One of the most attractive prospects of an ambient informatics is that information itself becomes freely available, at any place and any time. We can almost literally pull facts right out of the air, as and when needed, performing feats of knowledge and recall that people of any other era would rightly have regarded as prodigious.
But we're also likely to trade away some things we already know how to do. As Marshall McLuhan taught us, in his 1964 Understanding Media, "every extension is [also] an amputation." By this he meant that when we rely on technical systems to ameliorate the burdens of everyday life, we invariably allow our organic faculties to atrophy to a corresponding degree.
The faculty in question begins to erode, in a kind of willed surrender. Elevators allow us to live and work hundreds of feet into the air, but we can no longer climb even a few flights without becoming winded. Cars extend the radius of our travels by many times, but it becomes automatic to hop into one if we're planning to travel any further than the corner storeso much so that entire subdivisions are built around such assumptions, and once again we find behavior constrained at the level of architecture.
An example that may be more relevant to our present inquiry concerns phone numbers. Before speed dial, before mobile phones, you committed to memory the numbers of those closest to you. Now such mnemo-technical systems permit us to store these numbers in memoryan extension that, it is undeniable, allows us to retain many more numbers than would otherwise have been the case. But if I ask you your best friend's phone number? Or that of the local pizza place?
This is one danger of coming to rely too heavily, or too intimately, on ubiquitous technology. But unlike literal amputations, which tend to be pretty noticeable, these things only become visible in the default of the technical system in question. The consequences of an overreliance on extensions can clearly be seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in which we saw that New Orleans' evacuation plan was predicated on the automobility of the city's entire population. When the storm revealed that assumption to have been unjustified, to say the least, we saw the stunning force with which a previously obscured amputation can suddenly breach the surface of awareness. McLuhan saw an uneasy, subliminal consciousness of what has been traded away at the root of the "never-explained numbness that each extension brings about in the individual and society."
"Amputation," though, implies that a faculty had at least once existed. But it's also the case that the presence of an ambient informatics might interfere in learning certain skills to begin with. Before I learned to drive, for example, I couldn't have given you any but the vaguest sort of directions. It wasn't until I acquired the fused haptic and cognitive experience of driving from origin to destinationthe memory of making the decision to turn here, in other words, fused to the feeling of turning the wheel to make it so, and the perception of the consequencesthat I laid down a mental map of the world in sufficient detail to permit me to convey that information to anyone else.
Children who grow up using everyware, told always where they are and how to get where they are going, may never acquire the same fluency. Able to rely on paraphernalia like personal location icons, route designators, and turn indicators, whether they will ever learn the rudiments of navigationeither by algorithm or by landmark or by dead reckoningis open to question. Even memorizing street names might prove to be an amusingly antiquated demonstration of pointless skill, like knowing the number of pecks in a bushel.
If a reliance on ubiquitous systems robs us of some of our faculties, it may also cause us to lose faith in the ones that remain. We will find that everyware is subtly normative, even prescriptiveand, again, this will be something that is engineered into it at a deep level.
Take voice-recognition interfaces, for example. Any such system, no matter how sophisticated, will inscribe notions of a nominal voice profile that a speaker must match in order for his or her utterances to be recognized. Spoken commands made around a mouthful of coffeeor with a strong accentmay not be understood. It may turn out that ubiquitous voice recognition has more power to enforce crisp enunciation than any locution teacher ever dreamed of wielding.
This is problematic in two ways. First, of course, is the pragmatic concern that it forces users to focus on tool and not task, and thus violates every principle of an encalming pervasive technology. But more seriously, we probably weren't looking to our household management system for speech lessons. Why should we mold something as intimate, and as constitutive of personality, as the way we speak around some normative profile encoded into the systems around us?
There are still more insidious ways in which we can feel pressured to conform to technically-derived models of behavior. Some of the most unsettling are presented by biometric monitors such as BodyMedia's SenseWear patch.
BodyMedia's aim, as a corporate tagline suggests, is to "collect, process, and present" biometric information, with the strong implication that the information can and will be acted upon. This is, no doubt, a potential boon to millions of the sick, the infirm and the "worried well." But it's also a notion with other reverberations in a society that, at least for the moment, seems hell-bent on holding its members to ever-stricter ideals of form and fitness. For many of us, a product that retrieves biometric data painlessly, coupled to sophisticated visualization software that makes such data not merely visible but readily actionable, is going to be irresistible.
Notice how readily the conversation tends to drift onto technical grounds, though. Simply as a consequence of having the necessary tools available, we've begun to recast the body as a source of data rather than the seat of identity (let alone the soul). The problems therefore become ones of ensuring capture fidelity or interpreting the result, and not, say, how it feels to know that your blood pressure spikes whenever your spouse gets home from work. We forget to ask ourselves whether we feel OK about the way we look; we learn to override the wisdom and perspective that might counsel us that the danger posed by an occasional bacchanal is insignificant. We only notice how far our blood glucose levels have departed from the normative curve over the last 48 hours.
This is not to park such issues at BodyMedia's door alone. The same concerns could of course be raised about all of the systems increasingly deployed throughout our lives. The more deeply these systems infiltrate the decisions we make every day, the more they appear to call on all the powers of insight and inference implied by a relational technology, the less we may come to trust the evidence of our own senses.