Reflecting on Mark Weiser’s legacy ten years on

The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.

-Mark Weiser, 1991 “The Computer for the 21st Century” Scientific American

The goal is to achieve the most effective kind of technology, that which is essentially invisible to the user”¦ I call this future world “Ubiquitous Computing” (Ubicomp).

-Mark Weiser, 1993 “Some Computer Science issues in Ubiquitous Computing” Communications of the ACM

2009 marks the tenth anniversary of the death of a man that many believe earned the title ‘visionary’, his name was Mark Weiser. As a Principal Scientist and subsequently Chief Technology Officer at Xerox PARC, Weiser is best known as the ‘godfather’ of ubiquitous computing. In the years since his demise many of the ideas that Weiser championed have come to greater prominence. As Yvonne Rogers points out this influence has been felt across industry, government and commercial research, from the EU’s ‘disappearing computer’ initiative to MIT’s ‘Oxygen’, HP’s ‘CoolTown’ and Phillips ‘Vision of the Future’. All of these projects aspired to Weiser’s tenet of the everyday environment and the objects within being embeded with computational capacities such that they might bend to our (human) will. Within the research community, as Bell and Dourish remark, ‘of the 108 papers comprising the Ubicomp conference proceedings between 2001 and 2004, fully 47% of the papers are oriented towards a proximate (and inevitable) technological future’ and ‘almost one quarter of all the papers published in the Ubicomp conference between 2001 and 2005 cite Weiser’s foundational articles’.

The ‘foundational articles’ of ubicomp written by Weiser are not many in number, but are broad in the scale of their implication. Perhaps most significant is Weiser’s 1991 article published in Scientific American entitled ‘The Computer for the 21st Century’, not least because it features in a popular science publication. The second reason I suggest this article is significant is because of Weiser’s imaginative use of storytelling to convey his ideas, in the guise of the story of ‘Sal’. The story depicts a relatively detailed scenario about a day in the life of Sal, a professional single mother in which, as Yvonne Rogers suggests: ‘we see how the world evolves around Sal’s assumed needs, where computers, cameras and sensors are embedded into her world to make her life super efficient, smooth and calm’. From this narrative, and Weiser’s further explication in the 1991 article and others, we can identify three key facets of the ubicomp vision: context aware computing; ambient/ubiquitous ‘intelligence’; and ambient tracking/monitoring of people and things.

Reflecting on the three principal attributes of the ubicomp vision we can see quite how broad the implication of ubicomp is, as an agenda. One could get into the ‘tomorrow’s world’ game of checking the specifics of technical achievements against the predictions made. For example, we don’t have anything like ambient (artificial) intelligence and it seems we are unlikely to see that realised anytime soon. However, I’d argue that judging ‘yesterday’s tomorrows’ would somewhat miss the broader significance of ubicomp. The appeal to possible futures is not significant because technologies were predicted and then realised but because of the future orientation in and of itself. Weiser’s renditions of possible futures should therefore not be seen as the specification of goals (although 15 years ago certain aspects possibly were) but as the opening out of a creative space of thought. As Rich Gold, a colleague of Weiser, pointed out in his ‘My life in the plenitude‘, the task was to create a philosophy, a ‘Ubi-Comp Cult’.

Perhaps the greatest testament to Weiser is that he continues to inspire and be cited by those working in Human-Computer Interaction, ubicomp and the plethora of associated sub- agendas/genres of computing research. I have come to think this is not necessarily because the content of the visions he espoused were particularly compelling, nor because he was particularly technologically prescient but because Weiser struck a balance between what we identify as fact/fiction, art/science and successfully formulated an ethos (or ‘cult’, following Gold) for alternative thinking about technology use. As John Seely Brown remarked in a 1999 epilogue to one of Weiser’s last publications: ‘For Mark, sharp boundaries between the social and the technical, between the artistic and the scientific, and between work and play never existed’. I have no way of knowing Weiser’s intentions but I’d like to think that his approach to ubicomp was less about the specific realisation of particular technical devices (although that played an important part) and more about the sheer joy of exploring exciting ideas and seeing where they may lead.

References

  • Bell G and Dourish P 2007 “Yesterday’s Tomorrows: Notes on ubiquitous computing’s dominant vision” Personal and Ubiquitous Computing 11 (2), pp. 133-143.
  • Rogers Y 2006 “Moving on from Weiser’s vision of calm computing: engaging ubicomp experiences”, Dourish P and Friday A Eds. Proceedings of Ubicomp 2006, Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 404-421.
  • Weiser M 1991 “The Computer for the 21st Century”, Scientific American 265 (3): pp. 66-75.
  • Weiser M 1993 “Some Computer Science issues in Ubiquitous Computing”, Communications of the ACM 36 (7): pp. 75-84.
  • Weiser M, Gold G, Brown J. S 1999 “The origins of ubiquitous computing research at PARC in the late 1980s”, IBM Systems Journal 38 (4): pp. 693-696.
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