The ubiquitous computing of today

Finally, after a LIFT I managed to have more time for reading good papers such as Yesterday's tomorrows: notes on ubiquitous computing’s dominant vision by Genevieve Bell and Paul Dourish (Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, 2006). The paper deeply discusses Mark Weiser's vision of ubiquitous computing, especially with regards to how it has been envisioned 10 years ago and the current discourse about it. In fine, they criticize the persistence of Weiser's vision (and wording!). To do so, they describe two cases of possible ubicomp alternative already in place: Singapore (example of a collective uses, computational devices and sensors) and South Korea (infrastructural ubiquity, public/private partnerships).

Their discussion revolves around two issues. On one hand, the ubicomp literature keeps placing its achievements out of reach by framing them in a "proximal future" and not by looking at what is happening around the corner. Such proximal future would eventually (for lots of ubicomp researchers but also journalists and writers) lead to a "seamlessly interconnected world". The authors then express the possibility that this could never happen ("the proximate future is a future infinitely postponed") OR more interestingly that ubiquitous computing already comes to pass but in a different form

On the other hand, ubicomp research is very often about the implementation of applications/services, assuming that the inherent problems would vanish (think about privacy!).

Therefore, what they suggest to the research community is to stop talking about the "ubiquitous computing of tomorrow" but rather at the "ubiquitous computing of the present": "Having now entered the twenty-first century that means that what we should perhaps attend to is ‘‘the computer of now.’’". Doing so, they advocate for getting out of the lab and looking at "at ubiquitous computing as it is currently developing rather than it might be imagined to look in the future". And of course, they then points to an alternate vision that Fabien discussed last week at LIFT07:

the real world of ubiquitous computing, then, is that we will always be assembling heterogeneous technologies to achieve individual and collective effects. (...) Our suggestion that ubiquitous computing is already here, in the form of densely available computational and communication resources, is sometimes met with an objection that these technologies remain less than ubiquitous in the sense that Weiser suggested. (...) But postulating a seamless infrastructure is a strategy whereby the messy present can be ignored, although infrastructure is always unevenly distributed, always messy. An indefinitely postponed ubicomp future is one that need never take account of this complexity.

So what's the agenda? Based on William Gibson famous quote about the future being there and not evenly distributed, they encourage that:

If ubiquitous computing is already here, then we need to pay considerably more attention to just what it is being used to do and its effects. (...) by surprising appropriations of technology for purposes never imagined by their inventors and often radically opposed to them; by widely different social, cultural and legislative interpretations of the goals of technology; by flex, slop, and play. We do not take this to be a depressing conclusion. Instead, we take the fact that we already live in a world of ubiquitous computing to be a rather wonderful thing. The challenge, now, is to understand it.

Why do I blog this? Best paper for weeks. This particularly resonates to the way I think about Ubicomp... meaning that no the recurrent intelligent fridge some have dreamed of 10 years ago is not the "fin de l'Histoire" (end of History). I really like when Bell and Dourish bring forward issues like ubicomp can rather be exemplified as Cairo with its freshly deployed WiFi network set to connect all the local mosques and create a single city-wide call to prayer than having a buddy-finder locator.

Moreover, the authors express their surprise to the fact that researchers are still positing much the same vision as years ago. This reminds me the ever-decreasing time-frame futurists tried to predict: the year 2000 was really the ending point and prediction were always targeted to that period. Now that we're in the (so-called?) 21st century, it's as if there could be no other future.

Anyway, that's a call to go "on the field" and see what's happening and the effects of technologies.