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.
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.
* 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.