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Ubiquitous computing finally finds its purpose

In this text (still under work) I draw parallels between the phenomenon of ubiquitous computing of the 90ies and today’s social media. The general idea, as the title indicates, is that ubiquitous computing has finally found a purpose beyond experimental surroundings and avant-garde office applications: to allow people to be social in a sense that expands over the borders of conventional co-presence. With today’s small communication gadgets, the power of a hundred years of electronic media is set free to invade all spaces of our daily lives. In a certain sense of the word, we live in a time of ubiquitous sociality.

Ubiquitous computing

The term ubiquitous computing was coined in 1988 – more than 20 years ago – by Mark Weiser at PARC, an interesting and broad-minded character. Ubiquitous computing (ubicomp) can be described as “a post-desktop model of human-computer interaction in which information processing has been thoroughly integrated into everyday objects and activities” (Wikipedia accessed 2011-07-28). The idea concerned computer systems becoming available outside the sedentary desktop environment, i.e. digital intelligence being available in any daily life situation.* Typical applications developed were “the dangling string”, a moving string illustrating LAN activity at the office, large touch screens for shuffling information between several participants, benches in public space that communicate by omitting warmth, office lamps glowing stronger when someone enters home etc. Other term for such phenomena are pervasive computing and ambient intelligence.

When I reflect upon these matters, my perspective is first and foremost communication technologies in the contexts of daily life, people’s tech related routines and practises, developing in the western world and with an increasing speed expanding globally, taking surprising new turns. I find it interesting how some technologies immediately are received and adopted by people – by the “multitude” if you wish. Others may seem extraordinarily useful and smart but never manage to attract a wider interest – there is no broader use for them, and thus no market. In a few years, the mobile phone became everybody’s pet in spite of the (mis)understandings of its producers. For many, it quickly became indispensable, especially when on the move and in public space. Since the 80ies video calling has been pictured as the next mayor development within personal communication and still (in spite of Skype etc.) it remains a specialized tool – though extremely useful for the deaf. So, I am not interested in mobile or ubiquitous technologies per se, it is their intertwining with people’s daily lives that fascinates me.

Manuel Castells – one of very few social scientist seriously engaged in analysing the consequences for society of computing – predicted a development of pervasive computing: a new internet-driven networking logic spreading into all contexts and locations of human interaction. “Castells envisages a system where billions of miniature, ubiquitous inter-communication devices will be spread worldwide, ‘like pigment in the wall paint'” (Wikipedia accessed 2011-07-28). Since the 90ies, we have for instance seen microcomputers invading our cars, making them easier to handle e.g. in situations of risk but also quite impossible for amateurs to repair.

From an architectural point of view, these ideas should be extremely intriguing. However, very few architects became involved in the development of intelligent buildings and interiors. Building has always been a quite conservative industry and so far engineers have limited their work in this field to develop quite simplistic automation systems (e.g. shutters reacting on sunlight or heath, building security systems etc.) whereas “smart houses” have remained a very limited feature in terms of realized building, perhaps understandable when reading the text referred to just above. This fundamental lack of interest, of broader appreciation and of market demand of building-related ubicomp indeed is interesting and requires a longer analysis.

A very short sketch would look at the world of human-artefact interaction and the “power” bestowed upon things by us through delegation (see for instance this article by Bruno Latour). A similar theme of human involvement with things is central within the continental phenomenology of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. As humans, we are already part of networks of interaction with things that we sometimes want to ascribe a will of their own. I myself embody a field of intelligence and power to act that is intertwined with the world I inhabit – the window that I open to get some fresh air is part of my network of things. Being quite pleased with this form of interplay that can be mistaken for simple and trivial**, I seldom ask for things to be more proactive or meddlesome. The window “respects” its delicate interplay with me, it is not going ahead, anticipating my impulse. (Rather, I have noticed, it is not only me that gets irritated when things tell me what to do, when and where. Remember that nasty little paper clip in Windows?)

Artefacts – with or without built-in computing power – are social.

Ubicomp and ubisoc

Thus, the development of ubicomp eventually took a completely different direction – the driving force being humans’ unquenchable lust for the social, the means being the exploding electronic industry and its ability to produce and market myriads of attractive and short-lived, smaller and bigger communication devices. Today, mediated interaction is present through these devices: Still via the computer screen (where I sit right now), which now and then represent a pertinent way to access the possibilities of the digital world, but more and more through the small and extremely mobile devices that often lack set places of their own. Ubiquitous computing today not only means that gadgets with computing power are present everywhere, invading our habitats. It is all about content: Relations are continuously mediated here – and there. Relations to friends, relatives, colleagues, instances of society like local and central government or civic movements, media content like radio, television, the internet. Written like this, it sounds overwhelming, but we someway manage to be present in more than one arena at a time or learn to quickly move between them. All corners of home are connected, are potential places for interaction with people near and far.

It interesting to note that Weiser pointed out three types of ubicomp devices. These where:

  • Tabs: wearable centimetre sized devices
  • Pads: hand-held decimetre-sized devices
  • Boards: metre sized interactive display devices.

(Wikipedia accessed 2011-07-28)

Tabs may be micro computers, hidden in trivial objects like cameras or cars but also miniaturized hand-held computers, smart phones, music players or watches: all sorts of “pods”. The next category, pads, have a certain actuality right now. There appeared to be a need for the interactive pad with its touch screen, enabling access to the internet but also a range of other activities more suitable for the writing paper sized screen. Small-sized and light-weight laptops also belongs under the pad heading. Boards still have not become ever present in the sense Weiser seems to mean. The desktop computer screens become larger and larger but are still seldom touch-sensitive. A few interactive whiteboards appear in offices and schools. Television screens have been growing for years and are slowly being integrated with computing and the internet. It is indeed interesting how Weiser, by emphasizing the sizes and scales of these material objects, relates technology to the human body and its spatiality.

If we forget technology for a while, what we have got is ubiquitous sociality. But wait: Does that not remind us about something? What about other times and other habits, life in pre-historic societies that were more or less isolated tribes, where the world was the group of people one was part of and continuously engaged with? What about the medieval town overcrowded with people one just could not avoid. Or life in the countryside of Northern Ireland as described by Henry Glassie in Passing the Time in Ballymenone (1982)***?

There is much that can be said about the history of technology adoption in the settings of human life. Think about the development of books from very few hand-written or hand-printed copies to the pocket books of the 20th century. Think about written letters, the postal system, e-mail and social media. Think about the telephone from the large handset in the hallway to the ever-present mobile phone. Whereas ubicomp was something new when projected in 1988, ubiquitous sociality seems to be an ancient feature of human life. The question is in what ways the ubiquitous communication technologies of today change social life and interaction in terms of content, time and space. How does ubiquitous sociality interplay with human space and with cities and architecture?

Continued in Ubicomp and social media (part 2): Sofa, TV, pod and pad – settings of ubiquitous sociality.

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* I have written about ubicomp from a spatial perspective in the Swedish paper “Kommunikation och rumslighet. Hur informationstekniken förändrar vardagens rum” (1998).

** The greatness of human-artefact interaction can for instance be illustrated by a documentary by Ingela Romare about a worn-out woman who found her way back to life by daily roving her boat: Att ro i utbrändhetens tid. Her relation to the little boat and its oars is not sheerly practical, it involves here whole body and existence. She masters the boat in sometimes difficult weather, but the boat also interacts with her, discretely reminding her what to do. I know from my own experience that things can be very strong and helpful friends.

*** Glassie describes a world of ongoing narratives, of homes with doors that are never allowed to be shut, of people coming and going, collecting around peat fires burning all day long, of solitude only available for people being sick or escaping into the fields now and then. The network of people and artefacts here stands out as being related to a powerful ethics. Perhaps it is more difficult for us to discover the ethics presently developing around our culture of social-material interaction. Door, room and fire. Sofa, TV, pod and pad.

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In restaurants and squares, concert halls and clubs, individuals and groups are accompanied by their invisible buddies. Mobile chats in the public does not simply connote privatisation. Rather it is a way for communities to take place in urban rooms.

A young woman in the corner of the Malmö restaurant, having lunch all by herself. But wait, she is talking to someone! She is having a phone conversation, using her earphones and mic. One chat is followed by the next. Even though she speaks Danish, I notice differences between her calls. Her tone of voice and body language disclose the changing statuses of her conversation partners, intimate relations or more formal. Obviously, she is not lunching alone. Parts of her network, perhaps her communities, become present for her at the restaurant table. And I picture, probably falsely, her successive partners, all sitting alone at other restaurants, enjoying her company.

It is a bit strange though, that her voice comes out clear over all other ongoing conversations. Is she just talking louder than everybody else – or does her voice carry through some kind of “filter” that turns most of the chats into mere murmur?

Perhaps I am the only one noticing this situation. Today, an event like this does not attract much attention. And that, in itself, is interesting. The presence in public space of invisible buddies and partners is more or less taken for granted.

 

Any time and anywhere, the mobile phone user can log into global communication systems and interact with people in remote locations, Mimi Sheller writes. “He or she is holding in abeyance a wide range of ‘absent presences’, with whom a conversational coupling might easily be established” (Sheller 2004). In restaurants and squares, concert halls and clubs, individuals and groups are accompanied by their invisible buddies. Mobile chats in the public do not simply connote privatisation. Rather it is a way for communities – or tribes, to use Michel Maffesoli’s term – to take place in urban rooms. Mobile communities exist and are reproduced via meetings face-to-face and mediated interaction equally. And public space today is just as much about switching between such contexts (Sheller ibid.) as about the classic encounters between strangers.

 

Maffesoli,M (1995/1988): The Time of the Tribes. The decline of individualism in mass society. London, Thousand Oaks, California & New Dehli: Sage.

Sheller, M (2004): Mobile publics: beyond the network perspective. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. Vol. 22, pp 39-52.

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And now and then, it is the calls to one’s own mobile that are really disturbing.

People are frequently annoyed by all those phone calls going on around them, for instance in public space and public transportation. It is other people’s more or less intimate conversations that one doesn’t want to listen to. But now and then, it is the calls to one’s own mobile that are really disturbing. Here are a couple of observations by a colleague. Thanks!

The first example concerns different perceptions of privacy in the situation:

On the commuter train: A man gets a call. Apparently it is his wife on the phone. She seems to be very angry. “Can we talk about this later”, the man says. But she is angry now and wants to make the most of it. “I don’t think my fellow passengers want to hear this conversation”, he says, trying to calm her down. Finally, the man manages to end the call.

She doesn’t have people around, and in her anger, she is not at all sensitive to her partner’s situation. Had she called in another mood, she might have asked if it was a good time to talk. The phone filters away all those signals that – in full bodily co-presence – stop most of us from quarrelling in the public.

The second example leads to the question: Is the phone-function of the iPhone really a benefit?

On the bus: Two guys are playing games on their iPhones. One of them tells the other about how irritated he was to be interrupted the other day, just when he was about to reach a new high score. It was his girlfriend, calling him on the very same iPhone.

The mobile in your pocket is actually a potential pain in the ass, ready to crush a good mood, a delicate situation. a daydream or a moment of concentration. That is, if you don’t shut it off.

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Telephone both in the old days (photographer unknown).

Arriving at the summer cottage I  discover that I have left my mobile at home. I am immediately beamed back to the days of telephone booths, and find myself driving to the nearest one, only to find that it has disappeared without a trace. Where can one find a phone boot these days? And how do I survive without a mobile?

The weather is nice and I decide to go north to the summer cottage for a couple of days of leisure (read: maintenance work). Arriving there, I  discover that I have left my mobile at home. I am immediately beamed back to the days of telephone booths, and find myself driving to the nearest one, in a seaside settlement of summer houses, actually within reasonable walking distance. The booth is gone, without a trace. Well, not completely. As a phantom itch, the phone is still marked on the neighbourhood information map. OK, going by car was a good choice! I continue to the relatively large farming village a few kilometres inland. Good, just outside the grocery, I spot the telephone sign. But where is the phone booth? “That was long ago!” a friendly local woman tells me. The hunt continues to the nearby small town, but no luck there either. Now my last chance is Båstad, the principal town of the municipality. And there, at last, I find it: A card phone on the tobacconist’s corner of the great supermarket.

Now I can call my partner and tell her I won’t be able to call her.

Later that day, I discover there is another one in Torekov, the fancy seaside resort.

The moral of this story is that there is no turning back. Without your mobile phone, you may discover that there is no phone booth where you need it and that driving is a prerequisite for communicating. Having a mobile is not a matter of choice, it is being part of communicative normality.

“There should be an app for phone booths”, I find myself thinking, just for a short moment.

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Young guy on his bike, full speed, on the pavement/sidewalk, on the phone, manages to avoid crashing into us. At the same time, to someone on the phone:

Oh, I see, you are on Bergsgatan! I’m on Amiralsgatan.

That’s mobility for you!

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Bergsgatan and Amiralsgatan are streets in Malmö, Sweden.

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Nobody talks about it, no big deal in papers or magazines – or on the net. Now that video calls (using Skype, iChat or whatever) have become technically and practically possible, they have also become completely uninteresting as a topic. Still, I am convinced, there is a revolution going on when cheap real-time remote interaction becomes part of daily routines for people of the on-line world. My speculations are based upon personal experience, but will this subtle revolution in its third phase be taken to the streets?

Well, I am no too surprised by this lack of interest. My experience is that vanguard technologies always get most of the attention. The dynamics of millions of people taking new technologies into use is rarely discussed and poorly understood. Like in the case of mobile telephony, however, the industry is often taken by surprise by the actual use of their products. Video calls or conferencing got a lot of attention ten or fifteen years ago when the technologies were new, but the performance of the networks far from sufficient. Now, when a lot of people (we are still talking about the wired world) have access to broadband internet, these technologies for the first time become really useful.

With my son and his wife in far-off places like France, Canada and Germany, I have had all possibilities to experience the development of video interaction during the last few years. My experiences range from situations where one has to choose between lousy image and staccato sound when chatting to quite excellent image-and-sound conversations.

Video interaction - phase 1 - fixed by the desk

In its first phase, video interaction is a function of powerful desktop computers with a separate web-cam and fixed internet. It is a development from the life on the screen related to written chatting. However, where the traditional phone call involves the ambience of the sound-scape, the video conversation adds visual views which to some part reveal the settings of the people involved. Normally, there is one person in front of each screen and web-cam, but not necessarily so: Sometimes more people want to be part of what is going on and try to push in. In spite of some limitations, video interaction phase one works quite well. One sees the person, his or her mimic, new haircut, shirt, make-up, glasses etc – and the wall behind.  It is quite fantastic to have such conversations with people you have not met AFS (away from screen) for a long time.

video interaction phase 2

Actually, the fixity of the desktop situation is a limitation one really discovers when wireless networks and laptop computers with built-in cameras become involved. Now mobility in a more concrete sense of the word is introduced! Laptops are carried around in a setting while remaining on-line. They are handed over from one person to another and moved from room to room – and used to show the new flat or for absent friends to be part of the party. Video interaction phase two is obviously quite different from phase one. In a treacherous way, it transgresses the simple spatial order of the first phase.

Places and mobilities, OK, but what has this to do with phones? That remains to be seen. The technology is already here (or at least on its way) with phones that have an extra camera for video talks[1], wireless internet in many public places and for some selected urban areas 4G telephony. Question 1: Is video interaction phase three interesting at all for people who already can make phone calls, send SMS messages, update their status on Facebook or Twitter and use all the opportunities of the internet? Question 2: Will the visual component of video interaction be seen as an intrusion upon the (more or less) expected anonymity of urban public space? Question 3: What will the consequences for public space be if  mobile video interaction becomes as common as calling and texting?

So, how will the subtle revolution continue in the streets?

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Footnotes

[1] “People have been dreaming about video calling for decades. iPhone 4 makes it a reality”, Apple says. The new iPhone is not the first phone to have a web-cam, but perhaps it will prove to afford the adequate technology for video interaction phase three.

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At the local cafe. Warm like in summer. People talking on their phones – and F2F. A light scent of cigarette – we are seated outdoors. Contemporary normality. Using my iPhone to write an entry about almost nothing. So this is what it will be like – the summer of the iPhone.

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