Alan Blackwell

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University of Cambridge ()

I only have one big research question, but I attack it from a lot of different angles. The question is representation. How do people make, see and use things that carry meaning? The angles from which I attack my question include various ways in which representations are applied (including design processes, interacting with technology, computer programming, visualisation), various methods by which I collect research data (including controlled experiments, prototype construction, ethnographic observation), and the theoretical perspectives of various academic disciplines (including computer science, cognitive psychology, engineering, architecture, music, anthropology).

If you are based in Cambridge, you may like to attend the following talks on human-computer interaction.

This page lists a few large research themes and major projects illustrating them. Smaller projects, including contributions to research communities and research-related teaching, are described on my publications page, and other activities page.

Crucible: Research in Interdisciplinary Design

Crucible is the Cambridge network for research in interdisciplinary design, which I founded with David Good. The network encompasses very many projects, funding sources and collaborators. Crucible projects include practical design work (as commercial consultants or in academic contexts) that draws on multiple disciplinary perspectives. We also carry out a significant amount of design research - investigating the processes of design work, developing facilitation processes for design activity, informing public policy related to the design of public value from academic research, and creating new and experimental software tools for designers to use. Many of these projects draw on my core expertise in visual representation.

Software and Creativity

Many contemporary arts practitioners develop software, incorporate it into their work, or use software tools to extend their professional practice. This research theme involves collaboration with a wide range of artists, including many with international profiles, exploring the ways in which they use representations. We have created a wide range of new software tools and programming languages for composers, performers, choreographers, sculptors and others. Many of these projects are linked via the Crucible page.

Social Media and Activism

Internet technology research is crucially dependent on understanding the social dynamics of the ways in which it is used, and collaboration with social scientists is essential to provide intellectual rigor and new insights. These projects have investigated the design and deployment of new social media, both in the world at large (various professional and political contexts), and within the University itself. In all cases, the representation of social relations around and within technical systems has been critical to understanding and the development of new understanding among all stakeholders. Many of these projects are linked via the Crucible page.

Energy Monitoring and Usage

Electricity is invisible, so our awareness of environmental impacts arising from energy use is solely dependent on the quality of the visual representations provided of energy use. Ever since contributing to the design of the first generation of semi-smart domestic gas meters in 1991, I have taken an interest in the user interface of home energy controls and monitoring. Several of our projects are concerned with helping people understand and control the patterns of energy usage in their homes. Many of these projects are linked via the Crucible page.

PhD Students' Research

  • Michal Kosinski - psychological instruments for the assessment of business value in social networking technologies.
  • Mo Syed - design techniques for incorporating social factors in technology development.
  • Luke Church - social, cognitive, philosophical, artistic and technical perspectives on the manipulation of information.
  • Chris Nash - Supporting Virtuosity and Flow in Computer Music.
  • Cecily Morrison - Bodies-in-Space: investigating technology usage in co-present group interaction (thesis). Now a Research Associate in the Cambridge Engineering Design Centre.
  • Lorisa Dubuc - Design research to assist conversation in dementia.
  • Darren Edge - Tangible user interfaces for peripheral interaction (thesis). Now at Microsoft Research Asia, Beijing.
  • Nick Collins - Autonomous Agents for Live Computer Music (co-supervised with Ian Cross) (thesis). Now a lecturer in Computer Music at the University of Sussex.
  • Martyn Dade-Robertson - the application of architectural design principles to the design of software navigation (co-supervised with Francois Penz and Maureen Thomas). Now a lecturer in Architecture and Communication at Newcastle University

Older projects (some sites no longer maintained)

AutoHAN: Control Interfaces for Home Automation

In Autohan we were trying to solve the basic problems of home control, where a multitude of devices must interact with each other and the residents in a sensible manner. One output was the tangible programming language "Media Cubes".

EUSES: End-Users Shaping Effective Software

The EUSES Consortium is an NSF-funded collaboration with researchers at Oregon State University, Carnegie Mellon University, Drexel University, Penn State University, and the University of Nebraska whose goal is to develop and investigate technologies for enabling End Users to Shape Effective Software.

Vital Signs: New Paradigms for Visual Interaction

EPSRC funded project, now complete, investigating notations, abstraction, representation and interaction in a metaphor-free theoretical framework.

Cognitive Dimensions of Notations

Long-term dissemination and archival of material related to the Cognitive Dimensions of Notations usability framework, including publishing and professional education projects.


Collaboration with the Cavendish Laboratory Inference Group - Dasher is a data entry interface incorporating language modelling and driven by continuous two-dimensional gestures. More general implications are in how we can interact with adaptive "intelligent" interfaces.

Webkit: Intuitive Physical Interface to the Web

European-funded research project, now complete (and various partners disappeared) designing tangible user interfaces that can be used in classrooms to access the web, control query engines, and stucture discussion.

EUDNET: Network of Excellence in End-User Development

Publication Statistics

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Ko, Andrew J., Abraham, Robin, Beckwith, Laura, Blackwell, Alan, Burnett, Margaret M., Erwig, Martin, Scaffidi, Christopher, Lawrance, Joseph, Lieberman, Henry, Myers, Brad A., Rosson, Mary Beth, Rothermel, Gregg, Shaw, Mary, Wiedenbeck, Susan (2011): The State of the Art in End-User Software Engineering. In ACM Computing Surveys, 43 (3) pp. 1-44.

Blackwell, Alan, Fincher, Sally (2010): PUX: patterns of user experience. In Interactions, 17 (2) pp. 27-31.

Blackwell, Alan, Rode, Jennifer Ann, Toye, Eleanor F. (2009): How do we Program the Home? Gender, Attention Investment, and the Psychology of Programmin. In International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 67 (4) pp. 324-41.

Toye, Eleanor F., Sharp, Richard, Madhavapeddy, Anil, Scott, David, Upton, Eben, Blackwell, Alan (2007): Interacting with mobile services: an evaluation of camera-phones and visual tags. In Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, 11 (2) pp. 97-106.

Jones, Rachel, Milic-Frayling, Natasa, Rodden, Kerry, Blackwell, Alan (2007): Contextual Method for the Redesign of Existing Software Products. In International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 22 (1) pp. 81-101.

Edge, Darren, Blackwell, Alan (2006): Correlates of the cognitive dimensions for tangible user interface. In J. Vis. Lang. Comput., 17 (4) pp. 366-394.

Blackwell, Alan (2006): Ten years of cognitive dimensions in visual languages and computing: Guest Editor's introd. In J. Vis. Lang. Comput., 17 (4) pp. 285-287.

Blackwell, Alan (2006): The reification of metaphor as a design tool. In ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction, 13 (4) pp. 490-530.

Rode, Jennifer A., Toye, Eleanor F., Blackwell, Alan (2004): The fuzzy felt ethnography-understanding the programming patterns of domestic appliances. In Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, 8 (3) pp. 161-176.

Blackwell, Alan (2004): End-user developers at home. In Communications of the ACM, 47 (9) pp. 65-66.

Jones, Simon L. Peyton, Blackwell, Alan, Burnett, Margaret M. (2003): A user-centred approach to functions in Excel. In SIGPLAN Notices, 38 (9) pp. 165-176.

Ward, David J., Blackwell, Alan, MacKay, David J. C. (2002): Dasher: A Gesture-Driven Data Entry Interface for Mobile Computing. In Human-Computer Interaction, 17 (2) pp. 199-228.

Whitley, Kirsten N., Blackwell, Alan (2001): Visual Programming in the Wild: A Survey of LabVIEW Programmers. In J. Vis. Lang. Comput., 12 (4) pp. 435-472.

Blackwell, Alan (2001): See What You Need: Helping End-users to Build Abstractions. In J. Vis. Lang. Comput., 12 (5) pp. 475-499.

Blackwell, Alan (2001): Pictorial Representation and Metaphor in Visual Language Design. In J. Vis. Lang. Comput., 12 (3) pp. 223-252.

Ward, David J., Blackwell, Alan, MacKay, David J. C. (2000): Dasher -- A Data Entry Interface Using Continuous Gestures and Language Models. In: Ackerman, Mark S., Edwards, Keith (eds.) Proceedings of the 13th annual ACM symposium on User interface software and technology November 06 - 08, 2000, San Diego, California, United States. pp. 129-137.

Petre, Marian, Blackwell, Alan (1999): Mental Imagery in Program Design and Visual Programming. In International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 51 (1) pp. 7-30.

Whitley, K. N., Blackwell, Alan (1997): Visual Programming: The Outlook from Academia and Industry. In: Empirical Studies of Programmers - Seventh Workshop October 24-26, 1997, 1997, Alexandria, Virginia. pp. 180-208.

Petre, Marian, Blackwell, Alan (1997): A Glimpse of Expert Programmers' Mental Imagery. In: Empirical Studies of Programmers - Seventh Workshop October 24-26, 1997, 1997, Alexandria, Virginia. pp. 109-123.

Petre, Marian, Blackwell, Alan (2007): Children as Unwitting End-User Programmers. In: VL-HCC 2007 - IEEE Symposium on Visual Languages and Human-Centric Computing 23-27 September, 2007, Coeur dAlene, Idaho, USA. pp. 239-242.

Blackwell, Alan (2014): Visual Representation. In: Lowgren, Jonas, Carroll, John M., Hassenzahl, Marc, Erickson, Thomas, Blackwell, Alan, Overbeeke, Kees, Hummels, Caroline, Spence, Robert, Apperley, Mark, Holtzblatt, Karen, Beyer, Hugh R., Kjeldskov, Jesper, Burnett, Margaret M., Scaffidi, Christopher, Svanaes, Dag, Hook, Kristina, Sutcliffe, Alistair G., Schmidt, Albrecht, Cockton, Gilbert, Kaptelinin, Victor, Christensen, Clayton M., Hippel, Eric von, Tractinsky, Noam, Challis, Ben, Shusterman, Richard, Hudson, William, Mann, Steve, Whitworth, Brian, Ahmad, Adnan, de Souza, Clarisse Sieckenius, Fishwick, Paul A., Grudin, Jonathan, Poltrock, Steven, Gallagher, Shaun, Dix, Alan J., Nielsen, Lene, Randall, Dave, Rouncefield, Mark, Bowman, Doug A., Kock, Ned, Cairns, Paul, Few, Stephen, Dautenhahn, Kerstin, Paterno, Fabio, Cyr, Dianne, Mortier, Richard, Haddadi, Hamed, Henderson, Tristan, McAuley, Derek, Crowcroft, Jon, Crabtree, Andy, Stephanidis, Constantine, Blandford, Ann (eds). "The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction, 2nd Ed." The Interaction Design Foundation .

Milic-Frayling, Natasa, Jones, Rachel, Rodden, Kerry, Smyth, Gavin, Blackwell, Alan, Sommerer, Ralph (2004): SmartBack: supporting users in back navigation. In: Proceedings of the 2004 International Conference on the World Wide Web , 2004, . pp. 63-71.

Blythe, Mark, Bardzell, Jeffrey, Bardzell, Shaowen, Blackwell, Alan (2008): Critical Issues in Interaction Design. In: Proceedings of the HCI08 Conference on People and Computers XXII , 2008, . pp. 183-184.

Blackwell, Alan, Green, T. R. G. (2003): Notational Systems - The Cognitive Dimensions of Notations Framework. In: Dix, Alan J., Ware, Colin, MacKenzie, I. Scott, Blackwell, Alan, Green, T. R. G., Payne, Stephen J., Perry, Mark, Bertelsen, Olav W., Boedker, Susanne, Carroll, John M., Rosson, Mary Beth, Kraut, Robert E. (eds). "HCI Models, Theories, and Frameworks" Morgan Kaufman Publishers .

Blackwell, Alan, Engelhardt, Yuri (2002): A Meta-Taxonomy for Diagram Research. In: "Diagrammatic Representation and Reasoning" .

Blackwell, Alan (2002): Psychological perspectives on diagrams and their users. In: "Diagrammatic Representation and Reasoning" .

Blythe, Mark, McCarthy, John, Light, Ann, Bardzell, Shaowen, Wright, Peter, Bardzell, Jeffrey, Blackwell, Alan (2010): Critical dialogue: interaction, experience and cultural theory. In: Proceedings of ACM CHI 2010 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems , 2010, . pp. 4521-4524.

Morrison, Cecily, Blackwell, Alan (2009): Hospital user research using new media arts. In: Proceedings of the HCI09 Conference on People and Computers XXIII , 2009, . pp. 345-353.

Morrison, Cecily, Blackwell, Alan (2009): Observing End-User Customisation of Electronic Patient Records. In: Pipek, Volkmar, Rosson, Mary Beth, Ruyter, Boris E. R. de, Wulf, Volker (eds.) End-User Development - 2nd International Symposium - IS-EUD 2009 March 2-4, 2009, Siegen, Germany. pp. 275-284.

Blackwell, Alan (2005): Cognitive Dimensions of Notations. In: VL-HCC 2005 - IEEE Symposium on Visual Languages and Human-Centric Computing 21-24 September, 2005, Dallas, TX, USA. pp. 3.

Blackwell, Alan (2006): Gender in Domestic Programming: from Bricolage to Séances d'Essayage. In: CHI2006 Workshop on End User Software Engineering , 2006, .

Blackwell, Alan

10.7 Commentary by Alan Blackwell

Margaret Burnett and Chris Scaffidi provide an excellent overview of the evolving requirements in end-user development (EUD), and the technical approaches that have been taken to address them. In some ways, EUD provides one of the greatest challenges in interaction design - not because EUD tools are necessarily more complex than other specialist software categories, but because it can be harder to recognise the usability requirements. Designers in other fields must always stay alert to any presumption that customers will have exactly the same needs and habits as the designers themselves. However in the case of programming tools, it is all too easy for professional software developers to assume that every other person should approach his or her programming work in the same way as a professional does. Specialist research attention to end-users is necessary to avoid this trap when software professionals create new EUD technologies.

Successful EUD research can also provide benefits far beyond the target users. Software development can suffer from a "cobbler's children" effect - the usability of development environments is often poor by comparison to mass-market software categories where more has been invested in user research and interaction design. If EUD research leads to usability innovations for end-users, those same innovations can be later imported into mainstream software tools. A classic example is the Smalltalk language, which had superior usability because it had originally been motivated by the desire to create a programming language for children. Although children did find it useful, Smalltalk ultimately delivered far greater benefits by becoming one of the most usable object-oriented programming environments.

EUD is also providing new insights for HCI more generally. A recent focus on user-experience, and on products that meet market demand for "walk up and use" interfaces, has resulted in a lack of methods to understand requirements of more complex tasks, which involve interaction with information structures [1]. Simple media appliances and game-like interaction are welcome and desirable, but as Burnett and Scaffidi note in their conclusion, more sophisticated capabilities can also empower users. Lack of usability is frustrating, even in situations as commonplace as configuring social network privacy, or modifying a financial budget. The information structure in such tasks can be described as "programming-like", with more insight coming from EUD research than from standard usability methods. The field of Psychology of Programming [2] is able to provide guidance both to EUD, and to more domestic programming-like tasks, for example through the Cognitive Dimensions of Notations framework [3], and the Attention Investment model of abstraction use [4]. That field offers complementary insights to the very useful technical overview provided in this article.

References and links

1. Blackwell, A.F. & Fincher, S. (2010). PUX: Patterns of User Experience. interactions 17(2), 27-31.


3. Blackwell, A.F. and Green, T.R.G. (2003). Notational systems - the Cognitive Dimensions of Notations framework. In J.M. Carroll (Ed.) HCI Models, Theories and Frameworks: Toward a multidisciplinary science. San Francisco: Morgan Kaufmann, 103-134.

4. Blackwell, A.F. (2002). First steps in programming: A rationale for Attention Investment models. In Proceedings of the IEEE Symposia on Human-Centric Computing Languages and Environments, pp. 2-10.

Blackwell, Alan, Burnett, Margaret M., Jones, Simon L. Peyton (2004): Champagne Prototyping: A Research Technique for Early Evaluation of Complex End-User Progr. In: VL-HCC 2004 - IEEE Symposium on Visual Languages and Human-Centric Computing 26-29 September, 2004, Rome, Italy. pp. 47-54.

Blackwell, Alan, Hague, Rob (2001): AutoHAN: An Architecture for Programming the Home. In: HCC 2001 - IEEE CS International Symposium on Human-Centric Computing Languages and Environments September 5-7, 2001, Stresa, Italy. pp. 150-157.

Blackwell, Alan (1996): Metacognitive Theories of Visual Programming: What do we think we are doing?. In: VL 1996 , 1996, . pp. 240-246.

Blackwell, Alan, Edge, Darren (2009): Articulating tangible interfaces. In: Villar, Nicolas, Izadi, Shahram, Fraser, Mike, Benford, Steve (eds.) TEI 2009 - Proceedings of the 3rd International Conference on Tangible and Embedded Interaction February 16-18, 2009, Cambridge, UK. pp. 113-118.

Beckwith, Laura, Kissinger, Cory, Burnett, Margaret M., Wiedenbeck, Susan, Lawrance, Joseph, Blackwell, Alan, Cook, Curtis (2006): Tinkering and gender in end-user programmers\' debugging. In: Proceedings of ACM CHI 2006 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems , 2006, . pp. 231-240.

Rode, Jennifer Ann, Stringer, Mark, Toye, Eleanor F., Simpson, Amanda R., Blackwell, Alan (2003): Curriculum-focused design. In: Proceedings of ACM IDC03: Interaction Design and Children , 2003, . pp. 119-126.

Stringer, Mark, Toye, Eleanor F., Rode, Jennifer Ann, Blackwell, Alan (2004): Teaching rhetorical skills with a tangible user interface. In: Proceedings of ACM IDC04: Interaction Design and Children , 2004, . pp. 11-18.

(2001): Thinking with Diagrams, Kluwer Academic Publishers,

Rode, Jennifer Ann, Toye, Eleanor F., Blackwell, Alan (2005): The domestic economy: a broader unit of analysis for end user programming. In: Proceedings of ACM CHI 2005 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems , 2005, . pp. 1757-1760.

Rodden, Kerry, Milic-Frayling, N., Sommerer, R., Blackwell, Alan (2003): Effective Web Searching on Mobile Devices. In: Proceedings of the HCI03 Conference on People and Computers XVII , 2003, . pp. 281-296.

Myers, Brad A., Burnett, Margaret M., Rosson, Mary Beth, Ko, Andrew J., Blackwell, Alan (2008): End user software engineering: chi\'2008 special interest group meeting. In: Proceedings of ACM CHI 2008 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems April 5-10, 2008, . pp. 2371-2374.

Morrison, Cecily, Blackwell, Alan (2008): Co-located group interaction design. In: Proceedings of ACM CHI 2008 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems April 5-10, 2008, . pp. 2587-2590.

Milic-Frayling, Natasa, Sommerer, Ralph, Rodden, Kerry, Blackwell, Alan (2004): SmartView and SearchMobil: Providing Overview and Detail in Handheld Browsing. In: Crestani, Fabio, Dunlop, Mark D., Mizzaro, Stefano (eds.) Mobile and Ubiquitous Information Access - Mobile HCI 2003 International Workshop September 8, 2004, Udine, Italy. pp. 158-171.

Edge, Darren, Blackwell, Alan (2009): Peripheral tangible interaction by analytic design. In: Villar, Nicolas, Izadi, Shahram, Fraser, Mike, Benford, Steve (eds.) TEI 2009 - Proceedings of the 3rd International Conference on Tangible and Embedded Interaction February 16-18, 2009, Cambridge, UK. pp. 69-76.

Blackwell, Alan, Green, T. R. G. (1999): Does Metaphor Increase Visual Language Usability?. In: VL 1999 , 1999, . pp. 246-253.

Edge, Darren, Blackwell, Alan (2009): Bimanual tangible interaction with mobile phones. In: Villar, Nicolas, Izadi, Shahram, Fraser, Mike, Benford, Steve (eds.) TEI 2009 - Proceedings of the 3rd International Conference on Tangible and Embedded Interaction February 16-18, 2009, Cambridge, UK. pp. 131-136.

Blackwell, Alan, Marriott, Kim, Shimojima, Atsushi (eds.) Diagrams 2004 - Diagrammatic Representation and Inference - Third International Conference March 22-24, 2004, Cambridge, UK.

Blackwell, Alan, Jansen, Anthony R., Marriott, Kim (2000): Restricted Focus Viewer: A Tool for Tracking Visual Attention. In: Anderson, Michael, Cheng, Peter C-H., Haarslev, Volker (eds.) Diagrams 2000 - Theory and Application of Diagrams - First International Conference September 1-3, 2000, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK. pp. 162-177.

Blackwell, Alan, Wallach, Hanna M. (2002): Diagrammatic Integration of Abstract Operations into Software Work Contexts. In: Hegarty, Mary, Meyer, Bernd, Narayanan, N. Hari (eds.) Diagrams 2002 - Diagrammatic Representation and Inference - Second International Conference April 18-20, 2002, Callaway Gardens, GA, USA. pp. 191-205.

Crilly, Nathan, Clarkson, P. John, Blackwell, Alan (2006): Using Research Diagrams for Member Validation in Qualitative Research. In: Barker-Plummer, Dave, Cox, Richard, Swoboda, Nik (eds.) Diagrams 2006 - Diagrammatic Representation and Inference - 4th International Conference June 28-30, 2006, Stanford, CA, USA. pp. 258-262.

Blackwell, Alan, Phaal, Robert, Eppler, Martin J., Crilly, Nathan (2008): Strategy Roadmaps: New Forms, New Practices. In: Stapleton, Gem, Howse, John, Lee, John (eds.) Diagrams 2008 - Diagrammatic Representation and Inference - 5th International Conference September 19-21, 2008, Herrsching, Germany. pp. 127-140.

Blackwell, Alan (2008): Cognitive Dimensions of Notations: Understanding the Ergonomics of Diagram Use. In: Stapleton, Gem, Howse, John, Lee, John (eds.) Diagrams 2008 - Diagrammatic Representation and Inference - 5th International Conference September 19-21, 2008, Herrsching, Germany. pp. 5-8.

Bresciani, Sabrina, Blackwell, Alan, Eppler, Martin J. (2008): A Collaborative Dimensions Framework: Understanding the Mediating Role of Conceptual Visua. In: HICSS 2008 - 41st Hawaii International International Conference on Systems Science 7-10 January, 2008, Waikoloa, Big Island, HI, USA. pp. 364.

Blackwell, Alan, Burnett, Margaret M. (2002): Applying Attention Investment to End-User Programming. In: HCC 2002 - IEEE CS International Symposium on Human-Centric Computing Languages and Environments 3-6 September, 2002, Arlington, VA, USA. pp. 28-30.

Blackwell, Alan (2002): First Steps in Programming: A Rationale for Attention Investment Models. In: HCC 2002 - IEEE CS International Symposium on Human-Centric Computing Languages and Environments 3-6 September, 2002, Arlington, VA, USA. pp. 2-10.

Blackwell, Alan

25.8 Commentary by Alan Blackwell

Clarisse Sieckenius de Souza provides a superbly lucid introduction to the fundamental concepts of semiotics, and their relevance to interaction design, just as we would hope from the author of her influential textbooks introducing Semiotic Engineering. These are principles that are directly relevant to students and professional software designers, principles that many computing specialists find intriguing but also challenging. However her chapter carries a far more profound challenge to readers – a challenge that was already implicit when she juxtaposed the world views of semiotics and of engineering in her book titles. Where engineering methods have traditionally relied on materials whose properties and behavior can be predicted from immutable laws of physics or chemistry, the "materials" of interactive software are socially – semiotically – constructed, and always changing. When engineers are forced to confront computers as media, many engineering fundamentals appear to be threatened at the same time. This tension is likely to remain a feature of HCI research and practice for as long as HCI remains a branch of Computer Science.

But an even larger challenge looms in the way that we all choose to respond in future to the pervasiveness of computing technology. The campaign for Computational Thinking responds, quite rightly, to the demand for educated citizens who can engage in dialogue around computational media, rather than being passive consumers (if any such thing were ever possible in a semiotic world). One consequence of that dialogue is to reconceptualise the notion of "programming", such that it becomes more than a simple engineering technique, but rather a mode of participation in society. This is a warning for those tempted to assume that computational thinking is simply the evangelical wing in the church of computer science. As shown by the pioneering work in end-user programming that de Souza presents from Cypher, Repenning and others, the ability to configure and control software assists all technology users to recognize the semiotic structures of the society we are building.