Saturday, 6 October 2012

Hammers and LaTeX: some challenges of interdisciplinary working

I am editing a document in LaTeX. I am just about capable of doing this, but I'm finding it a real strain. LaTeX is very familiar to many computer scientists (particularly those who need to include formal notations in their writing), but is not my document production tool of choice. For me, it is an unwieldy tool, and I am distracted from what I want to say by what I perceive as a clunky interface.

Martin Heidegger used the analogy of a hammer: when a hammer is well designed and being used correctly then it becomes an extension of the arm: it is effectively invisible. When it is too heavy for the user, or the centre of gravity is in the wrong place, or when the user hits their thumb with it, then the hammer becomes the focus of attention rather than the task at hand. The hammer is no longer invisible, but disruptive. For me, LaTeX is a disruptive tool: I'll get there in the end, but the tool is distracting me from the task.
So why am I using it? Because the people I'm working with are more comfortable with LaTeX than with WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) word processors. For them, LaTeX is the invisible tool and they find it much more powerful than (for example) MSWord. So we have a very low-level, apparently trivial, barrier to interdisciplinary working: each of us finds it challenging to use the tools that the other finds most usable and useful.

The tools are just the start of the challenge: interdisciplinary working involves learning each other's language, respecting each other's culture and value system, learning how to communicate effectively and write in ways that "make sense" to the other. In CHI+MED, technologists and social scientists are working with clinicians, and we often find mismatches in understanding (e.g. some of us find error interesting, and a problem to be exposed and addressed, while others find even the suggestion that clinicians might ever make mistakes deeply threatening).  In SerenA, scientists are working with artists, and again there are differences in values, e.g. between productivity and creativity.

There is a big push towards interdisciplinary working in research, and this is really important. For example, "problem solvers" (computer scientists and technologists) who deliver innovative systems need to be able to communicate effectively with "problem owners" (medics, lawyers, journalists, and other knowledge workers) so that next-generation systems achieve their potential. It's also an exciting journey: we have so much to learn from each other! But we shouldn't underestimate the variety and magnitude of the challenges faced in interdisciplinary work. Now, back to that LaTeX...

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