6 September 2012

Ubicomp’s colonial impulse

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Paul Dourish and Scott Mainwaring, the founders of the Intel funded Social Computing Research Center at UC Irvine, presented yesterday a paper at Ubicomp 2012 with the short but bombshell title “Ubicomp’s Colonial Impulse” (pdf).

The abstract remains quite vague, and doesn’t much insight on what this colonial impulse is all about:

Ubiquitous computing has a grand vision. Even the name of the area identifies its universalizing scope. In this, it follows in a long tradition of projects that attempt to create new models and paradigms that unite disparate, distributed elements into a large conceptual whole. We link concerns in ubiquitous computing into a colonial intellectual tradition and identify the problems that arise in consequence, explore the locatedness of innovation, and discuss strategies for decolonizing ubicomp’s research methodology.

In essence the argument in the paper is centred around the idea of colonialism as a knowledge enterprise, or as I would word it, a global knowledge empire (Dourish is Scottish and has some affinity with one particularly powerful colonial empire).

Then they point out – and here we get to the more explosive subject matter that the title hints at – a series of considerations that undergird both systems of thought [i.e. colonialism and ubiquitous computing):

  • They share the notion that knowledge and the bases of innovation are unevenly distributed in the world, and that their goal is to assist the migration of knowledge from centers of power (be they colonial hubs or research laboratories) to places where it is lacking.
  • They share the related notion that progress in places where information, knowledge, or technology is lacking is something that should be undertaken by the knowledgeable or powerful on behalf of those others who are to be affected or changed by it.
  • They share a belief in universality: that knowledge and representations applied to any particular place or situation can just as easily apply to any other, and that knowledge schemes developed anywhere will work just as well anywhere else. So, for instance, the universal taxonomy of botanical life created at Kew, or the universal accounts of human needs and human activities common to modeling exercises in technology design, are both thought and intended to have power to speak to the details of settings anywhere.
  • They share a commitment to reductive representation and hence to quantification and statistical accounts of the world as a tool for comparison, evaluation, understanding, and prediction.
  • They share the idea that the present in centers of power models in embryo the future of other regions, such that the “developed” world is understood as the destiny of and model for the “developing”, or that the world at large is destined to become “like” the

In what follows, the authors examine these ideas in more depth. They “want to show how ubicomp’s research program, envisioned and portrayed since its founding as a program “for the twenty-first century” [i.e. “future-making”], nonetheless draws on a considerably older legacy. [They] then draw out some consequences of this approach, suggest some strategies for escaping it, and sketch the contours of an alternative approach to ubiquitous computing.”

The article is well argued, a delight to read, and was rightfully selected as one of Ubicomp 2012’s “Best Paper Nominees”. Most interestingly, the criticism is not limited to Ubicomp, but can be – as the authors point out – applied to all knowledge institutions and all tech companies active in Silicon Valley – and they point to Google as a good case in point (even adding also the IMF and the World Bank in their critical drag net).

Therefore their “contours of an alternative approach to ubiquitous computing” provide the outset of an alternative approach to the “Silicon Valley Empire”.

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