Latent data pops to the surface in everyware as a result of new conventions, every bit as much as of new systems. These are ways of thinking about the world that follow in the wake of the mass adoption of information technology, as natural afterward as they would have seemed alien beforehand.
For example, designers Ulla-Maaria Mutanen and Jyri Engeström, working with economics student Adam Wern, have proposed something they call a "free product identifier." Their ThingLinks offer an equivalent of the familiar UPC or ISBN codes, specifically designed for the "invisible tail" of short-run, amateur, or folk productions previously denied a place in the grand electronic souk of late capitalism. Anyone, at no charge, can generate a code, associate it with an object, and fill out some basic information relating to it, and forever after that object can be looked up via the neteither the one we enjoy now, or whatever ubiquitous variant comes afterward.[*]
On the one hand, this is a truly utopian gesture. As a manifestation of the emerging culture of mass amateurization, such open codes would allow small-scale producersfrom West Berkeley sculptors to Bangladeshi weaving collectivesto compete on something approaching the same ground as professional manufacturers and distributors.
At the same time, though, and despite its designers' clear intentions, a free product identifier could be regarded as a harbinger of the insidious transformation of just about everything into machine-readable information.
Such an identifier is not a technical system in the usual sense. It is intangible, nonmaterial. It's nothing more than a convention: a format and perhaps some protocols for handling information expressed in that format. But its shape and conception are strongly conditioned by the existence of parallel conventionsconventions that are embodied in specific technologies. The whole notion of a Uniform Resource Identifier, for example, which was called into being by the Internet, or a Universal Product Code, which cannot be separated from the technics of bar-coding and its descendent, RFID.
And though such conventions may be intangible, they nevertheless have power, in our minds and in the world. The existence of a machine-readable format for object identification, particularly, is a container waiting to be filled, and our awareness that such a thing exists will transform the way we understand the situations around us. Because once we've internalized the notion, any object that might once have had an independent existenceunobserved by anyone outside its immediate physical vicinity, unrecorded and certainly uncorrelatedcan be captured and recast as a node.
Once again, we see latent facts about the world brought to the surface and made available to our networked mnemotechnical systemsthis time, through the existence of a convention, rather than a type or particular deployment of technology. Ubiquitous, then, does turn out to mean exactly that.