Yesterday's Tomorrows: Notes on Ubiquitous Computing's Dominant Vision

Posted: January 18th, 2007 | 3 Comments »

Bell, G. and Dourish, P. In press. Yesterday’s Tomorrows: Notes on Ubiquitous Computing’s Dominant Vision. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing.

In this article, the authors advocate for developing a “ubiquitous of the present” which takes the messiness of everyday life as a central theme. The argumentation is organized around three framing points: ubicomp is already here, but does not have the form we envisioned, the futurist vision of ubicomp allows researchers for responsibilities for the present, and ubicomp is inherently messy.

Ubicomp is present
Ubicomp is essentially defined by its vision of a technological future. The literature carries the idea the ubicomp research is exploring prototypes of tomorrow’s everyday technology and everyday experience is a pervasive one. However, when we look outside of the research laboratory (based on 2 case studies in Korea and Singapore in this paper), the author look at ubiquitous computing. They argue that ubicomp is already here; it simply has not taken the form that we originally envisaged and continue to conjure in our visions of tomorrow.

The vision as excuse
The framing of ubicomp as something yet to be achieved allows researchers and technologies to absolve themselves for responsibilities for the present; the problems of ubiquitous computing are framed as implementation issues that are, essentially, someone else’s problem, to be cleaned up afterwards as part of the broad march of technology.

Ubicomp is messy, seamlessnes is a misleading vision

The seamlessly interconnected world of future scenarios is at best a misleading vision and at worst a downright dangerous one. [...] Dealing with the messiness of everyday life should be a central element of ubicomp’s research agenda. In practice, though, we see that infrastructures are continually visible and must be consciously attended to in the course of everyday encounters with ubiquitous computing, from the vagaries of network access to the structure of service billing. [...] Infrastructures remain messy after decades or centuries, as the user of any transit system from urban subways to international airlines can attest. [...] The crux of her approach is to look at infrastructure as a relational concept; an infrastructure is an infrastructure only from the perspective of specific peoples and technologies. [...] In other words, infrastructures are messy. The messiness that we experience in laboratory ubiquitous computing infrastructures is not a property of prototype technologies, of the bleeding edge, or of pragmatic compromise; messiness is a property of infrastructure itself. Infrastructures are inherently messy; uneven in their operation and their availability. [...] Mobile telephony, after all, offers widespread coverage, but is neither truly ubiquitous nor truly seamless; incompatible standards, spotty regional coverage, etc., seem like obstacles that we must still overcome before the ubiquitous computing vision can be realized. But postulating a seamless infrastructure is a strategy whereby the messy present can be ignored, although infrastructure is always unevenly distributed, always messy. An indefinitely postponed ubicomp future is one that need never take account of this complexity. [...] Infrastructures, then, be they networks of car mechanics, medical categories, or power sources, are never seamless in the ways in which they are put to work. They are sites of negotiation and contest, compromise and coordination, approximation and partial agreement. They are unevenly distributed and unevenly available. They are continually in flux, and brought into local stability only through active engagement and coordination. Infrastructure itself is a relational property; it describes a relationship between technology, people, and practice. [...] It is not merely a dream of a world not yet realized; it is a dream of a world that could never be realized.

Relation to my thesis: The observation of ubicomp as inherently messy is at the core and a trigger of my research. Ubicomp literature mainly contain studies and prototypes embracing the seamless utopia. I wrote my paper Getting real with ubiquitous computing: the impact of discrepancies on collaboration partially in reaction to the “perfect-world” expectations around ubicomp. Weiser’s humanist vision did not fit at all my observations during the CatchBob! experiments. Bell and Dourish they take a very similar perspective as Adam Greenfield in Everyware claiming that ubicomp is here. This is probably something that was missing in my paper. I failed to notice the arrival of ubiquitous computing is rooted (at least in part) because it has been so much rooted around the idea of seamless interoperation and homogeneity.

3 Comments on “Yesterday's Tomorrows: Notes on Ubiquitous Computing's Dominant Vision”

  1. 1 Mr. Watson » Infrastructures in Architecture said at 1:21 pm on February 15th, 2007:

    [...] *Seems like this is paper of the week, both Nicolas and Fabien wrote about it recently. Filed under: architecture, time, situated — karenmmartin @ 12:26 pm [...]

  2. 2 Yesterday’s Tomorrows, Tomorrow’s Tomorrows .. at boldtoad blog said at 3:37 pm on February 21st, 2007:

    [...] I’ve been reading about Bell and Dourish’s paper ‘Yesterday’s Tomorrows‘ in blog posts (Nicolas, Fabien, Karen) over the last week or two, and have finally gotten around to reading it myself … admittedly behind the curve! Here are a few initial responses … [...]

  3. 3 Small Surfaces - Ubiquitous computing is messy said at 5:48 pm on April 10th, 2007:

    [...] Link: Yesterday’s tomorrows: notes on ubiquitous computing’s dominant vision (, 240k PDF, via) [...]