Phoebe Sengers


My work is based on critical technical practice, i.e. technology design interleaved with critical reflection on hidden assumptions and values underlying technology. I focus on reflective design, or analyzing and building technologies to support both designers and users in thinking in new ways about technology and its role in everyday life. I am particularly interested in the role that IT playes in consumer culture, and how we might be able to break IT out of its role in the overwork-overproduction-overconsumption cycle. Defamiliarization is a central design strategy in my practice for getting people to see technology in a new light. My work is strongly informed by critical theory as a means to understand the politics of experience in technology design, i.e. how technology design can constrain or alter our experiences and our identities. This stance entails moving away from a science-engineering model of technology design to alternative forms of knowledge production for IT deriving more from the humanities and arts. I use critical technical practice to mutually inform human-computer interaction and science & technology studies.


Some of my ongoing projects include

The primary focus of my current work is in sustainable HCI, or IT design oriented towards environmental issues. I believe that taking the environment seriously in IT design requires not simply applying existing methods and perspectives for technology development to this new domain, but also requires understanding the role that technologies in general and IT in particular has historically played in reinforcing conceptions of the environment and our relationship to it, for example the common conception of technology as a tool to control and tame nature. Rethinking HCI at this level requires us to raise questions not only about the role of our discipline in creating large masses of disposable consumer products, but also about whose opinions are taken as expertise in HCI, the extent to which we leave room for the unexpected, and whether we see technology primarily as a tool to solve problems without human awareness or, alternatively, as a spur to raising human reflection about problems.

My group has had a major strength for a number of years in affective presence, or devices that trigger social and emotional engagement and reflection. We focused, not on how the devices can sense and model emotions and relationships, but on how users interpret systems to be meaningful to them in their own lives. Affective Presence is a collaboration with the Cornell HCI Group, Bill Gaver, Kristina Höök, Michael Mateas, and Intel. In our own work, we are now shifting focus from affect to applying the design and evaluation principles developed in this work to sustainable HCI.