INFO 651
Critical Technical Practices

Instructor: Phoebe Sengers
Location: Upson 315 Snee Hall 1150
Time: Tu, Th 3:50-5:05 11:40-12:55

Online syllabus:


"Those who mistrust the machine and those who glorify it show the same incapacity to utilize it. Machine work and mass production offer unheard-of possibilities for creation, and those who are able to place these possibilities at the service of a daring imagination will be my creators of tomorrow." --- Guy Debord

This seminar explores building information technology as a form of critical inquiry. As computer science and human-computer interaction come into contact with traditionally nontechnical disciplines such as art, design, and cultural studies, new tensions and opportunities arise.

What will this mean for technical research? How do humanistic and artistic insights affect traditional technical methodologies and alter the questions that are being asked? What new technologies are being developed, and how do they differ from the results of purely technical research?

We will answer these questions by looking at research projects in social, tangible, and ubiquitous computing. We will compare traditional technical research with research based on interdisciplinary techniques such as tactical media, art as research, critical design, conceptual design, and innovative user-centered design.

Students from all fields are welcome. The course provides opportunities to contribute from a variety of disciplines; its baseline assumption is some ability to read technical papers as well as basic comfort with the humanities at an undergraduate level.

You can download the syllabus in print-friendly format.


You will need to order from your favorite vendor (for example, the Campus Store) the following books:

  • Paul Dourish. Where the Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001.
  • Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby. Design Noir: The Secret Life of Electronic Objects. Basel, Switzerland: August / Birkhaeuser, 2001.
  • William Gaver, Ben Hooker, and Anthony Dunne. The Presence Project. London: Royal College of Art, 2001.
  • Malcolm McCullough. Digital Ground: Architecture, Pervasive Computing, and Environmental Knowing. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004.
  • Nato Thompson and Gregory Sholette, eds. The Interventionists: Users' Manual for the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004.

All other readings will be made available in class or on-line. Please note that many of the readings that are available on-line are only available if you access the links from within Cornell networks.


In order to support a broad set of student interests and communication among them, the readings are organized according to a Chinese Menu system. Each week, there are a set of core readings that are required for all. In addition, students do readings from either Selection A (usually more technical/HCI-focused readings) or Selection B (usually more conceptual/arts-oriented readings). Students must sign up for either Selection A or Selection B by Thursday of the week before (those who have not signed up by then will be assigned a selection at the whim of the instructor). In Thursday's class, the readers of each selection will have 10 minutes to discuss the selection amongst themselves and then present the highlights of these articles to the other students. You may not sign up for the same selection all semester; i.e., you must sign up for Selection A at least once and for Selection B at least once.

Alterations to this schedule may be made over the course of the semester in response to student feedback and interests.

Topic Readings Classes
Introduction to course
Core Readings
Selection A
Selection B

Aug 24
Read and discuss Weiser's Coming Age of Calm Technology
What is a critical technical practice?
Core Readings Agre: Toward a Critical Technical Practice
Dourish: Where the Action Is, excerpt from Preface, pp. vii-ix
Sengers et al.: Reflective Design
Wilson: Art and Science as Cultural Acts
Selection A Mitchell et al., eds.: The Influence of Art and Design on Computer Science Research and Development
Selection B Grudin: Three Faces of Human-Computer Interaction
Aug 29
What is a critical technical practice?
Aug 31
Unpack the relationship of arts, critique, and HCI
Ubiquitous/Pervasive Computing
Introduction to Ubicomp
Core Readings Dourish, Where the Action Is, "A History of Interaction", pp. 1-23
Weiser: The Computer for the 21st Century
Abowd and Mynatt: Charting Past, Present and Future Research in Ubiquitous Computing
Thackera: Design Challenge of Pervasive Computing
Selection A Want et al.: Bridging Physical and Virtual Worlds with Electronic Tags
Davies and Gellersen: Beyond Prototypes
Selection B da Costa: PigeonBlog (explore site)
Dobson: Blendie
Hirsch / Institute for Applied Autonomy: iSee
Preemptive Media: Zapped! (explore site)
Sep 5
The world of ubiquitous devices
Sep 7
Unpacking technical and social issues with ubicomp
Viewing Ubicomp Through Architecture
Core Readings McCullough: Digital Ground, Chapters 1, 4, 5, 7
Selection A Rodden and Benford: The evolution of buildings and implications for the design of ubiquitous domestic environments
Selection B Sepulveda-Sandoval: Digital Shelters
Sep 12
Analyzing Digital Ground
Sep 14
What does an influence from architecture look like in ubicomp?
Critical Design
Core Readings Dunne and Raby: Design Noir
Selection A Gaver and Martin: Alternatives
Selection B Wodiczko: Interrogative Design
Sep 19
Using design to critique design
Sep 21
Building on critical design
Critically- Informed Design in HCI
Core Readings Gaver et al: Presence Project
Selection A Hutchinson et al: Technology Probes
Selection B Paulos and Jenkins: Urban Probes
Sep 26
Bringing critical design into HCI
Sep 28
Analyzing the uptake of critical design in HCI
Paper proposal workshop
Homework: Short paper proposals due.
Interlude: Thinking About Critical Intervention
Mapping Critical Intervention
Core Readings The Interventionists
Selection A Hallnas and Redström: Slow Technology
Selection B Ball: The Great Sideshow of the Situationist International
Oct 3
Cataloguing strategies of intervention
Homework: Select any one project from The Interventionists to research in more detail. Come to class prepared to describe in about 5 minutes the project and the critical strategy it pursues.
Oct 5
Exploring models for intervention
Embodied Interaction
Let's Get Physical
Core Readings Ishii and Ullmer: Tangible Bits
Dourish: Where the Action Is, Chapter 2: Getting In Touch (25-53)
Klemmer et al.: How Bodies Matter
Selection A
Selection B

Oct 12
What changes when we put our bodies at the center?
Social Computing
Core Readings Dourish: Where the Action Is, Social Computing (pp. 55-97)
Selection A Chalmers et al.: Social Navigation and Seamful Design
Selection B Benford et al.: Designing for the Opportunities and Risks of Staging Digital Experiences in Public Settings
Hirsch and Henry: TXTMob
Oct 17
Defining social computing
Homework: Short papers due
Oct 19
Thinking about desgining for social contexts
Final projects brainstorming
Embodied Interaction
Core Readings Dourish: Where the Action Is, Chapters 4-6 (pp. 99-188)
Selection A Chalmers and Galani: Seamful Interweaving
Selection B Thomsen: Embodied Interfaces and Mixed Realities
Oct 24
Putting it together: social + tangible = embodied interaction
Oct 26
How embodied interaction might change our ideas of computing
Final projects workshop
Homework: Filled-in final project idea forms
Co-Interpreting Experience
Participatory Design as Critical Intervention
Core Readings Boedker et al: Computer support for cooperative design
Mogensen: Towards a Provotyping Approach in Systems Development
Asaro: Transforming society by transforming technology
Selection A Iversen, Kanstrup, Graves Petersen: A visit to the 'new Utopia'
Brandt: Designing Exploratory Design Games
Selection B Kac: Negotiating Meaning
Oct 31
The critical potential of participatory design
Nov 2
What does PD look like today?
Homework: Written proposals for final project
Affective Presence
Core Readings Boehner et al.: How Emotion Is Made and Measured
Sundström et al.: eMoto
Romero et al.: Tableau Machine
Selection A Picard: Towards Computers that Recognize and Respond to User Emotion
Selection B Dror: Counting the Affects
Nov 7
What is affective presence?
Nov 9
Dealing with the ineffability of affect
Co-Interpreting Experience
Core Readings Gaver et al: Ambiguity as a Resource for Design
Aoki and Woodruff: Making Space for Stories
Boehner and Hancock: Advancing Ambiguity
Sengers and Gaver: Staying Open to Interpretation
Selection A Lederer and Heer: All together now
Bossen and Dalsgaard: Conceptualization and appropriation
Selection B Kline and Pinch: Users as Agents of Technological Change
Nov 14
Designing for open interpretation
Nov 16
(How) does it make sense to design for appropriation, given that people appropriate anyway?
Final projects workshop
Project Workshop
Core Readings
Selection A
Selection B
Nov 21
Homework: Together with your project team, prepare an oral presentation of your project to explain your thinking and results so far to the class.

Project Workshop / Wrap-up
Core Readings Ehn: Manifesto for a Digital Bauhaus
Selection A
Selection B
Nov 28
Oral presentations
Nov 30
Oral presentations / Where to from here?
Dec 11: Final Projects Due
Dec 15: End-of-semester Party (Optional)


You will do weekly one-page reading responses, which are due on our wiki by Monday at midnight. These responses have two components:

  1. One-paragraph description of one of the week's readings, that summarizes the argument made and the evidence being used in support of that argument.
  2. Ca. one-paragraph response to the reading. You may choose the form of your response; some examples are:
    • Discussion of an issue or problem raised by that reading that you find interesting.
    • A link to a related news article or short piece from outside of class.
    • A comment on or contribution to someone else's reading response.
Reading responses are graded on a pass/fail basis. During the course of the semester, you may skip 2 of them without penalty.

You will write two papers for this class. The first will be 10 pages, on a topic you choose related to the course content. The second will be a long paper on a group project you develop with teammates from the course. Each group project will involve the design, implementation, and evaluation of some technology as a form of critical technical practice.

Alterations to these assignments are always possible upon approval of the instructor.

Grading formula:

  • Weekly Responses: 10%
  • Short Paper: 25%
  • Long Paper: 45%
  • Oral presentation: 5%
  • Class and on-line discussion: 15%
Grading is not just a matter of numbers, but also of judgment. The instructor reserves the right to adjust grades by up to half a letter grade based on knowledge of your performance not summed up in this tidy formula.