"we have stopped building our biggest antennae as monuments"

This Metropolis article is close to some of the elements I presented this morning at the Mediamatic workshop called "Hybrid World Lab". The article basically discusses the visibility of ubiquitous computing, or we'd better say its invisibility that most often the time is caused by the delegation of certain functions to artifacts. Some excerpts I found pertinent:

"the digital world is increasingly operating on our behalf, in physical ways. Cars no longer need keys, and tollbooths no longer require you to stop. (...) Ubiquitous computing “is hard to see literally,” Adam Greenfield writes in Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing. “When even a space that is entirely empty may in fact contain—to all intents, may be—a powerful information processing system, we can no longer rely on appearances to guide us.” (...) we’re at this odd historical moment when we’re living mostly—although not quite totally—on the network, but the network is mostly—not quite totally—invisible to us. "


The picture above depicts my university, as you can see, it's quite empty. As a matter of fact, this is a whole ubiquitous computing environment with tons of data flowing between these buildings. You have architect researchers sending maps and administration people sending stuff on the wireless network. There are also weather/temperature sensors, vending machines that allows order from cell phones, etc.

Back to the Metropolis article, the following quote about "living on the network" is also interesting:

"It’s only in the last ten years that we have begun to live on the network—if not sitting in front of a computer, eyes locked on the screen and fingers on the keyboard, then with a cell phone by our sides. In the process, we’ve happily given up the barriers to entry, all that “dialing up” and “logging in.” Similarly, the objects we use to access the network are dematerializing, not only in minimalist iPhone-like ways, but also into an invisible network cloud, a phenomenon known as “ubiquitous computing.” Phones, cars, televisions, and credit cards are all communicating among each other more and more, while showing their antennae less and less. Even at the scale of the city, we have stopped building our biggest antennae as monuments, like Toronto’s CN Tower or Seattle’s Space Needle, and instead try to hide them out of sight. "

Indeed, instead people prefer to disguise phone mast as trees. Why do I blog this? I really like this metaphor of shifting from infrastructures as monuments to new practices. It all boils down to the question of visibility: should things be visible to have a clear affordance? should they be visible so that user have "control" on the process? What about the infrastructure? should it be visible too? If not would we need warnings?

As Fabien describes, the presence of infrastructure is important. But it goes beyond the very existence: does the visibility per se have importance in terms of interacting?

visible infrastructure

The picture above has been taken last week-end at CERN... nice "visible infrastructure" architecture in which the tubes (the flows) are clearly visible and people can rely on their orientations to draw inferences about process.