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Yesterday’s tomorrows: notes on ubiquitous computing’s dominant vision

Yesterday’s tomorrows: notes on ubiquitous computing’s dominant vision

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Genevieve Bell
Paul Dourish
 Yesterday’s tomorrows: notes on ubiquitous computing’sdominant vision
Received: 31 August 2005/ Accepted: 25 April 2006
Springer-Verlag London Limited 2006
Ubiquitous computing is unusual amongsttechnological research arenas. Most areas of computerscience research, such as programming language imple-mentation, distributed operating system design, or de-notational semantics, are defined largely by technicalproblems, and driven by building upon and elaboratinga body of past results. Ubiquitous computing, by con-trast, encompasses a wide range of disparate techno-logical areas brought together by a focus upon acommon vision. It is driven, then, not so much by theproblems of the past but by the possibilities of the fu-ture. Ubiquitous computing’s vision, however, is over adecade old at this point, and we now inhabit the futureimagined by its pioneers. The future, though, may nothave worked out as the field collectively imagined. Inthis article, we explore the vision that has driven theubiquitous computing research agenda and the con-temporary practice that has emerged. Drawing on cross-cultural investigations of technology adoption, we arguefor developing a ‘‘ubicomp of the present’’ which takesthe messiness of everyday life as a central theme.
1 Introduction
Ubiquitous computing (ubicomp) research is character-ized primarily by a concern with potential future com-putational worlds. This notion of research by futureenvisionment has been a feature of ubicomp discourseand reasoning since it earliest days; Weiser [1] founda-tional article is even entitled ‘‘The Computer for thetwenty-first Century’’—an explicit look towards a pos-sible future. Rhetorically, Weiser situates the researchactivities that he describes there as initial steps upon apath of technological development inspired by an ex-plicit vision of possible future relationships betweenpeople, practice, and technology. Although much of hisarticle describes a research program already under wayand some of the early results that it had produced, thedominant theme of the article is the twin challenge of anticipating future trends and meeting future needs.Weiser’s article was doubly influential. Not only didit articulate a research agenda that many have em-braced, it also set a rhetorical tone that many haveadopted. So, the same concern with technological fu-tures continues to feature in the ways in which ubicompresearch agendas are framed and in which technologicaladvances are motivated and measured. Ubicomp isessentially defined by its visions of a technological fu-ture. Often, this is taken directly from Weiser’s ownwork; almost one quarter of all the papers published inthe Ubicomp conference between 2001 and 2005 citeWeiser’s foundational articles, a remarkable number of publications to cite a single vision as fundamental fortheir own work over a decade later. Even in cases whereWeiser’s own vision is not a driving factor, the idea thatubiquitous computing research is exploring prototypesof tomorrow’s everyday technology and everyday expe-rience is a pervasive one.Such visions, however, are interesting not just forwhat they say about the future but also for what they sayabout the present. This seems to be particularly the casewhen it comes to normative social relationships. Envi-sionments of the future, such as those of the WorldsFairs [2], Disney’s Tomorrowland [3], or most popular science fiction [4] have provided a useful analytic focusfor considering how the problems of today are per-ceived, framed, and understood. In this paper, we areconcerned with the balance between past, present, andfuture embedded in conventional discourses aboutubiquitous computing. In particular, we are interested inthe central conundrum posed by the fact that Weiser’svision of the future is, by this point, not only an old one,
G. Bell (
)Intel Corporation, Santa Clara, CA, USAE-mail: genevieve.bell@intel.comP. DourishUniversity of California, Irvine, CA, USAE-mail: jpd@ics.uci.eduPers Ubiquit Comput (2006)DOI 10.1007/s00779-006-0071-x
but also a very American one. The role of technology ineveryday life is, in the early twenty-first century, alreadyquite di
erent than it was when Weiser wrote in the late1980s; among many other things, it is now explicitlyacknowledged to have remarkable cultural variation.PARC famously pursued a policy of ‘‘time–machineresearch,’’ devoting its considerable financial and intel-lectual resources to creating simulations of futurecomputing environments; by this stage, though,conventional computing platforms have vastly out-stripped even the ‘‘futuristic’’ environment that Weiser’slaboratory was capable of building. Yet, his originalframing of the ubiquitous computing vision still occu-pies an important place in much of the discourse of ubiquitous computing research. As researchers workingwithin and around ubiquitous computing discourses,our own research practices and interests also lie at thisintersection of technical and social considerations, andour approach here will attempt to weave back and forthbetween them. One of us is a computer scientist whosework lies at the intersection of computer science andsocial science, the other a cultural anthropologist with aprimary concern in information technology as a site of cultural production and the consequences for technol-ogy innovation and di
usion. The questions we want toask, then, are as follows. First, how should we under-stand the relationship between ubiquitous computing’senvisioned future and our everyday present? Secondly,what influence does this have on contemporary ubiqui-tous computing research? And finally, what motivatesand explains the remarkable persistence and centrality of Weiser’s vision?We will begin by exploring the ways in which ubiq-uitous computing researchers have framed their workwith respect to anticipated technological and socialtrends, and consider some of the implications of thisapproach. We will then present two cases of alternativevisions of ubiquitous computing, one from Singaporeand one from Korea. These will then provide the basisfor a discussion of competing visions of ubiquitouscomputing and the idea of a ‘‘ubicomp of the present.’’Ultimately this paper is organized around threeframing points.First, the centrality of ubiquitous computing’s‘‘proximate future’’ continually places its achievementsout of reach, while simultaneously blinding us to currentpractice. By focusing on the future just around thecorner, ubiquitous computing renders contemporarypractice (at outside of research sites and ‘‘living labs’’),by definition, irrelevant or at the very least already out-moded. Arguably, though, ubiquitous computing is al-ready here; it simply has not taken the form that weoriginally envisaged and continue to conjure in our vi-sions of tomorrow. We will draw on a number of casestudies to substantiate this point, drawing in particularon models of the ubiquitous world that seem to deviatefrom conventional images.Second, the framing of ubicomp as something yet tobe achieved allows researchers and technologists to ab-solve themselves for responsibilities for the present; theproblems of ubiquitous computing are framed asimplementation issues that are, essentially, someoneelse’s problem, to be cleaned up afterwards as part of thebroad march of technology. Essentially, the futureframing allows us to assume that certain problems willsimply disappear of their own accord. By focusing oncase studies drawn from countries in which the vision of ubiquitous computing has played out di
erently thanWeiser envisioned, we will draw attention to the com-plex settings within which ubiquitous computing is al-ways already embedded.Third, the seamlessly interconnected world of futurescenarios is at best a misleading vision and at worst adownright dangerous one. Homogeneity and an erasureof di
erentiation is a common feature of future envi-sionments; the practice is inevitably considerably mess-ier, and perhaps dealing with the messiness of everydaylife should be a central element of ubicomp’s researchagenda. We will illustrate the work involved in contin-ually producing alignments between technologicalopportunities and social realities.
2 Ubiquitous computing’s ‘‘proximate future’’
The dominant tense of ubiquitous computing writing iswhat we might call the ‘‘proximate future.’’ That is,motivations and frames are often written not merely inthe future tense, describing events and settings to come,but describe a proximate future, one ‘‘just around thecorner.’’ The proximate future is invoked in observa-tions that ‘‘Internet penetration will shortly reach...’’ or‘‘We are entering a period when...’or ‘‘New techno-logical opportunities are emerging that...’’ or ‘‘Mobilephones are becoming the dominant form of...’’ A brief perusal of proceedings of recent conferences confirmsthe pervasive sense of the proximate future; of the 108papers comprising the Ubicomp conference proceedingsbetween 2001 and 2004, fully 47% of the papers areoriented towards a proximate (and inevitable) techno-logical future (e.g., from only Ubicomp 2004, [5 – 9] and more.) Indeed, Weiser’s foundational article originallypublished at the start of the last decade of the twentiethcentury and entitled ‘‘The computer for the twenty-firstcentury’is, similarly, built around a vision of theproximate future, the future just around the corner orover the horizon.It may be that subsequent ubicomp writing hasadopted not only Weiser’s technological vision, but as-pects of his formulation of how this vision will come topass. Certainly, this collective envisionment of a futuresaturated with technology has been a defining charac-teristic of ubicomp research. What is perhaps mostinteresting is that ubicomp research has generally sharednot only in the notion of a technology-saturated future,but also in the designations of what sorts of technologiesit is that will saturate our future. In other words, thesecollective avowals of future potentialities are ways in
which current activities are tied to the self-same agendathat Weiser set out in the late 1980s. In fact, citations toWeiser’s article are often phrased not so much as a ‘‘lookbackwards’’ but rather as a collective ‘‘look forwards’’;that is, instead of saying ‘‘back in 1991, we thoughtthat...’’, they say ‘‘Just as Weiser suggested in 1991, weare soon to enter a world where...’’Latour and others [10] in the sociology of sciencehave talked about the pragmatics of citation practice,noting that citing the ways in which one’s own workdepends on prior results and writings not onlyacknowledges intellectual debts, but also builds defen-sible positions by aligning research with existing para-digms and traditions, and by enrolling others as tacitsupporters of one’s approach. However, beyond theways in which citation builds intellectual networks, it isworth stopping for a moment to think about the timedilations involved here. Weiser formulated his vision of ubiquitous computing in the late 1980s [11]; althoughthe Scientific American article was published in 1991, theubicomp project was already, by that point, wellunderway, and indeed the 1991 article is not only acompelling vision of the future, but a progress reporton the project of realizing it (complete with photographsof devices that had already been designed and built,and reports on their use.) However, the invocation of Weiser’s vision as one that we share and continue toprosecute neglects the significant di
erence between thenand now, and changing techno-social contexts.So, for example, in 1989, at the same time as theubiquitous computing research agenda was being for-mulated, Intel introduced the 486DX processor, runningat 25 MHz. Apple introduced the Mac IIci, based on a25 MHz MC68030 processor. They had yet to release aPowerbook laptop, but 1989 also saw the debut of the16lb, 16 MHz Macintosh portable. In the same year,Sun introduced the Sparcstation-1, running at 20 MHzand with a maximum memory capacity of 64 M. From acontemporary perspective, these would be poor ‘‘specs’’for a portable MP3 player never mind a scientificworkstation. The figures for the telecommunicationsmarket are equally salutary. The first US cellular tele-phony service had begun in 1983; by 1988, there wereapproximately 1.6 million US subscribers. In Europe,the GSM standard for mobile telephony was not dem-onstrated until 1991 (with the first network operatorbecoming active in 1992).In other words, today’s technological landscape isquite radically di
erent than that of the late 1980s whenWeiser was outlining the ubiquitous computing vision.The idea that, in the early twenty-first century, we arepostulating much the same proximate future vision of ubicomp that motivated Weiser is a somewhat surprisingone. Given that the last 20 years have seen such radicaltransformations of technological infrastructure world-wide, and that Moore’s Law suggests a 8,000-fold in-crease in computational performance, two questionsimmediately present themselves. First, why is our visionof the future still the same as Weiser’s, and second, whyhas it not yet come to pass? Two possibilities presentthemselves.The first possibility is that the ubiquitous computingvision can never come to pass. The proximate future is afuture infinitely postponed; when we are continuallyabout to enter a new age, when we are continuallyanticipating what happens next, and when our attentionis continually directed over the horizon, then by defini-tion ubiquitous computing is never about the here andnow. Indeed, within this particular model of a techno-logical future, it is hard to imagine how we could ever, asa community, say, ‘‘There. It is done.’’The second possibility is that ubiquitous computingalready has come to pass. Clearly, of course, we do notlive in ‘‘Sal’s world,’’ as described in the scenario out-lined in Weiser’s paper. But perhaps ubiquitous com-puting is already here, but took a form other than thatwhich had been envisioned. Arguably, and as we willexplore at more length below, our contemporary world,in which mobile computation and mobile telephony arecentral aspects not just of Western commercial endeav-ors but also facets of everyday life in the developingworld, is already one of ubiquitous computing, albeit inunexpected form.In fact, these two possibilities are not distinct options,but rather are two aspects of the same observation—thatthe vision of the future originally envisioned by Weiser,and still motivating much research in ubiquitous com-puting, is one that is firmly entrenched in its own par-ticular moments, locations and cultural contexts, avision as much of the past as of the future. From thisperspective, the future that ubicomp has been attempt-ing to build is not our own future, but 1989sfuture—yesterday’s tomorrows. Weiser envisioned ‘‘thecomputer for the twenty-first century.’Having nowentered the twenty-first century that means that what weshould perhaps attend to is ‘‘the computer of now.’’In order to help us see the present day ‘‘anew,’’ wepresent two examples of contemporary computationalpractice oft neglected in Western research confer-ences—ubiquitous computing in Singapore and inKorea.
3 Ubiquitous computing environments: Singapore
Located at the tip of the Malay peninsular, Singapore isa small, prosperous former British colony with a robusteconomy, a technologically literate population, and areputation for strong government regulation of daily life[12 – 16]. Singapore is a diverse ethnic and culture mix: more than 76% of Singapore’s 4.3 million residentsidentify as Chinese, another 14% as Malay, slightly over8% as Indian, and the rest a mix of expatriates. MostSingaporeans are comfortably middle class, and thenation enjoys higher than average per capita householdincomes (around S$37,555 per year), and remarkablerates of home ownership (94%). Singapore is also one of the most wired (and indeed, ‘‘unwired,’’ that is, digitally

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