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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Ubicomp: Using Techniques from Literary and Critical Theory to Reframe Scientific Agendas


DOI: 10.1007/s00779-013-0679-6

Blythe, Mark. “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Ubicomp: Using Techniques from Literary and Critical Theory to Reframe Scientific Agendas.” Personal and Ubiquitous Computing 18.4 (2014): 795–808. Print.

p.1: Literary criticism places fictional work in historical, social and psychological contexts to offer insights about the way that texts are produced and consumed. Critical theory offers a range of strategies for analysing what a text says and just as importantly, what it leaves unsaid. Literary analyses of scientific writing can also produce insights about how research agendas are framed and addressed. This paper provides three readings of a seminal ubiquitous computing scenario by Marc Weiser. Three approaches from literary and critical theory are demonstrated in deconstructive, psychoanalytic and feminist readings of the scenario. The deconstructive reading suggests that alongside the vision of convenient and efficient ubiquitous computing is a complex set of fears and anxieties that the text cannot quite subdue. A psychoanalytic reading considers what the scenario is asking us to desire and identies the dream of surveillance without intrusion. A final feminist reading discusses gender and collapsing distinctions between public and private, office and home, family and work life. None of the readings are suggested as the final truth of what Weiser was "really" saying. Rather they articulate a set of issues and concerns that might frame design agendas differently. The scenario is then re-written in two pastiches that draw on source material with very different visions of ubiquitous computing. The Sal scenario is first rewritten in the style of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In this world, technology is broken, design is poor and users are flawed, fallible and vulnerable. The second rewrites the scenarios in the style of Philip K Dick’s novel Ubik. This scenario serves to highlight what is absent in Weiser’s scenario and indeed most design scenarios: money. The three readings and two pastiches underline the social conflict and struggle more often elided or ignored in the stories told in ubicomp literature. It is argued that literary forms of reading and writing can be useful in both questioning and reframing scientific writing and design agendas. -- Highlighted may 1, 2014

p.1: Percy Bysshe Shelley called poets "the unacknowledged legislators of the world" [35]. Poetry and novels change the values of society although the effects might not be felt for one or two generations; in this way, he claimed, poets make law before Parliament does. By the same token, the makers of science fiction could be described as the unacknowledged engineers of the world. -- Highlighted may 1, 2014

p.1: Dourish and Bell’s "Resistance is Futile" [20] compares ubiquitous computing literature with science fiction but not merely to trace influences of popular shows on technologists. As in previous papers, they are concerned with ubiquitous computing literature as a genre of writing. -- Highlighted may 1, 2014

p.2: For Bell and Dourish, this future is always "just around the corner" soon to arrive but never quite here. This kind of argument and evidence is a form of literary criticism. It identifies rhetorical procedures such as the proximate future sense, in the way that a literary critic might point out the use of, say, alliteration in a poem or a political speech. -- Highlighted may 1, 2014

p.2: For "actually existing" ubicomp, they consider systems in Singapore and Korea. The resulting vision of ubicomp includes things far outside of Weiser’s original vision like monitoring and restricting car traffic; sensing urination in public elevators; electronic feng shui consultations and ambient prayer times on mosque walls. -- Highlighted may 1, 2014

p.2: Ubiquitous computing here is heterogeneous, non-standard and messy. It is not as clear and orderly as Weiser’s vision and perhaps, for this reason, we have not noticed its arrival. This focus on actually existing ubicomp provides an alternative lens to Weiser’s original vision in the "famous Sal scenario". Dourish and Bell are concerned not only with what the ubicomp literature represents but also with what it does not represent, its absences, for instance, empire and race. -- Highlighted may 1, 2014

p.2: In Adam’s "Hitchhiker", universe technology is either not working because it is broken or, more often, not working because it is too badly designed to work in the first place. -- Highlighted may 1, 2014

p.2: In Dick’s paranoid vision of Ubik, technology is either out to get you or, at the very least, it is out to get your money. -- Highlighted may 1, 2014

p.2: This paper returns to Weiser’s Sal scenario and performs three different kinds of reading drawn from: deconstruction, psychoanalysis and feminism. -- Highlighted may 1, 2014

p.2: The importance of Weiser’s brilliant paper is indisputable, and the acuity of his vision has been demonstrated by recent history. The Sal scenario is quoted in an attempt to unravel its original argument and consider meanings other than those suggested directly in the text. The scenario begins as the central character becomes conscious:

"Sal awakens: she smells coffee. A few minutes ago her alarm clock, alerted by her restless rolling before waking, had quietly asked "coffee?", and she had mumbled "yes." "Yes" and "no" are the only words it knows. Sal looks out her windows at her neighborhood. Sunlight and a fence are visible through one, but through others she sees electronic trails that have been kept for her of neighbors coming and going during the early morning. Privacy conventions and practical data rates prevent displaying video footage, but time markers and electronic tracks on the neighborhood map let Sal feel cozy in her street". [37]

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p.3: The seemingly simple description is in fact quite complex, and the apparent simplicity is itself a rhetorical strategy. Sal sees "electronic trails" of her neighbours comings and goings. Potential alarm at the notion that our neighbours may be able to see when and where we come and go is immediately defused. Its alright, there are "privacy conventions", criticism and alarm is then anticipated and subdued. The most emotive word of the paragraph is very explicitly soothing, Sal feels "cosy", not curious, not suspicious, not frightened. -- Highlighted may 1, 2014

p.3: The economy with which the scenario is told makes this mutual surveillance appear every day "Glancing at the windows" is almost "glancing out of the windows". Checking household behaviour monitors is almost as natural and everyday as a casual look outside. And yet, this small textual difference is important. Sal is precisely not looking out of her windows but "at" them, windows here are media, her perspectives on the world are mediated and managed.

"At breakfast Sal reads the news. She still prefers the paper form, as do most people. She spots an interesting quote from a columnist in the business section. She wipes her pen over the newspaper’s name, date, section, and page number and then circles the quote. The pen sends a message to the paper, which transmits the quote to her office".

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p.3: Again the direct message is that ingenious new technologies will allow us to find lost manuals. But equally implicit in the text is the notion that the future will be so heavily mediated by computing technology that we will be unable to open our garage doors without instruction books. There is then a premonition of a future where even door technology is "black boxed" to the point that we cannot do anything except write to the manufacturer for help if we lose the instructions. The overall tone is one of reassurance but at the same time the text betrays intense anxiety about our technological future. -- Highlighted may 1, 2014

p.4: Once more, the surveillance is benign. Arrival and departure data are used to make parking more convenient and begin logging on procedures. -- Highlighted may 1, 2014

p.4: It is now clear that Sal works in California for a corporation involved in the computing industry, possibly a research laboratory something like PARC. -- Highlighted may 1, 2014

p.5: The scenario is describing what sociologists of the Asylum called a "total institution" [27]. By this they meant an institution in which there is a paper trail which accounts for every inmate’s past history and present course of treatment (ibid). Here, the trail is digital but the institution is no less total for that. The use of the word "biography" is interesting. It suggests something more than contact details and current job position. Again, the technology is presented as benign but there is a tension even here, Sal is glad that Mary did not make the information only temporarily available. Did she mean to do that? Why do some people limit access to such details? What did Sal want with the information? Was she going to call her and ask her why she had not been in touch? This is a world in which promises at the workplace cannot be made lightly, and records are kept of every transaction. Here, formal records (biography and contact details) intersect with human memory (Joe’s prompt that she said she would call). The end result is a total institution where accountability is absolute. -- Highlighted may 1, 2014

p.5: Although at a superficial level, the scenario describes benign technology which makes life easier at home and in the workplace, the text is littered with qualifications, asides and even direct explanations which address the threats and dangers of this technology. A deconstructive reading of the scenario then finds not a benign vision of ubiquitous computing but a deeply sinister evocation of a total institution in a surveillance society. After presenting the scenario, Weiser notes that the imagined technology had the potential to make "totalitarianism up to now seem like sheerest anarchy" and notes that marketing firms already make unpleasant use of information. These negative potentials are immediately foreclosed "Fortunately cryptographic techniques already exist to secure one ubiquitous computer to another" (Ibid). Reassurance is not merely technological and social, it is also and, perhaps primarily in this text, rhetorical. -- Highlighted may 1, 2014

p.5: But deconstruction rarely accounts for the power of a cultural artefact. Critics of deconstruction argue that it is a dry and pedantic form of deliberate misreading. The deconstructive reading of the Sal scenario suggests that from the very beginning, it was clear that ubiquitous computing was a dangerous idea. -- Highlighted may 1, 2014

p.6: The Sal scenario has now been quoted in full, and this section revisits the text but asks a different question: what is it telling us to want? In a sense, the purpose of any design scenario is explicitly to shape technology development, so this is always a crucial question. -- Highlighted may 1, 2014

p.6: The discussion in the scenario of the term "ubiquitous" and the building’s location in Silicon Valley position the company squarely alongside Microsoft, Apple or PARC. These organisations introduced non-hierarchical "at" styles of management, so it might be argued that the relationship between Joe and Sal is one of collegiality and not surveillance. But as Zizek has pointed out, a boss who acts like a friend is more oppressive than one that just acts like a boss: a friend can intrude on almost any aspect of our lives, a boss has limits [42]. -- Highlighted may 1, 2014

p.6: This sentence with its pivotal clause "but she feels more in touch" is emblematic of the entire approach in the scenario. There are potential dangers in this technology but they have been anticipated and guarded against. The ability to see a colleague’s work without being able to read it is of no direct use but it makes the protagonist feel more connected. What the scenario also provides is a subject who wants to be monitored, Joe asks Sal to look at his work. What we must ultimately want in the age of surveillance are people who want to be watched. In psychoanalytical terms, this is a "fetishistic disavowal" that might be expressed as "I know very well but...". Here, the fetishistic disavowal would be expressed as—I know very well that surveillance technology is always oppressive but here is a surveillance technology that is not oppressive. -- Highlighted may 1, 2014

p.7: Why is Sal a woman? Why does the scenario not feature a male protagonist? Would it read any differently if Sal was Saul? To answer such questions, it is necessary to consider the differences between the first three waves of feminism. -- Highlighted may 1, 2014

p.7: The first generation of feminists fought for the right to vote, and the second generation struggled for equal rights in the workplace. Sal’s position in the company might be taken as one of the achievements of the feminist fight for equality of opportunity and pay. In 1991 and even today, women are woefully under represented in computer science both in industry and in academia. The scenario then can be taken as a feminist vision of greater equality and opportunity for women. But Sal might also be taken to represent the limits of second generation feminism and the critique that was imminent in the third wave. -- Highlighted may 1, 2014

p.7: Third generation feminists argued that it was no victory for women if their liberation meant only that they could or perhaps should behave like men [15]. Third generation feminists also criticised second generation feminists for concentrating on the experiences of white heterosexual upper middle class women [39]. A third generation feminist reading might also question whether Sal was male or female in traditional terms, it may be that Sal is transsexual, transgendered or intersexual. The scenario elides not only demographics like age and race but also sexuality. The scenario begins with Sal in bed but there is no indication as to whether she shares it with anyone or what the gender of such a person might be. For third generation feminism, Sal might be seen as a de-sexed corporate automaton. Women’s liberation was not merely the freedom to be exploited in the workplace. This is precisely not to argue that second generation feminists were wrong to argue for equality. Nor to suggest that women would be happier after all if they remained in the home. But rather to stress that women’s liberation should involve freedom rather than stark choices between fixed options. -- Highlighted may 1, 2014

p.7: Second wave feminism would position the Sal scenario as envisaging greater equality for women. Third wave feminism would critique this as the freedom of women to be exploited in the workplace. The technological links to the workplace mean that Sal’s entire home is linked to and mediated by work. The scenario presents a powerful woman who has parity or authority over male colleagues at work, and in this respect, it could be considered as a victory for second generation feminism. But it also presents a world where there is a total collapse of the public and private, the office and the home, work and family life. For third generation feminism, this would be an image of defeat and technological domination. -- Highlighted may 1, 2014

p.8: Although concern about this technology is anticipated, the scenario is essentially presented as reassuring and comforting. In future, privacy might be even better protected because we will have "digital pseudonyms". This move is only possible if the reader accepts a benign future political context. As Dourish and Bell have argued, the point is precisely not that context is absent; rather it is taken for granted. The preceding sections have demonstrated that not only is there an implied historical context but also an implied ideological and political stance towards that context. -- Highlighted may 1, 2014

p.8: In order to illustrate what Weiser’s vision might look like with a different set of assumptions about the social context, the following sections retell the Sal scenario in the style of Douglas Adams and Philip K Dick. -- Highlighted may 1, 2014

p.9: In a comic universe technology is likely to at least surprise the user if not outright fail. Arthur Dent lives in worlds of very broken technology. It ages, it breaks down and it is usually extremely badly designed. -- Highlighted may 1, 2014

p.10: Weiser’s term "ubiquitous computing" references the Dick novel Ubik so it is perhaps appropriate to retell Sal’s story in that novel’s paranoiac world. Ubik is centred around Runciter’s "Prudential Organisation" which offers "anti-psych" services to protect against "telepaths" and "precogs" employed by the Hollis corporation for industrial espionage [19]. -- Highlighted may 1, 2014

p.10: The "Ubik" of Dick’s novel is a multi-functional aerosol spray. Advertisements for the mysterious product begin each chapter. The Ubik ads promise a wide range of uses for the product. Each of the first sixteen chapter headings describes Ubik obliquely as something like: beer, coffee, salad dressing, a cure for head and stomach ache, a shaver, a plastic coating to protect household surfaces, a savings and loan scheme, a hair conditioner, a ten day deodorant, a sleep medication, a snack, a bra, a plastic food wrap, a cure for bad breath and a breakfast cereal. -- Highlighted may 1, 2014

p.10: Every advertisement carries a warning stressing that Ubik must only be taken as directed. The meaning of Ubik then is multiple and throughout there is a dual emphasis on functionality and the dangers of excess. -- Highlighted may 1, 2014

p.11: One of the staple devices of science fiction is to focus in on a particular individual and introduce the new world through their eyes. Philip K. Dick typically begins his stories with a description of a blue collar worker engaged in some task which is, to the reader, extraordinary (e.g. administering tests which show the difference between an android and a human) but is, to the character, utterly tedious and menial. Arthur Dent is a stranger in a strange universe and the reader meets it through his bewildered eyes. In the Sal scenario, we are introduced to the technology by someone somewhere near the top of the social hierarchy. Sal is not alarmed or bedevilled by the technology, she has absolute social and technical control of it. -- Highlighted may 1, 2014

p.12: As a counter cultural gure of the late 1960s, Dick is often taken as a critic of late twentieth century western society. At one level, his concern with deceptive appearances is clearly a critique of the cycles of consumption which rely on endlessly re-created desire. As in Douglas Adams, there is an almost structural scepticism about the promises of technology.

We know very well that it is unreliable but – We know very well that it is open to abuse but –

The identication of the fetishistic disavowal—we do not want surveillance technology but here is the surveillance technology that we want, is important because it echoes throughout the later ubicomp literature. -- Highlighted may 1, 2014

p.12: This tension between convenience and privacy persists in ubiquitous computing. -- Highlighted may 1, 2014

p.12: The readings of the original Sal scenario demonstrated that although scenarios might be written in a seemingly simple, objective style, they are far from simple or objective. Identifying the rhetorical tropes of scientific literature is a standard procedure in the history of science [e.g. [29]]. Reading ubicomp literature as a genre is itself a rhetorical move. There is no neutral vantage point outside of language from which to comment [40]. -- Highlighted may 1, 2014

p.13: More than other sciences, ubicomp is involved in the construction of narrative. Not just in papers writing up what was done but in proposals on what to do and actual technological interventions. A critical understanding of narrative is becoming increasingly necessary, and there is a small but growing body of work which draws on critical theory [e.g. 2–5, 7, 11, 12, 17, 30, 32, 34]. For the most part, this literature argues that critical theory must be incorporated to better inform design. It may also be that it must be incorporated to do what it was originally intended which was to inform criticism. -- Highlighted may 1, 2014