Saturday, February 25, 2006

Risks to social acceptance of pervasive computing

In reading Plugimi, the blog of Berlin design student Sascha Pohflepp, I came across this interesting article:

Bohn, J. et al., 2004, "Living in a World of Smart Everyday Objects: Social, Economic and Ethical Implications", Journal of Human and Ecological Risk Assessment 10(5): 763-786. (pdf)

The authors highlight privacy and surveillance as central concerns, and the three major changes to everyday life they see coming are in the realms of reliability, accessibility and transparency. They break these down into problems of manageability, predictability, dependability, delegation of content and system control, as well as object(ive) "accountability":
"If autonomous objects such as the previously mentioned smart doll start taking decisions on their own (e.g., buying new clothes), legal guidelines need to be drawn up in order to resolve who is ultimately responsible for these business transactions."
And they go on to define technological criteria for "social compatibility": transparency, knowledge sustainability, fairness and universal access. But my favourite part of the paper was their discussion of what it will take for people to actually accept smart objects (and make good all this potential for profit). They argue that we'll need to work through some issues of feasibility and credibility, artefact autonomy, impact on health and environment, and philosophical concerns.

The authors remind us that pervasive computing is being developed in technophile contexts driven by a sort of "metaphysical prophecy" that outsiders find implausible. The notion that smart devices cannot actually change the "hurry, rush, stress, and separation from other people, but only increase their efficiency" is seen as a substantial risk to acceptance.

(But then again, we know that domestic technologies haven't free women from drudgery and that hasn't prevented their acceptance. But this also makes me think of our grudging acceptance, and I wonder how much acceptance is enough? Plus, I've heard objections to the use of the word boffin to describe scientists & technologists, but I think the caricature speaks volumes about how non-specialists understand their relationships to these rarified worlds of practice.)

They also point out that networked objects have little or no autonomy and so only function when the infrastructure functions. Of issue is that the instability of networks threatens people's sense of the kind of "object constancy" they experience with a paper book.

(This position most clearly indicates to me the research cultures of the authors. In my own work I've noticed that the people most likely to challenge the inevitability of ubicomp (the *myth* of ubicomp) are computer scientists and engineers who always preface their discussions with "IF everything works properly..." and attempt to exploit the glitches as well.)

The authors further question the impact of such extensive consumption of raw materials and energy, as well as issues of disposal, inherent in a world saturated with little tags. Furthermore, they remind us that we have no conclusive information yet on the long-term health impacts of constant exposure to electro-magnetic radiation.

(I appreciate the focus on sustainability, but more than that, I think they do well to discuss the risks to our own bodies and surrounding environments.)

And finally, they argue that smart objects pose special philosophical risks because they are more "us" than "other", and seem to imply a further risk of conquest or internalisation of the 'natural' world (but the implications here are unclear and underexplored).


Anonymous Timo said...

I've been thinking about your previous post:

we risk a rather messianic return to the physical after realising the trappings of the immaterial, an exaltation of the relatively stable in the face of increasing instability.

Maybe it's actually the reverse, we are looking at things more as a way of returning to the messy world that we inhabit, instead of the relatively restrained, categorised, architected online world. I'm thinking about things like layers of RFIDs being somewhat comparable to layers of decaying fly-posters on public billboards.

It's interesting to read here:

Of issue is that the instability of networks threatens people's sense of the kind of "object constancy" they experience with a paper book.

Is this instability that these 'smart' objects introduce into the world of things more like our regular experience of the physical world, or is it introducing elements of the virtual/online experience?

Anonymous anne said...

Oh, I think we *are* looking for "a way of returning to the messy world that we inhabit" - but the mistake, I think, is in believing that these technologies are any less architectures of control than what we've seen so far.

As for the instability of network infrastructure, and by extension, smart objects - well, I think that this kind of instability is qualitatively different than the sort of phenomenological fluidity of everyday life in-the-world...

Anonymous Anonymous said...

uhm, then of course, uhm, there is the fact that , uhm you know, people cant afford this junk


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