Lucy Suchman is a professor of Anthropology of Science and Technology at Lancaster University (England), and what immediately strikes you in her curriculum vitae, is that she worked for Xerox for twenty years. Indeed, the copier and printer giant. And that for a cultural anthropologist! She started as a trainee in 1979 and left as head of the Palo Alto Research Center in 2000.
“She was able to give Xerox, a company whose main goal is to make money, interesting insights into the way customers use copiers and printers,” says honorary supervisor Sally Wyatt, professor of Digital Cultures (FASoS). “At the same time, Suchman knew how to transform this knowledge intellectually. Her most famous book is Plans and Situated Actions: the Problem of Human-Machine Communication.”
This book - a commercial edition of her PhD thesis - laid the foundations for the field of human-computer interaction. “It may sound simple now, but Suchman was one of the first experts to study the way people use technology. Before that, devices were often tested on colleagues. And then companies were surprised that nobody used or bought them. Suchman critically analysed the assumptions of the designers.”
The examples are numerous. A few years ago, people who experienced heart attacks received a device that recorded the heart rhythm, says Wyatt. In case of irregularities, they could send the data to the clinic. But the patients, mostly old, couldn’t hear the beeper that alerted them. “This is a good example of how primarily young designers do not consider other health problems of the target group of older patients.”
In 2007, an updated version of Plans and Situated Actions was published, called Human-Machine Reconfigurations: Plans and Situated Action. In five new chapters, Suchman focuses on the idea of human-like machines.
Suchman has published many articles on human-computer interaction in the domain of warfare, amongst others the design and deployment of automated weapon systems. Wyatt: “Many of the assumptions in the design of these robots, coming from technicians living in the Midwest of the United States, may not apply to operating in a desert in Afghanistan. Also, can this robot tell the difference between an armed soldier and a child with a stick?”
Sally Wyatt has known her personally since the late eighties. “I invited Lucy Suchman for a workshop on gender and technology. She is extremely nice. You are not supposed to say that, especially not about women, but she is. Suchman always remembers your situation, makes time, and offers feedback. I know lots of famous people who don’t.”
Famous? “Yes, she is. At least, in my world and among computer and data scientists. She’s not as famous as Foucault, but the two versions of Plans and Situated Actions have been cited more than 13,000 times.” It’s not the first honorary doctorate that Suchman receives. In 2011, she was honoured by Malmö University in Sweden.
Carole Ann Goble (1961), a professor of Computer Science at the University of Manchester, has articles to her name too and more than a thousand citations. Articles as good as everyone in the data field know, says Michel Dumontier, professor of Data Science.
Dumontier says that he has looked up to Goble for a long time. “She is a real inspiration, makes people want to do more, and do it together. I once had a misunderstanding with a colleague in the field. When she heard about it, she e-mailed: ‘Now sit down, you two, and talk.’ Not on a bossy tone, but like: ‘Come on guys, be reasonable.’ We did, and now we work together and even share a grant. She‘s like the mother of data science.”
Connecting people could be her life motto, says Dumontier, because that is in some way also the core of her professional work. “She creates software for data scientists that makes working together easier. She became known for Taverna, software that enables users to create workflows on their computers. It consists of a series of automated operations, which starts with the input of data and ends with, for example, finding a gene for a specific disease. Goble also made it easier to share this workflow, something that was impossible in the early days. She won a Microsoft award for this so-called outstanding contribution to e-Science.”