Olav's Ph.D.-Thesis

a contribution to critical systems development research


The empirical basis of the thesis comes from two projects. The evaluation and redesign of an object-oriented source code debugger, and the design of computer support for preproduction work together with users planning a major Danish music festival.

The thesis offers a materialist and dialectical framework for understanding and influencing the field of use and design of computer artefacts. The framework is materialist because it insists on the reality of the material world and the material character of mental phenomena; it is dialectical because it rejects the idea that human life is a mechanical product of its material basis; the mental and the material are mutually determining in a dialectical relation. The thesis points to activity theory as a possible basic vocabulary in systems development research; integrating the relevant and necessary aspects involved in designing computer artefacts, not as being operational at all levels, but as a general "world view" under which relevant sub-fields are integrated.

The thesis emphasises material mediation in design by introducing the concept of design artefacts as a unifying perspective on systems development. This concept is based on a dialectical materialist approach comprising activity theory as a general perspective (mainly Engeström), and specifically the notion of primary, secondary and tertiary artefacts (Wartofsky), this background is complemented with the notion of boundary objects (Star), as mediators in boundary zones. The argument of the thesis is based on the tenet of activity theory that human praxis is mediated by artefacts and is continually changing in the process of sociocultural development; and the notion of historical crystallisation of praxis into artefacts.

Systems development is understood as a heteropraxial zone of change though construction and introduction of new computer artefacts; this zone is mediated by design artefacts, which make different sense to the various praxes.

Four main themes are addressed. Firstly, the notion of design artefacts as an integrating perspective on systems development research and praxis, is introduced and developed. Secondly, a uniform notion of development tying use and design together, is discussed in relation to designing for development in use, and in relation to the notion of design as the transformation of artefacts. Thirdly, a pragmatic philosophy of science based on the understanding of theories as design artefacts, is proposed. Finally, the issue of tertiary artefacts as mediators of innovation and creativity, setting an agenda for a dialectical materialist theory not neglecting the individual genius, is programmatically pointed to.

Design artefacts

The idea in activity theory that human endeavour is mediated by culturally developing artefacts permeates the thesis. In understanding design and in understanding the relation between research and design, this tenet is expressed in the notion of design artefacts, which is the central concept introduced in the thesis. With reference to Wartofsky's terminology, it is argued that design artefacts are, or belong to, clusters of primary, secondary and tertiary artefacts, each class simultaneously mediating different elements of the design , implying that they mediate the direct production of the new computer artefact, that they are representing the considered work praxis as well as design work and, finally, that they take part in a non-productive off-line loop of free imagination. With reference to the concept of boundary objects and the concept of zone discussed by Engeström (1996) and others, it is argued that design artefacts mediate design in a boundary zone, where heterogeneous praxes meet to create the new. With reference to the distinction between primary and secondary artefacts and the general tension in language between meaning and sense (Vygotsky), it is argued that design artefacts have a precarious double character often emerging as a conflict between principles and praxis. The concept of design artefacts and mediation is a unifying concept in the sense that it is possible to understand all outcomes of systems development research, and computer science in general, as design artefacts, and to appreciate the value of these outcomes according to how they mediate design.

Development in use and use in design

Through the issue of transparent interaction it is illustrated that computer artefacts are changing during use without being altered technically. With reference to the notion of crystallisation of activity into successive generations of artefacts, it is argued that design can be understood as the transformation of artefacts from the domain of use; thus, connecting design and use, ensuring that the new computer artefact makes sense in the considered praxis. Transformation of artefacts establishes a boundary zone of use and design, the transformed artefacts being boundary objects in the double sense of both mediating across heterogeneous communities and across the use-design border. Artefacts maintain identity across transformation, abstractly as they continue to make sense in the same way for the involved praxes, and because representations in design in this situation are the secondary artefacts maintaining praxis, made explicit. As a particular result, understanding representations in design in terms of transformation yields a solution to the recurring referent system problem in object-oriented methods.

Pragmatic philosophy of science

Based on the notion of design artefacts, a pragmatic philosophy of science is suggested. The validity of a theory is appreciated based on its mediation of design activity, not just based on random preferences of individuals, but based on the reality of concrete societal praxis at a specific point on the trajectory of cultural development. This normative approach to use and design of computer artefacts is utilised specifically in assessing cognitivist engineering psychology; in general it induces enhanced sensitivity to the motives and achievements of such contributions. The radical pragmatic philosophy of science makes it possible to both maintain earlier contributions and to dismantle these in the creation of a dialectical materialist basis for design, with an exclusive world view as well as inclusive adaptation of earlier achievements.

"The new"

Traditional positions in activity theory understand development as the collective answer to a need state. Wartofsky's concept of tertiary artefacts provides an understanding of individualist creativity as a material phenomenon. This concept is an important stepping stone in understanding creativity and innovation in materialist terms, in a way that transcends the limitations of the history determinism of traditional activity theory. Thus, bridging the gab between individual inspiration and collective achievement, making a dialectical materialist notion of horizontal development possible. The thesis proposes the notion of abductors, a class of tertiary design artefacts mediating the development of radically new motives, as a vehicle for bringing such insights into design theory.

Supervisors were Kim Halskov Madsen, Susanne Bodker, and Morten Kyng

The thesis has successfully been defended, and is available as DAIMI publication, PB-531 (Short abstract | pdf | ps)

Last update: 19. May 1998 -- by olavb