Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Mon 17 Apr 06 13:38
Joining us today is Adam Greenfield, author of "Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing."
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Mon 17 Apr 06 13:38
Adam Greenfield is an internationally-recognized information architect, user experience consultant and critical futurist. He's worked for clients ranging from global concerns like Toyota, Capgemini, and Sony to local nonprofits. He's also been a rock critic for SPIN Magazine, a medic at the Berkeley Free Clinic, a coffeehouse owner in West Philadelphia, and a PSYOP sergeant in the US Army's Special Operations Command. Adam has spoken frequently on issues of design, culture, technology and user experience before a wide variety of audiences. He lives and works with his wife, artist Nurri Kim, in New York City. Leading the conversation with Adam is former Inkwell host Jon Lebkowsky. Jon is Senior Consultant and CEO at Polycot Consulting, L.L.C., an innovative team of Internet technology experts with broad experience creating and managing information systems for businesses and nonprofit organizations. 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. Welcome, Adam and Jon!
Adam Greenfield (adamgreenfield) Mon 17 Apr 06 14:22
Thanks for that kind introduction, Cynthia. I'm delighted to be here on the legendary Well! I'm sure Jon has some piquant questions for me on the subject of everyware (and "Everyware"), and of course I can't want to see what your responses, reactions, and insights will be. I can't imagine a better forum for this particular topic, so I'm really looking forward to seeing what comes of this discussion.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 17 Apr 06 15:36
I should mention that Adam and I had a brief interview while he was in Austin for SXSW Interactive, which is available at WorldChanging.com: http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/004298.html I'm sure some of our discussion here will be similar to that interview, but we'll have more time to talk, and will be opening the interview to others. Adam, your interest in ubiquitous computing comes from a user experience perspective. What were you seeing or hearing that led you to believe that user experience issues might not be addressed very well by developers of pervasive or ubiquitous systems?
Adam Greenfield (adamgreenfield) Mon 17 Apr 06 17:35
Well, first I want to make sure that everyone knows what we're talking about when we say "ubiquitous systems," OK? Because one of the things I learned when I first set out to do the research for "Everyware" was that there are a whole lot of "ubiquitous computings" floating around out there, and some fairly wide divergence in the way people understand these terms. My sense of it comes from the work of a guy named Mark Weiser, who was Chief Technologist at Xerox PARC in Palo Alto at the time of his untimely passing, in 1999. Mark had a very clear understanding that the personal computer as we know it was not the final stage in the evolution of information technology - that, as a matter of fact, it was something like a transitional state between the early mainframes and something entirely new, which he set out to define. He saw, among other things, that Moore's Law was pointing to a situation in the not too terribly distant future where there would be many processing devices serving each human user, where these devices would largely be embedded in the objects and surfaces of everyday life, and where information processing would be "invisible, but in the woodwork everywhere." He called this state of affairs "ubiquitous computing," or "ubicomp." Well, as it turns out, there were quite a few people in the world who had similar ideas regarding where computing was headed - and depending on which aspect of this vision loomed foremost in their minds, they called it "pervasive computing," or "tangible media," or "ambient intelligence." Despite differing emphases, though, what they call had in common was this central idea: that many of the transactions we undertake in the course of ordinary life - making a pot of coffee in the morning, say, or choosing an outfit for the day, or finding a parking spot - were about to be reconceived as transactions with information-processing systems. And - to get back to your question, now - it was this that really triggered my concern. Because here we had the prospect of these moments, scattered through our days, when we'd be asked to interact with technical systems when we weren't, after all, setting out to do anything particularly technical. And what was worse, if our experiences with PCs and mobile phones and so on are any guide, we would be "improving" everyday life by overlaying it with something that isn't particularly humane or even very reliable. And that, I've got to tell you, struck me as being a thoroughly unacceptable state of affairs.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 17 Apr 06 19:09
Why did you feel that this technology wouldn't be humane or reliable?
Adam Greenfield (adamgreenfield) Mon 17 Apr 06 19:33
Experience, mostly. The kind of experience anyone who's more than cursorily involved with information technology shares: crashing computers, applications that lock up for no apparent reason at all, mobile phones that drop conversations at the most inopportune moment, iPods whose batteries fail five minutes into an hourlong commute... And that's not even considering the amount of time and effort we put into learning relatively arcane commands, or setting and re-setting preferences, or adapting to the various discomforts imposed on us by unwieldy user interfaces (like mobile-phone keypads). Nor does it account for the time we spend undoing the damage done by "helpful" systems, when they wrest control away from us and (e.g.) reformat something we're typing in a word processor. This sort of thing is bad enough in a clearly technical context, where at least we're more or less inured to it. As sorry a state as this is, we've come to expect it. In some sense, we know what we're getting into when we engage artifacts that we clearly understand as outcroppings of information technology. But how about when this standard of pleasure in use is applied to all those interactions that go to make up a normal day? Do you want to configure your toothbrush, or reboot your sweater, or hunt around for the command that will allow your tabletop to "discover" the water pitcher? I sure don't...but that is what I see happening in everyware, unless people start making the kind of noise that would indicate to designers and manufacturers and marketers that this simply will not be acceptable to them.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 18 Apr 06 05:56
You attended some conferences where technologists were discussing the ubicomp future - do any of them express concern about usability or user experience issues? Or about network overhead, potential crashes, etc?
Adam Greenfield (adamgreenfield) Tue 18 Apr 06 06:51
Crashes, defaults, downtime...sure. As far as I can tell, the people designing ubicomp have always had an acute sense of how fragile it is, how larger systems need to be orchestrated such that they're "robust to the failure of individual interactors." The same goes for scalability issues; I don't think there are that many who'd mistake a proof-of-concept system for something that would be able to hold its own out in the real world. But I'm not sure how many people in academic ubicomp have really marinated themselves in a consideration of the experiential and affective dimensions of system failure. I'm not sure to what degree people have ever simply sat and imagined what it will feel like when systems like these surround us...and break down, as technical systems often do. They may have thought about the specific system at hand, but as a gestalt? I haven't heard that many people raising the issue. With regard to usability, I hope things are changing - and to be fair, it's been a few years, and there have been some encouraging signs - but when I asked questions about the usability of ubiquitous systems back at Ubicomp02, I got a lot of blank stares. I had described the usability of many Web sites as "atrocious," and gotten some really quizzical responses. One of the more prominent figures in ubicomp took issue with that characterization, pointing out that one could (nominally) do things on the Web in 2002 that were effectively impossible to achieve for any amount of love or money in 1992. Which is undoubtedly true - but is to mistake utility for usability. I have little doubt that expert users will be able to do thing with ubiquitous systems that are indeed all but "indistinguishable from magic." This is not at all the same thing as saying that ubicomp is currently being designed so that it's acceptably usable for most people at most times. But like I said, that was four years ago, and one upside to the fact that these systems are much closer to appearing in our lives is that the discourse of usability has begun to sneak in around the edges - as a business necessity, if nothing else.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 18 Apr 06 08:45
It would be useful if you could talk a bit about good vs bad usability at this point, to give more context to our discussion. What are some familiar examples of good vs bad usability? And some potential examples from the future world of ubiquitous computing?
Adam Greenfield (adamgreenfield) Tue 18 Apr 06 10:30
There's a couple of ways I could answer that. I could, for example, talk about some recognized, more-or-less canonical examples of good usability in information-processing products and services. And then we could spend some time talking about how hard it will be to design everyware so that it meets that definition of the usable. But I'm not gonna do that, because to my mind that's not actually the relevant standard. Given that everyware is, by definition, information processing embedded in the objects and surfaces and contexts of everyday life, I think we need to have much, much higher expectations of it if it is not to drive all of us completely out of our minds with frustration and rage. The standard I have in mind for usability is something like a chair. It's just *there*, right? Nobody ever had to tell you how to use it. You can move it from one room, or context, to another, and it works just the same there as it did before. It never crashes, it never needs to be rebooted, it can be enjoyed by anyone from toddlers on up, and - short of a catastrophic structural failure - will afford its users both functionality and pleasure for many, many years. To me, that's what we should be aspiring to when we dare to propose remaking everyday life in the image of IT. Anything less than that...well, I, at least, have a very easy time imagining how unpleasant it's likely to be.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 18 Apr 06 14:49
Are you thinking along the lines of Mark Weiser and Jon Seely Brown, when they talk about "calm technology"?
Adam Greenfield (adamgreenfield) Tue 18 Apr 06 21:35
Yeah, in a way, I am. Their line in that paper - "The Coming Age of Calm Technology" - was that we were going to have to design ubiquitous systems so that they'd "encalm as well as inform," because otherwise they'd drive us to distraction. And they offered a few insights into how one might go about designing such a thing - strategies that had a lot to do with moving information from the center of our attention to what they called "the periphery." To my way of thinking, though, the trouble with "Calm Technology" is that it sort of vests all of its trust in the development community. It implies that developers will be able to exert decisive control over the final shape of the systems they bring into being, almost all of the time, and that that final shape will be informed primarily by the needs and preferences of the end user. That benevolent developers, looking forward, will see the pitfalls awaiting their users, and plan accordingly. Well, we know from experience that this just isn't likely to be the case. In fact, there are all kinds of pressures operating in the business of technology development that tend to make it rather unlikely. So while I applaud this first tentative recognition in the literature that, hey, this ubicomp stuff might turn out to be sort of a Faustian bargain, I'm kind of frustrated by it, too. With the kind of experience and credentials they could call on, Weiser and Brown could have gone so much further in terms of suggesting what it might mean to "encalm as well as inform," and how a development organization would go about responding to a challenge like that. Simply pointing out that it would be a good idea if our ubiquitous technology encalmed its users instead of frustrating and overwhelming them doesn't strike me as being quite enough, somehow.
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Wed 19 Apr 06 12:19
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Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 19 Apr 06 12:24
What would you suggest as an alternative - collaboration between developers and other professionals who are focused on user experience? Or should engineers have user experience incorporated into their educations? All of the above?
Adam Greenfield (adamgreenfield) Wed 19 Apr 06 13:19
I think - speaking from my own experience of developing enterprise-scale Web sites for clients like Sony and Toyota and Capgemini - that the practice of IT development is about as close as you can get to "broken" and still ship product. So when you ask me to suggest alternatives...well, that's just opening up the proverbial can of worms. I wouldn't even begin to know where to start. OK, I lie. I don't want to get too deeply into the ins and outs of business process design and so on, because it's really another discussion (and a lengthy one, at that), but let me toss out a couple of ideas: I don't think it's reasonable to expect engineers to be user-experience experts, any more than it's fair to expect marketing people to be able to crank out code. We each have our skillsets, our affinities, and our professional responsibilities, and I think that (given the complexity of the artifacts we produce) this kind of specialization is here to stay. So the organization as an organic whole is going to have to get better at incorporating user-experience perspectives into its process. Too often I've seen UX included in a project only as a quick, hygienic step at the last minute, once all the real structural and design decisions have been set in stone. This fails on two counts: it's effectively too late in the day to make any more than cosmetic changes to the thing we're building, but still more frustratingly, it's just about the least cost-effective use of the UX mindset available. I can't tell you how many times I've seen a Web site or a mobile service built that looks beautiful, works perfectly...and is of absolutely no use to any real user, and is in fact never widely adopted, and is thereafter left to die a quiet death. After, y'know, hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars have been spent. Whereas, if you had done some contextual inquiry and user testing up front, you might have figured out ahead of time that your product or service was an answer to a question nobody's asking. And this is why I argue that user experience considerations - and allied pursuits, like user ethnographic studies - should be pushed much earlier in the development process, into the requirements-gathering or discovery phase of a project. If this is true in the relatively circumscribed context of a Web site, it's ten times as true of something as insinuative as everyware, where we really are going to have to deal with the consequences in the personal and domestic sphere, on *our* time.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 19 Apr 06 22:39
In the book you talk about "ambient informatics" as "a state in which information is freely available at the point in space and time someone requires it, generally to support a specific decision." Are there current real-world examples of "ambient" applications?
Adam Greenfield (adamgreenfield) Thu 20 Apr 06 10:01
Sure: the Ambient Orb, from a company called Ambient Devices, and the Nabaztag - a WiFi-enabled "smart object" that looks like a cartoon bunny - are both products that you can buy right now. You set them up, and they'll take in complex information about the state of the world, and present it to you in this very gentle, classically "encalming" way. But the Orb and the Nabaztag both strike me as being kind of twee and "futuristic," the kind of thing that only a relatively small number of self-consciously early adopters will ever pick up on. And at any rate, they only fulfill half of what I think of as ambient informatics, in that they're constrained by being present only in the place where you set them up. They're ambient, in other words, but not *circumambient*. So I think we can get a much better idea of what's headed our way in this regard from something I first saw on top of a cab here in New York a little over a year ago: an LED signboard that told you where the advertiser's nearest ATM was, no matter where the cab happened to be. The ad would presumably pull the cab's present location from GPS, cross-reference that location against a database of the bank's branches, and serve it up usefully and unobtrusively - so that, if you happened to be standing at 36th and Madison as the cab passed you, it would be advertising an ATM at the corner of 37th and Fifth, a block over. That's a *much* better example of what I think of as ambient informatics, in several regards: it's out in the world, it's providing a specific piece of actionable information, and the technical infrastructure behind what is, after all, a relatively complicated transaction is almost entirely invisible to the user. And it's out there right now, just sort of unglamorously working, not hip or notable enough in and of itself to be on the cover of Wired...and that, my friend, is what the everyware future *really* looks like! But I want to open things up a little bit here, because, as you know, my interest isn't really in technology at all, but in how people pick it up and make use of it, and how it thereafter shapes our choices in the world. My point in defining ambient informatics isn't to then think about, well, how can we make this happen; it's to start to wonder about what happens to the shape of a city, or our idea of what a city is, or our distinctions between public and private, in a world that has ambient informatics in it. To me, that's a much more engaging - an endlessly engaging - question.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 20 Apr 06 17:44
Anyone who's seen "Minority Report" has a sense of that sort of thing - the holo ads that are in your face as you move through parts of the city. But I'm interested (and I know you are, too) in the ubiquitous technology that you *don't* see, and the extent to which you don't see it. How does our relationship to the technology change when it's hidden from view?
Steve Silberman (digaman) Fri 21 Apr 06 08:16
Adam -- I wanted to say first off that I *love* "Everyware." You talk about some fairly subtle and/or arcane concepts in very human and concrete language, so that you never lose the reader in fogs of ubijargon. Mazel tov! I have a much more personal question: how did your early experiences growing up, and then your Special Ops training etc., lay the groundwork for writing this book? To put it another way, why did the subject choose you to write about it -- which you did magnificently?
Adam Greenfield (adamgreenfield) Fri 21 Apr 06 09:38
(Jon, if you'll excuse me I think I'll parry Steve's question first, since he's a new voice in the conversation.) Steve, thanks so much for those kind words. I'm delighted that you enjoyed "Everyware," and that you seem to have gotten out of it just what I was hoping. As to your question...hmm. I guess I'd have to say that the thing driving me, in writing the book, was an essential concern for the individual human person trapped in a technological situation that is not of their choosing. How can we ensure that that person's prerogatives are respected? How can we represent such prerogatives in language that they themselves would recognize? An armchair Freudian would probably have a field day with the notion of "advocacy" that's latent in all of that, and what that might have to do with growing up the son of a reasonably successful member of the plaintiff's bar. And I'm sure that there's some remnant of the classically (if slightly self-congratulatory) Jewish concern for social justice and for the underdog in there too. What it all comes down to is a sense that, in everyware, we have a technological wave that is about to break over the developed world, and the people who live there, and that nobody's yet presented this to the people who will be most affected by it. Nobody has really stepped up and said, hey, this is what's in the offing, is this OK with you? How would *you* design these systems so that they respect your prerogatives? It just didn't sit right with me. I could see this wave building on the horizon - not that I had any particularly privileged position, because there were and are people who are far better versed in the practice of ubiquitous computing - but I couldn't see anyone spreading the word about it. Not, anyway, in any form that would give people a fighting chance of pushing back against the aura of inevitability that was already gathering around it. Now, "aura of inevitability" is an idea that I picked up in my time in PSYOP. In that context, the object is to create such a feeling of momentum around some desired change that resistance to it is effectively pointless. As Sun Tzu said, 2,500 years ago, the acme of skill in war is not to win 100 battles of 100 fought, it's to win without fighting at all. (We're all familiar with the sadly denatured 21st century application of this idea in "shock and awe," where the intention is to create such a titanic sense of one's overwhelming might that there's just no credible ground for resistance. And we've all seen how well that worked out...but that's a different story.) But you can also invert that, undermine that sense. Because an aura is just that. It's just a feeling. If, on the other hand, you can give people a sense that their voices matter very much indeed, and will be crucial to shaping the change that's about to break over us all, you stand a much better chance of coming to some outcome that's acceptable to everyone involved. And that's what I think sometimes gets lost in the superficial debate about things like RFID tagging, and other appearances of ubiquitous computing. The intent of all this pushing back is not necessarily to prevent everyware from coming into being. It's to ensure that wherever possible, the ubiquitous computing we choose to embrace is sane, and sustainable, and respectful of our other values. One last note with regard to my military experience - which was a positive one from beginning to end, by the way: I don't want anyone to get the idea that my training was anything even remotely as strenuous as, say, Ranger School, or what SEAL trainees go through in BUD/S. It wasn't, and I want to be real clear about that, out of my deep respect for all those who do have that accomplishment under their belt.
Jamais Cascio, WorldChanger (cascio) Fri 21 Apr 06 11:49
Adam, I'm greatly enjoying Everyware, too; thank you for writing it. What do you think of Julian Bleecker's "blogject" concept, in which digitally-enabled physical objects "blog" themselves -- that is, they tell the story of their own existence (history, location, use, etc.) in a way that's easily accessible? What kinds of overlap do you see with your own concepts?
Adam Greenfield (adamgreenfield) Fri 21 Apr 06 12:44
Hey Jamais! You're very welcome. I think Julian's doing some very important work; his Manifesto for Networked Objects (at http://research.techkwondo.com/files/WhyThingsMatter.pdf) is brilliant, clearly thought-out, and just an absolute pleasure to read. In fact, I wish he had come out with it three months earlier, as it would have had a big influence on some of the arguments I make in "Everyware" had I seen it in time. But I'm afraid I *also* think that the blogject project is perhaps thornier than he's imagining. The reason why has to do with the nature - the *political* nature, I might say - of metadata, or information about information. (The ID3 tags that identify attributes of an MP3 such as "Artist," "Title" and "Album," or the EXIF data that tell when, how, and by what model of device a digital image was produced are two familiar kinds of metadata.) Any time you have an object that represents itself to the world through metadata, there's a reliability issue, and because of this I guess I have to challenge the notion that an object can usefully contain its own history. This is something I've written about at some length on my own site... http://www.v-2.org/displayArticle.php?article_num=860 ...and if you'll excuse me for quoting myself, I'll just repeat a relevant passage here: "We know from the Web and from various p2p applications that, in the wild, metadata [on its own] is close to useless because it can be gamed so easily; as a result, no credible search engine relies on it nor has done so for years....Who has the authority to append metadata? Who has the responsibility, or even the technical wherewithal, to verify it?" The proto-blogjects that Julian's talking about haven't really been subject to stress-testing in a live information ecology yet - they're one-off art projects and Gedankenexperiments, for the most part. So they haven't really had to face up to what happens when you have actors who are incentivized to provide bad metadata, to spoof it or distort it - I think he discusses Beatriz da Costa's Pigeons that Blog project, where she basically wires up a flock of pigeons to provide real-time pollution telemetry (!). Well and good as a thought experiment, but the presence and location of air pollution is hardly a neutral topic. Say you're the Chamber of Commerce of Leadville, and you've got a flock of blogjectified pigeons up there telling all and sundry that the airborne particulate count above your fair city is above the acceptable threshold...but that neighboring Pleasant Acres breathes free and easy. Are you going to tell me that, in every such instance, you're going to have the integrity to leave that information well enough alone, and live by the results? No way! People are going to be gaming this stuff silly, and all the more so because (like all everyware) blogjects take information that has always been latent in the world and represent it to us in a way that profoundly affects our decisions and options in real space and time. Now, that doesn't mean that I don't think it would be useful for (say) a car to identify its components, and when they were last serviced, and what they're made out of, and how they can be recycled most efficiently. But I think the credibility of blogject traces is always going to be in play. It can't and it won't be neutral. Jon, I haven't forgotten your question. ; . )
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 21 Apr 06 12:59
(No problem, happy to see others chiming in!)
Adam Greenfield (adamgreenfield) Fri 21 Apr 06 13:32
Heh...you had asked how our relationship to ubiquitous technology changes when it's hidden from view. I think one way of answering that follows on very naturally from the end of my response to Julian's work, and it's to say that we forget to interrogate things that have disappeared from view. If something is out of sight, if it's effectively invisible, its effects can seem neutral, natural, just part of the way things are. Those effects reacquire some of the aura of inevitability we were talking about. This probably isn't a problem, 90% of the time. I'm concerned about the 10% of the time that it is.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 21 Apr 06 21:19
Can you give potential examples of that 10%?
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