The main character of a Weiser’s vision of 21st century life is a single woman named Sal (Weiser, 1991). As her day starts, she is asked about a coffee and answers only by mumbling, like if a question was asked not by a machine, but by a person close to her. In her work no information is lost, she influences the look of her technological workspace. Provided support from technology she is in control of all that happens in her job. It seems like Sal has everything she might need in order to go through her day without any difficulties – information.
Information is gold in Weiser’s world. It is a basic commodity; its existence and use are seamless. Or maybe it’s Weiser’s world that is designed to emphasize the role information has in our everydayness? Even more: an information that is understood in a very narrow way.
In their interactions article Bell, Dourish and Brewer, present the idea of information as cultural category (Bell, Dourish and Brewer, 2005). They state that perspective that comes from cognitive science makes us think of mind as a computer, a calculation device that processes data by electrical operations. As much, as this is true on functional level, there is a danger of limiting the notion of information to data that is simply being sent and stored. Can every situation be translated into electrical operation? Thinking about the role information plays in our lives, I would say that it has a place somewhere between clear, understandable and operational data and a situation that produces only ambiguity, without any justification for it. If we limit the notion of information only to data, we lose factors that build experiences and meanings. What helps us talk to each other and not get lost in the fog of ambiguity is the relevance of cultural code that is used in our communication, code that is developed through shared stories and meanings (Malinowski, 1922). Machines can provide us with operational data, but our existence relies on the use of all spectrum of information and creative application of it in different contexts (Rogers, 2006). Human ubiquity is much more complicated than machines’ one.
I would also argue, that the vision of a world without buzz and noise is insubstantial. When we leave the ideal world of clean houses, what we see first is the mess that comes from being lost in translation and whole lots of ambiguity.
Let’s go back to Sal and see how else this story could be constructed. As, obviously, she is not a typical character. What if Sal was a single mom responsible for taking care of her mother who suffers from dementia? How would she juggle her responsibilities? Would she still be in the position of control? What if Sal was Mike, a taxi driver and father of three, whose earnings provides basics for the family. Would he agree to work additional hours as an Uber driver? What would be the cost of it? Or if Sal was a 20-year old refugee in a camp. What are the limits of ubicomp perspective in addressing her situation, if we would like to use one?
Respecting the richness of social and cultural dimensions of our lives, we need to evaluate technology against the influence it has on the everyday complexity.
Bell, G., Dourish, P. and Brewer, J. (2005) ‘Information as a Cultural Category’, Interactions, pp. 31–33.
Malinowski, B. (1922) Argonauts of the Western Pacific. G. Routledge & Sons.
Rogers, Y. (2006) ‘Moving on from Weiser’s Vision of Calm Computing: Engaging UbiComp Experiences’, pp. 404–421.
Weiser, M. (1991) ‘The Computer for the 21st Century’, Scientific American, pp. 94–104.
Author: Agata Jałosińska