Ubicomp, (museum) space and the social order

What follows is a Master of Digital Design assignment – a ‘critical response’ to five papers on the topic of ‘Ubiquitous computing and urban informatics’. It includes (bonus!) references to a few other papers too.

Mark Weiser’s 1991 vision of technology blended invisibly into environments may not have quite materialised, but as Adam Greenfield points out, today’s phones, tablets and multitouch displays bear a close resemblance to his description of tabs, pads and boards. Ubicomp is spreading in many directions, from many sources. For example in Pachube, which serves out data streams about connected environments from people around the world, we can witness a growing wave of DIY ubicomp.

We can get a strong sense of technology’s wide and deep pervasion from Dan Hill’s account of the complex mesh of data flows in an imaginary-but-realistic city. Sensors, emittors and recorders are embedded in streets and buildings and carried by people doing business, passing by and hanging around. Data flows either with or without individual intent, and either functionally or dysfunctionally – in technical, personal and social terms.

Unlike the disembodied space of virtual worlds, ubiquitous computing works on, around and through human bodies; and in physical space, social relations are always at play. Ideally, we all have access (both read- and write-) to the data flows, as well as the ability to evade them. Ideally, we are also attentive to the affect of technology, and our interactions, on ourselves and the world around us. But real-world social space is messy. Anne Galloway warns that when technologies are invisible, so too are the power relations they replicate. The danger here is of our docile complicity in reproducing the dominant social order.

To mitigate against this risk, one of Greenfield’s ethical guidelines for UX in ubicomp settings is critical – ‘Be self-disclosing’. Seamlessness is rightly a feature, as Weiser imagined, but it must be optional, and reversible. And as with all new technologies, we must develop literacy about its use. We need to know that we have the right and the ability to ask the system to reveal itself – as well as its data.

Are there implications here for the digital design of museum space? For Foucault, museum space was heterotopia – ‘other space’ –  space that intervenes in ordinary space, and complicates our perceptions of it, illuminating and potentially contesting and inverting real-world social relations. To best serve visitors in their task of re-evaluating real-world social space, museum displays must not be seamless. They must ‘manifest their metatext’ (Lumley) precisely so that visitors can perceive the social relations implicit in both the product and process of their representation. Because of their particular role in representing ordinary space – because museum visitors are already immersed in a field of cultural technologies – the imperative for computational technology to be seamless might be greater here. If we can ignore the technology, do we gain a clearer view of social conditions? Or is it better to conceive of the technology as another layer of metatext, and therefore to render it visible?

Certainly, Weiser’s notion that ubicomp would be calm technology seems a better fit for museum spaces than the whizz-bang often associated with technology. It does not help museum visitors to be distracted by technology at the expense of their social engagement. So in museum building, exhibition and application design, that is something to note.


Foucault, Michel. Of other spaces (PDF). Diacritics: A Review of Contemporary Criticism, 16(1), 1986: 22–7. (or here’s an HTML version)

Galloway, Anne. Resonances and everyday life: Ubiquitous computing and the city (PDF), 2003.

Greenfield, Adam. All watched over by machines of loving grace: Some ethical guidelines for user experience in ubiquitous-computing settings. Boxes and Arrows, December 1, 2004.

Greenfield, Adam. Real life: Weiser FTW. Speedbird, April 16, 2010.

Haque, Usman. Pachube, patching the planet: Interview with Usman Haque. Interview by Tish Shute, January 28, 2009.

Hill, Dan. The street as platform, City of Sound, February 11, 2008.

Lumley, Robert. The Museum Time-Machine: Putting Cultures on Display. London: Routledge, 1988.

Weiser, Mark. The computer for the 21st century (PDF), Scientific American 256, no. 3, 1991: 66–75. Reprinted in IEEE Pervasive Computing, January 2002.

Not explicitly referred to (I only had 500 words!), but also informing my thinking here, were these two papers presented to the Innovative Ideas Forum at the National Library of Australia on 16 April 2010:

  • Bell, Genevieve. ‘U are happy life: Making sense of new technologies’.
  • Manson, Rob. ‘Collections are leaking into the real world’.

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