Ubiquitous computing is messy

Ubicomp cup
I missed this article when it came out, but when Intel’s chief anthropologist Genevieve Bell writes (she describes herself as “a cultural anthropologist with a primary concern in information technology as a site of cultural production and the consequences for technology innovation and diffusion”), I pay attention – even a year later.

The article, entitled “Yesterday’s tomorrows: notes on ubiquitous computing’s dominant vision”, was written together with Paul Dourish (professor of informatics and computer science at UC Irvine) and published in April last year.

It starts from the premise that the ubiquitous computing vision is now over a decade old, and argues for a “ubicomp of the present” which draws “on cross-cultural investigations of technology adoption” and “takes the messiness of everyday life as a central theme”.

“Our failure to notice the arrival of ubiquitous computing is rooted (at least in part) in the idea of seamless interoperation and homogeneity. The ubicomp world was meant to be clean and orderly; it turns out instead to be a messy one. Rather than being invisible or unobtrusive, ubicomp devices are highly present, visible, and branded, but perhaps still unremarkable in the sense explored by Tolmie et al. Ubicomp has turned out to be characterized by improvisation and appropriation; by technologies lashed together and maintained in synch only through considerable efforts; by surprising appropriations of technology for purposes never imagined by their inventors and often radically opposed to them; by widely different social, cultural and legislative interpretations of the goals of technology; by flex, slop, and play.”

Download article (pdf, 240 kb, 11 pages)

(via Small Surfaces)


  1. […] (Last year, Bell and Dourish wrote another very good paper together which provided a people-centred critique of the current ubiquitous computing paradigm.) […]

  2. […] presso l’UC Irvine, hanno redatto un articolo nel’aprile 2006 dal titolo “Ieri è domani: note sulla dominante visione dell’ubiquitous computing“. Gli autori sostengono che le premesse all’ubiquitous computing siano ormai datate e […]

  3. […] article builds on the work done by Genevieve Bell and Paul Dourish, and in particular their article Yesterday’s Tomorrows. Like them, Oulasvirta argues that there are two ubicomps: the idealised one presented at […]

  4. […] si basa sul lavoro di Genevieve Bell e Paul Dourish, e in particolare nel loro articolo Yesterday’s Tomorrows. Come loro, Oulasvirta sostiene che ci sono due ubicomp: l’idealizzata presentata alle […]

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