Jon L. talked to Adam Greenfield about his new book, Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing,when he was in Austin to speak at SXSW Interactive as part of a digital convergence track Jon helped put together. Jon will also be leading a discussion with Adam in the Inkwell.vue forum on the WELL beginning Friday, April 14. — Ed.
WorldChanging: Could you say just a little bit about what led you into ubiquitous computing? I know you as a designer, so what was it that piqued your interest in ubicomp and made you so interested that you wanted to write an authoritative book on the subject?
Adam Greenfield: It was a sense that there wasn't really anything out there for people. It felt like a gathering storm, to me. This was a technology that had ambitions to interpose itself in social relations in every sphere of life, a technology that had ambitions to literally embed itself or to be embedded in the objects and surfaces of everyday life. It doesn't take a genius to see that, by definition, this is going to effect hundreds of millions of people, by an order of magnitude more than the PC.
And yet, despite this extraordinary expansion in the number of people who would be affected by this particular information technology, nobody was talking about it in anything but an academic and technical voice. Sure, there was 7-10 years worth of literature out there. There had been Pervasive conferences and ubiquitous conferences. But there was nothing yet that targeted the smart generalist or the general readership. And that struck me as profoundly wrong.
So I bootstrapped myself. Despite not having a background in it, despite not having any sort of engineering background whatever, I went to a couple of Ubicomp conferences and did a whole bunch of research.
WorldChanging: What sort of people did you find going to ubicomp conferences? What kind of people are driving development?
Adam Greenfield: Some very, very smart people, but they're systems people. They're people that are looking at the event heap, how you negotiate system resources to a whole bunch of distributed systems with heterogeneous interfaces in a given space. Brilliant work, foundational work, important stuff... but nothing from the user experience end. That whole mind-set had not yet percolated into the practice of ubicomp. So you'd see a lot of papers on prototype systems, and in some cases extremely aggressive prototype systems, in the sense that they had this sort of land grab mentality about them. Systems that were embedded in flooring, systems that were comprised of camera nets that would track you in real time as you moved through the city. Locational systems. And yet they were designed by engineers, seemingly for engineers.
I'm not blaming anybody for this. Engineers are not user experience folks. They're not trained to be. Possibly by inclination, they're not concerned so much with the user. They tend to model the needs of the people using the systems on their own reactions to technology, and that's understandable, and I don't blame anybody for that.
The trouble is, when you get systems that are designed that way, they're intolerable. If you want a technology to be present in everyday life at the widest possible scale, I can't imagine having to negotiate systems through the equivalent of a command line interface for people. The prospect was intolerable.
And I thought (hopefully I don't sound too pompous here) that it was ethically incumbent upon someone who could see this to get out there and write about it, whether or not they had a background. If they could educate themselves to a point where they more or less knew what they were talking about, and were able to fairly represent the history of this discourse, and the history of this practice, somebody had to write about it. And nobody was doing it. So I said, what the hell, I'll do it myself. (Laughs)
WorldChanging: So you're actually coming from a user experience perspective in your analysis of ubicomp?
Adam Greenfield: That's the genesis of it, yeah. That was the real emotional hook for me, just thinking about people having to configure their toilets and people having to configure their teapots to boil a kettle of tea. And just taking a direct analogy with the technical systems that are around us now - you know, dropped cellphone calls and the blue screen of death, and everything that we're familiar with from the PC and mobile infrastructure
WorldChanging: The blue toilet of death! (Laughter.)
Adam Greenfield: Can you imagine? And I think what heightened the sense of urgency was that this stuff was moving beyond prototypes in short order. It was moving toward consumer products, toward the digital home and digital convergence. The products were starting to be packaged and shipped. And still nobody was talking about the nonlinear interactions of network systems in one space all operating at once - it's as if none of the people who were designing them had, not so much thought, but felt what it would be like to sit in the middle of a room where you've got fifteen different technical interfaces around you, and you're responding to all of them at once, and they're all responding to you at once.
It really was from the more empathic end of the user experience field, not so much about usability per se, but about pleasure in use. And about sustainability and use, sort of a sustained quality of life issue. Wanting to design systems that really do enhance people's quality of life, and not just destroy it.
WorldChanging: What's the down side with ubiquitous computing? Are there things that we should be concerned about - or things that we should be advocating for, as they develop?
Adam Greenfield: Well, I certainly think so. I'll point out from the beginning that I tend to impose my own vaguely libertarian prejudices on a lot of this stuff. I think there are privacy issues, but what I say in the book is that everyware doesn't just redefine computing, it redefines surveillance, as well.
I'll give you a quick example of what I mean by that. One of my favorite examples is the BodyMedia Sensewear monitor, a sort of sexy band-aid that you slap on your arm and, triggered by body heat, it wakes up and starts taking what its producers call a physiological documentary of your body. It's a sort of constant, realtime beacon of your life signs. We're talking about, not just the obvious channels, but more channels of information flowing out from your body, from your activities. It's not just a camera and your image, it's not just a microphone and your voice. It's potentially your gait pattern, the pattern of your footfalls as you walk across the floor. I don't think most people have even wrestled yet with the implications of the idea that you could be identified with reasonable confidence by the pattern of the way that you walk. It's not quite as unique a signature as a fingerprint or, certainly, as DNA. I think there' something like an 80% confidence interval in a group of twenty that you could single somebody out just from the pattern of their walk, and that's at a prototype stage.
So it's easy for me to imagine - I've got this kind of not particularly fair, but real scenario in the book. It is not by any stretch of the imagination improbable. The scenario is that there's a bar, and the bar has load cells and sensors and processors in its flooring, and the moment you walk into the bar, it will track you and associate your identity with records that are databased externally. And then it will do a relational search, and identify you by political affinity. And then you see if you get served a beer or get punched in the nose and sent out the door, based on whether they want to serve you or not.
What is your political background, who are you? They could just associate the records about your political contributions on relational databases that are already out there in the world with the unique signature of your footfall. That sounds like a strange scenario, but it's not unrealistic. I don't know why anybody would want to design that system, but they certainly could, and they could do it with stuff that exists right now.
WorldChanging: We normally think of surveillance as a bunch of guys that are watching monitors that are linked to cameras that are placed around, but what we're really talking about here, is a bunch of sensors that are gathering data where the patterns can be analyzed, and you don't have to depend on having a human looking at a million different monitors, right?
Adam Greenfield: You sure don't. It's inferential. And to me, one of the scariest things about it is that it's sort of imperceptible, right? These are systems that are embedded, they communicate wirelessly, they're not perceptible to immediate, ordinary analysis. When you walk into a room, you might have no idea that they're operating. But they're collecting information, and inference is being made, machine inference is being applied to the fact patterns that they're gathering. And then this becomes actionable. Once that exists, then people can make determinations about their behavior based on it. And to me that's scary.
I'm real simple about it. I just don't necessarily want to live in a world like that. I want to be able, to the greatest extent possible, to enjoy relationships with other human beings where they're not preconditioned by the sum total of information that's available about me because it's flowing off my body in realtime.
WorldChanging: On the solutions side, what are the most positive results we can expect from ubicomp, based on what you've seen so far?
Adam Greenfield: I get asked some version of that question a lot, and there are certainly valid uses for it. Memory augmentation, and independent living for elderly people is one of the best scenarios I've seen, where having the armature of pervasive informatic systems does actually help people live independently, longer, with dignity, if the systems are designed correctly.
When Mark Weiser devised the idea of ubicomp way back in the late 80s or early 90s, he saw the power of applying very powerful informatics to everyday hassles like "where did I leave my keys," or "is that shirt that I wanted still on the rack at Macy's," or "what is the best commute to work," or "is there a parking space available where I'm headed." I think that's still a valid vision. I think that everyware will have some very positive consequences in people's lives in terms of reducing or even eliminating some of the hassles for thousands of years, and we just accept it as the price of existence. So I'm optimistic in that sense.
What raises red flags for me, though, is that each one of those systems and each one of those interactions will have to be designed by somebody, and knowing what I do about the technological process, and how things get sped to market, and how things get rushed, and how user experience work is so often the very first thing that's cut out of a development budget, I'm not terribly sanguine that all of those transactions are going to be designed with any kind of feel for people in them. So you can theoretically see the good things that can come out of it, and for every good that I can imagine, there are flags that come up, though one of the fundamental things that I hope people take away from the book and from my talks is that I'm not anti-ubiquitous computing, I just want it to be done right. And to be done sensitively.
There are great potentials for improved quality of life and certainly amazing business opportunities in the region where sensitive user experience development is applied to the challenge of ubiquitous systems. And that's what I'd like to see happen, and that's certainly a discussion that has yet to be started. So that's what I'm all about.
WorldChanging Interview: Adam Greenfield is a part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on Oct. 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.
Ya Adam Greenfield is a nice guy but I don't agree with his thoughts.Nice interview and continue the good work.