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December 13, 2006

Christina Ray's Interview with


Adam Greenfield

Interview with Adam Greenfield by Christina Ray :: Commissioned by Rhizome.org

I recently met up with Adam Greenfield, author of Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing, to discuss the book's ideas over coffee. Everyware was published in 2006 and draws upon Adam's background as a user experience consultant and critical futurist to describe the subtle yet persistent diffusion of computing technology into the landscape. Against the espresso machine hum, the cafe's iPod shuffling through indie rock tunes, and the register jingle, we talked about speed and convenience as the seductions that drive our increasingly mediated reality. And we pondered the cultural, ecological, and ethical costs of living with everyware and where we go from here .

CR: From where we are right now, what kinds of everyware or pre-everyware can you identify?

AG: Remember when you were a kid, and you were first writing letters to your friends, and you'd lavish a ridiculous amount of detail on the return address? "127 North Van Pelt Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 19103, USA, North America, Earth, the Solar System"? It turns out that "where," in the everyware context, is a little like that -- in order to give you an answer as to "where I am right now," in the sense that's most relevant to this discussion, I'd have to specify all the situations and contexts in which I'm presently implicated.

Some of these situations are physical, and they're unfolding at a nested series of scales. So I'm simultaneously in the United States, and in Brooklyn, and at the given address of this cafe. And, of course, I also happen to be in a room, and sitting at a table, and in close proximity to an array of tools and devices at that scale.

At the most global scale, I'm already implicated in ubiquitous systems, at this very moment, by dint of those ghostly traces of me that exist in networked databases -- property register, driver's license, utility accounts -- and which associate me with this location. Those, in turn, can be correlated with an IP address that locates me virtually. In front of me are my mobile phone and wallet and transit pass, lying on the table, and those things are all either presently networked or designed to be used with the global information network.

Increasingly, we inhabit what I think of as an order of networked things. I think of each of them, as diverse and heterogeneous and apparently unrelated as they are, as nothing other than tendrils of ubiquity. All that would be necessary for these things to constitute everyware, in the sense I discuss in the book, is for them to start talking to one another -- and we're already beginning to see the signs of just such a convergence.

All of this is a way of saying that, if you want to detect the traces of emergent ubiquity in the world around you, it can't hurt to cultivate a certain sense of the paranoid-critical. Look around you: It's there to be seen, if you have but the eyes to see it.

CR: You've described a sense of wonder at seeing how women in Hong Kong almost immediately adapted to a new subway entrance system by simply swishing their handbags containing their passes over the turnstile's RFID reader. This lets them glide on through without having to stop, and was a completely self-taught "dance" that emerged on its own. What other adaptive behavior have you encountered that responds to everyware in public space?

AG: One of the things I've really enjoyed about being out on the road so much this year, and giving my talk in so many places, is that people will come up to me afterward and tell me their own stories, share their own experiences of this nascent ubiquity.

So I'll get people saying that their academic department or their job has doors which are unlocked with the RFID nametags they're required to wear - but that men in these situations will leave these cards in their wallet, and the wallet in their back pocket, so that the interaction with the system consists of them half-turning and rubbing their ass on the card reader. I love that, and I'm particularly interested to see the sorts of language that emerge around behaviors like that.

But I've seen, probably, a great deal more behavior that has not yet adapted to the fact of our engagement with networked devices in public space. If you pay attention to this sort of thing, you see social conflict breaking out all along the fault lines, with concerns emerging around things like mobile phone etiquette, continuous partial attention, whether someone should stop messaging and look up from their Blackberry long enough to order a coffee, if you're justified in not tipping a cab driver if they're on a phone headset during your entire trip, and so on. And should we forget that surveillance is at least as much a question of Little Brother as of Big Brother, there's always the object lesson of 'Dog Poop Girl' (see link below) to keep in the back of our minds.

CR: In the book you propose several features that should be designed into everyware. Everyware should default to harmlessness; be self-disclosing; be conservative of face and time; and be deniable. Could you expand upon these ideas a little?

AG: I believe that when designers imagine systems that by their very nature assume a great deal of responsibility for the outcome of situations, that exert an outsized and even unprecedented influence on life chances, they should among other things be held to the very highest standards of ethical design. This goes beyond the idea of installing appropriate safeguards for identity and privacy -- it's not even properly a technical question, but a moral one.

However unfashionable or bourgeois it may be, I believe in all those good old Enlightenment values: that you always already have the inalienable right to your privacy, your time and self-determination and personal autonomy. You have the right to know that information about you is being collected, and by whom, and what they are proposing to do with that information. We should demand that the ubiquitous systems we're subjected to be designed in such a way as to respect these prerogatives -- further, that we be able to refuse exposure to any system which does not, at least in private space. (It's probably too late to assert any such principle in the public sphere.)

In that sense, there's nothing in the Everyware principles that's even specifically about ubiquitous computing: This conversation is older than history, and obviously far better heads than mine have taken it up.

CR: From conferences to new university courses to corporate marketing departments, the subject of ubiquitous computing is becoming ubiquitous. In your book, Thesis 69 reads, "It is ethically incumbent on the designers of ubiquitous systems and environments to afford the human user some protection." Are engineers, designers, students, and companies having discussions on the ethics of protecting users?

AG: I think that a vanguard few are, yeah, even if in the latter case it's only as a business differentiator. It's going to be exceedingly difficult for most engineers to consider these questions, though, for the very good reason that so often, the sorts of effects of ubiquitous systems that I personally find so worrisome can only be understood as emergent behavior. That is, they arise out of the free interplay of discrete, distributed, networked systems. We're talking about a class of behaviors that can't necessarily be predicted at design time, even in principle. I'm the first to admit that incorporating the sorts of prerogatives we've discussed into the design of new products and services is not at all a simple thing to ask for.

I think it really takes someone able to step back from a given device, or even a given technology, to discern how it will interact ecologically with the others already on the table, those currently emerging, and the pre-existing body of everyday cultural practices. Traditionally, this has been just where information architects and other user-experience professionals have had so much to offer, and I still I have high hopes that the UX community will rise to the challenge of everyware. As far as deep, ongoing conversations, though, I don't really see it happening. Not yet. And, you know, the hour is late.

CR: The emergence of everyware can be, as you describe in the book, often quiet and subtle. No one's shouting, "Hey we just developed a device that tracks your every movement." Unless or until a major techno-disaster forces problems into the public arena, how do concerned citizens identify what's frequently invisible?

AG: That's a great question, an absolutely crucial one, and I'm afraid I don't have a very good answer for it. About all I can offer is the suggestion that we all try to do a better job of questioning -- with rigor and honesty and fearlessness -- the assumptions undergirding every new technological product and service we're offered. Will this really make my life easier? What are some of the less-obvious implications of inviting this into my life? What might I be giving up in exchange for what this is offering me? And what would my world look like if everyone adopted it?

These, again, are not obvious questions, and we're just not used to thinking along these lines. So a big part of what I see myself as being engaged in is something very old-fashioned: consciousness raising. It's something I'm pursuing in the hope that I can both learn to make decisions about emergent technologies that I'll be happier with in the long run for myself, and help other folks do so as well, on their own behalf.

+ Christina Ray is an artist and curator living in Brooklyn and the founder of Glowlab, a project to support and develop art/tech experiments exploring the nature of cities. Glowlab produces the annual Conflux festival in New York.

+ http://www.studies-observations.com/everyware/
+ http://www.v-2.org
+ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dog_poop_girl
+ http://christinaray.com
+ http://glowlab.com
+ http://confluxfestival.org

Posted by jo at December 13, 2006 08:15 AM