22: Human-Machine Reconfigurations – Lucy Suchman

With Special Guest Dr. Barton Friedland

Lucy Suchman

Lucy Suchman is a distinguished scholar known for her contributions to the fields of human-computer interactions, work, science and technology studies, and feminist science. She is currently Professor of Anthropology of Science and Technology in the Department of Sociology at Lancaster University (UK) after a career of two decades in Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC).

In this episode, we are joined by Dr. Barton Friedland to discuss Suchman’s book “Human-Machine Reconfigurations: Plans and Situated Action” (2007). This is a new edition of her seminal book “Plans and Situated Actions: The Problem of Human-Machine Communication” (1987) which is based on her doctoral dissertation. Based on an ethnomethodological approach (which pays attention to the situated ways in which people go about their life and construct social order), Suchman studied the interaction of humans with a state-of-art photocopier; more specifically, an expert help system that regulates the user interface of the copying machine to investigate the problem of the machine’s recognition of the user’s problems. Although the photocopier was intended to be easy to use, videos showed that people found it complicated and difficult. Suchman shows that these interaction problems are greatly due to the underpinning assumptions about users’ behavior, more specifically, due to the idea that humans’ actions are based on the following of plans, which she refutes.

The book is a classic in the field of situated cognition, and has contributed to provide the foundations of the field of human-computer interaction. It served to debunk assumptions from cognitive science and artificial intelligence that saw the human mind in computational terms, assuming that human reasoning is based on planning (people worked by making a plan, and then executing it), when it is actually embodied and situated. She shows that in fact action comes first and that we evolve our plans in response to our situation. Plans are thus better conceptualized as a resource for action – not a blueprint for it – and stories used to justify and explain these actions.

The book had great importance to organization and management theory despite nominally belonging to another field. It provided support to the overall perspective on situated action (cognition) which posits that knowing is separate from doing; this has been central in studies about knowledge processes in organizations. It also highlighted that the consequences of technology for organizations must be understood in its use, a perspective which embraced scholars associated to the social construction of technology field and more recently the socio-materiality community. Finally, on a general level, the work also contributed to showcase how much technology (and materiality in general) are intermeshed into actions and organizational processes in non-trivial ways. 

Overall, this is a must-read for anyone interested in technology, humanism and post(trans)-humanism, as well as more practical issues of technology adaptation and dissemination!

You may also download the audio files here:  E22

Read with us:

Suchman, L. (2007). Human-Machine Reconfigurations: Plans and Situated Actions (2nd Ed.)Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

(Introduction, Chapter 5, Chapter 6 and Chapter 15)

Additional resources:

Sharrock, W., & Button, G. (2003). Plans and Situated Action Ten Years OnThe Journal of the Learning Sciences, 12(2), 259–264.

Szymanski, M. H., & Whalen, J. (2011). Making Work Visible: Ethnographically Grounded Case Studies of Work Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.