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Issue № 215

Everyware: Always Crashing in the Same Car

by Published in Industry · 8 Comments

The following excerpt won’t provide practical tips for your work today. It is, however, part of a larger discussion that will define the ways in which ubiquitous computing will affect us (as consumers and producers) in the future.  A List Apart is pleased to present the conclusion of Everyware: The dawning age of ubiquitous computing (New Riders Press, first edition, March 10, 2006). —Ed.

Each morning, upon waking, I indulge myself in the austerities of Buddhist meditation, Korean Zen Buddhism, to be precise, of the Kwan Um School. I sit, empty my mind to the extent that I am able to, and…breathe.

I’ve been doing this every day for more than 10 years now, absolutely without fail. I’ve meditated in apartments, barracks, mountain temples, hotel rooms beyond number, on more than one 747 deep in the trans-Pacific night, and once, particularly memorably, in the canvas-webbed cargo bay of a Chinook helicopter chittering its way into a landing zone. It’s become one of the few constants of a willfully nomadic and fluid life.

And it’s one of the many things in my life that I cannot conceive of being improved by an overlay of ubiquitous information technology. Going for a long run in a warm gentle rain, gratefully and carefully easing my body into the swelter of a hot springs, listening to the first snowfall of winter, savoring the texture of my wife’s lips…these are all things that acquire little or no added value by virtue of being networked, relational, correlated to my other activities. They’re already perfect, just as they stand.

Even where the application of ubiquitous technology would clearly be useful, I know enough about how informatic systems are built and brought to market to be very skeptical about its chances of bringing wholesale improvement to the quality of my life.

Sure, I’d love to know when my friend Jamie is within a few blocks of my present location, and available for a few pints of Guinness. I’d surely appreciate a little help finding the variety of tools and important documents I’ve stashed somewhere around the house and immediately forgotten. And I would not at all mind if my daily excursions and transactions were eased by the near-universal adoption of something along the lines of Hong Kong’s Octopus system.

But I have a hard time buying into the notion that such ubiquitous interventions in the world can be had without significant cost. I see how readily the infrastructure that gets us these amenities also lends itself to repression, exclusion and the reinscription of class and other sorts of privilege. Above all I see it occasioning hassle…unending hassle. I can’t see that we’ll derive much net improvement in quality of life from these and the other things everyware promises us, not unless we are exceedingly careful in devising and implementing the technology that undergirds them.

Nor do I see any reason to follow Teruyasu Murakami of Nomura Research in asking how the users of ubiquitous systems can “change their basic value systems to adapt to the new situation.” Not only do I think this is a very, very bad idea, but it’s also likely to be a painfully drawn-out exercise in futility.

We are who we are, in other words, in all the infuriating and delightful lineaments of our humanity. No matter how “convenient” it would be for us to learn to think and act in ways that accord with the technology we use, I very much doubt if such a thing is practically achievable. Besides, we’ve seen what happens when we attempt to forge a New Man: the results are not pretty, to very large values of “not.”

So maybe it would be wiser to develop an everyware that suits us, as opposed to the other way around, not that this will be very much easier. In fact, if you get nothing else from this book, I hope you at least come away from it with an understanding of how richly nuanced everyday life turns out to be, and how difficult it will be to design ubiquitous systems sophisticated enough to capture those nuances.

We seem to have a hard time with the notion that some aspects of life are simply too important, too meaningful and too delicate to subject to the rather clumsy interventions of our present information technology. Moreover, anyone venturing to question the wisdom of such interventions risks being branded a neo-Luddite, or worse. In his 1999 e-topia, MIT Media Lab professor William Mitchell rather blithely mocked “dogmatic and deterministic Chicken Little” perspectives on technology, dismissing out of hand “those now-familiar glum assertions that the digital revolution must inevitably reinscribe the nastier existing patterns of power and privilege, while trampling on treasured traditions as it does so.”

Frankly, I find Mitchell’s disdainful tone unjustified, even bizarre. While I don’t believe anything in the world is engraved in stone, I do think that each technology we invent contains certain inherent potentials for use. I also think we’re foolish if we do not at least consider these potentials, and where they lead to undesirable outcomes, take pains to circumvent them.

What seems lost on Mitchell, and on the many others holding similar views, is that the point of raising such questions, at least as far as I am concerned, is not to scuttle ubiquitous technology, but to improve it.

It is axiomatic in the field of biofeedback that “control follows awareness” you cannot seek to steer some process, that is, until you become conscious of it. My hope in writing this book is to foster a wider awareness of the deep issues raised by everyware, so we can together make the decisions about its emergence that we so urgently need to. And my fundamental point is that the outcome does not have to be something that simply happens to us. To the degree that we, the users and consumers of ubiquitous computing, educate ourselves and take action correspondingly, we get to choose the outcome.

When the stakes are as high as they are here, we must interrogate without mercy the value propositions we’re presented, and only adopt those ubiquitous products and services that really do improve our lives. In life, on balance, I come down ever so slightly on the side of hope: I think that given enough time and accurate enough information, people eventually do make wise decisions.

The trouble is that in the present situation, time and useful insight are both in short supply. While we have a window of time left in which to consider the manifold challenges of everyware, and to articulate a meaningful response to them, that window is closing. Ubiquitous computing appears in more places, in more guises, and in more ambitious conceptions with every passing day, and we’ve barely begun to confront it in the depth of understanding it demands.

The real struggle will be in finding an appropriate place for ubiquitous computing in our lives, reserving it for those applications where it will be able to do us the most good, while ensuring that our more intimate choices and moments remain autonomous and unmediated. The English proverb has it that “the devil is in the details.” The architect Mies van der Rohe famously restated this in more optimistic terms; in his version, the details of implementation are precisely where one might go looking for God. In the case of everyware, we can only hope that Mies knew what he was talking about.

New York City/Tokyo/Margaux, FR/Berlin
June 2005, January 2006

Want to read more?

Free sample sections are available at the Everyware mini site, and the book is on the shelves now.

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