Although aspects of this vision have been called a variety of names—ubiquitous computing, pervasive computing, physical computing, tangible media, and so on—I think of each as a facet of one coherent paradigm of interaction that I call everyware. In everyware, all the information we now look to our phones or Web browsers to provide becomes accessible from just about anywhere, at any time, and is delivered in a manner appropriate to our location and context. In everyware, the garment, the room and the street become sites of processing and mediation. Household objects from shower stalls to coffee pots are reimagined as places where facts about the world can be gathered, considered, and acted upon. And all the familiar rituals of daily life, things as fundamental as the way we wake up in the morning, get to work, or shop for our groceries, are remade as an intricate dance of information about ourselves, the state of the external world, and the options available to us at any given moment. In all of these scenarios, there are powerful informatics underlying the apparent simplicity of the experience, but they never breach the surface of awareness: things Just Work.
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Although aspects of this vision have been called a variety of names—ubiquitous computing, pervasive computing, physical computing, tangible media, and so on—I think of each as a facet of one coherent paradigm of interaction that I call everyware. In everyware, all the information we now look to our phones or Web browsers to provide becomes accessible from just about anywhere, at any time, and is delivered in a manner appropriate to our location and context.
In everyware, the garment, the room and the street become sites of processing and mediation. Household objects from shower stalls to coffee pots are reimagined as places where facts about the world can be gathered, considered, and acted upon. And all the familiar rituals of daily life, things as fundamental as the way we wake up in the morning, get to work, or shop for our groceries, are remade as an intricate dance of information about ourselves, the state of the external world, and the options available to us at any given moment.
In all of these scenarios, there are powerful informatics underlying the apparent simplicity of the experience, but they never breach the surface of awareness: things Just Work.
Rather than being filtered through the clumsy arcana of applications and files and sites, interactions with everyware feel natural, spontaneous, human. Ordinary people finally get to benefit from the full power of information technology, without having to absorb the esoteric bodies of knowledge on which it depends. And the sensation of use—even while managing an unceasing and torrential flow of data—is one of calm, of relaxed mastery.
This, anyway, is the promise. Who could object to one that dispensed with the clutter of computers and other digital devices we live with, even while doing all the things they do better? The vision is, without doubt, a lovely one: deeply humane, even compassionate. But getting from here to there may prove unexpectedly difficult. Everyday life, after all, is something that we already understand and already manage to muddle through, however gracelessly or inelegantly.
We will have to balance whatever improvement we hope to achieve by overlaying our lives with digital mediation against the risk of unduly complicating that which is presently straightforward, breaking that which now works, and introducing new levels of frustration and inconvenience into all the most basic operations of our lives. We will have to account for what happens when such mediation breaks down—as it surely will from time to time, given its origins in the same institutions, and the same development methodologies, that brought us unreliable mobile phone connections, mandatory annual operating system upgrades, and the Blue Screen of Death.
We will have to accept that privacy as we have heretofore understood it may be a thing of the past: that people will be presented with a bargain where access to the most intimate details of their lives is traded away in return for increased convenience, and that many will accept.
And we will have to reckon with the emergent aspects of our encounter with everyware, with all the ways in which its impact turns out to be something unforeseeably more than the sum of its parts. What we can already see is this: everyware will surface and make explicit facts about our world that perhaps we would be happier ignoring.
In countless ways, it will disturb unwritten agreements about workspace and homespace, the presentation of self and the right to privacy.
A close reading of the existing literature on ubiquitous and pervasive systems is all that is necessary to feel the dissonance, trip over the odd dislocations that crop up whenever we follow old maps into a new territory.
We become acutely aware of our need for a more sensitive description of the terrain. It is coming because there are too many too powerful institutions vested in its coming, knowing what enormous market possibilities are implied by the conquest of the everyday. It is coming—and as yet, the people who will be most affected by it, the overwhelming majority of whom are nontechnical, nonspecialist, ordinary citizens of the developed world, barely know it even exists.
This is not due to any inherent obscurity or lack of interest in the broader field; to date, there have been some seven annual Ubicomp conferences, three Pervasives, and a wide scatter of smaller but otherwise similar colloquia. These are established events, in academic terms: well-attended, underwritten by companies such as Intel, Sony, Nokia and Samsung.
There are at least three peer-reviewed professional journals exclusively dedicated to ubiquitous or pervasive computing. There has been no dearth of discussion of everyware…but little of this discussion, and virtually none that might offer enough information on which to build meaningful choices, has reached the mainstream. The challenge before us now is to begin thinking about just how we can mold that emergence to suit our older prerogatives of personal agency, civil liberty and simple sanity.
My intention in Everyware is simply to describe what ubiquitous computing is; establish that it is a very real concern for all of us, and in the relatively near term; explore some of the less-obvious implications of its spread as a paradigm; and finally develop some ideas about how we might improve it. How can we deliver the promise of everyware—the part about calm and relaxed mastery, the part that proposes to replace our balky computers with the effortless simplicity of the everyday—while forestalling some of the pitfalls that are already apparent?
How can we, as users and consumers, hope to influence something that is already in the process of unfolding? The pages to come will frame an answer to these questions. If we make wise choices about the terms on which we accept it, we can extend the utility and convenience of ubiquitous computing to billions of lives. We stand a real chance of improving the experience of the everyday, addressing dissatisfactions as old as human history.
Alternately, we can watch passively as the world fills up with ubiquitous systems not designed with our interests at heart — at best presenting us with moments of hassle, disruption and frustration beyond number, and at worst laying the groundwork for the kind of repression the despots of the twentieth century could only dream about. The stakes, this time, are unusually high. A mobile phone is something that can be switched off, or left at home. A computer is something that can be shut down, unplugged, walked away from.
There should be little doubt that its advent will profoundly shape both the world and our experience of it in the years ahead. As to whether we come to regard that advent as boon, burden or blunder, that is very much up to us, and the decisions we make now.
Want to read more? We trained our users to expect things for free. How do we get back to a democratized web? Canary in a Coal Mine: How Tech Provides Platforms for Hate Like a mine can fill up with toxic gasses, technology can become a toxic platform for hate. As the people building the web, we have an ethical responsibility for how these products are used—whether we intended it or not. About the Author Adam Greenfield Adam Greenfield is a writer, user experience consultant, and critical futurist.
He works with clients via his design consultancy, Studies and Observations. More from this author.
Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing
Excavating the meshwork Back around the turn of the millennium, one of the brightest lights in my own personal intellectual firmament was the philosopher Manuel De Landa. Briefly, for De Landa, hierarchies — which, rather unsurprisingly, he associated with Deleuzian trees and strata — ordered homogeneous elements in a command-and-control relation structured and imposed from the top, while meshworks, which he associated with the then-inescapable figure of the rhizome, connected unlike things in a distributed structure that could be articulated and therefore do work in the world without suppressing their difference. But perhaps the most useful aspect of it is the insight that a meshwork is not the same thing as a network. At the time I first encountered De Landa, the figure of the network was still relatively novel, at least as a tool for thinking. The Californian ideology that has since become hegemonic was in its early ascendancy, and topological determinism was thick on the ground; it was an article of faith among initiates of this new way of thinking that restructuring the power relations of our lives along networked lines would lead to unprecedented, liberatory transformations in the ways information, knowledge and culture were produced.
Inkwell: Authors and Artists
Adam has spoken frequently on issues of design, culture, technology and user experience before a wide variety of audiences. Leading the conversation with Adam is former Inkwell host Jon Lebkowsky. His current consulting practice focuses on web usability and strategy and effective use of online social technologies. He is also a strong proponent of universal broadband access to computer networks.