Review of Divining a Digital Future

Divining a Digital Future: Mess and Mythology in Ubiquitous Computing by Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell is a thoughtful reflection on the aims and conventions of a particular research field as well as its limitations and blindspots.  On a hopeful note it suggests how this field of computing research could become something more expansive as well as more grounded in human experience. Ubiquitous computing (or ubicomp) in its original vision advocated for the design of embedded and context-sensitive computing systems and environments. Work in this field saw the future of computing as a move toward the seamless integration of computing capabilities into environments in a way that is invisible or intuitive to human inhabitants.

This book turns the critical eye back onto the field itself in an effort at researcher reflexivity, something that is highly unusual for a field of computing research. The critical eye focuses especially on the efforts by ubicomp researchers to assert what it is that we will find in the ‘proximate future.’ This book points to the narrowness of scope in the idea and design space of ubicomp as tied to its often implicit assumptions about human behavior and practice and desirable ways of living and working. By situating itself with reference to a “proximate future” the field of ubicomp refers always to a not-yet-realized future removing responsibility for delivering on such a vision. This book points out, alternately, that some version of ubicomp has already arrived and sets about considering how the ubicomp present looks different than what was envisioned 10-20 years back. In fact, the ubicomp present is multiple in a global context. The authors offer alternate visions and realities of ubicomp in Singapore and Korea as examples.  The approach of the book is a useful counterpoint to the evergrowing genre of books that offer futurist accounts of technology.  A most specific case in point in the ubicomp domain is Greenfield’s Everywhere: the dawning age of ubiquitous computing.

Part I of Divining a Digital Future considers the original vision of ubicomp (of invisible, seamless computing embedded in the environment) and how it has evolved and changed.  In chapter 2, the authors offer some conceptual and disciplinary ground work in preparation for the social critique of the discipline that is carried out through the substantive chapters of the book. This chapter asks, how might we think about culture? What distinction is there to draw between the ‘social’ and the ‘cultural’?  In that chapter, I found the distinction between taxonomic and generative notions of culture to be helpful and aptly explained to the intended mixed-disciplinary audience of readers.  Yet, there’s certainly a lot more to say about ‘culture’ and how various conceptions might be related to design work. Hofstede’s work on culture (labeled taxonomic here) warrants a much sharper critique than Dourish and Bell offer. Furthermore, on definitions of culture, an additional matter not addressed in this section is the difficulty of reconciling the apparent turn towards immateriality (or maybe material agnosticism) in theorizing about culture (ala Geertz and his symbolic anthropology) with the especially and self-consciously material work of design. The final chapter of this section on ethnography, recaps much of what Dourish argued in his famous CHI conference paper on, “Implications for Design.”

At any rate, the ordering and scene-setting accomplished by part I (through the review of ubicomp as a field and research endeavor, review of relevant social scientific concepts, discussion of methodology) covered enormous ground without oversimplifying much of anything which is a major accomplishment. The book on the whole is a remarkably slim text given the ground it covers.

Part II handles several special topics – infrastructure, mobility and urbanism, privacy, and domesticity.  This is a diverse selection covering some of popular areas in ubicomp research. Characteristic of the book, each chapter offers wholly unexpected examples (space and morality among the Western Apache, paroled sex offenders and secrecy, the shed in relation to the home in Australia) that challenge the normative approach in handling these topics. It accomplishes this through its global range of cases that often delve into and draw from the canons of mainstream (and not-so-mainstream) anthropological research.  To give one example, pointing to the incredible diversity of homes worldwide –in terms of their layouts, functions, practices of inhabiting and ways of relating to connected spaces – the authors highlight the assumptions in the standard template for the home in ubicomp contexts.  Such a home is, as the authors point out, “unrealistically large, frequently freestanding, connected to the rest of the world only for the provisioning of services, and newly constructed—without legacy hardware, infrastructure or quirks…”  In the other essays of part II, the way institutional relations and forms of power become crystallized in the infrastructures ubicomp apps rely on and more broadly matters of regulation are brought forward.  This is not a separate matter of politics (as apart from computing) but emphasizes the way that computing is either purposefully or inadvertently political.

These essays are fabulous as independent readings and I expect they will be used in this way.  A question left unanswered though is from what fringes we might discover (or construct) whole new directions in ubicomp?  Beyond these widely recognized ubicomp topics, how do we find ways to stumble into the fresh soil of potential new research areas for ubicomp?  Perhaps this is a question to be taken up by other researchers as an extension of this book’s argument.

Part III offers a kind of framework as a conclusion to the book’s major points. Specifically some broader “concerns” are presented: legibility, literacy, and legitimacy. These three areas are explored in relation to rich and diverse literatures – Massey’s power-geometry and James Scott’s consideration of competing legibilities, Walter Ong on oral and written cultures, Marilyn Strathern on ‘audit cultures’ and Daniel Miller’s writing on virtualism – but in keeping with the books expansive openness, the concluding discussion doesn’t tie things up neatly. Wisely, the authors reassert the importance of bringing the discussion up to an analytical level so that it is not limited to the specific functions and features (and limitations) of present day computing devices or systems. In the end, they do offer a few concrete references to areas of work that appear likely to shape ubicomp future –  “cloud computing,” the participatory design movement (due for a renewed consideration of relevance), and practices that deal with the “digital afterlife” of technologies including their secondhand circulation. The authors also suggest the possibility and desirability of moving towards hybrid practices that bring “social science and ubicomp design practice” together into new forms of “social and cultural investigation.”

It will be extremely interesting to see how this idiosyncratic work is taken up by researchers and in what disciplines or areas of research practice.  Luckily with Google Scholar we can track the gradually accumulating citations.  My hope is that this book will inspire other efforts at reflexivity in computing research.

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3 Comments on “Review of Divining a Digital Future”

  1. October 12, 2011 at 10:55 pm #

    “reconciling the apparent turn towards immateriality (or maybe material agnosticism) in theorizing about culture (ala Geertz and his symbolic anthropology) with the especially and self-consciously material work of design”

    Any suggested reading on this? Is interesting…

  2. jennaburrell
    October 12, 2011 at 11:05 pm #

    Not yet, but I have plans to write something on it….some day. In the meantime I have a growing bibliography of writing on “materiality” a topic that is well on its way to becoming a hot trend in scholarship – http://people.ischool.berkeley.edu/~jenna/materiality_bib_complete.htm.

  3. October 16, 2011 at 9:29 pm #

    Those are wonderful, thank you.

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