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January 27, 2006

Anne Galloway


Against Disambiguation

In Disambiguating the terminology (a sketch), Mike writes:

'As I see it, the different terms--pervasive computing, ubiquitous computing, ambient intelligence and physical computing--come from different historical contexts that are based on geography: PARC coined "ubiquitous computing," so it's big on the West Coast; IBM likes "pervasive," they get the East; Philips was responsible for "ambient intelligence," so that's what it's called in Europe. In reality, it's just a blind men and elephant problem. They're all describing the same idea, but alliances and territoriality create clusters of terminology...The definitions aren't totally separate, but it's an interesting exercise to see the focus of the groups who fly a particular flag. I still think it's all the same elephant and that maybe it needs an even yet different term. There's great value in creating a good term that encapsulates a set of ideas, but it has to accurately capture the essense of an idea as it is perceived by others to take off. Which means it needs to be externally-focused, and not about the process.'

And in the comments:

AG: Why do you think I felt it necessary to create a whole new term for these activities, even at the risk of collapsing valid distinctions?...[I] argue that even things that seem peripheral to the ubicomp argument...will in fact be for most of the people experiencing it the signifiers of the ubiquitous experience.

Mike: If people's associations with it are going to be with the objects, not the ideas, I believe that names for the idea should reflect THEIR perspective.

The elephant analogy doesn't sit well with me if it implies that there is, in fact, a stable thing-in-the-world that constitutes an elephant (and that the men are wrong because they don't know they're describing the same thing). As I understand it, the parable's moral is rather about not clinging too hard to any particular perspective because there are many truths. And I take that to suggest not only that inflexibility is problematic, but that disambiguation is as well - precisely because of "the risk of collapsing valid distinctions" and becoming too invested in getting the 'one ring to rule them all'.

The erasure of difference is never neutral, and this desire to master a subject, to bring it to order and unity, to suggest its discovery and conquest through neologism, is at the heart of what feminist studies of science and technology have long criticised as exclusionary practices rife with power struggles. This belief in necessary wholeness is also associated with a concern for the "effects" of technology, and can reflect the kind of technological determinism present in the "guns don't kill people, people kill people" way of thinking and its ethical implications.

Plus, can any term "accurately capture the essense of an idea as it is perceived by others"? What's the purpose of that anyway? Why not let it be all messy? Leaving aside my opposition to essentialism and the idea that there are discrete things in the world, I was struck by Mike's claims regarding who should decide a new terminology. Anthropologists have spent many years debating the merits of emic (intrinsic cultural distinctions) versus etic (imposed by the anthropologist or outsider) classifications*. After all, what would make one better or worse than the other? And why would we choose to use just one? Furthermore, when Mike suggests that it is others-outside-the-process who should be naming things, he naturalises distinctions between "us" (designers, presumably) and "them" (users, people), as well as between design and use, process and product. Ultimately, this elides internal variation within each category, over-emphasises external variation between categories, and leaves little room for hybridity except in terms of overlap.

* "Emic" and "etic" are themselves neologisms (derived from "phonemic" and "phonetic") coined in the 50s by linguistic anthropoligst Kenneth Pike. [blogged by Anne on Purse Lips Square Jaw]

Posted by jo at January 27, 2006 02:45 PM