Chronic’art interview, annotated

The French magazine Chronic’art recently did me the honor of interviewing me on topics ubiquitous. I thought you might like to have a look at what came of it – if nothing else, it’s certainly revealing as to the differing perceptions of these technologies from one culture to another. I’ll caution you, though: it’s long. (I’ve provided links where I thought they might be useful.) Enjoy.

1. What is Ubimedia and how can you define it?
Well, let me first make it clear that the word “ubimedia” was the translator’s choice, and not my own. (I would have preferred “ubiciel” as a more direct translation of “everyware,” primarily because it avoids all of the unwanted resonances that inevitably come along with “-media.”)

Having said that, what I am trying to describe is a post-PC milieu in which many of the objects and surfaces of everyday life – tables, sweaters, bicycles, coffee cups, doorways, shoes and so on – have been endowed with the capacity to sense, store, process, display and transmit information.

To me, there are two clear and fundamental implications of this turn away from the “computer.” The first is that the menus, windows and mouses we rely upon in our interactions with PCs will no longer make any particular sense – that this class of computational devices and services will require an entirely new way of thinking about interaction and interface. And the second is that all kinds of ordinary situations, contexts and transactions we’ve never previously conceived of as being technical will be remade on the logics of digital information processing.

2. With [Everyware], you told us that, from a status of «users» we become «subjects», in every meanings of the word: a subject with an interiority, an experience, a subjectivity, but also like the «subject» of something, subordinated to something. This idea of an abandon by relegation creates a new environment where «machines» are in charge of all the context. Is this the achievement of a scenario described several times in Sci-Fi and in philosophy of the inversion of the domination man vs. machine?
I don’t believe this to be the case. All of the systems I describe in Everyware are still devised by some human institution or agency, in pursuit of their own all-too-human ends. Such domination as exists – and I have no doubt that there will continue to be domination – will be that of humans over other humans, merely achieved through technical ends.

I simply meant that PCs are something we use with full consciousness of our own agency: we choose to use them at times and places of our own choosing, and when we do so they are at the center of our attention. This is not at all necessarily the case with everyware, and describing the human being involved as a “subject” rather than a “user” is a way of highlighting the distinction.

3. Is [everyware] the achievement of a Terminator-like scenario: our enslavement by the machine?
Not by the machine, no – but perhaps by the logics inscribed in digital information-processing systems.

My concern is primarily that certain qualities necessary (or convenient) in the design of such systems – explicitness of social orderings, for example, or strongly binary representations of state – are incommensurate with the ways in which we ordinarily live our lives. Whether we come to regard this as “enslavement” will depend on the degree to which our everyday experiences are colored by the presence of such systems, and the quality of their design.

4. Can we say, in other words, that [everyware] is creating an urban environment like in Minority Report and what does it mean for you?
Everyware doesn’t “create” anything in and of itself; I think our experience of it, whether in the urban environment, the domestic, or wherever else, is strongly determined by the choices we make as societies, and to a lesser extent as individuals.

But if we look at the current choices our societies have made around technologies of surveillance and display, then, yes, I do believe it’s possible to predict some things about near-future urban environments in the developed world. It’s already possible, for example, to track people’s movements via their mobile phones, even when the phones are switched off; it’s only a matter of time before somebody fuses that capability with relational-database-driven “behavioral marketing,” and serves consumers with dynamic, targeted advertising much like that depicted in Minority Report. Certainly organizations like JCDecaux are acutely aware of the possibilities.

Similarly, the ostensible requirements of public safety in a post-9/11, post-7/7, post-Bali, post-Madrid world are already invoked as justifications for more (and more intimate) tracking and surveillance, and here too all the necessary technology is already in place. All of the event passes for the Beijing Olympics, for example, are provisioned with RFID tags, and the Chinese government has been reasonably forthright about expressing their interest in using this capability to track the movements of visitors to the Games, and even in modeling higher-level behavior based on what is known about patterns of those movements.

And how we might avoid the less pleasant implications of these scenarios? To my mind, that will have a great deal to do with the regulatory environment, and with the controls over such exploitation that we demand of our representatives in government.

5. Arthur C. Clarke said «any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic». Do you think [everyware] can lead to that kind of impression? Perhaps to visitors from the past…?
I’ve described the signature interaction pattern of everyware as “information processing dissolving in behavior,” where there isn’t any visible token of the elaborate transaction that is taking place between a user and one or more technical systems. And it’s true that – when everything works properly, anyway – there’s undeniably something magical about this, something effortless. In fact, that’s a large part of why you’d want to deploy ubiquitous systems in the first place, that quality of lightness they’d impart to everyday interactions.

So to a certain degree it makes sense that interaction designers are resorting to metaphors of magic, animism, ensoulment and so on, in their attempt to render the inherent complexity of these systems comprehensible to their users – see, particularly, the work of my friend Mike Kuniavsky. The trouble with this line of thinking, as far as I am concerned, is that it tends to be disempowering. It turns something which can and should be understood by the people using it into something more closely resembling “spooky action at a distance,” and leads to a belief on the part of users that the systems around them are “black boxes” whose inner workings are both occult and bound to remain that way.

Put bluntly, I don’t think this mystification is an acceptable outcome.

6. [Everyware] is restoring an «augmented reality», ie. the colonization of the tangible reality by the virtual one. In order to make the co-existing of objects of the physical world in the Ubimedia, you talk about the necessity of creating bridges between atoms and bits. RFID, bar-codes were created in this direction. Why is it important?
Well, if you’re interested in performing computational operations on things in the real world, whether those actions involve location in time and space or anything else, those things first need to have a representation in the virtual, an informational token that will stand in for them.

At this point, it’s trivial to endow just about any designed object with this capacity from the beginning. But there are all kinds of things in the world where for whatever reason it would be problematic to build this functionality in: cats, pallets of toothpaste, old cars…RFID and 2D barcodes are simple, low-cost ways to import such real objects into virtuality wholesale.

7. In your book, you talk about the Octopus system in Hong-Kong, the E-Pass in the United States, we can talk at least about the Navigo system in the Parisian underground. Do those experiences prefigure our [everyware] future?
These systems aren’t robust ubicomp, perhaps, in the Weiserian mode, but I do think that all the promise and all the peril of everyware are already fully present in them.

8. Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown have earlier predicted the «arrival of calm technology», i.e. the fact that the more computers penetrate our life, the more they have to disappear. Can you explain this paradox?
Firstly, I should point out that I never did share Weiser and Seely Brown’s optimism regarding this.

Their argument was that because, as a consequence of Moore’s Law, information sensing and processing devices would be everywhere in our daily environment, their designers would be compelled to make them “encalming as well as informing.” That, in other words, they’d be designed to a far, far higher standard than anything else we use. This is an argument predicated on an assumption of good faith on the part of all designers that I regard as thoroughly unwarranted, given everything we know about the process and the politics of information-technological development. I just don’t see any evidence to support it.

Further, as Yvonne Rogers has recently pointed out, in addition to its inherent impracticality, an “encalming” agenda may not even have been a desirable goal for ubiquitous systems in the first place; she calls, rather, for “proactive systems for proactive people,” and I think this is altogether a wiser and more practicable direction for the field. That the Weiserian vision is still inspiring to a great many researchers and designers is undeniable, but I don’t think it’s any longer useful as a practical setting-forth of agendas for development.

9. What about the New Songdo project, in South Korea, the «ubiquitous town»? Can you call to our mind its reality?
I must be honest here and admit that, in all the time since I first began doing research for Everyware in mid-2005, I have not seen anything that substantiates or makes good on the claims the developers and promoters of New Songdo have made for the city. There is, anyway, nothing available on the Web that might convince me that the emergent reality of New Songdo in any way resembles the vision set forth for it.

Whether this is due to budgetary or technical constraints or shortfalls or some other reason entirely is still unclear, at least to me. I think it does stand as a cautionary tale, though, to all those who think the “city of the future” is something which can be achieved in a single stroke.

10. From this point of view, is the ubimedia against the predictions of the 1990’s virtual reality gurus, or «cyberspace», as William Gibson described it in Neuromancer?
In a sense, everyware is simply cyberspace everted – turned inside out and superimposed over the ordinary. And, at least as far as I’m concerned, the ordinary everyday world is an infinitely richer and more interesting place than any virtual reality.

11. If we suppose we can resolve the interoperability issues by an unique standard, can’t we fear a bigger danger, ie. the arrival of a total control society in which every hint of personal life would be stocked and listed by a one and unique entity, capable of blending all databases (data-mining)?
To me, the primary concern presented by data-mining – more formally, online relational analysis, fused to new techniques of information visualization – is not so much that one central authority can come to enjoy “total informational awareness,” although that is a valid fear, as that we will all come to enjoy such awareness. That is truly novel and truly problematic, in ways that run much deeper than a merely techno-Orwellian scenario.

12. Is the privacy issue now obsolete in the [everyware] era? Can we accept this idea and adapt ourselves to it?

13. How do we manage our history and our image in a[n everyware] environment, where every hint of individual life are stocked and listed?
I see questions 12. and 13. as two facets of the same concern.

I don’t, myself, believe in the slightest that privacy is a quaint value, or one that it is no longer possible to support either technically or socially. The famous and by-now routine assertions that “privacy is history” and that we should simply “get over it” are, to my mind, cop-outs, betrayals.

What I do believe, however, is that some of the foundational notions that our social arrangements and our jurisprudence have been built on – the reasonable expectation that one is anonymous when in public space, for example – have turned out to be local to the particular state of technosocial affairs in which they originated, rather than eternal truths. So if we agree that things like privacy and anonymity are worth keeping, we’ll now have to fight for them.

Some people clearly do not feel that these are values worth upholding, that we should instead consciously architect “a future of openness, trust and mutual accountability” from the tools and components we now have available. And it’s foreseeable that there might in fact be some upside to such transparency – we might no longer demand of our celebrities and political figures, for example, that they meet some utterly unrealistic template of ethical purity and physical perfection. For myself, I tend to think that the unpleasant consequences of total transparency will tend to outweigh whatever nominal relaxation we enjoy of the invidious expectations we hold of each other.

As to how we manage the presentation of self in a world where there is such easy slippage between our various masks, I simply don’t know. Dishonesty is the great lubricant without which any society rapidly becomes unbearable – imagine having to disclose your actual feelings about all your friends, relatives, neighbors and coworkers to them, in real time – and unfortunately, the advocates of technologically-driven universal transparency seem to persistently undervalue its utility as an aid to social cohesion.

14. In economical terms, the ubimedia means a battle for the «computing colonization of everyday objects» between the big names of the high-tech industry. What is the situation nowadays ? What are the most implicated companies in this strategy? Videogames developers like Sony and Microsoft? Internet’s giants like Google or Yahoo?
I wouldn’t say that any of these organizations have made any particularly interesting inroads with regard to objects we encounter in everyday life – with the partial exception of Google on mobile devices, which does profoundly affect the nature of conversations or situations in which it’s invoked.

We can look, instead, to services like OnStar, which is one of the very few interesting and successful things that General Motors has done in the last quarter-century. Under the influence of OnStar, GM increasingly understands the passenger vehicle as a sensor and a computational platform. Sadly, it has yet to affect the way they design or produce or distribute their cars, but it unquestionably represents the endowment of something familiar with information-processing power.

I might also mention Nike’s Nike+ iPod Sport Kit, which in effect transforms an ordinary running shoe into a biometric monitor and enables it to radiate performance data to the World Wide Web, where that data becomes a social object and a social pivot. Crucially, I understand that most of the interaction design was done by Nike rather than Apple, which suggests to me something of where the relevant skills involved in integrating everyday life with everyware are going to come from.

15. On one hand, the arrival of an unique standard would obviously favoring the development of [everyware]; on the other hand, this would mean a new monopolistic situation, like the Microsoft’s one and that is the most feared thing. Is this discrepancy the major problem of [everyware’s] development?
There is certaintly an argument to be made that in the realm of ubiquitous computing, the power – the grandeur – lies with the party or parties who determine and dictate the technical standards for the interoperability of components, systems and services.

But the beautiful thing is that no one organization seems any longer to be able to compel users’ acquiescence to their mandates. Microsoft and Sony have each shot themselves in the foot on more than one occasion by insisting that their users buy into some closed and proprietary standard that nobody had asked for: do a search for “ATRAC” or “PlaysForSure” if you doubt it.

After humiliating and expensive blunders like these, I’d hope that even the Microsofts and Sonys of the world come around to thinking that the future belongs more to open standards, as rigorously defined by Ken Krechmer – if for no other reason that any distributed system presenting as large an “attack surface” as the kind of everyware we’re talking about truly needs the enhanced security that goes hand-in-hand with openness.

And openness, in turn, acts to minimize the influence of large organizations. We’ve seen, for example, that where Web services are concerned, it’s independent developers using or promulgating open standards that have led the way. I don’t expect ubiquity to play out any differently.

16. You talk about an imposed «multiplicity» the ubi-computers developers would hardly manage. In this point of view, might [everyware], in the first place, increase some conformity, some unbearable consensus?
I think we’re getting two separate issues tangled up here. The first is the heterogeneity of the discrete technical systems that comprise the ubiquitous ecosystem, which is what I’m primarily referring to when I speak of “multiplicity.” The everyware milieu is comprised, in its total extent, by your mobile phone, by entirely ordinary desktop and laptop PCs through which information enters the network, by devices like Nike+, by RFID-mediated urban interfaces like Oyster or Octopus or EZPass…all of these systems are points of entry for information that can then be grabbed and manipulated and acted upon by other systems.

In the past, it was felt that this heterogeneity constituted a hard problem for the would-be developers of ubiquity. For example, a building-management system might rely on one centralized computational process, with limited resources available to track and manage all these sorts of assets and respond to their comings and goings, their crashes, their sudden availabilities and equally abrupt ruptures. I’m the furthest thing from an expert in computer science, but as far as I understand it, this is no longer thought of as being particularly problematic, particularly as computational resources, actual processing cycles, are now distributed across a networked “cloud” of devices.

The second issue is one of the heterogeneity of development organizations. Especially as each of the components that feed the ubiquitous ecosystem become “lighterweight,” simpler and cheaper, the number of people and organizations able to participate in building them explodes. I’ve in the past described this diversity of developers as simultaneously everyware’s greatest hope and its greatest weakness – it lends the ecosystem as a whole a much-needed flexibility and “hybrid vigor,” but it also makes it infinitely more challenging to achieve any consensus as to what might constitute “ethical” or “responsible” development.

17. Are iRoom and, generally speaking, the «event heap» model, answers to this multiplicity challenge? What is that?
These are obsolete models. As I mention, we’d be more likely, these days, to speak of “cloud computing.”

18. You talk in your book about the body as a databank and not anymore as a receptacle of impressions (the «SenseWear» patch of Bodymedia). Does the induction of machines transform the nature of man?
No, I don’t think anything quite so profound. I do think, however, that it changes our behaviors – what we do with our bodies, and why, and how – in quite significant ways.

My own personal example has to do with Nike+. Formerly very easy-going as a runner – a devotee of running as a kind of moving meditation and a space of pure relaxation – I have become quite compulsively competitive now that my performance statistics are captured and radiated to the World Wide Web. It’s no longer acceptable, somehow, that I’m forty-five seconds slower than my friend over the course of a mile, even though I’ve five long years older than him; it’s no longer entirely tolerable that anybody in my Nike+ orbit puts in more weekly miles than I do. And what’s more, I no longer run at all unless I have my Nike+ with me – why would I, when that would be an uncaptured and thus a “wasted” effort?

As you’ll probably have inferred from the way in which I’m discussing this turn of events, I’m deeply ambivalent about it. Unquestionably, I run more, and faster, than I did before I opened my life to networked biometrics. But it’s not quite the same as it was before. It means something different, and it feels different.

19. You recommend a flashback system (the famous CTRL-Z) in every utilization of the ubimedia, in order to avoid any irreversible disaster. An option so obvious we hardly imagine it doesn’t exist on every ubiquitous system, present or future. Does this «second chance» option make life like a videogame where it’s always possible to start again a fresh game?
But this is already the case: there’s a guy named Mitchell Wade who has some really good data on the generational divide between those of us who grew up before and the advent of widespread videogaming. His findings demonstrate – to my satisfaction, anyway – that people who grow up gaming are far less risk-averse than those of us who did not.

At any rate, I’m not particularly worried about making things too soft and forgiving by introducing such functionality. We can already see that the hassle of clumsily-devised everyware is likely to be so significant that any mitigation we can provide as designers will be both merciful and welcome.

20. Another solution: you talk about the possibility to say no to [everyware], say «no» to a system we don’t want it to manage things for us. Isn’t it a little bit naive? Or pragmatically unmanageable?
In public, yes, it is already almost certainly too late, as we’ve seen: try moving through an environment like central London without having your traces captured and parsed! But in private space, in our own homes at the very least, I continue to maintain that we should be able to shut it all down at will.

Whether someone who choses to opt out in such a manner, at least for any length of time, will be able to meet emerging social criteria for “performance,” will be able to keep their nostrils above the waterline in the ferociously competitive world we seem to be building, I can’t say. That’s a question for all of us to answer, at the level of the societies we belong to, and it’s beyond the ability of designers to affect.

21. Isn’t it a little bit utopist to imagine we can master or orientate our ubiquitous future? Aren’t machines out of control yet?
Again, I think that we’re a long way from needing to worry about autonomous machines. I’m much more concerned about various social and political agendas being advanced via ubiquitous technology, and therefore appearing neutral and “natural.”

22. Can we imagine a life separate from this ubiquitous world you describe? Isn’t this a new form of luddism?
No, not at all. I believe that it’s meaningless to say that one is “pro-technology” or “anti-technology” – the idea is absurd to me. There are, instead, discrete technologies, and we can each of us choose which we desire to invite into our lives.

That is, those of us who are empowered to choose. Not everyone will be so lucky. What I see happening is a “digital divide” much more pervasive and worrisome than that which ordinarily concerns commentors on technology. Generally, we see this divide depicted as one where the wealthy have access and the disadvantaged and those without resources lack it. What I see everyware doing is turning this supposition on its head, so that it is the wealthy, the privileged and the powerful solely who are able to abscond from visibility to the network.

We already see some signs of this in the mobile space: Blyk‘s business model, for example, points pretty clearly to a time when the less-privileged have access to advertising-supported “free” connectivity that comes with strings very much attached, while those who can afford it are subject to no such restraint.

23. [Everyware] means also the arrival of order and precision (on what machines are built) in our world made of chaos, disorder, uncertainty…How do you explain this paradox? What can be the consequences? Can we talk about the inversion of the dominating vs. dominated model, the mastering vs. loss of control one?
We know this about digital systems, that their representations of the world and of situations in it are binary, granular, stepped: on or off, one or zero, yes or no. By contrast, when I think of something like my feelings for my closest friends as they’ve evolved over time, they’re in constant flux, inchoate, inarticulate. In short: exceedingly difficult to represent as the state of a digital system.

So when I contemplate the specter of all the profoundly analogue relations of everyday life remade as just that, I cringe. I think, particularly, of Deleuze’s “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” where discipline itself has become nomadic, something immanent in the world. But, again, I don’t see this as domination by machines so much as it is the subordination of will and desire to a set of inappropriate logics that have nothing to do with the way the human sensorium and psyche experience the world.

24. Doesn’t those ordinate systems favor and increase disorder in the real world, as everything influences everything everywhere (Butterfly effect or «event heap»)?
I would not be in the slightest surprised to see catastrophic errors and defaults cascading through poorly-devised ubiquitous systems.

25. Bernard Stiegler talks about a «global mnemonic system» to underline the fact that, in the future, nothing will be isolated from anything. What is this environment made of information always accessible from anyone? Are we going to be better informed? And what this environment will change for us?
What we’re contemplating is a world where just about any human activity undertaken generates its own discrete data trail, which is then subject to aggregation, analysis, persistent storage, representation and an output which is in turn potentially located just about anywhere. I find it unthinkable that this would not transform our epistemologies both formal and personal.

Will we be better informed? In some shallow sense, yes. My wife, my friends and I already interrupt our conversations to Google an unfamiliar name, or look something up on Wikipedia: it’s what the iPhone is for. But as I understand him, anyway, Stiegler’s concern is with the exteriorization of knowledge and with the consequences of that exteriorization for the recuperation of desire. That’s a much deeper question and I don’t think we as yet have any solid sense yet what either our psyches or our societies come to resemble under such conditions.

26. Why isn’t [everyware] real yet? What restraint its development?
I would argue quite strongly that it is real – that for all that it may not particularly resemble what Mark Weiser had in mind, everyware is already all around us, hiding in plain sight. I hate to resort to the Gibsonian cliché, but I believe that we may not necessarily perceive it as such because it’s “not yet evenly distributed.”

27. One difficulty of [everyware], you said, is that people don’t see it as useful, they don’t need it. Can you explain that?
Sure. It’s the gulf between the way people ordinarily perceive their everyday needs, and the kind of thing a development organization might contrive as part of a “business requirements analysis.”

Nobody says to themselves, “Hmmm, what I really need is a ubiquitous household management system.” They might say “I’d like it if all of the digital devices in my life to spoke to one another.” But far more likely is for people to express their needs and desires in high-level terms, like wanting to know when traffic is particularly bad, how to get to the restaurant where they’re meeting a friend, where their children are at the present moment, where they stashed last winter’s scarf and gloves when the weather turned pleasant…

It’s the task of the designer to understand desires like these, to use all of the empathy and insight they have at their disposal to produce systems and services that allow people to fulfill their desires without needing to attend overmuch to the tool itself.

28. You define five basic principles, five warnings in order to develop safely [everyware]. We easily imagine you know the laws of Asimov…Do you think a supranational organization is possible, in order to enforce those rules and avoid bad surprises?
Given that only the tiniest minority of those developing ubiquitous systems do so in consciousness that this is in fact what they’re doing – they are far more likely to concieve of themselves as developing modular, discrete componentry, that’s only after the fact laminated into a distributed, networked system – it’s hard to imagine that any such call will prove to be terribly effective. Nevertheless, I think it’s valuable simply to set baseline expectations for what we might call an etiquette of ubiquitous interactions, and I myself would certainly like to see some group of developers take this challenge on.

29. What kind of organization could enact and enforce those rules?
I think we’ve already seen a few examples of an organizational topology that would work: open-source development, the rise of Wikipedia, what Clay Shirky might call “organizing without organizations.” I also generally use standards-based Web development as having set a felicitous precedent for global standards arising out of the work of activist developers.

30. We see more and more evolving machines whose functions evolve in time, and we think ubimedia will nurture those developments: the roles of machines will change from the ones imagined by their developers (from service functions to control functions, or matching information functions, on behalf of a State or companies). How to manage and control this?
[Must have missed this question – I don’t see that I answered it. : . ) ]

31. For Norbert Wiener, when humans are in front of machines, they act as they have an internal force. Some point of view later developed by Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass in 1996 in The Media Equation (people act as computers were humans). We can see this in 2001: A Space Odyssey (HAL 9000), Ghost In The Shell or The Matrix. How do you analyze this need for humans to identify themselves to machines? What does it reveal?
I can’t speak to what it might mean philosophically, I’m just not qualified. Empirically, however, people unquestionably seem to have some deep-seated need to impose an anthropomorphism on the artifacts around them – and not even digital ones: Fabien Girardin and Nicolas Nova, in their forthcoming pamphlet Sliding Friction, demonstrate that frequently all that is necessary is for “eyebrows” to be added before we perceive some piece of machinery or architecture to have a personality.

As Reeves and Nass showed us, though, the more interactive an artifact is, the harder this anthropomorphism is to escape. We ascribe emotions to interactive artifacts, we treat them as social beings and coevals. What it implies for the designers of everyware is that, again, it might not be such a bad idea if the devices around us observed the same standards of social concourse that a well-socialized human adult would: discretion, tact, implicit forgivenness of trivial blunders, and so on. It’s long past time, in other words, for the designers of interactive systems to acquaint themselves with the social-psychological literature; I generally give my students Goffman to start with.

32. In the same direction, you see that machine is perceived as a «social tool». Isn’t this a lure? An overestimated function of the machine which reveals more a lack of knowledge and control of the computing object? Some inferiority complex?
I don’t think it’s so much an inferiority complex as it is the misallocation of resources, ambitions and desires. Let’s use digital information technology to do what it does best, and not install it where it can only do harm. I see the social sphere, generally, as one of the latter circumstances – see my post called “Antisocial Networking” for a much more thorough treatment of this theme.

33. We see two opposites views on new technologies between West and East. The first is more about technique (optical fiber, high quality broadband connection…) and is still bind to fix PC. On the other hand, Japan is all about mobility, as we see in the success of mobile phone (the «keitai» or «ubiquitous communicator»). Is [everyware] more able to flourish in Asia than in the West?
The stereotype is that audiences in East Asia are on the one hand somehow less concerned with individual privacy, and on the other hand more invested in notions of technical progress on the national level. And it’s true that in places like South Korea, Japan and Singapore we have these very high-level ubiquitous initiatives on the part of government, very tightly coordinated with manufacturers and their marketing activities.

I question, though, whether these initiatives ultimately do any good. My sense is that they tend to lock developers into prematurely-calcified visions of what ubiquity is or could be, and have rather less to do with anything that people actually want or need. On the other hand, getting around Hong Kong or Seoul with their RFID-enabled transit systems is a pleasure that no metropolitan system in the United States can remotely match, so it may well be that there’s something to be said for the coordinated approach.

34. In this direction, does [everyware] have many ways of developing itself? Many ways of access?
I believe that there are and will continue to be as many everywares as there are local cultures that adopt it. If nothing else, in very many places around the world, the desktop computer has never been the primary means of accessing networked information, so it’s foolish to assume that the PC will loom particularly large in the future of these local conditions.

What I believe to be very foolish are comments like those of Qualcomm’s COO, Sanjay Jha, that the pervasive Internet experience somehow “needs” to resemble that which we’re familiar with from the desktop. Here is a place where a hundred flowers will most assuredly bloom, each exquisitely adaptive to its own time, place, audience and context.

35. Technique isn’t neutral, as we see with Heidegger, Habermas or McLuhan. For the last skeptics, isn’t [everyware] the ultimate proof they’re right?
This is a live question for me.

On the one hand, I think it’s beyond question that technical systems are generally presented as neutral and universal, in such a way as to disguise the valuations embedded in them, where you already know that I believe these valuations to have an outsize impact on our freedom to choose and experience.

But I’m also sympathetic to Bruno Latour’s point, pushing back against some of the things that Langdon Winner has asserted, that artifacts can not be said to have politics in any meaningful sense. His argument is that, whatever political desire is inscribed in the design of an artifact, the set of circumstances those artifacts are deployed in are invariably so dynamic as to undermine the designer’s intention in short order. I suppose we’ll have to wait and see who proves to be more correct in the ubiquitous context.

8 responses to “Chronic’art interview, annotated”

  1. engelo says :

    “All of the systems I describe.. are … human […] and I have no doubt that there will continue to be domination of humans over other humans, merely achieved through technical ends”. But surely you must agree that not everything is in human control, and that boundaries of human agency are hugely controversial. Surely technical devices transcend being merely tools for human agency. They drift out of control and have unintended consequences – and therefore they must have some sort of agency.

    Think of Benedict Anderson’s argument of the contribution of printed material – and journalism in particular – to the consolidation of language and ultimately to the facilitation of nationalism. Is it unthinkable to talk of the agency of technology in this case? Print was not invented in order to form national identities, it was a side affect of the relationship between human “users” and the kind of language that can be inscribed on paper.

    So the “domination” of human agency, it seems to me, should therefore be replaced by the notion of a web of relationship between heterogeneous entities.

  2. Greg Borenstein says :

    “PCs are something we use with full consciousness of our own agency: we choose to use them at times and places of our own choosing, and when we do so they are at the center of our attention.”

    I wonder if this is less true now than it was a few years ago. Social mores around PC usage are changing to accommodate its growing near-ubiquity. At least in my social circles, the acceptable mean time for email/twitter/etc. response is rapidly decreasing and the tolerance for ‘continuous partial attention’ over the lids of laptops in informal situations is rapidly increasing.

    I think for people of a certain age (young enough to have had computers as kids but old enough to have gotten cell phones after college) and in certain milieus where a high level of connectedness through blogs, et al is expected (i.e. people who work in technical fields or are involved in political activist communities) the PC itself has become ubiquitous, both in the sense that it always present and that it dissolves into the background of their social interactions (whether they take place through it in digitally-mediated fora or around it in digitally augmented conversations).

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Putting people first - 7 May 2008
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  5. Pasta&Vinegar - 29 September 2008
  6. French Journalist Attempts to Understand Everyware | Beyond the Beyond | Wired - 5 March 2014

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