Nick LaLone
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The Spaces Between - Initial Brief

My first attempt to think about what would become my dissertation work.

My first attempt to think about what would become my dissertation work.

The Spaces Between
The technologically mediated or digital realm has long been mired in a debate about its effect on the real world. Physically separated by electricity and philosophically separated by computer scientists of all kinds, this realm is often criticized for what aspects of human interaction it is missing rather than those aspects of human interaction it has gotten right. Since the coming of the World Wide Web, the debate about the aspects of humanity the digital is missing has become something of an unpopular topic; something often attributed to luddites than technology advocates. However, if one takes a close look at the development of digital technologies, we can glimpse the issues those supposed luddites are so intent on discussing. There is something missing in digital interaction. What we have now works well. However, instead of constantly improving models that are missing something, why not take a step back and ask, what is lost in the spaces between computation and humanity?

In this dissertation, I will evaluate the processes through which offline social interaction is “translated” to online social interaction. As more social interactions are translated to a digital space, it becomes increasingly more important that scholars examine both the implications of the translated action (use) as well as the processes that allow them to become translated (design). This unique perspective will address the problematic study of fully formed virtual environments. This level of research often begins well after users learn how to work with or around a particular system. The chance to study how users adapt to an environment, as a social group, is rarely studied.

My research will make strong contributions across several disciplines. I draw inspiration from socio-technical scholars, social network analysis, and Actor-Network-Theory to more fully understand the consequences of translation. The results of my work will also be useful to designers engaged in the process of building simulations, virtual environments and communication spaces.

Research questions

  • What is the social network designers and users co-create during the design of a digital product?
  • What is lost during translation between the digital world humans have created, and the natural world that that the digital world mimics?
  • How do milieu change when we translate human action into a digital space?
  • Is there any impact on existing social networks inside of these environments?

Theoretical Standpoint

When users engage a piece of technology meant to mimic or augment human action, that product has been carefully tuned to an exact experience all users must engage. This is the result of translation meaning something has been lost (Latour 1994). Latour states, “translation does not mean a shift from one vocabulary to another…I use translation to mean displacement, drift, invention, mediation, the creation of a link that did not exist before and that to some degree modifies two elements or agents” (Latour, 1994, pp. 32). The act of translating human action from what it was to something new has the potential to radically alter our future concept of that action.

Certain portions of human-centered design seek to escape the virtual by changing where the action takes place (Dourish, 2004). However, it is not enough to simply change modes of input. It is not enough to examine how assemblages of code have allowed users to express new ideas of self (Taylor, 2002). We need to approach the study of human-computer interaction from a holistic perspective.

Research Design

I will study the translation of the social action that occurs while playing a Settlers of Catan on a table top to the social action of playing Catan using a controller and a television screen. Data collected will include table talk, social networks, outcome of each game, and post-match discussions. Once these games are finished, those same players will play through the Xbox 360. Replete with video and audio chat, these players will play the same number of games with their virtual counterparts as they did with their real ones.


It is understood that no one user will fully engage a product’s design. In this way, unanticipated use dictates future development. This process mimics discussions about the rules of a board game during play because rules are always a possible point of disagreement. These disagreements typically mean that players change rules to meet the understanding of the group currently playing that game.

Inside a virtual version of that same board game, these disagreements are not possible as computers cannot make exception (Bogost, 2007). Players must play the game the way the designers have decided how that game is meant to be played. As such, players must learn to play the game all over again. Carroll and Rosen (1987) complicate this issue through their paradox: the learning requirements of a product stand in competition with the user’s need to simply use it.

What contributions?

During design, engineers and computer scientists rely on metric-based trade-offs when translating action into a digital realm. While practical, these metrics often end up becoming the drive behind design instead of design itself. For example, how high can latency be in video chat before the experience is disagreeable? Or, how many system resources will this product require in a given operating environment?

This method of design not enough as it relies on a shallow comprehension of humanity. Technological limitations lessen every day yet design traditionally seeks to push technological boundaries instead of social ones. By taking a step back, this dissertation will add fidelity to the translation of human action as well as the act of design.


Bogost, I. (2007). Persuasive games: The expressive power of videogames. MIT Press.

Carroll, J. M., & Rosson, M. B. (1987). Paradox of the active user. In Interfacing thought: cognitive aspects of human-computer interaction (pp. 80-111). MIT Press.

Dourish, Paul. (2004). Where the action is: the foundations of embodied interaction. MIT press.

Latour, B. (1994). “On Technical Mediation – Philosophy, Sociology, Genealogy.” Common Knowledge 3:2 pp. 29-64.

Taylor, T. L. (2002). Living digitally: Embodiment in virtual worlds. In The social life of avatars (pp. 40-62). Springer London.

Nick LaLone