Sunday, May 29, 2005

The Mundane Computer

The Mundane Computer: Non-Technical Design Challenges Facing Ubiquitous Computing and Ambient Intelligence * by Allan Parsons

(updated 29/05/05)

One of the things that has come to concern me is my own tendency (and that of others) to stress that deep understandings of sociality and materiality are crucial to research in ubiquitous computing because they were part of Weiser's early visions. But surely we can come up with better reasons than "because Weiser said so". In part, I think this will require a greater focus on the multiplicity of wireless, wearable, context-aware and networked computing. Whatever you want to call it - ubiquitous, pervasive, ambient, locative - we are not talking about a unitary movement here. And as Parsons puts it in the article above,

"While ubiquitous computing is only a social paradigm by metaphorical overextension, remaining primarily a technical concept, the same cannot be said of the notion of ambient intelligence. The European Union, for example, uses the notion of ambient intelligence in an attempt to define a future social and economic space which is increasingly pervaded by computing intelligence as the 21st century unfolds ... In order to release the potential socio-political gains from, and the economic potential of ambient intelligence, significant and underpinning research of a focused nature will be required, including research into socio-technical design factors, support for human-to-human interaction and the analysis of societal and political development."

Well put. Parsons also offers a solid introduction to a variety of EU government research initiatives, and draws attention to particular kinds of political intervention in the production of new technologies. Parsons then continues to articulate a field of the everyday:

"The major contextualising horizon is no longer the workplace or the home, but has become the nation state and the dynamics of international relations. One may be performing a particular task in a specific location, but one may also be performing 'national security', and possibly some form of nationalism ... From this perspective, the everyday is globalised ... Yet, experientially, the everyday remains localised or proximate, located and situated. Actions, although often enacted simultaneously, differ in their nature and consequence, unfolding according to different spatial, temporal, practical, symbolic and institutional horizons."

Where we most seriously diverge, it seems, is in Parsons' tacit acceptance of ethnomethodology, symbolic interactionism and future studies as the best means to understand these complex relations. (The sociotechnical assemblages that Parsons cites are not particularly amenable to any of the above approaches.)

The contributions of phenomenology (I follow Merleau-Ponty more than Heidegger) and the hermeneutic tradition (esp. via Gadamer & Ricoeur) in social and cultural studies cannot be overstated. I also recognise and value the focus on agency and practice, as well as reflexivity, in ethnomethodology & symbolic interactionism - but in the end I prefer to work on critiques of functionality, order, predictability, singularity and rationality. (This also means futurism is out.) So while I fully support Parsons' claim that continuing research will need to be "extended and collaborative" - these days my focus is turned to critically evaluating what different perspectives and interests make possible (or impossible).

In any case, this article is well worth a read for anyone interested in pervasive computing, national economic and social policy, everyday life and ways of understanding.

* Tangentium is an online journal devoted to alternative perspectives on IT, politics, education and society.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Best regards from NY!
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