53. Accountable Artefacts

Carolan enjoys something of a dual identity. Not only is it a guitar, but it is also a research probe  – part of a University project that is exploring how everyday things become connected to rich digital materials over their lifetimes.

The team at the Mixed Reality Lab has been busy reflecting on the lessons learned from Carolan so far and we’ve come up with a theory. Well a sort of theory anyway; its what Professor Kia Hook of the Swedish Institute of Computer Science calls a ‘Strong Concept’ a general idea that wraps up some useful knowledge in way that might help others design new things. We’re publishing our theory in an academic paper titled “Accountable Artefacts: The Case of the Carolan Guitar” that will be presented at the Computer Human Interaction conference in San Jose in May. “CHI”, as this is colloquially known, is a large annual gathering of over two thousand people who are interested in understanding how people interact with computers or who want design new kinds of computer interface.

We’ll upload a copy of the paper for you in due course, but thought that we’d try and summarise the theory first. It’s fairly long (remember academics are paid by the word!) so we’ll introduce it in several parts over the coming months before giving you report on how it went down at the conference around May-time. Don’t panic, it won’t all be theory up to then as we’ll be posting some updates of Carolan’s latest guitar exploits too.

Before we get into any detail, CHI invites authors to make video previews of their papers, so here’s ours as a sort of advert-come-overview …


Enough of the fun. For the rest of today, it’s on with Part 1 of the theory – just what is an Accountable Artefact anyway?

To get there, we need to start from another idea, that of the Internet of Things. This is a vision (that seems to be growing in popularity right now) of a world in which computers become so small and cheap that they can be embedded into many every things from furniture to clothes to packets of household stuff. These things will be able to sense that is going on around them around them and communicate using the Internet with the result that they may eventually become ‘smart’ or even ‘social’.

Sounds far fetched? Well you’d probably be surprised at how many things around you already contain computers or one sort or another: cars (in large numbers), appliances of various sorts, toys, automated doors, pets …. you name it. Anyway, researchers have been getting very excited about this and imagining all of the kinds of things that these digitally-enhanced things might do. Several  have suggested that everyday things will generate trails of data that will enhance their value, for example transforming them into “memory objects” that help us maintain our identities and self-histories, or “narrative objects” that provoke us tell new stories, or self-documenting objects that carry their provenance with them to prove their authenticity.

One particularly lovely piece of work along these lines (it’s nice to be able to write ‘lovely’ – you don’t normally get to say it in academic papers) was by the TOTEM project which stands for Tales of Things and Electronic memory project in which the research team adopted digital tagging technologies such as QR codes to connect second-hand goods in Oxfam shops with stories of their previous ownership. OK, so it’s a provocative idea – would you really want to know who had previously owned that coat? – but it certainly gets you thinking about a sustainable future in which second hand goods might become more valuable than new ones because of the stories they can tell? Indeed, this unusual idea was one of the inspirations for us creating Carolan in the first place as we wanted to explore how things might gather and tell stories from first creation.  So  that’s Carolan then – an everyday thing that is connected to digital materials that enable it to tell stories.

Story-tagged second-hand things in Oxfam from the TOTEM ProjectTOTEM image


So why bother with the fancy title accountable artefacts then? First, we are aware that Carolan tells different stories to different audiences. It might tell its official provenance to someone who wants to buy it (any offers?). It might recall technical documentation for a luthier who wishes to fix it. It might deliver personal memories to players who have encountered it. It might deliver an entirely fictional narrative as part of a creative writing or recording project. Given the diversity of these different ‘stories’, from the fictional to the hopefully truthful, the term ‘story’ didn’t seem quite right. So in the end we opted for ‘accounts’. Carolan can deliver different accounts of itself to different audiences for different purposes. You might even think of the act of scanning Carolan as somehow calling it to account.

Once we’ve got accounts then artefacts was easy. Carolan is a physical thing, object … hmmm …. artefact! Yes that alliterates. Perfect. So that’s the hardest part done, choosing the name for your strong concept. The rest is detail. Of course you need to write it all down in a proper academic way too. We have included a couple of key paragraphs from the paper below to give you the gist of how it sounds in the academic lingo that Human-Computer Interaction people like speak to each other all of the time (they’re lovely but you wouldn’t want this at a dinner party would you?). Remember, we’re paid by the word.

Well that’s the introduction.  In the next (research) post we’ll unpack this idea of Accountable Artefacts some more, and introduce further concepts to explain how the accounting idea works. In the meantime, let’s just sit back and bask in the warm glow of our alliterative title – Accountable Artefacts – that’s got a ring to it.

And for the record, here’s a fragment of the paper to show how it looks when translated into “CHI talk”:

“So far, our discussion has been grounded in the specific example of the Carolan guitar. We now seek to generalise our findings beyond this unique case to consider potential implications for a far wider range of everyday things. This involves developing a general conceptual framework for reasoning about the complex connections that may exist between physical artefacts and their digital records. Our overarching concept is that of an accountable artefact – a ‘thing’ that becomes connected to an evolving digital record over its lifetime and that can be interrogated to reveal diverse accounts of its history and use. We anticipate a wide variety of such accounts, from those concerned with conventional IoT issues such as logistics, to practical guidance over usage and maintenance, to formally tracing provenance, to telling personal ‘tales’ of ownership.

We intend our framework to provide sensitising concepts to guide future studies, attuning researchers to the kinds of digital records that artefacts might generate and their potential uses, while also providing a language for describing findings and relating them to the wider literature. We also intend our framework to help generate future designs. In the terms of Höök and Löwgren, our notion of an accountable artefact is therefore intended to be a strong concept, a form of intermediate design knowledge that carries a core design idea; bridges specific instances and generalized theory; addresses interactivity; speaks of use over time; and generates designs. We now expand our overarching concept of an accountable artefact into a series of more specific concepts that express different aspects of how a ‘thing’ may be structured and connected to its digital record so as to deliver various kinds of account.”



One thought on “53. Accountable Artefacts

  1. Pingback: 100! Centenarian – Carolan Guitar

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