Kari Kuuti: CSCW is facing a dilemma

EUSSET: Kari, you have been awarded the EUSSET-IISI Lifetime Achievement Award as announced during the ECSCW 2020. Congratulations! In this interview, we would like to learn more about your personal perspective on the award and on the CSCW research.
The award was established to recognize outstanding contributions to the innovation and reorientation of the computing field to better face of the challenges of rapidly changing technical and social circumstances. It acknowledges your impact on the CSCW and on the work of researchers in this field. As the chair of the awards committee you also had the chance to shape the message related to this award – now you have become the winner.
What does the award mean to you as a person?  

Kari: I am naturally very pleased; a public recognition from people one respects must be one of the deepest social needs and pleasures. Ars longa, vita brevis — when one looks backwards, whatever the achievements are they tend to look small and half-finished with respect what could have been done. It is very comforting to find that perhaps all of it has not been in vain…  And as I said in the talk, only hermits do their lifetime achievement alone, and thus my award is also award to the research communities where I have worked and to people with whom I have collaborated.

EUSSET: Your works on activity and practice have inspired new lines of scientific inquiry in human-computer interaction; they shaped the perspective of many researchers. How did you arrive at the practice and activity-oriented line of reasoning over 30 years ago? You mentioned Pentti Kerola, Yrjö Engeström, and Liam Bannon as the people who inspired you, but what was it, that inspired you the most about the theories of activity and practice?

Kari: Back in early 1980s I was interested in computers and learning, and together with two colleagues, Heikki Putkonen and Ilkka Tervonen, we decided to develop a new programming language, SAMPO, for learning elementary programming. It was strongly influenced by LOGO, but we wanted to base the structure of commands on the grammar of Finnish language. My colleagues were programmers; I was responsible of the conceptual side. From activity psychology books by Leontev and Galperin I found action-operation dynamics, which gave a good theoretical starting point for our efforts, and that was the start of my interest in Activity Theory. Then I met Yrjö Engeström and his group, who were developing a method to change every day work practices bottom-up, ultimately by workers themselves; eventually this became their Change Laboratory approach. I was impressed in their attempts to combine historical analysis, theoretical analysis and interventions; the echo of this can still be seen in my talk. When Engeström 1987 published his “activity system” concept, I saw its analytic potential for my own purposes, and have been using it since then.

EUSSET: EUSSET is a very young organization. One third of active EUSSET members are PhD students and there are equally many young members working as postdocs or assistant professors. Many of the members are looking up to you as an eminent authority seeking an advice concerning research focus, career paths, or simply becoming and being a researcher. What would be your message to them?

Kari: Maturing as a researcher means acquiring a lot of practical knowledge what others have written, how methods function, how to publish and so on. But it also means developing a “personal intellectual position” – a system of beliefs of what is true and important (PIP). Often this development is tacit, just a side effect of research work, but it can be accelerated – and perhaps made more fun – by consciously selecting trustworthy persons and accepting their guidance. There are three groups of people to consider: leading lights, classics, and peers. “Leading lights” are those members, usually of the previous researcher generation, who are currently pushing the field forward: select a couple of best and learn from them – become their unofficial student, so to say. The best means best related to your personal taste: who you want to follow? This way you can “borrow” the PIP of your leader for a while, while your own is still in preparation. “Classics” are foundational building blocks for a PIP: researchers whose ideas keep their usefulness over generations. Who do your leading lights reference to, when they develop their argument? That is a useful starting point to search for yours, but one should be constantly looking for additions, which in our interdisciplinary field may come from different directions. Finally, one needs a network of trustworthy peers of the same generation to serve as a sounding board and a support, and to mature and grow older together.  

There is always a hope that the best papers are still to be written

Kari Kuuti

EUSSET: A lifetime achievement award might sound a bit like a closure or a “thank you and goodbye” message. However, it is not the intention of the EUSSET-IISI Lifetime Achievement Award. I am sure, you will remain an active member of the scientific community. What are your plans for the upcoming years? What is currently attracting your attention? Where do you expect new fascinating challenges to emerge?

Kari: There is always a hope that the best papers are still to be written!  In the latter part of the talk I raised up a number of loosely related issues without much explanation, but I believe that it is possible to weave together an argument that connects them (and a couple of others left out) into a somewhat coherent whole. I have been working with the theme already for a while, and although research as a hobby is perhaps even more enjoyable than it was as work, the problem is that without those deadlines the progress with respect to publishing tends to be slow. Reading more is always more pleasant than writing… As sidelines, I have now promised to help two of my younger colleagues with their projects, one in developing a position in critical design, another in politics of system development. These three projects will keep me occupied for a while, I presume.

EUSSET: What are your wishes for the EUSSET and for the CSCW community? Where do you see the CSCW research in the future? What is the responsibility of a CSCW researcher towards the society and towards the scientific community?

Kari: CSCW is facing a dilemma: all work is done in local practices, and IT systems should be designed starting from that; so CSCW is occupying a field that should be central in designing IT systems, but nobody outside the CSCW community seems to recognize it.  In the long run this may become corrected because of necessity, but we should not remain waiting for it but try our best to make our knowledge to bear in design now. One potential direction to gain such recognition would be for some research groups to start to develop long-term relationships with some user organizations with long-term system development needs, and consult them in requirements development and evaluation. A start for developing a practice-based system development method. Another potential direction to get started would be to get EU to support practice-based analysis and design experiments, EUSSET might be the channel to push this forward. Experiences in organizing cooperation for COVID-19 research and curing might give strong enough motivation for such experiments.

EUSSET: Thank you very much for your time and the insightful thoughts. It has been a pleasure to explore the past, the presence and the future of CSCW with you.

Spread the word