Saturday, September 11, 2004

Questions about ubicomp and other tales of ordinary madness

Emily Zak is currently researching ubiquitous computing and invisible interfaces at the University of London, and she recently asked me to answer some very complex questions. I've posted some thoughts below:

Emily: With a lack of consensus about what ubiquitous technology is - pervasive, ambient, tangible interfaces, 'Calm Computing,' 'Transparent Technologies' - in your view what is ubiquitous or pervasive computing, where is it located or how is it mediated?

Anne: I'm partial to the terms ubiquitous and pervasive because they get at, what is to me, the core of the mythology: a design and engineering paradigm based on the assumption that computing can, and will, be distributed everywhere (i.e. not just on the desktop). Currently it is, by-and-large, located in laboratories and universities in the developed world. What I mean is that ubicomp isn't out-there-in-the-world-with-people yet, and likely won't be for decades to come, if it ever manifests itself as projected.

But this question of ubiquity is complicated and should be unpacked a bit. Unfortunately, Weiser's choice of the word "invisible" seems to be responsible for so much confusion; I don't think it was ever meant to be taken literally. The legacy is that ubicomp still tends to be discussed in terms of "seamless" interfaces, despite Weiser's clarification that "seamfulness" would be rather important. Researchers like Matthew Chalmers have tried to revive this concept, but it's a bit unclear to me what that might actually involve. It also seems to conflict with massive funding programmes like the EU's Disappearing Computing initiative.

Recently I've also noticed a shift away from describing ubicomp as allowing "anywhere, anytime" information, and towards getting people "the right information at the right time." A subtle difference but, I think, evidence that we are starting to understand that total ubiquity - or "always-on" computing - is not only technologically difficult, if not impossible, but also socially undesirable. Nonetheless, I think the obsession with "information" still misses Weiser's point about the importance of people.

Emily: Mark Weiser and others describe the drive toward ubiquitous computing as humane - with computers "getting out of the way." Are there assumptions being made about what is innately human and not-human activity and what is the everyday?

Anne: Weiser said that computers needed to move from the centre to the periphery of our attention, and this is, I think, the type of invisibility he imagined. The problem, as he understood it, was that desktop computers are somehow dehumanising, that they isolate us and take too much away from our quality of life. Of course there are assumptions being made in these scenarios about what computers, people and everyday life are - that's one of the things about ubicomp that interests me the most - and these assumptions rarely, if ever, get questioned.

The types of socio-cultural theory and method most often used within the human-computer interaction community include ecological or systems approaches, ethnomethodology and phenomenology. It is not coincidental that all these ways of thinking are ontologically and epistemologically compatible with the general principles of cybernetics - among other things, it makes translation between (and enrollment among) the necessary players much easier.

On the other hand, studies in science, technology and society, as well as cultural studies, critical theory and continental philosophy, including feminist theory, have challenged these ways of understanding human (and human-computer) interaction. Researchers like Donna Haraway, Manuel de Landa, Bruno Latour, and Lucy Suchman have been instrumental in these critiques of technoscience - but the body of relevant literature is huge and I won't get into it here.

Emily: How do concepts of intelligent technology, or discourses increasingly mediated by such technologies, challenge the assumption and primacy of human agency and pose ethical and philosophical questions about the nature of agency and intelligence? Further, how do embodied or situated practices, and networks of agency maintained at the sites of innovation, laboratories and research centres, influence the development and application of new media socio-technologies?

Anne: My own research draws a great deal from the work of people like Latour (especially for his notions about collectives of humans and non-humans), Adrian Mackenzie (for ideas about transduction, space and culture), and Deleuze & Guattari (for notions of mobility and becoming). One thing they all have in common is a blurring of the traditional boundaries between subjects and objects, which automatically reframes the issue of social agency.

Lucy Suchman has written about situated accountability, which suggests some sort of contextual (perhaps bottom-up) ethics will be necessary, but I do tend to agree with Latour that we are far from having a political and ethical position that is adequate for the interconnectedness conjured by his collectives, and technologies like ubicomp. In a world where we still argue about whether it is guns or people that kill people, I'm not quite sure what it will mean - in practice - when we say that neither guns nor people kill, but rather it is an assemblage that can be described as a person/gun that kills.

Connect this to the matter of spatial practice and things get even harder to pin down. I draw mostly on notions of flow - from Deleuze, to Rob Shields, to John Law - in my research. In this way we must also deal with the question of time, and it becomes difficult to say that innovation is maintained at any particular site as, in practice, it flows through many sites.

My dissertation delves deeper into these and similar questions, but you'll have to wait a few more months for that, I'm afraid. In the meantime, I hope you continue to ask excellent questions and I wish you the best of luck with your own research!

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