Where the Action Is

I’ve been reading Paul Dourish’s Where The Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction, a good introduction to issues and perspectives of designing with embodied action in mind, although he doesn’t really get very far with actual guidelines. Favourite quote (which opens the section on ‘Wittgenstein and the Meaning of Language’):

Like Elvis Presley, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) had a professional career that fell into two distinct phases.

Vegas Wittgenstein? Maybe.

Nothing radically new in the book, but a decent overview of the field, with a nicely phenomenological slant (no mention of Bachelard though). For me, the most interesting discussion was of places versus spaces — something I’ve discussed here, briefly. Dourish and his colleagues seem to have similar views:

..the difference between space and place is an analytic one; space refers to the physical and mechanical aspects of the environment, whereas place refers to the ways in which space becomes vested with social meaning through the emergence of mutually consituted practices and behavioral norms when that space is populated…In fact there are many examples of such social practices developing in environments or media that do not base themselves on “real-world” models…There are places that succeed without an underlying model of space to build upon. “Space” is only a means to an end.


  1. Like meatspace, virtualspace usually accumulates some form of “lint” … the abundance of this “spatial lint” is proportional to the abuse among the occupants

  2. Perhaps it’s useful to start to knock at the definitions (spatial boundaries) of spaces and places … based on a purely pragmatic reaction to the emergence of space-like constructs in socially/digitally defined “places” … it’s like I can feel the walls … blind people have what sighted people might call “spaces” in their heads (i.e. a definition of the sighted persons space) … but the lack of visual components makes it seem more place-like to me (a sighted person). There’s a similarity to the early days of complexity theory and the breakdown of dimensional space when Mandelbrots actually *showed* you what was wrong with thinking about strictly 2d and 3d space … maybe we need a way to “dimensionalize” these spaces and places so we have a feel for where we are.

  3. i’m fucked if I know what makes something a possible contender for ‘placeness’. I think Dourish et al sound a bit long-winded becuase they are privileging space as the canonical ‘thing-which-can-beome-a-place’, then having to treat moothings, mailing lists etc. asitemised exceptions which are ‘like space’.

    I think a more careful study should start with one more level of indirection — space is one of a set of ‘things-which-can-become-places’ though its facilitation of locations, which can then become ‘places’ through the virtue of things happening ‘there’ (or remain empty locations if it doesn’t).

    A necessary but not sufficient requirement for something to constitute a location is that it can be uniquely identified by some n-tuple of co-ordinates (which could be spatial, or not — {latitude, longitude} works, as does {x,y,z} or {url, port}), however there’s something more needed than simply a unique ‘point’ — its hard to see how a particular point in colourspace, say {r,g,b} or {pantone_code}, even with the best will in the world, qualifies as a location, let alone a place…more work to be done here.

    Somehow this feels very important to me at the moment…

  4. Well, that’s one direction of indirection. The other is, as you point out, “what is *at* the n-tuple when you get there?”. This is what I was trying to point out. An {r,g,b} and {x,y,z} “point” might constitute the same “placeness” .. i.e. minimal. Whereas a black & white photo of your dead dog has more of a sense of place to you.
    MOO meditation; The Glass Bead Game; and on.
    Places and spaces appear to have the same ability to be invisible until thought about ……. or something like that.

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