Thesis 38


Thesis 38

Everyware is problematic because it is hard to see literally.

Like bio- and nanotechnology, everyware is a contemporary technics whose physical traces can be difficult or even impossible to see with the unaided eye.

It's a minuscule technology. Its material constituents are for the most part sensors, processors, and memory chips of centimeter scale or smaller, connected (where they require physical connections at all) via printed, woven, or otherwise conformal circuitry.

It's a dissembling technology: those constituents are embedded in objects whose outer form may offer no clue as to their functionality.

It's also, of course, a wireless technology, its calls and responses riding through the environment on modulated radio waves.

All of these qualities make everyware quite hard to discern in its particularsespecially as compared to earlier computing paradigms with their obvious outcroppings of High Technology.

We should get used to the idea that there will henceforth be little correlation between the appearance of an artifact and its capabilitiesno obvious indications as to how to invoke basic functionality nor that the artifact is capable of doing anything at all. When even a space that appears entirely empty may in fact containto all intents, may bea powerful information processing system, we can no longer rely on appearances to guide us.


Thesis 39

Everyware is problematic because it is hard to see figuratively.

If its physical constituents are literally too small, too deeply buried, or too intangible to be made out with the eye, there are also other (and potentially still more decisive) ways in which everyware is hard to see clearly.

This quality of imperceptibility is not simply a general property of ubiquitous systems; for the most part, rather, it's something that has deliberately been sought and worked toward. As we've seen, the sleight of hand by which information processing appears to dissolve into everyday behavior is by no means easy to achieve.

There are two sides of this, of course. On the one hand, this is what Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown set out as the goal of their "calm technology": interfaces that do not call undue attention to themselves, interactions that are allowed to remain peripheral. If a Weiserian calm technology appears as the result of a consciously pursued strategy of disappearance, it does so because its designers believed that this was the best way to relieve the stress engendered by more overt and attention-compelling interfaces.

But if they contain enormous potential for good, such disappearances can also conceal what precisely is at issue in a given transaction, who stands to benefit from it and whose interests are at risk. MasterCard, for example, clearly hopes that people will lose track of what is signified by the tap of a PayPass cardthat the action will become automatic and thus fade from perception. In one field test, users of PayPass-enabled devicesin this case, key fobs and cell phonesspent 25 percent more than those using cash. ("Just tap & go," indeed.)

As computing technology becomes less overt and less conspicuous, it gets harder to see that devices are designed, manufactured, and marketed by some specific institution, that network and interface standards are specified by some body, and so on. A laptop is clearly made by Toshiba or Dell or Apple, but what about a situation?

This is the flipside of the seeming inevitability we've considered, the argument against technodeterminism. Despite the attributes that appear to inhere in technologies even at the very moment that they come into being, there is always human agency involvedalways. So if RFID "wants" to be everywhere and part of everything, if IPv6 "wants" to transform everything in the world into a node, we should remember to ask: Who designed them to be that way? Who specified a networking protocol or an address space with these features, and why did they make these decisions and not others?

Historically, its opacity to the nonspecialist has lent technological development an entirely undeserved aura of inevitability, which in turn has tended to obscure questions of agency and accountability. This is only exacerbated in the case of a technology that is also literally bordering on the imperceptible.

Most difficult of all is the case when we cease to think of some tool as being "technology" at allas studies in Japan and Norway indicate is currently true of mobile phones, at least in those places. Under such circumstances, the technology's governing metaphors and assumptions have an easier time infiltrating the other decisions we make about the world. Their effects come to seem more normal, more natural, simply the way things are done, while gestures of refusal become that much harder to make or to justify. And that is something that should give us pause, at the cusp of our embrace of something as insinuative and as hard to see as everyware.