Published: June 2010
Gerry Gaffney interviews Adam Greenfield on “everyware”, or ubiquitous computing, and its wide-reaching implications.
This is Gerry Gaffney with episode 53 of the User Experience podcast. My guest today is head of design direction at Nokia in Helsinki. Previously he’s been lead architect at Razorfish in Tokyo, and has worked for Toyota, Sony and US Government agencies.
I wanted to talk to him in particular because of his interest in ubiquitous computing, and in particular his book Everyware: the dawning age of ubiquitous computing.
Adam Greenfield, welcome to the User Experience podcast.
Thanks so much, Gerry, it’s great to be here.
I guess we should start off by talking a little bit about everyware… What is everyware?
To my mind, we needed a term to capture this idea, an idea that ultimately originates with a guy named Mark Weiser, going back to the mid 90′s: this idea that computation was going to evaporate up off of the boxes we associated with it, whether those boxes sat on desktops or ultimately even the boxes that we held in our hands, and infiltrate everyday life, and just become part of the fabric of everyday existence.
All of the terms that were in use at the time I was writing the book were things like “ubiquitous computing” and “pervasive computing” and “ambient informatics” and “tangible interaction.” They were all… there were problems with all of them. They were associated with particular institutions and organisations, they were technical, they only spoke to one aspect of the situation, or one quality of it, and none of them struck me as being particularly likely to convey the essence of what was going on to ordinary everyday people – who were after all the people who would be primarily affected by this revolution in computing and interaction.
So I tried fairly hard to come up with an umbrella term that would be a little bit less intimidating, a little bit less technical, and a little bit easier for people to wrap their heads around. Whether or not I’ve succeeded or failed in that, “everyware” is the term that I chose, and I think it’s not un-useful as a way of capturing what’s going on.
The interesting thing is that I now prefer not even to speak of “everyware” any more, I now speak mostly simply of “everyday life”, because in the five years since I wrote the book that in fact is what has happened. This revolution in computation and interaction has decisively left the realm of the technical, it has become the realm of ordinary everyday experience, and so I now speak of designing for the technical qualities of that interaction, rather than any specific domain of ubiquitous computing or pervasive computing.
The basic premise of ubiquitous computing or everyware or this ever-present technological realm that we live in is that it does surround us. You ran an interesting, I guess workshop is the term, at Webstock in Wellington, New Zealand, a few months back, called System/Layers, where you led walks around the city looking at where the digital interacts with everyday life. But one thing that struck me – and it was a very interesting thing to do, and it was nice to walk around with this child-like lens on and be taking everything in anew, as if for the first time. But even in a fairly technologically sophisticated city like Wellington, there are so many more opportunities for computing to partake in the city than is in fact currently the case. Do you think that the opportunities out there are much, much greater than what we’re even beginning to realise now?
Well, yes and no. It’s a really interesting question. I’ve learned to say that more changes in ten years, but less changes in a 5-year span in technology than we may expect. And so I’m prepared to say that we’re still sort of into the early phases of this, and if we come back and take a look back from maybe 2015 or so we would be surprised by just how far that infiltration of computation into everyday life has come.
But I would also argue that it’s already there. It’s so intangible indeed and so hard to isolate and fix and focus on that even in the course of a walkshop where we’re consciously attending to these details, most of it is escaping from us. And I think this has a lot to do with, frankly, with the iPhone – which, when it came out in 2007, I said: This is the first real everyware device. And so it has turned out to be. These extremely complicated technically mediated interactions we’re having with the services and capabilities of the world around us: they’re accommodated so smoothly by the iPhone and by the things that have followed in its wake that we don’t even think of them as technology anymore.
So I would argue that even beyond the things we looked at in the walkshop… the walkshop was great because it gave us an opportunity to break out of our bubble of everyday sleepwalking, right? And to look up and to look with fixity and elevated awareness at the things around us. So we would see things like parking meters or surveillance cameras or remotely-operated gates and think of these things as part of a coherent fabric of networked awareness and responsiveness.
And even so I think we were probably missing 90% of the puzzle. Even right now, on an everyday basis right now, so well integrated and so well assimilated into our lives that it’s become banal and unremarkable. In my speaking appearances I always say: I’m going to offer you a scenario, now, that as recently as two years ago would have been utterly magical, and it’s already completely banal and “so what”. And that is the use case where you’re walking around at ten o’clock at night and you want to find a restaurant that’s open and you want to find a restaurant that has the cuisine that you’re craving and you want to find a restaurant that the has the cuisine that you’re craving that’s open and it’s within 200 metres of you. And you can now frame a query, put that out there on your phone, get a response in seconds, and have that kind of tremendously… you know, a circumstance that would have presented you with a fair amount of difficulty even just a couple of years ago resolved in the space of the time it takes me to describe the situation.
And that is nothing if not magical. So I do want to pull those circumstances back out, disinter them and hold them up to the light, and point out all of the technology, all of the interaction that underlies that. All of the institutional arrangements and the networking conventions and everything that had to be put into place to underlie that. It’s really, really complicated and yet we already regard it as table stakes, just the price of admission. And I think that’s really interesting.
Adam, in “Everyware”, you have a number of theses in there and one of them… well several of them took my fancy. Obviously we can’t talk about many of them now, but you did say that “Everyware, or something very much like it, is effectively inevitable”. Don’t you think that that implies a frightening lack of control?
[Sighs.] Yeah, it kind of does. I want to be very specific about what I meant by that. I meant that technical developments, the tools that are required, the skill sets that are required, these things are so widely distributed in the world, and the barriers to entry are so low, that somebody somewhere is going to do the sorts of things that I talk about in the book. Somebody somewhere will think it’s a great idea to offer to the market a networked bathtub that you can operate with your phone from, you know, an hour away. Somebody somewhere is going to think that’s a good idea.
And in particular I mean to point out that things which are developed for the needs, predilections, desires and demands of one culture travel now so easily between cultures that they can appear very rapidly, that people in other places need to respond to those things or need to have competitors to them, and so the world does tend to fill up with these densely-internetworked, heavily interactive objects, applications and services, whether or not there is any real need for them, whether or not there has been any particularly close attention paid to the quality of the interaction around them. So you see things developed all the time with reference to the domestic market in South Korea or the domestic market in Japan and similarly I guess the domestic market in North America or Western Europe. And these things travel. As I say, the barriers to entry or the barriers to communication are so low that it really is inevitable, whether or not we want these things. And I don’t think of it so much as a burdensome hegemony as something that you’re just constantly going to have to be wrangling and pushing back against.
And people are going to have to be fairly active in defining their own prerogatives, defending their own prerogatives, if they want their world not to fill up with these things. I think particularly of networked advertising, interactive advertising where some of the things that they’re trying out now with billboards and urban displays and urban media interfaces in an attempt to grab and engage your attention, and then to be able to apply metrics to the quality of that attention.
Some of these things are so intrusive, so disrespectful that ultimately there’s going to have to be legislation about them. And obviously that legislation is going to be a matter of each local community to come up with.
But if we don’t get a lot smarter about these technologies and the impact that they’re likely to have on our everyday lives, we’re not going to advocate for that kind of legislation, that kind of regulation and as a result our daily life is going to be impacted by these things.
So I do think of a constant back-and-forth, a constant arms race between the people who want to use these technologies for their own ends, without particularly caring about the impact on your quality of life, and on the other hand the responsibility now of the ordinary everyday citizen to acquaint themselves with what’s going on and push back against it if they don’t like what they see. I don’t think that’s a happy or felicitous circumstance; obviously I would rather it not be that way, but I do think that those are the terms we’re being offered.
And so it’s our responsibility as designers to try and offer the people who are ultimately affected by these technologies some kind of intellectual and practical toolkit as to how to react to them and preserve their quality of life and the way that they want to move through the world without necessarily having to be exposed to these things.
Because one of the things you say in the book also is, and I’m quoting again: “The overwhelming majority of people experiencing everyware will not be knowledgeable about information technology.”
Yeah, sure. I mean, I already can’t tell you all of the ins and outs of the details of the way in which my phone, for example, signals its location, right? I’m heavily immersed in this profession or this discipline, I’ve been writing and reading and thinking about this for a long time. Off the top off my head I can’t tell you… you know, I’ve heard it said that even if I turn my phone off it’s still capable of registering its location. Am I fully up to date with every aspect of every phone and every device and the conventions that operate in the field, so [that] I’m able to take practical steps if I want to avoid giving away my location? No, I’m not, and I’m somebody who’s spent, as I say, the last five, six years immersed in this stuff.
How much less so is the great majority of the audience for these things, the great majority of people who do have mobile phones? If you were able to show them from the back end what their phone is giving away about them, about their location, and about their habits and about the inferences that can be built on the data coming off of that phone about who they are, and what their activities are, and who they associate with, I think they’d be quite startled. I think most people would be quite startled, and that to me is the challenge right there, is that our technologies are now so opaque to most of us, they condition our lives fairly strongly and yet we really don’t have a reasonably good mental model of how they work and how we can act so as, again, to protect some of our prerogatives.
That obviously brings up the whole topic of privacy which is very topical at the minute. We’ve got Facebook and Google both being rapped on the knuckles, certainly here in Australia, and I know around the world, for various activities that they’ve engaged in in recent days and weeks and months.
And in the book, you say “We will have to accept that privacy as we have understood it may become a thing of the past.” Although a contrary view to that is the outgoing Canadian privacy commissioner in February 2010 said that she disagrees “strongly with the fashion in some circles to declare that privacy is as good as dead.” Has your opinion on how everyware will affect our privacy changed in the five years since the book came out?
No. It hasn’t. And I really want to stress what the [commissioner] is reacting to in this context. There are probably… I’ll say… I know for a fact that there are people who rather enjoy the frisson of shock that they can get by saying: privacy is dead, I’m over it. Right? That’s not what I’m saying. I’m not saying that we should from here on in just live our lives completely transparently, completely just let it all hang out. That’s not at all what I’m saying.
What I’m saying is that we now can no longer rely on our environment to support us in our quest for privacy. We can no longer rely on an expectation of anonymity in public space. We now have to understand that, like Facebook, much of the technological armature underlying everyday life no longer defaults to settings that are guaranteed to protect us in our privacy.
And as a matter of fact we now have to struggle and devote quite a bit of energy to reconfiguring the world around us if we care about privacy. Again, do I think that’s necessarily a fair burden to devolve onto the individual? No, I don’t. Do I wish that there was some kind of body of regulation in place to protect me and to help me ensure that things do default to settings that tend to protect my privacy as opposed to tending to undermine it? Yeah, you bet I do.
My contention is that ultimately we can’t stand full transparency as societies. Certainly not the generation I was raised in. But I would even argue more generally that hypocrisy and plausible deniability and an ability to mask our intentions and our feelings at all time to some degree — absolutely necessary as a lubricant to socialisation and as a lubricant to the construction of societies that cohere over time. So I’m not at all saying fliply or glibly: Gee, you know, who cares about privacy and we should just get over it, we should just move on.
I’m saying that privacy as we’ve understood it in the past is now something that will actively need to be maintained through the output of a great deal of effort and energy. And if people, by my saying that, are motivated to check the privacy settings on Facebook, or even to refuse using Facebook altogether, despite the utility of it; if people are motivated by that to at least question the role of the technological devices and services that they use in either undermining or enhancing their personal privacy I’m super, super-delighted by that.
Although there is an essential contradiction here too, because what you’re describing there is a relatively sophisticated user and yet, as you say in the book, “everyware can be engaged inadvertently, unknowingly or even unwillingly”. And also engaged by people who have got, you know, much less competence in the technology that they will be using than your typical computer user does today.
Sure. And I’ll give an example of that. In my research, one of the most interesting things that I’ve stumbled over is a French marketing company called Quividi. I guess in Latin that means “who watches,” right? And it’s an appropriate name. What they do is they sell billboards that have cameras that are mounted in the framing of the billboard and they’re of the scale of the camera in your mobile phone, so on the scale of a billboard you don’t even recognise that thing.
What that camera is doing is scanning the faces of the people watching that billboard and they’re already, even with relatively crude facial recognition algorithms built into the software at the back end of this billboard, they’re able to determine with a fairly reasonable degree of reliability certainly the demographics of the audience. You know, as to age, its composition, gender, even ethnicity. But the most interesting thing and the most troublesome about this to me is that they’re also able to make stabs as to psychographics, and they’re able to make some inferences about whether you’re paying attention to the ad or not. And they’re able to do this, obviously, whether or not you’re aware that you’re being scanned, whether or not you’ve chosen to provide that data to them; by the very act of walking past their billboard, and watching or not watching what’s on it, you’re generating metrics for them. You’re generating value for them. You’re generating value for Quividi and you’re generating value for the party that has the ad, that’s currently leased, that’s running on the billboard.
So to my mind this is a stand-in for a whole bunch of circumstances in which the environment is now empowered with the ability to gather data about us and, as you point out, this is something that’s happening largely without our awareness or without our consent. And this is why I think so, so strongly that some sort of regulation needs to be put in place that will inform people that yes, this particular object is gathering information about you right now, and does so in a way that will allow me to avoid its area of affect, that does so in a way that allows me to make an end-run around it.
Now, in a heavily networked city that’s densely provided with billboards like this, is it going to be practical for me to chart paths between my house and the metro station, my house and the grocery store, my house and work, that do not pass by billboards like this, that do not pass by cameras and other systems that are gathering information about me? No, I don’t think it will be practical at all. That’s an entirely different order of challenge, an entirely different order of challenge for regulators, and for those of us who care about urban life.
You know, there’s only two levels that these sorts of systems really can be challenged, and that is at the technical level in their design, and at the communal level in terms of regulation and the order of laws and regulations that surrounds their use. And it’s interesting to me, that’s sort of what I default to, but I have to say that I have very few other good ideas about how to regulate these things. There are all kinds of ideas about how to hack them and countermeasures that you might take against them, but ultimately I think that for a polity composed of people who are not and will never be technically conversant with the things that make these systems work, the best defence is communally agreed upon regulation and legislation that describes and defines fairly concretely and fairly narrowly the terms under which and the envelope inside which these systems can gather information about us and act on [it].
You just reminded me. [Laughs.] I spoke to the head of IT at Privacy Victoria which is the Victorian privacy commissioner here in Australia a while back and we were talking about surveillance in the UK. And he laughingly said to me that the upside was that the authorities would have lost all the data before they could take any action about anything that they had recorded.
Oh yeah, it’s unbelievable. The data is now out about the use of CCTV — certainly in London, in metropolitan London. And it’s pretty damning. The Metropolitan Police in London admit that only four out of every 100 crimes are resolved with the help of CCTV data. So, even under the most charitable possible definition of terms, they’re only useful 4% of the time. And the other 96% of the time they’re gathering information about completely innocent people, going about the completely ordinary circumstances of their lives. Why on earth should we submit to a regime like that?
But as Anna Minton points out in her book Ground Control, which is a book I unreservedly recommend to people, there are consequences beyond the simply concrete ones. Among other things, we know now that [in] England, being the most heavily surveilled country on Earth, there are social and psychological consequences to this. One of them is that people now, in passing upon a circumstance… Let’s say an elderly gentleman has tripped and fallen down in the street. It would ordinarily be the case that people would feel some kind of neighbourly duty to stop and enquire and say: “Hey, are you okay? Is everything okay? Can I help you? Do you need anything?”
What is now observably, empirically happening in England under the watchful eye of all that surveillance is that people no longer feel a sense of responsibility in circumstances like that. You know, they now say well, “Surely someone is watching this, surely someone is seeing this on that camera over there, I don’t personally need to take any responsibility and deal with it, there’s no accountability that comes back to me as a citizen, because the empowered authorities will deal with it.” And of course whether they do or they don’t, it turns out that people are feeling a sense of disconnection from the circumstances around them. Which I would argue ultimately in the long term is not particularly healthy for our polities.
There is also a psychological impact, which is that having once been wrapped in the blanket of that kind of surveillance, if it even for a moment defaults or breaks down people already begin to feel nervous… Minton has this wonderful anecdote in the book about a woman who lives in a gated community, and she’s surrounded under ordinary circumstances by three or four layers, by defence in depth where there’s three or four layers of physical barriers and surveillance. And on one particular day the front gate of her gated development breaks in the open position. And so she has to sleep a single night and she’s completely unable to sleep that night. Her sleep is just completely disrupted by fears and worries and the threat of the gate being open, and what might happen if the gate is open.
And then she chides herself the next morning, she says: “I’ve lived for years on an ordinary street with no gating and no surveillance and no defence in depth and I was fine. What is it about this particular circumstance which is so threatening to me that it completely destroyed my sleep?” And Minton uses this to discuss the idea that, in a way, for at least the generation of people who [have] grown up with this type of surveillance as a matter of course, there’s no going back. That this is now normality, and when it breaks down — as dense technological networks always do — there’s a psychological price to be paid for that.
When you take all of this against the context of the actual empirically low utility of these cameras in resolving the crimes that they’re supposed to address, I would think that’s a very poor bargain indeed. I would think that we’ve traded away a great deal in return for very little.
And again, I think that’s going to be up to each individual local culture to decide for itself, but it sounds like things are moving in that direction, that people are finally beginning to push back against this notion that having networked security cameras everywhere you go in public space looking in every direction is a particularly good idea.
And of course I guess it’s another step too from the apparently beneficent technology of surveillance and protection and so on to the actively hostile technology.
As I was reading your book, and in listening to you talk today as well, I’m frequently reminded of Philip K. Dick and I was very pleased that you quoted from his Ubik which is a coincidentally-named book. He talks about… the protagonist, Joe Chip, is hounded and chastised by the technology around him [laughter.] The café tells him that “we don’t need your type here” and the door of his apartment threatens to sue him for non-payment of an amount that Joe Chip thought was a gratuity but when he checks the contract he realises is actually a mandatory payment.
This dystopian vision of technology which is actively hostile to us is pretty scary… You also say in the book, you talk about “the proper degree of loyalty an object should have towards its owners or users”. Do you want to pick that apart a little bit for us?
Yeah, I’d like to start with the notion that… Something that makes me tremendously sad is something that infects a lot of our conversations about technology, and even about interaction design, at such a low level that, again, people don’t tend to be aware of it. And that’s the notion that in the end most things ought to have a business model, or most things ought to be able to be monetisable at some level, otherwise why do them?
And you see this time and time again where proofs of concept or things that could be technologically possible or even socially desirable are picked apart on the grounds that, well, what’s the business model supporting that? And I think with all of these ubiquitous or pervasive technologies it’s pretty obvious that the Phil Dick scenario, where everything around you is charging you money… You know, Joe Chip actually has to physically get up and put a nickel into the coin slot in his door before it will open. We’re obviously in a place that’s beyond that. We’re obviously into a place now where some kind of micro- or nano-transaction can take place on a constant basis below the level of consciousness and, yeah, I don’t think it’s at all farfetched anymore to think of… or the alternate business model where it’s the freemium model, where you have to watch an ad for something before the door opening for you, even if you’re not charged directly for it.
I don’t think at all these things are impossible and again, somebody somewhere is going to think it’s a good idea. It’s no longer science-fictional or polemic. The other thing that worries me is the sort of… There’s a movement in the direction now of non-financial incentive structures around things. This idea that game-like logics, motivation systems that can be abstracted out of the way that we do or design games and superimposed over the logic of everyday life. And that ultimately is almost as worrisome to me.
The first commercial product or service that I was aware of that did this well was Foursquare — Foursquare, the locative social application or system. Basically what you do with Foursquare, if you’re listeners aren’t familiar with it… you go to different venues around the city and you “check in.” So you go to a restaurant, or you go to a bar, or you go to the airport, or wherever you would happen to be and you check in with [Foursquare] and you say: I’m here right now. And if you go to a place often enough, [Foursquare] has a handy little algorithm that gives you points every time you go to a certain place. And if you check there often enough… you become the “mayor” of that place.
And businesses are starting to cotton on to this. Some of the more enlightened businesses are starting to offer mayors discounts on things that they buy there, or other incentives to become a mayor, to make your loyalty concrete and self-authenticating and evident by showing it on Foursquare for all the world to see.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. It got tired for me fairly quickly. I was using Foursquare for a little bit here in Helsinki and I just began to be tired of it, and I stopped using it entirely maybe six weeks or two months after I started using it. But it seems to have succeeded like wildfire in the rest of the world. And what it has shown to people, what it has shown to advertisers, what it has shown to commercial institutions of all sorts, is that you don’t even necessarily have to offer people money to get them to do things. You can have all sorts of reward systems or badges or titles or status that people can earn simply by doing that things that you want them to do. And if there’s anything that contemporary game design has shown people is that you can get human beings to invest hours and hours and hours of their life in executing the most meaningless iterative activities — in games it’s called “grinding” — for what seem to be almost valueless rewards. It’s like we’re monkeys in a Skinner box or something and we will trip the little trigger for just about anything.
And when people become aware of this, when institutions become aware of this and learn how to use it I feel I have doubts about the kinds of societies that we’re now going to be capable of building. This may be a generational thing, it may be a personal thing, it may be just a function of my personal politics and take on the world, but the little hairs on the back of my neck begin to stand up when I contemplate the sorts of communities and polities that the technology is now enabling us to build.
And yet… a countervailing view to that dystopian or largely dystopian vision is the very positive, beneficial aspects of everyware. Another quotation from the book, you talk about the promise of the new technology being “information detached from the web’s creaky armature of pages, sites, feeds and browsers, and set free instead in the wider world to be accessed when, how and when you want it.” And another little quotation that I really liked was you talk about “a skein of numeric mediation that stretches from the contours of each individual human body outward to the satellites in orbit.”
It’s a very poetic and empowering information-rich freeing vision, on one hand.
And I would go a step further than that. It’s practically, it’s über-human in a way. There’s a panel from a Warren Ellis comic that my friend Matt Jones from Berg in London uses in some of his presentations — I think it’s from an Ironman comic — and it’s basically a single panel of Ironman speaking through an interlocutor and saying: “You don’t understand, I can see through satellites now.”
And I think ultimately that’s kind of what we’re talking about. We’re talking about expanding the individual human sensorium so that you have all these new senses. It’s as if your senses were extended outwards to the total envelope of all of the sensors and all of the other inputs that technology can now afford you with. But by the same token, extending your ability to act in the world, almost as if each one of your fingers terminated in some kind of infinite fractal bush of outward-facing actuators… and you could reach into the world and play it like a piano.
You do like your science fiction, don’t you Adam?
Well, you know, it’s hard to talk about this stuff without… Science fiction writers and to some degree comic-book authors as well have kind of gotten to this stuff ahead of the general public. From a different direction. They’re not thinking about it in terms of the practicalities of technological development, but they are… their job is to tell a story, and so very often their job is to imagine some kind of circumstance from the future and show the conflicts it sets up in society or in the human heart.
So, yeah, I grew up reading science fiction. Contemporary science fiction doesn’t for the most part do it for me. I think that everyday reality, as JG Ballard once argued, is now much more interesting, much weirder than science fiction generally is.
But I do think that it’s a tremendously good resource, certainly in the hands of the better writers and the better films, to get a handle on what’s coming and how people are likely to react to it. The more psychological subtlety an author can bring to it the better.
Ubik was written in what, 1969? So whether he meant it as pure comedy or as a political polemic, what Phil Dick saw happening there nevertheless is relevant to other moments, and I think deserves to be justly celebrated as sort of an accurate anticipation. Not a formal prognostication, God forbid not a prediction, but an accurate anticipation of some of the circumstances we’re going to be facing.
And a whole lot of fun to boot.
And in fact… to continue on the Philip K Dick train, in “Blade Runner”, which is based on his Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Harrison Ford says every technology is either a boon or a hazard, I can’t remember the exact term, but it’s a theme that he and other sci-fi authors I guess have explored fairly thoroughly.
I want to put words in the character Deckard’s mouth at that part. When he says “Every technology is either a benefit or a hazard,” I want to push back. I want to say every technology is both a benefit and a hazard.
It’s something that I’ve had an awful lot of trouble getting across, Gerry, I’ve got to tell you, in the years since I’ve been writing and speaking about this stuff. If I happen to give a talk that’s tilted towards the benefits and the empowerment and the optimism, and what I do in fact feel, which is that these technologies enable us to be instead of passive consumers of the world, active co-authors and constituents of the world. If I give a talk that’s focused on those things, invariably some smart-ass in the audience, some bearded Unix [inaudible] [laughter] will stand up and say: But aren’t you forgetting about threats to privacy?
And if I give a talk that’s… you know, as a professional speaker you really don’t like to give people dystopia. You certainly don’t like to leave them with a dystopian message. So if I give a talk that’s mostly about the threats to privacy, and mostly about the potential downside, somebody’s going to stand up in the audience and say: But what about the schoolkids in Ecuador that have access to things that they never dreamed of?
And these things are both and simultaneously true. And even more than that, they’re wrapped in something else, which is hard to get across, which is that these technologies are not autonomous. They don’t do anything in and of themselves. They don’t have “impacts”, they don’t have “effects”. The techno-determinist way of thinking about things is so deeply ingrained in most of us that we think: yeah, you drop a given technology like RFID in a place and it “has an effect.”
I believe much more strongly in something that’s further towards the social-constructionist end of the spectrum. I believe that technologies have affordances, which are things that they make it easier to do with them. And they have constraints… a given technology will make it more difficult to do things with. And each human community takes up this envelope of affordances and constraints and says: Hey, does this mesh with the way that we see the world and the way that we like to do things, or doesn’t it?
RFID provides us with an amazing example of that. RFID, the use of it in fare cards and in transit, in payment systems, embraced headlong by most of the cities around the world. Embraced in different ways. And then in a place like New York where you might expect to be ahead of the curve, not embraced at all.
So, again, it’s not so much that a technology arrives and has effects. It’s that we negotiate some kind of mutual space with it. Is it a benefit, or is it a hazard? It may very well be both, and that’s the subtlety and that’s the difficulty in talking about any of this stuff. The audience for a book like “Everyware” is very often both techno-determinist and techno-utopian. They tend to be positive about things. You know, the reason why you’d pick up a book in the first place that has a subtitle like “the dawning age of ubiquitous computing” is because you’re interested in these things and you’re excited by them. And so it can go down like a pretty bitter pill to an audience like that to say: Hey, slow down a second, there are things that we really need to be concerned about here.
But by the same token there’s a lot of fear in the world. I’ve also seen my talks cited by the strangest sort of Christian fundamentalists who are convinced that RFID tagging is the mark of the Beast, or people who are some kind of… I don’t even know how to characterise them, I don’t even know how to characterise their politics except to say that they’re afraid of the New World Order and they think that RFID and 2D barcoding technology is the harbinger of the New World Order, Barack Obama personally kicking down your front door and implanting a chip in the middle of your forehead.
So, you know, these things are very, very subtle questions. I don’t think there ever is an end to the story, because it’s cyclical, and new technology is obviously always emerging, and all I’ve tried to do in “Everyware” is talk about one particular class of technologies and their advent, and hold them up to the light so we can understand a little bit better about what they’re good at and what they’re good for, and what they do to us, and what we want to do about it.
Adam, I’m conscious of running up against our allocated time-slot, but there is one further area that I’d love you to talk about briefly. To use another quotation from the book, you say “We have to attend to the effects that these technologies produce as a coordinated system of articulated parts”. And it seems to me that you’re quite right in saying that we as individual designers or user experience practitioners or individuals interacting with technologies or whatever, we are dealing with this suddenly articulated system where things that we design, for example, are talking to other things and generating interactions that we’re not aware of, that were never planned, that are emerging from all sorts of areas. But how can individual designers, how can a web developer who’s listening to this, or somebody working in user experience design, how can that individual change anything in the way that they operate in order to begin to attend to those effects?
I think the first thing that we need to do is take this notion of the network seriously. It is high time that we understand that when we ask for input on an input box, that’s not merely going to populate some form and then be done with it. What a user inputs into that box is going to have a life far, far beyond the individual local application or service that they’re engaging with. We need to assume that from now on that’s going to be spidered and archived and acted upon and reacted to by systems far beyond the one that’s initially imagined.
A perfect example is Twitter. Twitter is now being used, very, very imaginatively, as kind of a common messaging bus and platform for all kinds of applications that didn’t even exist when the original service was imagined in 2007 or so.
You are no longer able to draw a sharply circumscribed circle around the thing you’re designing and say: “This is autonomous and it stands alone.” You have to image that each bit of data that you’re entering into the network will populate some database, will, even in the aggregate be used to take readings and soundings, to provide metrics, to provide value to users of other services, to systems that grab upon and feed [on] that data as their feedstuff. So I think the first thing that we have to accept is that the network is a reality.
Again, a subtle thing, we also have to expect and understand that networks break down constantly, that connections sever, that systems fail, that there are deep and irreconcilable seams between things. There’s no such thing as seamlessness and there never will be any such thing as perfect seamlessness. But by the same token, we need to understand that things are more connected, more deeply, more profoundly, and over a longer period of time than has ever before been the case.
And if you are designing something right now, with the expectation that it is simply… that you can draw a circle around that system, call that the ambit of it and the end of your interaction with it, you’re doing it wrong. That’s my advice.
And if we start form that kind of consciousness and awareness, we can avoid some of the heartbreak and hassles that are sure to be attendant upon not understanding that.
So, Adam, can you tell me about Urbanscale?
Yeah. Urbanscale exists to fill a need that I perceived in the world. Urbanscale is my new company, and it is as far as I know the world’s first and only conscious urban systems design practice.
And what I mean by urban systems design is that there is a need for people to consciously understand the impact that networked systems, services, applications and technologies now have on urban life, on urban existence, the ways in which these systems condition it.
And urban planners don’t really attend to that, for the most part, and architects don’t really attend to that for the most part. And even interaction designers generally are concerned with discrete services and discrete systems. And I really thought there was a more general requirement for a practice in the world that was dedicated to designing at the scale of cities, and to designing, as end-to-end as possible, high quality interactions with the urban fabric. Whether that would be for scheduling or transit planning or interacting with responsive architectures, or simply, again, taking the network seriously, taking the notion that every day is now decisively interwoven with network systems, and that the quality of urban life already crucially depends on this and… will be more so in the future.
So, having written about this for years, having written first “Everyware” and the new book The city is here for you to use, I decided it was time to put my money where my mouth is, and if I believe that these things are the case, and I do, and I think that these systems and services could be designed better, which I do, oughtn’t I step up to the challenge my own self, and try to provide those services and try to provide that design?
The tagline for Urbanscale is “Design for networked cities and citizens”, and that’s exactly what it’s about. We’ve been very fortunate in being able to attract some really outstandingly talented and capable network partners, which allows Urbanscale to produce things that move from mobile and web applications to interactive touch screens and urban media interfaces, to touchless payment systems, to architectural design and the design of environments, and by working together with these partners we intend over the next couple of years to do some very ambitious and aggressive interventions in the urban landscape, that are really designed to show people what’s possible when you do understand the physical, the built environment, the experiential environment and the networked interaction as all part of one connected thing.
And it’s to some degree polemical, but it’s also practical, it’s also designed to result in the highest quality possible interactions for people.
So does this, sorry to cut across you there Adam, does this owe anything to the likes of Jan Gehl and his work on urban spaces?
I would be absolutely lying to you if I didn’t say that people like Jan Gehl and Hans Monderman were big influences on me. Also, as well, my triumvirate of mid-60′s practitioners and theorists, people like Christopher Alexander, Jane Jacobs, Bernard Rudofsky. There is absolutely no doubt that that thread of what I think of as the humanist urbanists really profoundly influences my work.
And the wrinkle that Urbanscale brings to the table, to mix metaphors [laughter] is that we want to seek the same ends, but we want to pursue them through the means of network technologies. We want to pursue the same sorts of high quality, deeply humanist spaces for interaction in cities through the means of web services, mobile applications, and interactive interventions into the built environment.
These things are now so, so important. It would be folly and foolishness to try and pursue a Jan Gehl strategy or a Bernard Rudofsky strategy in the 21st century without attending to the technologies that now underlie the very motivations for people to want to be in urban spaces, and how they interact there.
We seek the same sorts of things; we understand better the technologies that people now use, and we’re trying to provide a more holistic picture, and what we’re trying to do is bring considerations of interactions off the screen, off the glass, into everyday life in the city, and to underwrite the sorts of conviviality, and the sorts of memorable vivid experience that you really can have in a city when everything’s been either intentionally or through happenstance designed to support those kinds of things.
I’ve just come back from a couple of days in Amsterdam, where you really… it’s hard to imagine a city that’s more… better designed to support lightweight social interaction and just the best qualities of urban experience than that. And yet we’re now beginning to overlay the city with all of these network services and applications and they don’t enjoy the same degree of just naturalness and ease of use and delight in the quality of the interaction, delight in the texture of the interaction.
So what I’m proposing is that interactions with technology can have the same quality and the same texture that walking through the centre of Amsterdam can. And that’s what we’re trying to design with Urbanscale. We’re trying to design urban interventions that are of as rewarding and engaging a quality as the best urban context that humanity has yet come up with.
And I hope that you’ll be actively encouraging everyone to incorporate the bicycle in these cities.
Unquestionably. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about something that I’ve been calling transmobility. And I go into this to some degree in the new book, “The city is here for you to use”, the notion that once you take a vehicle, or any other object, and you make of it a networked resource, it’s no longer an object anymore, it becomes something with the nature of a service, it becomes something that you can schedule, something that you can share, something that has a presence on the network and is capable of locating itself, and you can book it or swap it or any of the other operations that you can perform on a networked piece of data you can now perform on that physical vehicle.
It turns out to change the nature of urban mobility entirely, at least potentially. It opens onto something that I think of as transmobility, where again you’re really taking the network seriously, and you’re understanding what it can do to vehicular mobility. And I think a really, really crucial and important aspect of that is shared bicycle systems.
The bicycle is an incredibly supple and finely-grained way of using urban space. To be kind of wonky about it I don’t think that there is any finer tool in the psychogeographer’s toolkit than the bicycle. It allows you to traverse comparatively large stretches of ground in short order, and yet you still have something of the pedestrian’s ability to make instantaneous decisions about: I’m going to stop here, I’m going to turn down this corner. And yet as opposed to walking it lowers the opportunity cost of having made a bad decision.
So if you turn down a street and you find out that it’s really not that interesting, you really haven’t made that great [an] investment in time whereas on foot, obviously, if you make a wrong turn and you walk to the end of a block, there’s a significant investment of time involved in doing that.
The bicycle is just… It is hard for me to imagine a technology that has less downside and more upsides than the bicycle. It’s just an incredible thing, and the degree to which we could turn bicycles into network resources and ensure that everybody in the city can use them, and allow them to sort of insufflate the street network and the street grid, it’s tremendous.
So yes, absolutely one of the things Urbanscale is interested in doing is the next generation of network shared bicycle systems.
Well I hope listeners will forgive us for that side track. I certainly found it very interesting and worthwhile and I’m sure the listeners will as well… Adam Greenfield, thanks so much for joining me today on the User Experience podcast.
Thanks, Gerry, it’s been an absolute pleasure.
Adam’s blog is Speedbird.
Published: June 2010