What’s the point

Last week on Tuesday, during my supervision with one of my supervisors, he asked me: What’s the point? Why are you doing what you’re doing? At first, this seemed like an absolutely horrible question to ask. I chuckled, we both laughed, and then got quite serious. After a few seconds of me not saying anything, I responded with uuhhmmm what do you mean? To which he expanded a little on what he meant. He laughed again and said he didn’t mean the question to sound as horrible or mean as it did; that he just wanted to bring me to think about what I was doing, and why I was doing it – what it was that I was actually interested in.

To give you a little context on that, this came towards the end of a supervision in which I wanted to talk about the big picture of my PhD. I’m at a point where I want to figure out what I’m doing, where I want to start writing on my actual dissertation documents, and where I want the writing that I am doing to actually fit in with the final argument that I’m making. After going through the thought process I’ve been having over the last year or so (again) with him, we got to a point where nothing really made sense anymore.

I want to do too many things.

I also keep talking about social justice or justice without really going beyond the common sense arguments. Recently, I’ve read some Amartya Sen, I’ve read some Martha Nussbaum, and I’ve read some Nancy Fraser, but for some reason this doesn’t seem to enter my conversations with my supervisors yet. I haven’t really internalised any of these yet, and so haven’t found out how they fit in with my work on enough levels yet (yes, it makes sense with my basic argument of: I’m designing technologies and am looking at how they can/do/should support a move towards a more socially just world, but nothing really beyond that. And I still haven’t really started taking that thought apart yet either).

So what am I actually doing?!
What am I interested in beyond my application area of designing technologies?

In an attempt to answer the questions my supervisor was asking me, I began to drift to a slightly different space. I thought about what I’d written so far, and decided to talk about what I enjoyed there. I really liked writing the ECSCW paper (or well, it’s currently under review). This was a paper that I’ve re-worked too many times to count, have hated for a while, but for some reason keep coming back to. It’s trying to unpick the relationships we build with charities when designing technologies with them. It does this by providing a theoretical overview of HCI literature surrounding methodologies that are used in publications in this space before going into a pragmatic case study that is supported by vignettes of parts of the research experience that I captured in the form of handwritten notes. After the case study, I try to unpick what happened in the vignettes with the help of the methodological overview I used at the beginning. This was a hard paper to write, but looking back, I really enjoyed it!

Looking back at CHI2017, I also remembered that I enjoyed writing the methodological paper (that got rejected) a lot more than I did writing the other paper that was based more on the data I collected, outlining implications for design for technologies to design with sex work support services. While both of these papers are important for the work I am doing (and I’m glad I wrote them both), I did enjoy writing the methodological one more. It made more sense to me, and it felt like there was more of a reason for me to write it. After all, what’s the point of having yet another paper with implications for design? (I mean, I understand there are lots of reasons for this, and it’s actually an interesting paper, but I don’t think it’ll have a major impact on anything, really).

This brought me back to a thought I had a few months ago: why not write my dissertation in a similar style as these papers that I enjoyed writing?

Shocking! I know.

But really, why not? I’ve been getting too hung up on the digital technology and the design process recently, as I’m trying to synthesise everything into an actual website design for NUM with T and E. So the supervision last week was a welcome reminder to come back to reality, to come back to the complexity that is what I am trying to do (or at least I think is what I’m trying to do).

Talking to my supervisor last week was such a good thing to do. It made me re-think what I’ve been doing, and made me realise that that silly thought I had a few weeks (or was it months?) ago wasn’t actually that silly! Talking Rob through my idea was a bit strange. It was something that I’d kept to myself, that I didn’t even write down properly because I didn’t think it made too much sense, and thought it was an argument that was too pragmatic. But here goes. What if I write about the work that I’m doing; the actual practicalities of what I’m doing, to explore the ways in which the designing of digital technologies with and for sex work support services impacts different spaces: what role does it play in relation to the charity I’m working with? Since I’m working in an inherently political space and am all in favour for the re-politicisation of research, what role does my work play in the wider political context (ie the sex worker rights movement)? How does the way I write about the work affect HCI practice and methodology? And how does the work I do affect myself as a researcher and as a person?

All of these questions are really big, but they actually fit in with my social justice, feminist, participatory-style oriented methodology. They answer important questions that HCI (and actually service design research as well) have been asking for a while now. I guess I can use the same argument I used for my ECSCW paper: everyone keeps saying we should talk about these things, but nobody is actually doing the we need to talk about this bit. So it’s maybe going to be me!

So, maybe that’s the point.

Every now and again I get an urge to draw out my entire dissertation in a single flowchart. I know this wont necessarily make sense to everyone, but it sort of makes sense to me. I always tell myself I’m not a pragmatist, I’m not someone who goes through things in a necessarily very logical order, that I’m really chaotic and like to be spontaneous. At the same time however, I love making flowcharts about my dissertation. To be fair, they often come out of nonsensical notes on pieces of paper (or the floor). These notes often make sense as I’m writing them (and drawing different coloured lines between the different parts of the paper), but once I’ve covered the piece of paper, the connections often don’t even make sense to me anymore.

This time I tried something different. I wrote some notes on a piece of paper (that actually made sense in the order I wrote them, almost like a list), and after that started to draw out what I was doing with my research. I went back and looked at the reading and writing I had done thus far, and wrote down the two gaps in research that I’m trying to address: (1) the gap in research around digital service delivery for sex work support services; and (2) the gap in research around the intricacies and complexities of doing this kind of design research. That’s what I’m trying to do. I don’t have a research question that addresses this (but I guess my disliking of research questions calls for another post!), but I guess that’s what I’m trying to do!

A weird flow-diagram of a potential dissertation that made sense in my head when I drew it

After realising (again) that those were the two things I’m trying to do, I also added the things I’m interested in as outlined in the questions I posed above about who is affected by my research (though I left out the personal journey on the diagram I drew). The whole point of the dissertation wouldn’t be my argument if it didn’t go to a meta level it really didn’t need to go to: to explore the relationships between these different areas, and to explore the everchanging ecology that is built through the process of designing digital technologies with (sex work) support services. In this way, the application area (sex work) becomes less important in the end, as it is an example of a space that is particularly complex due to the many historical, legal, and cultural stigma and misrepresentation in society that is often associated with the space. It’s a space I want to keep working in, but I also understand that what I am learning about working with charities and the processes I am going through to develop technologies with them is a space that goes beyond this. Taking this thought further, it takes me back to what I was saying earlier about how I feel about the two papers I wrote for CHI2017: what’s the point of them? Is it to design more technologies or is it to attempt to understand the world we work in, affecting the ways in which we think about the work we do?

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