Thursday, 11 July 2013

Speaking into Space...

I've been meaning to get blogging for ages, but as with all things, it's been difficult to find the time. Still, I set myself a “mid-year” resolution that as of 1st July, I was going to make a start, so here I am. The thing with starting up a blog is that there's no guarantee that anyone is reading it, so it has the disconcerting feeling of speaking into an empty room. Or a dark theatre, maybe, wondering if there's an audience there at all.

And at the time of writing this first post, of course, I can guarantee that no one is reading – since you couldn't possibly know that this blog exists. Still, here it is – broadcasting into the ether.

Anyway, the purpose of this opening post is really twofold: to introduce myself, and to provide a statement of intent for this blog. So, here we go!

Just Who am I, Anyway?

My name is Raymond Holt, and I am an engineer. And like most engineers, I suspect, I'm quite proud of that. I have a BEng and a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Leeds, and I work there as a lecturer. Since September 1998, there has been literally no gap in my time here: between my BEng and my PhD I undertook a summer project at the University, and in 2005 I was appointed as a lecturer before I completed my PhD. And I've been a lecturer here ever since.

My PhD was on the subject of decision support in Integrated Product and Process Design: and because decision-making is a human process, I got very interested in human factors, and how we can develop tools that people actually use. I still haven't solved that one, by the way, but this has led me to get very interested in User Centered Design. When I first started as a lecturer, Martin Levelsey and Bipin Bhakta needed someone to lead the User Centered Design work on their Rehabilitation Robotics theme – and I fitted the bill. And I've been involved in work on disability and rehabilitation of various flavours ever since.

My particular area is the acquisition of motor skills in children with cerebral palsy (mainly prehension), though that takes in a whole range of multidisciplinary work across engineering, design, medicine, sociology, philosophy and psychology (among others). The fact that I get involved in research across disciplines is good fun, but as an engineer at heart, it does mean I'm an interested amateur in these other areas. That means I probably misappropriate concepts all the time. It's a hazard of multidisciplinary work – so if I seem to be barking up the wrong tree, or have the wrong end of the stick on something, just shout.

As a lecturer, I teach as well: I teach on the Product Design programme here at Leeds, which is a mix of art and engineering. So my multidisciplinary interests stand me in good stead there.

Why the Blog?

None of which answers the question of why I would start up a blog, or why anyone would want to read it. So, apart from trying to jump a bandwagon that's a good decade old now, why would I do this? Well, mostly I intend to use this as a space to think out loud. I have a whole load of documents full of notes and musings, and I could really do with somewhere to put them in one place – and a blog is (I hope!) a lot easier to look after than a website, and I could do with a web presence to point people to that doesn't require me to upload content via other people. So even if no one reads this, at least I'll have be getting some benefits!

But the other reason for thinking “out loud” is that if anyone does happen by, it's a good way of getting some comment, or at least getting my ideas out there when they're too vague for publication. In that, I'm taking inspiration from Andrew Wilson and Sabrina Golonka over at Notes from Two Scientific Psychologists. I like their subtitle: “a brave attempt to think out loud about theories of psychology until we get some”. I'm not so interested in theories of psychology, but thinking aloud is definitely my kind of thing.

What's an Engineering Imagination?

I've borrowed the term from C. Wright Mills “Sociological Imagination” [1], which apart from being a natty title for his book, would turn out to be a seminal concept in Sociology. Now, Sociologists may well correct me on the finer points of this, but my understanding of the Sociological Imagination is this. Mills was interested in the relationship between individual and society, and noted that social science wasn't just a matter of getting better data, or analysing it more effectively. Measurements are filtered through a whole set of social norms, and individual assumptions and biases. They colour the way we look at the world, and are often deeply embedded in the methods that we used. The term that crops up again and again in relation to the sociogical imagination is “thinking oneself away” in order to see familiar things in a new light. It highlights the fact that science, far from being an objective pursuit, is rooted in social expectations and assumptions, that scientists may not even be aware of: Mills was thinking of social scientists, I particular – of those who saw social science as a process of devising better questionnaires and measurements. Arguably, it applies to all science – perhaps not in the physical mechanics of the scientific process, but in the directions we choose to investigate, and the way we generalise from scientific findings. Certainly it applies to engineering: at a fundamental level, what engineers choose to devote their time and energy to (or sell their skills for). This is similar to the dichotomy raised by Richard Bowen [2]: do engineers work to develop weapons, or provide water?

And that's what I mean by an Engineering Imagination: not that engineers shouldn't be making weapons, necessarily, or that we should all be developing medicine (and there's a whole raft of considerations when it comes to profiting from medicine and healthcare technology). I'm not in a position to take a position on these things – yet. But it's the sort of thing that I wanted to muse on. It's not just about what we engineer, but about the way we engineer it: decisions made in developing products and systems have huge implications for their accessibility, use and consequences (both intended and unintended).

In Conclusion

Right – enough of the brain dump. My aim is to use this blog as a scratch pad, a place to jot down my ideas and musing – some more formed than others – on a number of topics, as well as keeping you up-to-date on my work. Apart from my research on prehension, and inclusive play, I wanted to muse on a number of areas close to my heart: design decision-making, decision support and engineering ethics in particular. My aim is to update roughly every fortnight: and given the time that it's taken to get this post together piecemeal, that seems like a realistic estimate.

So, I've set out my stall: next time, I promise there'll be some content, and that content will be about the Together Through Play project. I'm pushing off into the great stream of the blogosphere – wish me luck...
Oh, and give some time to sort the formatting out, OK?

[1] Mills CW (1959) The Sociological Imagination. Oxford Univeristy Press.
[2] Bowen WR (2008) Engineering Ethics: Outline of an Aspirational Approach. Springer.

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