August 2003 Archives

Molly and I were having drinks with our friends and next-door neighbors Michael and Joy a couple of nights ago and I started pontificating on my current thoughts about people's relationship to technology. As is often the case, when forced to vocalize ideas, they're clearer, so I decided to capture some of that clarity (which I admit may still be far from clear) in writing.

Anyway, the two interesting thoughts of the evening were:

1. Ubiquitous communication technology is recreating interpersonal relationships that existed before transportation technology and growing populations caused human contact to become much more attenuated. Sure it's the Global Village thing, but I think that it's deeper than just the "everyone can talk to everyone" interpretation that's been the traditional global village take I've heard. Gillette take pictures of who buys their razors and Japanese office ladies send photos of the dates their to their friends for discussion and advice (as described by Justin Hall last year). At the same time, a reality TV channel is set to be launched. That kind of pervasive observation (I hesitate to all it panoptic because that term is too absolute) doesn't seem all that different to me than what was possible in a tiny village. Village boundaries are close, and everyone knows all the nooks and crannies, so every corner is pretty much visible and what people do in those corners is pretty well known (if not always acknowledged). That doesn't seem all that different than the tracking of acquaintance clusters that these new technologies are enabling, except now the boundaries aren't physical, but social (how many people you know, the circumstances by which you're connected to them, etc.). Of course all kinds of things are different between a geographically-bound village and an acquaintance cluster, but in terms of the relationship of the individual to the people they know, it seems like a return to a situation that existed fairly recently, until transportation technologies allowed people to loose site/track of each other, so maybe it's not so new and different after all?

2. There's a parallel between people's relationships to computers and ways of interacting with religion. I don't mean this in a "computers and spirituality" way, but there seems like an interesting--maybe only superficial--similarity. There's an old description of mainframe operators as a kind of priesthood. In this relationship the priests are the only ones who can commune with the higher intelligence. Similarly, the one-to-one relationship between personal computers and their users is not unlike that of a "personal savior" and worshippers. Here, the priesthood has been removed and the communion with the higher power is up to each individual, but the assumption is that there's still only a single entity, even though everyone now has access to it. So what happens when there's not a single entity (per household, or for all "computational" tasks), but a distributed set of intelligent devices, none of which may be as powerful as a single entity, but all of which exhibit some kind of intelligence? I believe that the relationship in that case becomes animist.

So what causes these attitudes? Are people projecting their understanding of religion onto technologies? I bet not, though I think that religious metaphors do influence the ways we relate to the world, if only because they're so prevalent and act as models that we build on when trying to understand new phenomena. This is an incredibly broad characterization, but I suspect that there is a single kind of process at work here which leads to priesthood-style models when a resource is scarce (or made scarce) and to animist models when it's pervasive (or defined as such). What does that mean? Well, maybe we--as designers--need to be more attuned to people's attitudes and the larger models they're part of when designing experiences.

[I'm indebted to Genevieve for her introduction of religion into discussions of people's relationships with technology--I think we're coming at it from somewhat different directions, but she's lecturing about it and that makes me think that maybe I'm not totally crazy for even bringing this up. I also wish I could attend the UbiComp 2003 workshop for which she's one of the sponsors: Intimate Ubiquitous Computing. Good luck!]

Excuse the meandering nature of this post, but Molly and I are frantically preparing for Burning Man, for which we leave tomorrow (stop by Dogma between Received and Serious if you're going to be out there).

This is the first year that I'm not going to be camping with a theme camp. It was the bianca life for many years and last year we camped with Ray at Airstream Court, the airstream camp. This year we were going to camp with the Airstram folks again, but at the last minute we decided that the suburban life wasn't fast enough (Airstream Court, and Ray: we're sorry to have only told you at the last minute! We'll make it up with food!). We may be in our 30s, but we're still largely living the lives of 20 year-olds and we might as well revel in it while we have the chance. So we're camping with a Friendster cluster of other 30 year-olds including Lane, Courtney, Mule Design, Moses and Lucie, Adam and Nurri and several other Friendster clusters.

On that note, I heard an Eva Zeisel lecture earlier this year where she responded to a question about how it felt like to be 96 years old by saying that she didn't know: she had always thought that she'd grow up, but she never really did, she just grew old. That's inspirational. Perspective and restraint should accompany age, but fear of novelty should not. That said, maybe Burning Man has worn off its novelty for me, after so many years? We'll see how I feel a week from now.

Today I had to reboot flotsam, my server and the machine that gets my email, runs DNS and all my web services. It was a strangely traumatic experience. The machine had been up continuously for two years (586 days to be precise) and the hardware is sufficiently questionable that there's a chance that it won't come up after a reboot.

However, in addition to the expected dread of having to figure out why the flaky PCMCIA ethernet card wasn't being recognized and the sadness of losing the cool long uptime count, were the chills down my spine and the complete complement of fight-or-flight reflexes. It was the classic feeling of being naked on the inside, like when you can't find something that you've grown attached to and it felt strangely visceral and scary (and was followed by an equally-inappropriate level of happiness when the thing rebooted with no problem).

That led me to thinking about how physical distance and dependence are not necessarily related. Sure, a lost cell phone or watch makes you feel naked, but my mail server sits in a hutch in the hallway and I interact with it physically only every couple of months. The relationship seems more akin to that with another person, rather than a service and that seemed odd (although describing it this way it seems a lot less odd--people get attached to all kinds of stuff, but it was still interesting to see it happen in my own attitudes).

Anyway, now everything is back up and running. Whew.

(oh, and to the title of the post: I had run the SpamAssassin Bayseian network learning utility on my many-meg personal inbox, which caused it to suck up a ton of memory, which in turn caused it machine to thrash so hard that not even the login process worked)

So Cypress has a new Wireless USB technology. I'm not sure how this relates to the whole batch of current wireless standards operating in 2.4 GHz (which includes Bluetooth, the WiFi family and various other consumer electronics devices), but it's yet another choice in the "getting devices to talk" game.

Likewise, I think that it's really cool that Maxim/Dallas Semiconductor have created an embedded processor with a TCP/IP stack built into it. Granted, Java chips have probably had this kind of thing for a while, but having a single, small chip with an IP stack (called TINI ) is pretty nifty.

I can imagine how the combination of these types of technologies--cheap low-power IP-enabled chips plus cheap low-power wireless communication (the key words being cheap and low-power in both cases, since this stuff exists in all kinds of more expensive/higher-power formats already) could enable some interesting new applications.

One of the nicest projects I saw in Ivrea's student show was Rikako Sakai's Smart Skins for Dumb Objects. Now I see the Smart-Its project.

In a sense, both of these seem to have the same goal of retrofitting intelligence to transition objects between the dumb object world we live in now and a world where many more domestic objects have intelligence, or to move intelligence between dumb objects.

I think that's an excellent approach to exploring the possibilities of these object and a way to introduce them to people's lives. If useful functions for these kinds of symbiotic brain prosthesese (is that a word?) are to be found (oh boy, it's so easy to slip into biological metaphors here and slide into the “cyborg world” discussion, which is a total rat-hole and leads to all kinds of big words and hazy ideas... ;-) and people are to accept them, attaching smarts to familiar objects is certainly the way to go.

I like Sakai's approach a bit better than Smart-Its, based on what little I know about that project. She seems to have started with human needs and is working toward technological solutions, whereas Smart-Its seems to be grounded in the wires and trying to create a technological platform first and then figuring out how to apply it. Yes, there needs to be back-and-forth between understanding the capabilities of the technology and thinking about its applications. However, thanks to the proliferation of wireless devices (specifically WiFi) the potential in small technological units that can talk each other is pretty obvious, so I'm not sure how another hardware platform is really going to change things (though I'm still open to discussing it--clearly a bad choice of hardware will delay the acceptance of the technology), but there is plenty of need for interesting ideas about how to apply this stuff.

Moreover, what I liked about her stuff is that although it's in the same vein as, say Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby, it seems less self-referential and more about people's actual needs, rather than a commentary on the technology.

Anyway, this thought is that I believe that we're at a point where these things are an engineering reality and now the challenge is to make them a human reality.

So I'm going to make this short, and it'll probably more stiff than it needs to be.* I'm starting this blog for several reasons:

1) because everyone has a blog at this point and dammit I don't want to be totally behind the curve
2) because I've had the domain sitting around for years and I should do something with it and, most importantly
3) because I've had a bunch of ideas in the recent past that I'd like to get into a semi-public forum to test them.

And, sure, there are plenty of outlets for getting feedback, but I wanted a forum that I felt was my own.

So I'm planning to treat this as a somewhat edited and more thought-through version of one of my notebooks, which I've kept for years but have neglected to do anything with and which I've never really shared with anyone.

The topics I'm interested in discussing at the moment include:

  • Smart personal technology. The things that surround us which are becoming smarter every day, including the underlying technology that is going to drive this.
  • Smart furniture, because I think that's going to be a huge element in a near-future intelligent environment.
  • The social, economic and political implications of all of these changes.
  • Me, because--hell--it's my blog.

Anyway, that's the manifesto, on to the experiment.

*=Short and stiff, maybe that describes me, though I hope not.




A device studio that lives at the intersections of ubiquitous computing, ambient intelligence, industrial design and materials science.

The Smart Furniture Manifesto

Giant poster, suitable for framing! (300K PDF)
Full text and explanation

Recent Photos (from Flickr)

Smart Things: Ubiquitous Computing User Experience Design

By me!
ISBN: 0123748992
Published in September 2010
Available from Amazon

Observing the User Experience: a practitioner's guide to user research

By me!
ISBN: 1558609237
Published April 2003
Available from Amazon

Recent Comments

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This page is an archive of entries from August 2003 listed from newest to oldest.

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