The Story of Sisyphus: a Pessimistic Notion of Computer Mediated Work Study

Tiap minggu di kelas Computer Assisted Communication basically kita disuruh baca 3-4 paper tentang tema terntentu mulai dari chatting system, social network, privacy in internet, dsb. Selain itu disuruh nulis juga 2-3 halaman response paper tentang tanggapan kita atas bacaan2 itu. Biasanya kalo menarik gw share di twitter tp ga pernah posting tulisan gw di blog. Sekali-kali gw pkr oke, biar keliatan nerd. heheheh

Minggu ini temanya tentang Computer Mediated Work atau terjemahan kotornya tentang pekerjaan yang menggunakan sistem/aplikasi/softaware sebagai media kolaborasi/komunikasi antar pekerja2nya. hehehe. Hope you will enjoy.

One of the Greek myths narrated a story about Sisyphus, the founder and king of Corinth. He was admired as the craftiest of men, who successfully locked up Hades –the Lord of the underworld- in a closet at his house for many days. In this circumstance, nobody could die and the gods’ wrath came upon him. As punishment, he was compelled to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, and to repeat this throughout eternity. I will distill the notions of the four papers about CMW that we read this week by relating them to the cycle of Sisyphus’ life.

The Hill Condition
Ackerman (2005) argues that there is an inherent gap between the social requirements of Computer-Supportive Cooperative Work (CSCW) and its technical mechanisms. The scent of this social-technical gap between what we know we must support socially and what we can support technically can also be smelled in the field study conducted by Yvonne Rogers (1993). She conducted observational research in a civil engineering company’s work place in order to capture the coordination of distributed work activities which is mediated by computer technology. In her conclusion, she explained some important challenges in Computer-Mediated Work.

The first challenge is how to design the instrumental role played by mediating mechanisms. The second notion is how to solve the difficulties that arise during the initial stages of a project or enterprise whenever any new technology is introduced in an organization – this is also called teething problems. Facing these technical horrors, Rogers revealed several rules to consider. One such rule is to develop more intelligent and transparent interfaces as “coordination software”. In her final words, Rogers stated that in order for CSCW to support distributed communication and working, it should ensure that the coordination mechanisms are synchronized by getting a balance between supporting the socially distributed and technologically mediated mechanism of coordination.

Rolling the Boulder Up

Realizing the hill condition described by Yvonne Rogers, people like Keith A. Butler, Chris Esposito, and Ron Hebron have already tried to roll the boulder up. Facing the social-technical gap problem in CMW, they proposed to combine the process of designing software and designing work (Butler, Keith 1999). The authors realized that when software developers design interactive software to support CMW they also define much about the work of its user. In the worst case, this software will force users to work harder to follow the work process described by the application. Or in another scenario, developers will load the users with massive information or features, resulting in frustration.

The attempts to roll the boulder up were started by making the connection between the two different languages and the two different models between designing software and designing work. They connect UML which provides software developers with several useful methods such as class diagrams, use-cases, and event sequence diagram to capture the complexity of software and work process modeling, which is represented in IDEF3. Their hypothesis is that by making this connection, there will several promising results in term of customer satisfaction, on-time and within-budget delivery of high-quality software, and very high team morale.

The Summit
People have tried their best effort to rolling the boulder up and some people have finally reached the summit of the hill. For instance, there is an application named “Anchored Conversation” that allows conversation places in the form of chat spaces to be associated with specific locations within work (Churchill et al 2000). Another example can be seen in the “Babble” system. Babble is a working system that was adopted in the six groups at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center (Kellogg et al 1999 and Kellogg at al 2000). In the first study of the Babble system’s adoption, Erin Bradner and Wendy Kellogg came up with the three important features of CMW adoption processes which are critical mass, social affordances, and ecology of community practices (Kellogg et al 1999). In his further study with Babble, Kellogg describes “Social Translucent Systems” which enable people to draw upon their social experience and expertise to structure their interactions with one another. His study suggested that visibility, awareness, and accountability should be the building blocks of any CMW (Kellogg et al 2000). By conducting the research around Babble, Kellogg believed that he had already transformed a system that creates barricades between users into a system that can disclose the presence of the users and also enable the already established social system and mechanisms to come efficiently into play.

The Boulder is Rolling Back Down
Sisyphus can shout the victory now because he has already reached the summit. However the boulder is just rolling back down. For instance, although the three concepts of visibility, awareness, and accountability that were coined by Kellogg radiated some light on the adoption case of CMW; Kellogg also clearly said that a more principled understanding of these concepts is needed. Another boulder rolling down comes from Rogers. She explained that the mediating mechanism can nourish the productive laziness if the procedures are extraneous and voluntary. The designers then are forced to roll the boulder up again by developing self-adaptive systems to overcome the misalignments of the prior mediating mechanisms. Moreover, her notion of bringing in the new system called “coordination software” also introduces a new problem because there will be consequences of computerizing previously socially distributed coordination systems. This can result in a decreasing level of opportunities for updating mutual knowledge in the new computerized system or in the worst case can result in being more vulnerable to breakdowns in communication.

There are always days where designers of computer mediated work will feel much like Sisyphus, pushing that massive rock up the mountain, trying to minimize the weakness of every system, developing new ones only to find they never really reach the summit. Just about the time they think they have conquered the hill, there are other problems that need to be solved and they find they are really at the bottom all over again. This reality brings me to the following questions

      1. Are we Sisyphus who is trapped in this endless cycle of problems-solutions-problems?
      2. What is the real purpose of humans doing all of this relentless and exhausting work in CMW study if there is no eternal solution?
        3. What are the kinds of responses that we should take as the designers of these systems? Should we just be ignorant of this endless cycle and just follow the stream eternally (finding the problem – designing a solution – implementing solution – coming up with new problem – repeat)?
      4. What is the real purpose of us taking HCDE 505 if there is no solution for the social-technical gap in any form of computer assisted communication?


  1. Ackerman, Mark. (2000). “The Intellectual Challenge of CSCW: The Gap between Social Requirements and Technical Feasibility”. Human-Computer Interaction, 15(2-3), 179-203.
  2. Butler, Keith; Esposito, Chris; Hebron, Ron. (1999) “Connecting the Design of Software to the Design of Work”. Communication of the ACM. 42(1), 38-46.
  3. Bradner, Erin; Erickson, Thomas; Kellogg, Wendy. (1999) “The Adoption and Use of ‘Babble’” A Field Study of Chat in the Workplace”. Proceeding of the Sixth European Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work, 139-158.
  4. Churchill, Elizabeth; Cubranic, Davor; Nelson, Les; Trevor, Jonathan. (2000) “Anchored Conversations: Chatting in the Context of a Document”. Proceeding of the SIGCHI conference on Human Factors in computing system, 454-461.
  5. Erickson, Tomas; Kellogg, Wendy. (2000) “Social Translucence: An Approach to Designing Systems that Support Social Processes”. ACM Transaction on Computer-Human Interaction. 7(1), 59-83.
  6. Rogers, Yvonne. (1993) “Coordinating Computer-Mediated Work”. Computer Supported Cooperative Work. 1(4), 295-315.

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