the ‘Smart City’.
My PhD supervisor, an ethnographer and ethnomethodologist,
tells a story about sitting on the back row of a conference IMPLICATIONS FOR DESIGN - AND THEORY
on Health Informatics with some other ethnomethodologists. Of course the rather simplistic and contested notion of ‘impli-
As the first speaker began her presentation, “of course, ev- cations for design’ has been explored by Paul Dourish in his
eryone needs a good theory” there came a loud collective ‘Implications for Design’ [5] and ‘Responsibilities and Implica-
growl from the back row “WHY”? Ethnomethodologists fa- tions: Further Thoughts on Ethnography and Design’[6] - and
mously disavow any attachment to theory, arguing that they for some time has been subject to various misinterpretations.
merely present an analytic framework, questioning exactly Paraphrasing Dourish, I want to argue that, “the presence or
what ‘work’ theory does in CSCW and HCI, and suggesting absence of explicitly demarked “implications for design” is not
that theory often serves merely to move attention away from the best evaluative criterion for the relevance, utility, or quality
the topic or phenomenon of interest - ‘losing the phenomena’. of an (theoretical) contribution” and that the use of theory in
So that what gets offered or presented is the usual range of this fashion, the ‘work’ that it does, serves to misrepresent
tired and weary theories - the usual suspects - and, thereby, or misunderstand the relationships and interplay between the
leading into fairly trivial arguments about who has the ‘best’ technical and the social, and that nowhere is this more obvious
theory. It is in this sense that theory in CSCW and HCI might than in CSCW/HCI treatments of the ‘Smart City’.
be considered ‘harmful’.
Continuing this theme, there are all kinds of important ques-
I want to avoid that unfortunate possibility by suggesting, as tions we might reasonably ask of any theory or concept: no-
a starting point, that ‘theory’ in CSCW and HCI is very dif- tably, what ‘work’ does this theory or approach or category
ferent from the notion of theory as used and considered in actually do? That is, what analytic work does it do? As Halver-
Science (and perhaps even Social Science) where the notion son [9] suggests, the value of any approach or theory resides
in how well it can frame the object of study, how the approach
Paste the appropriate copyright statement here. ACM now supports three different determines and highlights relevant issues. When viewed as
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tional fee must be paid to ACM. talk about the world; inferential power to enable us to make in-
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single spaced. ferences and linkages between the theory and the ‘real world’,
Every submission will be assigned their own unique DOI string to be included here.
that in turn will hopefully lead to insights for both practice society/era recognises certain things as knowledge, how and
and policy, for example, offering some clues as to the likely why some procedures are considered rational and others not.
effect of introducing change into a particular setting or Smart In short, genealogy and archaeology are two halves of a com-
City - to help us choose between alternative prospects, to give plimentary approach, alternating and supporting each other.
us some purchase on which approach might yield results; and This approach also has important methodological implications;
‘application’ power that links the approach to policies and leading me to unearth and examine a variety of data, to ex-
some form of ‘design’ in the world. Of central concern is the amine of range of documents, and to interview a varied and
problem of relevant description, inference, rhetoric and appli- interesting collection of people.
cation, and how we go about deciding them. When we use
conceptual frameworks or theories to talk about the Smart City In the smart city context, the core idea of ‘smart’ is often seen
as a shiny new concept and the approach to the next urban
and its intersection and inter-relationship with a host of other
future. In adopting the genealogical way of thinking, I dis-
social and technical variables, how relevant are the issues we
covered that the smart city is neither new nor the only way to
point to, both in describing the phenomenon and in informing
construct thinking around urban futures. Smart city discourse,
policy and practice? Do they provide us with a conceptual
framework for deciding which behaviours and activities, what in my perspective, is an assemblage of several pre-existing ur-
pattern of regular and unusual events, we should be attentive ban imaginaries. If we map out the narratives and trajectory of
to? Can it result in positive and relatively definitive statements ‘urban imaginaries’, and place the smart city discourse as the
about particular aspects of Smart City settings (of housing, most recent phase, what we find is that this discourse emerged
transport, empowerment, etc), about social policy and about in the wake of the narratives of the sustainable/resilient cities
social practice? Above all, and somewhat beyond the clearly and of the informational/intelligent city [19, 11]. My early
serious concerns expressed by Halverson [9] and Dourish [5, research has echoed this notion that the smart city is not a new
invention but developed and evolved from previous research
6], accepting that (social or cultural) theories rarely contribute
endeavours concerning urban development. (see for example
much in the way of predictions or even concrete proposals
ideas about the ‘resilient city’ [18, 3] and a ‘sustainable city,
for design, then maybe the criteria for evaluating the worth
of a theory should change, towards the idea that a theory is [14, 10, 2, 4].
valuable if it is ‘interesting’, if it makes us think in new and This leads us to the discussion of the Smart City discursive
different ways (or just at all). And so I turned to Foucault. ‘formation’, which is a coherent discourse possessing common
objects, concepts and arguments. According to Foucault, the
FOUCAULT AND THE SMART CITY components of a ‘discursive formation’ include; ‘surfaces of
After some conventional sociological data gathering and the- emergence’, ‘authorities of delimitation’, and ‘grids of specifi-
matic analysis, the framework that I eventually became inter- cation’. In my case, ‘surfaces of emergence’ point to specific
ested in applying to HCI/CSCW and to both an understanding discursive and institutional sites - conferences, exhibitions,
and the design of the Smart City, came from Foucault [8] - magazines and books, where arguments about the ‘Smart City’
both in terms of his general methodological, genealogical and have emerged or been re-configured. For example, due to the
archaeological, approach; his cogent ideas on the appropriate presumed technological nature of the smart city, the Internet
relationship between knowledge and power and specific con- of Things (IoT) has become central in defining and describing
cepts related to notions of ‘discursive formations’, the idea an understanding of smart cities. That means one major site
of the ‘gaze’, and ‘heterotopias’. This was something of a for smart city research and development publications are IoT
revelation to me - given that Foucault never specifically wrote conferences, summits and journals or computing conferences
about HCI/CSCW; that he is neither really an historian (since with an IoT interest, such as Computing Human Interaction
he adopts a fairly idiosyncratic approach to both temporality conferences in the USA and British HCI in the UK. The mix-
and the notion of a ‘theme’) nor a sociologist, nor really a ture and interplay of various disciplines has also produced
theorist (since his analyses are to be judged not by their pre- new sites for smart city related debates and discussions such
dictive power but by the power of the associations and ideas as Urban Informatics and Urban computing. ‘Authority of
they provoke) - but his relevance as an analyst, as providing Delimitation’ refers to the experts we interviewed in gathering
a set of practices and heuristics for understanding aspects of the sociological data, who possess the the ability to use their
culture and history has been something of a revelation. comments, publications and books etc. to define and shape the
ongoing debate of the ‘Smart City’. ‘Grids of specification’,
Foucault’s genealogical analyses challenge traditional prac-
are the classificatory dimensions of a discursive formation,
tices of history, philosophical assumptions and established
how it is, for example, related to other important ideas, i.e.
conceptions of knowledge, truth and power; displacing the
ideas about urban life, governance and citizen empowerment
primacy of the subject found in conventional history and tar-
in my case. During the analysis, the more I exposed ourselves
geting discourse, reason, rationality and certainty. It seeks
to the smart city discourse and tracked the ‘smart’ narrative
to illuminate the contingency of the taken for granted, to de-
the more I recognised an increasing number of ideas that relate
naturalise what seems immutable, to destabilise seemingly
to smart cities which make it a growing taxonomy. Other rel-
natural categories as constructs and confines articulated by
evant aspects of the Smart City discursive formation include
discourse, opening up new possibilities for the future. Fou-
the formation of ‘enunciative modalities’, (who is qualified to
cault’s archaeology similarly concerns contextualising and
speak about a topic, and who is not qualified), as well as the
historicising notions of truth, knowledge and rationality. He
formation of concepts, and argumentative strategies (for exam-
examines the conditions of emergence, how and why a given
ple the mixture of anecdote, history and philosophy offered generated and photographed. My interest is in how ordinary
by the experts in the interviews I conducted). In these inter- citizens and experts perceive the notion of the smart city and
views my participants revealed how a given set of objects and the proliferation of potential ‘gazes’ that might be produced
particular concepts such as IoT and ‘Connected Cities’ have to influence design and policy.
been formed and shaped over time to become components of
the ‘Smart City’ discursive formation. As a particular way of
talking about, of constructing, a topic - the Smart City - and its CONCLUSION: THEORY CONSIDERED USEFUL?
relations with other topics, such as technology, urban develop- In ‘Sociological Theory: What went Wrong?: Diagnosis and
ment, data science, etc. - the discourse inevitably limits other Remedies’ [13] writes in defence of theory that “By main-
ways in which a topic can be constructed - of what effectively taining its specialized logic and orientation it is capable of
it ‘makes sense’ to say. It is, at least partly, in identifying this providing a set of conceptual tools that can operate as a the-
‘discursive formation’ that the merit of a Foucauldian approach oretical lingua franca, as a flexible vocabulary with no foun-
can be found. dationalist pretensions, which can help sociologists establish
bridges between their own and other disciplines, as well as
Another Foucauldian approach that I would like to apply to
between competing social science paradigms. This is to say
the analysis of ‘Smart City’ is looking at the ‘Smart City’ as
that sociological theory should not aim at the establishment
heterotopia, rather than a utopia or a dystopia (a utopia that
of some sort of monolithic paradigmatic unity, but at strength-
has gone wrong). Foucault [7] conceptualizes a heterotopia as
ening the present pluralism by removing the obstacles that
a site that is defined by its absolute perfection, surrounded by
are a hindrance to open-ended communication between the
spaces that are not so clearly defined as such. Soja’s work [15]
differentiated subdisciplines or paradigms”. To the extent that
demonstrated that a heterotopia is a site that is ambivalent and
there are theoreticians working in CSCW/HCI - eg activity the-
uncertain because of the multiplicity of social meaning that are
orists, lovers of distributed coordination, ‘practice’ theorists
attached to them. Both understandings of a heterotopia echo
and so on - I suspect they would probably make very similar
the characteristics of a smart city. On the one hand, there is
arguments. Except, of course, such theorists often do have
the assertion that smartness stands for being efficient, healthy,
foundationalist pretensions (they do make epistemological and
and technologically advanced, therefore, the ‘smart city’ is
ontological claims); they rarely are interested in ‘building
intended as the ideal and perfection of a future city without
bridges’ but instead operate some sort of ‘fictive consensus’
acknowledging there are more to a city than simply achiev-
which rarely amounts to ‘pluralism’ or ‘open-ended commu-
ing efficiency. On the other hand, the smart city discourse
nication’. I don’t consider this to be an especially persuasive
is used by the city managers and policy makers to support
defence of theory or theoretical frameworks and so I intend to
specific development strategies and policies. There are many
conclude this paper by considering how this approach plays
links between neoliberal urban developments and smart city
out in terms of the attributions of theory that Halverson [9]
imaginaries: the construction of a clean, green and intelli-
documents, whilst also suggesting that such an approach is
gent city image is in fact useful to attract investments, leading
‘interesting’ and intellectually ‘fertile’.
sector professional workers and tourists which changes the
social meaning of a smart city whenever necessary. Mean- The first power or attribution Halverston calls ‘descriptive
while, the incongruous forms of writing and text in the ‘Smart power’, which refers to a conceptual framework that helps
City’ realm that challenge and make impossible discursive us make sense of and describe the world. She notes how this
statements make the ‘Smart City’ resemble a heterotopia even can include both a description of the context and a critique of
more. technology in that context. The Foucauldian notion of discur-
sive formation has helped me draw out contextual features -
Another, final, Foucauldian path I could follow is applying the
how the smart city discourse emerged from a process of ab-
concept of ‘gaze’. So, according to Foucault what a ‘medical
sorbing features of other urban imaginary came into existence.
gaze’ would/could see is not simply ‘out there’ to be seen,
How the nature of this smart city discourse made it hard to
rather it is a reality that’s made visible. Gazing then refers to
pin down a universal definition and thereby made it possible
the ‘discursive determinations’, of socio-culturally constructed
for many different technologies, disciplines and topics to rub
ways of seeing [17]. It is a performance that orders, shapes
shoulder with the smart city. Halverson [9] continues to de-
and classifies, rather than reflects the world. People gaze upon
scribe how a theory needs ‘rhetorical power’ or the capacity
the world through a particular filter of ideas, skills, desires and
to “talk about the world by naming important aspects of con-
expectations, framed by social class, gender, nationality, age
ceptual structure and how it maps to the real world”. I suggest
and education. And so we might talk of the ‘Smart City gaze’
that the genealogical and archaeological way of analysing as-
(or perhaps a it is constituted as a number of different gazes).
sisted me to argue that from the shared ‘important aspects’
In ‘The Image of the City’ [12], Kevin Lynch found that
between the smart city discourse and other discourses (e.g.
people perceive the city predominantly as a built image, made
intelligent city, sustainable city, green city etc.), that the smart
up of distinct paths, edges, districts, nodes and landmarks. In
city emerges as neither new nor unique. Though the smart
turn, John Urry argued in ‘The Tourist Gaze’ [16] that for
city does not exit to be an exact embodiment of any singular
most of us the city is a (photo) graphic image. The work
urban imaginary but a refined and updated collective of sev-
of Lynch and Urry both suggests how importance and value
eral rhetoric that makes it even more fitting, promising, and
resides in the images of a city i.e. its urban landscape for built
attractive. Similarly a Foucauldian approach provides great
objects and (pseudo) authentic attractions that can be visually
‘inferential power’ to understand the Smart City which none
has claimed to have fully decoded. By introducing the Fou- Proceedings of the 2007 conference on Designing for
cauldian way of thinking into the smart city discourse, I try User eXperiences. ACM, 25.
to understand the features, unpack the discourse and describe
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distributed cognition: Or what does CSCW need to DO
- that can be used to guide system design through describing
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