5 Things About Ubiquitous Computing That Make Me Nervous

Posted on Mar 31, 2013 in Science, Technology & Society

After more than a decade of studying ubiquitous computing I’ve seen some interesting things come and go. (To put this in perspective for my students I tell them that my PhD was done before the first iPhone was released.) But it’s the persistent things that I end up thinking about most, the cultural values and social norms around ubicomp that we never seem to lose despite everything that changes.

I was thinking about some of those things last week when a colleague asked me to give a guest lecture in his undergrad ubiquitous computing media design course, and so I found myself putting together a few slides under the title 5 Things About Ubiquitous Computing That Make Me Nervous. This was my list:

1. Technological determinism & defeatism

Or, the cultural belief that technological development and progress is inevitable, and we have to adapt.

2. Technological solutionism

Or, the cultural belief that technology is the best solution to life’s problems.

3. Quantification imperatives

Or, the cultural belief that everything can and should be measured in numbers, and that everyday life would be better if all our decisions were based on these data.

4. Connection & sharing imperatives

Or, the cultural belief that everyday life would be better if more information was transmissible and accessible to people.

5. Convenience & efficiency imperatives

Or, the cultural belief that people would be better off if there were more technologies to make daily life more convenient, and common tasks more efficient.

I explained that the five points are not mutually exclusive, but that we can look at them individually to get a better sense of how they overlap and reinforce each other. Technological defeatism and solutionism are Evgeny Morozov’s terms, and because our students are surrounded by digital utopianism and not often keen on reading academic texts, I suggested that they check out his interesting and readable new book: To Save Everything, Click Here.

I explained that I found the first two beliefs most problematic because they are so far reaching and have been responsible for some of history’s greatest atrocities, but that the following three points are most problematic in their capacity as imperatives. In other words, I have no problem imagining situations or contexts where they could be appropriate but I’m nervous because designers too often take their necessity for granted–and fail to ask questions about when, where and for whom such designs might be inappropriate, or make the effort to understand why.

Like many students facing a critique of their practice, they struggled to understand how they could proceed. Some still focussed on how to provide the right solutions to the right problems (I asked who should get to decide what is right); others wanted to know how they could predict the likelihood of something bad happening (I pointed back to #3); and a few wanted ethical guidelines (I wondered if this fell under #2, or if I needed to add a #6, Prescriptive imperatives). Taking a more pedagogical perspective, a couple of students recognised that it is difficult to develop a critical perspective whilst in school that includes the possibility of not designing something, simply because we force them to make things.

A few students even accused me of being defeatist and anti-technology in my critique, but I responded that I never said that ubicomp shouldn’t be designed, and neither did I say that we couldn’t create technologies in more critical, or interrogative ways. A serious problem, I think, is that our imaginations are not as strong when we come to the task of redesigning design itself. Design still suffers, for example, from having contradictory interests in sustainability and planned obsolescence, and still responds to the perils of mass production through the design of small-run luxury goods. In these, and other cases, one problem is simply substituted for another–and the solutionist imperative encourages us to respond by designing and producing more and more in turn.

In my class this term we’re using Anne Balsamo’s Designing Culture as a starting point for identifying when, where and how designers make decisions. For all our focus on teaching students to design digital and physical products, I don’t think we’re doing a good enough job of getting them to understand their process as a form of social, cultural, political, ethical, etc. agency. There is still, I think, too much emphasis on design process as some sort of mythical, mystical, essentially ineffable, act of creation.

This problem, I think, is further compounded in more critical approaches, where design effectively begins and ends with the creative act. In other words, whether questioning ubicomp or biotech or something else entirely, the objects and ostensibly critical intentions of the designer are treated as givens and little effort has been made to systematically understand how other people interact–or do not interact–with these designs. Imagine discussions about video games that did not include player perspectives, or mass media research that did not take into account the active use of, rather than passive consumption of, information and entertainment. And yet critical design, speculative design, and design fiction are rarely researched by non-designers–see DiSalvo and Michael for notable exceptions–and almost never analysed or evaluated by their actual practitioners. (I’ll never forget being told by a designer that we can’t critique critical design because it had already been done through the design itself!)

By articulating “things that make me nervous” instead of talking about “things that are bad,” I had hoped to help students realise that critique is also not a final act. I wanted them to keep moving, to keep acting–but with greater awareness, responsibility and accountability. Critique shouldn’t stop us from acting or, in my opinion, tell us how to act. Critical awareness should help us situate ourselves, make active decisions to do some things and not others, and accept the consequences of these actions for ourselves and others.