One of the main topics of my research is externalisation. By this I mean, how people put what they’re thinking into visible or tangible form. In particular, my interest is in how designed objects and systems mediate the process of externalisation. Externalisation is talked about in many different fields including psychology, HCI, and design. Since the externalisations I’m concentrating on are all about digital experiences, the cognitive tradition in HCI is a fruitful place to start. In activity theory, externalisation is seen as indivisible from internalisation because one transforms into the other, a kind of repeated oscillation mediated by technologies. Bonnie Nardi explains internalisation as a way for people to practice how an interaction with the real world might happen (making plans, running simulations, or imagining possible outcomes) without risking failure by using real objects.

Externalisation is necessary for inner structures to become known or active in the world. There are two main occasions when this might be necessary. Firstly, during crisis or breakdown, when an inner understanding is confronted with a situation when it is no longer useful or when it doesn’t fit the facts any more, such as when your computer crashes or an email fails to send. In order to repair or adapt your model of how email works it must first be brought forward into conscious thought and from there into action – externalised in the world. The second situation is when knowledge must be shared in collaborative settings. In order to work together, people must share an understanding of the subject or problem to be addressed – group understandings must be externalised to be visible. For example, in order for surgeons to work together they must agree on the required procedures. Externalisation happens in dynamic interplay with artefacts that mediate its expression, i.e. surgical instruments in the example above. As these expressions gain social uptake or acceptance they are then internalised as new understandings and used to act in the world. Consequently, mediating artefacts are not seen as static or fixed, instead they are instruments or tools deployed in the constant process of in/ex-ternalisation. This has echoes in how Ingold (see post 18/08/14) explains material flux as a process rather than a moment.

Turning to externalisation in HCI, there’s a contradiction between theories of embodiment, which revolve around the idea of tacit action, and theories of reflection, which are more explicit. Tacit implies internal, pre-conscious, embodied. As Dix says; it is the more ancient way of thinking – associative and relational and involves building knowledge slowly through repeated exposure to the world. In contrast, explicit knowledge is ‘consciously available’, it is reflective, rational, more closely related to language. Knowledge is constructed using teaching, communication, and cognitive reasoning. Dix proposes externalisation as the bridge between tacit and explicit thinking. The materials used in the process of externalisation have a profound influence on the resulting forms (or instruments), and through them on how knowledge is internalised. For example, people using physical materials tend to explore through examples, while those using pen and paper through abstract categorisation (see Ramduny-Ellis et al, 2010). So the designer of instruments intended to produce externalisations places careful attention on the material properties of those tools – this is design, what Sennet calls ‘engaged material consciousness’.

In some way all of human culture; dance, music, language, poetry, or architecture can be thought of as embodied in different forms of externalisation. My topic is digital experiences and my method is design, so for me design is the externalising instrument that leads to new forms. Dix lists four functions of externalisation in design that resonate with my own aims. Informational implies using the externalisation to communicate what you’re thinking to someone else. Formational means the making of an externalisation is formative, it changes the way people think, ‘rather than pre-existing ideas being re-presented in an external form, the idea is itself formed in the process of presentation’. This chimes with some of my findings so far, when people comment on what they have done. Transformational is a more instrumentalised view and refers to how a plan or model may help final outcomes to emerge or the real problem to be identified. Finally, by externalising abstract internal thoughts we can observe them, reflect on them and so act on them – this is transcendental – we transcend the unconscious mind and bring things into actionable focus.

The category that interests me the most at the moment is the formational aspect – how the doing of a design-oriented task can change inner understandings, and how the material properties of an instrument designed for that specific purpose influence the course of that formation.

This post may seem overly theoretical but I think it has very real implications for my research question and the design circumstances that I’m working with.

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