Ludigo interview

I’ve just finished sitting for this brief interview with Lalie Nicolas for Le Hub‘s Ludigo project, dedicated to the creation of “ambient intelligent landscapes.” As usual, whenever an interview with me will appear exclusively in another language, I reprint it here – for my own convenience, as much as anything else. (I’ve taken the liberty of lightly editing the questions.) And, again as usual, I hope you enjoy it and find it useful.

LN: How do you see the near-future city working with ubiquitous computing, or what you call “everyware”?

AG: Answering this question at the length it deserves would take far more time than I’m afraid we’ve got together at the moment. It’s like asking me to list all the ways electricity informs the life of the city – that’s how protean and pervasive the technologies we’re talking about are and will be.

I would go so far as to say that there will be no area or domain of urban activity that is not somehow disassembled and recomposed as a digital, networked, interactive process over the next few years. Objects, buildings and spaces will be reconceived as network resources; cars, subways and bicycles will be reimagined as on-demand mobility services; human communities are already well on the way to becoming self-conscious “social networks.”

LN: What kind of consequences will the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) bring, in this new way of living in the city?

AG: The one thing we can say with any confidence at all is that the consequences will be different in each city.

Mobile phones, when introduced to the Philippines, proved an effective way of coordinating large-scale civic action and gave people a venue in which they could demand governmental reform. But Japanese people have virtually identical mobile phones, capable of performing the same functions, and yet so far as I know have never used them for political activism.

Why is that? We’ll never understand why if we ask questions about the technology qua technology. The tool has certain affordances, certain capabilities, and these operate in and as an ensemble with pre-existing and emergent social proclivities to produce effects. The relevant unit of analysis is the technosocial assembage, not the technology itself.

LN: What are the main social evolutions you expect?

AG: Well, I don’t happen to be a technodeterminist, so I can’t say. It will depend to a very great degree on how the systems in question are designed, and by whom, and with what values.

It would be easy enough for me to make an argument that these technologies will only further fragment and atomize us, ensure that we’re only ever able to be the most passive consumers of our own lives. But by the same token – and even using some of the same systems as examples! – I could just as easily argue that ubiquitous technologies break down social barriers, allow people to form more effective communities of interest, give people the tools with which to readily coordinate their activities with friends and strangers alike.

LN: Most of the time, you seem pessimistic or negative in your analysis. Why is that?

AG: I’m not at all sure that’s actually the case. It’s certainly true that I’m just as often criticized for offering an unduly rosy portrayal of circumstances.

To the degree that what you’re characterizing as pessimism reflects my stance accurately, though, I’d rather think of it as realism. People keep talking about “cities 2.0,” but people haven’t changed; we’re still “humans 1.0.” Through malfeasance and (probably more often) misfeasance, we will continue to build systems that damage lives, limit freedom, waste time, and constrain expression. We have done this with every technology we have ever devised, and we will not suddenly become enlightened when handed ubiquitous ones.

“Pessimism” would be facing that set of circumstances and concluding that there’s nothing to be done about them. What I counsel, by contrast, and hopefully practice myself, is facing them without illusion, and then trying to design meaningful responses.

LN: What are the methods that need to be invented in order to govern this digital city?

AG: I hope, believe and expect that we will see entirely new systems of democratic governance emerge at urban scale – systems capable of allocating resources equitably, buffering and resolving disputes, giving each of us a voice in the management of the communities we live in and constitute through our actions.

Again, these systems will be only partially technical in nature. We will also have to invent the social practices, habits, and forms of agreement that will work in mesh with this particular set of technical components to produce the effects we’re interested in. And we have barely even begun to think about what those might look like.

Maybe there are some hints in the Making Things Public catalogue, and Latour’s other work; maybe the relevant conversations are happening in places or communities or languages I’m simply not aware of. But for the most part I’m not convinced that our understandings of public space, the public sphere and its constitution are adequate to the contemporary technical milieu.

LN: What could be the basis for an ethics of ambient intelligence?

AG: We could start with the recognition that only human beings have intelligence – human individuals and human communities forged into effective ensembles by their tools. Only by admitting that the intelligence resides in and between us – that we own it, it is ours and it fully bears the marks of our failures and our hopes – could we begin to talk about an ethics of ubiquitous computing.

12 responses to “Ludigo interview”

  1. kylie gusset says :

    i found the following comment from you really interesting:
    “Through malfeasance and (probably more often) misfeasance, we will continue to build systems that damage lives, limit freedom, waste time, and constrain expression. We have done this with every technology we have ever devised, and we will not suddenly become enlightened when handed ubiquitous ones.”
    i’m itching to get my hands on a copy of nudge for this very reason. what if we built systems that actually encouraged people to do the right thing? (hello dreamless without avatars and crazy ui bullshit, which encouraged intelligent conversation…mostly… ;) )

  2. AG says :

    See, that approach worries me, greatly. (See my thoughts here.)

  3. James Everett says :

    Adam I followed the link and noticed the post and comments were from 2007, has your experience since then changed/updated your position on game design as a tool for increasing real world happiness?

    Jane’s work has taken some very interesting turns, particularly the use of games for future forecasting with IFTF in Superstruct and Signtific Labs. These are the most obviously “game like” structures that evoke play but have none of the perceived kawaii aesthetic that was causing cognitive static. (My own work, sadly, has been firmly in the pure entertainment space, so I can’t comment from practical built it shipped it experience.)

    Another commenter mentioned that “Play has become overloaded” as a term (which I found amusing given that Fun is the term we often wring our hands about overloading in game design) and that’s certainly a valid concern because for most people Play = childlike. Which is unfortunate but perhaps inescapable. Play is not inherently childlike, and perhaps interfaces and systems for interacting with the world given a mature spin on play would increase engagement with them.

  4. AG says :

    It’s a very valid question, James, and the sad thing is that my poor overloaded single-track mind doesn’t have an answer for you.

    I’ve been so obsessively focused on thinking-what-I-think-about that I haven’t really had time to revisit that particular line of inquiry. To be on the safe side, and without going back for a point-by-point comparison, I’d say that I probably have the same motivations and goals I did then, but maybe have different feelings as to how tactically to reach those goals. (Witness my recent surrender to Facebook, for example.)

    Interestingly, I haven’t really followed Superstruct, despite it superficially seeming like “the kind of thing that would interest me.” Nobody has yet offered me a compelling reason to get engaged, you know?

  5. James Everett says :

    Fair point, your depth of inquiry and practice in your field has got to leave little time for digging deep on another! This is the blessing and the curse of game design (as I find myself practicing it most often) which is that we haul in reference material from every avenue imaginable and use it as grist for the mill while casting about to understand our own emerging field.

    Superstruct suffered from interface difficulty as much as anything, which is a common issue for ARGs. When the world and the web are your platform the players are often relied upon to construct a mental model of an alternate space living alongside their own which is of sufficient complexity to make it hard work. Superstruct attempted to pull things together into a central website as a platform/clearing house, but the design nearly required data mining to use effectively.

    IFTF seem to have taken plenty of lessons from that experience and the Signtific Labs site is much more streamlined. Engagement in that was a clever push marketing pitch; Jane kicked it off during Webstock here in Wellington and having a large audience of tech savvy conference goers, most of whom could access the website for it’s first 24 hour test run from devices on their person, created a relatively large volume of responses. Additions to the database of ideas were restricted to 140 characters or less.

    The more complicated these games/tools are, the more self-selecting the audience becomes. When significant time/thought is required a lot of individuals with huge amounts of work to do, even in the same space, are going to look very carefully at how much they will have to invest to benefit in any meaningful way. It’s not just adding an idea to the database of cool ideas, that might be fun/novel the first time, but spending the time to sort through everyone else’s ideas looking for gems that inform/inspire.

  6. Akytera says :

    Hello Adam, this is the spanish translation we have made.


    LN: ¿Cómo ves en el futuro cercano la aplicación de la computación ubicua en las ciudades, o lo que tú llamas “everyware”?

    AG: Responder esta cuestión como se merece nos llevaría mucho más tiempo del que me temo que tenemos los dos en este momento. Es como preguntarme por todas las formas en que la electricidad influye en la vida de la ciudad. Así de amplias y variantes son y serán las tecnologías de las que estamos hablando.

    Diría que no habrá ningún área o dominio de la actividad urbana que no sea de alguna forma decompuesta y recompuesta como un proceso interactivo, digital y en red, en los próximos años. Objetos, edificios y espacios serán reconcebidos como recursos en red; coches, metros y bicicletas serán reinventados como servicios de movilidad bajo demanda; Las comunidades humanas ya están en el camino de convertirse en “redes sociales” autoconscientes.

    LN: ¿Qué tipo de consecuencias traeran las Tecnologías de la Información y Comunicación (TIC), en esta nueva manera de vivir la ciudad?

    Lo único que podemos decir con seguridad es que las consecuencias serán distintas en cada ciudad.

    Los teléfonos móviles, cuando se introdujeron en Filipinas, demostraron ser una manera efectiva de coordinar grandes acciones civiles y dar a la gente una vía a través de la cual pudieran exigir reformas al Gobierno. Sin embargo los japoneses tienen virtualmente los mismos teléfonos móviles, capaces de ejecutar las mimas funciones y por lo que sé nunca los han usado para activismo político.

    ¿Por qué? Nunca lo entenderemos si nos preguntamos por la tecnología qua tecnología. La herramienta tiene ciertas cualidades, ciertas capacidades y éstas operan en relación a tendencias sociales preexistentes y emergentes para producir efectos. La unidad de análisis relevante es el encaje tecnosocial, no la tecnología en sí misma.

    LN: ¿Cuales son las principales evoluciones sociales que esperas?

    AG: Bien, no suelo ser un tecnodeterminista, así que no puedo responder. Será dependiente en alto grado de cómo los sistemas en cuestión son diseñados, y por quién y con qué valores.

    Sería muy fácil argumentar que estas tecnologías únicamente nos fragmentarán y atomizarán mucho más, asegurar que nos convertirá todavía más en consumidores pasivos de nuestras vidas. Pero por lo mismo – ¡e incluso utilizando los mismos sistemas como ejemplo! – Podría igual de fácilmente argumentar que las tecnologías ubicuas rompen barreras sociales, permiten a la gente crear comunidades de interés más efectivamente, dar a las personas las herramientas con las que inmediatamente coordinar sus actividades con amigos y extraños sin diferencia.

    LN: La mayoría del tiempo pareces pesimista o negativo en tu análisis ¿Por qué es esto?

    AG: No creo que eso sea así. Cierto que a menudo soy criticado por ofrecer un cuadro de circunstancias preocupantes.

    Hasta el punto en que lo que tú estás describiendo como pesimismo refleja fielmente mi postura, aunque, yo pensaría más en esto como realismo. Las personas continuan hablando de “ciudades 2.0”, pero la gente no ha cambiado; todavía somos “humanos 1.0.” Aunque a veces conscientemente y (la mayoría de veces) inconscientemente, continuemos construyendo sistemas que perjudican nuestras vidas, limitan la libertad, malgastan tiempo y constriñen la libertad de expresión. Hemos hecho esto con cada tecnología que hemos desarrollado y de pronto no nos vamos a iluminar cuando manejemos las ubicuas.

    “Pesimismo” sería afrontar estas circunstancias y concluir que no hay nada que podamos hacer al respecto. Lo que yo aconsejo, al contrario, y espero poner en práctica yo mismo, es afrontarlas sin hacerme ilusiones y entonces intentar diseñar respuestas significativas.

    LN: ¿Qué metodos necesitan ser inventados para gobernar esta ciudad digital?

    AG: Deseo, creo y espero que veremos nuevos sistemas de gobierno democráticos emerger a escala urbana – sistemas capaces de asignar recursos equitativamente, gestionar y resolver disputas, dándo a cada uno de nosotros voz en la gestión de las comunidades en las que vivimos y que constituimos a través de nuestras acciones.

    De nuevo, estos sistemas serán solo parcialmente de naturaleza técnica. También tendremos que inventar las prácticas sociales, hábitos y formas de acuerdo, que funcionen simultaneamente con este particular conjunto de componentes técnicos para producir los efectos en los que estamos interesados. Y apenas hemos empezado a pensar cómo podrían ser.

    Puede que haya algunas pistas en el libro “Making Things Public”, y en otros trabajos de Latour; a lo mejor las conversaciones relevantes se están dando en lugares o comunidades o lenguajes los cuales desconozco. Pero a grandes rasgos no estoy convencido de que nuestro entendimiento del espacio público, la esféra pública y su constitución sea adecuado al ambiente técnico contemporaneo.

    LN: ¿Cuáles serían las bases para una ética de la inteligencia ambiental?

    AG: Podemos empezar reconociendo que solo los seres humanos tienen inteligencia – individuos humanos y comunidades humanas forjados por sus herramientas en grupos efectivos. Únicamente admitiendo que la inteligencia reside en y entre nosotros – que la poseemos, es nuestra y contiene completamente las cargas de nuestros fallos y esperanzas – podremos empezar a hablar sobre una ética de la computación ubicua.

  7. AG says :

    Well that’s pretty fabulous! ¡Muchas gracias! (I only want to clarify that in my response to the fourth question, I say that “I’m just as frequently accused of being too optimistic.”)

    Can you say where this will be published?

  8. Akytera says :


    The fourth reply maybe sounds better that way:
    “No creo que eso sea así. Lo cierto es que a menudo soy criticado por ofrecer un panorama muy optimista.”


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