Review of Grudin’s “From Tool to Partner: The Evolution of HCI”

Last week there was far too much news I don’t want to hear, so instead of reading news, I read Jonathan Grudin’s new book on the history of HCI. (On my phone. On buses. In the dark. In five minute spurts!). Since you probably haven’t read it yet, I’ll do my best to summarize it here and tell you what I thought.

First, Grudin tackles a lot in this book. He synthesizes no less than the history of AI, HCI, Information Science, and Human Factors, trying to show how these fields emerged, intersected, but rarely engaged each other, despite all of their immense interest in the interaction between people and computing. It’s a massive amount of history about fields emerging at the beginning of the digital age and so the scope can be overwhelming.

Grudin does a reasonable job covering this scope, organizing the book chronologically, but bouncing between different fields, presenting big claims about the assumptions, ideas, and lenses that shaped what the different fields investigated. Throughout, he’s seeking to explain why these fields studied what they did, how that led to their ultimate lack of intermixing, and how that resulted in different fields’ differential impact on practice.

One of the big ideas in the book is the difference between the kind of discretionary computer use that happens in consumer settings and compulsory use that happens in organizational contexts. Grudin theorizes that this is the primary reason why information systems and LIS withered while HCI flowered: discretionary use just became the dominant, visible change in the world, bringing computing to every facet of life, giving HCI a mountain of interesting, diverse things to study and therefore broadening its methods and perspectives, while the world of compulsory inside of organizations moved more slowly, constrained by the difficulty of studying whole organizations and their glacial adoption of consumer trends.

One of the more interesting, perhaps implied ideas, is that these other fields of Management Information Systems, Human Factors, and Library & Information Sciences, despite withering, still have a wealth of knowledge to share about people’s interactions with computers, but the lack of disciplinary intermingling really prevented it from informing some of the big changes that occurred in computing. Google, with its roots as an NSF-funded Library & Information Sciences digital libraries project was one of these few exceptions. Look at the impact that emerged from its interdisciplinary foundations. What would the world look like if our major shifts in computing had been informed by all of these fields instead of primarily computer science?

Zooming to present day, Grudin isn’t sure what to make of the iSchool movement, which seeks to embrace some of these interdisciplinary threads that never quite connected through history. These fields are finding their way together after decades apart, with faculty from computing backgrounds like myself mingling with faculty from these other fields. Will we find ways to combine our disciplinary perspectives into new, more powerful ideas that will shape our computational futures? Or is it too late, with computer science shaping the conversation, but narrowly? I suppose that’s literally up to me and my colleagues to decide.

Grudin is convinced there’s plenty more runway to find out. He predicts a future that goes well beyond interaction, to human-computer integration. In fact, he predicts that future is now, and that we’re only just beginning to figure out how to reason about interactions that infuse computing into our every day decisions and communications. He predicts that understanding people and communication will be key to that, and that interdisciplinary perspectives on communication and information will be key to progress.

Aside from Grudin’s overarching thesis, the book is full of interesting little twists, turns, and origin stories in the history of computing, all told through the lens of interaction. If you’re interested in the history of computing from a research perspective, this is a great entry point to its rich and recent past. I also found it helpful in contextualizing my own epistemologies, my own training, and my interactions my colleagues at my own Information School. If you find yourself in an interdisciplinary setting, I highly recommend it.

The only critique I’ll make is that the book wanders. It doesn’t wander in a particularly frustrating or unhelpful way. It feels more like wandering through a zoo, constantly pulled forward by an interesting bird or a lumbering primate. By the end, you feel like you’ve seen much of the biodiversity in the world, but you’re not quite sure you’ve seen it all, and it all seems a bit artificial. Maybe it’s not possible to recreate a history faithfully, or in a way that feels faithful. Maybe the best we can do is menagerie.

2 thoughts on “Review of Grudin’s “From Tool to Partner: The Evolution of HCI”

  1. Andy, I just read this mini-book over the weekend and gave a summary talk at GT. I like your summary and would be happy to share my slides that attempted to give a quick summary and then some commentary. I agree with some of your criticisms about the book wandering, though I phrased it as being somewhat redundant in the first few chapters, repeatedly returning to some stories but in a slightly different context. I also had some comments about it being a very biased account, but then realized that just about any account of history is biased by the storyteller/historian and showed my colleagues/students how my own published historical accounts are biased. I was a bit saddened that the technological accounts after the 1980s gave more recognition to commercial outcomes than research efforts that came before. He didn’t do that with the 50’s and 60’s, having highlighted the research demonstrations by Sutherland and Engelbart. So that was a bit uneven. But I did learn things about Georgia Tech that I didn’t know before.

    Thanks for sharing,

    • Thanks for the comment! I think the commentary would be fascinating. In fact, I suspect the best defense against bias in historical accounts is more bias historical accounts. Maybe you should write one too 🙂

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