Reading reflection: Sylvain Tesson’s Consolations of the Forest

I went to spend six months in a Siberian cabin on the shores of Lake Baikal, on the tip of North Cedar Cape.

Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin in the Middle Tiaga

Sylvain Tesson is a geographer by training and a journalist by occupation, but most of all he’s an adventurer. He’s bicycled around the world, descended into caves in Borneo, crossed the Himalayas on foot, and ridden by horseback across the Central Asian steppes. But the ultimate test of his physical and mental abilities, and the subject of this book, was to live for 6 months in withdrawal from society in a tiny cabin in Siberia. The book reads like an annotated diary, packed with reflections of his thoughts during isolation, the many books he read, the copious vodka he imbibed, his visits with neighbors (who were many hours away from him), and interactions with the world around him.

Tesson attempted to bring digital technology on his adventure, including multiple electronic devices and the rechargeable batteries, solar panels, and cables to keep it working. But what he couldn’t control was the temperature, which often dipped well into the negatives—not a good environment for technology. His computer and satellite phone both failed, though later in his trip his phone miraculously started working again, allowing him to check the weather and touch base with the outside world in a minimal way.

But virtually none of his stories centered on the electronics, failed or otherwise. He wrote his thoughts out by hand in a notebook, and maintained some level of sanity by establishing a routine that was both simple and challenging. It’s a way of living that’s most of us only experience in some small way, like when our computer dies and our phone can’t find a signal. Sometimes we embrace it by going out into the wilderness, though even those opportunities are becoming harder to find, like the trail or campsite that lacked internet on the last visit five years ago now has coverage and is filled with people binging their favorite new Netflix show.

Many a hiker have lamented the loss of wilderness to technology. My favorite Bill Bryson quote from A Walk in the Woods is “How I hate all of this technology on the trail”. And when Wild author Cheryl Strayed visited Virginia Tech, she agreed that her walk of the Pacific Crest Trail would have been very different in the current era of ubiquitous mobile coverage. Maybe Tesson will be next, when technology takes over Siberia.

Reading Reflection: Tim Ingold’s Ways of Walking

Our principal contention is that walking is a profoundly social activity: that in their timings, rhythms and inflections, the feet respond as much as does the voice to the presence and activity of others.

Ingold & Vergunst, Ways of Walking

Tim Ingold and his colleagues assembled a collection of essays titled Ways of Walking, an anthropological study of cultural and historical reasons that people walk. Ingold, now a retired Professor Emeritus, was Chair of the Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen at the time, with a history of exploring pedestrian movement. (An earlier post reviewed a previous Ingold book, Lines: A Brief History, delving into his views of the evolution of trails.)

The Ways of Walking book resulted from a 3-day retreat at the University of Aberdeen called “the walking seminar” that brought together researchers from across the UK and beyond. Many of the chapters explore the role of walking in different cultures, including Lye’s examination of the Batek hunter-gatherers, Legat’s juxtaposition of storytelling and walking by the Dene, and Widlok’s comparison of the ancient San’s way of walking and modern GPS-driven approaches. There’s also a nod to the examination of walking in urban landscapes, including in chapters by Lavadinho, Curtis, and Lucas.

I must admit that my favorite part of the book is the walking seminar that birthed it. The seminar reminded me of our original Tech on the Trail workshop, which brought together a diverse group of external experts with a large collection of Virginia Tech scholars. It was awesome to be part of the idea exchange, and the collaborations that were established and have continued are invaluable–culminating in our HCI Outdoors book. Ingold’s Aberdeen retreat seems to have had a similar effect.


I’m proud and pleased that our book, HCI Outdoors: Theory, Design, Methods and Applications, is available from Springer Publishing. The book is an edited volume of contributions from 18 groups of authors—researchers in academia, industry, research labs, and think tanks who are defining new ways that technology is explored, designed, and tested for use in outdoor settings. The book is part of Springer’s Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) series, which features books that focus on interactions between people and technology.

The book is divided into five sections, each with multiple chapters. Rural Contexts explores how outdoor settings are different than urban ones, and how technologies designed for urban settings may not work as well and should be designed and evaluated differently. Willed and the Wild examines the wildness that is inherent in wilderness, and how that affects the way we design and evaluate technology. Groups and Communities considers how technology assists collections of people to feel more connected. Design for Outdoors raises questions about the design sensitivities and guidelines important and unique to outdoor settings. And Outdoor Recreation considers how technology affects our enjoyment of outdoor recreation like skiing, walking, and hiking.

Crafting the book was a long and rewarding process, spearheaded by a collection of workshops that helped identify key ideas in the area and bring together interested researchers. Virginia Tech’s Tech on the Trail workshops examined how technology is used on trails, including our nearby Appalachian Trail, in support of exploration, recreation, science, and more. The NatureCHI workshops sought ways to¬†support engagement with nature in an unobtrusive manner to avoid detracting from the outdoor experience. The UbiMount workshops looked at how ubiquitous computing technologies can support mountaineering activities. Finally, the HCI Outdoors workshop at the ACM SIGCHI Conference in 2018 featured the largest collection of participants, with around 20 people taking part in presentations, discussions, and activities that highlighted and categorized the challenges of designing technology for the outdoors. The idea for the book emerged from the final HCI Outdoors workshop in 2018, and almost all of the chapters include authors who attended one or more of these workshops.

The book was vetted through a pair of classes offered at the editors’ home institutions, Virginia Tech and Brigham Young University. Each class dedicated a class session to each chapter, seeking to view it not as a final product but as an early-stage work in progress. The students contributed to constructive feedback for the authors, furthering the discussions with the authors and resulting in a far better product that the editors alone could have helped to create. The final versions of the chapters captured the authors’ views of the HCI outdoors theme, balanced with our desire for a coherent and connected book.

A great many universities have this book in their libraries, and Springer’s MyCopy program allows you to purchase a softcover version of the book through your library for only $25. (Yes, I’m aware that the hardcover and digital versions are much more expensive.) I hope you’ll look it over and consider using it for your own research, teaching, or enjoyment.

GROUP 2020

The ACM GROUP Conference is the premiere destination for research work on groups and technology. Held every year in Sanibel Island, Florida, it We were well represented at ACM GROUP 2020–2 full papers, 4 posters, 1 design fiction paper, and 1 doctoral colloquium presentation from this crowd of faculty, grad students, and alums from Computer Science at Virginia Tech!

Lindah Kotut had an awesome 36 hour stretch at the ACM GROUP Conference, using it to launch her research ideas on social media use in outdoor settings. First she presented her Ph.D. research directions to top researchers in the field in the doctoral colloquium–summarized in the poster session, where her work was chosen by her peers for the best poster award. And in between, she presented her vision of the future of the selling of personal data in the design fiction session of the conference.

Clark University prof and Virginia Tech Ph.D. graduate Shuo Niu presented his investigation of how people establish personal territory on large digital displays–e.g., for a digital tabletop, if two or more people are working simultaneously then they exhibit ownership of the area closest to them and are offended when others invade the area without permission. This work was a chunk of his Ph.D. research.

As always, Sanibel Island is an awesome conference destination, particularly in early January when it’s cold in much of the rest of the United States. The Ding Darling Natural Wildlife Refuge maintains an environment where nature can spread its wings, with trails that lead us human interlopers to places where we can sneak a peek at it. The conference venue is right on the beach, with a handful of good restaurants nearby, and the breaks between sessions allow us to venture off into these destinations. (As if you needed another reason to attend!) Looking forward to a return trip in 2022.