An interview with Adam Greenfield

Regine and I interviewed Adam Greenfield on WMMNA. The interview was about Mr. Greenfield's book "Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing", how it has been received, why such a name, what were the implications and how designers should have a voice in the discourse about everyware/ubiquitous computing...Some questions were more specifically addressing issues that I tackle in this blog, about space/place and their relationships with technology design. If you want to read the whole interview, I encourage you to go to WMMNA.

It's been one year that I regularly exchange with Adam through IM and meetings at like Nepublics or CINUM. So these bits might reflects some of the discussion we have (we did not address his love for the Citroen DS). Besides, if you're interested in knowing more about the personnage and listening to his thoughts, he'd be at LIFT07 in a panel about ubiquitous computing.

RD: You have travelled extensively and therefore can compare the way ubiquitous computing is being deployed in several parts of the world (US, Korea, Japan and Europe). Are we all welcoming the arrival of everyware or did you notice some resistance here and there?

AG: My perception has been that East Asian decision elites, particularly, are far more receptive to the value propositions implied by everyware than their counterparts in the West; Korea, Singapore and Japan, for example, all have ubiquitous initiatives at the national level.

Sometimes - and again, I need to emphasize that this is purely my own take - this extends to a general propensity in the society to accept the claims of technology advocates at face value, where North Americans and Western Europeans in the broad aggregate tend to be more cynical. But sometimes it does turn out that the average Korean, say, is far wiser, more nuanced in her understanding, and more critical of the ostensible benisons of ubiquitous informatics than Samsung and LG would like her to be.

In the long run, of course, the factors that govern whether or not a particular society embraces everyware are much more complicated than a simple binary pro- or anti- stance. We can see how everyware invokes and engages attitudes toward some really rich and only rarely made-explicit values - privacy, personal space and bodily distance, time, social status - and these are going to differ from region to region and from subculture to subculture even within a given society. So to my mind, it's not so much a question of resistance, as to whether or not the designers of a particular ubiquitous system have invested the time and effort in understanding their target audience at a level of resolution sufficient to secure acceptance.

NN: It's been a while that the book has been released. After those few months, when you look back and think about the reactions and the debate it had fostered, what are the main issues that emerged? Where there unexpected discussions? If you had to add new parts in that book, what would it be about?

AG: Oh, god. I'd probably write a completely different book now. It's not so much a question of new material, although there's inevitably a wealth of more up-to-date information that we could profitably discuss, as what I'd want to leave out. The thesis on mash-ups, for example, which is the surviving third of a much longer argument about the decentralization of technological development, and doesn't make all that much sense in its shorter version.

At that, I guess the thing that's surprised me most in terms of the response is how consistently readers have said, essentially, "OK, you've convinced me that this stuff is going to happen, is happening. You don't need all this material in here laying out this argument in detail. I buy the premise." So what I'm hearing is that I probably could have trimmed out long stretches of Section 6, parts of which are the most technical in the book, the most rapidly obsolescing and the weakest in terms of their contribution to the overall argument.

As to that argument, it's gotten a warm response from people in the field; in particular, the reception I got when I presented on the Everyware material at PARC itself was extremely gratifying. There have been exceptions, of course. Anne Galloway has expressed very clearly her distrust of all a priori design guidelines, or of anything that tends to universalize or genericize, and to some degree I think that's fair comment; Victoria Bellotti at PARC, if I understood her correctly, seemed to feel that the sorts of graphic identifiers for information gathering activities called for in the book would likely be dangerously reductive or misleadingly incomplete, worse than no notification at all.

And as to the reactions of those not in the field? I still can't tell. Even after ten months in the wild, I don't think it's found its audience.

NN: One of the most striking issue I am interested with regards with your book, Adam, is how "everyware" relates to the way people experience "space and place". The pervasiveness of the technologies, you describe can lead to possible changes. Do you think they can reshuffle our relation to the spatial, environment and our spatial behavior? and how? Do you think, everyware, as a technological disrutpion, can create new affordances, in the environment (as with lifts, phones and cars)?

AG: Can it? Sure it can. And if it can, will it? You bet. Whether it should is something that we're going to have to figure out on a case-by-case basis.

Take wayfinding systems, for instance. At first pass, enhancing cities with ambient locational cues, installing a layer of technology to ensure that people always know where they are and how to get where they're going, seems like what we'd call a "no-brainer" here in the States - just a situation where the proposed intervention is transcendently, self-evidently a Good Thing.

But we know that nothing ever comes for free, that there will be costs and even revenge effects associated with this technology. Should such a thing ever come to pass in any big city, I'll tell you right now that some people will rely on the ambient wayfinding interface at a moment when they should have been paying attention to the evidence of their own senses, and they'll let the system lead them into a bad outcome of one sort or another. You don't have to be any kind of a futurist to know this: it happens with GPS right now!

Will this occasional default add up to more hassle, inconvenience and pain than the system is otherwise saving its users? Hopefully not - I mean, that's to a great extent the job of the interaction designer, to keep all that to a manageable minimum. But that's just at the individual level. Beyond that, we must never lose sight of the fact that informatic systems of the type we're discussing are always already social, and will have macro-scale social consequences as well. And whether or not we're ready for that and we're willing to accept all of the implications with open eyes is a discussion for the whole community to have, not merely designers.

NN: Now that we have talked about those spatial issues, how do you articulate these questions with architecture and urban planning? Bridges between the field of User Experience, Interaction Design, Architecture and Urban Planning will surely be relevant. This means that those disciplines will have to create, dialogues; what topics/nodes/issues do you see as potentially important for that matter?

AG: At the rawly technical level, the fusion of mainstream architectural discourse with that of networked, ambient informatics is already beginning to happen, with the first Web-native generations beginning to pick up their architecture degrees. These are theorists and practitioners for whom the virtual and actual are closer still than two sides of the same coin.

But your point is very well-taken. Just because architecture is digitally enhanced won't necessarily make it usefully or usably so; compassionate interaction design, sound information architecture, and careful attention to the quality of user experience are hardly universal even in the informatic sphere. A Zune is not an iPod, Suica is not Octopus, a Delta Airlines e-ticketing kiosk does not look or sound or feel like a jetBlue kiosk. So how much more difficult is it likely to be when interactive functionality is seeded everywhere in the built environment?

One issue that leaps out at me, anyway, is that architecture and informatics have different speeds. If you were to superimpose digital technologies over Stewart Brand's famous shearing layer diagram in How Buildings Learn, you'd conclude that all but the deepest network standards and protocols evolve as rapidly as his "stuff." Your platform of choice, its operating system, the browser or mail client version you use, your relationship with your ISP and your mobile-telephony service provider - all of these will change a dozen or more times in the course of a decade, certainly more often than people tend to change their furniture. In some easily foreseeable cases, new firmware builds for embedded domestic systems might be pushed nightly. And yet, barring the advent of some particularly advanced adaptive building technology, walls and floors and windows pretty much stay where they are.

So by and large, you have two different development communities, the architectural and the informatic, that have very different internal gearings, as it were - different orientations toward the flow of time. And again, you don't have to be Nostradamus to predict that this will occasion a stumble or two as architecture is increasingly invested with information technology.