Questioning the unfolding of technology in Ubicomp

Read "Questioning Ubiquitous Computing" by Araya this morning on the train. Although the paper dates from 1995, it's still highly relevant considering how it gives a critical analysis of the technological proposals of ubicomp. The author aimed at criticizing the "technical thining", i.e. the kind of assumptions, justifications and modes of reasoning that underlies Ubiquitous Computing. It's important to keep in mind though that what the author judges here is rather the description of Ubicomp based on Mark Weiser's papers and less the concrete instantiations that has been designed afterwards. Araya's claim is that ubicomp leads to "displacement, transformation, substitution, or loss of fundamental properties of aspects of the “world” in such a way that its otherness is increasingly eliminated". The world becomes then "a subservient artifact". Some excerpts that I found interesting:

"What is striking about most of these scenarios is the marginal and irrelevant character of the needs referred to in them and of the envisioned enhancements of the activities (e.g., elevators stop at the right floor, rooms greet people by name, secretaries instantly know the location of employees). Although it is tempting to discard this marginality as if it were only an impression produced by the chosen scenarios, we believe that it has a more fundamental character. (...) Even more striking is the stark contrast between the marginality of the enhancements and the complexity of the computing infrastructure required to achieve them. (...) The question then becomes, if not driven by the purpose of satisfying significant human needs how does Ubiquitous Computing justify itself?"

His answer to this question is: technology. Although he acknowledges that human need may have been historically generated sometimes by technologies, Araya points to the fact that the scale and scope of new needs to be satisfied by ubicomp are unprecedented. He then worries about this technological absolutism in which the technological thinking is never called into question ("the primacy of the unfolding of technology over the satisfaction of humans needs, and the self-sufficiency of this unfolding are taken as absolute givens. "). Down the road, this leads to a situation in which technology does not require any justification outside of itself.

Why do I blog this? although a bit left-over (I haven't seen lots of citations) it's refreshing to run across these critiques. Especially, the discussion about the gap between so-called needs and the infrastructures to be put into place to meet them.

One of the example he takes is very close to things I'm interested in, namely the representation of physical space through digital means:

"By disseminating digital surrogates of the world, that is, digital representations of partial aspects of the world which have been subject to more or less intense pre-processing. As the following scenario illustrates, the utility of these surrogates is not confined to office or working situations, but could also have certain uses at home: “Sal her neighborhood...through...electronic trails that have been kept for her of neighbors coming and going through the early morning... Time markers and electronic tracks on the neighborhood map let Sal feel cozy in her street (...) What does the scenario in which “Sal looks at electronic tracks of neighbors coming and going in the morning” tell us? The “need for social interaction” has been anticipated in the responsive environment and elaborate surrogates of relevant aspects of the world have been prepared. The street, the morning, the neighbors and their encounters have been displaced in time and space and replaced by surrogates, suffering a deep transformation in the process. Entire aspects of the situation have been filtered away and they can no longer surprise us. The electronic surrogates of the street situation live now in a different world, a world in which surrogates of the past can be replayed at any time, replicated, and distributed at will."

Araya, A. A. (1995). Questioning Ubiquitous Computing. In ACM Conference on Computer Science, pages 230–237.