‘Contemporary HCI’ a panel discussion

This week three UK Universities came together to host a HCI Summer Festival: HCID at City University London, Open Lab at Newcastle University, and NORTHLab at Northumbria University. This week started with a panel about ‘contemporary issues in HCI’. Touching on issues of inequality, structural injustice, and working towards more hopeful futures.

I was part of this panel with Prof Abi Durrant, Prof Alex Taylor, and Dr Reem Talhouk. And here’s my part of the conversation. During the panel, this should be read in conversation with the others’ comments, which built on one another. But I do not want to post their notes here. As always, I like to ad-lib a little bit when I speak, and it’s actually a bit strange for me to write out a script for what I was going to say, but I felt I needed to say some things that were difficult for me to say. So here is what I was supposed to read out about contemporary issues in HCI:

We’re at a time in HCI where we have moved towards at a time in HCI where we have moved towards doing research in-the-world, but where many areas of HCI research are also still engaging with traditional experiments.

We have people working on projects that aim to advance social justice ideals and are developing interdisciplinary ways of understanding technologies.

  • Postcolonial computing
  • Crit disability studies
  • Crit race studies
  • Different forms of feminism
  • And many more

But at the same time, we continue to see work that re-enforces the technologies and approaches some of us have been critiquing for years. We are not just the social justice HCI community, we are a wider community of disparate conversations that are at great odds with one another.

But HCI isn’t just about the research we produce and talk about. It’s about the universities in which we do this work, our research groups, and the wider ‘community’. It’s about who is, and who feels welcome in these spaces.

We can’t talk about ‘contemporary’ HCI without talking about recent discrimination experienced by the RACE Diversity and Inclusion team.

And we can’t talk about that as an isolated incident. The bravery of the authors of the blogpost cannot be understated, but we also have to ask ourselves, and I have to ask myself, what I have done, and continue to do to perpetuate this system. And then I must act on those reflections.  

This is not the first time people have spoken up about mistreatment and discrimination in relation to SIGCHI or the ACM. And it won’t be the last.

I know of papers that have received shocking reviews that discredit the work for years, to then receive best paper awards when the publication venues was ready.

Articles for a Crossroads Special Issue were heavily edited or forcefully removed by senior editors when they were deemed inappropriate. And it required the work of so many, building on anger, tears, and fear for their safety in response to an awful keynote in 2018 for people to come together to write an open letter that was read at the town hall meeting that year.

Fempower.tech and I were heavily involved with this letter and have been told that this played a part in the establishment of the inclusion teams, of which RACE is one. And now the teams that were born out of inequities and exclusion are themselves experiencing marginalisation. But this time perhaps this is even more harmful for those involved: before it could be explained away as indifference or ignorance but what are we going to do now?

We write so carefully about inclusion, inequities, and social justice in our researcher. We now must also live this way of working.

I want to read a segment from the 2018 open letter in response to the keynote, which seems incredibly relevant again two years later.

This discrimination is a “catalyst and symptom of wider issues in HCI and CHI that we have chosen to strategically avoid over the last few years. Yes, there have been campaigns, policies, and actions, but the fact that this happened, shows that inclusion is still a work in progress. […]

We need to learn to encounter, address, acknowledge, and constructively deal with these differences democratically and collectively, rather than relying on top-down decision-making consensus. […]

This letter is a call for social change that is complex, and nuanced, and necessary. Something we have to work on together, and something that is an ongoing conversation about intersectional inclusivity of varied experiences across ACM membership.

We need to stop the self-congratulation about being the ‘best’ conference in relation to diversity and inclusion in the ACM, as this gives the false impression that the job is done. Instead, we must celebrate our small victories and simultaneously work towards becoming a better, more welcoming and retaining, space for the most marginalised in our SIGCHI community.”

The fact we are having these conversations is a step in the right direction, but they are little steps, often difficult and potentially hurtful steps, but they are steps that we must continue to take.