“They’ve completely missed the nontechnical part of what ubiquitous computing is all about.”

The idea that technologies ‘weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it’[1] is one that is familiar to many today.

For some this might be the Uber home at the end of the evening, or the Deliveroo for lunch. For those on the other side of this service provider/recipient relationship its logging on in the hope that today you will receive enough work to feed your family and keep a roof over your head.

One part of this relationship experiences-in theory at least- a seamless infrastructure that brings them their food, or takes them from a to b. For the other the messiness that makes this possible is all too visible. ‘An infrastructure is an infrastructure only from the perspective of specific peoples and technologies.’ [2]

All over the country and all over the world people are going to work, they don’t walk through the doors of offices, shops or factories, but they leave home and ‘go online’ hoping to be sent the work they rely on to survive using this ‘infrastructure’. The question of whether those on this side of the relationship are using an infrastructure provided by a technology company, or whether they are in work like any other is one that-at this time- is going through the courts.

In 2016 an employment tribunal made the judgment that ‘Uber runs a transportation business.’ [3] The Court of Appeal, -then possibly the Supreme Court- will decide if this judgment was correct, and as the precedent that gets set permeates those caught between the double speak of platform/employer will have hope that the power imbalances ‘technologies both exploit and reproduce’[2] can be levelled. While those who provide ‘infrastructure’ will need to consider not only how to solve a problem but how we make sense of it.[4]

As far as Weisers’ vision of the future is concerned -‘computational devices of different sizes, connected to each other and to the physical world. That future is very much a reality today’[5]. Yet that technology is ‘deployed and operated in a fragmented world.’[2] Where seamlessness is an illusion, like a swan swimming gracefully whilst below the surface the real work happens.

It is easy for those inspired by Weisers vision to focus on the artefacts and the technology; to forget ‘the philosophers, social scientists and anthropologists of PARC’[6] that played a part in shaping Weisers vision.

‘In 1999, Weiser was diagnosed with cancer and given 18 months to live; he died after six weeks’[7] Weiser spent the last of his time on earth writing a book seeking to clarify misunderstandings around his vision and the field it came to exemplify- the book was never finished. Around this time Weiser is quoted as saying ‘‘They’ve completely missed the nontechnical part of what ubiquitous computing is all about.” [7]

For me this embodies what the fields of Human Computer Interaction and ubiquitous computing should hold at its core.As tempting as it is to get caught up visions of the future and what the technology and artefacts look like there is a risk that the human in human computer interaction gets lost.



[1]        M. Weiser, ‘The computer for the 21 st century’, ACM SIGMOBILE Mob. Comput. Commun. Rev., vol. 3, no. 3, pp. 3–11, Jul. 1999.

[2]        G. Bell and P. Dourish, ‘Yesterday’s tomorrows: notes on ubiquitous computing’s dominant vision’, Pers. Ubiquitous Comput., vol. 11, no. 2, pp. 133–143, Jan. 2007.

[3]        Aslam, Fararr & others vs Uber B.V., Uber London Ltd & Uber Britannia Ltd. 2016.

Accessed: 02/11/2018


[4]        E. Manzini, Design, when everybody designs: an introduction to design for social innovation. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2015.

[5]        G. D. Abowd, ‘What next, ubicomp?: celebrating an intellectual disappearing act’, in Proceedings of the 2012 ACM Conference on Ubiquitous Computing – UbiComp ’12, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 2012, p. 31.

[6]        X. C. Kerasidou, ‘Figuring ubicomp (out)’, Pers. Ubiquitous Comput., vol. 21, no. 3, pp. 593–605, Jun. 2017.

[7]        A. Galloway, ‘Intimations of everyday life: Ubiquitous computing and the city’, Cult. Stud., vol. 18, no. 2–3, pp. 384–408, Jan. 2004.


Author: Mohaan Biswas

One response to ““They’ve completely missed the nontechnical part of what ubiquitous computing is all about.””

  1. Matt Wood says:

    Wonderful Mohaan – I loved it! You really nicely unpack an often unacknowledged aspect of ubicomp – that it’s seamlessness is specific from a specific user perspective. You use the literature very nicely to back up your argument here, and the analogy of the swan swimming gracefully was a wonderful metaphor here. If I’m being picky, you could have been slightly more crisp in unpacking the legal implications, and although you unpack a very nice point in final three paragraphs, it wasn’t quite clear how this specifically related to your overall argument – it was left a little broad. Anyway, great stuff, well evidenced – & really fascinated to see where this line of thought takes you.

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