‘Cause we are Living in a Ubicomp World*

*with apologies to Madonna!

 

The field of ubiquitous computing (ubicomp) is an odd one. Ever since Weiser published his seminal article The Computer for the 21st Century [1] (widely regarded as the paper which launched the ubicomp research agenda) researchers have been chasing a world of ever more integrated and seamless technologies which are always in the tantalisingly close, yet currently unreachable, domain of ‘the near future’! [2]. For evidence of this constant future chasing compare Weiser’s vision of 21st century computing as something where computers have “vanish[ed] into the background” with statements made by Adam Greenfield in his 2006 book Everyware: The Dawning of Ubiquitous Computing [3] where “in the next few years” processing power will be ‘so distributed […] that computers per se effectively disappear’. This suggests things haven’t moved on very much in over 20 years!

This constant future chasing by the ubicomp field is problematic as it means no one ever stops to examine what the present state of affairs looks like. If it doesn’t match up to a vision of the future written nearly 30 years ago it can’t be ubicomp and thus we keep searching for this mythical future rather than assessing whether we are living in a ubicomp world already!

That we are living in an era of ubicomp is the position taken by Bell and Dourish in their article ‘Yesterday’s Tomorrows’ where societies with high access to broadband internet and widespread mobile phone use are taken as evidence of technology being integrated into everyday life. [2] For me what is particularly surprising is that this article was written in 2005 (published 2006) which sets it in a world where Facebook is only available to college students, that is pre iPhone (2007) and iPad (2010) and where 3G mobile networks were only 2 years old in the UK (4G didn’t go live in Britain until 2012). If this could be argued to be a world of ubicomp then our current world of smartphones and 4G mobile networks which put all the web has to offer in our pockets must be even more so!

So would Weiser agree with this assessment? I think if you ignore the ‘fairy-tale of Sal’ and other guesses as to what a ubicomp world might look like in a practical sense and instead focus on the underlying philosophical outline it matches up quite well. The subtitle of Weiser’s article provides a useful summary of his underlying philosophy of ubicomp:

Specialized elements of hardware and software, connected by wires, radio waves and infrared, will be so ubiquitous that no one will notice their presence [1]

This seems fairly apt for our current world where every time we want to know something (why is my train late? what breed of dog is that?) we whip out our smartphones without a second thought nor comments from those around us. So for this reason I believe we are living in a Ubicomp world and that the discipline needs to wake up to this fact!

References:

[1] Weiser, M. (1991) ‘The Computer for the 21st Century’, Scientific American (September 1991) pp.94-104

[2] Bell, G and Dourish, P. (2006) ‘Yesterday’s Tomorrows: Notes on Ubiquitous Computing’s Dominant Vision’ Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, Vol. 11 (2)

[3] Greenfield, A. (2006) Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing, Berkeley, CA : New Riders


Author: Hattie Rowling

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