3 min read
The Gephisto paper is out! Anders Munk and I defend the idea that since people get to understand tools by using them, those should cultivate critical thinking through use, and even more, through ease of use.
The paper on Convergence (paywalled):
The preprint (full access):
Easier said than done, though. Gephisto is an attempt at doing this in practice. You can see it as a one-click Gephi. Give it a GEXF or GraphML, and it makes a network map. Your data is not uploaded, it all happens on your own computer.
Also check Verónica Espinoza’s post presenting the tool (thanks to her!).
Gephisto is primarily intended for teaching, although you may find it useful as a network map maker. But if you find it frustrating, understand that this is integral to its design. One-click magic comes at a price.
We argue that for the user, making informed decisions is like climbing a ladder: becoming aware that a choice exists, knowing its options, what they entail, and how to assess them. Climbing the ladder requires efforts.
In practice, users must choose between climbing the ladder (learning) and meeting their needs (utilitarian use of the tool). They have limited resources, so they must compromise between learning and meeting their operational goals.
The problem is not to use the tool in utilitarian ways (unreflexive). Even seasoned experts go for shortcuts in time-constrained situations. The problem is to never climb the ladder. That’s where ease of use can be a trap.
Some people say that science tools should be hard to use, so that untrained users, supposedly uncritical and unreflexive, cannot access them. Such tools would then only be usable to the worthy users (critical, reflexive), and it would preserve good science.
But this argument fails to acknowledge that most beginners take shortcuts because they have to meet operational goals in time-constrained situations, not because they are uncritical. Climbing the ladder is just costly.
Hard-to-use tools are like Thor’s mythical hammer, Mjølnir, that can only be lifted by the worthy. It requires people to be worthy, but it does not make them worthy. So users will turn around the problem to meet their needs, leading to even worse misuses.
Contrary to Mjølnir, Gephisto is not hostile to the user. It delivers the shortcut (a visualization in one click). However, the more you use it, the more you get to understand the thickness of the decisions it makes for you.
It does that by making the decisions half-randomly. One can make good and bad choices, and Gephisto always tries to make the best ones. But even so, a number of decisions remain. For ex: black or white background? It picks at random, differently each time.
This inconsistency is the price of ease of use. It should become frustrating as you realize that you actually want to make certain decisions. Ex: you prefer the black background. You are climbing the ladder. You need to move to Gephi.
I know how to use Gephi, yet I sometimes use Gephisto. I have climbed the ladder, yet sometimes want a super quick result. It does not make me uncritical. Ease of use does not have to be the nemesis of reflexiveness.
We want to make tools that elevate the user, not tools that lock them out until they have found other ways to get “worthy”. It’s hard though. Gephisto works but it is a prototype, a statement. We hope it paves the way forward to better science tools.