Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Ubicomp real but not always actual

"Commercial hype and utopian anarchism, to my mind, mystify rather than illuminate the significance of the mobile phone... You will look in vain to find genuinely critical research on the mobile phone that opens up debate on its cultural value and social purpose ... While the mobile phone extends and increases the sheer volume of communications, does it actually improve the quality of communication? ... From a sociological point of view, actual and potential social uses across the generations and in different circumstances of life are more important topics for discussion than sheer technological capability and overhyped marketing gimmicks."

From Jim McGuigan's Towards a sociology of the mobile phone

For an article trying to drive home the point that more critical approaches are necessary, the content is strangely off-topic. Nonetheless it points at something I've been working on: the difference between actual and virtual new technologies. For example, I keep reading that "ubiquitous computing is already here" but I think this needs some qualifying in order to be meaningful and actionable beyond "so we'd better do something".


When I first saw the tetrology of the real and the possible outlined in Rob's book The Virtual, I choked. Originally striking me as hopelessly complicated, I've come to really appreciate the degree of precision it compels.

Following Proust, Bergson and Deleuze, he positions the 'virtual' as real but not actual (l'actuel). ** The tetrology then juxtaposes the 'real' (existing) with the 'possible' (not existing), and both in relation to the 'ideal' and the 'actual'. From that we get:

- the virtual as a 'real idealisation' or the 'ideally real' (e.g. a memory)
- the concrete as an 'actual real' (e.g. the everyday taken-for-granted)

- the abstract as a 'possible ideal' (e.g. a concept)
- the probable as an 'actual possibility' (e.g. a percentage)

So this is where things get interesting for me: If we're going to talk about ubicomp being 'already here' I want to distinguish how it exists. In other words, I'd like to be clear on how it is manifesting as both virtual and concrete, and what the relationships between the two involve. (These questions can also be asked of, say, the 'real user' or the 'real world' in which we interact.)

At this point in time, I'd say that ubicomp is 'real' in a virtual more than concrete sense. In other words, much of what we associate with pervasive computing is myth in the anthropological sense. It comprises memories and dreams of where we've come from and where we want to go. Whether or not these are 'accurate' representations is irrelevant: they are real in their ability to create and hold shared meaning, and they are real in their ability to act or change things.

"Realization is a process of bringing the possible (the abstract or the probable) into existence in a manner that resembles it. In contrast, the virtual is fully real but can be actualized as the concrete. For Deleuze, 'the actualisation of the virtual...always takes place by difference, divergence or differenciation. Actualisation breaks with resemblance as a process no less than it does with identity as a principle. Actual terms [the concrete] never resemble the [virtual] singularities they incarnate. In this sense, actualisation...is always a genuine creation'" (Shields 2003:30).

So this brings me to the point where I can distinguish actions in pervasive computing that seek to bring the possible (e.g. democratic ideals) and the probable (e.g. statistics) into existence, from the processes by which the virtual (e.g. connection through sharing) is actualised (e.g. connection through exclusion).

In other words, I'm interested in describing ubicomp in terms of how it acts in virtual, concrete, abstract and probable ways. From a sociological perspective, the most interesting part of all this is understanding how change happens, and more specifically, how new technologies come and go by flowing through these different 'states'. (Not flow in Csikszentmihalyi's psychological sense, but rather in the social sense described by, say, Bauman and Urry).

Next: how processes of realisation and actualisation can be understand in terms of individuation and transduction.

**Incidentally, in conversation I've found it extremely difficult to reclaim this meaning from its more popular use referring to the intangible or not-physical. This opposition between the digital (cyberspace) and the physical ('real world') is also crucial to the underlying logic of pervasive computing, and to my mind, highlights how little has changed in our thinking since the heady days of the internet - but I'll get back to that some other time. For now, I'll just note that ubicomp involves a lot of talk about bridging the gap between the digital and the physical - with almost no questioning of what constitutes the gap, let alone that assumed to be on either side. I mean, imagine what kinds of bridges we'd have if architects and engineers didn't ask what was being spanned!


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