Ubiquitous Computing Has A Grand Vision

The paper (Ubicomp’s Colonial Impulse) [2] posits that colonialism is a pervasive aspect of ubiquitous computing.


They describe the concept of colonialism as ‘a knowledge enterprise’ and point to ‘institutions of knowledge’ such as Kew Gardens or The British Museum that are more than just knowledge repositories but rather where the classification of things happens.  The knowledge within these institutions in turn radiates out from the centre and influences those outside of it.  Institutions of knowledge often also establish standards which they encourage others to use, thereby establishing a universal system which replaces local ones.


The authors highlight that ubiquitous computing research encourages people to ‘build what they use and use what they build’ in order to make their technologies useful and sustainable.  Although this appears a good starting point there are concerns that ingrained assumptions about researchers being typical or prototypical people is leading to research that homogenises society.  The paper draws parallels with feminist theory which examines the operation of patriarchy as something which takes the position of dominant groups, uses that as the universal and marginalises any alternatives.


They raise concerns both on ethical levels as well as on pragmatic and conceptual levels and suggest strategies for dealing with the problem.  They suggest avoiding the label ‘users’ will encourage researchers to think more realistically about the limits of their claims of the impact of their research.  To understand that communities of people are different rather that one group ‘user’ seems a good first step.  They encourage a reflection of the rhetoric of centre and periphery which they feel is allied to design and use relations.  Most relevant to us in the Digital Civics community is their recommendation to seek solutions that resolve local issues without always trying to translate it into a global resolution.


The concerns raised in this article rang true for me on several levels not least because of my interests in action-research and tensions that can arise between researchers and practitioners.    Colonialism in the way that this article describes it is something that we need to be mindful of within HCI in general but particularly within Digital Civics.  As researchers working with communities we need to be careful that we don’t position ourselves in much the same way that the authors of this paper describe.  When working with community partners there is a tendency to make assumptions about what is lacking based on knowledge of our own community [1].  We can often find that we position community partners as experts on the community while we position ourselves, as researchers, experts on design and research [4].  While that indeed may be the case, to delineate roles so entirely means that we may miss some of the nuances that working with community partners needs.


As the use of practice-based approaches in HCI research increases, the possibilities for ensuring that we are not colonialising research are also improving, however I think we need to acknowledge the importance of reflexivity in participatory and in-situ research approaches.  We should ensure that we engage in regular and ongoing reflections of our position within the research and any partnership with the community.  Some even suggest that researchers keep a journal in order to ensure engagement in reflective practices [3].


Whilst reflection alone will not solve the issues highlighted in the paper it seems a good first step that would not be difficult to implement.



  1. Lucas Colusso, Cynthia L. Bennett, Gary Hsieh, and Sean A. Munson. 2017. Translational Resources: Reducing the Gap Between Academic Research and HCI Practice. In Proceedings of the 2017 Conference on Designing Interactive Systems – DIS ’17, 957–968. https://doi.org/10.1145/3064663.3064667
  2. Paul Dourish and Scott D Mainwaring. 2012. Ubicomp ’ s Colonial Impulse. 133–142.
  3. Lisa P. Nathan, Michelle Kaczmarek, maggie castor, Shannon Cheng, and Raquel Mann. 2017. Good for Whom? Proceedings of the 8th International Conference on Communities and Technologies – C&T ’17: 290–297. https://doi.org/10.1145/3083671.3083685
  4. Andreas Reckwitz. 2002. Toward a Theory of Social Practices: a development in culturalist theorizing. Eurpean Journal of Social Theory 5, 2: 245–265. https://doi.org/10.1177/13684310222225432

Author: Rebecca Nicholson

One response to “Ubiquitous Computing Has A Grand Vision”

  1. Matt Wood says:

    Great blog post Rebecca, you summarise the paper well and articulate your position nicely. I particularly liked your point around questioning our position as experts on design and research – although as I said to Edward in his blogpost, I do wonder how far we can actually escape notions of colonialism as defined by Dourish and Mainwaring. I really like the idea of questioning and problematising these roles, but sometimes working with community partners does necessitate this, and may always be implicit no matter how hard we try to undo them.

    I do like how you’re centring arguments around tensions between researchers and practitioners, and something I know you have first hand experience of – I think this is a great line of thinking and looking forward to seeing you explore this issue more. Also great how you’re relating this to your work as an action-researcher, and foreseen issues in digital civics research – impressive!

    Very nice use of the literature, and a nice to see you talk about reflexivity, I wonder if you have any thoughts on how you’re thinking of developing reflexive practice across your research?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *