January 30, 2005

Black Box Ubiquity (first draft)

For thirty years most interface design, and most computer design, has been headed down the path of the "dramatic" machine. Its highest ideal is to make a computer so exciting, so wonderful, so interesting, that we never want to be without it. A less-traveled path I call the "invisible"; its highest ideal is to make a computer so imbedded, so fitting, so natural, that we use it without even thinking about it. (I have also called this notion "Ubiquitous Computing", and have placed its origins in post-modernism.) I believe that in the next twenty years the second path will come to dominate.

- Mark Weiser of Xerox PARC, 1994 (emphasis added)

I've always had an uneasy disinterest in the concept of "ubiquitous computing", the idea that computerized electronics should be in the woodwork, working invisibly to serve humanity. A thought that would seem laughable to me if it wasn't so viscerally disturbing. Its a mediated disturbance, cut quickly away by an inability for me to quite conceptualize how the chunky frailty of today's electronics can translate into "invisible" machines that actually keep working. But the fact is that batteries are slowly improving, components shrinking, and there might actually be people fighting against the seemingly planned obsolescence of so many electronics and trying to make genuinely tough electronics. And I'd rather not laugh at something that might just be laughing back at me, so I'm going to take ubiquitous computing seriously for a bit.

The literature of ubiquitous computing is filled with allusions to "enhancing people's lives", empowering humans and the like. Funnily enough though if one browses the websites of Ubicomp conferences, where most of the action in the field seems to take place, what do you see? From year one corporate logos grace the splash page, and indeed other then bad design they seem to be the most ubiquitous element to the sites. (I must say I rather like the design of the 2005 site) If you can find a human face at all, you'll likely be three levels in already. All this of course begs the question: "just who does ubiquitous computing empower?"

While ubiquitous computing certainly has the potential to empower people, and in certain situations I'm sure it will, ultimately the main empowerment is to those who make the technology. The move towards an invisible technology is another step in the long process of "black boxing" technology, the process striation, the process of building walls around technology that separate the creators and controllers from the rest of the world. There is nothing new about this process, from the medieval church cloistering away its books to telegraph operators chatting amongst themselves while the rest of the world waited for the newspapers to get printed, there are a multitude of examples, some benign, others not.

In contemporary computer culture black boxing is deeply encoded throughout many layers. Think of a corporate office. Physically servers are locked inside rooms, while the technicians in charge of them run small fiefdoms that tend to be unwelcome to outsiders. The computers are a territory open only to those that understand. The technicians will venture out, installing and fixing computers, but few ever are invited in to their all too frequently windowless offices. What good would it do, they wouldn't know what to do with the technology anyway. The same process repeats inside the tech itself, a systems administrator often has full access, if they can't see everyone's files at least they can delete them. They control what sort of data passes into and out of the network and where. Sites can be blocked, ports turned off, words sensored, emails amended. The computer systems are their locus of control and they keep it that way. Their power might be modulated by the accountants, influenced by marketing and sales and manipulated by anyone with enough social skills, but ultimately they run the computers and thus stay empowered.

Perhaps more interesting is the way black boxing works on the layer of the computer itself. There a tension emerges in the workings of a black box. Power is never removed as an issue, but here it begins to flow in multiple directions. The operating system is a black box that hides the inner workings of the machine but at the same time empowers people to use a device they never would have before. Usability and design come into play. The graphical user interface might hide the operating system from the users, but it also enables users. It is important to note that the act of obscuring the inner workings and the act of increasing usability are not necessarily rigidly linked, they are the actions of two independent but interlinked and interacting forces. At least in theory there is no reason one can not simultaneously make a computer both easy to use and technologically transparent. However in practice it seems that increased usability tends to go hand in hand with an increase of opaqueness or hiding of the lower level workings.

It is tempting to look at ubiquitous computing as a similar trade off, the technology gets hidden, made invisible, made harder for the outside to enter and learn, but at the same time becomes radically easier to use, to the point where its so usable its unnoticeable. And there may well times when its true, but (and I can not stress this enough, this is a very dangerous construction and thus should be avoided if at all possible. For one thing it is inaccurate, since the act of hiding and the act of increasing usability are the products of two separate, but often interacting, forces one can not just assume you get one with the other. More importantly though this thinking, of pushing towards "invisible" computing in exchange for "calm" or usability is something of a trojan horse. If technology actually succeeds in becoming invisible it essentially becomes beyond social control and power shifts radically towards those that control the tech.

The layer of critique that does exist in the ubiquitous computing space tends to focus on surveillance, the ability of invisible tech to watch over us. This is of course a very real threat, but it is also in many ways a red herring. While surveillance might be disturbing it is also in many ways benign, it is an abstracted danger, one that only can affect us when actualized by being transformed into a physical action by something reacting to the surveillance. Invisible computing is ideal for surveillance, but also has the potential to be far more dangerous on a very real and physical level. Like many technologies ubiquitous computing is capable of murder. And not just any murder but invisible murder.

The "dramatic" computing that Weiser talks about in the opening quote is constantly calling attention to itself. And as such it's constantly integrating itself into society. No matter how loud or obnoxious it might be it is socially regulated. When computing reaches ubiquity, by definition it leaves the social space. It can only be accessed through abstract knowledge, if it is invisible, if its not calling attention to itself, then we can't know its there through our physical senses but only through our knowledge. And if our knowledge is regulated somehow, we lose our ability to engage the technology on a social level. And just how are we supposed to obtain knowledge of all the invisible things around us? The process shifts power dramatically, towards those who can regulate our knowledge of invisible, and perhaps more importantly to those who can access these invisible objects.

As long as the objects remain benign as the push towards ubiquity pushes onward, it becomes difficult modulate the threats with the potential of the technology. In this regard the human centric push of ubiquitous computing proponents is the ultimate trojan horse. They sell us something to enhance human experience, but in the process push technology to the point where we can't even see it operate. And if it gets there, then what?

note: I somehow never quite referenced her in the piece but Anne Galloway deserves a special shout out here as she's been looking critically at ubiquitous computing for quite a while, and with far more subtlety and rigor then you'll find in the above piece.

Posted by Abe at January 30, 2005 01:45 AM


Mobile phones also fit into this picture. Because they are usually locked by the service provider, who controls not only your use of the device on the phone network, but also what software you can install, how much you can hack it, etc. This becomes an increasing problem as more and more stuff from other devices migrates to the mobile phone (phonecams, phones as PDAs, phones playing mp3s, etc).

yep most certainly, although its worth noting that some providers and headset maker are better then others, and there is a degree of open sourcing around the Symbian phone operation system. Of course there is plenty of black boxing involved in programming languages and environments too. "Open Source" is really only open to those who can make it through the obstacles and hazing of learning the development environment.

There is a rough analogy to be found here with Foucault/Deleuze's discipline and control societies. The former proscribes an inverted panopticon, the literal sealed black box that is physically hidden and locked from the user ala many cell phones or Microsoft OS's. Something like Linux has more of a control based black box. Theoretically it is open, but in reality one must navigate so many knowledge gates and check points that most people never make it inside. Black boxing through the obscuring of information..

It is hard to find funding for "uninteresting computing," though that would more accurately describe the goals set out in the original ubicomp projects: to reduce the physical burden of mobile information technologies while lowering the labor of application and integration below the threshold of direct attention.

It is not clear that all uninteresting technologies are important in terms of affecting our culture negatively as a result of their lack of consideration. Given that we cannot consider everything, why is computation more worthy of attention than plumbing, crop rotation, or any of the other technologies which have become invisible?

fantastic writing, the entry is great!

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Is it possible for me to make request about how to get on the blackbox of my computer Im a little bit of a computer dummy so any advice might be of help thankyou for your time