Adam Greenfield entered my radar in the early CatchBob! days, as one of the first strong voice advocating for user experience and social studies in ubicomp. He had published a notorious post on Ethical Guidelines for Ubicomp. These guidelines have now been formalized, expended and are one of the output of Everyware.
I understand this book as a response to the dissonance in ubicomp between engineering endeavors and skepticism (moderate enthusiasm) coming from the HCI community. A way to set things straight and ground discussions from the noisy and eclectic ubicomp community. Adam’s intention is certainly not to prevent the movement towards the 3rd age of computing, but to question the implications of the scale up of ubicomp and genuinely how to improve what he coined as “everyware”. The definition of Everyware is: information processing embedded in everyday objects dissolving in behavior.
The relevant parts form my thesis:
Thesis 19: Everyware is always situated in a particular context
Personal computing is largely independent of context. The shift toward the post-PC era raises the importance of the physical and social environments. This is what Paul Dourish coined in his theory of “embodied interaction”    which says that interactions derive their meaning by occurring in real time, real space and between people. However it is hard (if not impossible) to make context-aware systems fully grasp and adapt to physical and social settings. In my work on location-awareness, I design systems based on various technical limitations and constraints (coverage, latency, accuracy, predictability. …). I try to find ways to manage the mismatches (discrepancies) between the real, measured and virtual spaces and have “some” understanding of their impacts on actions and interactions. This endeavor fits to the challenge of managing the everyware sensitivity to physical settings (location) in the context of interaction.
Thesis 31: Everyware is a strategy for the reduction of the cognitive overload
I have a hard time buying into the “calm technology” vision behind ubiquitous computing and so is partially Adam Greenfield. He acknowledges that “Brown and Weiser were probably wrong as to just how strong an incentive it (encalming) would provide, they were correct that the specter of global information overload would prompt at least some developers to pursue less intrusive interface”. First of all I doubt that the current industry has the development methodologies to produce gentle interfaces. Secondly we barely know how to make them smart and deeply adaptive. Thirdly our coevolution with technologies is about accommodation and appropriation. We play with noise and disorder. It is what allow us to be in command. Besides, we live in a world of information overload since the first 500 books were printed after the creation of the movable type.
In my thesis, I might be looking for design rules to support collaborative geolocalized everyware experiences in the presence of location uncertainty. Uncertainty that I find inherent to ubiquitous environments. A question I am interested in from a Stavros Antifakos paper is the tradeoff between the cognitive load, which displaying uncertainty information causes, and the added value that it provides.
Thesis 34: Everyware insinuates itself into transactions never before subject to technical intervention
Quoting Mike Kuniavsky endowing furniture and other everyday things with digital intelligence “can introduce all kinds of complexity and failure modes that don’t currently exist”. Paraphrasing Paul Robeson “whatever marginal “improvement” is enacted by overlaying daily life with digital life with digital mediation has to be balanced against the risk of screwing up something that already works, however gracelessly or inelegantly.
Understanding the impacts the uncertainty generated by the intrusion of positioning systems in our lives and designing location-aware for collaboration accordingly is my research interest.
Thesis 37: Everyday life presents designers of everyware with a particularly difficult case because so very much about it is tacit, unspoken, or defined with insufficient precision
It is the problem of engineeringly objectifying a context and therefor reducing it . It is a core issue in the intersection of CSCW and ubicomp.
Thesis 38: Everyware is problematic because it is hard to see literally
Everyware is about dissembling technologies while in the same time we need systems to be intelligible and accountable. How can uncertain spatial information be communicated (feedback) in a non-intrusive way. What can designer sweep under the rug of non-intrusiveness?
Thesis 40: The discourse of seamlessness effaces or elides meaningful distinctions between systems
Phrases like “seamless interaction”, “seamless integration”, “seamless interconnection”, or “seamless interfaces” are still very much part of ubicomp’s rhethoric. I completely share Adam’s analysis of the flaws of seamlessness. First, as underlined by Weiser, it is a negatively homogenizing attribute that flattens out the perceptibility of a system boundaries. Second, it is dishonest as heterogeneity is often held together with the digital equivalent of duct tape and chewing gum. Third, it carries paternalist values as it deprives the user of meaningful participation in the decision that affect his experience. Fourth, it can be harder to foster user appropriation and ownership critical to positive experience of technology, as there is no “handle” and ways to reach into a system.
Spatial positioning and accuracy limits and carries a representational scheme of finite scope (e.g. a room with a timestamp). I work of how much and how these seams can be carried to the users in a collaborative settings. How can this type of information should be regulated.
Thesis 43: Everyware produces a wide belt of circumstances where human agency, judgment, and will are progressively supplanted by compliance with external standards and norms
Paraphrasing Marshall McLuhan “when we rely on technical systems to ameliorate the burdens of everyday life, we invariably allow our organic faculties to atropy to a corresponding degree”. It makes me think of Michel Serres’s description of exo-darwinism saying the we progressively externalize our faculties from memory to reasoning and imagination). We lose some functionalities to free us from their constraints and therefore evolute. Now to a lower-lever (to my thesis), Nicolas already mentioned the design use behind the automatic disclosure of location awareness information in his research. I am wondering how much of that applies to my work. Maybe resolving or disambiguating uncertainty has an impact on the level of immersion Maybe the user should be part of the disambiguation process…
Thesis 48: Those developing everyware may have little idea that his is in fact what they are doing
I am naturally pleased to see people like Adam getting the heat off the back of engineers. He mentions the material, economical and time constraints bounding the engineer work. Hower he does not give us the credit to have the ability (time?) to contextualize our work. I think this is getting less and less true as our work in everyware is getting closer to social constraints. Many engineers are now getting potty trained. Last year I tried to sketch the constraints in the context of ubicomp (Adam’s material behind the technical and physical (environment) constrains, I think that time is part of the economical constraints and as I state below the social constraints are now part of the boundaries also)
Then Adam goes on listing the high level infrastructural problems everyware faces such as balkanized developments and standards resulting in lack of interoperability, the non-existing network infrastructure to have everyware everywhere, the lack of formalized ways “à la UML” to discuss everyware issues and last but not least… the “why? question” (thesis 58) that is we have forgotten to ascertain whether or not everyware makes any sense to anyone outside of the contours of our ubicomp consensual hallucination. To this list I would add the still primitive information retrieval techniques that we have to face the amount of data generated by everyware. This is the type of “AI-hard” problem similar to computationally grasping a physical, social and cultural context.
Adam’s ethical design guidelines for the design and deployment of ubiquitous technology come as natural in the last part of the book. Among them, the one I relate to the most are:
- We’re not very good at doing “smart” yet (and probably smartness will never be achieved in a holistic level…)
- Everyware must default to harmless and go beyond the engineering principle of “graceful degradation”
- Everyware must be self-disclosing and seamlessness could be an optional mode of presentation
- Ubiquitous systems must not introduce undue complication into ordinary operation
- Ubiquitous systems must offer users the ability to opt out and at any point
The book bibliography is online.